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A collage of several movies made at Orlando theme parks

In every piece of local coverage for the latest star-studded production to grace Orlando during its studio heyday, there’s a line somewhere that wonders if this one is it, the movie that sells Hollywood West on Hollywood East. Some did in small ways, coaxing repeat filmmakers back for projects that fit the climate. But the sure-thing gold rush that inspired not one, but two massive studio complexes mired in the Central Florida swamps never came. Why didn’t it work? The reasons are too economical, too personal, and ultimately too fickle to run down in a list like this. For instance, National Treasure director John Turtletaub never came back after his 1999 thriller, Instinct, because of I-4 traffic, telling the Orlando Sentinel, "I've never seen five miles of highway with more accidents, more police cars, more stops." While that complaint might've been lodged with tongue firmly in cheek, productions have slipped through the cracks for less, and In the Orlando studio boom of the late '80s and early '90s, every movie counted.

Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

Ernest Saves Christmas poster
Image: Disney

The studio half of Disney-MGM Studios opened for business in the summer of 1987, just in time for a looming Writers Guild strike to halt production across the country. Hollywood East would have to wait a little while longer to roll out the red carpet. No major productions would come to town until 1988, once the Guild reached an agreement with producers on compensation and creative control. Who better to lead the charge than Eisner’s own “discovery.”

So the legend goes, Ernest P. Worrell joined the Disney stable when he upstaged Michael Eisner at the Indianapolis 500. The CEO got shrugs for his introduction. The advertising icon got a standing ovation. As the arena shouted  “Hey, Vern!” in delirious abandon for a fictional character Eisner had never seen before played by an actor he’d never heard of, he felt a franchise coming on.

Ernest Goes To Camp was the cheapest Touchstone Pictures release of 1987, shrinking behind star-studded comedies like Stakeout and Outrageous Fortune. Unlike those, however, Ernest Goes To Camp made almost eight times its budget. Ernest and the man who played him, the dearly missed Jim Varney, were no longer regional fixtures - they were movie stars.

Ernest Saves Christmas was lined up in short order and shot around Orlando the following year. Locals should recognize the old Orlando Science Center and Church Street Station, as well as plenty of lesser landmarks. Disney-MGM Studios guests should recognize something else - the stone-faced facade of Vern’s house, a permanent fixture on Residential Street until its destruction in 2003. In the earliest days of the Backlot Tour, Herbie would pop wheelies in the driveway for passing trams.

If Walt Disney World veterans never saw the house while it was still standing, they should still be able to spot Epcot Center Drive from a mile off. When Ernest picks up an incognito Santa Claus from the Orlando International Airport, he takes a wildly impractical shortcut across Disney property. The purple highway signs are unmistakable.

Parenthood (1989)

Parenthood poster
Image: Universal

If Disney led their charge with a can’t-miss character, Universal led theirs with a can’t-miss director.

On December 1st, 1987, Ron Howard signed a long-term deal with Universal Studios to distribute all films from his production company, Imagine Entertainment, starting with Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs in 1989. Howard’s next directorial effort, Parenthood, would be the third film in the deal and the first ever filmed at Universal Studios Florida.

Admittedly, there’s little theme park history involved with this case. The production used Universal soundstages between January and April of 1989, a full year before the park was open and the street sets were ready. As co-writer Lowell Ganz described it to the Sun Sentinel, “It’s us and The New Leave It to Beaver and several men eating sandwiches and saying, ‘That’s where King Kong’s going to be.’”

But Parenthood was the biggest gamble yet for the budding film industry. Ernest let Orlando play itself. Parenthood turned it into St. Louis.

The Floridian features are harder to spot in this movie, but there are at least two locations it’s tough to miss. The Orlando Speed World racing complex makes an appearance spelled out in big letters along the track. More interesting to themed entertainment historians is a 40-second cameo from the long-gone Mystery Fun House. The haunted house facade still stands in an otherwise empty plaza across 435 from Universal property, but footage of the interior is harder to come by, let alone footage starring Steve Martin.

Parenthood ended up the ninth highest-grossing movie in the United States during the sequel-heavy summer of 1989. It lasted longer in theaters than Back to the Future Part II. It made only $12 million less than Ghostbusters II despite opening on 1,000 fewer screens. 

The early souvenir booklets for Universal Studios Florida screamed “Nothing Compares To The #1 Studio!” Entire pages were dedicated to past and on-going productions, none more proudly showcased than Parenthood. In the biggest still, Steve Martin in ill-fitting cowboy get-up confers with Ron Howard.

Great promotion undercut slightly by Martin’s take on the experience, as told to the Los Angeles Times: “Because it’s a tourist town, people are used to having access to everything. It’s not like New York or LA. There’s no etiquette. And you’re expected to be friendly all the time.”

Warm and fuzzy word-of-mouth back in Hollywood would have to wait.

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