Sale of land near Universal’s Epic Universe spurs $250 million lawsuit

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A company that planned to build a sports theme park near Universal’s upcoming Epic Universe theme park is suing Universal and a property development company for $250 million, claiming the company wrongfully sold the land to Universal in 2018.

Fourth Watch Acquisitions, which specializes in real estate entertainment development, alleges Universal City Property Management III breached a binding agreement made in September 2017 to sell 135 acres of land along Universal Boulevard to the company for $125 million.

The lawsuit, filed in Orange circuit court on Friday, says Universal interfered in the contract and bought the land in April 2018 to develop its new theme park. Fourth Watch Acquisitions stated the land was located between unconnected properties Universal already owned, and by buying it Universal hoped to “eliminate a competitive threat,” records show.

Universal City Property Management sold land along Universal Boulevard to Universal’s SLRC Holdings LLC in April 2018 after the two settled a 2016 lawsuit over theme park development rights on the property, GrowthSpotter reported.

Fourth Watch Acquisition alleges the land it agreed to buy was transferred to Universal as part of that settlement. The litigation was first reported by Florida Politics.

Universal spokesperson Tom Schroder declined to comment. Court records do not list a lawyer for Universal City Property Management, and a lawyer shown as representing the company during the 2017 sale agreement did not respond to messages.

Fourth Watch Acquisitions’ damages include “tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars” lost in the process of developing the unnamed theme park, lawyer Tucker Byrd said.

The complex’s concept map, included in court records, shows it would have been off Universal Boulevard, north of the Convention Center and next to Andretti Indoor Karting & Games and Top Golf. Property records show the land specifically designated for Epic Universe neighbors the area to the northeast.

“Under the law, every piece of property is unique,” Byrd told the Orlando Sentinel in an interview. “And you can’t say, ‘just go get another parcel somewhere.’ ... And of course, this property had immense intrinsic value — where it is and what it was around.”

Court documents filed Monday say Fourth Watch Acquisitions entered into an agreement to buy the land on Sept. 1, 2017. Per the agreement, the purchase would have been closed in early May 2018.

But before it was made final, the management company sold the land to Universal in April, the lawsuit alleges. Fourth Watch Acquisitions claims Universal learned of the pending sale by late January 2018 through its business relationship with Universal City Property Management.

Even after Universal bought the property, Fourth Watch Acquisitions said Universal City Property Management acted as if their agreed sale was still going forward, records show. Byrd said the company only learned in late June 2018 that the land was sold.

The lawsuit states Fourth Watch Acquisitions planned to build a “multi-faceted theme park (and) a thrill-seeker’s extravaganza” on the land in Orange County’s tourism hub. Studies conducted by the company projected the complex could bring 10 million people to Orlando annually, Byrd said.

Plans included an enclosed “snow dome” for indoor skiing on a 700-foot mountain and “extreme sports venues,” including river rafting and canyoning courses, all-terrain vehicle tracks, an ice skating rink and a surf park, court documents showed.

Plans also called for retail space and a 20-story main hotel with 2,000 rooms.

“There’s a lot of money and future expectations and dreams and visions that went into this, so we’re left with trying to do the best we can through the judicial process,” Byrd said.

Epic Universe is projected to open in 2025. Construction resumed on the theme park last spring after the pandemic delayed it for a year.