Theme park history: A short history of Universal's Islands of Adventure

August 30, 2013, 10:39 PM · When Universal Studios obtained the land for its Florida theme park, it bought enough land to support more than one park. But what would that be? After Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, Universal entertained the idea of going after rival Disney with an all-cartoon park, licensing characters from Warner Bros., Jay Ward and either DC or Marvel comics, since Universal hadn't done much with animation since one of its young contract animators named Walt Disney left to form his own studio back in the 1920s. But after Universal Studios' Jurassic Park opened as a huge hit in 1993, Universal was quick to add that franchise into the mix, and the second gate in Orlando evolved into what became Islands of Adventure.

Islands of Adventure
Photo by Bryce McGibeny

In both of its studio-themed parks, in Hollywood and Orlando, Universal had pretty much stuck to its own, classic film properties. But to develop Islands of Adventure, Universal chose to license multiple properties from other creators, including Marvel Comics' Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk, Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right, King Features' Popeye and other comic strips, and the Cat in the Hat and other characters from the estate of the late Dr. Seuss. Universal got another boost when Disney decided to drop the proposed Beastly Kingdom land from its Animal Kingdom park, and several designers from that project moved over to Universal, producing a Lost Continent land for Islands of Adventure that looked suspiciously like the planned, and canceled, Beastly Kingdom.

Construction began in 1997 and Islands of Adventure opened officially on May 28, 1999. Unlike its older sibling, Islands of Adventure opened to rave reviews. Fans on the Internet loved Universal's high-tech attractions, most notably The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a hybrid of a motion-base dark ride and 3D projection technology that won the Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best attraction for four straight years before we retired the award, since nothing but Spider-Man ever came close to winning it.

But the new theme park was just one element of the expansion at the resort Universal saddled with the clumsy name "Universal Studios Escape." Universal eliminated its surface parking lot in favor of two massive parking structures, and brought over the CityWalk dining and entertainment mall concept from Universal Studios Hollywood. Add three on-site hotels and Universal had created a model for a modern, walkable, car-less resort destination, one that rival Disney would soon duplicate with its revamp of the Disneyland Resort. (Seriously, the similarities between Disneyland and Universal Orlando these days are uncanny.)

In 2001, Universal wised up and dropped the silly "Escape" name in favor of the far more obvious "Universal Orlando Resort." With a clear marketing focus available at last, backed up by strong word of mouth, Universal Orlando's parks weathered the global drop in tourism in the early 2000s better than other American theme parks, but they still lagged behind all of Disney's parks, even the maligned California Adventure.

Until one more licensing deal propelled Universal to another level.

Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Photo by Joe Keenen

Both Universal and Disney long had coveted the theme park rights to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. But with a Lost Continent land already in place that easily could be reskinned to the village of Hogsmeade, and endorsements from collaborators such as Dr. Seuss's widow, Audrey Stone Dimond (not to mention a rumored fortune in cash through generous royalties), Universal won the rights, creating The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventure for a June 2010 debut. Wait times to enter the Wizarding World exceed eight hours on its opening day, as the queue of fans extended around the park, then outside it, through CityWalk.

Potter propelled Universal Orlando to double-digit percentage attendance growth in a single year, bringing the company billions of dollars in additional revenue since its opening. Simply, the history of Universal Studios' theme parks should be separated into pre-Potter and post-Potter eras. With millions of new fans and untold profits from Harry Potter, Universal had the funds to buy out long-time partner Blackstone Group, allowing Universal's corporate parent to own 100 percent of the Orlando resort for the first time. Universal's also embarked on an ambitious expansion of its theme parks around the world, building new Harry Potter lands at Universal Studios Florida, Hollywood and Japan.

Back in Orlando, Potter profits have helped Universal build a fourth hotel at the resort, as well as to add and refurbish attractions in both theme parks, helping the Universal Orlando parks draw closer in attendance to those at rival Walt Disney World.

Ironically, Disney now owns one of Islands of Adventure's major licensors, Marvel Comics. But the contract Universal signed with Marvel before Disney bought that company grants Universal Orlando the Florida theme park rights to those characters in perpetuity, preventing Disney from using its own Marvel characters at the Walt Disney World theme parks. Will Disney ever write a check big enough to buy back those rights from Universal? Will Universal use its Potter profits to sign additional license deals, such as landing the theme park rights to Lord of the Rings? Whatever the outcome, the development of Islands of Adventure clearly helped elevate both Universal and the Orlando theme park market to new levels of popularity, with theme park fans being the ultimate winners.

Next: Disney California Adventure


Replies (15)

August 31, 2013 at 6:30 AM · I agree that Islands of Adventure helped to solidify Universal as competition, as it showed that they could create a truly immersive theme park. Islands of Adventure is still one of Orlando's best theme parks, and one of the best parks in the U.S.. And WWoHP is what truly gave Islands of Adventure the attention that it finally deserved, even if that meant sacrificing a good portion of the original and beautiful Lost Continent. But I'd say that it was a VERY good sacrifice.
August 31, 2013 at 9:13 AM · Totally agree with Bryce's comment.
August 31, 2013 at 12:20 PM · If there is a lord of the rings expansion were will it be? Marvel or lost continent. Lost would be easier because it is already mideval. If marvel goes what will Spider-Man be? DON'T LET MARVEL GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
August 31, 2013 at 1:08 PM · The only reason for Universal to keep Marvel is to give Disney the finger. If the three-thousand articles that came out back when Disney bought Marvel are accurate, Universal can neither add nor remove anything without causing the terms of the deal to change which would give leverage back to Disney (note that I am not a lawyer, and I am merely parroting the most common conjecture on what the actual terms are).

So they can update the whole park, but Marvel Super Hero Island just sits there with nothing new forever? Not the best use of that real estate, really, but if it keeps Disney at bay I guess it's a strategy.

September 1, 2013 at 9:17 AM · They updated the Spidey ride last year so they can update rides and under the rules of not changing a single thing are wrong or else Universal woundn't have done it. I'm not a lawyer either so there must be somewhere in the claim that Universal can update the rides in Marvel Island.
September 1, 2013 at 10:03 AM · I always loved IOA and was a bit sad to see a part of the Mythical part go but Potter is an amazing addition.
I would love to see Middle Earth enter IOA's lands and why not smack it right in the middle on it's own island. If that is not possible I would love to see Toon Lagoon go or Marvel Island re-themed if Disney is willing to pay a lot.
September 1, 2013 at 11:26 AM · What remains of Lost Continent is WAY too small to do a Lord of the Rings land the right way. There is no where to create a new island, unless it is literally an island in the middle of the lagoon, but that would not work logistically or aesthetically, not to mention not nearly enough space. So if IOA were to get Lord of the Rings, replacing it with Marvel Superhero Island is the only logical choice. They would get a good chunk of change from Disney by selling those rights, and having Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter would allow Universal to easily compete with Disney, even with Star Wars and Marvel. LOTR and HP would be quite the one-two punch. Plus Central Florida theme park fans win by having all four franchises represented at the parks. I really want to see rides based on Iron Man, Thor, and the Avengers (in Florida) but as long as Universal still has Marvel, we will be stuck with only Spiderman and The Hulk.
September 1, 2013 at 12:57 PM · I would personally want to see Toon Lagoon leave, and definitely not Marvel Super Hero Island.
September 1, 2013 at 5:51 PM · "Universal can neither add nor remove anything without causing the terms of the deal to change which would give leverage back to Disney"

Universal can still add, but not subtract without a replacement. For instance, Universal upgraded Spiderman without any adverse affect on their agreement.

I would think it is mostly lack of usage that will cause the rights to revert back to Disney. If Universal wants to continue to maintain the franchise, it should continue to look towards expanding the attractions slate. However, what will happen if they decide to remove Spiderman? Probably nothing because the Hulk roller coaster is still there.

Look at the Marvel movie agreements. Sony continue to reboot Spiderman to maintain a lock on the franchise.

September 2, 2013 at 4:31 AM · Just to get back to the actual park rather than Marvel wars...
What UO did with Harry Potter made me a Harry Potter fan. I had never read a book or seen a film (I had watched one 'making of' show about one of the movies).
I've since seen the films and been to the Warner Brothers tour here in England.
The snow falling in Hogwarts gave me the first real new emotional pull I had from an Orlando theme park in years. I stood in the middle of the room, open-mouthed and just shouted 'Wow!'.
That right there - that's how it's done.
*stands up and claps for IOA*
September 2, 2013 at 7:00 AM · I would also like to acknowledge the "old" Lost Continent, which featured the amazing Dueling Dragons (much better than how it is now), The Enchanted Oak Tavern and the Flying Unicorn. I think that the entrance and the queue to Dueling Dragons were both such masterpieces, and the entire theming of the Merlinwood was just something to truly commend.
September 2, 2013 at 8:08 AM · Kelly: Another that I agree with completely. I never paid any attention to Harry Potter until I went to IOA in 2011 & 2012. But I absolutely love the entire land. Plus, it too was a wow moment for me & my GF when the snow fell after the magical disappearance of Harry & friends. I never anticipated the land being that great. Generally when something is hyped that much, there's a letdown when the real thing doesn't meet rising expectations.But,the HP land was even better than the hype. And it looks like Diagon, Gringotts (Studios) and Hogwarts Express (IOA & Studios) may even blow HP out of the water, which will be truly amazing if it does.
September 3, 2013 at 1:09 AM · I think you're right there Rob! I am really excited about the Studios side of Potter. I work very near some of the streets that were used in the film (Leadenhall Market) so to have the London side is going to be awesome!
They managed to do they IOA side a way that it felt familiar even though I wasn't a fan. Just brilliantly themed all round.

I haven't been able to make the trip to Orlando this year so next year I feel it will be very much all about UO.

September 3, 2013 at 1:55 PM · I think the USF that I have come to know is going to be changed forever when Diagon Alley opens. My hope is that this resort doesn't become another Disney.

Consistent capacity crowds would definitely change the whole vacation experience.. the only saving grace will be early entry.

September 4, 2013 at 6:47 AM · But the real theme park "MAGIC" is the on site deluxe hotel express pass. As long as that's there, Universal will always be someplace special for me.

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