Theme park history: A short history of Universal Studios Florida
Published: August 18, 2013 at 8:05 PM
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.
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.
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