Universal Orlando: 25 Years in the Making

The true start of Universal Studios Florida began when Universal Studios Hollywood expanded into a theme park. Ever since the early 1980’s, the owners of Universal Studios envisioned a theme park on the east coast because of its popular Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. In December of 1986, MCA Inc. and Cineplex Odeon Corp. announced their plans to open a studio and entertainment complex in Orlando, Florida called Universal Studios Florida. This development marked the company’s second attempt at creating a movie theme park on the east coast. The first attempt fell through due to funding issues.

Universal Studios Florida was estimated to cost approximately $500 million and would feature live shows, demonstrations, movie sets, rides, and more. The movie theme park was set in direct competition with Walt Disney World, which ruled Central Florida ever since it opened in 1971. Universal met with Paramount Pictures and future Disney CEO Michael Eisner for park investors. Eisner was impressed with the park’s design but decided to pass on the investment opportunity. Shortly after, Michael Eisner began working for the Disney company, where he rushed to construct Disney-MGM Studios (now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios): a movie theme park. Universal felt that Michael Eisner copied their concept, but Eisner dictated that he never saw the park designs for Universal’s movie theme park. Universal began construction for Universal Studios Florida in 1987 and released little information about the park’s size, estimated cost, and attractions in their new press release to avoid helping the competition.

On May 21, 1990, Universal Studios Florida soft-opened to the public. Tourists and local residents could purchase tickets at just $15.95, due to the fact that most rides and shows were not yet operational. The shows that were operating at the time were most likely rough versions and would be changed based on guests reactions.

On June 7, 1990, Universal Studios Florida celebrated its grand opening. Steven Speilberg (the park’s creative consultant), Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Morgan Fairchild, Sissy Spacek, Anthony Perkins, Sylvester Stallone, James Stewart, Robert Wagner, Beau Bridges, and plenty more joined for the ribbon cutting of the movie theme park. The park buried a time capsule on that day, which contained a knife and shower curtain from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, along with a few other items with the intention of opening the capsule on the park’s 25th anniversary.

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Universal Studios Florida experienced many disasters on their grand opening. There were a number of technical difficulties that closed many of the attractions including Kongfrontation, Earthquake: The Big One, and Jaws. Guests were dissatisfied, causing Universal to implement a ticket service for free entry into the park. Many thought that was the park’s end. As time went by, Earthquake: The Big One and Kongfrontation became more reliable and experienced fewer breakdowns, but Jaws suffered from continuous technical issues, causing evacuations almost daily. By September, Universal closed the attraction for a major refurbishment.

While Jaws was being reconstructed, the park opened Back to the Future: The Ride in May 1991 and introduced Fright Nights (now called Halloween Horror Nights) in the same year. By 1993, Jaws finally reopened to the public after its major renovation. While the park’s main objective was to be a working movie studio, it began to transition away from that in the mid-1990’s. The Studio Tour, which allowed guests to tour the park’s production facilities closed due to filmmaking inactivity. Rather than being a movie studio, the park began to transition itself into a theme park. The park did so by opening brand new attractions such as Terminator 2 3-D, Twister… Ride It Out, and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone. However, the park’s biggest change was their plan for expansion. Universal learned quite a lot since their opening in 1990 and they knew they had the potential to become an entire vacation destination. Universal had plans to transform their one theme park into an entire resort destination with two theme parks, a dining and entertainment complex, and an on-site hotel. In 1998, Universal purchased over 2,000 acres of land along Sand Lake Road from Lockheed Martin, which they planned to use for their third theme park, over 10,000 hotel rooms, 700 time-share units, two 18-hole golf courses, and more than 2 million square feet of retail space.

By 1999, Universal’s new theme park, entertainment district, and on-site hotel were unveiled. The resort consisted of Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure (new theme park), Universal CityWalk (new dining and entertainment complex), and Portofino Bay Hotel (new on-site hotel). With the new additions that made the one park a resort, Universal branded the resort as Universal Studios Escape. The resort’s name was confusing to guests; many tourists believed that there was still one theme park. To prevent further bewilderment, the resort was renamed to Universal Orlando Resort.

Universal further expanded by opening MEN IN BLACK: Alien Attack and the Hard Rock Hotel in 2000. While the resort introduced many new additions throughout the years it also closed a major and highly popular attraction. In 2002, the resort made a shocking announcement that Kongfrontation would close. Despite the anger and frustration of fans, Universal Orlando closed the ride to make way for an all-new attraction, which opened in 2004 as Revenge of the Mummy.
In 2003, Universal Orlando sold the land purchase from Lockheed Martin to a Georgia developer. Universal’s plans to further expand the resort were no more because before construction could begin all toxic waste left by Lockheed Martin would have to be cleaned and hauled away. The work and money put into the project was more than the company expected. If completed, Universal Orlando would have the ability to compete more aggressively with Walt Disney World.

Throughout the early 2000’s, Universal Orlando experienced few changes and very little new attraction openings. The resort’s major closing was Nickelodeon Studios in 2005 with no major attraction openings. Attendance began to fall, leaving the resort in need of help.

In 2010, Universal’s hope for attendance recovery revived. This was the year the resort opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The resort experienced a 27% attendance jump that prompted the park to open another Wizarding World in 2014. With Universal’s huge success from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the resort made plans to open The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida. To do so, the resort was forced to close the hugely popular Jaws attraction in 2011. Rumors instantly began that Jaws would be replaced by another Wizarding World and connected using the Hogwarts Express.

While The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley was under construction, Soundstage 44 was being demolished, which sparked news across the internet. Universal Orlando eventually announced that TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D would soon open at Universal Studios Florida in the site of the old Murder She Wrote soundstage (Soundstage 44) during Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories.

Since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the resort has undergone numerous changes. Universal has opened new attractions every year, as Comcast (Universal’s parent company) promised. What originally began as a disaster eventually became a world-class vacation destination. It took time, but time was all Universal needed. Today, Universal Orlando celebrates 25 years of fun, action, and adventure.

 

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