On June 7th, 1990, after six months of delays, Universal Studios Florida opened to an anxious public. The stars, about 20 cartoons, and 50 humans came out just for the occasion. Any doubts of the park’s success were allayed by creative consultant and de facto emcee Steven Spielberg as he cut the celluloid ribbon: “We’re really happy to be here in Florida and we’ll be here forever.”
By the end of the day, forever sounded a lot more optimistic – one in every ten guests asked for a refund or rain check. Kong refused to perform. Jaws kept biting boats. An early morning power outage calmed Earthquake. And those are just the famous breakdowns – E.T. Adventure racked up two-hour lines over technical difficulties too mundane to report. The only thing that worked reliably was live entertainment, but the park’s biggest crowd-pleasers were still months, if not years away.
No Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show. No American Tail Theater. No Blues Brothers, at least not in their current stomping grounds. And though Beetlejuice was already stinking up the place, he had no Graveyard or Revue.
The early history of Universal Studios Florida has been exaggerated, forgotten, and, in some cases, rewritten outright – the souvenir VHS tape, Experience the Magic of Movies, free-associates the first few years into a park that never actually was. Most theme park scholars know Back to the Future: The Ride came late to the party in 1991, but fewer realize just how little there actually was on day one.
Without counting the Boneyard, the Marx Brothers, or similarly line-less amusements, Universal Studios Florida opened its gates with a lucky 13 rides and shows. The majority of that inaugural line-up would last at least the decade, but this list is not about any eventual legacies. The following rankings weigh the attractions only as they existed that balmy Thursday in June and the tumultuous summer thereafter.
The commercial called it “The Greatest Hollywood Production Ever.” Consider these the biggest scenes, from worst to first.
13. Production Tram Tour
The eleventh-hour addition lands at thirteenth place.
Universal Studios Florida wasn’t supposed to have a tram tour. Early plans that hewed closer to the Hollywood blueprint were scuttled when Disney announced a strangely similar marquee attraction for its own studio park. To counter the alleged, if never prosecuted theft, Universal literally doubled down, bumping the project’s budget from $200 to $500 million.
Who needs a tram tour when all of Universal’s signature showstoppers like King Kong and Jaws are getting their own rides?
Universal, the fledgling theme park conglomerate then famous only for a tram tour, needed a tram tour. Thus, with a few borrowed “ride vehicles” from the parking lot, the Production Tram Tour was born.
Anyone who rode it or pushed a stroller out of its way should already know the Tour was a hasty addition. Simply put, the park was not designed to have a ten-ton train constantly snaking through it. The street sets were built wide enough to accommodate full film crews, but those also came with barricades and other guest-restrictive measures. The trams had two defensive maneuvers to fight foot traffic – slow down or weave. All the while, those onboard stared at slow-moving scenery they already walked past twice that day. The other half of the tour gave them an intimate look at the backside of soundstages.
Favorably, the Production Tram Tour gave the park a little more backlot magic. Honestly, it was something to do when everything else broke. It closed in 1995 as the park’s first major casualty. Most visitors couldn’t tell the difference.
12. Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre
When Universal Studios Florida opened, Murder, She Wrote was smack in the middle of its celebrated 12-season run. There was no better time to christen it with a theme park attraction and, given the show’s nature, the Mystery Theatre was about as good as any adaptation could get.
Like its Disney-MGM counterpart, the Monster Sound Show, the Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre broke the postproduction process down into easily digestible, audience-participatory chunks. To its credit, Universal’s show had more chunks.
As executive producers, guests could observe (and occasionally sabotage) picture-lock editing, Foley sound effect recording, and dialogue looping. Piece by piece, Angela Lansbury’s park-exclusive mystery came together, plus or minus a detour to make King Kong roar.
The Mystery Theatre was a reliable people-eater. The post studios operated as separate theaters, each taking a full crowd simultaneously before cycling them onto the next.
In function, the show was a life saver. In form, it was the least exciting show in the mix. Not that the intrepid Jessica Fletcher is to blame – the eventual Hercules and Xena replacement also tried and failed to make sound editing fun as a team sport.
Bonus points awarded for being one of only two attractions aimed primarily at adults. The other one fared better in the rankings.
11. Animal Actors
A monkey does a loop-de-loop. What more do you want?
Although the mammalian cast has shrunk over the years – the primates and horses wanted too much money – the bulletproof appeal of Animal Actors remains unchanged. It’s fun to watch cute things do cool things. So it was and so shall it be.
Like the Mystery Theater, this amphitheater swallowed crowds whole. It didn’t have air-conditioning but it did have shade, seats, and TV’s Lassie. Proof of its popularity can be measured by magnetic tape – no attraction earned more home video footage than Animal Actors.
It places so low only because everything else places higher; no disrespect to the Jagger-impersonating orangutan, but there were far grander thrills in store. Grander apes, too.
10. The Phantom of the Opera Horror Make-Up Show
There was and perhaps remains no more potent example of the Universal Studios Florida spirit than the variously named Horror Make-Up Show. The original incarnation, dedicated to the original Universal monster, played fastest and loosest with good taste.
A disembodied head begged for its life until the audience cheered loud enough for one of the hosts to put a bullet in its brain. The topic of blood squibs was illustrated with footage from Scarface. There were condom jokes. And that’s not counting the everyday viscera.
Compared to any existing standard of theme park entertainment, let alone in Orlando, the Horror Make-Up Show was punk rock. Tourists unsold on the difference between Disney and the new guys just needed a good stab-wound demonstration to understand. Only one travel destination showed eager crowds how to make a Brundlefly abomination and did before their very eyes every 20 minutes.
Crucially, even to this day, Horror Make-Up served as an easy-going and infectious ambassador for Universal’s storied genre history. Guests could meet Frankenstein in the rotting, green flesh on Hollywood Boulevard, but the lifecast that rendered his legendary face was hanging right there in the Pantages lobby. For monster kids and the monster kids at heart, it was and remains the promised land. For anyone still skittish about the red stuff, that was the point – it was rated PG-13 and everything.
Horror Make-Up was an educational geek show, peeling back the latex to reveal the fun and games behind blood and guts. With the Phantom preshow, Jeff Goldblum beast, and fresh b-roll from the golden age of practical effects, it was as strong as it’d ever be. Now, it’s the closest thing Universal Studios Florida has to a historic landmark.
9. The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera
Youngsters have never been Universal Studios Florida’s strong suit. Expansions like Curious George Goes To Town and replacements like Shrek 4-D at least leveled the playing field, but the current kiddie slate is an embarrassment of riches compared to opening day. There were, charitably, three attractions aimed directly at the littlest guests.
Of those three, The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera got the fewest billboards and served the quietest function. Graded on the curve of that first summer, Funtastic was as reliable as rides got, a blessing for park brass and a curse for guests – for once, long lines nothing was broken. The preshow included a brief lesson in animation courtesy of the guys with their names above the…