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Theme Park History: The Millennium Project at Universal Studios Florida

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Published: December 11, 2013 at 6:03 PM

Theme park fans often like to play the "what if" game? As much as fans love their favorite attractions, students of theme park history can't help but ask "what if" other, considered attractions had been built instead?

What if Disney had gone ahead with the Western River Expedition at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, instead of killing the project in favor of a stripped-down recreation of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean? What if Disney's Animal Kingdom had included its planned Beastly Kingdom land? What if Disney had exercised the option on land in Long Beach, California, and built DisneySea there instead of in Tokyo?

Universal hasn't built as many theme park attractions as Disney, nor has its Florida resort been around as long as its competitor's, down the road. But Universal theme park fans have a few "what ifs" of their own.

When Universal Studios was building Islands of Adventure in the late 1990s, managers worried that the park might simply cannibalize traffic from the existing Universal Studios Florida, instead of bringing new visitors to the resort and encouraging all to extend their stay there. They wanted to do something to ensure that fans continued to want to visit USF, too.

So Universal decided that the Studios theme park would need a new attraction, too. The effort to create that new attraction became part of what was called the "Universal Orlando Millennium Project."

Ultimately, Universal decided to develop Men in Black: Alien Attack, a blend of dark ride and shooting game that took the concept Disney introduced with Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin to another, more richly detailed level. Based on the 1997 Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones movie, Men in Black Alien Attack opened at Universal Studios Florida in 2000.

Men in Black: Alien Attack

But what were some of Universal's other options for the Millennium Project?

It's time to play "what if?"

Apollo 13

Inspired by the 1995 Tom Hanks movie, Universal's Apollo 13 would have been an indoor roller coaster, housed in a scaled recreation of the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building. Universal wanted to add a thrill ride to USF to balance the three world-class coasters it was commissioning for Islands of Adventure: the Hulk and then-Dueling Dragons coasters.

Riders on Apollo 13 would have boarded Apollo-style capsules by walking across a gangplank and crawling into their ride vehicle, before blasting off on a coaster ride around the moon and back. In an industry where something always "goes terribly wrong," the Apollo 13 mission provides one of real life's best-ever examples of how people can recover from "something goes terribly wrong" and survive.

Disaster

Another indoor coaster concept, this one would have been themed to the set of a disaster movie, when, of course, a real disaster happens, sending your ride vehicles on their way. The host of the attraction would have been a wild-eyed, maybe-he's-crazy movie director who ends up putting you in harm's way. (Universal reportedly considered Jim Carrey for this role.)

Stephen King

Featuring scenes from several of King's stories, including The Shining and It, this dark ride would have featured a false ending. Riders would approach an unload platform and hear a spiel, then the lights would flicker, and a river of blood would pour from the doors at "unload" platform (a la The Shining). Pennywise the Dancing Clown would then emerge from the control booth to attack the riders, who would narrowly escape as their vehicle lunged forward.

Fortunately for theme park fans, designers and their bosses very often can't resist great ideas, even if they choose to go in another direction on a specific development. Let's go back to those Disney "what ifs." The Thunder Mesa coaster atop the Western River Expedition soon came to life as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Many of Marc Davis' interior scenes for Western River Expedition eventually became part of the Phantom Manor dark ride at Disneyland Paris. The designers of Beastly Kingdom took their plans to Universal, where they became The Lost Continent at Islands of Adventure, laying a foundation for what would become The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And DisneySea did get built, in far more spectacular fashion, by the Oriental Land Company's money in Tokyo.

As for these unbuilt Universal ride concepts, many fans will see some elements of those proposals in current Universal attractions. Disaster became the name for Universal's reworking of the old Earthquake attraction, with Christopher Walken assuming the role of the crazy director. And the false ending in the proposed Steven King ride found its way into Universal Studios Florida's version of the Revenge of the Mummy ride.

What's your favorite unbuilt theme park attraction concept?

Readers' Opinions

From Andrew Dougherty on December 11, 2013 at 6:46 PM
I really want to see this Stephen King ride. Only problem is age target and making sure no little kids got in really.
From Anon Mouse on December 11, 2013 at 6:53 PM
My favorite unbuilt land is Discoveryland until I saw what did to Tomorrowland 98 at Disneyland. Then I am glad that they didn't go forward with it. Either do it right or not at all.

Perhaps Disney is correct to not pursue a Beastly-land at Animal Kingdom. I am afraid that Disney is out of ideas. They can't seem to pull off a great concept because they are exactly blue skies. They aren't meant to be built.

From Carrie Lindsey on December 11, 2013 at 8:34 PM
I would also love to see the Stephen King stuff come to Universal. Seeing as how my mother and I are huge fans. Hence my name...Carrie.
From 65.87.190.248 on December 11, 2013 at 10:38 PM
Would love to read more about Universal Project X know as Island's of Adventure DC/Looney Tunes Island. There's been some podcast & articles written about it like this. http://www.comics101.com/guestlecturer//?mode=project&action=view&project=Guest%20Lecturer&chapter=82
Bit I would want to see all those Looney Tunes concert art. I was more of a fan & grew up with Bugs Bunny & gang then Mickey or anything Disney since they push those characters as icons then content.
From O T on December 12, 2013 at 2:08 AM
I like we ended up with Men in Black. although only the first movies was great the other where fun and the ride can exist on it's own because it doesn't rehash a story of the movie.
Regarding the horror movies, I don't think it would work. Horror and tension where the King books are known for are hard to recreate in a theme park ride. It takes more then a bleeding door to make things genuinely scary.
The best horror attraction ever was Alien Terrorestrial Encounter at MK until Disney killed it off because of whining parents.
From Oak A on December 12, 2013 at 10:03 AM
As for my favorite unbuilt concepts, there were a number of EPCOT pavilion proposals that were shelved for various reasons.
From Sylvain Comeau on December 12, 2013 at 2:15 PM
That Stephen King idea was never going to happen. I'm a big fan of his work, but that sounds way too intense for a theme park crowd. Maybe they should do something like that for their Horror Nights?
From Jamie Crowe on December 12, 2013 at 3:52 PM
@OT,Yes, I loved Alien Encounter at MK. It was awesomely scary and to say the least, too scary for the majority. :( It was a great concept and was genuinely scary for adults and of course children. :)

I would also love a Stephen King themed attraction as well, but again as Sylvain stated, it would be best for maybe HHNs.

From Annette Forrest on December 12, 2013 at 5:15 PM
I have never heard of that Stephen King attraction before. I had to think about it for a while. My first reaction was "Too scary for a theme park"...but then I started thinking about how cool it could be to have a ride at the park that was not for kids.

That's something I think Universal needs to do more of...making things that are not for kids in its parks. Disney can't ever do that, because Walt Disney's personal philosophy was that the parks should have attractions that everyone in the family can go on and enjoy...so Disney can't ever be intense, gory, and truly scary.

Universal doesn't have to tie its hands like this, though. Imagine a Haunted Library instead of a Haunted Mansion...and have it be a place where Stephen King's books come to life. There are a lot of great scenes in his vast collection, especially in his short stories.

There's one story of his that would make an amazing ride all by itself...it's my absolute favorite. It's called "The Shortcut" (or something like that) and it's about a woman who is obsessed with finding shortcuts between the town she lives in and this one city. And she starts finding these access points onto "Motorway B", where she ends up driving in some alternate universe filled with monsters. That could make a spooky theme park ride...and also maybe the car could end up taking turns through all the other King stories.

Why can't a theme park have a truly scary ride that is just for adults? I'd really love it if Universal went in this direction and had a 21 and over land in one of its parks. Take the Pleasure Island idea from Disney, since they clearly won't ever do that again...and create some awesomely themed attractions and areas that are not in the least bit for children.

I have two sons and on every trip I think it would be nice to hire a babysitter for a few hours and have some alone time with my husband riding rides that are not saccharine sweet and for the kiddies.

From 70.39.176.44 on December 13, 2013 at 9:59 AM
They were also considering an outdoor roller coaster but were already receiving noise complaints from the roller coaster noise over at Islands of Adventure, as well as a Simpsons based ride which probably served as inspiration for the current attraction.

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