Home » Universal Studios Florida Opening Day Attractions Ranked

    Universal Studios Florida Opening Day Attractions Ranked

    souvenir video footage of the Production Tram Tour

    On June 7th, 1990, after six months of delays, Universal Studios Florida opened to an anxious public. The stars, about 20 cartoons, and 50 humans came out just for the occasion. Any doubts of the park’s success were allayed by creative consultant and de facto emcee Steven Spielberg as he cut the celluloid ribbon: “We’re really happy to be here in Florida and we’ll be here forever.”

    By the end of the day, forever sounded a lot more optimistic – one in every ten guests asked for a refund or rain check. Kong refused to perform. Jaws kept biting boats. An early morning power outage calmed Earthquake. And those are just the famous breakdowns – E.T. Adventure racked up two-hour lines over technical difficulties too mundane to report. The only thing that worked reliably was live entertainment, but the park’s biggest crowd-pleasers were still months, if not years away.

    No Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show. No American Tail Theater. No Blues Brothers, at least not in their current stomping grounds. And though Beetlejuice was already stinking up the place, he had no Graveyard or Revue.

    The early history of Universal Studios Florida has been exaggerated, forgotten, and, in some cases, rewritten outright – the souvenir VHS tape, Experience the Magic of Movies, free-associates the first few years into a park that never actually was. Most theme park scholars know Back to the Future: The Ride came late to the party in 1991, but fewer realize just how little there actually was on day one.

    Without counting the Boneyard, the Marx Brothers, or similarly line-less amusements, Universal Studios Florida opened its gates with a lucky 13 rides and shows. The majority of that inaugural line-up would last at least the decade, but this list is not about any eventual legacies. The following rankings weigh the attractions only as they existed that balmy Thursday in June and the tumultuous summer thereafter.

    The commercial called it “The Greatest Hollywood Production Ever.” Consider these the biggest scenes, from worst to first.

    13. Production Tram Tour

    souvenir video footage of the Production Tram Tour
    Image: Universal

    The eleventh-hour addition lands at thirteenth place.

    Universal Studios Florida wasn’t supposed to have a tram tour. Early plans that hewed closer to the Hollywood blueprint were scuttled when Disney announced a strangely similar marquee attraction for its own studio park. To counter the alleged, if never prosecuted theft, Universal literally doubled down, bumping the project’s budget from $200 to $500 million.

    Who needs a tram tour when all of Universal’s signature showstoppers like King Kong and Jaws are getting their own rides?

    Universal, the fledgling theme park conglomerate then famous only for a tram tour, needed a tram tour. Thus, with a few borrowed “ride vehicles” from the parking lot, the Production Tram Tour was born.

    Anyone who rode it or pushed a stroller out of its way should already know the Tour was a hasty addition. Simply put, the park was not designed to have a ten-ton train constantly snaking through it. The street sets were built wide enough to accommodate full film crews, but those also came with barricades and other guest-restrictive measures. The trams had two defensive maneuvers to fight foot traffic – slow down or weave. All the while, those onboard stared at slow-moving scenery they already walked past twice that day. The other half of the tour gave them an intimate look at the backside of soundstages.

    Favorably, the Production Tram Tour gave the park a little more backlot magic. Honestly, it was something to do when everything else broke. It closed in 1995 as the park’s first major casualty. Most visitors couldn’t tell the difference.

    12. Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre

    the second sound studio in Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre
    Image: Universal

    When Universal Studios Florida opened, Murder, She Wrote was smack in the middle of its celebrated 12-season run. There was no better time to christen it with a theme park attraction and, given the show’s nature, the Mystery Theatre was about as good as any adaptation could get.

    Like its Disney-MGM counterpart, the Monster Sound Show, the Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre broke the postproduction process down into easily digestible, audience-participatory chunks. To its credit, Universal’s show had more chunks.

    As executive producers, guests could observe (and occasionally sabotage) picture-lock editing, Foley sound effect recording, and dialogue looping. Piece by piece, Angela Lansbury’s park-exclusive mystery came together, plus or minus a detour to make King Kong roar.

    The Mystery Theatre was a reliable people-eater. The post studios operated as separate theaters, each taking a full crowd simultaneously before cycling them onto the next.

    In function, the show was a life saver. In form, it was the least exciting show in the mix. Not that the intrepid Jessica Fletcher is to blame – the eventual Hercules and Xena replacement also tried and failed to make sound editing fun as a team sport.

    Bonus points awarded for being one of only two attractions aimed primarily at adults. The other one fared better in the rankings.

    11. Animal Actors

    a horse refusing to stand during Animal Actors
    Image: Universal

    A monkey does a loop-de-loop. What more do you want?

    Although the mammalian cast has shrunk over the years – the primates and horses wanted too much money – the bulletproof appeal of Animal Actors remains unchanged. It’s fun to watch cute things do cool things. So it was and so shall it be.

    Like the Mystery Theater, this amphitheater swallowed crowds whole. It didn’t have air-conditioning but it did have shade, seats, and TV’s Lassie. Proof of its popularity can be measured by magnetic tape – no attraction earned more home video footage than Animal Actors.

    It places so low only because everything else places higher; no disrespect to the Jagger-impersonating orangutan, but there were far grander thrills in store. Grander apes, too.

    10. The Phantom of the Opera Horror Make-Up Show

    an illustrated collage for the Phantom of the Opera Horror Make-Up Show
    Image: Universal

    There was and perhaps remains no more potent example of the Universal Studios Florida spirit than the variously named Horror Make-Up Show. The original incarnation, dedicated to the original Universal monster, played fastest and loosest with good taste.

    A disembodied head begged for its life until the audience cheered loud enough for one of the hosts to put a bullet in its brain. The topic of blood squibs was illustrated with footage from Scarface. There were condom jokes. And that’s not counting the everyday viscera.

    Compared to any existing standard of theme park entertainment, let alone in Orlando, the Horror Make-Up Show was punk rock. Tourists unsold on the difference between Disney and the new guys just needed a good stab-wound demonstration to understand. Only one travel destination showed eager crowds how to make a Brundlefly abomination and did before their very eyes every 20 minutes.

    Crucially, even to this day, Horror Make-Up served as an easy-going and infectious ambassador for Universal’s storied genre history. Guests could meet Frankenstein in the rotting, green flesh on Hollywood Boulevard, but the lifecast that rendered his legendary face was hanging right there in the Pantages lobby. For monster kids and the monster kids at heart, it was and remains the promised land. For anyone still skittish about the red stuff, that was the point – it was rated PG-13 and everything.

    Horror Make-Up was an educational geek show, peeling back the latex to reveal the fun and games behind blood and guts. With the Phantom preshow, Jeff Goldblum beast, and fresh b-roll from the golden age of practical effects, it was as strong as it’d ever be. Now, it’s the closest thing Universal Studios Florida has to a historic landmark.

    9. The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera

    the entrance sign for Hanna-Barbera
    Image: Universal, Warner Bros.

    Youngsters have never been Universal Studios Florida’s strong suit. Expansions like Curious George Goes To Town and replacements like Shrek 4-D at least leveled the playing field, but the current kiddie slate is an embarrassment of riches compared to opening day. There were, charitably, three attractions aimed directly at the littlest guests.

    Of those three, The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera got the fewest billboards and served the quietest function. Graded on the curve of that first summer, Funtastic was as reliable as rides got, a blessing for park brass and a curse for guests – for once, long lines nothing was broken. The preshow included a brief lesson in animation courtesy of the guys with their names above the automatic doors, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The ride proper broke in many a visitor for the grown-up recreation a few soundstages away. But right next door was a living, breathing animation studio then tapping into the white-hot adolescent zeitgeist. And that other family attraction, as technically difficult as it was, took riders directly into its source material, no simulator needed; the limitation of that technology has always been hiding right there in the root word.

    What Funtastic really did, especially in those primeval days, was provide Universal with a cast of recognizable, huggable, and collectible day players. By the late 1980s, only Scooby-Doo and Yogi Bear were still starring in new episodes of their respective series, but every paying customer through the turnstiles knew who Fred Flintstone was. The attraction and its celluloid cast granted the brand-new park something Disney had relied on for decades – timelessness.

    Unfortunately, timelessness got old. That working cartoon studio eventually made the part-time Wacky Racers obsolete. But in 1990, their animated prestige could only be matched by Looney Tunes. Anyone doubting their bonafides need only check the gift shop, where all manner of plushes and lifestyle goods left cartoon dust clouds on the shelves.

    The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera may have been a minor attraction, but without it, there might not have been any more majors.

    8. Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies

    Psycho stage in The Art of Making Movies
    Image: Universal

    The park’s other PG-13 attraction gets a bum rap. It was an odd addition in 1990, 14 years removed from Alfred Hitchcock’s final film and ten from his death. In between, home video gave his work new life and academics took the French lead in reappraising it. To the average parkgoer, he was the Psycho guy – a connection made conveniently clearer by the Bates Motel and mansion across the park, as well as the shot-on-site Psycho IV: The Beginning TV movie. Synergy aside, the only reason to center an entire experience on Alfred Hitchcock was because he really was that good. Even in death, there was no better teacher of his craft than the man with the million-dollar profile himself.

    But before the schoolwork, the candy coating – a moving montage of his greatest work, partially remastered in 3D and rudely interrupted by The Birds. With any wayward interests piqued, a more educational show broke down the infamous Psycho shower scene into its basest, suspenseful elements. From there, guests were free to learn about blue-screen composition, forced perspective, and unconventional carousel rides. Each demonstration was hosted by one of Hitchcock’s iconic leads, explaining the gags as they remembered them the first time.

    The attraction offered a crash course on the finer points of filmmaking from legends who saw them written down. Nothing built at the resort since has so exhaustively paid tribute to the art that made it all possible. It also did something no other edutaining diversion could – Hitchcock allowed study at its own pace. Guests could walk in through the gift shop if they wanted to spend extra time around the effects, play Jimmy Stewart a little longer, or watch a featurette on the Master of Suspense’s storied cameos. The two opening acts provided the hook. Whatever came next was left to simple curiosity.

    And if volunteering to fall off the Eiffel Tower wasn’t education enough, his filmography was available on home video at the end.

    7. Dynamite Nights Stunt Spectacular

    the trawler ready to explode in Dynamite Nights
    Image: Universal

    How do you beat Disney fireworks? With lots and lots of assault rifles.

    Until very late in the day, the show was explicitly named after Miami Vice. Possibly because the series was six-months-cancelled by the time the park opened, the tie-in fell through, leaving only a few speedboats and Jan Hammer’s score in New Wave memoriam. The reruns’ loss, however, was the park’s gain.

    Dynamite Nights Stunt Spectacular gave Universal Studios Florida it’s signature goodnight kiss. That slight separation meant those pyrotechnic memories belonged to the place, not a brand. A DEA-led drug raid. Ear-splitting gunfire. A fishing trawler exploding in half. Can’t blame any source material – that’s all Universal magic.

    As easy as the violent excess is to mock now, Dynamite Nights doubled as the biggest filmmaking demonstration on-property. Stunts were linked together as three “scenes” shot in rapid succession with an emphasis on safe rehearsal beforehand. No waterborne action show, a fittingly small pond as it is, ever got half as ambitious. Might’ve leaned harder on the “-tainment” part of “edutainment,” but for something this proudly overblown, landing both parts at all is an achievement.

    Disney sent its guests home with one last spoonful of sugar.

    Universal sent them home with singed eyebrows.

    Two kinds of people, etc.

    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.