"The Adventure Begins."
There could be no more succinct call to exploration than that chiseled into the ancient, vine-encrusted, stone bridges that weave over the eclectic trader's village of Port of Entry. It's also a compelling launch into our exciting new Park-of-the-Month highlight here at Theme Park Tourist, offering a snack-sized celebration of the world's most well-loved theme parks.
For November 2019, we're kicking it off with Universal's Islands of Adventure, the next-generation theme park at Universal Orlando. When this one-of-a-kind park opened in 1999, it was billed as "The World's Most Technologically Advanced Theme Park," disguising an array of modern technologies behind Disney-quality details. But Islands of Adventure also accidentally invented the IP-park model that's been often imitated, but will never again be duplicated...
Join us as we jump into this exceptional park's origins, a walkthrough of its lands and highlights, and how its legacy shaped every Universal park to come after... and maybe Disney's, too!
When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, it represented a natural extension of Universal's original (and authentic movie-making) property in Hollywood, borrowing the Californian "studio" aesthetic and style but applying it to a purpose-built theme park. Though Universal's ambitious Lost Legends: Jaws, Kongfrontation, and Back to the Future - The Ride might've drawn thrill-seeking families away from the comfortable confines of Walt Disney World, Universal seemed destined to be nothing more than a daytrip.
Executives at Universal's then-owner MCA Inc. had a plan – their "Project X" would transform Universal's Floridian real estate into a full entertainment complex with a master-planned expansion of resort hotels, a shopping district, and a second theme park. What's more, that second gate would be a direct shot at Disney.
In secret, MCA was forging licensing deals to amass characters from beyond Universal's own catalogue: the Looney Tunes, Dr. Seuss, D.C. Comics' worlds of Batman and Superman, and famous Jay Ward Sunday funnies like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right. Their planned park – called Cartoon World – would've been a world of animated mayhem and merriment; a full, park-sized solution to Universal's infamous lack of family appeal.
After a few negotiations fell through, MCA had to pivot. Marvel happily offered their characters to replace DC's; a land based on Universal's still-fresh Jurassic Park came online; and – allegedly fueled by creatives fleeing Disney's cost-cutting '90s era – two original lands based on mythology and adventure filled out the roster. "Cartoon World" was no more. Instead, this new park was rewritten as a celebration of adventure, with themed "islands" situated around a lagoon flashing guests between and into new worlds.
In the late '90s, even Disney was beginning to fear that this new park might make a dent in their dominance, putting several projects under development to combat the park. Ultimately, they weren't needed... A famous marketing snafu ("Universal Studios Islands of Adventure joining Universal Studios Florida at Universal Studios Escape") muddled public understanding about what, exactly, "Islands of Adventure" was – a new ride? A new land? A new studio? Attendance was abysmal during the park's first years, until an emergency re-branding created the Universal Orlando Resort.
Even today, Universal's Islands of Adventure may be the best living example of a 21st century theme park. And its radical and creative concept may best be expressed by its entry and icon. Crossing a bridge from Universal's CityWalk, guests are at once standing on a lush peninsula formed by rich, red sea rocks.
The park's icon, Pharos Lighthouse, looms overhead, made of imperfect red stones and a teetering spiral staircase encircling the structure, leading to a bronze topper carved with flame. Each night, the massive rotating mirror disc within casts a beam across the resort, drawing guests toward the park.
Passing beneath vibrant yellow and orange canopies, guests find themselves in Port of Entry, the park's "Main Street" equivalent. Here, designers have dispensed with Universal's tried-and-true "studio" style in favor of creating an eclectic seaside port packed with hidden details and Easter eggs.
It's a collection of international architecture representing all corners of the ancient world building a community together; a kinetic village of rotating windmills, clever water features, billowing palms, and ancient windchimes, all leading to the rocky coast of the Great Sea – the central lagoon around which the park's other "islands" are built.
Crossing a metallic bridge over an arm of the Sea, guests flash from the ancient port to Marvel Super Hero Island. Quite different from the Avengers-themed land coming to Disney California Adventure, this superhero city is a comic book characature, made of intentionally-warped perspective and simple signage like "STORE," "ICE CREAM," and "CAFE" meant to recreate the simplified backgrounds of comic book panels.
Aside from the iconic green cobra roll of the Incredible Hulk Coaster, the land features a ride some call the best 21st century dark ride on Earth – the Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
Toon Lagoon, the park's wettest island, sends guests through the oversized, oversaturated pages and zany set-ups of Jay Ward Productions' "Sunday funnies," with a Sweet Haven section dedicated to Popeye the Sailor and a cartoon Mount Rushmore concealing a Dudley Do-Right flume ride.
Across another bridge, the tropical jungles of Skull Island play host to a single attraction based on Universal's legendary King Kong.
Those jungles give way to Jurassic Park, which allows guests to step into the boutique dinosaur park somewhere off the coast of Costa Rica. The land famously expanded the mythology of the park seen in the films, recreating the iconic Discovery Center (a visual "weenie" viewed across the Great Sea) and adding attractions not "seen" on screen, but that feel right, like the Jurassic Park River Adventure, the Triceratops Encounter, and the kids' exploration area Camp Jurassic.
From there, the path leads to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, the industry-changing land recreating the snow-capped Scottish village and iconic, towering, cliffside Hogwarts School from the Harry Potter book and film series. Its three rides are all E-Tickets: the headlining Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (perhaps the most technologically advanced ride on Earth), Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and the Hogwarts Express that connects the land with Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.
The Wizarding World is often cited as the origin of "hyper-immersive" lands recreating fabled scenes from movies. But think about this – lands following in Hogsmeade's footsteps (like California Adventure's Cars Land or Hollywood Studios' Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge) feel like odd-men-out in their respective parks, Hogsmeade feels right at home among the modern, thematic, and immersive worlds of Islands of Adventure; it feels like a natural fit alongside other "literary" lands based on comics, stories, novels, and legends.
Which brings us to The Lost Continent, the (slowly shrinking) original land of ancient myths. Right now, its heart remains the Lost City sub-section, built around the unimaginable Temple of Poseidon and the collapsed ancient statue of the sea god that served as an early icon of the park's massive scale. Inside is the incredible and controversial Declassified Disaster: Poseidon's Fury – one of the park's "technological highlights" that still stands among the most impressive displays in the industry today.
Finally, Seuss Landing features the whimsical works of Dr. Seuss – a major coup for Universal given that Seuss' widow is rightfully restrictive about licensing out Seuss' work. The topsy-turvy pastel port of Seussian characters and style is such a no-brainer for a theme park, it's almost unbelievable that it took until 1999 (and Universal's licensing-heavy "IP park" strategy) to see a Cat in the Hat dark ride in a theme park!
While Universal Studios shamelessly chases hot movies and will cannibalize classic attractions to rush box office blockbusters into the park, Islands of Adventure's literary lands are spectacularly evergreen. They're based not on the hottest rotating box office blockbuster, but on timeless stories; staples of pop culture; iconic characters that transcend generations.
There's something bold and ambitious not just about Islands of Adventure's timelessness and its independence from the box office, but for its radical and unapologetic set-up. The very concept of bridges "flashing" guests between worlds in an instant might've read as a cop-out on paper, but in practice it's simply cool. To instantly and unceremoniously depart the pastel shores of Seuss Landing and be surrounded in the toppled relics of Lost Continent; to have the comic strips of Toon Lagoon become the tropical Skull Island in a blink... It's stylish and unapologetically modern; a park for the social media generation.
It's not the last time Universal tried its hand at an "IP park..." but it might still be the best. Read on to see how Universal made the "Islands of Adventure" model their theme park standard, how the style was adapted overseas, and why the living legacy the original 1999 park still reigns supreme.