NOTE: I believe I may be incorrect about the dates here. I think these photos are actually from 1999. I am not sure why I have a bunch of Universal Studios photos that are off by one year, but from looking at my Disney trips, I see I visited in November 1999. With that in mind, assume that “1998” below is probably actually be “1999.”
Today I am quite familiar with Halloween and Christmas events at Disney, but there was a time “not too long ago” (but longer than many of you reading this have even existed) when Halloween wasn’t really much of a thing in the parks.
Back then, there was a small Fall transition where you’d start to see some pumpkins or Fall decorations before Christmas would take over later. I went through my photo gallery trying to see if I captured any of this “before Halloween” stuff, but I find that the first trip I made in November with a digital camera was in 1998.
I found some photos from Universal Studios Florida, back when it was just Universal Studios (long before Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and before Islands of Adventure opened).
Universal was already in Christmas mode by November at that time. Let’s take a look.
The original movie-themed park had different areas representing different big cities. As such, they put up traditional city-style decorations.
As a kid in the 1970s, I have fond memories of seeing the Christmas decorations like these candy-stuffed stockings on light posts.
I don’t recall seeing any of these “across the street” decorations, though. I suppose it’s easier to decorate fake streets that don’t have actual traffic (other than parades).
I *think* these “shooting star” decorations may have been from the Hollywood Boulevard area of the park.
Since Universal Studios was based on a movie backlot, its “lands” were supposed to be backlot filming sets based on different cities and such. Thus, the attractions were often placed in buildings that usually didn’t make sense. King Kong was an exception, since it was a public transportation ride located in a public transportation station building. It was decorated for happy holidays, in spite of giant gorilla inside…
As I keep digging through my archives, I expect I may locate some photos of the in-between decorations the Disney parks had (Main Street and Frontierland, I think). Today, though, I think they go straight from Halloween to Christmas, with no room for anything in between like Thanksgiving or Fall.
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?
In 1999, Universal Studios was getting ready to open their new theme park, Islands of Adventure. This would be part of an expansion and renaming of the whole area to Universal Studios Escape.
That didn’t last too long. Today, it’s known as the Universal Orlando Resort.
But in 1999, you could visit Universal Studios Florida and get a sneak peak at the wonders that would await you when the new park opened later that year… Let’s take a look at their preview center.
I previously shared this photo, which shows that the preview center was there in 1998 as well…
Either I didn’t go in, it wasn’t open, they weren’t allowing photos, or I just ran out of camera memory. But in 1999, I did go through it. Here’s a better photo of the entrance:
Step inside, and you could see concept artwork and a map of the new theme park:
They had sections of the center dedicated to the different areas of the new park. Here is a look at the Dr. Suess-inspired Suess Landing:
Up next was a room dedicated to the Lost Continent section of the park:
And apparently there was some kind of passport book you could get, and get it stamped in each area. I had completely forgotten about this. I have no idea if I have one somewhere, but if I run across it, I’ll scan it and share it in a future article.
Up next would be Toon Lagoon, where all the leftover cartoon characters that weren’t tied up by Disney, Six Flags or Knott’s Berry Farms would live:
After this, we got to see what Marvel Super-Hero Island would have in store for us.
And, because I am old and don’t mine humiliating myself, I’ll share this never-before-seen photo of me meeting one of my all-time heroes: Spider-Man!
I remember saying to him, “You’re my favorite!” And he replied, “Yes, I know…” How can you not love that guy? Who would have thought that, two decades later, he’d be “harassing” me on the streets of Disney’s California Adventure 😉
Next we came to Jurassic Park. I must have been really excited about this land, based on the then-six-year-old movie, because I took more photos here than any of the other areas.
I *think* this was the wall that would “bang” and show the impact of a dinosaur (probably a raptor) crashing into it:
And I guess there must have been some kind of effect here, but I don’t recall what it was. (Honestly, I just remember meeting Spider-Man, and the impact wall at Jurassic Park.)
And lastly, a nice map showing the overview of the entire Universal Studios Escape resort expansion:
We had no idea at the time that Spider-Man would be such a smash hit. We still thought that this, of all parks, might be the one park to dethrone Disney World. But, as we found out, ultimately that didn’t happen and, if anything, it just brought more people to Orlando and increased Disney attendance.
At some point, I will share my thoughts on my first-time visit to Islands of Adventure, but for now…
Today let’s park hop over to another company: Universal Studios.
I visited the original Universal Studios Florida park as a teenager in the early 1990s. I remember quite a few of the former Universal Studios attractions such as the Alfred Hitchcock exhibit/show and Ghostbusters. I don’t remember when my first visit was, but I’m pretty sure I also went in 1994 and 1995. Oddly, there was apparently a tram tour there until 1995 and I don’t remember that at all. Either it was completely forgettable, or for some reason we chose to never go on it. (Honestly, I had no idea there was ever a tram tour there until a few months ago!)
But I digress…
When I started my “traveling job” in 1995, I found myself in Orlando several times a year. While I had an annual pass to Walt Disney World (and Disneyland) for many years, I rarely visited Universal Studios. The first time I went outside of a few earlier family vacations was in 1998.
In my earlier visits, Universal had a large parking lot out front. By 1998, everything had changed as they prepared to open the new Islands of Adventure park. This was a bit similar to what was starting to happen at the Disneyland Resortaround the same time for their upcoming Disney’s California Adventure park.
Since my camera could only hold 99 photos, I don’t have many to share from this one day visit. But, some things I found are a bit interesting.
Before there was a Mummy rollercoaster, there was a Mummy movie exhibit:
The Boneyard was still there, which featured various props from movies. Including literal bones (from the Flintstones movie, I think?).
I don’t remember where that was. Is this where the big stage area is now? Now neither Disney or Universal have a place with us to look at old movie vehicles. Oh well.
At the original Universal Studios Hollywood, there is a Waterworld stunt show. But at Universal in Florida, you could only see a prop from the movie:
Behind it you can see the stage for the Wild Wild West Stunt Show. I don’t think I ever saw that.
Something that I miss were these unique photo spots. They had a place where you could place your camera and line up a shot. Then, they would have matte paintings or miniatures that you camera could see as well as a real background. This one was supposed to make it look like the Back to the Future building was part of a launch site for the Space Shuttle.
Unfortunately, my camera had no view screen (the optical “look through here” lens was in the corner, and the camera lens was in the center) so I couldn’t properly line up the shot. But you get the idea.
There was also a preview center for the upcoming Islands of Adventure theme park. I have one picture that kind of shows it:
Oddly, I have no photos inside of it. Either it wasn’t open yet (it looks like it was?), or it was and I was out of camera memory, or perhaps photos were not being allowed. Does anyone remember? I visited again in 1999 and have photos inside. I’ll do an update on “Before Islands of Adventure” soon.
There was a Nickelodeon section! I remember that channel for the early years of cable TV.
Also, the Hard Rock Cafe was different. For some reason, I thought that it had been moved. I recall you could get into it from the park — is that still the case? They had the bus (was it the real one, or a replica?) from The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.
Men in Black was under construction in 1998…
And of course, we had Twister! That hasn’t been gone too long, so I’ll just share one thing I found interesting:
See that red cup? That’s an Eskimo Joe’s cup from Stillwater, Oklahoma. I had a friend who was going to school in Stillwater, and when I passed through on my way home from Texas to Iowa, she took me there. I had several cups from the place, and was surprised to see on here. Universal Studios did their research! (Though, it’s worth noting that, while the movie was set in Oklahoma, a lot of it was filmed in Iowa. In 1995 when I moved to Iowa, I heard on the radio about them filming some tornado movie there. “Oh, great, I’ve moved to a place so famous for tornados that they film movies about them here!”)
That will do it for now, but I’ll have another Universal photo essay soon showing off the Island of Adventure preview center, as well as some other long-gone things.
It was a cold and rainy day. By 10 o’clock, we’d already made the loop around the park and seen much of what we wanted to see, thanks to the lines being non-existent. We found ourselves back at Port of Entry near the park entrance just in time for the Backwater Bar to open for the day.
Although I’d walked past it many times, this was my first time inside. It was small, cozy and, most importantly, dry and warm.
Unfortunately, no spiked hot drinks were to be found here. After checking with Universal’s Twitter folks, it seems spiked hot drinks were just not available inside the park (though they did suggest trying Toothsome in CityWalk). Instead, we decided on cold drinks at hot soup.
Since the bar was empty (maybe one other group the entire time we were there), we had a wonderful chat with our bartender, Sam. It was a pleasant and personable experience that let us warm up and pass some time while waiting for the rain to stop. (Yes, I know this is how a bartender should be, but it was definitely not the case at many “bars” I visited during my Orlando trips.)
A few hours later, I was working on checking off some more items on my Twitter “to do” list and I found The Watering Hole in Jurassic Park.
This place was recommended due to having some specialty drinks, including some seasonal ones.
Twitter suggested that I try the Prehistoric Punch, so I did. My girlfriend tried a (I think) the Prehistoric Rocks. Both came in souvenir (plastic) cups.
This is were our bartender Haley comes in. She was letting us know about the various drinks and also that this refill cup would get a discount on them later in the day. It was also good for $1 off beer refills at certain places with draft beer. I appreciated the effort to let me know something that could help make my visit a bit more affordable.
And last on the list was a stop at Hog’s Head in the Hogsmead: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This popular place had a line going out the back door.
When I finally made my way to the counter, Kayla was nice enough to let me sample some of their custom beers before I committed to one. They don’t do that at Disney’s California Adventure, for sure. In the end, she convinced me to go with my Twitter suggestion of The Triple and try this interesting combination drink of beer, cider and beer.
I’ve had a “black and tan” before, and it really wasn’t my thing, so I didn’t expect to like this any better. The Triple was just a variation of a common drink I can get locally, except being made using one of the “brewed just for Universal Studios” beers, which I can’t get locally. It was at least unique from that perspective. And, hey, though it didn’t qualify for a refill discount, I did get to use that souvenir cup at least once!
Although these interactions were simple and minor, they were enough to stand out among hundreds of other interactions I had during this trip. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make the difference.
As you read this, please keep in mind the following statement:
BRANDS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS!
But if they were, Universal Orlando Resort would at least be a cool acquaintance.
I had noticed on my Twitter account that Universal Orlando Resort was actually responding to Tweets from other users. Their responses would range from helpful (“send us a direct message and we will try to help.”), to silly (responding with an animated GIF of some meme), to proactive (seeing someone complain about something and stepping in to assist).
On February 26, I decided to tweet them a question…
I was surprised to receive a human response so quickly. I contacted them via direct message. It went something like this…
Thanks for responding, human. . . .
(…Then a lengthy paragraph about past visits, allergies, and a goal to avoid boring burgers…)
To which I got back…
Hello, other human! My name is Casey, and I’d be super happy to make some recommendations for you! I’m glad you’ve loved your past visits and are excited to come back! Couple more questions, just so I can make sure I don’t recommend anything you can’t experience . . .
(…Then some questions for me to answer…)
Thus began an enjoyable exchange between myself and a “brand” which would continue, off and on, for the next month leading up to my visit.
The first thing Casey assisted with was to give me an e-mail address to contact about food allergies. I sent an e-mail and quickly received a response from Tyler B., a nutritionist with Universal Orlando Resort. Now that’s service!
Next, Casey followed up with a detailed response with various suggestions on food items:
Now let’s get down to the fun recommendations. For Universal Studios Florida: I would personally recommend dinning at The Leaky Cauldron and Finnegan’s Bar & Grill, as well as Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck! My personal favorite menu items at each are Cottage Pie with a Pear Cider (Leaky Cauldron), Beef Tenderloin Medallions and Irish Fish & Chips, as well as a Finnegan’s Potato & Onion Webb as a starter or a snack if you aren’t super hungry (Finnegan’s Bar & Grill), and Korean Beef Taco (Bumbleebee Man’s Taco Truck)! . . .
(…Then a similar list about Universal’s Islands of Adventure…).
I was impressed that I was getting personal recommendations — much like speaking with the concierge at a fancy hotel when asking “what’s a good restaurant around here?”
Casey was able to provide me with a list of unique beers made just for Universal Orlando Resort, including one available only at Loews Royal Pacific Resort. She even suggested taking the water taxi from the parks to the resorts, and also mentioned a resort restaurant with a patio that had a good view of one of the parks.
When I needed clarification on something (I am fairly unfamiliar with the Universal parks), she’d send me direct links to the place in question, such as San Francisco’s Chez Alcatraz or Jurassic Park’s Watering Hole.
Perhaps this was more like clubhouse level service than hotel concierge.
During my actual visit, as I worked through much of my Casey-provide list, I’d occasionally write in with other questions. Casey was always quick to make some phone calls to see what she could find (sadly, no spiked coffee drinks at Universal Studios parks, but she did suggest Universal’s Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at CityWalk). And if Casey wasn’t available, someone else stepped in to assist.
It was truly guest service above and beyond anything I was expecting. The Universal Orlando Resort Twitter team does great work.
They also do funny work, like responding with animated GIF memes of, not surprisingly, Universal Studios related properties such as Jimmy Fallon:
And a Minion dropping the mic:
I just wonder how many lawyers and managers were there monitoring everything these folks sent. I mean, they used emojis, too!
Thank you Casey and your coworkers for being excellent human representatives for a large corporation. You made my visit more enjoyable (and, uh, more expensive) than it otherwise would have been.
I’m glad to have @UniversalORL as a brand acquaintance. If you are ever in Des Moines, Iowa, tweet me and I’ll return the favors.
I don’t know why, but it’s always annoyed me to see so much “generic” merchandise for sale at Disney and other theme parks. What compels people to buy a generic Mickey Mouse shirt at Disney prices when they can get the same shirt for much less at their local Walmart?
Over the years, some things have gotten better. At least now you can buy a generic Mickey Mouse shirt (that doesn’t mention Disneyland anywhere on it) that at least has “Disneyland” on the sizing tag.
I’ll also give a pass to generic things found at World Showcase and spots in Universal Studios’ parks — you might not ever make a trip to the United Kingdom or New York, so perhaps picking up something “from there” in the parks is fine since you probably can’t get them at home.
But folks still pay jacked up prices for Starbucks coffee or Coca-Colas that we can find, literally, around the block back home.
With that in mind, I present you with a list of the park exclusive beers made just for Universal Studios Orlando … Feel free to try as many of these as you want, since you can’t get them back home at your local brew pub.
Kudos to Casey at the Universal Orlando twitter account for this list.
Universal Studios Florida
DUFF Beer and DUFF Lite – Springfield – Duff Gardens
Dragon Scale and Wizard’s Brew– The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley – Fountain of Fair Fortune, Leaky Cauldron, and The Hopping Pot
Mardi Gras Brew (only available during their Mardi Gras celebration) – French Quarter
Islands of Adventure
Dragon Scale and Wizard’s Brew – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade – Three Broomsticks and The Hog’s Head
Hog’s Head Brew – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade – The Hog’s Head
Volcano Blossom – Dancing Dragons Boat Bar and Kunuku Boat Bar
Loews Royal Pacific Resort
Jake’s American Red Lager– Jake’s American Bar
Casey adds that Jake’s American Red Lager is one of her personal favorites. She also notes that many locations also have signature drinks, and recommends the Triple in Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade. It is three different beers layered on top of each other (Strongbow, Hog’s Head Brew and Guiness). I can’t wait to check this out my next visit. Thanks, Casey!