Creating Universal Islands of Adventure

Creating Universal Islands of Adventure

An Adventurous Past for an Epic Future

Universal Orlando Resort is on the verge of an epic expansion with its newest theme park, Epic Universe, on the horizon.

All eyes are on the highly anticipated park as it inches closer toward its opening day. While Epic Universe is a park unlike any other, Universal has been here before—exactly 25 years ago.

That’s when an underdog studio theme park instantly became a multi-day destination. That’s when Universal Orlando opened its revolutionary second gate.

Let’s rewind and take a celebratory journey through the first 25 years of this special park: its peaks, valleys, changes, and influences. This is the story of Universal Islands of Adventure.

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Universal Heads East

Out of the mid-20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood took its iconic Studio Tour in a new direction. The active film studio added blockbuster show scenes, such as the famous Jaws Experience, to its backlot tram tour. These new scenes elevated the tour as an increasingly popular attraction in Southern California.

MCA Inc., the operating company of Universal Studios, began exploring the possibility of building a similar location in Central Florida. This was on the heels of Disney’s newfound success on the East Coast with its second theme park resort, Walt Disney World. Orlando was proving to be a viable theme park destination; MCA noticed and wanted in.

MCA made a $4.5 million plunge in 1981 by purchasing several hundred acres of land in Central Florida for its future movie studio tour complex.

Universal Studios was soon joining the theme park capital of the world and suddenly in direct competition with Walt Disney World. Disney had been cooperative with other Orlando theme parks in the past; however, under the ambitious leadership of its new CEO, Michael Eisner, Disney would not be as welcoming this time around.

In 1985, Disney announced its plans to build a third Orlando theme park—a different type of Disney theme park: a movie studio park. Sound familiar? This was Universal’s welcome to Orlando.

Disney-MGM Studios was criticized for being similar to the soon-to-be Universal Studios. Michael Eisner has been alleged of seeing Universal Studios Florida’s plans in a pitch meeting during his tenure at Paramount Pictures.

Regardless of how and why, Disney was securing the market before Universal Studios had a chance. Disney accelerated construction on Disney-MGM Studios to open first. It was a full-on arms race. Both companies were motivated to outdo the other. The competition pushed for bigger and better experiences as Disney exceeded its $300 million budget, and Universal upgraded its plans to include several fully fledged rides; this competition would become a trend.

In 1986, MCA in partnership with Cineplex Odeon Corp. announced the upcoming Universal Studios Florida. Construction for the $600 million theme park was underway.

[Universal Studios Florida] will successfully compete with any other theme parks that might seek to mimic or capitalize on the highly successful experience we have developed at out Universal Studios Tour in Los Angeles.”

– Sid Sheinberg, MCA president

Universal Debuts in Orlando

Fast-forward a few years: Right after Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990. Florida’s newest theme park was a place where guests could see the stars and ride the movies. However, its debut was not all glitz and glamour.

Universal Studios Florida’s opening day was infamously plagued with technical issues, ride malfunctions, a power outage, and thousands of guest complaints. Major attractions were either problematic or unavailable. The opening was so disappointing that Universal issued a number of complimentary return tickets.

Visitors would have a reason to return over the park’s first few years. Headlining rides were overhauled as Universal Studios Florida improved steadily. These tweaks were only stepping stones for the property; a year after Universal Studios Florida opened, executives were already exploring significant growth opportunities.

The Second Gate: ‘Project X’

By 1991, Universal executives were workshopping ideas to turn the standalone Florida theme park into a multi-day destination. The expansion was heavily centered around a second gate, known as “Project X,” set to neighbor the existing Universal Studios Florida.

In its early stages, Project X was a new direction for Universal. It wouldn’t be another movie studio theme park, especially considering Universal Studios Florida never fully became “Hollywood East” as intended. Rather, the new theme park in concept would cater to families vacationing in Orlando.

The Universal brand, however, had one problem with this idea; it was missing a roster of family-friendly characters. Properties like Jaws and Back to the Future were great for action rides, but Universal needed new, family-friendly faces; Universal needed partners.

Universal Gets Its Toons

When developing Project X, Universal Florida met with several potential partners about licensing outside characters. Universal in 1991 struck a deal to land the characters of cartoonist Jay Ward and reportedly was in talks with Warner Bros. to license its deep catalog of characters.

Universal also contacted Audrey Geisel, the widow of the author known as Dr. Seuss. Geisel was protective of her late husband’s legacy. As a result, she was originally not interested in Universal’s request to put Dr. Seuss’ work in a theme park. Geisel assumed the result would be carnival quality, but she didn’t realize Universal was going above and beyond.

Universal was not wanting to resort to backup characters. The company was persistent and eventually pitched the idea to Geisel’s literary agent. He was impressed and swayed Geisel to come see for herself. Universal gave Geisel the red carpet treatment, flying her out, hosting a Seuss banquet, and pitching the impressive concepts. After much convincing, she agreed, allowing the use of the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss in Universal’s future theme park.

Project X Becomes Cartoon World

Meanwhile, Universal had been hard at work incorporating the newly acquired characters into an extravagant theme park called Cartoon World. The concept would put guests into a cartoon world—as the name suggests—with many themed areas based on Looney Tunes, DC Comics, Jay Ward, and Dr. Seuss.

The headlining attraction of the Looney Tunes land would be the Coyote Canyon Roller Coaster, based on the explosive escapades of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Other characters represented in the land would be Bugs Bunny; the Duck Dodgers, featuring Daffy Duck and Marvin the Martian; as well as Sylvester and Tweety.

Another Warner Bros. land would be the DC Comics area, sectioned off into Metropolis and Gotham City. Metropolis’ E-ticket attraction was a state-of-the-art Superman 3D dark ride. Planned for Gotham was a Batman Vs. The Penguin pair of inverted dueling coasters, a Joker wild mouse-style coaster, and a Batman stunt show.

The Jay Ward area, featuring characters like Popeye as well as Rocky and Bullwinkle, had a few planned water rides. One blue-sky concept was for the land’s anchor attraction: a log flume called Dudley Do-Right’s Great Northwest Sawmill. The ride featured an ambitious effect that split the ride vehicle in half before the big drop.

The Dr. Seuss area had a few notable attractions, such as a Cat in the Hat dark ride, an interactive play area called the Noisarium, and a concept for a Grinch junior coaster.

Developing a Full Resort

A brand-new second theme park was only part of Universal Florida’s impending expansion. Universal was planning to overhaul its Florida property, giving guests a reason to extend their visit. On the horizon were additions like on-property hotels, an entertainment complex, and parking structures—nearly doubling the size of the property.

The destination would soon become a full-service resort, tentatively named Universal City Florida.

Universal Florida finally seemed to have a positive future after its opening-day snags. Behind the scenes, however, the negotiations with Warner Bros. unraveled. Universal and Warner Bros. allegedly could not agree on royalties; Warner Bros. reportedly pulled out of the deal in 1993, meaning Universal no longer could use properties such as Looney Tunes and DC Comics.

Thus, Cartoon World was shelved.

Losing Warner Bros. was a massive loss, but Universal Florida was still fixed on expansion. Its second theme park was still on the table—a park more immersive, high-tech, and story-driven than anything before.

Islands of Adventure Emerges

With Cartoon World now in the past, Universal was quick to change its plans for a second gate.

By the end of 1993, Universal had the replacement themes and tentative rides for its new park already selected. By 1994, the park was officially in development. The park would, “Take the industry to another level,” according to Mark Woodbury, chief creative officer.

The team of designers, engineers, technical coordinators, show producers, and many more got to work—not to mention a little help from the new park’s creative consultant, Steven Spielberg.

Hold Onto Your Plans

One of Spielberg’s blockbusters was an early keystone theme for the new park. Back in late 1990, Universal in partnership with Spielberg began developing a Jurassic Park attraction—years before the movie hit theaters. The ride was being built for Universal Studios Hollywood, also coming to Universal Studios Florida at some point. However, after Cartoon World fizzled and Universal needed replacements, Jurassic Park was considered for the new theme park.

And so it began: A Jurassic Park land was on the way. Possible attractions were to include the boat ride that was already in development as well as short-lived concepts such as a helicopter simulator and a Jurassic Jeep ride. These attractions were deferred for future expansion.

A Super Idea

Without Warner Bros., Universal was once again looking for new characters to license for the theme park. No Warner Bros. meant no DC superheroes, so Universal sought an alternative by reaching out to another comic book giant: Marvel Entertainment Group. Universal and Marvel came to an agreement, and legendary superheroes such as Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk were headed to Orlando.

Remnants of Cartoon World

Not all of Cartoon World was completely dead in the water; Universal retained the rights to cartoon properties from Jay Ward and King Features Syndicate. Universal also looked into using properties like Hanna-Barbera, Nickelodeon, The Simpsons, and Peanuts—all of which did not last long in development.

Another carryover from Cartoon World was the stories and characters from the mind of Dr. Seuss. One of the land’s Seussian planned attractions was Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Very Unusual Driving Machines, which was a bumper-car-style attraction on an elevated track.

A Land Where Myths are Retold

Universal’s new theme park was mostly based on existing IPs; however, one of the lands would have original concepts based on ancient myths and legends.

Over the years, this land has been the source of an exaggerated rumor, alleging that a group of former Imagineers created this land by borrowing canceled Disney concepts from the never-built Beastly Kingdom at Animal Kingdom. It’s likely a tall tale—though an interesting one.

Anyhow, headlining the land of myths and legends would be a set of intertwining coasters known as Merlin’s Duelling Dragons (stylized as “Duelling” early on). In a similar theme, a show called The Magic of Merlin was also planned.

Another major attraction was Journey to Atlantis: a special effects show. Guests would enter an astounding nautical drill that emerged from the shores of the park’s lagoon. The name Journey to Atlantis, however, clashed with an upcoming SeaWorld Orlando attraction of the same name. Universal eventually renamed and revamped the show.

Another attraction concept was Curse of Pharos; Egyptian imagery was seen in an early version of the park’s logo.

Islands of Adventure is Announced

All those lands, all those stories, all those characters—the park’s wide variety of themes properly earned it the name Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. Coincidentally, all the themes had connections to literature: comics, novels, legends, and storybooks.

Because the elements were so disparate with Dr. Seuss and Jurassic Park, that’s where we got the concept of islands.”

– Dale Mason, director of creative development

Rumors about the new park were rumbling; confirmed details to this point were all behind closed doors. Islands of Adventure—developed under the creative direction of Mark Woodbury, Dale Mason, and many others—was inching closer toward a grand reveal.

In early 1997, Universal made it official to the public by announcing Islands of Adventure, opening in 1999. In two short years, the next generation theme park would open its gates. But, it wasn’t ready yet.

There’s a tremendous amount of creativity and innovation wrapped up in the new park...We will be redefining what it means to have fun.”

– Tom Williams, president of Universal Florida

Following the announcement, guests could get a sneak peek of the new park at Universal Studios Florida in the Islands of Adventure Preview Center. Anticipation was building. To tease the newly announced Islands of Adventure, the largest hourglass ever constructed welcomed guests as they passed through the parking garage hub.

Building an Escape

Universal Florida was undergoing a $2-plus-billion overhaul to turn the property into a resort. This shifted the entire property from a solo theme park with a simple parking lot out front to a complete vacation destination. Universal Florida added everything under the sun: a new theme park, hotels, an entertainment district, and a parking structure.

It was more than a face-lift; it was a whole new identity. Thus, the entire resort was rebranded to Universal Studios Escape.

All I want is a level playing field...We’re going to gain market share.”

– Tom Williams, president of Universal Florida

Islands of Adventure was becoming more than concepts and blueprints; it was under construction—a world of fantasy becoming reality. The engineering and technical achievements were massive undertakings, but the themes and stories were front and center throughout construction. If the story is to be believed, the first piece installed at Islands of Adventure was an obscure piece that had no reason to be installed first except theming. It was a pair of two Dr. Seuss characters, the Zax, who in the story refused to budge when they crossed paths; they stubbornly held their ground while civilizations were built all around them. True to their character, the Zax stood still while all of Islands of Adventure was built around them.

Theming was prioritized that much for this park. There was even a team dedicated to collecting props from around the world—like windmills from Holland, wagons from Mexico, a school bus turned taxi from India, and much much more. Every world-building detail mattered, all down to the multi-million-dollar soundtrack produced for the park.

The resort’s transformation took five years of planning and development. In compassion, Universal Studios Florida was launched in only three and a half years. Universal learned hard lessons after the problematic opening of Universal Studios Florida; however, for Islands of Adventure, the company was taking its time, spending eight careful years from concept to opening.

The park was eventually ready for a soft opening on March 27, 1999. This two-month preview period was a chance to get the park fully up to speed before opening to the public. During this time, the park held its press preview as Steven Spielberg made a dedication; the ceremony was a spectacle with giant inflatables and a sample of the park’s thrills. Also then, Rosie O'Donnell hosted a week’s worth of her daytime talk show from the park.

The technical rehearsal time was slightly extended as Universal pushed the park’s grand opening back a few weeks. Universal was making some finishing touches; the adventure was only just beginning.


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