Land war: Universal defends itself in lawsuit over ‘Epic Universe’ land deal

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Defending itself in a lawsuit, Universal argued it was not aware of any other existing deals for the land that Universal bought for its Epic Universe theme park in Orlando.

Earlier this year, Fourth Watch Acquisitions filed a $250 million lawsuit claiming it was under contract to buy 135 acres of land from developer Stan Thomas’ Universal City Property Management, or UCPM. Instead, Thomas sold the land to Universal behind Fourth Watch’s back in 2018 as part of a lawsuit settlement related to another matter, Fourth Watch’s lawsuit alleged.

Fourth Watch is suing both Universal and UCPM as Universal builds its new theme park set to open by the summer of 2025 near the Orange County Convention Center. Fourth Watch said Universal knew Fourth Watch had been in the process of buying the land.

But in court documents filed last month, Universal said it was not aware of Fourth Watch’s plans to buy the land until Fourth Watch served Universal with the lawsuit this spring. Universal described Four Watch’s four-year delay in raising the issue as telling.

“There was no claim from Fourth Watch of having a contractual right to the property being purchased,” Universal said when it acquired the land, according to court documents.

Fourth Watch, a Georgia real estate entertainment development company, wanted to acquire land near the convention center to build its own attractions. Fourth Watch described its vision as “a thrill-seeker’s extravaganza, featuring an iconic 750-foot-tall snow dome, ATV-tracks, river rafting, canyoning, ice skating, and surfing,” according to court documents.

But Universal argued Fourth Watch’s plans were moot because local leaders did not greenlight the plan.

“The development of a theme park was also highly speculative because Fourth Watch would be required to obtain approval from Orange County,” Universal said in court filings, adding there were land restrictions in place that prevented Fourth Watch from building a theme park.

Universal also asked Fourth Watch to identify which land was specifically part of its alleged deal with UCPM.

The legal fight over the land has deepened.

Thomas’ UCPM is now countersuing Fourth Watch, saying Fourth Watch didn’t have the $125 million to buy the property in the first place.

“Fourth Watch lacked the funds and ability to ever obtain the funds required to close the Transaction, and Fourth Watch was well aware of this inability at that time,” UCPM said in its lawsuit filed in June.

UCPM alleged Fourth Watch misrepresented its portfolio of projects, saying it completed projects “but in fact had not,” the lawsuit said.

UCPM also accused Fourth Watch of harming its reputation by making “defamatory statements” to Orange County and others. The lawsuit doesn’t provide details on what the alleged comments were.

The growing litigation between Universal, Fourth Watch and UCPM could be costly if the matter reaches trial, according to an Orange Circuit Court joint case management report filed last month.

There would be “substantial” documents called into evidence and potential expert witnesses to testify on land use, theme park development and other issues over the dispute whether UCPM breached its contract with Fourth Watch, Universal interfered with the deal and other legal questions.

Fourth Watch estimated its legal fees and attorney costs going to trial will cost between $1.5 million to $2 million. Universal said its legal fees were estimated between $500,000 to $750,000. UCPM said its fees were similar to the others.

Mediation is set to begin no later than Sept. 1, 2023, court documents showed.

The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in December 2023.

Florida Politics reached out to Universal as well as attorneys for Fourth Watch and UCPM for comment but did not get a response.

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