Dateline: 1926. Deep within the timeless sands of ancient Egypt, a most peculiar discovery has been unearthed… long believed to be only a legend, the burial place of the high priest Imhotep is indeed real… and its sole inhabitant isn’t content staying dead for another three thousand years…
Here at Theme Park Tourist, we’re particularly proud of our growing library of in-depth features that chronicle the detailed histories of some of the best rides ever built. The dozens of entries in our Lost Legends series, for example, retell the brilliant, behind-the-scenes stories of closed classics and fan favorites from around the world, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Test Track and dozens more in between. Watch for links to Lost Legends throughout the site!
But this summer, we’ve taken our globetrotting to the extreme with our new series, Modern Marvels, where we uncover the details behind some of the world’s must-see masterpieces of themed entertainment, thrills, and technology. That’s why we kicked off our series with must-read entries on the magic behind Disney’s legendary Mystic Manor and took to the web-slinging streets to get the scoop aboard The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
And today, we’ll unearth the in-depth experience of another spectacular hit ride: Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Florida. We’ll dust away the sands of time and reveal the story behind this “psychological thrill ride,” get a first-person idea of what awaits inside the mummy’s tomb, and even see where this unexpected E-Ticket has been adapted around the globe. Ready to dive in?
For fans of the themed entertainment industry, it’s a proverbial tale as old as time: the rivalry between Disney and Universal has been written about at length, and often in greater measure than a web feature can provide…
But to recount the basics: Universal Studios Hollywood has been around since 1912, though its origins as a “theme park” in the more classical sense date back to an intentional re-opening in 1964. Even so, the park’s real draw has always been the Studio Tour, a tram-led multi-hour experience, whisking guests through real production facilities, hot sets, and famous backlots where real classics have been shot.
And by the ‘70s and ‘80s, the tour was increasingly home to equally-dazzling staged encounters… like a robotic face-to-face with the menacing great white from Jaws, a special effects extravaganza as riders relived Earthquake – The Big One, and (most famously) a banana-breathed face-to-face with the dreaded King Kong.
For the better part of the 1980s, Universal had been considering a Florida-based studio park that would doubtlessly be headlined by its own Studio Tour with similarly extravagant encounters, but it wasn’t until Steven Spielberg’s backing and the concept of Back to the Future: The Ride that executives seriously considered building a theme park in Disney World’s back yard. Plans began to creep forward and a Universal Studios Florida was assured.
But then, in 1984, Michael Eisner became the CEO of Walt Disney Productions. Eisner – fresh from his post as CEO of Paramount Pictures – was intimately aware of the film industry and set out to revive Disney’s aging studios and forgotten animation divisions. But he also foresaw film as the way to enliven Disney’s tired theme parks.
If you ask insiders, Eisner knew about Universal’s plans for a Floridian movie park from his time at Paramount, and underhandedly cut them to the quick… And indeed, Disney announced their own movie studio park – The Disney-MGM Studios – as a preemptive strike to dissuade Universal from building in Orlando.
Disney even went so far as to steal Universal’s bread and butter – a multi-hour tram-led Studio Tour – as their studio park’s major attraction.
Truthfully, Eisner and company probably expected Universal to limp away from the land they’d purchased in Florida, bruised. Instead, designers rallied and pressed ahead with Universal Studios Florida. Since they couldn’t steal back their own Studio Tour concept, Universal’s creatives instead took the components of the Hollywood park’s Studio Tour and split them into full-fledged, standalone, E-Ticket experiences… Up-close encounters with Jaws, King Kong, Earthquake, Back to the Future, and more, now built-out into full attractions of their own.
Take, for example, Kong. When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, the great ape that had debuted in 1933’s King Kong was given his own dedicated attraction, housed in the park’s New York streets behind the towering white marble exterior of Penn Station.
Once inside, guests were transported to the grimy, gritty, graffiti-covered innards of New York City’s subway system (it was the 1980s, after all), where live newsfeeds signaled something unimaginable: a giant, raging, insane ape was terrorizing the Lower East Side! Naturally, evacuations of town are underway, and as for us? Our only means of escape is the elevated Roosevelt Island Tramway that can get us over the Hudson River and to safety.
This was all to set the stage for a wild E-Ticket adventure that would impress even Disney’s Imagineers… In true cinematic form, Universal’s designers built entire New York City blocks six stories tall in all directions, positioning guests in suspended trams to glide through the carnage and destruction, perpetually 30 seconds behind the behemoth Kong.
Of course, it wouldn’t be showstopper unless we earned our face-to-face with the raging ape, and Kongfrontation offered two unthinkable encounters with some of the largest, most complex, and most chaotic Audio Animatronics figures ever designed, allowing us to look into the crazed eyes of a giant who just wants to go home.
The scale, size, and scope of the ride were truly unprecedented. That’s why it’ll live on forever with its own dedicated entry here, Lost Legends: Kongfrontation. Fans of Universal Orlando or even just the themed entertainment industry ought to read that in-depth dissection to understand the true mastery of Universal’s designers.
Even with showstoppers like Kongfrontation, Universal’s place on the food chain was clear: it was obvious that the park would always be an aside to Walt Disney World. Indeed, while it was packed with stunning E-Tickets that matched Disney’s innovation note-for-note, Universal Studios Florida couldn’t compete with the San-Francisco-sized Juggernaut ten minutes down the road.
And that’s not a surprise… after all, Walt Disney World had a two-decade head start and about 26,500 acres more to work with. By time Universal Studios opened, Walt Disney World offered three theme parks (including, thanks to Eisner, its own movie studio park) with a dozen resort hotels, boating, swimming, dining, and more. As “the Vacation Kingdom of the World,” Disney World was unstoppable. People would come to Orlando for Disney… and if they had pre-teens or teens with them, they might add a single day for Universal Studios.
That wasn’t good enough. So Universal fought back with two major projects.
The first was their transformation into a full-fledged Universal Orlando Resort, anchored by a second park – Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Built in part by Disney Imagineers (as we chronicled in the in-depth Lost Legends: The Lost Continent feature), Islands of Adventure was a creative triumph meeting and sometimes exceeding Disney’s own standards in the era. Most importantly, Universal had amassed a collection of intellectual properties that weren’t just popular; they were timeless. Dr. Seuss, Marvel, Jay Ward, and Jurassic Park served as highlights in a park that would feel forever current just like Magic Kingdom.
The second project? To bring the aging Universal Studios Florida up to the same standard. By its nature, the Studios park had riffed off of Universal’s original Hollywood campus and copied its classic characters. But by the dawn of the New Millennium, it was clear that rides like Kongfrontation and its peers (no matter how grand they were) were increasingly alienating a new generation of young people (and young families) who held no allegiance to Universal’s films from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. For the families of the 2000s, these attractions (while astounding!) weren’t a marketing draw.
A new philosophy emerged at Universal: they determined that, if their Studio park was ever going to be a contender, it needed to shed its classics and super-charge the park with whatever’s new, now, and next. Put another way, Universal was willing to bulldoze their classics if they had to, so long as their reputation changed; so long as Universal became the place to see the hottest films of today.
And at the dawn of the New Millennium, Universal had just the film to start with: The Mummy. But do you know how the blockbuster film came to be, or the "real" curse that inspired it? Read on…