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Complete Guide & History to Universal Studios Florida

Welcome to Universal Studios Florida, where you will go behind the scenes, beyond the screen, and jump right into the action of your favorite movies. Universal Studios Florida is the world’s premier movie and TV based theme park.

This page includes a history of USF, common misconceptions, and a description of the park’s layout. When you are done here, use the navigation links at the top or bottom of the page to continue your training.


The gates of Universal Studios Florida.

Universal Studios Florida – a history

CONCEPT
In December 1986, MCA, Inc. and Cineplex Odeon Corp., two movie industry masters of the time, announced a joint venture to open a studio and entertainment complex in Orlando, Florida. Going by the name of Universal Studios Florida, it was scheduled to open in 1989 and was expected to be styled in a method similar to MCA’s Universal Studios Tour in California. The complex would be built on a 414-acre plot previously owned by MCA, would cost an estimated $500 million, and would feature live shows, filmed demonstrations, exhibits, and a number of famous movie sets and streets for guests to tour. Additionally, it would also have studios for filming motion pictures and television shows.

This development marked MCA’s second attempt at undertaking such an endeavor – five years previously, in 1981, the company had announced initial plans to bring the studio tour to Florida, but these later fell through due to funding issues. This time, however, it caught the attention of Disney, whose Walt Disney World Resort had been operational in Orlando since 1972; not long after MCA’s latest announcement, Disney World’s third theme park was unveiled: a movie backlot initially called Disney-MGM Studios (which was subsequently renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios). For this reason, Universal Studios Florida’s new press release was very vague, revealing little-to-no details about its size, estimated cost, or slate of attractions. “There’s a lot we’re not telling you,” Sid Sheinberg, President of MCA, said. “We don’t intend to knowingly help the competition” (Vaughan, 1986).

Sheinberg went on to defiantly state that USF would “successfully compete with any other theme parks that might seek to mimic or capitalize on the highly successful experience we have developed at our Universal Studios Tour in Los Angeles” (Cieply, 1986). Disney, of course, responded gracefully to the challenge, stating that it looks “to every new attraction that draws vacation and convention visitors to Central Florida as an ally in bringing more people to greater Orlando, in general, and to Walt Disney World, in particular. We therefore welcome anything MCA does to benefit Orlando as a benefit to Disney” (Cieply, 1986).

So began what many entertainment and amusement industry experts referred to as the “battle of the titan.” Surprisingly, the opening of the backlots by both companies drew more attention than the coming battle for tourism dollars; Orlando residents began referring to the city as “Hollywood East,” and local media started reporting that the region would become a major player in the motion picture industry.

As Universal Studios Florida prepared to open on its new release date of 1990, word of its soon-to-come attractions began to spread throughout the state and the industry. Guests at the new movie theme park would experience screeching birds from the mind of Alfred Hitchcock, be shaken by King Kong, attacked by JAWS, survive an earthquake, and fly on bicycles to E.T.’s planet. These experiences and thrills would skillfully immerse visitors into their favorite films, truly making it a “movie-themed entertainment complex” where its guests could “ride the movies.”

OPENING DAY
Days before Universal Studios Florida opened to the public, Steven Spielberg, who served as the facility’s creative consultant, discussed the concept with a correspondent from NBC’s Today: “This is an actual working studio. […] This isn’t just an amusement park, you know. First and foremost, this began with soundstages, post-production facilities, television facilities… It’s a combination of a park and an amusement park and a working motion picture studio” (Gumbel, 1990).

On May 21, Universal Studios Florida soft-opened to tourists and local residents, who were able to purchase nearly half-price tickets – just $15.95 – due to the fact most of the rides and a few of the park’s shows wouldn’t be open to guests right away. According to reports, even the shows that were working would likely be rough versions of the hopefully-polished final versions, as they would be altered and rearranged based on the reactions of guests who attended the soft opening.

Two weeks later, the park’s grand opening took place at 8:00am on June 7, 1990. Steven Spielberg, James Stewart, Michael J. Fox, Bill Cosby, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Wagner, Morgan Fairchild, Anthony Perkins, Sissy Spacek, and Beau Bridges all joined MCA executives for the ribbon cutting of the $630 million complex, and they were also present at various locations in Universal Studios Florida throughout the day. A time capsule that included the knife and shower curtain from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, along with a number of other objects was buried with the intent of being dug up and opened in 2015, on the park’s 25th anniversary.

Despite the fanfare, opening day at Universal Studios Florida was not one for the record books. In the words of the Orlando Sentinel, “[t]hey came, they stood, they left mad” (Meehan, 1990). Visitors found that three of the park’s major attractions – Earthquake: The Big One, Kongfrontation, and Jaws – were not operational at all. And though the technical issues with Earthquake and Kongfrontation were settled by the end of June 1990, the Jaws attraction suffered from persistent technical problems. In late September, the ride was closed for a nearly complete overhaul and did not reopen until three years later.

THE 1990S
While Jaws was being rebuilt, other changes were happening throughout the park. In May 1991, Back to the Future: The Ride, a $40 million motion simulator, opened. Though the ride had been in operation since February of that year, an official opening date was not announced until it was consistently running smoothly. Five months later, Fright Nights – which would be rebranded as Halloween Horror Nights in 1992 – had its grand kickoff, for a whopping total of three nights only.

By 1995, after only a few years of operation, Universal Studios Florida started to transition away from being a working backlot; during that fall, the Production Studio Tour, a tram tour that led guests throughout the production facilities, closed due to filmmaking inactivity. Instead, the resort opted to more fully embrace its theme park elements, toiling to acquire more appealing new experiences to replace the already-aging older ones. This rollout happened in quick succession: Terminator 2 3D: Battle across Time, an all-new attraction in an all-new show building, opened in 1996; in 1998, Twister… Ride It Out displaced Ghostbusters Spooktacular and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone took over much of World Expo’s land, introducing the likes of Fievel’s Playland and Curious George Goes to Town while retaining E.T. Adventure; and, finally Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster debuted in 1999.

THE 2000S
This decade saw a number of further, more fundamental changes, shaking up the array of attractions and relegating the moviemaking focus to the background. MEN IN BLACK: Alien Attack debuted in 2000 (Universal’s attempt to keep guests interested in the older Universal Studios Florida after the brand-new Islands of Adventure theme park opened next door the previous year), while Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast, which replaced the Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera, and Shrek 4D, which took over Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movie’s former digs, both followed in 2003.

But the biggest development of that decade was the closure of three opening-day (and hugely beloved) rides: Kongfrontation, Back to the Future, and Earthquake: The Big One, which were replaced by Revenge of the Mummy (2004), The Simpsons Ride (2008), and Disaster: A Major Motion Picture Ride… Starring You! (2008), respectively. The (generally) older, slower dark rides making way for a (generally) new breed of thrill rides was a key part of Universal’s decision-making process, but the change was also largely accounted for by the company’s vow to keep its roster ever-changing – in direct contrast to Disney’s desire to have its classic attractions be open permanently.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLOIRDA 2.0
The current decade is one unprecedented in Universal’s history as a theme park operator, thanks to the unbridled success of the 2010 Harry Potter addition to neighboring Islands of Adventure. With a huge influx of capital and media attention the world over, NBCUniversal and its brand-new owner of Comcast quickly decided to essentially rebuild all of Universal Studios Florida, addressing the one persistent complaint guests had with the park since day one: Universal Studios Florida would go from being a half-day experience to a multi-day adventure.

Leading the charge were Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, which replaced Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast, and the company’s first-ever daily parade, the Superstar Parade, in 2012. Transformers: The Ride 3D followed in 2013, after the shortest build time ever for a major theme park attraction (just 12 months). But that year’s far more interesting development was the creation of the park’s very first themed land. In contrast to the park’s traditional “backlots” of Hollywood, New York, and San Francisco, where films and TV show are produced, The Simpsons’ town of Springfield USA became a “land” where a film and TV show was experienced (in this case, the The Simpsons). It featured a brand-new ride (Kang and Kodos’s Twirl-n-Hurl), new restaurants (Duff Gardens and Lard Lad’s Donut Shop), the rehabilitation of an older venue (the International Food and Film Festival was transformed into Fast Food Boulevard, featuring the likes of Krusty Burger and Moe’s Tavern), and, of course, new shops. Springfield is largely expected to be the working model for all Universal parks for the remainder of this decade and on into the next – even though this means that Universal has finally, completely given up on the filmmaking angle of its experiences.

The epitome of this new fully-themed approach is, of course, the 2014 opening of Universal’s new Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, which has taken over the former Amity/JAWS area. On the one hand, this is a far bigger and much more realized version of the Springfield template, sporting new eateries (the Leaky Cauldron, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor), shops (Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment), and, of course, rides (Escape from Gringotts). On the other hand, however, this expansion pushes the theme park model to the very next level: The Hogwarts Express train connects both areas of the Wizarding World, Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, bridging multiple geographic locations together in one themed experience for the very first time anywhere in the world.

The future? It’s just as bright. Universal has formally committed to spending somewhere around $500 million each and every year at both Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood for the foreseeable future. Coming in 2016 is a facelift for The Incredible Hulk Coaster, a brand new King Kong ride for Islands of Adventure, and an additional 1,000 room on-site hotel (Sapphire Falls Resort). 2017 boasts an even grander lineup of a Jimmy Fallon and Fast & Furious attractions coming to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s innovative water theme park, Volcano Bay, opening. That’s not to even mention the confirmed Nintendo land that will eventually make its way to the resort or the inevitable phase three of Harry Potter.

Though many changes have transformed Universal Studios Florida throughout the years – ranging from the dismantling of its major film and TV production to the inclusion of fully-themed lands – the park has consistently remained true to its tagline of allowing visitors to “ride the movies.”

Universal Studios Florida – misconceptions
The biggest misconception about Universal Studios Florida is that it is like the theme park in Hollywood. This is definitely not true. Universal Studios Hollywood is a major film production studio that has a few major rides on the side. Its rides and other attractions are fun (in fact, it has a few of the same ones as Universal Studios Florida), but the park’s largest draw is the backlot tour and the experience of being on-set. Universal Studios Florida is just the opposite: the Orlando park features a wide variety of rides, attractions, and shows like the Disney theme parks, and on the side it may have a film or TV show in production.

The second misconception is that there is nothing for kids to do at Universal Studios Florida — it’s all thrill rides. This is actually a misconception about all of Universal Orlando. While Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure certainly are geared toward adolescent and adult theme park visitors, there is plenty of stuff for younger children to enjoy. Check out our Visiting Universal Studios Florida with kids page for more information.

Universal Studios Florida – layout
USF is made up of seven lands surrounding a lagoon. (This is a good time to get your maps out.) As you enter the park, walking straight brings you to the Production Central backlot. At the end of Production Central you take a right and enter the New York backlot, then on to the San Francisco backlot. On your left after exiting San Francisco backlot is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. Swinging around the far end of the lagoon, you next walk through World Expo (home to The Simpsons Springfield USA), Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone, and finally through to the Hollywood backlot and to the park’s turnstiles. There is no right or wrong way to go around the lagoon. However, most people do in fact go straight into Production Central check out Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and Transformers.