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Universal Studios Florida

Robert Niles

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Published: March 29, 2014

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 across the globe to roast the park in real time. But everyone who came to Universal that day, including local and national news reporters and other invited guests, certainly gave it the worst reviews they could. 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's owners had wanted to build a theme park on the east coast since the early 1980s. Following rival Disney, Universal chose Central Florida, ironically settling on a site near the intersection of Interstate 4 and Florida's Turnpike that Disney had considered but ruled out 20 years before, because 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. It also provided more 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. As at Walt Disney World's movie studio-themed park, almost no live production happens at Universal Studios Florida anymore, save for the filming of the parks' own commercials and occasional wrestling events. 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 original attractions are gone, replaced with newer, often more high-tech, rides and shows.

In the past year, Universal has 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 also now surround the park.

Today, Universal Studios Florida attracts more than six million visitors a year, hundreds of thousands more than the original Universal Studios Hollywood. And with the opening of Transformers, Springfield, and Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida will likely become the fastest-growing major theme park in attendance 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.

On select evenings in September and October, Universal Studios Florida hosts the world's most popular theme park Halloween event, Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. The park closes early on those evenings, and a separate admission ticket is required for the evening event. This event does appeal to tourists, including many who visit Orlando just for the event, so tickets often sell out in advance. Halloween Horror Nights features multiple haunted houses, usually themed to popular horror movies and TV shows, as well as "scarezones" where monsters and zombies roam the streets, looking to scare the screams out of anyone walking past. (No, it's not an event for little kids.) On select days in the late winter and spring, Universal also hosts a "Mardi Gras" event that lasts into Lent and even past Easter. Mardi Gras is included with park admission and features live concerts by pop acts

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