Universal Studios Florida recently passed a milestone as it marked its 25th anniversary in Orlando. While the amount of money being spent on the Universal Orlando Resort to add new attractions like the recent Diagon Alley and 2016’s Skull Island: Reign of Kong, opening at Islands of Adventure, Universal has always been reinvesting.
As a matter of fact, the only attraction which hasn’t had a major overhaul is the E.T. Adventure. It opened with the rest of the park in June 1990. Even though the attraction itself has remained untouched, it did undergo a few enhancements. Originally, there were two types of ride vehicles: the dirt bikes we know today and a spaceship. I can’t find images of the ship anywhere online, though the proof is still in the queue. When Botanicus (the leader of The Green Planet – where E.T. is from) appears inside the forest of the interior queue he begs visitors to “Hide E.T from the scientists who seek him. Bring him on a spaceship or carry him on your bikes.”
Guests were requesting to skip the spaceship in favor of the bikes, plus it was hard to see out of them. Ultimately, Universal ditched the spaceships entirely. Every other opening day attraction has been demolished or reinvented. While change is a necessary evil in the theme park business, here are the top 10 things we miss about Universal Studios Florida.
#10 Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theater
Before the Decepticons and Autobots decided to battle it out in Transformers: The Ride, the former attraction that once sat here gave guests a behind-the-scenes look at how television shows were edited in post-production before they went to air. Twenty-five years ago, before there were extra features on a DVD which gives glimpses on how a film is made, the process of what it takes to get movies and television shows to the final product often remained a mystery to the general public.
The Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theater had a simple premise: an episode of the hit TV show (yes it was a hit, as it ran for 12 seasons) had just been filmed but still needed editing before going on the airwaves. Guests were given the role of executive producers and rotated through a pre-show area and three theaters.
As we entered each theater, we were greeted by a member of someone from the post-production staff. Guests were brought on stage to help create sound effects, digital enhancements and dubbing dialogue that was lost in the filming process. While the show may sound dull, it was actually very funny, as each actor was a skilled improv performer. When the television show took its final bow, so did the attraction at Universal a year later. Soon after Hercules and Xena: Wizards of the Screen opened in the same location as the Murder She Wrote theater. Same premise, just a new show to edit with some special effects thrown into the finale.
#9 Dynamite Nights Stuntacular
While Cinematic Spectacular is my favorite nighttime fireworks show in any park anywhere in the world, Dynamite Nights was a real stunt show in the lake. Boats, jet skis, fire and explosions! Originally designed as a spin-off of the Miami Vice Stunt Show at Universal Hollywood (now Waterworld Stunt Show) it was a truly unique way to end a day in a theme park.
#8 The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbara
Currently home to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, the simulators used for that attractions were originally designed to be spaceships for The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbara. The pre-show was hosted by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara who gave us a video tour of their studio and (you guessed it) a behind-the-scenes look at how animated cartoons were made!
As Bill gave us a demonstration of how computers created animation in addition to hand drawn, he designed a 3D model of Dick Dastardly’s spaceship and Dick himself pops out! Turns out he was pissed off with not being the star of any Hanna Barbara movies. After Bill explains that Elroy Jetson is the next star of their upcoming project, Dasterdly kidnaps Elroy and it’s our job to save him!
The main attraction takes place in eight-passenger simulators all facing a central screen. The film (which was recycled and seen in other theme parks after leaving Universal Studios Florida) was eye candy for any fan of animation. Riders went through a haunted castle with Scooby Doo and friends, into pre-historic times with The Flintstones and even outer space with The Jetsons!
#7 Hollywood Look-Alikes
When Disney/MGM Studios opened in May 1989, they decided to populate Hollywood Boulevard with a cast of characters that were “residents” of Tinseltown. Universal Studios had the rights to have actors portray well-known movie stars.
Lucille Ball, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe were found roaming all over the park every day. Instead of simply posing for pictures as characters do today, guests were treated to a completely unique skit or story created just for the park.
My favorite memory was walking through Universal’s Central Park area on a particularly slow day. From behind me I hear, “FORE!!!” I turn around and in the sky I see a whiffle ball hurtling straight towards my head. I raise my hands just in time to catch it before it clocks me on the melon and I hear Groucho Marx yell to Harpo, “…. aaaannnnndddd… you’re out!!” For the next 20 minutes, me and my group got to play whiffle ball golf with the Marx Brothers in a theme park and I’ll never forget it.
#6 Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies
While hardly groundbreaking, this attraction was all about what Disney wouldn’t dare do. Create a show all about horror films. Sure, Hitchcock is tame compared to the Saw films of today, but it still dealt with some grim subject matter. Guests were taken on a two-part theater tour where the first was a montage of some of Hitch’s greatest masterpieces followed by a 3-D segment of “Dial M for Murder.” The finale of that sequence was when crows started ripping apart the screen and the fake movie set behind it.
Theater two featured a highly-detailed model of The Bates Motel and Psycho house. Anthony Perkins hosted the segment via video screen and gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look at how the infamous shower scene was filmed. It was then recreated with live actors and audience members. A post-show featured interactive displays of even more scenes recreated from Hitch’s films including “Vertigo” and “Rear Window.”
#5 Nickelodeon Studios
Growing up in the ‘80s, I was a huge fan of Nickelodeon. The entire reason I found out that Universal Studios Florida even existed was the tag at the end of dozens of television shows filmed in the early ‘90s, “Double Dare was taped in front of a live studio audience at Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida!”
The attraction was any kid’s wet dream. We got to see the filming of dozens of Nick shows: Clarissa Explains it All, Double Dare, Roundhouse, Kenan and Kel, What Would You Do?, All That, Honey I’m Home and many more. At the end of the tour, we were treated to a tasting of slime at the Gak Kitchen and finally, a live gameshow designed just for the tour. In the end, we got to see kids and adults get slimed.
#4 Ghostbusters Spooktacular
Currently occupied by Twister: Ride it Out, Universal Studios Florida originally opened with an attraction that featured the Ghostbusters from the 1984 film. On opening day, the story took guests on a “backstage tour” from the set from the finale scene from the film. A production assistant from Universal gave guests a look at how the film was made when… all chaos broke loose!
Audience members were seated in a theater on ground level while looking up at a peppers ghost effect (similar to Haunted Mansion’s ballroom scene) where ghosts came to life and haunted the set once again. As luck would have it, The Ghostbusters heard the trouble and came in to save the day with their proton packs.
After a small refurbishment, the storyline was tweaked ever-so-slightly. Version 2.0 was starred Louis Tully (the character, played by Rick Moranis, who falls in love with Sigourney Weaver), except this time he’s hosting a seminar on selling Ghostbusters franchises! After a brief training demonstration, we go down to the basement of the Ghostbusters Firehouse. Just like in the film, the government comes in and shuts off the power to their facility and all the ghosts escape! A far better storyline and easily the best use of peppers ghost in a theme park (outside of that famous Disney ride).
The basic premise when Universal Studios Florida opened was to take the famous Universal Hollywood’s Studio Tram Tour mini attractions and create full-blown individual versions for the Orlando counterpart. Kongfrontation utilized one of the most unique ride vehicles in theme park history. Guests entered a queue designed to look like Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. Overhead television monitors cut to news reports telling residents to evacuate the city, as Kong was on the loose!
Ride vehicles were designed to look like Roosevelt Island aerial tram which was suspended from the ceiling. Vehicles could rock back and forth and even be “picked up” by an animatronic King Kong complete with banana breath! It was a great loss when the attraction closed and retrofitted with Revenge of the Mummy.
#2 Back to the Future: The Ride
What many consider to be the greatest simulator attraction of all time, Back to the Future: The Ride was damn near perfection. Guests boarded eight-passenger DeLorean ride vehicles that rose up into an omnimax dome theater. Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson recreated their roles as Doc Brown and Biff Tannen from the films.
It set the tone for all simulator rides that have come after it and will probably never be matched again. It was a perfect standalone sequel story that could only be experienced at Universal Studios and raised the bar showing Universal was a true contender in the world of themed entertainment.
I lost count how many times I rode Jaws. It was everything a ride based on the movie should be. The soundtrack, the live skipper in the boat and most importantly, you were in the water with the great white himself.
It was everything Universal does best. It was action, suspense and yes… explosions. People screamed and lunged away from it every time. Jaws changed the game in how theatrical an attraction can be. As much as I love Diagon Alley, I think Jaws could have withstood the test of time if it didn’t sit on the perfect plot of land which was ripe for expansion.
None of this means that what Universal Orlando has become isn’t spectacular. They are becoming the best in the industry on ever level. Here’s to another 25, Universal Orlando!
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