Home » T2 3-D: Behind-the-Screens of Universal’s Larger-Than-Life Lost Legend

T2 3-D: Behind-the-Screens of Universal’s Larger-Than-Life Lost Legend

Believe it or not, Central Florida has been a battleground since 1990. That’s when Universal Studios Florida opened, officially setting Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando on a back-and-forth battle to attract visitors to their respective parks. You might agree that Disney’s cornered the market on fairytales and fantasy; nighttime spectaculars; meet-and-greets; and certainly, family dark rides. 

But you won’t find anyone who can do larger-than-life special effects spectacles quite like Universal, and for years, their parks hosted perhaps the most revolutionary, massive, all-encompassing attraction ever. T2 3-D: Battle Across Time was a genuine Hollywood treasure… a $60 million mini-sequel to a box-office shattering film franchise that defined the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Image: Goddard Group / Universal

Of course, if it’s a year post-2000, it’s probably a year that at least one legendary Universal attraction has bit the dust. And like so many of Universal’s classics, T2 3-D is now officially gone, with its valuable real estate set aside for whatever’s new, now, and next. Today, we’ll dive into the behind-the-scenes of this James Cameron-helmed, star-studded extravaganza, relive the experience first-hand, and predict what’s to come at Universal Parks and Resorts. Many of our Lost Legends entries begin years before the attraction opens, but today’s feature instead starts decades after


Image: Orion Pictures / Lightstorm

2029… Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The steaming, gritty, urban wreckage that remains looks (appropriately) like the grim, polluted, desolate visions of the future popularized in the 1980s. There (or perhaps, then), humanoid cyborgs called “terminators” scour the desolate ruins seeking out the remote human factions that remain to exterminate them. It’s humanity’s own fault, though, because…

1997… As a contractor for the U.S. government, technology pioneer Cyberdyne Systems develops Skynet, an artificial intelligence defense system able to manage the country’s nuclear arsenal. Learning at a geometric rate, Skynet begins to connect to and overtake the United States’ military computer systems. As its programmers try to shut it down, Skynet reaches self-awareness, deems humanity a threat, and launches all of the country’s nuclear weapons in unison… “Judgment Day.”

1984…. Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to do With It” and Lionel Richie’s “Hello” top the charts; Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom light up the big screen; Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale fight it out for the presidency. It’s also the year that the machines arrived…

Image: Orion Pictures / Lightstorm

The Terminator premiered October 1984 as the directorial debut of a little-known filmmaker named James Cameron. The 1984 film – set in the same year – follows one particular humanoid T-800 terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time from 2029 to assassinate a woman named Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) who, to her surprise, is destined to give birth to a Resistance fighter who will defeat Skynet and save the world… unless the time-traveling Terminator can kill her first.

The Terminator became an international blockbuster, earning $78 million (against a $6 million budget), universal critical acclaim for its action and special effects, and preservation in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It singlehandedly rocketed both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger into massive action careers, and (of course) spawned a catalogue of spin-offs and sequels.

Which brings us forward in time…

Universal Studios Florida

Image: Universal

When Universal Studios Florida opened in June 1990, its very existence was an act of resistance. Though Universal’s world famous Studio Tour had been carting guests through the actual, real, storied backlots of their working movie studios in Hollywood for decades, a Universal Studios Florida would be an obvious, outright attempt to break into the market created by Walt Disney World. The plans had been scrapped time and time again through the 1980s up until Stephen Spielberg recommended a fellow Lost Legend: Back to the Future – The Ride, which served to empower the concept and green-lit its announcement.

So when their Universal Studios Florida began construction, it was a David against an established, 47-square mile Goliath. And to make matters worse, Disney’s still-new CEO Michael Eisner (who was born and bred in the film industry as CEO of Paramount) had gotten wind of Universal’s gutsy plans for a movie-themed park in Disney’s backyard and initiated his own preemptive strike, announcing and opening the Disney-MGM Studios right as Universal’s park went into production.

Image: Disney

And of course, not only did Disney unapologetically nab Universal’s movie motif… the new Disney-MGM Studios also stole the concept of a headlining Studio Tour through production facilities and past staged special effects encounters!

Universal was forced back to the drawing board and made a brilliant decision: slicing away the individual elements of its Californian Studio Tour and growing each staged encounter into full, standalone attractions. We’re proud to have told that story in-depth as it applies to other entries in our series, Lost Legends: JAWS and Kongfrontation.

Universal had made a name for itself in its action-oriented disaster rides, placing guests face-to-tooth with monstrous sharks, a raging ape, snarling dinosaurs, disastrous earthquakes, and more, and just as the park opened, a new name in action came to the forefront of pop culture…

Judgment Day

Image: TriStar / Lightstorm

Terminator 2: Judgment Day fast-forwards 11 years after the events of Terminator, with a hardened, unstable, vigilante Sarah Connor imprisoned for attempting to blow-up a computer factory, and ten-year-old John Connor (our one-day savior, played by Edward Furlong) raised all his life as a warrior. Having failed to kill Sarah before her son could be born, Skynet sends a new, advanced “liquid metal” Terminator model – the T-1000 – back to 1995 to kill the young John. The poly-alloy villain (played by Robert Patrick) is unstoppable…

Image: TriStar / Lightstorm

Except for one astounding switch. The future John Connor and his Resistance have commandeered and reprogrammed an old, outdated T-800 and sent the rusty Schwarzenegger model to 1995 as well, this time to protect his mother and his own younger self. (“Come with me if you want to live.”)

Over $522 million dollars later, Terminator 2 had proven that the franchise would become a juggernaut to transcend decades. And then and there, Jay Stein (then-Chairman and CEO of Universal Theme Parks) began shopping for concepts to bring Terminator to life at the brand-new Universal Studios Florida.


Image: The Goddard Group

Jay Stein turned to Universal favorite Gary Goddard (later, the mastermind behind Universal’s Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and the industry-shaping Jurassic Park: The Ride), who’d designed a Conan The Barbarian stunt show for Universal Studios Hollywood. Stein asked Gary if he could develop a new Terminator stunt show to replace his own Conan installation.

In an interview with Flickering Myth, Goddard elaborated: “I watched Terminator 2 and thought, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to turn this into a live stage show?’ It’s all chases. On trucks, on motorcycles, through hospitals and buildings, and then you’ve got this silver guy. Were we going to have a ten-foot guy in a big metal suit and a look-alike Arnold actor? That would have been awful. My team and I were having a real hard time coming up with ideas. Someone in my team told me that we should just call them back and tell them that this wasn’t going to work, and I told him that you never call them back to tell them that because they’ll go find someone who can do the job. We had to figure it out.”

Image: TriStar / Lightstorm

That’s ultimately why Goddard and company did what they’d done in so many projects before and since: raised the bar… he suggested a fusion of a live-action stunt show with a 3-D film and unprecedented in-theater special effects. “I thought, ‘Well, what if we used 3-D?’ We could make it work somehow. Then I thought, ‘Well, we’ve got the 3-D glasses on, what else could we use?’ It was like a magic trick. We would have people going in and out of the screen.”

Initially, James Cameron resisted any attempt to turn his Terminator into a ride. But after more than a year of concept development, Goddard and his team presented the idea to the infamously protective Cameron. According to Goddard, the storied filmmaker looked over the plans and said, “This is actually pretty good. You got the mythology right. You got the story down. I’m impressed. This is really good… Not that I can’t make it a little bit better.” It had to have been a pretty significant relief given that there was no way the creative team could get Arnold Schwarzenegger on-board without James Cameron officially sanctioning the project.

Cameron, Goddard, and Scwarzenegger. Image: The Goddard Group

Of course, this is James Cameron, infamous for his Rowling-like eye-for-detail (which, if you believe the rumors, almost derailed the Disney’s Animal Kingdom land based on his AVATAR) so he officially came on-board to supervise the project. Under his watch, the new action attraction would be elevated to a canon, in-universe short film continuing the story after Terminator 2: Judgment Day (to eventually connect to the Terminator 3 he was scripting out). Arnold, Eddie Furlong, Linda Hamilton, and Robert Patrick were back on set for what might truly be the most groundbreaking and star-studded theme park attraction to date.

Ultimately, T2 3-D’s production cost was reportedly between $36 milion and $60 million, with the film itself accounting for $24 million (or $2 million per minute, beating a Lost Legend: Captain EO‘s record as the most expensive film per-minute ever). A full-scale mock-up of the proposed theater was constructed in a hangar at the Van Nuys Airport, including a triptych of three silver screens (each 23 by 50 feet), with 60 Iwerks projectors broadcasting the synchronized 70mm film at 30 frames per second. That’s also when Gary Goddard and his team had to test out some of the unthinkable effects they’d concoted for this first-of-its-kind live 3-D adventure.

T2 3-D: Battle Across Time officially opened April 27, 1996. What exactly did it have in store? On the next page, we’ll journey back in time to 1996 and step into Cyberdyne Systems for a grand product unveiling to find out… The Future Is Waiting…

It’s 1996. The iPod is still five years out. By modern standards, accessible technology is practically rudimentary. But while we lag a world behind, one corporation is thinking of the world to come…

Image: Universal

Cyberdyne Systems. From the start, many will recognize it as the Black Mirror-tinged gloabl technology corporation from the Terminator film series whose technological advances (ostensibly to make us “happier, healthier, and richer”) toe the line with the dystopian… That’s no mistake. Secretly, we know that Cyberdyne’s greatest creation is destined to wipe out most of humanity and that – in the unlikely event that you and I survive – we’ll be doomed to hide away in the obliterated remnants as artificially intelligent machines controlled by Skynet scour the ruins of civilization hunting us down like rats.

Eh-hem. But for now, we’ve stumbled across a most unlikely sight… A full decade before iPhone announcements became international ceremonies attended by thousands, Cyberdyne has decided to lift the veil and invite us inside their ultra-secret headquarters for a product unveiling like we’ve never seen before.

The queue weaves through the stark marble-and-silver interior queue before leading us and 700 of our closest friends into the imposing, geometric Miles Bennett Dyson Memorial Auditorium (named for the recently-deceased engineer responsible for Cyberdyne’s greatest achievement. If you believe the rumors, Dr. Dyson was killed just a few years ago by a vigilante and escaped mental patient named Sarah Connor).

Image: Orlando Informer

But enough of that! Today is a celebration, and to know it, you need look no further than Kimberley Duncan, who appears at the tip of the triangular pre-show room on a glass balcony surrounded by no less than two dozen Cyberdyne logos. She’s dressed in a quintessential ’90s red pants-suit with ascot, and she’s chipper… too chipper. “Well, you obviously know who I am,” she singsongs, “I’m Kimberley Duncan! Cyberdyne’s Director of Community Relations and Media” breath “Control. Today you’re going to see a classified presentation of our latest and most exciting technology, and won’t that just be super?” She chirps.

She directs our attention to the large, six-paneled screens on either side of her and steps off. The CYBERDYNE SYSTEMS logo gleams and glistens, then pulls away. The crooning voice of a disembodied announcer (famed voice actor Jim Cummings of… well… just about every cartoon you’ve ever seen) picks up… It’s peaceful, if not a little uneasy.

“Imagine a world… where butterflies run on batteries…”

We see students in a darkened classroom gazing up at a screen where a teacher is projected. “Imagine a school system where children in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Seattle all learn exactly the same lesson from exactly the same teacher at exactly the same time every day…”

“…Where a grandmother can choose from 5,000 television channels, and if she can’t pick, her television picks for her.”

“…Where a mother can tuck her baby in at night…” With the click of a button, cold, robotic arms lower on either side of a child in bed, pulling the comforter up to her chin “…from halfway around the planet.”

Now, the announcers voice and music lose all hint of frivolity. “Our goal? Complete domination of global communication… making your life happier, healthier, and richer. Cyberdyne Systems is also the leader in defense technology. by the end of the decade, Cyberdyne will unveil the most powerful thinking machine ever imagined: SKYNET. When the Skynet system comes online, this nation and its allies will be protected by the ultimate guardian: the first fully computer-controlled defense system.

“Skynet satellites can read the license plate of any car in any city anywhere in the world. Commanding all our weapon systems in one coordinated forced, Skynet also commands the nation’s nuclear arsenal, taking it out of human hands and thus reducing the possibility of error to absolute zero.”

A flash of static jumps across the screen. “Soon, we can all sleep soundly knowing that Skynet is running the show!” The image and audio begin to flicker. “Cyberdyne Systems… the future of national defense… the futur–”

Image: Lightstorm

Suddenly, we’re patched into a new, auxiliary video feed: Sarah Conner. “Are we in? Okay, listen to me everybody… we don’t have much time. Skynet is our enemy. It must be destroyed before it destroys us.”

As Sarah and John recount the looming apocolypse and refresh us on the goings-on of Terminator 2, they beg us to leave the building before it’s too late. Kimberley furiously reappears, desperately trying to win back the video feed and howling darkly into her phone, but it’s too late. We know the truth. Finally she manages to cut the Connors’ feed, drawing the spotlight back to herself. “…Well, wasn’t that just super? Okay, I want to apologize for that silly interruption. You know, it just takes a few sick, sad, warped individuals to ruin things for everyone doesn’t it? But enough of that. Let’s move on to our next exciting event, shall we? Super!”

As the doors beneath her swing open, we continue on…

Battle Across Time

Stepping through the doors, we find ourselves in a cavernous, marble auditorium that seats 700 – without a doubt, one of the largest 3-D theaters on the planet. It’s enormous and convincingly beige and blue with a very large presentation screen behind its ornate marble stage. With our “safety goggles” on, the unveiling can begin. But this is not your father’s 3-D theme park show.

Image: Universal

Kimberley Duncan is back, at the podium at the front of the stage standing before the metallic Cyberdyne logo. She’s on hand to introduce Cyberdyne’s newest revolution… not a phone or a tablet or a car, mind you, but a warrior. At her request, billowing fog rises from six spots on either side of the audience and an army of eight-foot-tall cybernetic robots arise from their holding places beneath the stage. They’re T-70s (“or as I like to call them, the Terminators”) – clunky and inefficient compared to the Schwarzenegger T-800 model and the liquid metal T-1000, but it’s only 1996, after all, and those more streamlined models won’t be created by Skynet for decades. As their piercing eyes scan the auditorium, 

They’re the most advanced fighting systems in the world, this demonstration can’t be complete unless we see what they can do. Paper silhouette targets lower from the ceiling as the Terminators lock-and-load, their automatic targeting systems focusing on the sheets.

In a hail of gunfire, the targets above us are shredded. As Kimberley leads us in a round of applause, she promises that the Terminators are only the start. “Our next project is Skynet! Skynet is –”

Before she can get another word in, an alarm sounds and smoke billows from the ceiling as Sarah and John rappel from the rafters. Sarah fires her rifle (complete with deafening blasts) to kill the alarm earning shrieks from the crowd. As Kimberley huddles, Sarah demands that she shut down the Terminators and fires a warning shot into the metallic Cyberdyne logo behind the screen. As the T-70s power down, the rifle blast left in the metal begins to liquify and heal over.

Sarah and John race down from the stage and through the theater as the metal reshapes into the T-1000 (disguised again as Robert Patrick’s police officer), stretching out into the crowd. When it spots them, the T-1000 snaps back to the stage where the live police officer appears. The T-1000 makes quick work of Kimberley and reprograms the Terminators to target them. But before he can, a time portal appears. Arnold’s T-800 is back, riding across the stage on screen before literally bursting out of the screen on a motorcycle. 

He rides across the stage and uses a deafening shotgun to blast back the T-1000. “I said I’d be back,” he affirms. “Come with me if you want to live.” As the officer staggers back to his feet, John hops onto the back of the motorcycle, which accelerates up a ramp and into the screen again.

The best way to see what happens next is with your own eyes, so we encourage you to pick up the unthinkable adventure here:

Propelled forward in time, the T-800 and John face the post-apocolyptic world. Their destination? Skynet itself. This is where the attration’s most amazing moments take place. Piercing into the core of Skynet, the walls sink away to create a three-screens tryptich that completely surrounds the audience – without a doubt, the largest and most immersive 3-D screen out there.

Deep inside Skynet, the duo encounter the self-aware computer network’s guardian: the T-1000000. Made of the same metallic alloy as our left-behind cyber-cob, the T-1000000 morphs into its true form: a liquid spider. It comes to life, storming the audience from all sides (which, combined with the 3-D, creates an almost  awe-inspiring sense of reality) as John and the Terminator (again, live on stage) fight the creature.

Image: Universal / Lightstorm / Goddard Group

One final act of sacrifice finishes off the creature. John jumps back in time to the present while the Terminator bids us farewell: “Hasta la vista… baby.” Skynet’s core explodes and – in a matter of seconds – an all-encompassing cloud of fog overtakes the entire auditorium while the seats physically lurch and fall, earning squeals and screams from the crowd.

As the audience applauds wildly, the Terminator appears on screen as Sarah speaks.

“So, the battle continues. And once again, I find I owe my son’s life to the heroic actions of a machine… a Terminator.”

I’ll Be Back

Image: Lightstorm / Universal / Goddard Group

Up until it’s closing day, T2 3-D: Battle Across Time played to enthusiastic, full audiences. But as time moved along, Universal began to reevaluate their movie-themed studio park and things began to shift… On the next page, we’ll dissect the goings-on that led to the closure of T2 3-D and try to imagine what the park could be planning to use the space for now… 

Hard Times

Frequent readers of our Lost Legends series will know what’s coming next. In the early 21st century, Universal started to get serious about its studio park. To do so, they had to face two debilitating facts.

First, that the age of the “studio” park was over. The ‘90s had seen a half-dozen “studio” parks open, each populated by big boxy showbuildings, light theming (which, in the “studio” case, meant exposed lighting rigs, flimsy facades, and bare “behind-the-scenes” motifs).

Image: Universal

But a new era of themed design – led by Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Universal’s own Islands of Adventure – had made such barren, beige “studio” parks look like cheap cop-outs.

Second, that their movie park’s movies were looking dated. As the new millennium dawned, it became very clear that Universal Studios Florida’s contents were almost entirely movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s – movies that audiences of the 2000s were unlikely to have much connection to.

Image: Universal

Compared to the ageless and timeless stories brought to life in the new park next door (super heroes, adventure, mythology, comic books, and Dr. Seuss), the movies embodied at Universal Studios Florida had exact years they could be tied to… and for every year that passed, 1975’s Jaws, for example, fell further and further from the minds (and importantly, hearts) of young audiences.

Put another way: It was only a matter of time.

Hasta la Vista, Baby

When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, Terminator was at its height – a seemingly unstoppable story elevated to among the era’s best. Terminator 2: Judgment Day only solidified the story and its characters as a viable franchise, with T2 3-D as its apex.

Image: Warner Bros.

Though James Cameron had promised a Terminator 3, other projects (including a little pet project called TITANIC) sidetracked its development. Though Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did debut in 2003, Cameron wasn’t involved. Then came Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys and the Fox TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that purposefully ignored them all. Even as each made big bucks at the box office, diminishing interest and reviews hinted that Terminator might’ve been best left to the 20th century with two strong entries, lest it become yet another overwrought, unending, creatively-confused franchise.

Even as third, fourth, and fifth entries debuted, the little “midquel” at Universal Studios continued along, becoming more and more necessarily self-aware and self-deprecating as its costumes, style, and Cyberdyne’s “advanced technologies” (VIDEO PHONE CALLS?) became more laughably retro. Perhaps its ‘80s campiness was what saved T2 3-D and made it such a pleasure to watch on each visit.

Image: Universal / Lightstorm / The Goddard Group

While movie-based attractions tend to have less repeat-appeal than rides, T2 3-D: Battle Across Time was a sincerely industry-changing attraction that was thrilling, groundbreaking, and astounding for every single day of its 21 year run. Think, for example, of its closest counterpart – Disney’s own star-studded 3-D spectacle Lost Legend: Captain EO – which felt quite long in the tooth at the close of its original decade-long run, and even overstayed its welcome during a 4-year “Tribute” run from 2010 – 2014.

But still, time moves on, and as we missed Judgment Day (1997, remember), we find ourselves at a chronological crossroads… We’re closer to John Connor’s world (2029… just 12 years away) than Sarah’s (1984… 33 years ago!). Yet another hint that Terminator’s time was growing short…

Modus operandi

Image: Universal

Universal Studios Hollywood shuttered its T2 3-D in 2012 (after a 13 year run, thanks to Hollywood’s delayed 1999 opening of the attraction). In its place would rise a super-sized version of Florida’s Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and an entire themed land dedicated to the Despicable Me franchise – part of Hollywood’s larger strategy to turn the utilitarian Upper Lot into a Disney-style theme park with a main street, park icon, and radiating themed lands.

Five years later, on September 7, 2017, Universal announced that – after more than twenty years – Universal Studios Florida’s original T2 3-D: Battle Across Time would close forever on October 8… one month later.

It’s not at all surprising that the holdover from 1996 would finally close… After all, Universal’s not exactly holding its cards close, here. Their plan is pretty public: aggressive determination to keep its Studio park packed with whatever’s hot, now. Sentimentality aside, lineage be damned, nothing is safe from progress, and Universal will remove even the most cared-for classic to keep up with the continuous upkeep that a studio park demands.

Image: Universal

 (And look… that can be a good thing or a bad thing! Not only does Universal unceremoniously topple fan-favorites the minute a more popular property emerges, but they also design these flavor-of-the-week attractions with their temporality in mind… Universal is content with measuring attractions’ lifetimes in seasons rather than decades, building Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon or Fast and Furious: Supercharged knowing full well that neither attraction will exist just a decade from now… they’re just not meant to!)   

What’s perhaps most surprising is that T2 3-D was the last of Universal’s esteemed classics to fall, with Jaws, Kongfrontation, Twister, Earthquake, and even Back to the Future all falling first (to Harry Potter, The Mummy, Jimmy Fallon, The Fast and the Furious, and The Simpsons respectively, for those keeping score).

The former T2 3-D theater (25). Image: Universal

We don’t yet know what will take Terminator’s place in Universal Studios Florida’s lineup, though Universal promises its closure will “make way for an all-new live action experience based on a high-energy Universal franchise. It will open in 2019. This is one of many exciting new experiences coming to Universal Orlando Resort as we continue our epic growth.”

The remaining T2 3-D at Universal Studios Japan opened alongside the park in 2001. 

Lost Legend

The unimaginable mix of special effects, thrills, self-deprecating humor, live action, and an actual, worthwhile plot made T2 3-D worth having around, even as Hollywood moved on. It was, understandably, a long-lived holdout of Universal’s early days, crafted by James Cameron himself, designed by Gary Goddard, and starring the very real stars of Terminator in a high-class production.

Its closure won’t cripple Universal Studios Florida, but T2 3-D did round out a day at the park. Our only hope is that – whatever Universal brings next, and as short-lived as it may eventually be – Universal chooses a live-action experience that can meet the incredible standard set by T2 3-D: Battle Across Time. If you enjoyed our look back at this closed classic, make the jump to our In-Depth Collections Library to pick up with another Lost Legend.

Now we want to know what you think. In the comments below, share your memories of T2 3-D: Battle Across Time. Was it time for this once-groundbreaking attraction to disappear, or was it somehow “timeless” even in its distinctly-90s style? What do you hope or expect Universal Orlando will bring to the table next in its attempts to keep its Studio park current? We can’t wait to read your ideas.