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Unearthing Jurassic Park’s past, present, and future


In a park filled with lands that overflow with detail and discovery, one of the most inviting is none other than Jurassic Park. At a little over 20 acres, it is the largest island at Islands of Adventure, containing one of the biggest arrays of attractions and some of the most atmospheric theming, from the lush vegetation to John Williams’s iconic soundtrack playing continually in the background.

Given this, it may come as no surprise that Jurassic Park has had a long and storied development throughout its 16 years at Universal Orlando, though most of this has happened behind the scenes, in the constant brainstorming sessions held in the storied halls of Universal Creative; out front, in full view of the public, its roster of experiences has been amazingly consistent. Still, given the staying power of the intellectual property and the arrival today of its long-awaited fourth film installment – it’s called Jurassic World and has a theme park at the heart of its premise, in case you haven’t heard – there’s been something of a small flurry of activity at the island, enough to rejuvenate interest in the primordial corner of the park for the decades to come.

In honor of these recent developments, it only seems appropriate to take a little tour through the land that has been 65 million years in the making, taking stock of what’s come before and analyzing what’s new.

In the beginning
Director Steven Spielberg became fascinated with the idea of making a film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s wildly successful novel a full year before it was even published, back when the two collaborators were discussing another famous project (a little television series called E.R.) in the fall of 1989. It is somewhat ironic and fully fitting, then, that Universal sought to create a theme park attraction of the property a year before the movie even hit theaters; in this original conceptualization, the ride was to have been placed in Universal Studios Florida, in the expansion pad that ultimately ended up being utilized for a little attraction called Men in Black: Alien Attack (which, in yet another instance of irony, was developed in order to still make USF relevant in the face of Islands of Adventure’s grand opening in 1999).

The first proposal for the Jurassic Park ride was to base it off of the jeep tour featured so prominently in Spielberg’s picture, but by the mid-‘90s, the design had evolved to become a water ride – called, appropriately enough, Jurassic Park: River Adventure – which would allow Universal the opportunity to kill two pterodactyls with one giant stone: it could find fidelity to Crichton’s original book by being loosely based on a river chase that didn’t survive the adaptation process from page to screen, and it would allow Universal Studios Florida the opportunity to compete with Disney’s already-mega-popular Splash Mountain, which had just been exported to Magic Kingdom in 1992.

(Another incredibly intriguing concept that got cut early on in the development process: River Adventure’s original climax would’ve involved a live actor who, according to the Goddard Group, the designer of the attraction, “would attempt to evacuate riders before falling victim to a startling raptor attack” – a twist that Universal just may have resurrected for the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which is currently being built next door.)

As concept work continued on Islands of Adventure, it was ultimately decided that Jurassic Park could be done far more justice with the new park’s far bigger footprint. By 1996, when the ride first bowed at Universal Studios Hollywood – called, simply, Jurassic Park: The Ride – it was announced that JP would be one of the six islands opening the park.

The lost attractions
In addition to River Adventure, a series of children’s attractions debuted when Jurassic Park first opened its doors in 1999: Discovery Center, a collection of various “exhibits” for kids to interact with; Camp Jurassic, a play area; and Pteranodon Flyers, the only ride at the park to have a wait time longer than the headliner Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, thanks to its amazingly low throughput (and despite its restriction that the only adults who can ride it are the ones accompanied by a child).

While all four of these experiences have gone untouched over the past decade-and-a-half, there are two that have, unfortunately, gone the way of the dinosaur (please excuse the pun). The first of these is actually the only one to have absolutely nothing to do with the IP itself: Island Skipper Tours, which was a series of boats that would ferry guests from Port of Entry to JP, all the way on the other side of the park. The shortcut ended up being an incredibly short-lived one; after only two years of operation, Universal cut the “tours,” citing the expense of fueling and maintaining the boats.

(Pro tip: the dock for Island Skipper Tours still stands, near the Discovery Center, providing a nice, quiet area with picturesque views of the lagoon and the rest of the park. Stopping here for a brief respite from the push of crowds and the dangers of dinosaur attacks is always a good idea.)

Inspired by a scene from the original film, Triceratops Encounter – the second of JP’s extinct experiences – was a walk-through attraction that allowed guests to get up close and personal with a triceratops in her pen that was brought to life through the magic of audio animatronics and the interaction of a real-life team member.

Curiously, Universal had something of a love-hate relationship with Encounter, keeping it open as a full-time member of the land’s roster until only 2003, with it reopening seven years later as a strictly seasonal affair (i.e., when the park got too busy and the company needed to do something with all those throngs of people) and with an on-again-off-again name change to Triceratops Discovery Trail. By 2012, Universal decided to quietly retire the stop for good; by 2014, the AA dinosaurs were dismantled and removed from the scene.

(Sadly, Triceratops Encounter isn’t the last of the area’s features to be taken down; in July 2014, as work started to heat up on Reign of Kong’s construction right next door, one of the two iconic Jurassic Park archways was removed, along with the giant tyrannosaurus rex photo op next to it. Although the gateway has yet to reappear – and, no, we still don’t know whether it will be brought back – the T-Rex already has, popping up not too far away.)

The new attractions
Over the years, Universal Creative has come up with several different proposals to either replace its closed attractions or to take advantage of the ample expansion room that was initially built into this particular corner of Islands of Adventure (though that pesky King Kong has now taken up a good chunk of it). Ranging from the original jeep adventure concept to a wooden family roller coaster and pretty much everything in between, none of these proposals ever ended up getting off of the ground.

Just in the last year-and-a-half, however, two new experiences have managed to arrive on the scene, and though these are far smaller in scope than, say, a hypothetical coaster that plunges passengers through amber mines, they speak to the new thematic tack that Universal is looking to take with all of its properties across the entirety of its resort.

First up is the collection of carnival games that was forced to move from The Lost Continent when that island lost even more of its real estate to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade and its brand-new train station. The games consist of Dinosaur Dash-Up (water race), DNA Sequencing (balloon popping), Target Training (air gun shooting), InGen Egg Nursery (fishing), and Hammond’s Hot Shots (basketball) – all fairly standard, but all also appropriately themed. And given that they all took up the slice of land formerly dedicated to the long-obsolete River Adventure overflow queue, the carnival games are an inventive solution to Universal’s real estate (or lack thereof) problem – something which the company has been doing more and more of recently, from Kang and Kodos’s Twirl-‘n-Hurl to Volcano Bay.

The newest experience to be had at Jurassic Park arrived, not coincidentally, just in time for Jurassic World’s grand release: a raptor meet-‘n-greet, which has just been installed in the former Triceratops Encounter area and which provides guests their only opportunity to come face-to-face with dinosaurs without having to get soaking wet on River Adventure.

Much more than just filling a blank slate on the map, the new Raptor Encounter allows Universal to take a bigger step into the character meet-‘n-greet arena, which has proven to be such an increasingly massive success for Disney over the past two decades. It also, of course, allows the company to engage in a little cross-company marketing synchronicity without having to invest literally millions of dollars and months of construction time in a new ride – always a plus, particularly when it doesn’t want to compete with King Kong’s imminent arrival next summer.

Beyond all of that, however, is the promise that “plusing” the area holds for every other section of the resort, from Lost Continent to World Expo – just as the new wand experiences have allowed a breath of fresh air into the Wizarding World, look for similar interactive features to be deployed everywhere else over the next few years, adding a whole new layer of attractions for guests of all sizes and ages.

And just imagine what that could look like at a brand-new, state-of-the-art water park…

What should Universal’s next move be at Jurassic Park? Tell us all about it in the comments below.


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About Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz is the former editor of Orlando Informer.

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