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montage of stills from the planning video

“There’s something new and different in Orlando,” promises the first line of Universal Orlando’s first vacation planning video, with nary a hint that just a year after Islands of Adventure opened it was already a twice-told tale.

On July 8th, 2000, the “Universal Studios Escape” sign greeting motorists along Hollywood Way came down, bringing the 28-month branding disaster to an ignominious end. A park had become a resort and, two years deep into its transformation, the average tourist was none the wiser.

That’s why this tape lays it plain before the 30-second mark:

“Universal Studios and our new Islands of Adventure theme park, non-stop nightlife at our CityWalk entertainment complex, world-class on-site hotels, and more, all in one convenient location.”

Save all further questions for your travel agent. If you do not have one, a toll-free number will be provided at the end.

Universal, however late, finally came to play.

Tour guide Kristin with her tourist followers.
Image: Universal

“In Orlando, there’s no more exciting place to have fun than Universal Orlando,” jabs Kristin, the tour guide and host. “Even if you’ve been to Universal Studios before, you won’t believe all that’s new and different for you to see and do.”

Everything “new and different” - the second use of the phrase in just over a minute - is given lavish attention but the devil hides in the details.

Sizzle footage of Universal Studios Florida, here truncated to “Universal Studios,” dates back to the park’s 1990 press kit. King Kong lit by helicopter light. E.T. soaring tourists past the moon. B-roll of long-gone film crews dollying down the streets of New York. The second round of ad material circa 1991 - Beetlejuice wrecking guitars, cowboys wrecking cowboys - gets just as much play. The Studios look nothing short of cinematic, even with faux-camcorder interludes.

Faux-camcorder footage of a Lost Continent griffin.
Image: Universal

Islands of Adventure, by contrast, looks surprisingly terrestrial.

Early commercials for the new park played coy with hypothetical montages of what might be in store - one of them briefly sneaks in Kennywood’s Steel Phantom - or fantastical vignettes of characters to come - Spider-Man and Doc Ock on the wing of an Orlando-bound 747. But by early 2001, there were plenty of highlights available in Universal’s trademark More-Is-More style. Fish-eyed POVs of Hulk’s front row. The Cat in the Hat introducing his attraction in the middle of it. Wayward kids finding a triceratops in the wild. None of it makes the cut. The Jurassic Park River Adventure is shot like a strobing nightmare, rhyming perfectly with the old Studios footage, but that’s because it is old Studios footage - the falling Explorer gag confirms its 1996 vintage for Hollywood’s Jurassic Park: The Ride. 

For Islands, there’s not much disparity between the faux-camcorder shtick and the post-zoomed, post-ramped money shots. In all the ways the original park comes off as impossibly heightened, Islands feels positively tangible.

Tourists approaching the Jurassic Park Discovery Center.
Image: Universal

For a public already numb to several years of the pie-in-the-sky Universal Escape campaign, this planning video finally offered a view from the ground. And to Universal’s enduring credit, the park looks no less incredible with a fake battery level superimposed in the corner.

Dueling Dragons duels properly, New Balances flailing mere inches away from each other, then duels again in a slow-mo close-up just to show off. Velociraptors hatch in a seamless recreation of the Jurassic Park Discovery Center. Dudley Do-Right logs re-enter the atmosphere and momentarily turn submarine. Comic-spotted city blocks. Arcane temples from civilizations forgotten and imagined. Wiggly, wobbly, and permanently weird architecture never before seen off the pages of Dr. Seuss’s best. No exaggeration necessary.

Empty Seuss Landing.
Image: Universal

To past Studios visitors, it might not even seem like the same resort.

“You can walk from one theme park to the other!” beams one animated member of the sight-seeing Greek chorus. A high pan from Islands to the Studios makes the connection concrete. Then another tourist helpfully chimes in to say, “The best way to see them both is with a multi-day ticket!”

In the Escape blitz, Universal promised vacationers three days of non-stop entertainment. When the smoke cleared, that was whittled down to two, with parking free after 6 PM in an attempt to make the CityWalk nightclubs as lively as advertised. That quiet desperation is a lot louder on tape.

A Universal Multi-Day pass.
Image: Universal

Ticket prices remain politely unmentioned but, for the sake of context, a single-day pass for one park ran roughly $50 for adults at the time. A two-day pass, meaning unlimited access to both parks, ran $95 and an extra day only another $10.

Without getting into numbers, the planning video makes astoundingly clear just how much of a deal those tickets are. Every multi-day pass comes with complimentary Express privileges, a week of waived cover charges at CityWalk, and the ability to bank unused days indefinitely.

A meal at CityWalk.
Image: Universal

Of course, even that may be redundant for some - guests of Universal’s brand-new hotels received free Express passes anyway.

And what about those brand-new hotels?

“They’ve got two of the most spectacular hotels you’ll ever see!” boasts one of the tourists before another hastily assures they’re close enough to walk to if anyone would rather skip the “cute little water taxis.”

Portofino Bay burns incandescent in the standard-definition Florida sunshine. Conspicuously filmed away from Universal Boulevard, it’s transportive. Portofino doesn’t look like a resort or a 1990-something Universal project, even if the copy makes clear it’s technically a Loews hotel; this is a capital-D Destination.

A water taxi approaching Portofino Bay.
Image: Universal

“Now this is luxury,” says host Kristin over a gauzy wide of a king-size bed. The Hard Rock Hotel, almost ready for its January 2001 soft opening, earns eight seconds in the spotlight pieced together from nondescript footage of amenities and hot-zooms of the existing Café. But that’s okay because the true beauty of any Universal Orlando hotel is that, “It’s all just steps away from both theme parks.”

CityWalk, too, “sits right between both theme parks.” Potentially to hedge bets against its early attendance woes, “Orlando’s hottest spot for entertainment” gets even less screentime than the hotels. Restaurants, shops, and the movie theater, then a Cineplex, are glanced past. The nightclubs remain largely anonymous, one writhing montage of bright lights and loud prints. The coverage is, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the Pleasure Island equivalent in Disney’s contemporary planning videos. The only difference, almost unspoken, is that Universal doesn’t pretend CityWalk is a family destination. There may be food and matinees, but only grown-ups partake. Curious parents can poke around for themselves thanks to the Campo Portofino kid’s club. If they stay on property, that is.

CityWalk from above, at night.
Image: Universal

The quadrupled-down emphasis on selling Universal Orlando as an interconnected resort even creeps into the editing choices. Toon Lagoon music bounces over footage of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. A quick glimpse of two kids marveling at Earthquake’s exploding tanker is passed off as a reaction shot for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. With a little squinting, it’s post-production smooth, a glimpse at the more symbiotic parks they would become once Universal stopped needing to remind people there were two of them.

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Comments

You hit the nail on the head with how well the infrastructure stands up. Universal learned via the "School of Hard Knocks" how to become a multi-park resort (which every resort to follow arguably learned from). To that end, I think in retrospect, they made a whole lot of very, very good decisions (marketing aside).

Universal Orlando, Disneyland Resort, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney... The master-planned, all-at-once expansion of a single park into a walkable, "urban," multi-park resort with perimeter parking, a hotel district, a shopping district, and intra-resort transportation model works well, and arguably, Universal does it best. I think that's very high praise.

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