Rarely do American theme park and entertainment firms and their European parks achieve success. However, managing theme parks in varied markets no longer appears to be as challenging as it once was. Recent speculation, particularly in the Spanish and European theme park communities, suggests that Universal may return to the resort it operated from 1998 to 2004. Let’s examine what is known and what is rumored about the potential return of Universal’s PortAventura/Universal Mediterranea.
PortAventura (World) debuted in 1995 and has a fascinating history that is almost too extensive to delve into in its entirety. However, the long story is condensed by the fact that many parties were engaged. After construction, ownership transfers, operations, etc., Universal bought the bulk of the park’s shares in 1998 and began running it as Universal’s Port Aventura in 1999. From 2000 to 2001, the resort adopted the Universal Studios name and became known as Universal Studios Port Aventura. In 2002, following a substantial investment, Universal added a water park (Costa Caribe) and two hotels to the project (Hotel El Paso, and Hotel PortAventura). From 2002 to 2004 the resort operated under the name Universal Mediterranea. The resort was considered to be moderately successful and a key participant on the European market; nevertheless, in 2004, parent firm NBCUniversal sold all aspects of the resort, and in 2005, the resort adopted the name PortAventura (note that Port Aventura is the original name and PortAventura as one word was the new name for trademark reasons). PortAventura still uses licensed characters from Universal such as Shrek, and the park’s mascot Woody Woodpecker.
After several ownership changes and transitions, the resort is currently owned by KKR and Investindustrial. They handled recent additions to the resort, including the Ferrari Land theme park, and rebranded the property as PortAventura World Parks & Resorts. However, this company is an equity firm that has knowingly been working to sell the resort to another party. It appears that Universal has expressed interest in returning to the resort in some capacity and has participated in conversations over possible purchase agreements. Universal’s interest in acquiring the resort does not necessarily indicate that they will return to Spain to relaunch their European operation, but the topic is becoming increasingly prevalent among regional groups. As of the publication date of this article, it is unknown where these negotiations have led, if Universal is expected to return, and/or when this might occur.
However, there are a few additional factors to consider, which further indicate that PortAventura may return to the Universal Parks & Resorts family. Executive teams have reportedly met with the resort’s CEO, David Garcia, to discuss the sale of the property to Universal, according to speculations circulating in the Spanish theme park communities. (One rumor goes so far as to claim that inside sources have confirmed the sale, but these are simply rumors). In addition, there is a potential that Universal would not own the resort outright, but rather manage it under license or acquire a partial ownership. Not for the first time has something similar occurred. Genting Singapore owns and operates Universal Studios Singapore, which is a component of Resorts World Sentosa.
Fans of PortAventura are making intriguing operational observations. In several European parks, like PortAventura, parks and departments are staffed by third-party organizations and businesses. Consider departments such as security, cleaning personnel, and in some situations, maintenance. PortAventura World collaborates with numerous organizations for this aim, but Universal typically does not. Discovery Line, a theme park news outlet based in Spain, reports that PortAventura has acquired, employed, and operates a number of these divisions directly now.
The return of Universal to Europe would be a wonderful sight. Even in the realm of permits, we discover interesting information. In April of this year, Universal renewed license in Spain for logos and trademarks associated with their studio-themed parks around the world, including their “Hollywoodland – Universal Studios” emblem and the name “Universal Studios.” The licensing is classified as “Servicios de Parques Atracciones,” indicating that it is intended for theme park use. This was granted in September, indicating a desire to potentially use their branding in Spain.
In the fall of 2021, Universal also filed a trademark for Illuminations Studios Paris, which was registered in May of this year.
PortAventura has a lengthy history with Universal Parks & Resorts, and it would not be out of character for Universal to have sold off assets for cash considerations and later repurchased them. The land on which Universal’s Epic Universe is situated was originally owned by Universal before it was sold and subsequently repurchased to construct the major expansion for Universal Orlando Resort.
In the early 2000s, as Universal Mediterranea was expanding rapidly, rumors circulated that the resort might add an extra studio-themed gate featuring titles such as Jurassic Park. In the existing PortAventura park, it may not be possible to add major modern franchises such as Dreamworks, Illuminations, Nintendo, Jurassic World, Transformers, or Harry Potter, but there is space for the resort to grow and add an additional gate. One could dream, right?
While perhaps unrelated, the site surrounding the PortAventura World resort, which was formerly owned by the same entity, has been approved for a Hard Rock project. In February of this year, the local Urban Master Plan approved the 740,000-square-meter project, which would be comprised of hotels, recreational, commercial, and casino uses. The proposal dates back to 2012 and is related to the delayed EuroVegas project; despite local opposition and multiple setbacks in the past, it was ultimately approved in 2022 despite local opposition and repeated delays in the past.
While it is currently unknown what the future holds and everything is negotiated behind closed doors, it appears that Universal may be keen to return to the European market following the successful debut of their third Asian destination, Universal Beijing Resort, in 2021. Whether their return will occur via returning to the original site of the Universal Mediterranea in Salou, restoring PortAventura World to its former glory, and likely expanding the resort, or opening a park elsewhere in Europe, is unknown. We’ll be paying close attention!