Universal Orlando Resort is one of the largest and most popular tourist attractions in Florida, with two theme parks, a waterpark and an entertainment area loaded with hot nightlife spots. However, it didn’t start out that way. The version Universal Studios Florida that opened in 1990 is practically a distant memory in comparison to the giant resort that it is today.
Universal Studios Florida (1989 – 1995)
Universal Hollywood Studio Tour’s east coast counterpart was originally announced in 1986 with a scheduled opening date of December 1989. The new park was planned as a studio and entertainment complex, with elements of film and television production as well as a theme park attractions. In 1989, Nickelodeon got involved by purchasing a section of Universal Studios, which resulted in a new opening date of May 1990. After several other issues, Universal Studios Florida finally opened on June 7, 1990.
On the day of the grand opening, the park had a ton of attractions spread throughout five different lands: Production Central, New York, San Francisco/Amity, World Expo, and Hollywood.
Production Central was probably the most populated area of the park in the beginning. One of the main opening day attractions was The Boneyard. Here, guests could explore an outdoor area filled with recognizable props from popular Universal Pictures movies and T.V. shows like Jurassic Park, Waterworld, and Back to the Future. Other opening day attractions included Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies, which was a hybrid 3D movie/live show attraction that brought Hitchcock films like The Birds and Psycho to life and Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre, a 25 minute interactive show based on the hit television show. The Production Studio Tour combined the backlot and theme park elements of Universal Studios with a 15 minute tram ride that started at Soundstage 19 and ended in the Universal Studios Store. This attraction was inspired by the Universal Studios Hollywood studio tour. Another studio tour attraction was at Nickelodeon Studios, where guests could take a 40 minute tour of the studio and join an interactive live show with games based on popular Nickelodeon shows of the time. The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera was a motion simulator ride starring characters like Yogi Bear, The Flinstones, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, Dick Dastardley and Muttley. The only attraction in Production Central that was not completely free with park admission was the MCA Recording Studio, a small interactive exhibit where guests could test out recording and sound effects that are normally used in post production for films, T.V. shows and music videos. After your recording session you could purchase a copy of your performance, making for a one of a kind souvenir! In 1992, the first addition to Production Central opened. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was a live 16 minute stage show with characters from the T.V. show like Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris, Natasha, and Snidley Whiplash
One of the landmark attractions on opening day was Kongfrontation, based on the 1976 film. The ride recreated a New York cable car ride during King Kong’s rampage through the city. The park’s New York area was also home to Ghostbusters Spooktacular, a 20 minute stage show centered around the Ghostbusters. In 1991, a street show was added to New York called Streetbusters, which featured the Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice. Like the MCA Recording Studio, The Screen Test Home Adventure was an interactive upcharge experience that opened in March 1991. Guests could choose to star in one of two 10 minute movies filmed in front of a blue screen. Options included “Your Day at Universal Studios” and “The Star Trek Adventure” and the final project cost $29.95 to take home.
The centerpiece attraction for the San Francisco/Amity section of the park was Jaws, which was meant to be a leisurely tour of Amity harbor that went awry when a giant shark attacked. However, the ride when awry long before that when tons of problems occurred on opening day that forced the ride to close for a lengthy period of time until it finally reopened in 1993. Earthquake: The Big One also had some technical issues on opening day, but the 8.3 level earthquake simulation ride didn’t fail as drastically as Jaws did. San Francisco was also home to a live stage show based on Fieval Goes West, called An American Tale Theatre. Later in 1991, The Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show premiered which was based on Universal’s western movies, recreating stunts, shootings and explosions.
Three production sets opened in the World Expo on opening day: The Bates Mansion and The Bates Motel, which were used for filming Psycho IV: The Beginning, and The Swamp Thing set. All three were featured stops on the Production Studio Tour. The only other attraction found here in 1990 was Animal Actors on Stage, a live show starring animal actors performing stunts and tricks. In 1991 Back to the Future: The Ride opened in World Expo, taking guests on a ride through time on the hunt for Biff Tannen.
The Hollywood section of Universal Orlando was the least populated area of the park when it opened. In fact, there were no attractions here until How to Make a Mega Movie Deal opened in 1991. This wasn’t a wildly successful attraction, and was replaced by AT&T at the Movies in 1993. In 1992, Lucy: A Tribute joined as the second attraction in Hollywood. The walk through museum was completely dedicated to Lucille Ball and her beloved television show.
Despite being delayed multiple times, the park’s grand opening still left a lot to be desired. Many attractions were not ready for operation and were still undergoing testing. The three landmark rides (Kongfrontation, Earthquake: The Big One, and Jaws) all had serious malfunctions and had to close altogether. The disastrous first day ended with many guests demanding cash refunds or free tickets for future visits.
Universal Studios Escape (1995 – 2002)
By 1995, Universal Studios was moving farther away from existing as a working backlot and started making moves towards being a full on theme park. Some of these moves included a rapid rate of new attractions popping up around the park, a brand new land with attractions for kids, an major park expansion and a new name. In 1998, the park was officially renamed Universal Studios Escape. In the same year plans for Islands of Adventure and Universal CityWalk were both unveiled.
In this second phase of Universal, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle was replaced with a new live show called Star Toons which featured Hanna Barbera characters like Fred Flinstone, George Jetson, and Scooby Doo. The show eventually ended for good in 1996. The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera became Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast and although the ride structure stayed the same, the storyline was changed to focus on more current Nicktoons such as Jimmy Neutron, Hey Arnold, Rugrats, The Fairly Oddparents and Spongebob Squarepants. Because the television show was declining in popularity the Murder, She Wrote live experience was nixed in favor of Hercules and Xena: Wizards of the Screen. In 1996 the interactive MCA Recording experience was transformed into Stage 54, an exhibit with displays dedicated to current Universal Pictures films at the time including Jurassic Park, Babe, and The Mummy.
As the plans for Universal’s Islands of Adventure came together, the Screen Test Home Adventure was turned into the Islands of Adventure Preview Center. The walk-through exhibit was a sneak peek of the new park, meant to get guests excited for what was to come. In 1998, Ghosbusters Spooktacular was replaced by Twister…Ride It Out. The attraction followed the story of the film led by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, who starred in the movie together. Kongfrontation was still operating in its original form during this time period.
After the long-running Jaws debacle, not much changed in the San Francisco/Amity section for quite some time. Both Jaws and Earthquake: The Big One remained unchanged for several years. An American Tale Theatre was replaced by Beetlejuice’s Rock and Roll Graveyard Revue, a musical stage show starring Bettlejuice and his monster band.
During this transitional period, the World Expo was a land that could be easily passed through, with the only major attraction being Back to the Future: The Ride until 2000 when The Swamp Thing set was shut down in order to make way for Men In Black: Alien Attack. Much like Back to the Future, the Men In Black attraction plopped riders directly into the movie’s plot, recruiting guests to be MIB Agents on the hunt for aliens.
Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone
The biggest change that came with the Universal Studios Escape era was the addition of Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone, located between The World Expo and Hollywood. The part of World Expo that was dedicated to The Bates Motel and Mansion sets was relocated to the KidZone, which obviously needed some more kid-friendly activities. The sets were shut down and replaced with Curious George Goes to Town, which includes an outdoor water playground and other activities for toddlers, and A Day in the Park With Barney, an interactive live show and indoor playground featuring Barney and his friends. The theater that housed Animal Actors on Stage also became part of Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone and the show eventually became Animal Planet Live in 2001. Other attractions in this area include Fieval’s Playland, Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster, and E.T. Adventure.
The AT&T at the Movies attractions closed permanently in 2001, and Hollywood became primarily known for a brand new Terminator themed experience called T2-3D: Battle Across Time. The part live show/part 3D movie’s story was a mini sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Universal Orlando Resort (2002 – Today)
In 2002 the park was renamed again, this time as Universal Orlando Resort. The name change ignited a series of modifications that transformed the Universal into the park we know and love today. Several attractions were replaced, The Simpsons made their way to the park, and the biggest change the park has ever seen took place when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was created.
The layout of Production Central was drastically changed over the 16 years from 2002 to 2018. In an effort to feature more current intellectual property, Alfred Hitchcock became the Shrek 4D attraction in 2003, taking guests on a wild journey to Far Far Away to rescue Princess Fiona from the ghost of Lord Farquaad. Accompanying the new OgreVision powered motion theater attraction was Donkey’s Photo Finish, which took the spot of Stage 54 right next to Shrek 4D. This photo op allows guests to hang with Shrek and Donkey for jokes and silly pictures. Another big change to the area came in 2007, when the theater formerly known as Nickelodeon Studios became a part of CityWalk and the Blue Man Group moved in. The Boneyard was replaced by the Universal Music Plaza Stage in 2008, which hosts several tops artists throughout the year during events like Rock the Universe and Universal Mardi Gras. Although the original ride structure has always remained basically the same, Jimmy Neutron’s Neptune Blast was rethemed again in 2012, becoming Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.
Over the next several years, the New York area saw many different street shows come and go. Streetbusters was replaced with Extreme Ghostbusters: The Great Fright Way in 2002, and eventually all things Ghostbusters were removed from the park. In its place, two all new shows were introduced. The Marilyn Monroe show features Marilyn and her back up singers practicing familiar hits like “Candyman” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the street, and local construction workers take a break to put on a percussion show using their construction equipment in a short performance called Beat Builders. The two new acts, along with the long running Blues Brothers show all take place multiple times daily. If you’ve only visited Universal Orlando for the first time in recent years you many think that the current King Kong attraction is an original, but the park’s first attempt (Kongfrontation) ran from opening day until 2004 when it was replaced with Revenge of the Mummy, an indoor rollercoaster based on the hit Universal film. After one of the most devastating closure announcements for fans of the beloved attraction, Twister…Ride It Out was replaced by Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2017. The motion simulator ride takes riders on a high speed race through New York and beyond with the well known late night talk show host.
The San Francisco section of the park has undergone the biggest transformation since opening day. The Amity portion of San Francisco was completely removed in 2012, along with the staple Jaws attraction in order to make way for the Wizarding World. From 2002 to 2007, Earthquake: The Big One took on a whole new identity as an attraction based on various Universal Pictures movies like E.T., and How The Grinch Stole Christmas before it became Distaster!: A Motion Picture Ride…Starring You! in 2007. Disaster! was very similar to the original Earthquake attraction, but focused on the riders as the star of a movie rather than representing an actual film. In 2015 Disaster! shut down for good in order to be retooled as Fast & Furious: Supercharged, which opened in April 2018. The high energy ride based on the hit action movie takes riders on a high speed chase through the streets with recognizable characters like Dom, Letty, and Hobbs.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opened at the resort in 2014 at Islands of Adventure, where guests can explore Hogsmeade and the infamous Hogwarts Castle. At Universal Studios, Diagon Alley opened in 2014. Upon entrance to the land, you’ll find yourself in the streets of London with recognizable landmarks like 12 Grimmauld Place, the Knight Bus, and King’s Cross Station. If you find the secret entrance to Diagon Alley, you’ll discover a whole new wizarding town, complete with the Three Broomsticks, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, Ollivander’s Wand Shop and so much more. The Escape From Gringotts attraction takes guests on a wild ride through the wizard bank, and you may even stumble upon some dark magic if you find yourself in Knockturn Alley. At King’s Cross Station, guests with park-to-park tickets can hop on the Hogwarts Express for easy access to Hogsmeade and the rest of Islands of Adventure. Between the two portions of the Harry Potter inspired land, Universal made a big step towards creating immersive experiences that are becoming very popular at all the local theme parks.
World Expo has also been through a major evolution since its beginning. With the addition of Springfield in 2008, the only thing really solidifying this area as its own section of the park is the Men In Black: Alien Attack ride which has remained unchanged since its opening in 2000. With all the changes happening in San Francisco, the outdoor theater that housed the Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show is now a part of the World Expo as well. However the show was replaced by Fear Factor Live in 2005, which is also rumored to be on its way out of the park in the next few years.
Springfield: Home of The Simpsons
In May 2008, The Simpsons Ride took the place of Back To The Future: the Ride. A few years following the opening of the ride, a whole new world inspired by Springfield popped up around it. Between 2008 and 2013, the area went from part of World Expo to its own little town with midway games at Krustyland, a Kwik-E-Mart merchandise shop, Fast Food Boulevard, and Kang & Kodos’ Twirl’n’Hurl. Fast Food Boulevard is loaded with Simpsons-inspired dining locations like Krusty Burger, Moe’s Tavern, Lard Lad Donuts, and many more.
Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone
Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone has remained mostly unchanged since its opening, with the exception of Animal Actors on Location replacing Animal Planet Live in 2006. Curious George Goes to Town, A Day in the Park with Barney, Fieval’s Playland and Woody Woodpecker’s NutHouse Coaster are all still operating as usual.
Hollywood remains the least populated area of Universal, especially now that T2 3D: Battle Across Time has officially shut its door. The long-running Lucy: A Tribute walk-through attraction was replaced with the Hello Kitty Store in 2016 and the surrounding area is primarily occupied with souvenir shops and restaurants.