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Universal Studios plans CityWalk upgrades to draw more locals

Universal Studios plans CityWalk upgrades to draw more locals
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is replacing a bowling alley as part of an overhaul at City Walk. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Hoping to draw big spenders and compete with high-end malls, Universal Studios has announced plans for the first major face-lift of its shopping and dining district in more than 15 years.

The focus of the overhaul at CityWalk is to cut back on the low-priced souvenir shops that appeal to tourists and instead add more high-end retail outlets and restaurants that will draw well-heeled locals and millennials as well as upper-income tourists.

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Retail experts say the move makes sense because studies show that even theme park visitors are willing to spend more if they are offered better quality merchandise and food.

"Theme parks are looking at this challenge," said Britt Beemer, a retail expert and founder of America's Research Group. "They get people going there but do they really maximize the money that they might spend?"

One of the biggest improvements to the neon-splashed shopping district will be an upgrade to the 18-screen Universal Cinemas, where all seats will be replaced with recliner seats, except for seats in the Imax theater. A new state-of-the-art surround-sound system will also be added at the movie theaters.

The theater overhaul, which will be completed by the end of this year or early next year, will also include a new second-level bar lounge. The rest of the new shops and eateries slated for the CityWalk revamp will come online over the next year.

"We're excited to bring these significant enhancements to our guests as we continue to invest in our world-class destination," said Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood.

Park representatives declined to say how much was being spent other than to note that the project is part of a previously announced $1.6-billion upgrade being made to the theme park and adjacent properties.

At least one souvenir shop is giving way to a high-end sneaker outlet. Among the new eateries opening at CityWalk are Meizhou Dongpo, which specializes in authentic Chinese food, and Voodoo Donut, a Portland, Ore., donut chain that sells unusual and exotic donuts.

LudoBird, a restaurant known for buttermilk Provencal fried chicken, has already opened at CityWalk, replacing a sausage eatery. Margaritaville, the restaurant based on singer Jimmy Buffett's tropical-pop music, is replacing a bowling alley.

CityWalk, a quarter-mile-long outdoor mall with more than 60 tenants, opened in 1993, before the launch of the upscale Grove shopping area in the Fairfax district and the Americana at Brand in Glendale. CityWalk was designed to target tourists interested in souvenirs and quick meals as they walked between the parking garage and the theme park.

The last major overhaul of CityWalk was in 2000 when the shopping district added a second level of restaurants near the movie theater.

Meanwhile, the Grove and the Americana have become popular shopping districts and hangout spots for out-of-town visitors and locals.

Beemer said that Walt Disney Co. made a similar move to upgrade its offerings to tourists and locals when it revamped its shopping and restaurant district in Orlando, Fla., and renamed it Disney Springs.

"The idea is that people who only spend $60 a day might spend up to $300 if they had better things to buy and better places to eat," he said.

Ron Friedman, a retail expert at consulting and accounting firm Marcum, agreed, saying that traditional malls are dying because more young people shop online. Today, locals and tourists are looking for a central place to congregate with good restaurants and cafes.

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"More restaurants, more places for people to drop in and schmooze and enjoy themselves, that's the future," Friedman said.

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