Does Anyone Still Care about Universal Orlando's KidZone Anymore?

October 16, 2015, 3:53 PM · "Barney Who?"

If you've been to Universal Studios Florida, you might have heard this phrase from the mouths of your small children — along with, "Can I have that?," "I want that," "I want that now!," and "I have to pee."

My kids, like many out there, literally have no idea who Barney the Dinosaur, or the other characters of Woody Woodpecker's KidZone are, and really, why should they?

Barney & Friends
"Hey kids, does anyone remember me?"

Woody Woodpecker's KidZone at Universal Studios Florida pretty much has remained unchanged since Jurassic Park collected its dinosaurs from the wild instead of genetically recreating them. Okay, the KidZone might not really be 65 million years old, but it sure feels like it. Entering the KidZone is like stepping into a time machine; only this one doesn't run on a flux capacitor.

Now, I realize that just about everyone believes that the current KidZone site is already earmarked for demolition (except maybe for the E.T. Adventure) in order to be transformed into Universal's announced new Nintendo land. (More on that later.) But even with that much-speculated addition possibly looming in the near future, I think there still remains a need for relevant toddler/elementary attractions in the Universal Orlando Parks.

When Universal Studios Florida first opened in 1990 they received criticism on the lack of attractions geared towards small children. Which was no coincidence, as Universal Studios Florida was designed to appeal to teens and adults. Universal shrewdly recognized that while Disney runs the World when it comes to the 10-and-under set, there was a void that Universal could fill when it came to enticing older kids and their parents to a more thrilling brand of theme park entertainment.

But young kids still need something to do or else they will whine about going to Disney instead of Universal, so Universal made an attempt to compete in this space with KidZone, which opened in stages through 1999. Unfortunately, this section of the park has basically been frozen in time worse than that unfortunate accident between Elsa and Cogsworth (drum roll... rim shot.)

Seriously, let's take a look at the current (or should I say not-so-current) lineup of attractions it features:

A Day in the Park with Barney — To the utterly resounding joy of many parents who did not love the big purple singing dinosaur, no matter how much he claimed to love them back, the last original episode of "Barney & Friends" aired on TV in 2009. Even my young son looks at Barney and knows this unfortunately violet species of genus Dinosaurius Annoyus would not last a full two minutes in either Jurassic Park or World. Unless, of course, velociraptors are allergic to dyed-purple felt... or terrible singing.

Curious George Goes to Town — This section of KidZone even looks old and faded. The giant ball pit play area has a grand total of like 15 balls all being hoarded by the weird kid in the corner with one hand curled protectively around his stash and the other mostly occupied up his nose. The only excitement for parents is a vain attempt to locate safe passage through the voluminous water-spraying area so as not to get soaked. At least the little monkey had a recent TV show on PBS, but the Man in the Yellow Hat is still an odd one. He dresses in all yellow, has no name, and has a little chimpanzee as a son. That has all the makings of a potential Halloween Horror Nights maze.

Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster — Ah, so many jokes, so little time... most of them are un-postable on this respectable website. Woody Woodpecker was last featured on syndicated TV in 1997, until a brief stint in new programming from 1999-2002. I know Woody's been around since the 1940s, but he's no Mickey Mouse. Heck he's barely Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Fievel's Playland — Remember when An American Tail came out? No? Well, you probably weren't born yet. Heck, I was a teenager back then. Set the DeLorean's time controls back to 1986 if you want to catch the premiere of this cute flick, which if rebooted for today's audience, would probably see poor Fievel being deported back to Russia by Donald Trump.

E.T. Adventure — Yes, I realize E.T. is a Spielbergian classic, but it makes Fievel looks positively contemporary. This is how I know I'm old... I mean other than my kids reminding me. Everyone's favorite non-acid-blooded alien creature first munched Reese's Pieces on the big screen way back in 1982.

To call the Universal Studios Florida KidZone "outdated" would be an understatement equal to describing the T-Rex as an above-average size lizard, or Disney Hollywood Studios as having "fewer rides than most theme parks."

As much fun as I have poking at Disney, it really does land just about every throw in the bull's-eye with the 10-and-under age category, and quite frankly, Universal could take some lessons from the Mouse's success. Which I believe Universal attempted to emulate, or at least take a few steps forward toward that goal, in its second Florida theme park, Islands of Adventure.

Obviously, Seuss Landing is devoted entirely to small kids, and Marvel Super Hero Island certainly appeals to that demographic as well. But here's a little problem...

The Cat in the Hat - 36"
Seuss Trolley Train Ride - 40"
Doctor Doom's Fearfall - 52"
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man - 40"
The Incredible Hulk Coaster - 54"

Yes, unfortunately, most kids are too little to enjoy many of the actual rides. They might enjoy the décor and the sights and sounds of the island, but that's like paying for a full dinner and only getting served the appetizer.

Things aren't much better over in Toon Lagoon, which is crippled by the same inherent "out-of-date" problems as KidZone. Ask most five-year-olds who Marmaduke, Dagwood, Beetle Bailey, Dudley Do-Right, or Popeye are. Go ahead. I'll wait. Please feel free to add any hilarious results to the comments section below. And if it's not bad enough that your little ones will have no idea who any of these characters are, we run right into the same ride height restriction issue:

Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges - 42"
Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls - 44"

What's the solution? Is it Nintendo Land? Or something else entirely? There are a lot of licensing issues at play with Universal's access to preschool/elementary properties. I'm not going to go too in-depth on this topic, as it was already well-covered by Robert in this article: Could NBCUniversal's Sprout network provide a theme for new kids' attractions at Universal theme parks?

As for Nintendo Land, I know that Mario isn't really that good at saving Princess Peach because she keeps getting kidnapped by Bowser, but can everyone's favorite Italian plumber manage to rescue Universal's kid appeal? Well, for children who play Nintendo video games, I'm sure there will be high demand to experience what Universal has in store. But I'm not sure there is a (pardon the pun) universal appeal to all kids with that property.

For comparison purposes, let's take a look at Disney. Obviously Disney have its own legendary stable of characters and in-house intellectual properties to draw upon, but it goes deeper than that. Disney has always touched on mythology, fairy tales, and Joseph Campbell-esque archetypes to achieve the broadest demographic appeal.

Sometimes there can be something profound in simplicity. Children love princesses and pirates. The genius of Disney is to take these beloved standards and gives them the White Glove treatment, putting their own particular Disney spin on them.

Pirates of the Caribbean was merely a ride through the world of pirates that entranced millions of visitors for many years until the fairly recent cross-pollination with the Johnny Depp films of the same name.

Disney's simple yet successful princess strategy has been to update old fairy-tale princess stories and folktales and provide them with its signature twist of a catchy soundtrack, anthropomorphic talking animals, and a strong female protagonist. That legendary monument at the end of Main Street in WDW could be anyone's castle really and it would still appeal to children.

That's one of the reasons that Jurassic Park/World has been such a runaway hit for Universal and they should incorporate more of it into their parks. Kids love dinosaurs! Universal just has to stick the JW or JP branding on them, and it's like printing money. The same goes for magic in the world Harry Potter. What child wouldn't love to attend an enchanted school where they learn magical spells instead of say, phonics and trigonometry?

In my opinion, Universal shouldn't merely focus on just licensing specific properties (though they did hit a home run drafting that Potter kid), but take a lesson from Disney in harnessing those underlying ideals that always have and always will tug hardest on a child's imagination.

So that's what I think. What would you like to see Universal Orlando do to improve the quality of children's attractions at its theme parks?

Replies (31)

October 16, 2015 at 4:10 PM · It's true. We pass through these zones and it registers ZERO interest in my 8 and 10 yr olds, and has for 4 years. Nintendo land might be great, but we need some details.
October 16, 2015 at 4:16 PM · The benefit that Disney has with Mickey and company is not freshness it's durability. There isn't much new Mickey content around now, and there wasn't much when I was a kid either. But I love Mickey and so does my daughter. That is what Universal is banking on with Mario over Barney, Woody and Popeye. It's generational durability that breeds long term success with the youngest fans. I think Nintendo is a good bet here.
October 16, 2015 at 5:07 PM · Mr. Danner writes: "When Universal Studios Florida first opened in 1990 they received criticism on the lack of attractions geared towards small children."

I Respond: From whom? Where and when did this criticism occur? Got a link?

Mr. Danner continues: "Which was no coincidence, as Universal Studios Florida was designed to appeal to teens and adults."

I Respond: You know for a fact that Universal's creative team set out to design a park with the specific intent to "appeal to teens and adults?" Again, link please.

October 16, 2015 at 5:09 PM · @ Mr. Glynn: The throngs of families with small children that flock to Disney certainly "like Mickey" ... But they come for the princesses -- a multi-billion dollar franchise.
October 16, 2015 at 6:24 PM · Mr. Niles once said that no one under 40 knows who Popeye is. I did some informal interviews to see if this is true.

I stand in defense of Universal's use of classic cartoon characters. A prime example is Splash Mountain, now this one I bet that most under 40 haven't seen Song of the South.

BTW: There is a new Mickey cartoon series that is airing now that is very good.

October 16, 2015 at 6:33 PM · TH, I can vouch for Universal receiving numerous guest complaints about the lack of attractions for kids that first summer. This was told to me by a Orlando city employee who worked with Universal on planning and zoning issues and heard it from Universal management. (They wanted to prepare to fast-track a kids land.)

Of course, Universal got a lot of complaints about a lot of things that summer, so yeah.

October 16, 2015 at 7:45 PM · A few years back, Woody Woodpecker was supposed to get a reboot in the form of a new movie, but nothing has been heard about it since 2013. Also, Popeye is getting a CG reboot next year. Besides the problems mentioned in the article, the main reason why I believe most of KidZone's attractions are no longer popular are because they are out of the way from everything else.
October 16, 2015 at 7:46 PM · Another good article written by Danner. As much as I appreciate what Universal has done in is interesting to see such little regard to the 10 and under demographic. Not having children myself I can only continue to route for the bigger and better mentality. At some point,however, I feel like the lack of relevant children's options hurt. You're kidding yourselves if you think Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Feivel, and others can compete with the classic Disney pantheon.
October 16, 2015 at 9:38 PM ·

It's interesting when looking at the top entertainment franchises, Disney has the market cornered. Forget about films, the merchandising profits that princesses generates is over $1.6b a year. The data above is 2012, so I'm sure that the Avengers is much higher on the list now.

Looking at the list the year before;
The options for other parks to cash in on a thriving franchise is limited, and I don't know what Comcasts distribution is like to create a new (or rejuvenated) franchise across various media. Does Universal own any franchises completely that could make this list?

It makes Disney's new live action princess films make much more sense, as even if one flops at the cinema, the overall merchandising makes any film a safe bet.

October 16, 2015 at 11:44 PM · Valid point TH about the princess brand being bigger than Mickey these days. But that kind of showcases my point. The durability of the classic princesses (Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella) is what allowed the renaissance princesses to form this mega-franchise. Whether it's luck or good planning, Disney has had the advantage here over most entertainment brands for two generations. I'm just saying that Nintendo has followed this path, and that is great for Universal.
October 17, 2015 at 2:55 AM · Hang in there, Paul. I think you're a terrific writer, and I love your humor. When I see that it is something you wrote, I'm going to read it.
October 17, 2015 at 2:21 PM · They need to start with Nintendo Land themed to Mario bros with a Mario Kart e ticket. Zelda or Donkey kong lands could also be made in other parks.

Hello kitty should be expanded as a mini land much like Universal Japan has. This would offer a good contrast to Disneys princess juggernaut.

Universal has plenty of kid appealing options and I'm confident that they will pull the trigger on something big after they are finished with Kong, Sapphire falls resort and Volcano bay.

October 17, 2015 at 6:06 AM · It depends on how you do theme parks. My kids (now 15, 12, and 9) could always spend hours in the playgrounds since the first of many times we have visited about 8 years ago.
This is the attraction for kids that age. It is the interactivity with the environment that makes the experience much more than the rides do.

So while the characters may not resonate, playing in the JP jungle or in Curious George's area and in "How I ran the zoo" and Me Ship the Olive was how we spent most of our time when they were younger. It was a win/win for people who don't rush their way through the parks. No lines, one entrance and exit, lots of opportunity for open play with your siblings AND with other kids (and even a few adults). An hour for tired parents to sit, watch the fun and have some coffee.

I know everyone thinks of rides at theme parks, but I remember really liking Universal because for younger kids it wasn't just rides, it was much more creative and interactive play, something that set them apart from Disney for kids that age. In fact I would suggest that parents with the under 12 set devote a an extra day or two to the Universal parks so that they feel like they have time to let their kids PLAY, instead of trying to run them from ride to ride.

Whatever updates UNiversal does, I hope they remember to keep play areas available and then remember to promote them!

I hope whatever Universal does to update

October 17, 2015 at 6:27 AM · Niles writes: "Of course, Universal got a lot of complaints about a lot of things that summer, so yeah."

I Respond: Remind me, how many comp tickets did you collect that summer?

October 17, 2015 at 6:33 AM · Get rid of everything but et..,. I love that ride and I'd be upset to see it go. They still have a lot of room for Nintendo land with keeping it
October 17, 2015 at 7:07 AM · I completely agree. While I totally get that the E.T. Adventure is strange and more than a bit creaky I love it to pieces. I would hate to see it go as well. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if something new takes its place soon.
October 17, 2015 at 5:10 PM · I love E.T., it is one of my favorite movies ever, but that thing has got to go. Its only fun when you get there when the ride opens, tell the 18 year old a fake name, and get the ride vehicle to yourself.
October 17, 2015 at 5:13 PM · ET won't go anywhere as long as Spielberg is alive, that ride is his baby and he still has a major hand in the going ons with his properties in the park.
October 17, 2015 at 5:34 PM · Barney was my favorite show when I was little and my first theme park experience was spent in fieval's play area. The kids in my family have no idea who those characters are, but they still have a great time. The area needs to be updated, though I'm not so sure very small children would recognize many Nintendo characters either. Spongebob would have been a major hit a few years ago, but I got the feeling even he is falling out of favor.

Disney is able to bank off of the Disney name alone. As long as they are able to do that, they will always be king of the 10 and under crowd, regardless of what Universal does. Many areas in the Disney theme parks are very, VERY dated. Yet kids still enjoy them,well as much as they can. They look pretty miserable waiting three hours in line to meet Elsa and 80 minutes to ride peter plans flight, a ride that opened in the 50s.

October 17, 2015 at 8:28 PM · If they do close KidZone and replace it with Nintendo, it would seem that they are giving up on the kid market and resigning themselves to the teen and adults market. After all, any new Nintendo themed rides are likely to have that height requirement barrier once again.

Maybe not many parents show up with kids under ten anyway, so it's a self-fulfilling prophesy. To me, that would mean that Disney will always be ahead in market share because they have the parents-with-young-kids market locked up, and they still attract many other demographics, too. That's still not terrible news for Universal as long as their parks are profitable.

October 17, 2015 at 9:22 PM · Nintendo does not cater to teens and adults. They cater to kids. Look at their video game slate and their handheld gaming devices. Mario Brothers and DS devices are not interesting to teens who moved on to Playstation. Hardcore gamers play on Playstation, Xbox, and PCs. Universal's play on Nintendo is clearly with young kids with characters that are appropriate.
October 18, 2015 at 3:08 AM · @Anon Mouse I'm 21, and my friends and I play Super Smash Bros. with my friends all the time. There are huge communities for Smash in SoCal, Japan, and Florida coincidentally. But, most hardcore gamers do to tend to stick to Playstation, PC, and Xbox
October 18, 2015 at 6:14 AM · I'm 39 and Nintendo appeals to me too. Its for all ages.
October 18, 2015 at 9:53 AM · Here is one for you! Fievel's playland is actually from Fievel Goes West. Not that its any better, especially since the kids who saw this movie and this area was geared towards have their own kids who can almost go into this land!

Jon Lovitz as a tarantula. There you go!

October 18, 2015 at 3:09 PM · I don't think KidZone is a big enough space to fully respect respect the world of Nintendo and fit at least two E-tickets. Replace Toon Lagoon and Marvel Island with Nintendo, and retheme KidZone to something else more current, like Dreamworks or Super Silly Fun Land from Despicable Me.
October 18, 2015 at 5:30 PM · I would put more Dreamworks attractions in Universal, but as Paul points out they need to be mild enough to not have height restrictions. I wouldn't necessarily put the franchises in that made the most money at the box office, though. There is a Dreamworks area in Dreamworld (an Australian park on the Gold Coast) The Dreamworks area is basically on the level of a Bug's Land at DCA, but it is good because the only other thing for little kids there is a Wiggle's World which is kind of a temporary fair quality area. The Kung Fu Panda section is really cute with a little training area for kids. The other rides are based off of Shrek and Madagascar, but I would suggest that they put in How to Train Your Dragon and Rise of the Guardians at Universal. Even though those movies were considered disappointments in the American box office, those franchises have a big following. I know Dragons aren't dinosaurs, but they have a similar appeal and some of the most popular movies with Dragons (the Hobbit) and Dinosaurs (Jurassic World) are too scary for very young children to have viewed widely. Toothless is a very cute Dragon and is so much better than Barney. Rise of the Guardians is so different than a lot of Dreamworks movies that I think it didn't find it's audience in the theater, but that doesn't mean that it won't have long term popularity. I think that movie could follow a path similar to The Nightmare before Christmas if Dreamworks didn't ignore it completely.
October 18, 2015 at 7:12 PM · Universal could do it the Disney way and just cheaply re theme it but keep all the same rides and buildings.
Curious George could be rethemed to Jaws. A ball pit with a shark in it amazing.
Barney could become the Minions banana buffet or banana land meet and greet.
Fievel could be remade into Back to the Future III. A time travel water slide. Plus they could move the train and the car to get people back there.
Woody Woodpecker nuthouse could be themed to the classic monsters as a haunted house coaster
ET will be updated to become Apollo 13 ET where Tom Hanks has to make a flying bike with only a pen and find a map to get ET home. A life like Tom Hanks will replace the cop at the beginning of the ride and Tom Hanks will say your name at the end of the ride. All the current sets will stay the same
All expansion pads will be used for massive meet and greets with gift shop exits and entrances
October 18, 2015 at 8:09 PM · I love the minions, but really how much lasting appeal will they have. Think of Shrek, now that the movies have had their day not many care about it anymore.
E.T. is a classic, Simpsons is a classic, Hitchcock was a classic. Universal has always had the problem of having to keep up with current movies. They would be best off focusing on classic IP. Monsters, Kong, Popeye, Jaws (it might come back in some form somday), Zeuss, Jurassic Park,
October 19, 2015 at 10:09 AM · FYI... Can confirm UO is still seeing comp tickets given out in 1990. It's rare, but yes it happens.
October 19, 2015 at 1:16 PM · After the box office Jurassic World saw, and seeing Kong get moved from Universal to WB, I really wish Universal had saved the Reign of Kong plot for that rumored Jeep ride. Your point about kids and JP/JW merch only better serves that point. I hope Universal is kicking themselves.
October 19, 2015 at 6:30 PM · I think the Kong ride is a play to try to get the Lord of Ring rights and make Peter Jackson happy. If it falls through they could retheme it to just JP but for me a giant Ape fighting a trex is better then just a trex. Its like pirates kids are always going to love a giant ape who fights a trex, takes women from their beds and scales buildings.

With giant corporations these rides are just a piece of a bigger play sometimes. I find it suspicious that Disney made the $500 million Avatar land deal in 2011 when James Cameron was in the middle of filming movies he funds and strapped for cash. His Fox contract is up after these movies

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