The making of Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando

Rummaging through the archives here at Theme Park Canuck, we came across a series of articles about the making of Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando. These date back to 1998 and 1999 before the park opened. We always wished that Universal created a book about the making of the park, but that never happened. We’ve got features on each of the islands (Marvel, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, and Suess Lagoon), plus one about all the unique signage found in the park. If you’re a theme park buff like we are here at Theme Park Canuck, you’ll find these articles fascinating. Enjoy!

Here’s a great article giving a fascinating overview of the creation of the entire park, written by MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press.

Sunday, July 5, 1998 

Even in theme park design, the dinosaurs always win. Plans for Universal Studios’ second Florida theme park originally called for an animation-themed development to be called “Cartoon World.” But then dinosaurs struck in Universal’s 1993 runaway hit film, “Jurassic Park,” and the theme park design took a drastic left turn.  The concept changed from cartoons to islands with different themes, including a Jurassic Park island. The $1 billion theme park was given a new name, “Islands of Adventure.”

universal orlando parking

The largely expanded Universal Escape parking garage

This is the story of how one theme park developed from a concept, set in motion in offices and around conference tables, to a concrete reality of metal, wires and cement. It’s a story about money, engineering know-how, theme park psychology and dreaming the impossible.

Universal has a lot riding on its 110-acre theme park, which is scheduled to open in summer 1999. The company hopes Islands of Adventure and two hotels it is building can make it into a full-service resort destination competitive with Disney’s four theme parks, 17 resort hotels, nightlife and entertainment complex. To that end, Universal also plans to open a nightlife entertainment district, Universal CityWalk, later this year.  “We think the park is going to be very successful, in fact more successful than the existing park,” said Tom Williams, president and CEO of Seagram’s owned-Universal Studios Escape, the parent company of the two theme parks.

universal studios escape

Universal Orlando used to be called Universal Escape

The idea for a new theme park in Florida was first hatched in Universal Studios’ California offices in 1991. The new park, “Cartoon World,” would have attractions based on Dr. Seuss, D.C. Comics and Warner Bros.’ cartoon characters, among others. But Universal Studios had trouble securing the rights to Warner Bros.’ cartoons, and then Universal produced “Jurassic Park.” “We knew it was great and we knew we wanted it in our park,” said Dale Mason, director of creative development for Islands of Adventure. “Because the elements were so disparate with Dr. Seuss and Jurassic Park, that’s where we got the concept of islands.”

As it stands now, there are five islands, three of them based on animated characters:

– Seuss Landing, based on the popular children’s books by Theodore Geisel.

– Lost Continent, based on legends such as Atlantis and Sinbad and containing a dual roller coaster ride.

– Jurassic Park, with several rides featuring dinosaurs.

– Toon Land, based on such cartoons as Popeye and Rocky and Bullwinkle.

– Marvel Super Hero Island, containing three thrill rides based on the comic-book superheroes Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk.

Among those who needed to be sold on the project was Audrey Geisel, the widow of the Dr. Seuss author who had refused to let his characters be used in any amusement park. His widow rejected Universal’s initial overtures until the studio convinced a lifelong friend of the Geisels to have Mrs. Geisel see some conceptual drawings and a site map. Only then did the company get her to give the green light.

Building a theme park involves a healthy tension between creative-types, engineers and penny-counters. The creative-types, for instance, will envision a ride with high-speed moving simulators and filmed 3-D action. The engineers decide if it’s possible. The accountants decide if they can afford it. Three distinct stages emerged in the planning of Islands of Adventure: concept development, design development and construction. By the end of 1993, the themes and tentative rides for each of the five sections were chosen. Each island got a team of designers, engineers, set designers, technical coordinators and a show producer, who supervises everything.

islands of adventure construction site

The Islands of Adventure construction site

Design development followed in 1994 with designers fleshing out their ideas, deciding what kind of special effects they needed and how much it would cost. Engineers put the designers’ ideas to the test with hundreds of models. The park’s showcase ride, The Adventures of Spider Man, uses filmed 3D action, live action and special effects to make visitors feel they’re in the middle of a comic book action sequence. Producer Scott Trowbridge wanted to build a mirror that would rival the one on the Hubble Space Telescope to help create the illusion.  “We mocked it up on a small scale and it worked but we realized we couldn’t build a mirror that big,” he said.

Ideas that don’t get used “are tossed for financial reasons,” said Bob Shreve, Jurassic Park’s show producer.

By the end of design development, each show producer had worked out every detail about the park to the “nth” degree. Each producer will know how long a ride lasts, the color of the costumes and what food will be sold there. Most importantly, they decide how each ride will tell its story – whether it’s about Spider Man or the Cat in the Hat. “You push, push, push,” said Lisa Girolami, producer for Seuss Landing. “It’s about time and budget, but you get to push for more show. You get to be a kid.”

There are basic rules to theme park design. First, the best attraction, generally a larger ride that needs more space, is placed at the back of the park. The idea is to entice visitors to tour the park before they can reach the prize. For Islands of Adventure, Jurassic Park gets that honor. Rule No. 2 deals with the movement of people through the park, where a touch of psychology is used. Human nature drags people to the right. The instinct of rebellious teen-agers is to go in the opposite direction. So the thrill rides in Marvel Super Hero Island are being built on the left side of the entrance. “The families are going to the right, so we put Dr. Seuss at the front in the right,” Mason said. “The teens are going to go to the left, so that’s where we put the thrill rides.”

islands of adventure building

One of the many buildings being erected

Retail shops and restaurants also figure into the plans but designers want to make sure they enhance the experience and don’t impede it. The guests have to feel like they are still in the theme environment. So, in Seuss Landing, the restaurant is in a building in the shape of an enormous green ham.

The same goes with a theme park’s notoriously long lines, which are incorporated into the story-telling experience. At Jurassic Park’s River Adventure, ride visitors on line will watch a 30-minute video giving historical background about the fictional Jurassic Park and how the fictional dinosaurs are cared for there.

In the process of telling a story, every part of the park has to be a part of that tale – from the music visitors hear to the costumes the staff wears. In Seuss Landing, bright colors are most important and staff will wear costumes with big buttons and bows. “The fun thing about the colors is it feels like sherbert – edible, fun colors,” Ms. Girolami said.

There are no straight lines in Seuss Landing, including the trees which were brought in from Homestead after Hurricane Andrew and grew in bent directions after being horizontal on the ground for so long. Bids for contracts were chosen in 1996. Construction began later that year and the teams of designers and engineers moved to Florida from California.

Unlike past theme parks, Islands of Adventure is being constructed with the Americans with Disabilities Act in Mind. The rides can accommodate a person in a wheelchair. During the past year, parts of rides have been coming in from Germany, California, New York, Switzerland and the Netherlands. There was a recent setback when fire destroyed molds for a carousel ride for Seuss Landing at a California plant. The bright green tracks of the Incredible Hulk ride can be seen from afar as well as the twin 200-foot towers of Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, which shoots people to the top and drops them to the ground.

Most of the rides, which are built to last 10 years, should be finished by this fall. They will have about three months to be tested, first with sandbags substituting for humans then with engineers. The theme park should be ready for a soft opening in February, when selected visitors get to enjoy the park before its grand opening.

When Universal Studios opened in 1990, many rides didn’t work properly. This time around, Universal officials plan to work out any kinks. “The only surprises that will be here are the ones we create,” Ms. Girolami said.

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