A Universal Studios Brief History
Universal Studios started as an American motion-picture studio creating leading short film serials (short chapter films) in the 1920s and towering to become the media corporation it is today. In 1915, the original Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle opened his 230-acre ranch in Universal City, California to the public. For only 25 cents (about $6.50 in 2021), visitors can come in and see the creation of upcoming silent films. Laemmle closed down when he started using sound in his films because his soundstages were not soundproof. While Disneyland opened in 1955, Universal’s backlot tour briefly reopened again in 1961. It then upgraded the tour in 1964 to a full-blown tourist attraction. Universal gained momentum during the 1970s and trailed in Disneyland’s shadow.
Disney Parks Opening Dates
- Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom (later renamed Magic Kingdom) in October 1, 1971
- Disney Springs in March 22, 1975 (a shopping center)
- Epcot Center (later renamed Epcot) in October 1, 1982
- Disney’s MGM Studios (later renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios) in May 1, 1989
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom in April 22, 1998
Universal Parks Opening Dates
- Universal Studios Florida in June 7, 1990
- CityWalk in May 1993 (a shopping center)
- Universal’s Islands of Adventure in May 28, 1999
- Universal’s Volcano Bay in May 25, 2017
- Epic Universe in 2025?
Universal Studios Florida
Just to rewind a bit, the Universal Studios Florida theme park was the most ambitious project ever undertaken on. 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 Studios Hollywood, would not be able to compete against Walt Disney World on Disney’s home turf. So the project was dropped.
In 1986, however, a bit of coincidence had come into play. Steven Spielberg’s former college roommate, Peter Alexander (a former Disney Imagineer), was working on the King Kong figure. It 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. Lucas had chided Spielberg that Universal could never produce such a ride. The game was on.
The Florida Project
The massive success experienced by Universal Studios 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 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 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.
Opening Day Hype
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. After a year long-delayed opening date, Universal Studios Florida finally opened to incredible hype on June 7, 1990. Major celebrities, mostly 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’s Hollywood Studios which seemed to have opened in a half-completed state. Since Eisner rushed 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 offer more than a half-day experience.
Opening Day Disaster
This was not the case however, 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 time for Universal Orlando to expand. Plans were in the works for Walt Disney World’s fourth theme park, Disney’s 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.
The Universal Resort Destination
In 1999, Universal Escape was born. The addition of a second 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.
Once 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 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 helped the parks to pull off an increase in attendance during that same period.
It is unclear exactly what the future holds for the Universal Orlando Resort. Attendance continues to be strong, and Universal continues its tradition of constant updates and ride replacements. In 2008, the closed down Back to the Future was succeeded by the new The Simpsons Ride, a new simulator ride based on the immensely popular Simpsons TV show.
In 2010, Harry Potter took up residence at Universal sporting the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This amazing land takes up the sections of both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure with the authentic-looking Hogwarts Express train connecting the two lands. The new VelociCoaster ride has an opening date of June 10, 2021, where you will be able to hunt and race through a treacherous jungle alongside raptors. If that exciting enough, Epic Universe (a whole new land devoted to Nintendo’s Super Mario World) is under construction and slated to open in 2025! Be sure to book your Orlando vacation today!