In the late 1980s and early '90s, I lived in the Orange Tree neighborhood, across Turkey Lake Road from Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. I worked in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, but watched the construction of USF daily, and my family and I couldn't wait until the park opened. (Years later, I lived for a short period in the Oakwood Apartments across Barham Boulevard from Universal Studios Hollywood, making me one of the few people - I suspect - who's lived across the street from both Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood but who hasn't worked for either one.)
I got my first chance to preview the new park in May of 1990.
Having visited the original park in Los Angeles, I looked first to go on the Studio Tour. But, of course, Universal Studios Florida was to be a very different park than its older sibling. Unlike USH, or even the then-new Disney-MGM Studios, there was no tram tour of a backlot. Just a short walking tour through the empty soundstages at the front of the park. The rest of Universal Studios Florida was to be a traditional theme park, with individual attractions, including expanded, stand-alone versions of Hollywood's Jaws and Earthquake encounters.
Which would have been really cool, had they been operating.
"No worries," I was told. The park was in previews; all the attractions would be up and running by opening day.
That day - June 7, 1990 - arrived. And they weren't. Universal's opening was a public relations disaster. Thank heavens for Universal that the World Wide Web at that moment consisted of a handful of computers run by Tim Berners-Lee and his buddies. Almost none of USF's attractions worked that day, and I can't imagine how badly the park would have been roasted in the blogosphere.
(In writing this piece, it dawned on me that last week was the 20th anniversary of Universal Orlando, which no one at Universal seemed to have bothered to note, much less celebrate. The wounds from that day run deep, which is unfortunate, because Universal's done so much in the years since that are worthy of great celebration. Of course, Universal might also be distracted by this new land they've got opening up....)
Credit Universal, though, with its response to the debacle. The park swiftly announced that, for the rest of the summer of 1990, every person walking through the front gate would be presented with a free one-day ticket to return to the park. And there'd be no expiration date on that free ticket, so that Universal's initial visitors could return at any point in the future, to enjoy the park when it was fully operational.
My family and I had bought annual passes during the preview period. But Universal's deal for annual passholders was even better. The park extended the expiration date of all of our passes by six months, automatically and at no extra charge. And, we'd get the free one-day tickets each time we entered the park, too!
Granted, to get the free ticket, you'd still have to go through the hassle of driving to Universal and parking your car. Unless, of course, you lived across the street from the park. :-)
So whenever we had a free moment, one of us would walk over to Universal, sign in at the front gate and pick up a free ticket. (Each passholder could pick up only one ticket per day, so you had to sign in.) By the end of the summer, between my parents, my sister and I, we had hundreds of free Universal tickets.
So for the next decade or so, any friend of mine who got married got two Universal Studios Florida tickets as a wedding present. My parents and sister also gave away dozens of tickets to friends, co-workers and clients. And I didn't pay to visit a Universal Orlando theme park until about 2002.
My sister used the last of free tickets around 2004, if memory serves. The gate attendant was completely flummoxed by the ticket, and had to call over a supervisor. Eventually, several top managers gathered around to marvel at the ticket, one of them exclaiming, "I haven't seen one of those in years."
I wonder when the last of the free "Summer of 1990" tickets will be redeemed. Universal team members, if you have any memories of those early days, or those tickets, please share your story in the comments.
For more of Robert's stories about working in theme parks, pick up a copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider".Tweet
Universal did announce their 20th Anniversary via Twitter for sure and usually what appears on their Twitter is also on Facebook. So it hasn't been totally forgotten about.
An intersting note: Disneyland Cast Members (or Cast Members who go to Company D) get a reduced price ticket to USH. Interesting that competitors will give discounts to each other! Of course, CA is a whole different animal than their FL cousin!
As for annnouncements, I really think Disney dropped the ball (no pun intended) on EPCOT's 25th
Lew Wasserman was still alive back then, when Universal Studios Florida was owned by MCA and Rank Organisation (before Universal went through its Vivendi, uh, adventure on its way to NBC and before Blackstone Group emerged and obtained Rank's assets). But I doubt that Universal had much more money then - the park had just opened and had little income.
No, Universal needed a bold move to save face and win back some customers. Giving out free tickets didn't cost them any cash up front and probably ended up exposing the park to some fresh customers in the long run, thanks to people like me handing out free tickets left and right!
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