Why The Opening Of Universal Studios Florida Was a Complete Disaster

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 Orlando

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.

Peter Alexander ©TotallyFunCompany

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.

We have George Lucas and Star Tours to thank in part for convincing Steven Spielberg to jump on the theme park bandwagon ©David Buchan/Shutterstock

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.

Banner promoting Universal Studios Florida and its many attractions

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.

Universal Studios Florida’s cast on opening day

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.

Kongfrontation

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.

Jaws promised a terrifying encounter with a great white shark, but that’s not really what happened

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.

Universal watching day 1 of their new park

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.

Back to the Future: The Ride

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.

Halloween Horror Nights is still going strong and draws in tons of fans

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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6 Replies to “Why The Opening Of Universal Studios Florida Was a Complete Disaster”

  1. I was one of 3 guests that was one of their firsts. My grandmother introduced Universal Studios to me and my sister Michelle. I absolutely fell in love with the park which was headlined by “Back to the Future” the ride. I will never forget that very first ride chasing Biff Tannen in the original DeLorean while we all chased him in a prototype 8 seater. By far the best thing I ever experienced 11 years old. Then later visit for Fright Nights Tales from the Crypt! Universal Studios became not just a park but a escape from reality to a park full of fun and imagination. Now I visit every year especially Halloween Horror Nights for 5 days to thoroughly enjoy everything this park offers. Im very proud of the owners of Universal Studios Florida for they have gave Floridians a beautiful gift of fun, thrills, and excellent ride experience of many kinds. Still till this day if I was to choose the house of mouse or the thrills of riding the movies Universal Studios wins. With Universal Studios ever expanding ideas like Island of Adventures, Volcano Bay, hopefully soon Epic Universe this theme park will definitely become one of the Greatest on earth. I have been to many parks and none are as great as Universal Studios Florida. Thank you Universal Studios for changing my childhood forever and gifting me the ride that changed everything Back to The Future the Ride! I will never forget that Amazing day. Thank you so much.

  2. Since we opened back on June 1st, it has been a nightmare. So.ething nobody probably has mentioned is how we have all been exposed at all times due to Team Members and guest that have been positive for whatever reason. I myself was sent home for two weeks due to being exposed to someone that “might” have been positive (information that they can’t say due to HIPA). There are 4 high risk people in my household (including myself) and I came in to work and they dont have the decency to pay us Hazard Pay or even approve any other type of stimulus check as every governor, senator and even the president still continue to get paid as others are suffering due to closures, layoff and furloughs. Universal Orlando Resort, has furloughed and lay off employees that have been with the company for 20 plus years and they were let go like nothing. I heard rumors that Comcast even approved a HUGE check to the parks to pay the employees (like myself) that were home during the quarantine all through October and they still decided to re-open in June. So, if that were true, where is the money? And again, were is my Hazard Pay? Because, as just a regular employee, I risk more than just being exposed as some workers actually decided to not come and came up with excuses to stay home but, my life is at risk, most managers stay in their offices (nothing new), there is lots of favoritism (even though they will lie to your face and say its not true), and some may even say discrimination and racism. Maybe, just maybe someone might read this. And probably nothing will be done… like always.

  3. I believe we visited universal in 1991 or 1992. When we were there, we visited the King Kong ride and the earthquake ride which were both much better and more graphic than anything at Disney but I was waiting for the jaws ride that was heavily advertised. Unfortunately the ride was not available but there was a giant shark hanging that you could get your picture taken Next to. It wasn’t for a couple more years when we returned that we were able to go on Kong frontation, Earthquake and finally jaws. My children were young enough to still enjoy Disney but the bigger rides and so they enjoyed universal much better. I hope to make a return trip to universal to see what all has developed since the early nineties

  4. I loved old Universal Orlando! I remember Back to The Future, Jaws, Kongfrontation, Earthquake (scared out of my wits,) the Beetlejuice show, ET, Casper’s ghostly mansion limited time attraction… My dad used to take my cousin and I a lot as kids (they lived an hour away) when I’d visit. The worst part was standing in line for hours to go on Back to the Future. My favorite memory? Getting to do a tour of Nickelodeon studios in its hey day, seeing sets of some of the game shows, and I think Clarissa Explains It All (though I can’t remember exactly.) I saw the stage door to Keenan And Kel and *almost* got picked for Slime Time Live! And another fun memory – hanging out in the Mardi Gras parade as Backstreet Boys were going by on a float throwing out beads. It WA around 1995 or so. I swear Nick was throwing some beads to me (I was 8,) but a bigger girl shoved me out of the way to get them. So many memories. 🙂 Don’t get me wrong – I love the new Universal, but I really miss the old attractions. Still excited for Nintendo land whenever that happens!