Universal's Lost Boat Ride: Island Skipper Tours at Islands of Adventure

Universal's Lost Boat Ride: Island Skipper Tours at Islands of Adventure

A Waterbound Adventure

A park characterized by the spirit of exploration, taking journeys into fictional worlds. While the park’s lagoon is now marked with white-knuckle inversions and the rippling reflection of Hogwarts castle, it once had a boat ride cruising across from end to end—a part of an opening-day attraction that wouldn’t stay afloat for long. All aboard for the defunct and abandoned voyage of Island Skipper Tours.

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Entering an Adventurous World

Located in the theme park capital of the world, Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened May 28, 1999. Guests start their day at the theme park by passing the Pharos Lighthouse and walking through the park’s gates into an area called Port of Entry—a Main Street-esque land with heavy exotic theming that feels as if it has been there since the beginning of civilization. Among shops, restaurants, and details galore, the land leads to the park’s waterfront known as the Inland Sea—a vista for the many islands guests could visit and venture through. Here was Port of Entry’s sole attraction: Island Skipper Tours.

Much like the defunct Plaza Swan Boats at the nearby Magic Kingdom or the short-lived Discovery River Boats at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this was a free-floating boat transportation ride that would take guests on a trip across Islands of Adventure’s lagoon.

The journey started in the queue, which was a continuation of Port of Entry’s fantastical theming. Guests waited in a small series of switchbacks that sloped down to the dock while the attraction’s original soundtrack played. Passengers would board one of three eccentric boats.

The Three Skipper Boats

The Boatney

The first was called The Boatney, which repurposed a heavily decorated school bus on pontoons. Its yellow frame around the top had the words “TAXI AGUA,” translating to “water taxi.” With elaborate paintings and a trunk at its rear, Boatney was ADA-accessible by use of its power lift.

Tropic Trader

The second boat, Tropic Trader, looked like a 19th century sailboat. With a traditional look, its sails and size made Tropic Trader difficult to navigate, according to skippers.

Sam Plane

The attraction’s third boat, known as the Sam Plane, was themed to look as if it were powered by an old airplane engine, including a rotating propeller. Its Jerry-rigged appearance with reclaimed parts gave Sam Plane a lot of personality. In fact, though each one-of-a-kind, that’s what all three boats had in common—character. Their distinctiveness looked like the residents of Port of Entry built them by hand.

The Ride Experience

Aboard, guests took a one-way trip that lasted about a little over five minutes en route to the attraction’s destination: Jurassic Park. Along the way, the boat’s skipper, wearing a tropical shirt, spieled through a script pointing out the park’s landmarks and attractions of interest such as the Jurassic Park Discovery Center and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. Each of the three boats had a unique script that skippers followed.

Riding Island Skipper Tours offered a different vantage point of Islands of Adventure, floating by areas where there were no pathways. At the end of the ride, guests arrived at a dock in Jurassic Park near the Discovery Center. They were met by a small sign that read “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” Interestingly, the John Hammond and Ian Malcolm characters from the park would ride the first boat of the day with guests to Jurassic Park; this of course was when the characters were actually available in the park.

Guests could board the ride in Jurassic Park too, taking them back on a one-way trip to the Port of Entry docks. The queue in Jurassic Park had different theming that matched the area with a forested path. The ride coming from Jurassic Park to Port of Entry had a different spiel.

Skipper Tour Trivialities

Island Skipper Tours was planned to have a third dock in Toon Lagoon. However, it was never fully realized, though the infrastructure was built. Skippers used this dock to park the boats if needed.

The attraction’s dry dock for maintenance and fueling was located behind Seuss Landing. In order for the boats to get there, the park has an operating draw bridge between Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent.

A Voyage Cut Short

Island Skipper Tours added to the park’s charm with imaginative boats bringing a dynamic element to the Inland Sea. It brought the lagoon to life and sparked the sense of adventure Port of Entry and the park were built on.

After being open for two years, Island Skipper Tours closed indefinitely July 15, 2001. It reopened seasonally in 2002 for spring break, but that would be the final confirmed time the attraction was in operation. Universal had seemed to move on from one of Islands of Adventure’s opening day attractions.

Issues with the Attraction

Although intriguing, the ride wasn’t practical to keep open for a number of reasons. Most notably, the attraction was expensive to maintain especially considering its relatively low ridership. The boats were fully operational, requiring fuel and upkeep due to wear and tear and mechanical repairs—those costs add up.

Additionally, the attraction wasn’t able to run on a regular basis. It had to be shut down during rain and thunderstorms, which are frequent in Central Florida. This in many cases was for hours at a time—hours that skippers were on the clock with nothing to do except wait to reopen.

Even when the ride was operating, it had to close at 2 p.m. on weekends so the park could prepare the lagoon for its nighttime firework show. With fireworks barges in the lagoon, skippers changed uniforms in the early afternoon and were assigned to work at other attractions in the park—mainly the Jurassic Park Discovery Center. This was a hassle logistically and had the ride in a non-operational state on the park’s peak days.

The attraction was also relatively low-capacity, meaning that for the guests who wanted to use the boats to get to either the back or the front of the park, the experience could take 30 or more minutes from when they got in line until they got off the boat. Simply put, most guests could comfortably walk faster through the compact, easy-to-navigate park compared to the time it took to wait for and ride a boat.

The entrance for the Jurassic Park dock was not on the main pathway. It was secluded and off the beaten path; thus, the attraction experienced low guest flow, and Universal didn’t see the value in keeping it in operation.

Universal’s trademark for the attraction’s name was officially canceled some years later on March 3, 2007. The ride’s docks sat abandoned and forgotten—without a replacement, Island Skipper Tours retired as Port of Entry’s only ride.

Remnants of the Defunct Boats

In the years since, the docks and queues for Island Skipper Tours have been abandoned in plain sight with no hope of reopening.

In 2008, Islands of Adventure was on the verge of changing forever—Universal started work to bring the magic of the Wizarding World to life; to allow for construction without interrupting park operations, the park built a bypass bridge over the lagoon. The structure blocked water access to the disused Jurassic Park dock. If Skipper Tours were to ever reopen, this would have been an issue.

Guests were unsure at the time whether the bridge were temporary or permanent, and rumors started spreading in 2010 after the Wizarding World opened that Island Skipper Tours may return in wake of attendance skyrocketing with the addition of Harry Potter. Prep work such as cleaning and painting was seen on the two defunct queue and dock areas, but ultimately nothing came of it. The docks would receive light refurbishments and maintenance work for years to come, though the queue in Jurassic Park would become overgrown and modified for backstage use.

Later in the decade, Universal began work on their newest Jurassic attraction: VelociCoaster. While the dock was briefly used for a small boat during construction, the Island Skipper Tours dock and queue area in Jurassic Park were destined for demolition to make way for the new coaster—another opening day attraction officially made extinct.

With the land cleared and construction moving ahead, Jurassic World VelociCoaster became a cornerstone coaster when it opened in summer 2021. Its iconic and intimidating Mosasaurus Roll hangs over the same water once passed by Boatney, Tropic Trader, and Sam Plane.

As of 2021, the ride’s queue and dock can still be found in Port of Entry. It’s left mainly intact over 20 years later with some of the same decorations that were there as a part of the ride in 1999. For example, the post and frame for the former sign that once read Island Skipper Tours still stands. While guests can’t enter the former queue, it can still be appreciated from a distance.

Countless guests cross the once-used drawbridge every day in between Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent with the compartment for its controls going unnoticed and the canal toward the dry docks flowing in memory of a short-lived attraction.

In 2022, Universal Orlando Resort sold a limited-release print of the Tropic Trader boat. The other two Island Skipper Tours boats were not featured.

Today, guests can still ride boats between some of the on-site hotels and CityWalk—the only experience remaining that is close to what Island Skipper Tours once was. Not forgotten, Island Skipper Tours is remembered and admired to this day for capturing the essence of Islands of Adventure.

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