Happy birthday to Universal Studios Florida

June 7, 2023, 2:56 PM · Happy 33rd birthday today to Universal Studios Florida, which opened - sort of - on this date in 1990.

I say "sort of," because Universal's opening, uh, did not go well. Let's repost our brief history of the park's first summer:

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 from around the Internet to roast the park in real time. But everyone on site at Universal that day, including local and national news reporters and other invited guests, certainly did their best to do just that. 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 been wanting to build a theme park on the east coast since the early 1980s. Following rival Disney, Universal chose Central Florida, ironically setting on a site near the intersection of Interstate 4 and the Florida's Turnpike that Disney had considered for Walt Disney World 20 years before, but ruled out since 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, while further providing 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.

Universal Studios Florida in 1990
The guitar-shaped platform under Universal Orlando's original Hard Rock Cafe stands in the middle of this 1990 photo. The ET ride's show building is to its right, and the Bates Motel that once stood on the site of what later was the Barney theater is below that. Photo courtesy TH Creative.

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. Like at Walt Disney World's movie studio theme park, almost no live production happens at Universal Studios Florida anymore, save for filming of the parks' own commercials. 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.

You can enjoy Universal's current attractions - and a few closed ones - along with some behind-the-scenes interviews, in our playlist of Theme Park Insider videos from Universal Studios Florida.

And you can learn more about the park, including our tips for visiting, on our Universal Studios Florida page.

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Replies (3)

June 7, 2023 at 3:03 PM

For the record, I still have one unused free return ticket from that summer. Awaiting inspiration for what would be the perfect occasion to use it.

June 7, 2023 at 3:59 PM

Let me begin by saying thanks to R. Niles for the photo credit -- taken from the Shamu Blimp, no less. I was working for Universal Creative back in 1997 (?) when they tore down the old Bates Place. Ahhhh the memories ... nightmares ... potato/potato.

And to quote myself, from a TPI post dated May 3, 2010: "This topic of conversation reminded me about a newspaper ad that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel almost twenty years ago. It was June 7, 1990 and Universal Studios Florida was welcoming its first visitors. That day a full page ad announced “Welcome Universal Studios Florida. What’s good for tourism and entertainment is good for Central Florida.”

That ad (which hangs in a frame on my office wall) was bought and paid for by a successful local business located down the road from USF. Um ... Walt-something-or-other-World.

June 7, 2023 at 6:55 PM

Universal (Orlando) is the new Disney. Packed to the gills, and basically un-visitable without Unlimited Express. I don't actually like the fact that they are becoming so popular. We hit the CityWalk last year after Islands closed, not only could you not even walk, but getting something to eat anywhere was impossible.

Only saving grace on that trip was the on-site stay, and the rooms were incredibly expensive compared to previous years. I cannot imagine waiting 2+hours in the regular for rides like Minions and The Simpsons. MIB also had 120 minute waits.

It all started with possibly the smartest IP grab in theme park history, which by the way, I read all about. The Mouse passed on the book rights, the movie rights, then fouled up the theme park rights. Oy vey...

That is a great photo, by the way.

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