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6. E.T. Adventure

riders onboard the E.T. Adventure
Image: Universal

Fly With Me, begged the billboards. Underneath his wrinkly gaze, it’s all they needed to say.

E.T. was Universal Studios Florida’s Mickey Mouse. Sure, there were other familiar and beloved faces, but when the chips were down, it was always the alien. He peeked from his bike-front basket in all the ad spots. He loomed over the neon logo on every possible souvenir. For a while, he even scored a cartoon counterpart, in case the real deal wasn’t cute enough for discerning tourists.

And then there was his spotlight attraction, Universal’s clearest shot across the bow.

The same basic principle that allowed Peter Pan’s Flight to fly found another ingenious application. E.T. Adventure is a Fantasyland dark ride colored outside the lines. The case could be made, it’s two Fantasyland dark rides, merging the majestic front half of Peter Pan with the gonzo finale of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Smack in between is one of the most majestic scenes in any theme park attraction.

But that breakdown is ultimately pointless because there’s nothing like the E.T. Adventure. The personalized farewell. The bicycle seats. The smell. It’s designed as a complete sense memory, a dream you could swear you’ve already had. It’s thrilling, it’s emotional, and it’s truly, deeply strange. Sentiment, Disney’s stock-in-trade, comes courtesy of an alien menagerie, thanking riders for their interplanetary heroism.

Of the three kid-centric attractions on opening day, the E.T. Adventure delivered the most authentic experience. It had all the awe, personality, and danger of Universal’s bigger productions. There was no screen to separate wary riders from the roaring police cars under-pedal. Like the film that inspired it, the ride worked on visitors of all ages, but to visitors of the right age, the Adventure gave them training wheels into a stranger, scarier, and ultimately sweeter world.

It broke down regularly, if never as catastrophically as its neighbors. The passport system remains a crapshoot to this day. The ride’s tangible charms have aged out of favor and back in again alongside the industry’s cutting edge. It was never the most impressive attraction at Universal Studios Florida, nor was it meant to be. The E.T. Adventure delivered on its source material and so much advertising, and that’s exactly what it needed to do.

Where else could you fly with E.T.?

In 1990, how could you sell a theme park better than that?

5. Nickelodeon Studios

a Nickelodeon Studios postcard
Image: Universal, Nickelodeon

This placement may be controversial simply because there’s very little pomp or circumstance to the Nickelodeon Studios tour. As the third and final attraction aimed at children, it doesn’t have Hanna-Barbera’s zip or E.T.’s extravagance. If anything, it’s Alfred Hitchcock for the grade school crowd.

The burgeoning TV network needed a public-facing place to show how the slimy sausage was made. Universal needed a magnet for kids. The match wasn’t just a miracle, but insurance - Nickelodeon put the “Studio” in “Universal Studios Florida”, permanently and with satisfaction guaranteed.

Any given day of the year, a game show was either being taped or the props were still hanging around to prove it. There was no rest for the remaining departments, each shown off like exhibits in a Hollywood zoo. Chefs, uh, prepared the green slime daily. The electricity of bonafide production kept the Day-Glo place humming. And that’s not even factoring its rarest thrill of all.

The whole point of Universal Studios Florida was to send guests through the screen. See the Stars, Ride the Movies. Every other attraction allowed the elaborate, expensive sensation of doing so. Only Nickelodeon allowed for the actual possibility of appearing on TV, through hyped-up auditions for its latest gross-out competition show.

The commercials at the end of its shows, presenting the grounds as nothing less than a child’s mecca, played like catnip. Every kid had to see it, and the early beauty of Nickelodeon was that, whether or not a camera was rolling in the park, there was always something to see.

4. Jaws

Jaws attacking a fresh boat
Image: Universal

Jaws is a theme park tale of two sharks. The second, actually waterproof fish is not in question. Jaws 2.0 menaced the Amity populace to great acclaim and affection from 1993 until 2012. It is rightly vaunted as the landmark attraction it was.

The lifespan of Jaws 1.0 can barely be measured on a calendar. Assuming the ride operated every day from the June 7th grand opening until its August 22nd demise, and that’s a capital-A Assumption, the original sharks only swam for 76 days. After that initial closure, Universal quietly advertised a 1991 rechristening. Liabilities became lawsuits. 1991 became 1992. Revision became reconstruction. 1992 became 1993.

Lost in that oft-told horror story is the actual experience of the original. Jaws 1.0, though more ambitious than its successor, just wasn’t as exciting. Those familiar with 2.0 already know the beats - Amity 1 sinking, the boathouse, climactic attack, gruesome victory - but not the details. For all intents and purposes, the first half survived unchanged. As for the rest, reach far exceeded grasp.

Upon surviving the boathouse, riders floated out into with open water. No gas dock. No fire across the horizon. Just when the skipper thinks it’s safe to turn off the engine, Jaws lunges out and “bites” the front pontoon. In reality, a turntable attached the animatronic to the boat and both rotated. When aligned correctly, it was clear the shark was not actually making contact. When aligned incorrectly, as odds favored, the robot could writhe far enough to pop the pontoon with one of its genuine shark teeth. The grand finale - a sloppy-joe explosion inspired by the first film - relied on an underwater cycling system to reload the gore between boats. Whether by that system’s failure or the general rules of dye in water, the trick often left that end of the lagoon a muddy brown.

And that’s to say nothing of the ride’s near-constant downtime. On opening day, so the true legend goes, Steven Spielberg himself got stranded out there with the sharks.

To be fair, Jaws 1.0 delivered on the nightmarish billboards along I-4. The world’s greatest Great White attacked guests every eight minutes at Universal Studios Florida, at least if he was feeling up to it. The excitement promised came in 1:1 scale - there was the shark and, more concerningly, there was you. Although its overhauled descendant delivered that thrill better, not to mention the remaining entries on this list, Jaws gave the park its bite, if only his teeth would stay in.

3. Ghostbusters Spooktacular

Ghostbusters Spooktacular promotional photo
Image: Universal, Sony

It doesn’t feel right to call an attraction based on the one-time biggest comedy in cinema history “unsung,” but the Ghostbusters Spooktacular deserves it. Of all the headliners, it received slightly less press, likely due to the additional licensing obstacles. It rarely makes top threes or even fives unless the ranker in question has a preoccupation with the franchise. Tragically, it was also the first E-ticket to die, putting an unceremonious cap on first-hand fans.

But what Nickelodeon did for Universal’s production, the Ghostbusters Spooktacular did for its pomp and circumstance - if all else failed, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man didn’t.

Against all odds, the largest Pepper’s Ghost trick ever attempted ran like a dream. Well, at least dreamier than the monkey, shark, and natural disaster. All it took to resurrect the dead was a 19-ton fleet of animatronics and 11.2 tons of liquid nitrogen fog daily. Among Universal’s opening day roster of multi-million dollar prototypes, that’s what passes for easy-peasy.

And that’s the kind of good time it was. After a brief preshow video summarizing the franchise’s cutting-edge special effects, guests gathered around the allegedly genuine Temple of Gozer set and watched fiction haunt fact. In just 12 minutes a behind-the-scenes tour devolves into a live-action recreation of the original film’s explosive conclusion. All killer, no filler. The 1993 revision improved the Spooktacular in just about every way, but there’s something to be said for simplicity.

The Ghostbusters saved Universal Studios Florida’s first summer, giving the people their money’s worth whether or not they took advantage of the refund policy. Even though another studio owns them, they’ll always be Universal characters.

2. Earthquake

Earthquake postcard
Image: Universal

Earthquake was based on a then-16-year-old movie without a single merchandisable character in it. Charlton Heston starred, and also provided the most soothingly voiced narration in the park, but Universal couldn’t exactly put his head on the billboards. Stretching a two-minute shimmy on the Hollywood tram tour into its own marquee attraction was no mean feat.

Earthquake covered the difference with the best show-and-tell on the lot.

Los Angeles crumbles in wide-as-life anamorphic. The titular disaster hasn’t lost any of its shock or awe. Heston interrupts the chaos to explain how it’s done, the painstaking process of building scale duplicates and fooling cameras into watching them fall slowly. Once clued in, the city falls again. Instead of Heston returning, the screen fades and retreats, revealing the actual miniatures that made it possible.

The second demonstration expanded the Hitchcock Tower of Liberty gag to crowd-pleasing extremes. Escalators collapsed. Dummies plummeted to their deaths. All thanks to the magic of blue screen compositing and matte paintings.

And of course, the death-defying finale on the San Francisco rapid, Embarcadero station. After seeing how the movie was made, visitors got to see the movie made real. In three engaging steps, Earthquake broke down the magic of cinema and did it one better with the magic of theme parks.

That last part didn’t always work as intended, but the attraction made up for it with heart. Earthquake was the closest thing Universal Studios Florida had to a mission statement - pyrotechnics with a point.

 

1. Kongfrontation

Kong attacking a tram in Kongfrontation
Image: Universal

Kongfrontation didn’t have time for any of that book-learning. As soon as brave souls turned the first corner of the queue, they were inside a movie, no lesson necessary. There was a 39-foot monkey on the streets of New York. The only escape route ran right through his 54-foot wingspan. Also, he’s furious.

The pitch is irresistible in any language.

And that’s why it inspired Universal Studios Florida in the first place.

When Spielberg saw what Universal’s designers and contractors did with King Kong Encounter in Hollywood, he asked them to toy around with a Back to the Future ride. Between the ape, the time machine, and the tram tour’s other major stops, Jaws and Earthquake, the first four attractions of Universal Studios Florida fell into place. The pre-existing experiences, already elaborate by any conventional standard, would just need to be expanded enough to stand on their own.

Nowhere is the demented bravery of that decision more apparent than Kongfrontation. The top half of one building-sized primate became two, full, building-sized primates. A New York City street seen from above became a New York City block, production-designed down to the black gum stains on the pavement. No expense spared, not even the banana breath.

Of course it was an operational nightmare, just look at those monsters - by the end of that first day, the movements of Kong’s fingers had to be actuated manually by two team members. There’s only one way to put the fear of a big monkey into somebody and that’s throwing a big monkey at them. Anyone who saw him on postcards, commercials, or their neighbor’s vacation tape felt the contact-high - They actually built King Kong. Movie magic was one thing, but there was nothing pretend about Kongfrontation. If Earthquake was the park’s heart, then this was its shamelessly bombastic soul.

In a sense, there was a lesson to all the fire and falling Roosevelt Island trams -  Universal Studios Florida had arrived and nothing would ever be the same. Nobody, went the slogan, Makes Believe Like We Do. And how.

Kongfrontation had something to prove.

It did.

Hail to the king.

 
 
 
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Comments

I remember opening day, my family was given vouchers as we left to come back since most of the rides were not operational. Crazy how the park landscape has changed since the early years. I wish they fixed the turntable element of Jaws, vs scrapping it.. that part when the shark rose up out of the water and spun the boat was more thrilling than the fire gas explosion they ultimately went with.

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