Orlando, Florida, is considered by most people the theme park battleground because of the rivalry between Walt Disney World and the Universal Orlando Resort. With two theme parks, a water park, a shopping and dining district, and another epic theme park on the way, Universal can certainly satisfy as an alternate thrill destination to the more kid-friendly Disney.
Universal may be a contender now thanks to a certain boy wizard, but once upon a time they were the new kid on the block.
Let’s set the way-back machine to what feels like a lifetime ago, the year of 1990, to check out the grand opening of Universal Studios Florida and why it was a complete and utter disaster.
Although the concept of a Floridian Universal Studios goes back to the early 1980s, it wouldn’t be until Totally Fun Company founder Peter Alexander was approached by Steven Spielberg with the idea for a simulator ride based off of Back to the Future that the project really starts to take off. Alexander at the time was already working with Universal on the animatronic for the King Kong portion of the Studio Tour in Hollywood.
MCA, who owned Universal at that point in time, was looking for a partner to help finance their own Florida project. Spielberg was so impressed with Alexander’s work (and had a vested interest because of a supposed rivalry he had with George Lucas) that he agreed to co-found the new theme park.
Universal Studios Florida would be designed from the ground up as a theme park and working production studio. Universal looked at their popular Studio Tour segments from the Hollywood park and decided to develop each of them into their own stand-alone attraction. Spielberg got his Back to the Future simulator ride (which would not arrive by opening day) and a family-friendly attraction based off E.T. greenlit as well.
The year before Universal staked their claim in Orlando, Disney World opened its own version of a movie studio park with Disney-MGM Studios. It promised guests a chance to take a peek behind the curtain of movie-making including a tram-guided tour through real production facilities. Sound familiar?
Disney beat Universal to the punch primarily because of numerous technical and construction delays related to the majority of the park’s attractions. The Universal Studios grand opening was pushed back several times to correct the issues until finally the date of June 7, 1990, was decided on.
This date would eventually turn into Universal’s own version of Black Sunday (Disneyland’s disastrous opening day). Crowds swelled the new park, and long lines became the name of the game. Universal Studios Florida opened with 12 attractions, with only five being actual rides.
Of the five rides, the headlining Kongfrontation, Earthquake, and Jaws all opened in technical rehearsals. A few hours before park opening, the system controlling the effects in Earthquake shorted out. Kongfrontation also faced problems with its giant gorilla animatronics, but the real loser of the day was Jaws, which was forced to close for the rest of the day due to thunderstorms.
Universal had been heavily promoting these three attractions as the big headliners of their new park, and guests were obviously not happy that they didn’t get to ride. Add to that a lack of good communication from Universal and the Florida heat, and guests started to come unglued.
By the end of the day, Universal was giving out refunds to any disgruntled guests. Opening day had been a disaster, but MCA must have seen this as a challenge because they set about quickly making changes to the park.
Kinks were ironed out on the old rides (except Jaws which had to be completely rebuilt), the park began a “second day free” campaign, and the park would debut Back to the Future: The Ride and a short Halloween event called Fright Nights, which eventually morphed into the fan-favorite Halloween Horror Nights event that is still running today.
Though opening day was definitely not what Universal or guests had pictured, the park was now on its way to surviving and thriving. MCA had acted swiftly and tactfully to keep their new baby alive, and that’s why we can all now sit back and watch the ongoing theme park tennis match between Disney and Universal today!
Did you visit Universal in its early days? Share your memories of the park in the comments below!
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