History of Universal Orlando

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universal theme park in orlandoUniversal Studios Orlando, Universal’s original Florida park, was the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the company at that time. Universal had long considered a theme park in Florida (with early designs reportedly dating back to 1982). Universal wanted a partner to assist with the staggering production costs, and among others, approached Paramount Studios. At the time, Paramount was headed by none other than Michael Eisner, who would soon become CEO of the Walt Disney Company. However, it was feared that a walking tour/tram tour experience, such as that in place at the time at Universal Hollywood, would not be able to compete head to head against Disney on Disney’s home turf. So the project was dropped.

In 1986, however, a bit of synchronicity came into play. Steven Spielberg’s former college roommate, Peter Alexander (a former Disney Imaginer), was working on the King Kong figure that was to be added to the tram tour in Hollywood. Spielberg was impressed by the lifelike Kong and asked Alexander to work on design ideas for Back to the Future. It just so happened that Spielberg’s good friend George Lucas was working with Disney on Star Tours, and had chided Spielberg that Universal could never produce such a ride. The game was on.

The rollicking success experienced by Universal Hollywood in the first year following Kong’s addition convinced management to bring the Florida idea back to life. In 1987, Michael Eisner revealed plans of his own, to open a movie-based theme park as the newest gated park in the Walt Disney World complex, which just happened to bear a strong resemblance to the original Universal Florida project design plan. Rather than admit defeat, however, Universal rose to the challenge. It was quickly decided that the only way to compete head to head with Disney was to beat them at their own game. That meant a fully fledged theme park with better rides, shows and attractions than anything Disney had to offer. The only problem was that Universal management had no idea where to begin. Nothing of this magnitude had ever been built by Universal, and the price tags were staggering.

Nonetheless, in a leap of faith similar to that undertaken by Disney in the creation of Disneyland, the project was green lighted. Thanks to the existence of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which allowed Disney to bypass the normal permitting processes, Disney-Hollywood Studios was a full year ahead of Universal Studios Florida. Nonetheless, the design team plugged away.

despicable me at universal studios orlandoUniversal Studios Florida finally opened to incredible hype on June 7, 1990. Major celebrities, most of them stars of the films that were featured in the attractions, were on hand. The media was out in force, from local papers and faraway radio stations. Crowding was intense as everyone vied to see the long-awaited thrill park.

Part of the reason for Universal’s pre-opening hype had to do with Disney. Many felt that Disney-Hollywood Studios had opened in a half-completed state. Since Eisner did a rush job to open ahead of Universal, this was a legitimate complaint. Locals and tourists alike hoped that Universal Studios Florida would feel more finished, as well as offering more than a half-day experience.

Unfortunately, opening day was a disaster. Despite the team’s best efforts, many of the groundbreaking ride systems were simply not ready. Most of the top attractions opened “in technical rehearsals,” meaning that they were subject to close due to technical difficulties at any moment. And close they did, frequently. Kongfrontation, the centerpiece new attraction and the entire park’s reason for being, was closed more than it was open all day. Jaws opened for less than two hours before being shuttered for a multi-year redesign after Steven Spielberg and his family got stuck in the lagoon for the better part of the day. The park was overcrowded and lines outrageously long. Eventually Universal Guest Services was forced to refund the ticket price to anyone who asked.

This could have spelled disaster for Universal Studios Florida. Instead, like Disneyland before them, park management continued to tweak, redesign and conduct exit polls. Universal stumbled onto a huge hit when it premiered “Fright Nights,” now called Halloween Horror Nights, in 1991. What started as a three night event with one haunted house has now expanded to a nineteen night event featuring seven haunted houses and multiple street scare zones. Gradually Universal grew into an excellent theme park. This period of Universal’s life also set a new trend. Rather than focus on preserving classic rides from opening day, as was Disney’s policy, Universal chose to move forever forward, replacing one attraction with another as movies came in and out of favor with the public. In this way, the park would always be fresh and new, no matter how many times one visited.

By the mid-1990s, it was clearly time for Universal Orlando to expand. Plans were in the works for Walt Disney World’s fourth gated theme park, Animal Kingdom. Despite having become a top-notch park, Universal Studios Florida could not truly compete unless it transformed into a full fledged resort destination.

In 1999, Universal Escape was born. The addition of a second gated theme park, Islands of Adventure, as well as the top rated CityWalk nighttime district (which quickly surpassed both Disney’s Pleasure Island and Downtown Orlando’s Church Street Station), proved Universal’s power as a heavy hitter in the Orlando theme park market. Resort hotels were added at this time as well, with expansion finally coming to a halt in 2002.

islands of adventure orlandoOnce again, Universal Orlando had its share of problems. Although Islands of Adventure was “the most technologically advanced theme park in the world” at the time of its opening, and the park is still in competition for that title today, advertising and marketing issues kept the public from understanding what the new park was. Many thought that it was simply a new expansion to the existing park. Others believed that it was simply a collection of thrill rides. The new resort name, Universal Studios Escape, also confused many guests. Consequently, growth in the first two years was slower than anticipated.

The Little Theme Park That Could pulled it out once again, however. The resort name was changed to Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure marketing was changed to reflect the park’s status as a separate gated theme park. Following the events of September 11, 2001 tourism in general took a strong downturn, and all parks in Orlando showed a decrease in attendance. All except Universal, that is, whose exciting rides, shows and attractions actually helped the parks to pull off an increase in attendance during that same period.

At this time, it is unclear exactly what the future holds for Universal Orlando. Attendance continues to be strong, and Universal continues its tradition of constant updates and ride replacements. Most recently, the venerable Back to the Future was re-opened after being closed to make way for a new simulator based on the immensely popular Simpsons TV show.

Rumors have proven to be true and Universal will soon expand again. Legend has it that Harry Potter will finally take up residence at Universal. Universal executives are planning for this new park to be their biggest draw ever. Knowing this we are currently offering great deals on hotels near Universal Studios Fl and on Universal Studios packages (which come complete with hotel deals and theme park tickets). Right now is a great time to plan a Universal Studios vacation before they open the Harry Potter Adventure Park. Why you might ask. Simple, most visitors are pushing back their Universal vacation until the new park opens; this is causing attendance to be quite light, so Universal is forced to offer better deals to attract new customers.

 

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