Universal Orlando’s History Exhibit

Chances are, if you are a faithful reader of Theme Park University, when it comes to learning the history of theme parks you just can’t get enough. Outside of Disney, parks rarely give outsiders access to concept drawings, construction pictures and blueprints. Universal Orlando recently opened up their archives and there is a ton of great pieces on display – but it’s miles away from the property.


Smack in the middle of downtown Orlando, the Orange County History Center is hosting an exhibit called A Year In The Life: Backstage To Onstage At Universal Orlando Resort. This seasonally changing space gives visitors a behind the scenes look at how Universal Orlando creates many of it’s shows and special events.

Universal Orlando Exhibit

Photo by Josh Young

The exhibit is crammed with all kinds of concept drawings, blueprints, costumes, masks, props and more. The idea for a wing of the museum to be dedicated to theme park design came about in 2010 when the History Center did an exhibit called Filming in Paradise. That temporary exhibit featured movie props, costumes and posters tied to famous flicks that have been filmed around Central Florida over the years.

Orange County History Center

Islands of Adventure Grand Opening Intvitation
Photo by Josh Young

During it’s short run, certain key members of the Universal Orlando Creative Team toured the exhibit and loved the work that the Orange County History Center had done.Universal Orlando approached them on creating a similar space showcasing a bit of history of the resort. That first exhibit was very well received in 2011 and served as a building block for what is there now.

Universal Orlando Exhibit Orange County History Center

Photo by Josh Young

The current space is over twice as large and contains many more pieces from Universal Orlando’s archives and is almost entirely different than the previous version. Above is one of three enormous aerial shots of Islands of Adventure during it’s construction phase that give a great view of how the Universal property has changed over the years.

Orange County History Center Universal Exhibit

Photo by Josh Young

It’s this change that really is the cornerstone of the new exhibit that runs until January 26, 2014. While Universal Orlando is known for some of the best attractions in the theme park industry, it’s real strength is creating events like Halloween Horror Nights from scratch every year.

Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights

Photo by Josh Young

If you are a fan of Halloween Horror Nights, there is some great history to be found here. For example, this entire book of concept sketches for a Psycho themed haunted maze from 1999.

Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights Concept

Photo by Josh Young

You can flip through tons of great artwork that helped create that house. Beyond anything, Universal Orlando pours a lot of it’s heart and soul into each year’s Halloween Horror Nights and the evidence is scattered throughout the exhibit.

Universal Orlando Exhibit Orange County History Center

Photo by Josh Young

If books aren’t enough, you can look at overhead blueprints of mazes from years past and check out just how much thought and planning each individual maze takes.

Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights

Photo by Josh Young

For example, who remembers the famous corn maze they created in the space behind Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure in 2004? Universal planted an entire field of corn in the form of a maze months in advance. As fate would have it, Hurricane Jeanne tore through Orlando in 2004 and destroyed nearly every corn stalk that was planted just a few days before the start of Halloween Horror Nights.

Universal Orlando Halloween Horror Nights

Photo by Josh Young

The events team scrambled to find replacement plants that would look close to corn and they filled in the gaps with scarecrows and other props that were thrown in at the last minute. It’s little stories like these that make this exhibit worth visiting. There are all kinds of fascinating stories like this scattered throughout.

Universal Orlando Superstar Parade

Photo by Josh Young

Another reason to visit A Year In The Life is because it will change seasonally.  Currently, the focus is on Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular and Universal’s Superstar Parade.  There are great concept art pieces like this one from the HOP themed float. The parade’s pieces feature concept renderings, costumes and even a section where guests can learn a specific dance routine performed in the parade.

Universal Cinematic Spectacular

Photo by Josh Young

For Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular, there is an entire book full of concept artwork, blueprints and schematics. This one was used to determine where each water screen barge would be placed in the lagoon and the spaces that are utilized to house the corresponding projectors.

Universal Orlando Exhibit Orange County History Center

Photo by Josh Young

However, the next seasonal change of the exhibit promises to be the most interesting to die hard fans of Halloween Horror Nights. Starting on August 24th and running through November 3rd 2013, museum guests can get a more in depth look at the making of Universal’s most successful yearly event with all new concept art, props, masks and costumes that aren’t currently found in the exhibit.

On Saturday, August 24th, there will be a forum on the design of Halloween Horror Nights hosted by the Orange County History Center. Key speakers include TJ Mannarino – Senior Director of Universal Art and Design, Rick Spencer – Creative Manager of Universal Art and Design. There will also be several other writers and scenic directors who will be sharing their stories on how this event is created every year.  Admission to this one time only event is $55 and includes dinner.

If you’re interested in just visiting the exhibit, the Orange County History Center is open 7 days a week and admission is only $9. For more information you can visit the Orange County History Center website.

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