How Islands of Adventure has Changed in Its 25 Years

How Islands of Adventure has Changed in Its 25 Years

Celebrating 25 Years of Islands of Adventure

This article is a continuation of the history of Islands of Adventure. READ PART I

Universal Studios Florida became a fairly clear and well-established brand since its opening in 1990. However, the addition of Islands of Adventure and resort amenities pushed Universal to change the name of the destination.

The property underwent a drastic rebrand, being renamed to Universal Studios Escape. This new name didn’t catch on with the general public; it was unclear. Was it a new park? Was it just an add-on? People were unsure, and it led to a lot of confusion.

Despite how innovative and creative Islands of Adventure was, the park suffered from the Universal Studios Escape branding. The brand-new park pulled in about only half the projected number of visitors through the end of its first year, 1999. Attendance next door at Universal Studios Florida also dipped.

Under the Universal Studios Escape branding, the resort lost an estimated $100 million. Universal reacted quickly by abandoning the Escape branding in mid-2000 in favor of a clear and concise name: Universal Orlando Resort.

Along with the improved branding, Universal made some adjustments to Islands of Adventure.

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Islands of Adventure’s First Major Changes

Shortly after Islands of Adventure opened, the park was clearly heavy on thrills. Islands of Adventure was criticized for having too many thrill rides and not enough for families to do. So, Universal made some changes.

The first notable additions to Islands of Adventure were a few family attractions. In 2000, the teacup-style Storm Force Acceletron was added to Marvel Superhero Island, and The Lost Continent gained the Flying Unicorn junior coaster, built on a portion of the extended queue for Dueling Dragons. The Cat in the Hat ride was also modified over the years with reduced spinning for a more family-friendly experience.

Also in early 2000, Pandemonium Cartoon Circus became the park’s first noteworthy closure. The defunct stage show lasted only nine months as the amphitheater would host a revolving door of various shows and events going forward. The streetmosphere shows were also scaled back in due time.

By 2001, a marquee attraction in The Lost Continent was heavily reimagined. Poseidon’s Fury was overhauled with a new story and altered effects for an improved guest experience.

In the early 2000s, the park’s transportation boat ride, Island Skipper Tours, closed with no replacement. Around this time, the other lagoon attraction, the nighttime fireworks show, was also phased out.

While the park had some changes and closures early on, Islands of Adventure got festive as well.

Islands of Adventure Gets Festive

In 2000, Islands of Adventure got its first seasonal event with Grinchmas. This wintry spectacular takes place in Seuss Landing with holiday cheer and snark from Dr. Seuss’ famous Grinch story.

Soon after, Islands of Adventure took a darker holiday turn. Islands of Adventure in 2002 was the venue for Universal’s annual haunt event, Halloween Horror Nights. The event was held exclusively in Islands of Adventure for a few years, then spread across the two parks for another few years, before moving back to Universal Studios Florida entirely again. Though short-lived, attendance numbers increased for Halloween Horror Nights during its stay at Islands of Adventure.

The Struggle of the 2000s

Islands of Adventure was taking form in its first few years, but Universal Orlando Resort struggled in the mid-2000s. Attendance was slipping, budget cuts were made, and the resort wasn’t getting many major investments.

During this low period, Islands of Adventure managed to open a new ride. Universal modified the unused track of Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Very Unusual Driving Machines in Seuss landing, opening The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride in its place. This was another family attraction for the Islands of Adventure lineup, but the park was also on the verge of its most important addition yet.

A Magical Change

Universal was exploring possibilities for the undeveloped expansion plots in Islands of Adventure. One considered concept was a revolutionary dark ride using a KUKA arm ride system. The proposed ride would be themed to the Van Helsing reboot, but the idea was eventually shelved.

Van Helsing may not have been the right fit for Islands of Adventure, but Universal had its eyes on a massive franchise yet to be seen in a theme park. The Harry Potter book and film series was sweeping pop culture in the 2000s. The franchise was wildly successful with an imaginative world perfect for a theme parknot to mention, a second chance with Warner Bros.

The franchise’s creator, J.K. Rowling, was reluctant to the idea, similar to Audrey Geisel all those years earlier.

The question wasn’t if Harry Potter would show up in a theme park: The question was when, and who would get the privilege.

Disney proposed a humble concept to fit Harry Potter into Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland. The two parties were ready to move forward as Disney and Rowling reportedly reached a letter of intent. However, Rowling supposedly wasn’t too excited about Harry Potter being in the direct shadow of Mickey Mouse. At Magic Kingdom, Hogwarts Castle would always be secondary to Cinderella’s Castle. Rowling wanted Harry Potter to receive top billing in whatever theme park it ended up in. She also reportedly wanted heavy creative influence.

Thus, Disney and Rowling couldn’t come to terms.

The struggling Universal Orlando, however, was more than willing to accommodate her requests. Landing Harry Potter meant everything to Universal, and its Creative team didn’t hold back. Universal presented Rowling with concepts of a fully immersive land with a technologically groundbreaking attraction unlike anything parkgoers have seen before. The concept matched the magic of Harry Potter. Rowling initially was reluctant, but Audrey Geisel, who had been in her shoes before, helped sway her. Rowling was sold.

Announcing the Wizarding World

In 2007, Universal announced the Wizarding World of Harry Potter coming to Islands of Adventure—the park’s first extensive expansion since opening. The massive $250 million investment would revolutionize themed entertainment.

During development, no detail would be too small. Rowling was very hands-on in ensuring the land was as accurate as possible. Rowling made requests that would make this among the most authentically immersive experiences ever—requests like hiring the films’ production designer, Stuart Craig, as well as insisting no Cola-Cola products were present in the land as to not break the magic.

To make room for the Wizarding World, the Merlinwood section of The Lost Continent was to be removed and adapted. This included the addition of a bypass bridge that went around the former Merlinwood section. Merlinwood’s cornerstone roller coasters, Dueling Dragons, still operated at this time, with a temporary entrance in Jurassic Park. These were the attraction’s final years before being converted to a Harry Potter theme.

Construction on the Wizarding World continued into the late 2000s.

The Wizarding World Opens

In 2010, at the height of the franchise’s popularity, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade opened to the public at Islands of Adventure. Historic crowds showed up for the opening as the resort’s parking garage opened at 5:30 a.m. in preparation of a busy day.

For the first time in person, Universal guests could experience the snow-capped Hogsmeade Village and the magical Hogwarts Castle. It was a dream come true for fans with shopping like Ollivanders Wand Shop and dining options like the overly successful Butterbeer. But as always, the rides were the real attractions.

The former Flying Unicorn junior roller coaster reopened as Flight of the Hippogriff, complete with an animatronic and Hagrid’s hut. The former Dueling Dragons inverted roller coasters reopened as Dragon Challenge, being lightly rethemed to the Triwizard Tournament.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Inside the walls of Hogwarts Castle, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a cutting-edge simulator dark ride. The experience follows Harry Potter and his friends through impressive scenes encountering a Quidditch match, dragons, the Whomping Willow, Dementors, and more.

The KUKA RoboCoaster ride system has a dynamic range of motion to give riders the sensation of flying. Forbidden Journey is a breathtaking experience with practical sets and an effective carousel of video domes that fully immerse guests in the adventure.

Upon opening, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was instantly considered among the best dark rides in the world—much like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man a decade prior. Its intricate queue, deep world building, and advanced ride systems were praised and set the standard for future attractions.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade was a game-changer for Universal. It influenced a massive surge in attendance and rejuvenated the resort, making it a serious competitor in the Orlando theme park market.

Universal capitalized on the Wizarding World, hosting A Celebration of Harry Potter event during select years in the 2010s. The neighboring Universal Studios Florida opened the equally impressive Diagon Alley portion of the Wizarding World in 2014. The new Diagon Alley connected the two parks with the Hogwarts Express train ride, adding a station to Islands of Adventure.

Islands of Adventure Gets New Life

In the years after the opening of the Wizarding World, Islands of Adventure got some TLC and new additions.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which was revered for being high-tech in 1999, was upgraded with high-definition digital visuals in 2012. Also in Marvel Superhero Island, The Incredible Hulk Coaster was completely retracked a few years later in 2016 for a smoother ride experience with enhanced theming.

In 2015, Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure introduced its first dose of the rebooted Jurassic World franchise. Raptor Encounter opened in place of the former Triceratops Encounter walkthrough attraction. Triceratops Encounter—which was renamed to Triceratops Discovery Trail—closed a few years earlier after on-and-off operations.

Next to Jurassic Park, Skull Island: Reign of Kong opened in 2016. The ride uses large trackless ride vehicles in the midst of the action on Skull Island, passing by a highly articulate King Kong animatronic at the end. In true Universal fashion, this attraction is based on a portion of the Studio Tour in Hollywood—now turned into its own ride in Orlando.

In 2017, Islands of Adventure lost a major opening-day attraction: Dragon Challenge, formerly Dueling Dragons. The coasters, which now operated in intervals for safety to avoid dueling, closed to make room for a new Harry Potter experience. That same year, Hogsmeade introduced its first nighttime show: The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle. The iconic Hogwarts Castle would get many different iterations of the projection show over the following years.

In 2018, another opening-day Islands of Adventure attraction closed: The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad stunt show. The theater, however, wouldn’t be removed as it would be used as the extended queue for the upcoming Wizarding World ride.

Hogsmeade got a significant addition in 2019 with the opening of Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. The coaster flies through the Forbidden Forest in a story-driven journey with animatronics, a record-breaking seven launches, and many surprises along the way. Its estimated $300 million price tag made it the most expensive roller coaster built at the time, surpassing the $100 million Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Soon after in 2021, Islands of Adventure opened another world-class multi-launch coaster: Jurassic World VelociCoaster. This apex predator of coasters reaches a blazing top speed of 70 mph with a 155-foot-tall top hat element and a high-speed Mosasaurus roll just over the park’s lagoon. The queue’s animatronics and other storytelling effects set up the heart-pounding coaster.

And most recently, in 2023, the already downsized Lost Continent area lost its final attraction: Poseidon’s Fury. This former opening-day attraction closed with no replacement in sight; it’s still standing in the park’s 25th year of operation as a reminder of the possibilities that are on the horizon.

The Adventure Lives On

Universal Orlando’s second gate came together through a roller coaster of circumstances. A forgotten cartoon world and a failed marketing escape shaped the park early on, but Islands of Adventure turned into a truly exceptional place. It’s a quilt of mismatched themes that meld together perfectly with the unifying sense of adventure. The park’s creators went above and beyond to produce a place that inspires and influences, even 25 years later.

It inspired a generation of parkgoers and fans to live the adventure every single day. It influenced the theme park industry to create bigger and better experiences. Without the Wizarding World, Disney probably wouldn’t have built Pandora – The World of Avatar—and so on and so forth.

Islands of Adventure elevated Universal Orlando Resort to the destination it is today. It has also paved the way for an epic theme park that’ll be here before we know it.

Despite changes over 25 special years, the original spirit of Islands of Adventure pulses throughout like a heartbeat. Lingering remnants from 1999, small nods to the past, and a future as bright as Pharos Lighthouse itself remind us all that the adventure lives on.

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