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Theme park history: A short history of Universal Studios Florida

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Published: August 18, 2013 at 8:05 PM

If there's anything positive to be said about Universal Studios Florida's grand opening on June 7, 1990, it's that the World Wide Web wasn't around yet to allow theme park fans from around the Internet to roast the park in real time. But everyone on site at Universal that day, including local and national news reporters and other invited guests, certainly did their best to do just that. Even Disneyland's rough opening — with ladies shoes sinking in fresh asphalt, inoperative water fountains and hours-long lines — looked like a day with a private VIP tour guide compared with Universal Studios Florida's debut, when almost none of the park's rides actually worked.

Universal Studios Florida
The entrance of Universal Studios Florida in 2013

Universal's owners had been wanting to build a theme park on the east coast since the early 1980s. Following rival Disney, Universal chose Central Florida, ironically setting on a site near the intersection of Interstate 4 and the Florida's Turnpike that Disney had considered for Walt Disney World 20 years before, but ruled out since it couldn't obtain enough land. Universal was happy with the much smaller site, but construction didn't begin for several years.

Universal's announcement in 1986 that it would begin construction on the park prompted Disney to fast-track plans for its own studio-themed attraction, the Disney-MGM Studios, which opened in 1989. The addition of two new parks in the area helped encourage even more visitors to vacation in Central Florida, while further providing business to emerging theme park design firms in the area. In 2001, Universal even moved its theme park design division, Universal Creative, from Universal City in California to Universal Orlando.

Obviously, Universal didn't give up after the park's rough opening. For its first summer, Universal provided every guest who visited a free ticket to return for another day in the future, effectively buying the park a second chance with its initial visitors. Those who returned many years later would find a very different park than what Universal offered on its opening day.

Movie studios aren't museums. They routinely tear down and recycle sets for use in new productions. And so it is with Universal Studios Florida. Like at Walt Disney World's movie studio theme park, almost no live production happens at Universal Studios Florida anymore, save for filming of the parks' own commercials. Universal had ditched the tram tour concept it developed for Universal Studios Hollywood in favor of stand-alone attractions in the Florida park. But of the attractions available in the park's first year, only the E.T. ride and Horror Make-Up show continue in more-or-less their original form. The ride portion of the former Earthquake attraction also continues, minus the pre-ride demonstrations themed to that 1974 disaster movie. (It's now called "Disaster!") Otherwise, all the park's other original attractions are gone, replaced with newer, often more-high tech, rides and shows.

Transformers: The Ride 3D

In the past year, Universal's built Transformers: The Ride 3D, and re-themed the area around The Simpsons Ride as Springfield U.S.A., with a variety of restaurants and bars themed to the long-running animated franchise. And work continues at a blistering pace on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, a London-themed extension of the original Wizarding World that will connect with that land in the neighboring Islands of Adventure theme park via a Hogwarts Express train ride attraction when in opens in Summer 2014.

Despite all the changes inside Universal Studios Florida, the park itself might seem like a model of stability compared with the areas around the park. The original parking lot is now the site of Islands of Adventure. The park's original Hard Rock Cafe, built atop a guitar-shaped platform, is now the site of the Curious George water playground. Three new hotels, with a fourth under construction, the massive CityWalk shopping-and-dining complex, and two multi-story parking garages now surround the park.

Universal Studios Florida in 1990
The guitar-shaped platform under the Hard Rock Cafe stands in the middle of this 1990 photo. The ET ride's show building is to its right, and the Bates Motel that once stood on the site of what is now the Barney theater is below that. The surface parking lots are now the sites of CityWalk and Islands of Adventure. Photo courtesy TH Creative.

Today, the two Universal Orlando theme parks each attract more visitors in a year than their older sibling, the original Universal Studios Hollywood. And with the opening of Transformers, Springfield and, next year, Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida will likely be the fastest-growing major theme park in attendance growth over the next two years, as well.

The moral, as always? If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But start by giving away a ton of free tickets, too.

Next: Disney's Animal Kingdom

Previously:

Readers' Opinions

From 74.89.129.148 on August 18, 2013 at 8:13 PM
Norm Rice, the first president of Universal Florida, was a close friend of my ex-wife's father (she was my current wife at the time). An really nice guy who would retire from Universal a few years later. Luckily I never saw the park until after IoA opened.
From Shannon Nelson on August 19, 2013 at 11:10 AM
This brings back memories. I first visited Universal in 1995. They were just breaking ground on IOA. I love the new rides but miss Back to the Future, Kong, Jaws, and Hanna Barbara and the Hitchcock show. This is why I hope they keep E.T. Don't completely forget your past. But looking forward to Diagon Alley and more in the future.
From 173.52.43.147 on August 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM
Been there when it first opened. Missed the old rides..
Jaws, King Kong broke down every hour LOL.
The tickets were so cheap think $35.00 for two days.
As they were opening giving a second free day.

Ohh who could forget the ghost buster show..
When IOA was first announced and they had the preview mock up
model of it.

They have cone a long way.. Good to see as they challenge Disney as
we are the winners..

From 24.43.22.217 on August 19, 2013 at 2:19 PM
I was there on opening day all those years back. Not a lot to do, so much wasn't working well or at all. Managed to get on King Kong, and Sylvester Stalone was there with his entourage. It broke down and we sat there in the Roosevelt Island tram for about 30 minutes waiting for the ride to restart. Sly wasn't thrilled (none of us were) but spent the time joking with his peeps.

Bumped into Jimmy Stewart walking around the park.

The show that was working well on opening day (I saw it several times that day) was Ghostbusters. That was a lot of fun. A couple of years later they redid it to be funnier, which improved and already good show. Then they ripped it out for twister, which wasn't nearly as good.

It is interesting to see how the park has evolved. Great story.

From Kelly Muggleton on August 20, 2013 at 9:02 AM
I think I went first in 91. I was so in awe of the Bates Motel! I wish they could have kept it. I know it was tons of real estate...but it was awesome! The Hitchcock show was great too, I remember being very scared when 'mother' stood right in front of me in the front row!
We had the inevitable Kong breakdown but really enjoyed the park. Overall, I think its gone from strength to strength...not including you Fear Factor! Wild Wild Wild West kicked your butt!
From Mike Gallagher on August 20, 2013 at 9:14 AM
I've seen reports over the years that visitors were able to enter the Bates house. Was that ever the case? It certainly wasn't when I was there opening year. I did, however, procure my favorite park souvenirs of all time..Bates Motel logo-embroidered washcloths and letterhead stationery. I think I bought 4 washcloths and 5 packs of writing paper (logo pens included.)

Thanks for the memories, Kelly!

From E Ticket on August 22, 2013 at 11:00 AM
I was a studio guide at Universal Hollywood from 1986-1991, and took a trip to Orlando in 1989 to see the park under construction. Saw the park model & walked through the muddy construction site, completely excited to see the park in its finished form.

Took my first visit as a paying guest in 1991 when BTTF opened, and then got the chance to work in the park from 1998-2000. Some great memories in that place for me.

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