Home » Retro Rewind: Universal Studios Florida – Experience The Magic of Movies

    Retro Rewind: Universal Studios Florida – Experience The Magic of Movies

    Opening Day

    The Partners statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse has its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Most people assume the statue of Universal Studio Florida’s founder is Abraham Lincoln. That’s not an entirely fair comparison – you won’t find the name of MCA/Universal chair Lew Wasserman on any exits down I-4 – but it is indicative of a lasting culture clash between the Orlando theme park heavyweights. For the Magic Kingdom’s 25h anniversary, Disney smeared Cinderella Castle with 400 gallons of Pepto-pink icing and made it the world’s biggest birthday cake. This year marks Universal Orlando Resort’s 30th anniversary. Unless they’re planning to put out a t-shirt later this year, it’ll likely go uncelebrated.

    Opening Day

    History is practically a buy-in for Disney Parks fandom. Right now on the ShopDisney website, a crew neck t-shirt with the logo of an ill-fated nightclub district that closed twelve years ago can be yours for only $25. Entire books have been written on Disney attractions that never made it off the drawing board. But, to paraphrase the competition’s current billboards, history is not Universal.

    Universal Studios Hollywood in the 1920s

    That makes Universal Studios Florida: Experience The Magic Of Movies the most valuable primary source on the subject by default, if not entirely by design. Everyone nodding along likely has fond memories of it, the first souvenir VHS tape Universal Studios Florida ever sold. There’s very little reason, though, that even the most devout rewinders would’ve bought more than one copy over the seven-or-so years it took up shelf space in the park. What seems to be one warmly remembered video is actually three significantly different cuts, with slight revisions for intermediate releases, further confused by two different copyright dates. The three major versions tell a story of a failing studio and burgeoning theme park, but even then, the history is mostly in the margins.

    If you’re following along at home, the quickest way to tell what cut you’re watching is by the earliest title shown. Uploads vary – the 1994 and 1996 versions both use the middle logo and might include a green production card – but this should put you on the right track:

    VHS Title Comparison
    Images: Universal

    The first edition of Experience The Magic Of Movies hit gift shops in 1991, Universal Studios Florida’s make-or-break sophomore year. Guests were still routinely cashing in their rain checks from the disastrous inaugural summer. The lede of the Orlando Sentinel’s opening day coverage says it all: “Jaws didn’t bite and Kong was anything but king…” Later on in the same article, a Texan visitor assured reporters she would be telling her entire home state not to go. Universal’s optimistic attendance forecast called for six million paying customers in the first year. They cleared less than half that.

    Original gates on opening day

    The solution was $50 million split unevenly between fresh, mostly fool-proof live entertainment and Back to the Future: The Ride. Like A Dream Called Walt Disney World before it, Universal’s first souvenir video had an ulterior motive. Come, ride the movies, then take home the tape to impress your friends. No matter what the gossip was in Texas, Universal Studios Florida was new, improved, and open for business.

    In the first thirty seconds, a cowboy ziplines out of an exploding shack, King Kong knocks two soldiers off a burning train, and Beetlejuice makes a sleazy entrance. TV legend John Forsythe calls cut and sets a proud tone: “You have not seen anything yet.” Given the park’s notorious reliability at the time, he probably wasn’t wrong. Which explains why this video, no matter what cut you’re watching, gives away so much of every attraction it covers. Each demonstration of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies gets its due, with preshow interviews with his biggest stars cut in as needed. Every big bang from the Dynamite Nights Stunt Spectacular is present and accounted for. Even the Screen Test Home Adventure, a $30 upcharge to experience the magic of green screen technology and replace William Shatner in Star Trek, earns a minute in the spotlight.

    Cowboy ziplining away from explosion

    In its loud and proud youth, Universal Studios Florida knew blessedly little restraint. But of all the cuts, the original spends the most time away from pyrotechnics and great apes. Only six minutes in, John Forsythe provides a breezy history of film as a medium, from Edison’s kinetoscopes to the rise of nickelodeons. He also recounts the legendary, if possibly apocryphal story of how studio founder Carl Laemmle settled on the name when a truck marked “Universal Pipe Fittings” drove by. The story of the movies was worth mentioning in 1991 because Universal Studios Florida was supposed to be the next chapter. Before the 1994 cut, in a revision that dropped Screen Test, added the long-awaited Jaws 2.0, and retained a 1991 copyright, that history was already gone.

    John Forsythe in front of the Psycho house

    With that first, invisible edit, the videos become their own messy resource of Universal Studios Florida’s history. Some things remain constant. All the versions have rapturous footage of the park’s opening day, shot in the hours the shark stopped working and Kong had to be moved by hand. John Forsythe narrates all of them, though his material around the park was shot sometime in late 1990, when Finnegan’s was still made up as Mindy’s for John Landis’s Oscar. The b-roll never changes either, but that’s where the discrepancies start.

    King Kong

    Expertly peeled eyes will notice the aerial footage was shot before the park ever opened, with a big green hole where An American Tail Theatre should’ve been. By the earliest known 1991-copyrighted cut of Experience the Magic of Movies, the theatre had already been replaced by Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, another curveball since it was added in the summer of 1992. That same footage survives into the 1996 version, where the showcased T2-3D: Battle Across Time is an empty field behind the Hollywood facades. The park’s primordial off-model Beetlejuice still makes a cameo, harassing tourists in a business-casual Hawaiian shirt and trench coat.

    Front gate from above
    Image: Universal

    But that’s the trivia you have to know you’re looking for. There are bigger anachronisms in plain sight. The Ghostbusters Spooktacular was overhauled in 1993 with a new preshow and expanded story involving Louis Tully shilling franchise opportunities. The 1994 cut still covers the show’s earlier incarnation, with a Universal tour guide showing off the movie set as it comes to life. Though the 1996 cut removes that segment entirely since the attraction closed the same year, it still sneaks in a shot of Gozer and a still from the film behind Forsythe as he talks about the “wizard’s wand” of special effects. The Boneyard and the forgotten Production Tram Tour are scrubbed entirely from the 1996 release, as are any references to active production they could easily remove. In a surprising bit of continuity, John Forsythe returns in the same suit and tie to introduce T2-3D and A Day in the Park With Barney against green screen.

    Ghostbusters vs Stay-Puft

    The tale of the tape is, well, in the tape. The original 1991 release runs feature-length at 75 minutes. The 1994 release runs about 70. The final 1996 release doesn’t even break an hour at 55 minutes. Universal had survived with a line-up that remained mostly unchanged since the tardy addition of Back to the Future: The Ride. The Ghostbusters Spooktacular was the first major loss, T2-3D the first billboard-worthy addition. The rest of those twenty minutes lost were casualties of Hollywood East. Universal Studios Florida wouldn’t be a national hub of film and TV production, but it didn’t need to be anymore. The most telling leftover in the ’96 cut is Screen Test Home Adventure hiding in the background of a faked stunt outside Kongfrontation. It closed a few weeks before the tape reached gift shops. The following year it would be replaced by the Islands of Adventure Preview Center.

    Loading Back to the Future: The Ride

    The blurry lines between each version of Universal Studios Florida: Experience the Magic of Movies are as much an editing shortcut as a mission statement. Trawl any forum and you’ll find threads dedicated to each and every fallen Disney attraction, but you’ll probably only find one for the collective “Old Universal.” That’s not a shortcoming of the line-up – it doesn’t get much more memorable than a four-story-tall robotic ape – but a matter of intent.

    The ET Adventure

    More than its rides, which may or may not have been working that day anyhow, Universal Studios Florida sold itself on attitude. Big, maybe brash, but always with the electric pulse of a rolling camera. Whenever I try to explain what the park (singular at the time) was like to friends only familiar with a post-Potter Universal Orlando, this tape (singular because I only have the ’94 cut) is the best I can do. The attractions were each unprecedented in their own ways and, to borrow a filmmaking phrase, put all that money on the screen. The world’s largest Pepper’s ghost effect. A nightly speedboat chase with blank-loaded submachine guns. Monsters, two Dan Aykroyds, and Marilyn Monroe walking around like they own the place. No matter when you tuned in across the early ‘90s, Universal Studios Florida was a place that defied description and justifiable existence. Reckless to theme park standards and reverent to silver screen legends in equal measure. The spirit right there in its original neon marquee – potently of its time and timeless.

    Frankenstein with fan
    Image: Universal

    It was always supposed to be fleeting, successful enough to revise, remake, and reboot. By the end of the decade, Universal Studios Florida would never be the same. In his closing send-off, John Forsythe provides a perfect eulogy:

    “First, we watched the movies. Now at Universal Studios Florida, the illusion has become reality. As we go into the future with increasing ingenuity of technological effects, no limits can be placed on the possibilities of tomorrow. For this is Universal Studios Florida. This is fantasy and magic. And now, let’s go ride the movies.”

    Seek out this tape. Watch it. Enjoy it responsibly because it may be the only first-hand historical document we ever get on the subject. Feel it, if you can. Then next time you walk the falsified streets of Hollywood at Universal Studios Florida, pay attention to the stars on the ground. There’s one that might inspire some of that old spirit.

    John Forsythe star
    Image: Universal