New details about Universal's first UK theme park have been revealed – including plans to keep the attraction open 365 days a year.

Universal Destinations & Experiences – owned by Sky's parent company Comcast – has bought land near Bedford as it Plans to build Europe's largest amusement park with millions of visitors per year and a hotel and catering area with 500 rooms.

Economical advantages

Universal's economic impact analysis published today, prepared in accordance with the UK Treasury's economic assessment guidelines, suggests the attraction will deliver economic benefits of almost £50 billion to the UK.

It said the potential project's net economic contribution to the UK was estimated at £35.1 billion over the construction phase and the first 20 years of operation.

Over the same period, the state coffers are expected to receive up to £14.1 billion in additional taxes.

The analysis suggests that the project will create 20,000 jobs during the construction period, with 5,000 workers employed on site during peak periods.

Once the plant is operational, 8,000 new jobs will be created initially, with the number increasing over time. The company is committed to paying its employees a living wage.

“The best location we have ever seen”

Universal has acquired almost 500 acres of the site, which lies south of Bedford between Kempston, Wootton, Stewartby and Wixams, with the option to purchase up to a further 60 acres.

A map showing the land purchased by Universal

The new park, which would take approximately six years to build, would be built on the site of the former Kempston Hardwick brickworks, once the largest brickworks in the world by production, which closed in 2008 and was demolished in September 2021.

“I can tell you it's going to be a world-class park with all the experiences people will love, based on the most popular movies, video games and stories that people have enjoyed for decades,” said Page Thompson, the company's president of new ventures.

“We have spent the last decade looking everywhere for Europe and the UK as locations and we believe this is the best location we have ever seen.”

Universal Destinations & Experiences currently operates five theme parks around the world – in the United States, Japan, China and Singapore.

Disneyland Paris, with its associated Walt Disney Studios Park, is currently Europe's largest theme park and attracts around 15 million visitors every year.

New details

“Our plans for phase one include a theme park, a 500-room hotel and a dining area that people can visit even if they don't have a theme park ticket,” Thompson told Sky News.

“I expect the number of hotels to increase over time.

“Our intention is for this park to be open 365 days a year, just like all our other major theme parks.

“We have a whole series of special events, like our Halloween Horror Nights and Carnival parties… and that allows us to attract people all the time.”

According to Universal, results from other theme parks indicate that for every job created at the parks, at least 1.5 additional jobs could be created in the supply chain and adjacent industries. The company therefore expects a net additional job creation of 20,000.

A lot of competitors

Not least because of its size, the investment is not without risks.

Of the 20 most visited theme parks in Europe, four are in the UK – Legoland Windsor, Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park – and are all owned by former FTSE 100 giant Merlin Entertainments. Their combined annual visitor numbers are around half of what Universal targets.

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There is also a lot of competition.

On site, not far from the suggested Bedfordshire The location is the Harry Potter Experience at the Warner Bros Studio Tour near Watford, while Woburn Safari Park is to the immediate north and Whipsnade Zoo is to the immediate west Luton.

There is no shortage of quality options for family days out. There are already over 1,000 theme and amusement parks in Europe, many of them owned by Merlin, which is known for its clever management.

The weather problem

A third factor could be the weather. Many theme parks in Northern Europe are already struggling with this problem. These include Liseberg in Gothenburg, Sweden, Tivoli in the Danish capital Copenhagen and the original Legoland in Billund, Denmark, which remain partially or completely closed over the winter. The same applies to Phantasialand, one of Germany's largest and most popular attractions.

Universal Destinations & Experiences, on the other hand, does not seem to be deterred by the English weather and points out that the weather is not always perfect in other parts of the world where the company operates, particularly China and Japan.

The Paris experience

The company also seems unimpressed by the experiences of the Disney in Paris.

The original Euro Disney was loss-making for many years – partly due to mismanagement and partly due to a lack of understanding of the wishes of European and particularly French consumers – and has only been effectively managed again since its full acquisition by the Walt Disney Company in 2017.

Transport challenges

Another major risk is transport links. Universal Destinations & Experiences – the name was changed from Universal Parks & Resorts last year to better reflect the type of services it will offer customers in both the real and virtual worlds – chose the site primarily for its rail and road links to London and – with one in three visitors expected to come from abroad – its proximity to Luton Airport.

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However, these connections are currently not suitable for the number of visitors that Universal Destinations & Experiences expects.

On the M1, the main road link to London, there are frequent traffic jams in the area around the Luton junction at junction 10 and road links from there to the site need to be improved.

Accordingly, Universal Destinations & Experiences will seek government incentives to invest in local road and rail connections.

Support could also come from East West Rail, the proposed new main railway line linking East Anglia and South Wales. The first phase will see a line built between Oxford and Cambridge, and a new station has been proposed at Kempston Hardwick. The existing station borders the site where the park will operate.

The planning process

Perhaps the riskiest part is the planning process. Local businesses and MPs are supporting the project and both Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, have been briefed on the project. Planning proposals have been submitted and Universal Destinations & Experiences has held discussions with Bedford Borough and Central Bedfordshire Councils.

However, Mr Thompson confirmed that Universal Destinations & Experiences is seeking planning permission through a so-called Special Development Order, which would remove the decision from the local authorities and put the final decision on planning permission with the Department for Equality, Housing and Communities.

A roll of the dice

So this is a big roll of the dice for Universal Destinations & Experiences.

The investment – the first phase of which will cost several billion pounds – will take many years to pay off, and thrill-seekers may not expect the resort to be operational before the end of the decade.

But by starting with a blank sheet of paper with the opening of its first European location, Universal Destinations & Experiences has the opportunity to offer something truly new not just to the UK, but to the whole of Europe.

The company's name change last year reflects the fact that the company wants to offer branded experiences in entertainment, dining, gaming and consumer products that go far beyond the traditional offerings of theme parks and resorts.

There might even be experiences at the resort that haven't even been imagined yet. It could be quite a journey.

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