"Listen, SCOOP – crime reports are coming in from all over the city and I'm starting to get worried..."
Frequent readers here at Theme Park Tourist are likely familiar with our Lost Legends series – a growing library of in-depth features that tell the complete stories of forgotten fan favorites and closed classics across the globe, from Magic Kingdom’s Alien Encounter to Disney California Adventure’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and everything in between in our fan-favorite Lost Legends Library.
But this summer, we’re launching a brand new series that aims to take a detailed look at living legends; the innumerable rides around the globe that can only be described as Modern Marvels. We want to examine the history of these must-ride wonders and go for a ride, seeing why these sought-after experiences are so celebrated and beloved by fans.
We kicked off our series by soaring out to Hong Kong Disneyland for a ride on what some call Disney’s best ride ever, Mystic Manor, and then unearthed the ancient curse behind Revenge of the Mummy. But when it comes to Marvels, our next stop has to be a ride that garnered so much enthusiasm, it’s credited with reinvigorating the Orlando market and redefining the genre of rides that would follow.
We can only be talking about The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the thrilling and groundbreaking dark ride that debuted alongside Universal’s Islands of Adventure – "the most technologically advanced theme park in the world" – in 1999.
So today, we’ll get the inside scoop on this brilliant attraction, see the almost-unbelievable story of the completely different hero who almost starred in it, and step into our own SCOOP to face the Sinister Syndicate with our friendly, neighborhood web-slinger. But with Spider-Man nearby, trouble can't be far away... "And you know what trouble means: headlines! National coverage! So don't screw this up! I mean, uh... good luck."
Disney v. Universal
Despite stories that make it sound like a centuries-old feud, the supposed rivalry between Disney and Universal (and particularly their Parks & Resorts divisions) wasn't kicked into high gear until the late 1980s. That's when Universal began moving forward with plans for an Orlando-based movie studio park... and when Michael Eisner swept into Disney as CEO and quickly rush-ordered a movie park of his own. The Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989 – a year before Universal Studios Florida. But it wouldn't be the last time the two giants would face off...
Pretty quickly, though, a dichotomy was clear: the addition of the Disney-MGM Studios assured that Walt Disney World remained a multi-day "Vacation Kingdom" for families with young children... and if the family had older children, too, they might add on a single day at Universal Studios Florida up the road. After all, a day at Universal Studios was relegated mostly to (impressive and blockbuster) rides wherein guests were outright terrorized by killer sharks, giant apes, Terminators, ghosts, gunfire, and dinosaurs... a trying and tumultuous day for parents of youngsters.
But MCA Inc. – then-owners of Universal – had a plan: codename "Project X." Even from the early 1990s, they began to toy with the concept of a second park joining the Studios, establishing Universal as a multi-day destination in and of itself, just like Walt Disney World.
They turned, in part, to a preeminant figure within the themed entertainment industry: Gary Goddard. Goddard was, at the time, head of the Landmark Entertainment Group that had worked closely with Universal to develop the original King Kong Encounter in Hollywood, not to mention leading the charge on the groundbreaking Terminator 2: 3D. And as plans for "Project X" took shape, he was also leading the development of Universal's Jurassic Park: The Ride in Hollywood.
Now, Goddard and his peers were tasked with drafting compelling rides utilizing external intellectual properties that could rival Disney's dominance in the family market. After all, if Disney had stolen Universal's "studio" concept for their third park, then Universal would counter by using Disney's bread-and-butter: cartoons.
Universal Studios Florida would've been joined by a new neighbor: a second park called Cartoon World. An incredible collection of attractions was devised by the Goddard Group (among others) for this spectacular second gate, and luckily for industry enthusiasts, much of it is available thanks to the reporting of Josh Young and our friends at Theme Park University.
What we know is that Universal would reach beyond its own intellectual property in order to accumulate enough stories to populate an entire park with timeless characters, impressive dark rides, and plenty of family fun. Entered via the Loading Dock of a "Comic Strip Factory" (where we'd see our favorite 'toons clocking-in to start the day) and an ensuing "Main Street" packed with anthropomorphic Jay Ward character environments (from Rocky and Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman), this unique park would've placed themed cartoon lands in a Magic Kingdom style layout.
The Northwest Mining Camp (themed to Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right, above), Popeye's Island, The World of Seuss, and Warner Bros. Looney Tunes Land would pack the park with beloved, generations-proven sights, sounds, and stories.
Whimsy and wonder were on the menu... except in Cartoon World's sixth cartoon realm. There, action and adventure would rule over a comic book cityscape of heroes and villains, police sirens, epic encounters, and good and evil. That's right – MCA would acquire the theme park rights to truth, justice, and the American way: DC Superhero Land.
MCA's executives invited Goddard and others to begin crafting theme park attractions based on Seuss, Warner Bros. and DC Comics even before a contract had been signed. Rather, it was hoped that robust, quality attraction renderings (like a proposed Batman & Robin Action Adventure Spectacular ski-show, above) would help sell their respective right's owners on the benefit of a partnership. So Goddard got to work on developing his ideal DC Superhero Land...
The Amazing Adventures of Superman
Gary Goddard had always loved DC, and set to work designing the DC Superhero Land. Naturally, he designed the land to be one of extremes: one half of the land, Gotham City, would the "dark side of Superhero Land," themed to the gothic, gritty, industrial city (closely modeled after the Tim Burton / Michael Keaton films) of Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, Batman.
Goddard's plans for The Joker's Madhouse attraction had guests enter into mix of haunted house, carnival, and walkthrough to access a wild mouse style roller coaster / dark ride combination with an elaborate post-show of "twisted" carnival rides for thrill-seekers.
BatWing, meanwhile, would've been a suspended twin coaster face-off between Penguin and Batman wherein riders would choose either the Pen-O-Wing track or the BatWing track. The inverted coaster would then dart along the streets of DC Superhero Land, racing together and then diverging to burst through showbuildings before "dueling" at key points along the coasters' tracks.
The other half of the land, Metropolis, would be the "city of light," themed to the Art Deco architecture of Chicago and New York in the 1930s – home to Superman. It's here that guests could enter the glimmering glass skyscraper of the Daily Planet and become field reporters aboard a cutting-edge thrill ride.
According to our friends at Theme Park University, this cutting-edge ride would've seen guests board 18-person vehicles that advanced into the belly of a "telecopter" (via wrapped projection screens), hoisted high over Metropolis for a bird's-eye view of Lex Luthor's rampage.
While details are scarce, it's believed that these 18-passenger vehicles would rock and rumble to the surrounding screens (like a Disney Lost Legend: Star Tours) until they'd free-fall 130 feet back to Earth – having actually risen 13-stories, concealed in a Superhero Land skyscraper!
Negotiations and Mutations
There was only one problem: According to Sam Gennaway’s spectacular, must-read book Universal vs. Disney, Universal had overextended itself in trying to acquire so many external properties and had found itself locked in a head-to-head showdown with Time Warner, who owned the rights to both DC Comics and the Looney Tunes – two-fifths of Universal’s Cartoon World.
It was a battle over royalties. Time Warner wanted 10% of royalties earned from Universal’s new park given the major role its heroes and cartoons would play. MCA Inc. (owners of Universal) wouldn’t budge from 6%.
Eventually, Time Warner was willing to negotiate for 8%, but MCA held at 6%.
Though Universal’s designers begged for MCA’s executives to agree to the 8% figure (given how many attraction they’d designed around DC Comics and the Looney Tunes), the negotiations came to an abrupt end… To hear Gary Goddard recount the story to Gennaway, MCA’s COO Sidney Sheinberg was fed up with the process and told his contact at Time Warner, “We don’t need your [expletive] characters.” And that was that.
Any hopes of Cartoon World were dead.
But maybe that’s for the best. The loss of a Warner Bros. partnership forced Universal back to the drawing board, and they found inspiration in their own library. At the time, Steven Spielberg was finishing up production on Universal’s Jurassic Park while the Goddard Group put the finishing touches on Jurassic Park: The Ride for Universal Studios Hollywood.
Given the stellar expectations for the film and ride, it occured to designers that Jurassic Park could even occupy an entire themed land of its own at a Disney-quality second gate.
With Bugs and Bruce Wayne out and Jurassic Park in, Universal hired on a team of former Disney Imagineers who had fled Michael Eisner's cost-cutting in the wake of Disneyland Paris' abysmal opening. They brought with them concepts Eisner had axed, which Universal was happy to fund. That's how Port of Entry and an epic forgotten land and Lost Legend: The Lost Continent, found their way into the new park's designs.
A simple "Cartoon World" no more, the new, rounded-out park gained a new thesis and a new name: Universal Studios Islands of Adventure would transport guests into the epic stories and unforgettable adventures of blockbuster films, favorite cartoons, storybooks, and mythological landscapes...
Port of Entry, Seuss Landing, The Lost Continent, Jurassic Park, Toon Lagoon... And one more.
The concepts Universal Creative had cooked up for the DC superheroes wouldn’t go to waste… Universal had found another comic giant who’d fallen on hard times and was happy to make a deal to be exclusively featured in Universal’s second gate… Read on…