by Pete Werner, Founder/Webmaster
With its grand opening in 1990 - Universal Studios Florida became the first real challenge to Disney's dominance of the Orlando tourism market. But the now famous rivalry between the two mega-destinations didn't start in Orlando - for that, we need to go back to the early 1920's.
It is well known that Walt Disney’s inspiration for Mickey Mouse came when he lost the rights to his first creation, Oswald the Rabbit. What’s less known is who he ultimately lost those rights to – Universal Studios. Universal was the distributor for the ‘Oswald the Rabbit’ shorts, and when they failed to agree to Walt Disney’s demands for more money, Walt walked away and Universal had sole rights to Oswald. That experience was the foundation of Disney’s insistence that he would never again license any of his creative property, especially his replacement for Oswald – Mickey Mouse. So, in a way, Disney fans have Universal to thank for just about everything that happened after that.
The first incarnation of a Universal theme park happened in Hollywood, and was attached to the soundstages at the heart of Universal’s movie empire. What once began as a simple backstage tour through the Universal lot in 1962, eventually grew to become a full fledged theme park. It was the success of that venture that inspired Universal to eventually invest the princely sum of $250 million in 1990 to launch an east coast version of its theme park – this one designed to challenge Disney head on. But Disney had plans of its own. In the planning stages for the park, Universal sought out a partner to help minimize its financial risk – one of the company’s it approached was Paramount Studios, and one its most promising executives – Michael Eisner. While Eisner passed on the project, he remembered what he saw. Once Eisner took over the reins at Disney, he was determined to beat Universal to the punch. Plans for the Disney-MGM Studios were hurriedly assembled, and despite Universal’s year long head start – the Disney MGM Studios opened before Universal was able to open its gates. How you ask? Easy – it’s called the Reedy Creek Improvement District – a quasi-governmental agency that Disney controls that issues all the building and zoning permits that Disney requires when it undertakes any kind of new construction. Not having to go thru the usual channels for permits, it was able to open up its movie-inspired theme park ahead of Universal.
When Universal Studios Florida first opened in 1990, it had its fair share of problems. Several of its A-List attractions, including Jaws and Kongfrontation had technical glitches and long lines that had people leaving the park vowing to never return. It was so bad at points that managers were handing out vouchers for free tickets as angry guests stormed out of the park. It took some time, but Universal eventually overcame its inauspicious launch and became a real player in the Orlando theme park market. Jaws, Kongfrontation, and E.T. were among the parks biggest draws in those days (and still are, with the exception of Kongfrontation which was closed in 2002 to make way for “Revenge of the Mummy”).
Since then, Universal has become very good at creating top notch, A-List attractions – Simposons, Terminator 2: 3D continues to be one of the parks most popular attractions. Men in Black – Alien Attack is another perennial favorite along with Twister: Ride it Out, The Revenge of the Mummy, and Shrek 4D (one of the most entertaining 3D attractions you’ll ever experience).
By 1996, it was time for Universal to consider expansion. They had learned a lot since 1990, and they knew they had the talent to build an extraordinary theme park – but they understood that if they really wanted to challenge Disney, they needed to do more than just add a few rides; they needed to transform their singular theme park into an entire resort destination. They also understood the importance of getting it right this time, so they reached out to industry heavyweights, including Steven Spielberg (who assisted with the original Universal Studios Flordia park), as well as hiring away some of Disney’s top imagineers. The plan called for a new theme park (Islands of Adventure), an upscale resort hotel (Portofino Bay) and a dining and nighttime entertainment district (CityWalk). In 1999 – Universal Studios Escape (eventually renamed Universal Studios Orlando) was unveiled. In 2000, a second hotel, The Hard Rock Hotel was added, and in 2002 – The Royal Pacific Hotel completed the plan.
Thanks to this major new expansion, the tourism downturn that nearly decimated most of the industry in 2001 and 2002 had little impact on Universal, as people were drawn to such mega-hit attractions as The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk coaster and Dueling Dragons. CityWalk almost from the start replaced Pleasure Island and Church Street Station as the preferred nighttime destination for Orlando locals, offering clubs that were more ‘hip’ and in some cases, a bit more upscale. While CityWalk was derided by some Disney fans as a rip off of Pleasure Island, the fact is that the original CityWalk at Universal Hollywood pre-dates Pleasure Island by more than 5 years. It was Disney that ‘borrowed’ the concept from Universal, not the other way around.