As I go through my galleries, sometimes I find surprising things. For instance, I have evidence that I visited Universal Studios Florida in January 1999. I then have evidence that I returned in November to visit the newly-opened Islands of Adventure. Oddly, I didn’t go to the Universal Studios side during that trip. I just wasn’t that much into Universal Studios much back then. Today, with both sides having so many new attractions (and cool Harry Potter areas), I can’t imaging not visiting both!
But I digress.
After touring the preview center earlier in the year, I returned on November 16, 1999 to experience this new theme park. Unfortunately, my digital photos from that trip lost all date code information, so I can’t tell you the time in these photos, only the day.
There were no crowds. It was very different than showing up to a Disney park early in the morning where people are lined up for rope drop.
And no waits at any of the rides either!
The lack of crowds continued as I walked through the park. The frustrating thing was that many of the rides were down during that morning, and it was actually a challenge to find something to do! Eventually they got them all running, but I was still able to ride everything in the park by the afternoon.
I remember being very impressed with how the park looked. So many details! It sure had that “Disney quality” look to it.
Even the carnival games section in Lost Continent was highly detailed, even if I thought these high end parks shouldn’t have carnival games sections. (I’m lookin’ at YOU, Animal Kingom’s DinolandUSA and California Adventure’s Pixar Pier!)
And I was blown away by this restaurant! It was absolutely amazing inside and almost perfect. Almost.
That restaurant was one of my all-time favorite spots in any theme park. But, inside, there were rough edges that kept it from being 100%. For example, their menu boards, while nice, were illuminated by clamp-on lights like you’d find at a local hardware store! There were actually a number of “rough edges” throughout the park where it seems like they just didn’t bother going all the way.
Still, the Dueling Dragons coaster was nice and had a great queue leading in…
…but, as you were walking out, there were some nicely detailed towers with wooden “shutters” on the windows. They didn’t paint the edges of the wood, leaving bare wood exposed and clashing with the rest of the theme. Details, guys, details. I wasn’t much of an “observer” back then, so I only noticed the things that really jumped out at me. And there were a lot.
And perhaps a bunch of these little things kept it from dominating over Disney from day one (though not having Mickey and all those Disney characters will always be a challenge). Still, it was better than any non-Disney thing I’d ever seen! I knew I’d be back.
Jurassic Park had an absolutely amazing Triceratops Encounter where you could get up close and personal with a “real” Triceratops as the park doctor examined it. I don’t think they allowed photos inside the attraction at first (they were far more restrictive back then), but I have a picture from the queue… (That’s me running video in the below image. I have a hours of video from that trip, somewhere.)
My favorite “attraction” of the entire visit was the talking Mystic Fountain. I probably spent more time watching it taunt visitors (and squirt them with water) than anything else in the park that day! It could do so much.
While the fountain remains in the park to this day, the version you see now is far more anemic than it was back then. Perhaps it’s because everyone is carrying expensive cell phones and they don’t want to ruin them. But, in 1999, it was all out water-war from this thing! I really need to dig out my 1999 video of the fountain to share sometime. Great stuff.
Skipping around a bit … An earlier version of Poseidon’s Fury was there, but it seems to look the same as today, as does Suess Landing. Funny enough, Green Eggs and Ham wasn’t open back then, either (and wasn’t on my last three visits to the park!). I don’t think I’ve ever gone when it was open.
But you could at least meet the Cat in the Hat!
But you could NOT ride this monorail thing! It sat dormant for years before finally turning in to the current trolley ride, using different racks. Back then, they at least had an animated vehicle slowly moving around the tracks. I wondered for years what it was going to be used for, and finally got to see it in 2019.
As far as characters, I saw Dudley Do Right, Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop and several others over in Toon Lagoon. And lots of parents explaining to their kids just who these characters were. (Really, Universal? Betty Boop? I’m old, and I only know of her because of syndicated programs on a local UHF station in Houston in the 1970s, before cable.)
Overall, it was a fun first visit, with so much potential, but there were just so many bits and pieces that didn’t feel completely done (and they remained that way for years). New pavement was already cracked. There was already mold growing around the bases of water rides. And just a general lack of spotlessness that Disney had conditioned us to.
But, it was clear Disney had it’s first real competitor and I was eager to see what would happen in coming years.
And since I recently bought my very first Universal Studios annual pass, I’d say they’ve done great work. And a huge portion of that work was ready to go back in 1999.
It’s not very often you get to visit a “new” theme park during it’s first season. I’m glad I was there.
Who would have thought that one day Harry Potter would come along and cause a large portion of this park to be ripped out and replaced with Hogwarts?
Until next time…