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Disney Accidentally Designed, then Destroyed Universal’s Best Land Ever. This is the Full Story.

Changing Tides

So we’ve been chasing two threads there:

  1. By the mid-1990s, the “studio” park concept was already showing its age, and plans for Animal Kingdom helped redefine what the next generation of parks would look (and most importantly, feel) like.
  2. When Eisner axed Beastly Kingdom from Animal Kingdom’s lineup, Imagineers considered it the last straw after an era of cost cutting and fled the company and took their cancelled designed with them.

Here’s where our two plot lines converge.

Image: Universal

Though Universal Studios Florida had opened in 1990, it seemed doomed to be nothing more than an aside. If Universal was lucky, it could draw guests away from Disney World for a meager day trip. And to be fair, Universal didn’t try very hard to court Disney’s demographic anyway, mostly relegating its ride lineup to blockbuster disaster rides where earthquakes, apes, sharks, and dinosaurs attacked mercilessly.

And just like at the Disney-MGM Studios, the fall of the “studio” theme had hurt Universal. Even less than a decade from opening, its park was feeling stale creatively and in terms of content, with rides that recalled movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and significantly less that you might call “timeless.”

But Universal had a plan.

Image: Universal

Though industry fans may have been quick to write Universal off as a non-issue, fated forever to operate nothing but “studio” parks filled with boxy showbuildings and second-class dark rides, Universal’s ambitions were a little more adventurous. They had plans to transform their single, solitary studio park into one piece of a much larger, master-planned resort. Sure, they’d add a handful of concierge-level resort hotels, a dining and shopping district of their own, and mega-infrastructure to tie it all together, but the pièce de résistance would be simple: a second theme park.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure

Just as the design and development of Animal Kingdom ramped up, Universal was hard at work on designs of their own. And when Beastly Kingdom went belly-up, Universal greeted Disney’s disdained Imagineers with four industry-changing words:

Build it here instead.

Image: Universal

Universal’s Islands of Adventure was dreamed up, designed by, and built by Imagineers who’d fled Disney’s cost-cutting ways. And in this second gate for Universal, they would prove what they could do with a little faith and trust… no Pixie dust required.

There, Universal would dispense entirely with the cop-out “studio” style, soundstages, lighting rigs, and behind-the-scenes motif. Their second gate would meet, match, and – in places – exceed Disney’s standards, crafting immersive, cinematic themed lands. Rather than seeing how movies were made, at this new theme park guests would step into them, becoming adventurers thrust into the adventure, action, comedy, thrill, wonder, and whimsy of their favorite stories.

Click and expand for a larger view. Image: Universal

And anyone who’s been to Universal’s Islands of Adventure can tell you: it truly is an amazing park. From the frantic streets of Marvel Super Hero Island (featuring a ride so prolific, it earned its own in-depth entry here – Modern Marvels: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man), to the dense jungles of Jurassic Park; the pastel shores of the delightfully-designed Seuss Landing and the comic pathways of Toon Lagoon…

In Islands of Adventure, Universal had assembled a world-class lineup of intellectual properties (and most importantly, all timeless and sought-after ones) that could coexist in a new prototype park layout (“islands” arranged around a lagoon) that now feels as second nature as Disneyland’s hub-and-spokes format. Endlessly adaptable, Islands of Adventure feels fittingly “classic,” “current,” and “forward-thinking” all at once.

Image: Universal

Perhaps guests’ first inclination that this park would rival Disney’s creative dominance begins at the very gates with the park’s entry land – its “Main Street” equivalent – Port of Entry. A kinetic seaside port village composed as if by all cultures of the world coming together, this trading outpost is so packed with detail, it would take a day to take it in.

It also happens to feature what may be one of the most gorgeous and thoughtful park icons ever: the towering Pharos Lighthouse, composed of ancient red brick and a slight slant, looms over the port, its vibrant beam circling the park each night.

Port of Entry would be the perfect fit for this park – one of dissimilar parts coming together to form a complete piece. But even it wouldn’t be the landmark creative icon of a new, 21st century park… So what was?

The Lost Continent

Seuss Landing, Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, and Jurassic Park each bring to life the stories, settings, characters, and adventures we recognize from picture books, comic books, the Sunday funnies, and feature films. But the sixth land at Universal’s Islands of Adventure was a bit different.

As you leave the whimsical waves of Seuss Landing behind, a bridge over an arm of the Great Sea appears ahead. It’s made of dark wood bolted with metal rivets and chains – a distinct departure from the curving, cartoon world of the Sneeches. And across that bridge stands a stone sentry: an unusual creature with the head and wings of an eagle, the gripped claws of a lion, and the coiled, scaled tail and fins of a fish. A flaming torch embedded in the guardian’s pedestal draws the eye to this unique land’s name: The Lost Continent.

Image: Jesse Means, Flickr

Uneven planters made of red rock spill over with wild plants and shrubs that give a decidedly untamed look to this entry plaza. But now, the path curves to the left. The Lost Continent is divided into three distinct realms of legend, and the path from Seuss Landing leads to an amazing sight in the first.

Are you ready to experience the three fantasy realms of The Lost Continent? Our walkthrough begins on the next page…

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There are 5 comments.

It's a shame that there don't seem to be many photos of the Merlinwood area, particularly inside the Enchanted Oak and Dragons queue. I remember both fondly. The Dragons queue now just seems boring in comparison to how it used to be.

What a crazy, twisted story! I knew the details about all these lands separately, but never thought about how closely they are all connected.

I always feel a pang of sadness when I think about what could have been with Beastly Kingdom. As beautiful and immersive as Animal Kingdom is, it could have desperately used a few more rides and a little more "Disney" whimsy and storytelling. I know I would have loved Beastly Kingdom, maybe even more than any other land at WDW.

However, if following the logic above, the construction of Beastly Kingdom may have resulted in the Wizarding World never being built. Or at the very least it could exist in an entirely different capacity than it does today. As a HUGE Potter fan, that is a tough pill to swallow.

If only there was a world where we could have both...

On the other hand, though I am not at all invested in the Avatar franchise, I am very much looking forward to experiencing Pandora at Animal Kingdom. I have been floored so far by all the pictures and videos I have seen. This land looks like the next level of immersive theming, which I think will make up for the underwhelming source material.

An incredible story very well written. I absolutely adore the Dueling Dragons and have no idea why it isn't as revered as the Hulk. I enjoy them more actually. When they dueled was especially awesome. Seeing the other "dragon" line up with you in the lift hill was something unique and fun. The queue itself was something to really behold. Best queue hands down in the history of theme parks. Did you know that there was very slight whispering in the catacombs section? I learned one day when it was slow and I ran ahead and there was noone else around. Really awesome touch that I'm sure very few people realized. Why in the world would Universal want to get rid of it? (if the rumors are true) Also does anyone know what the incident was in 2011 that caused Universal to mismatch the coasters?

I found this on a wiki page. "Dragon Challenge Edit
Main article: Dragon Challenge
On July 1, 2009, an employee was walking underneath the coaster in a restricted area when he was hit by a train during a test run. The victim suffered multiple head injuries and was taken to a nearby hospital.[2]

On July 31, 2011, a tourist was injured when an unidentified object hit him in the eye while riding Dragon Challenge. Prior to the incident, the guest had only one good eye, therefore the incident resulted in the guest completely losing his sight. Dragon Challenge remained shut for less than 24 hours after the incident with Universal concluding that the ride was safe.[3][4][5]

On August 10, 2011, a rider was struck by an object while riding the attraction, injuring his face and leg. As a result of this and the aforementioned incident in which a rider lost sight in one eye, Universal officials announced that the two roller coasters would no longer operate simultaneously, pending an investigation into both incidents.[6] In October 2011, officials suspended the dueling aspect of the ride permanently."

I remember back in 2002 starting the day at I.O.A on the verandah of the Enchanted Tavern overlooking the lake. Now sadly gone but it encaptured the whole feel of that Land. Sights, sounds and smells as the sun rose above the treeline and the excitement of the day ahead coursed through our veins.
I much prefer Lands that have the capacity to develop organically rather than the trend of the " all eggs in one basket" policy.
No doubt Potter is popular and Avatar looks amazing. But they have limitations. A more fluid themed Land has endless scope and can be more readily tweaked and changed. Just my opinion of course.

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