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Theme Park History: Orlando from the air, in 1990 (or so)

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Published: April 29, 2013 at 10:58 AM

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was operating my own desktop publishing operation in Orlando. In addition to creating print media I also published ORLANDO SERVICE – a complimentary magazine for people who worked in the Central Florida Hospitality Industry.

As a publisher I was afforded the opportunity to attend various events meant to generate publicity for local attractions. On one of those occasions I had the good fortune to go along as a passenger on the Airship Shamu blimp. Recently, I came across a collection of photos I took during my flight – including early images of Universal Studios Florida.

Airship Shamu

Shamu launched from the property that currently Discovery Cove and flew north along International Drive – passing over the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center and the Peabody Orlando resort. I find the Peabody photo to be interesting because of what is missing. Aside from the second Peabody tower and convention center, Pointe Orlando and Wonderworks are nowhere in sight. Construction has only just commenced on the Rosen Plaza hotel across the street.

Orange County Convention Center

Peabody Hotel

Further north the pink roofs and colorful awnings give Mercado a bright-new quality. Next to Mercado is the vacant property that would eventually be the site of a shopping center as well as Orlando’s edition of Ripley’s: Believe It or Not.

Mercado

International Drive

The voyage continued towards the north end of International Drive before approaching Universal Studios Florida. I don’t recall the date of my flight – so I will leave it up to TPI’s sleuths to determine if these pictures are “pre-opening” images.

Universal Studios Florida parking lot

Universal Studios Florida

As I look at these photos it seems strange to see the property with no resorts, no CityWalk or Islands of Adventure. As Shamu floated on the photos I took show the vacant land where the Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show theater and Men In Black: Alien Attack, would be built.

Jaws
[This particular site looks a bit different today -- Editor.]

Flying above the west edge of the park, I was able to take an exceptional photo of the Jaws attraction. On the east side of USF, I captured images of the old Hard Rock Café as wells as the Bates family home and motel. No sign of KidsZone, Curious George or Barney.

Old Hard Rock Cafe

The entire voyage was great fun. Looking at the photos I am struck by how much the Universal/I-Drive area has changed over the last (gasp!) twenty years-plus years.

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Readers' Opinions

From Brian Emery on April 29, 2013 at 11:35 AM
This is awesome... I love the old photos. Especially Jaws... And a ride in a blimp to boot....

This put me in a great mood and a headache resides in me because of a co-worker who have been hacking all day for the past 2.5 weeks…

Nice job TH.
Thx.

From Bryce McGibeny on April 29, 2013 at 12:45 PM
Great pictures TH! Weird to see UO without CW and IOA.
From Robert Niles on April 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM
Wow, this brings me back. In the late 1980s/early 90s, I lived in the Orange Tree subdivision, across Turkey Lake Road from Universal Studios Florida, so this was my neighborhood. I remember riding my bike through that loooooong parking area (that's now Islands of Adventure) to go claim my daily free ticket to USF, during that first summer when Universal was giving free return tickets to all visitors since so little worked in the park that first year.

I also remember eating at the old Hard Rock Cafe many times. You could park in the lot to the left there and enter the HRC without having a park admission, or you could come in via the park, as well. (They'd check your ticket when you tried to return. Well, most of the time....) If you look closely, you can see how the bridge over the road, leading to the parking lot, formed the neck of the "guitar" upon which the Hard Rock Cafe was built.

From N B on April 29, 2013 at 2:04 PM
Great pictures! There are some YouTube videos from 1990 at Universal. That place seemed pretty boring back then...

No CityWalk, hotels, IOA and a massive parking lot that was bigger than the theme park itself.

We started going after all of the expansion, but I would have liked to have seen it in the old days at least once.

You can also go on Google Earth and roll back the date to see overhead views (black & white low resolution). You can view IOA being built and the parking garages going up too.

Very cool, great story.

p.s. I didn't know the shark in the original Jaws ride grabbed the boat and spun it around until I read some Universal history. That place had some serious issues during opening week.

From TH Creative on April 29, 2013 at 6:09 PM
Tucked into the lower left corner of the fifth photo is the Hilton at Florida Center -- the first hotel to open on International Drive. It's the square-cornered hotel with the spot of blue pool in the courtyard.

The property has been operating daily for the last 40 years.

From Phil B. on April 29, 2013 at 9:29 PM
Neat!
From Brandon Townsend on April 29, 2013 at 9:53 PM
Wow! Thanks for the information about using the time slider feature on Google Earth. I love looking at how things have changed and to see that my new favourite ride is where a swamp or parking lot used to be. I visited US in the mid 90's and could not remember where the old Hard Rock was that I ate at until viewing your photos. Thanks.
What really struck me after viewing old photos of WDW vs. US is the amount of changes in US compared to the small changes at WDW. WDW will always be my sentimental favourite, but Universal seems destined to surpass it with prescience, expansions, and new ideas. If only they had more land to expand they would surely blow Disney away.
I'm headed to US Singapore next week and will file a trip report like a good TPI soldier, Robert.
From Robert Niles on April 29, 2013 at 10:34 PM
Excellent! I love Singapore -- and the whole area around Universal's great fun. The one ride I've not gotten to go on there, though, is the Jurassic Park raft ride. (They're the circular tubs, like on Popeye at IoA, instead of the more traditional front-facing boats.) I'd love to hear your take on those. Mummy is amazingly dark, and I'd love to hear a review of KT's Grill and the new Sesame Street ride.

Oh, heck, I just need to go to Singapore again! Have fun!

From Brandon Townsend on April 30, 2013 at 11:45 PM
KT's Grill, Sesame Street Ride reviews, and Jurassic Park River Adventure comparison. Will do.
From 71.57.234.154 on May 5, 2013 at 6:09 AM
Interesting photos. It would be even more interesting to see photos shot from the same vantage point today to see how they compare.

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