Home » No Autographs, Please: 6 Obscure Universal Studios Florida Characters

    No Autographs, Please: 6 Obscure Universal Studios Florida Characters

    The Shadow

    Since its opening day, Universal Studios Florida has promised all the fantasy, fame, and fun of a genuine Hollywood backlot. That includes the familiar faces strolling to and from their unseen trailers. Universal’s cast of usual suspects don’t earn the afternoon-long lines of Disney’s princesses and talking pets, but then again they’ve got their own lives to live. The official resort blog only gives away their natural habitats, not their schedules. Character interactions at Universal still come with an air of spontaneity. Customers waiting in line for popcorn bucket refills may be suddenly asked the time by Doc Brown. The Blues Brothers might honk their Bluesmobile at unwary passersby with their noses in park maps. Though the line-up of characters has changed more than a little since 1990, that spirit remains. As John Forsythe said in Experience the Magic of Movies, a 1991 videotape tailormade to sell the Universal difference, “You never know who you’re gonna meet here.” Here are six of the most elusive stars to ever grace the Studios.

    The Shadow

    The Shadow
    Image: Universal

    There’s nothing more Hollywood than corporate synergy, and Universal Studios Florida has provided a living, breathing billboard for the company’s biggest blockbusters. The Flintstones, Casper, and Apollo 13 all received extensive walkthrough exhibits in Soundstage 22. The former MCA Recording Studio was replaced by a dedicated showroom called Stage 54, which featured everything from The Lost World: Jurassic Park to The Mummy.

    But sometimes these tie-in promotions aren’t so grand, the movies not so successful. Sometimes, because of box office and general ambivalence, they’re not around long enough to make so much as a single home video appearance.

    By the mid-‘90s, just about every major studio in Tinseltown had tried and failed to recreate the 1989 phenomenon of Tim Burton’s comic book opus. Disney alone tried and failed twice with Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, both of which overwhelmed gift shops down the highway at the other backlot park.

    Universal, though, had an ace up its sleeve. The Shadow wasn’t merely another cartoon crime-fighter that might sell as many lunchboxes as Batman; he was Batman before there was a Batman.

     In 1930, The Detective Story Hour debuted as a radio supplement to the struggling Detective Story Magazine. It didn’t help sales much, but the program did mint an unexpected star – an enigmatic host called “The Shadow.” Acting fast, publisher Street & Smith hired professional editor and amateur magician Walter B. Gibson to translate nothing more than an eerie voice and an evocative name into an enduring character.

    By the end of Gibson’s first year writing novel-length Shadow stories, demand forced the magazine to speed its publishing from quarterly to twice-monthly. By the end of the decade, the character was starring in his own radio show that would run for almost twenty years. Not long after The Shadow returned to the airwaves, Batman arrived in Detective Comics. The Bat’s vigilante tricks and nocturnal allure took obvious inspiration, which co-creator Bill Finger later admitted.

    It only made sense, then, that The Shadow was the best challenger for the comic book movie throne. As such, not just any filmmaker was allowed to try their hand at the property. Universal’s Back to the Future golden boy Robert Zemeckis worked on an adaptation at the same time as Burton’s Batman, but nothing came of it. After that, Evil Dead auteur Sam Raimi approached the studio with his own take. Universal wouldn’t let him near it, instead offering to foot the much cheaper bill for his own original pulp hero. The resulting movie, 1990’s Darkman, made about as much as The Shadow would in 1994 for less than half its blockbuster budget.

    That may be why the character was so strangely, if fittingly, hard to find at Universal Studios Florida. Posters for The Shadow adorned the usual soundstages, but the only account of the two-gun hero ever appearing in person comes from the man who played him – James Keaton, best known to the Halloween Horror Nights faithful as Jack the Clown.

    Keaton has tweeted occasionally about his brief time in the slouch hat during July of 1994. A short preshow was added to Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, in which The Shadow faced off against long-time nemesis Shiwan Khan. Both costumes were screen-used, still bearing the names of the actors who last wore them. For about a month after, The Shadow skulked around the alleys of the park’s New York sets, then vanished without a trace.

    Minus Keaton’s own pictures of him in costume, at least. No other footage or photos of The Shadow or Shiwan have found their way online, if they survive on moldering VHS tapes and disposable cameras at all.

    In something like poetic justice, Darkman made a bigger splash at Universal Studios Florida, starring in the Tramway of Doom overlay of Kongfrontation at the park’s first event to bear the name Halloween Horror Nights.

    Earthworm Jim

    Earthworm Jim
    Image: Interplay

    Not long after Back to the Future: The Ride opened in May of 1991, cartoon standees of the franchise’s heroes showed up beside Doc Brown’s time-traveling train. To the tourists, they were a photo-friendly reminder that Back to the Future: The Animated Series would be airing on CBS that fall. To the company, it was the dawn of a whole new era – the first show ever produced by Universal Cartoon Studios.

    Now known as Universal Animation Studios, the division was founded primarily to produce spin-off cartoons based on the latest live-action hits. Back to the Future: The Animated Series reached audiences only a year after Back to the Future Part III. Fievel’s American Tails aired the same way after Fievel Goes West. Three different Saturday morning follow-ups to Jurassic Park were pitched and ultimately passed over. Later cartoons were based on franchises like Casper, Beethoven, and The Mummy.

    Early on in its existence, before it became most famous for churning out direct-to-video Land Before Time sequels, Universal Cartoon Studios wanted a piece of the Console Wars. The Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis turned toy stores into Christmas-time warzones. Every kid had their blood-pact opinion on which was better and a bone-deep answer to that most impossible adolescent question: Mario or Sonic? Even when the controllers were put away, cartoon adaptations of both kept the fires burning. At his peak, Sonic the Hedgehog starred in two concurrently airing cartoon series.

    With the heaviest hitters out of contention, Universal had to aim lower on the mascot roster at characters a little too new or a little too strange for prime time.

    Earthworm Jim was both.

    Developed as an excuse for Playmates Toys to replace their waning Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line, Earthworm Jim hit the Sega Genesis in October of 1994 and immediately established himself as a weirdo to watch. In the first stage, players had to launch a cow into orbit using a fridge and rudimentary catapult. In the second stage, players literally went to hell. At a time when the hottest video game characters were dripping with attitude, Jim oozed absurdism.

    The next year, the game’s eclectic success scored a sequel and a TV show co-produced by Universal Cartoon Studios. It premiered in September of 1995, but the marketing blitz came fashionably late. In April 1996, four VHS tapes of collected episodes reached video stores, offering an exclusive mail-away action figure with two proofs of purchase. At the same time, Taco Bell dedicated a month of kids meal toys to the worm. Suped-up CD ports of the original game weren’t far behind.

    Despite the push, a murderers’ row of vocal talent, and respectable marks from critics, Earthworm Jim only lasted two seasons on Kids’ WB.

    However brief its run, from the end of 1995 to the end of 1996, it still aired long enough to warrant an Earthworm Jim meet-and-greet at Universal Studios Florida. There’s no official park media to go on, but unlike The Shadow, Jim does make the occasional home video appearance. Though he could’ve roamed like any other Universal character, the existing footage of Earthworm Jim places him outside Lucy: A Tribute. His appearance seems to have coincided with the rest of the summer 1996 hype.

    Given the character’s bizarre proportions, the performer hid inside Jim’s hyper-muscled super suit and operated his static head like a puppet.

    Crash Bandicoot

    Crash Bandicoot
    Image: Activision

    Universal Cartoon Studios might’ve backed the wrong annelid with Earthworm Jim, but it wasn’t done with video games. At least, it didn’t want to be.

    In 1994, Universal Interactive Studios contracted upstart developer Naughty Dog to make three video games for the company. The first title would be a 3-D platformer starring a plush-ready mascot poised to beat the major-league talents to the next generation of consoles. Universal’s cartoon division prepared fully-animated cutscenes for the release, shrewdly intended as a backdoor pilot for a TV show if the character proved successful.

    Luckily for the developers, Sony Computer Entertainment wanted in. Less luckily for Universal Cartoon Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment didn’t want anything to distract players from the shiny, new 3-D.

    Crash Bandicoot released on September 9th, 1996, and immediately became the Sony Playstation’s first grand slam. To this day, it remains the eighth best-selling title on the system and the earliest released of the top ten. Universal didn’t have a hit cartoon on their hands – they had something better.

    By the time Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back landed in stockings the following Christmas, Crash was a regular at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood.

    Though he was the only video game star roaming the Orlando backlot after Jim’s fleeting tenure, the big orange bandicoot fit in nicely with the park’s anthropomorphic zoo. And unlike his 16-bit predecessor, Crash was here to stay. At least for a while.

    The deal that made him a Playstation icon came to an end in 2001, when Sony bought Naughty Dog outright and Universal retained the rights to the character. The series would be handled by other developers and released on all systems including the Playstation 2.

    Crash kept making appearances at Universal Studios Florida through the early millennium, until his popularity started to fade with the new generation of consoles. He enjoyed a much warmer reception at Universal Studios Hollywood, appearing regularly until 2013, when the division formerly known as Universal Interactive Studios was bought by Activision.

    The Nutty Professor

    The Nutty Professor
    Image: Universal

    In the late ‘90s, as Islands of Adventure and its embarrassment of characters inched ever closer, Universal Studios Florida made due. For every flash-in-the-pan like Earthworm Jim, there was a threadbare veteran like the sasquatch star of Harry and the Hendersons, still posing for pictures a full decade after his motion picture debut. It was as strange as the photo-op line-up ever got, made stranger by the see-what-sticks inclusion of the company’s latest successes.

    When The Nutty Professor became the sixth highest-grossing movie of 1996, Universal brought Eddie Murphy’s character to the park. Professor Sherman Klump could often be found wandering outside the Horror Make-Up Show in sly reference to the film’s exhaustive make-up and prosthetic work that would soon after earn an Academy Award. Given the film’s PG-13 rating for “crude humor and sexual references,” Sherman may have the raunchiest source material of any Universal Studios Florida character, at least outside Halloween Horror Nights.

    Perhaps for that reason, he didn’t last long. Even though the 2000 sequel did respectable numbers at the box office, the Nutty Professor never returned to Universal Studios Florida. He did stick around Universal Studios Hollywood a while longer.

    Andy Panda

    Andy Panda
    Image: Universal

    Disney has Mickey. Universal has Woody Woodpecker or, at least, had Woody Woodpecker. He’s still the de facto cartoon mascot of Universal Orlando, even if his presence has largely been relegated to the KidZone. When the park first opened, though, he was a bonafide star.

    Gift shops stocked plush Woodys by the wall. He couldn’t cross the street without a knee-high entourage pleading for pictures. His beak graced everything from iron-on patches to pressed pennies.

    It’s only fitting that his creator was the second animator in history to receive a special Academy Award for his work behind Walt Disney himself.

    Walter Lantz got his first major job in animation at Universal, directing Disney’s toon-that-got-away, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After a few years chafing under the studio system, Lantz founded his own independent operation. He still sold cartoons to Universal, but the characters now belonged to him. Though Woody would prove his most famous creation when introduced in 1940’s Knock Knock, Lantz had a full company of animated players to fall back on.

    The brightest stars of the bunch became ancillary Universal Studios Florida ambassadors. Winnie Woodpecker and Chilly Willy got their own lines of merchandise. Andy Panda, Lantz’s oldest animal actor, was not so lucky.

    He only appeared on souvenirs that called for the whole crew, as far away from center stage as possible. His walkaround character hung to the sides of early promotional photos. Not long after the park opened, he disappeared entirely.

    Chilly Willy hasn’t strolled the Studios in a while, but his souvenirs still sell. Winnie, at least, returns for special occasions. It’s hard to say why Andy disappeared – might have something to do with the character’s early history of racist Black caricatures – but despite co-starring in Woody’s first cartoon and playing a part in the latest reimagining, he hasn’t been seen since.

    Hercules & Xena

    Hercules and Xena
    Image: Universal

    The first wave of changes to Universal Studios Florida’s cornerstone attractions came in 1996 with the closures of the Ghostbusters Spooktacular, Screen Test Home Video Adventure, and Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre. Time, as it tends to do, marched on. Seven years removed from its last movie and five from the cartoon, Ghostbusters was supplanted by the second-hottest ticket of 1996, Twister. The magic of blue screen technology wasn’t so magical anymore, losing its real estate to an elaborate preview for Islands of Adventure. With Murder, She Wrote airing its final episode that May, Universal wasted no time finding another small-screen replacement.

    Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its eclipsing spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess had already been on the air for two years when Hercules & Xena: Wizards of the Screen opened in 1997. It copied Mystery Theatre’s structure down to the Foley stage, breaking down the filmmaking process into easy and entertaining audience participation. It did get some upgrades in the transition, though – Angela Lansbury never had to act with a giant animatronic spider.

    Most Universal visitors remember them for that show, but both characters had been dishing out autographs as early as 1996.

    Wizards of the Screen was not long for the world. It closed in 2000, a year after Hercules ended and a year before Xena did the same. Some sources blame it on a lawsuit from stars Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless over unpaid syndication royalties, but that wasn’t filed until three years later. The real reason is likely more mundane.

    As a Universal spokesman told the Orlando Sentinel in 1999, “It’s the kind of show you can change without the audience asking where it went.”

    It’s a fitting eulogy not just to the show, but every other character on this list.