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History of the New York backlot at Universal Studios Florida


I have always found it interesting that the New York City skyline can be seen from the entrance to an Orlando theme park based on a movie studio in California. However, as one of the last few remaining areas of Universal Studios Florida that is themed after a real city, the New York backlot is a criterion of the park. Join me as we take a fascinating look at the treasures that fill its streets!

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

When Universal Studios Florida first opened in the last half of 1989, the art of making movies was much different than it is now. The current pervasive use of digital technology was just starting. And so, for the majority of movie making history, backlots were used to recreate iconic settings and locations. Few cities in the world are as iconic as New York City.

Much like USF’s Hollywood backlot, the New York backlot focuses on the New York City of old, the 1930’s and 40’s. Positioned as the theme park where guests can “ride the movies”, it’s no surprise that most of the details in the New York backlot are based on movie details.

One of the first tributes I came across is located along the backside of the New York backlot, facing Transformers: The Ride 3D. At first glance, the red neon sign of O’Rourke’s Bar & Grill looks like just another New York City Irish pub. However, upon closer examination, I noticed the name Kelly O’Rourke as the proprietor. Any theme park geek knows that a particular name doesn’t appear on a theme park building without good reason, and Ms. O’Rourke is not an exception. Kelly O’Rourke is a character from The Godfather with a pretty tragic story. This particular “bar & grill” is just around the corner from one of my favorite theme park hangouts, Finnegan’s Bar & Grill. Given that character Kelly O’Rourke is from a large Irish family, her fictional establishments fits in with the neighborhood.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

Around the corner is Delancey Street, which is, of course, an actual street in New York City. Practically all of the facades that sit along Universal’s Delancey Street are fictional establishments, including several that are movie or Broadway references.

One of my favorites of these is the Kitty Kat Club. The neon sign is donned by a voluptuous redhead and a martini glass, simply classic. It is easy to imagine the good times that could be found down the steps and through the door. The Kitty Kat Club is a reference to the Kit Kat Klub from the Broadway musical and film Cabaret.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

After a stroll up Delancey Street, I decided to take a closer look at a site I’ve passed by so many times without taking notice: Gertner’s Bakery.

As I snapped a few shots, I became intrigued by the level of detail inside the windows. The intricate displays inside most of the windows on Delancey Street, and throughout the New York backlot, are very well themed to this section of the park. Sure, all the food is plastic and totally screams 1990’s, but the displays are classic and some of the last remaining evidence of the days when theme parks and movies used props and “special effects” you could actually touch, rather than digital projections. The windows of Gertner’s bakery showcase a fair amount of depth. It was difficult for an amateur like me to get a really good shot of the dining room without a lot of glare in the photo. The next time you are in the New York backlot of Universal Studios be sure to sneak a peak through these windows.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

The importance of the real Gertner’s Bakery is that it claims to be the American home of the Danish pastry. Of course, the Danish pastry is a European creation, but Herman Gertner claimed his bakery was the first to introduce the sweet baked good that has now become accepted as a breakfast food here in the states.

Gertner’s Bakery also has the distinction of being a focal point in Jimmy Buffett’s 1994 music video for Fruitcakes. The entire video offers an entertaining look at how Universal Studios Florida was designed to be a backdrop for film production; to see Gertner’s Bakery, just wait 19 seconds into the music video…

Heading back towards the top of the New York backlot, we find the unmistakable gold and turquoise Metropolis Tribune. Such a news publication has not existed; therefore it is only reasonable to believe that this building pays homage to Superman, whose comics exist in the very New York City-like destination known as Metropolis.

On this striking building, you will find nearly every window marked with a name. In true theme park style, the names on the windows are tributes to individuals who had an influence on the park’s history or development. For example, David Winslow is listed as “Technical Editor” on a Metropolis Tribune window. Mr. Winslow is Senior Vice President of Technical Services at Universal Orlando. His window’s neighbor pays tribute to Charlie Gundacker, Senior Vice President of Attractions Development.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

Turning the corner, it is nearly impossible to mistake the purpose of the R.H. Macy’s Department Store façade; it has always been one of my favorite facades in this area. I am a Christmas fanatic and adore “Miracle on 34th Street” (yes, both versions of the film), and Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving without the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. As a girl who grew up in Florida, New York City seemed like a world away. Because of what I watched during the holidays every year, Macy’s became a symbol of New York City.

The displays inside the Macy’s ground-level windows are also worthy of exploring.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

Just across the way from the Macy’s building is a block of residences. This is one of my favorite places to sit for a spell, but there is much to see here as well.

At the top of this block is the Priscilla Hotel. The sign of this facade earns an inquisitive look by those observant enough to see it, as it reads “Priscilla Hotel for Single Young Ladies” (hard not to hear that darn Beyonce song right now isn’t it?). This fictional hotel is from a movie, book, and musical called Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which a young lady moves to NYC is search of a man to marry for money (and now I’m hearing that Kanye West song!).

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

After strolling the residential block, I had to make my way to my favorite alley way.

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The alley in the New York backlot is notable in that it only exists to be explored and enjoyed; it does not lead to an attraction, shop, or restaurant. In fact, the alley’s secluded nature has made it one of the most common places Universal continues to use for film production. There have to be at least two dozen “businesses” that populate the space — far too many for us to explore in this blog post — but we do encourage you to explore them during your next visit.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

After moseying through the backlot area, I strolled along the water and looked across at the annex of the New York backlot: USF’s Central Park. I am not sure something like this exists at any other theme park: a piece of one themed land stretching across a lagoon to the other side.

Central Park is indeed meant to represent the Central Park of New York City, and it offers the same serenity and mild tranquility in the middle of the hustle and bustle as the real thing.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

After walking along the water, I came across a statue that admittedly I had not ever paid much attention to in the past.

Upon closer examination, I learned that this towering figure is of Lew Wasserman. Not to be mistaken with the original founders of Universal Studios, Mr. Wasserman came into the picture at Universal in the early 1960’s when MCA purchased Universal. He is credited with helping to make Universal Pictures bigger and better than it had been in decades. Mr. Wasserman passed away in 2002, and to commemorate the event the New York Times published this compelling story about his life:

“Lew R. Wasserman, the former chairman and chief executive of the Music Corporation of America, who was arguably the most powerful and influential Hollywood titan in the four decades after World War II, died yesterday in Beverly Hills. He was 89. The man considered the last of the legendary movie moguls, Mr. Wasserman began as a theater usher, became a MCA agent for entertainers and eventually changed the face of the movie business. Working on behalf of his film-star clients in the late 1940’s, he put an end to the ironclad long-term contracts that turned even big-name actors into high-paid serfs of the major studios. In the 1950’s, he forced a reluctant Hollywood to accept television, then a new medium, as a potential cash cow rather than as a feared competitor. In the 1960’s, he demonstrated the political influence that Hollywood could wield by organizing huge fund-raising campaigns, particularly for the Democratic Party. And in the 1970’s, his deft marketing of Steven Spielberg’s ”Jaws” and other movies was credited with creating the summer blockbuster.” Continuing reading

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

Two interesting notes about the Wasserman statue: First, only its head is a representation of the man; the body is that of Abraham Lincoln. Second, if you swear you’ve been to the park and not seen this statue, you may be correct — it is removed during the holiday season, so the Macy’s Holiday Parade balloons don’t get tangled with it.

Near Mr. Wasserman, we find another facade, and it is another one of my favorites. “The Hudson Street Home for Girls” brass sign and brick facade represents the orphanage of the most famous orphan of all: Annie.

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

As I strolled the streets on the concrete jungle, with the music of my favorite era of jazz wafting through the air and the occasional Broadway musical number joining in, the scent of Italian food floated on the breeze. For the weary theme park visitor seeking shade and a bite to eat, the sight of Louie’s Italian Restaurant certainly makes an offer that is difficult to refuse.

This restaurant is unassuming to the unfamiliar eye, but anyone who has seen The Godfather knows it well. Here’s a refresher from Wikipedia:

“Soon thereafter, Sollozzo seeks a meeting with Michael to resolve the hostilities. Under McCluskey’s personal protection, Sollozzo meets with Michael in a restaurant. Although Michael is frisked before the meeting, a revolver had been planted behind the overhead tank of a toilet in the lavatory of the restaurant. Michael excuses himself and goes to the bathroom to retrieve the revolver. When he returns, he draws the gun and shoots Sollozzo in the forehead, killing him instantly, and kills McCluskey seconds later.”

From The Godfather. Source

Universal Studios Florida – New York backlot.

As I wrapped up my tour of the New York backlot at Universal Studios Florida, my favorite jazz singer came through on the airways. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Manhattan” put a smile on my face and a sway in my step. The New York backlot is impressive, detailed, and full of more treasures than I could possibly list. So next time you’re in the area take time to stroll and as Ella says “The city’s glamour can never spoil, the dreams of a boy and girl, we’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy!”

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About Dani

Born and raised in the land of sunshine and dreams-come-true, Dani has always had a passion for tourism and hospitality. She is a proud Orlando native who loves sharing her hometown with others. With work experience in theme parks, hotels, and reputation management she brings this background to her freelance writing endeavors. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @thisfloridalife.

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