Theme Park History: The Millennium Project at Universal Studios Florida
Published: December 11, 2013 at 6:03 PM
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.
But what were some of Universal's other options for the Millennium Project?
It's time to play "what if?"
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.
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.)
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?