Theme park cast member stories: Free tickets at Universal Studios Florida

June 14, 2010, 11:00 AM · Many theme park employees get free park tickets as one of the perks of their jobs. But the biggest mother lode of free tickets I ever hit came from a park where I never worked.

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.

Front of Universal Studios Florida preview ticketBack of the ticket

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".

Replies (10)

June 14, 2010 at 11:09 AM · That is awesome.
June 14, 2010 at 11:10 AM · That truly is awesome, hundreds of free Universal Studios tickets, wow.
June 14, 2010 at 12:31 PM · Wow what a deal Universal had back then. Did they have more money then too?

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.

June 14, 2010 at 4:02 PM · Great Story! They get better and better!

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

June 14, 2010 at 4:13 PM · I missed the USF announcement, then.

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!

June 14, 2010 at 4:55 PM · I was able to go to the park in 1991 and a few more times in the the 1990s. I went once in 92, 94, 97, 98 & 99. In 1992 they were offering a second day free good for after 5pm. I believe they also offered a second day free in 1994 and 8n 1998 they offered a 2nd day free. I still have my used tickets from 1991, 1992 including the second day ticket, 1998 & 1999.
June 14, 2010 at 6:21 PM · Cool storey I have a story like that. I am a carnival fanatic! if a carnival is in town I MUST GO no matter how busey I am. THe shopping mall by me does a good size one every year. I go everyday and by the second year I knew everyone and Everyone knew me who was working their. If i would hit it on a good day FREE tickets from the booth and FREE cotton candy. Even if I hit it on a bad day I still got free rides. I even know the game operators and I get free games! This story reminded me of this!
June 15, 2010 at 5:21 AM · wow i still have 4 tickets somewhere didnt think i could still use them il need to find them probably not use them though
June 16, 2010 at 2:58 AM · Back in the mid-70's (yes, I'm old) Geauga Lake Amusement Park gave away free admission tickets in newspapers in our area. We are about 2-3 hours away from Geuaga Lake and had never been there, but the free tickets inspired us to make a road trip. We gathered a handful of these free tickets, more than the of us needed, and when we got there we passed them out to families we saw approaching the front gate. We made sure that they had small children because we figured that they could use the extra cash. It was interesting to see the reaction of people- mostly disbelief, a few actually refused them, thinking it was some kind of trick. The tickets were honored at the gate with no questions, and we had a great time (and several other families found themselves with plenty of extra cash).
Now if only Cedar Point would do that!
June 16, 2010 at 6:27 PM · I remember going to school every day at Dr Phillips (across the street) and watching USF being built. After it was built, after school was a great time to go over to the park. I don't ever remember having to pay to get in, so I am thinking that I was using those free tickets that were handed out for my high school career.

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