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T2 3-D: Behind-the-Screens of Universal's Larger-Than-Life Lost Legend

Hard Times

Frequent readers of our Lost Legends series will know what’s coming next. In the early 21st century, Universal started to get serious about its studio park. To do so, they had to face two debilitating facts.

First, that the age of the “studio” park was over. The ‘90s had seen a half-dozen “studio” parks open, each populated by big boxy showbuildings, light theming (which, in the “studio” case, meant exposed lighting rigs, flimsy facades, and bare “behind-the-scenes” motifs).

Image: Universal

But a new era of themed design – led by Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Universal’s own Islands of Adventure – had made such barren, beige “studio” parks look like cheap cop-outs.

Second, that their movie park’s movies were looking dated. As the new millennium dawned, it became very clear that Universal Studios Florida’s contents were almost entirely movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s – movies that audiences of the 2000s were unlikely to have much connection to.

Image: Universal

Compared to the ageless and timeless stories brought to life in the new park next door (super heroes, adventure, mythology, comic books, and Dr. Seuss), the movies embodied at Universal Studios Florida had exact years they could be tied to… and for every year that passed, 1975’s Jaws, for example, fell further and further from the minds (and importantly, hearts) of young audiences.

Put another way: It was only a matter of time.

Hasta la Vista, Baby

When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, Terminator was at its height – a seemingly unstoppable story elevated to among the era’s best. Terminator 2: Judgment Day only solidified the story and its characters as a viable franchise, with T2 3-D as its apex.

Image: Warner Bros.

Though James Cameron had promised a Terminator 3, other projects (including a little pet project called TITANIC) sidetracked its development. Though Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did debut in 2003, Cameron wasn’t involved. Then came Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys and the Fox TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that purposefully ignored them all. Even as each made big bucks at the box office, diminishing interest and reviews hinted that Terminator might’ve been best left to the 20th century with two strong entries, lest it become yet another overwrought, unending, creatively-confused franchise.

Even as third, fourth, and fifth entries debuted, the little “midquel” at Universal Studios continued along, becoming more and more necessarily self-aware and self-deprecating as its costumes, style, and Cyberdyne’s “advanced technologies” (VIDEO PHONE CALLS?) became more laughably retro. Perhaps its ‘80s campiness was what saved T2 3-D and made it such a pleasure to watch on each visit.

Image: Universal / Lightstorm / The Goddard Group

While movie-based attractions tend to have less repeat-appeal than rides, T2 3-D: Battle Across Time was a sincerely industry-changing attraction that was thrilling, groundbreaking, and astounding for every single day of its 21 year run. Think, for example, of its closest counterpart – Disney’s own star-studded 3-D spectacle Lost Legend: Captain EO – which felt quite long in the tooth at the close of its original decade-long run, and even overstayed its welcome during a 4-year “Tribute” run from 2010 – 2014.

But still, time moves on, and as we missed Judgment Day (1997, remember), we find ourselves at a chronological crossroads… We’re closer to John Connor’s world (2029… just 12 years away) than Sarah’s (1984… 33 years ago!). Yet another hint that Terminator’s time was growing short…

Modus operandi

Image: Universal

Universal Studios Hollywood shuttered its T2 3-D in 2012 (after a 13 year run, thanks to Hollywood’s delayed 1999 opening of the attraction). In its place would rise a super-sized version of Florida’s Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and an entire themed land dedicated to the Despicable Me franchise – part of Hollywood’s larger strategy to turn the utilitarian Upper Lot into a Disney-style theme park with a main street, park icon, and radiating themed lands.

Five years later, on September 7, 2017, Universal announced that – after more than twenty years – Universal Studios Florida’s original T2 3-D: Battle Across Time would close forever on October 8… one month later.

It’s not at all surprising that the holdover from 1996 would finally close… After all, Universal’s not exactly holding its cards close, here. Their plan is pretty public: aggressive determination to keep its Studio park packed with whatever’s hot, now. Sentimentality aside, lineage be damned, nothing is safe from progress, and Universal will remove even the most cared-for classic to keep up with the continuous upkeep that a studio park demands.

Image: Universal

 (And look… that can be a good thing or a bad thing! Not only does Universal unceremoniously topple fan-favorites the minute a more popular property emerges, but they also design these flavor-of-the-week attractions with their temporality in mind… Universal is content with measuring attractions’ lifetimes in seasons rather than decades, building Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon or Fast and Furious: Supercharged knowing full well that neither attraction will exist just a decade from now… they’re just not meant to!)   

What’s perhaps most surprising is that T2 3-D was the last of Universal’s esteemed classics to fall, with Jaws, Kongfrontation, Twister, Earthquake, and even Back to the Future all falling first (to Harry Potter, The Mummy, Jimmy Fallon, The Fast and the Furious, and The Simpsons respectively, for those keeping score).

The former T2 3-D theater (25). Image: Universal

We don’t yet know what will take Terminator’s place in Universal Studios Florida’s lineup, though Universal promises its closure will “make way for an all-new live action experience based on a high-energy Universal franchise. It will open in 2019. This is one of many exciting new experiences coming to Universal Orlando Resort as we continue our epic growth.”

The remaining T2 3-D at Universal Studios Japan opened alongside the park in 2001. 

Lost Legend

The unimaginable mix of special effects, thrills, self-deprecating humor, live action, and an actual, worthwhile plot made T2 3-D worth having around, even as Hollywood moved on. It was, understandably, a long-lived holdout of Universal’s early days, crafted by James Cameron himself, designed by Gary Goddard, and starring the very real stars of Terminator in a high-class production.

Its closure won’t cripple Universal Studios Florida, but T2 3-D did round out a day at the park. Our only hope is that – whatever Universal brings next, and as short-lived as it may eventually be – Universal chooses a live-action experience that can meet the incredible standard set by T2 3-D: Battle Across Time. If you enjoyed our look back at this closed classic, make the jump to our In-Depth Collections Library to pick up with another Lost Legend.

Now we want to know what you think. In the comments below, share your memories of T2 3-D: Battle Across Time. Was it time for this once-groundbreaking attraction to disappear, or was it somehow “timeless” even in its distinctly-90s style? What do you hope or expect Universal Orlando will bring to the table next in its attempts to keep its Studio park current? We can’t wait to read your ideas.

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