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What to expect at China's Universal Studios Beijing

Universal Studios Beijing is expected to feature movie-centric rides borrowed from its sister theme parks

Officially we know little about the $3.3-billion Universal Studios Beijing theme park planned for the Chinese capital, but unofficially we have plenty of clues.

Located in the eastern suburb of Tongzhou, the 1,000-acre project announced by Universal will include a theme park, shopping center and hotel. After that, the speculation starts.

Although no specifics have been revealed, Universal Studios Beijing is expected to feature movie-centric rides borrowed from the theme park chain’s locations in Los Angeles, Orlando, Japan and Singapore while also introducing new attractions reflecting China’s cultural heritage.

The Chinese park is expected to open in 2019, although no official date has been set. Site clearance has been underway for nearly a year.

The only hint of what’s to come is provided by a bird’s-eye illustration of the Beijing park that upon closer inspection reveals plenty of hints but few concrete details. The concept art shows a circular park layout with several of Universal’s signature attractions arrayed around a central lagoon.

But as any theme park enthusiast will tell you: Never put too much stock in the initial concept artwork. Everything, including the park layout and the ride lineup, should be considered highly speculative and subject to change.

Worried about Chinese ride manufacturer knockoffs and theme park copycats, Universal may have simply presented a collection of familiar attractions that have nothing to do with the final plans -- all to build suspense, throw off the competition or confuse Internet snoops. Those five years provide plenty of time for Universal Creative officials to change their minds and go in a  different direction.

Indeed, Universal’s announcement may be nothing more than a shot across the bow to its Chinese rivals, including Disney, which is working on a Shanghai park set to open by 2016, and Six Flags, which is eyeing a 2018 debut in Tianjin.

It’s also possible Universal Studios Beijing will never materialize. Universal has a long history of announcing or proposing theme parks that never come to fruition -- in South Korea (2007), Dubai (2007), Philippines (2008) and India (2010). An indoor park in Russia -- announced in 2012 and set to open in 2018 -- is the latest Universal park to show little to no progress.

With all those caveats in place, let’s take a land-by-land look at What We See and What Could Be in the overview illustration of Universal Studios Beijing:

Main entrance

What We See

Crossing a footbridge from a CityWalk shopping center, the entrance promenade of Universal Studios Beijing features the familiar spinning globe icon and a themed hotel hovering above the park’s main gates.

Just inside, a shop and restaurant-lined main street paying homage to Hollywood Boulevard is reminiscent of Universal Studios Singapore. An outdoor music venue that has all the hallmarks of Universal Music Plaza Stage at Universal Studios Florida can be seen near the top of Hollywood Boulevard.

What Could Be

The Singapore park plays host to a theater on Hollywood Boulevard that might house a behind-the-scenes Special Effects Stage or Horror & Makeup Show in Beijing.

A roller coaster off the main entrance is less likely of an option, although the Hollywood section of Universal Studios Japan features Hollywood Dream and Space Fantasy, two highly regarded rides. Likewise, the Hollywood-themed Rip Ride Rockit coaster would fit thematically in the area. Rethemed versions of all three coasters could eventually be incorporated elsewhere in the Beijing park.

Madagascar

What We See

Moving to the right around the Beijing park, the concept art shows a tropical jungle-themed land that looks like a dead ringer for Singapore’s Madagascar, complete with the Madagascar: A Crate Adventure water ride and King Julien's Beach Party-Go-Round carousel.

Far Far Away

What We See

Continuing counter-clockwise, the 13-story Far Far Away castle from Singapore is clearly visible in the Beijing concept art. The fairy tale land is expected to be home to a “Shrek 4D” movie, a real-time interactive “Donkey Live” show and an Enchanted Airways family coaster.

What Could Be

What can’t be seen in the illustration but can be found in Singapore is a Ferris wheel themed to the DreamWorks animated movie franchise, which could be replaced by the spinning flat ride seen in the Beijing concept art.

The Singapore park plans to open the Puss in Boots Giant Journey inverted family roller coaster by Italian ride maker Zamperla in 2015.

The Lost World

What We See

The precipitous drop of the Jurassic Park River Adventure shoot-the-chute water ride is visible in the top right corner of the Beijing concept art.

What Could Be

What can’t be seen but could be hiding in the heavy foliage is a suspended coaster like Singapore’s Canopy Flyer or Pteranodon Flyers at Florida’s Islands of Adventure.

What would also fit nicely in Beijing’s Lost World is a kiddie spinning ride like Singapore’s Dino-Soarin’ that lets riders pilot a pteranodon.

Singapore rather incongruously tucks the Waterworld stunt show into its Jurassic Park land. The real question with a Waterworld attraction in Beijing is whether Universal wants to keep promoting one of the most expensive cinematic flops of all time. At this point, most visitors are probably unfamiliar with the 1995 post-apocalyptic action film -- especially in China.

What might fit better in a Lost World land populated with dinosaurs is a King Kong attraction, which can be found in California and is reportedly under construction in Florida. A King Kong dueling coaster was proposed for Universal’s canceled Dubai park.

Ancient Egypt

What We See

The Egyptian tomb-like architecture of the ride building in the back left corner of the Beijing illustration looks like a perfect location for a Revenge of the Mummy indoor coaster.

What Could Be

The blue outdoor coaster to the right of the Mummy ride has led some theme-park enthusiasts to speculate that the Beijing ride might be a version of Florida’s Dragon Challenge.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

What We See

If the new Beijing park does come to pass, it will be hard for Universal to back away from delivering Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley on opening day.

Both of Florida’s Harry Potter lands -- complete with the groundbreaking Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts rides -- are clearly illustrated in the Chinese concept art.

A footbridge connects Hogwarts Castle to Hogsmeade Village, which hugs the waterfront next to the Flight of the Hippogriff family coaster.

A keen eye can clearly make out the Hogwarts Express monorail attraction traveling between the castle and a replica of King’s Cross Station adjacent to the wizarding warren of Diagon Alley.

What Could Be

What remains obscured in the Beijing illustration underneath the exploding fireworks beyond Hogwarts Castle are two large attraction buildings -- one that looks like a gray-stoned fortress and another massive structure painted in warm golds and browns.

SciFi City

What We See

The red and blue metallic figure of Optimus Prime can be spotted standing atop the entrance to a Transformers ride in the SciFi City section of the Beijing illustration.

The familiar green track and launch tube of the Incredible Hulk coaster stretches out into the lagoon with a version of the Men in Black interactive dark ride nearby.

What Could Be

What’s missing from SciFi City are the Terminator 2:3D show (removed from California but still operational in Florida and Japan) and the Battlestar Galactica dueling coasters (which have proved problematic for Singapore).

Of course, the presence of a coaster themed to a Marvel Comics character would likely be a problem for Universal (more on that later). One interesting solution making the rounds in the blogosphere would be to convert the Hulk coaster to a Men in Black theme as Universal proposed in Dubai and re-create the MIB dark ride with a Ghostbusters back story tied to the upcoming movie reboot.

Unknown land

What We See

The last area in the park remains the biggest mystery of all. Located to the left of the entrance promenade, the colorful land presents limitless possibilities but the illustration provides few clues.

What Could Be

So what could it be? A copy of the Simpson’s Springfield area in Florida and soon California? Or maybe a Sesame Street attraction like the one in Singapore? Or even a kids zone themed to Woody Woodpecker, Curious George, Barney, Peanuts, Hello Kitty or Dr. Seuss?

Of course, Universal could always change its collective mind and go in another direction with the Beijing park. Similarly, the creative team or the financial backers could insist on adding a ride that doesn’t fit into any of the anticipated themed lands. An attraction based on “Despicable Me” or “The Fast and the Furious” films might make sense for a Beijing park, but where to put them?

There’s always the possibility that the Chinese have a hankering for some old movies like “Back to the Future,” “E.T.” or “Backdraft,” but don’t hold your breath waiting for those classic attractions to make the Beijing ride lineup.

Even less likely would be a revival of the “Miami Vice” stunt show, “Swamp Thing” stage musical or “Murder, She Wrote” mystery theater (yes, those all existed at some point at a Universal Studios theme park).

What seems fairly clear is that Universal won’t be adding any attractions in Beijing based on Marvel Comics, now owned by rival Disney. That means no Spider-Man dark ride, Incredible Hulk launch coaster or Doctor Doom drop ride in China.

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