Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure opened on May 28th, 1999 to tons of thrills, chills and spills. Along with Universal Studios Florida, it was called the “Universal Escape” and it featured tons of rides and attractions the world had never seen before. From superheroes, dinosaurs and myths, the new theme park was dubbed as the “World’s most technologically advanced theme park”, and they were right. We’ll take a look back, as well as forward at this game changing theme park, and celebrate 15 years of thrills, chills and adventure!
When Universal Orlando opened in 1999, no one quite knew what to expect of it. The park opened as a second gate, right next to Universal Studios Florida, and changed the face of the entire resort. The park was opened as part of a huge plan that also brought in the Loews Onsite hotels, as well as CityWalk. Islands of Adventure would become a destination for thrill seekers because of the unique roller coaster and thrill ride collection, and would boast some of the most detailed areas of any theme park. While the park originally didn’t do so well with attendance, it was one of the few parks that actually had an increase in attendance after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, which made a major impact in the Orlando tourism market.
There was nothing like the park when it opened. It featured several new twists on old ride ideas, and several new attraction ideas that the world had never seen. The entire island was based on books, where the neighboring Universal Studios Florida pushed the “Ride the Movies” concept. Every Island was based on some form of book, or story.
Let’s go down the list:
Seuss Landing-Based on the books of Dr. Seuss, the area featured a Caroseusel with tons of characters from many different Seuss books. There was also The Cat in The Hat dark ride, which would spin guests wildly, and One Fish Two Fish-a spinning dumbo type ride, with a twist. Other features included Moose Juice, Goose Juice which was created just for Islands of Adventure, and other areas. Originally there was also a ride based on Sylvester McBean’s Fantastic Driving Machines, in which guests would drive their own vehicles high above the area, but it was scrapped due to budgetary reasons. It eventually became the High in the Sky Seuss Train Trolley Ride.
Lost Continent-This land was based on every type of myth that could be thought of. You had the Greek Gods represented with Poseidon’s Fury and Mythos. The Arabian myths were represented with Sindbad, and Arthurian legend took the form of Dueling Dragons, and the Enchanted Oak. In 2001 The Flying Unicorn was added, giving a kids attraction to the area. Dueling Dragons, Flying Unicorn, Enchanted Oak and the surrounding area would all become The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade. Originally, Dueling Dragons (now Dragon Challenge) told the tale of demon dragons who terrorized a kingdom. Merlin came in to fend off the dragons, but he was too old to help, and instead warns foolish knaves who dare to hitch a ride on a dueling dragon. The queue was an attraction of itself, featuring a stained glass window, as well as several areas of warning. There was also a room where knights were melted into the wall, and another where knights were frozen into the ceiling (to represent the fire and ice dragons). The bones of those who came before were displayed in catacombs as Merlins voice echoed through the entire line with things like “Eye of phoenix, Griffon hoof! Make these mortals fireproof!” Enchanted Oak tavern was in the same place as Three Broomsticks now, only it was in the shape of a giant oak tree with a face. Flying unicorn became Flight of the Hippogriff.
Jurassic Park-Based on the feel of the Michael Crichton books, and the look of the hit Steven Spielberg movies, the area features the Jurassic Park River Adventure and the Discovery Center. Both have the identical descriptions from the film. The one thing that is no longer there is Triceratops Encounter. It was a huge selling point in the ads, and in the attraction guests could touch a living breathing dinosaur! Also there is the amazing Camp Jurassic in which kids can run, climb and find all kinds of interesting secrets about dinosaurs. Also, there is the kids only coaster Pterradon Flyers, which hands through the canopies of Camp Jurassic.
Toon Lagoon-Toon Lagoon is based off of several different properties, including the cartoons of Jay Ward and the Sunday comic strips found in newspapers. Here guests can ride Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls, an amazing water ride that drops guests under the water. Then there’s Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges, a family raft ride that gets guests absolutely soaked. The area also features several characters from different comics, including Betty Boop, Blondie and Dagwood, and Cathy.
Marvel Super Hero Island-This area is based on the comic book characters in Marvel comic books. The groundbreaking ride, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman was the first to include 3D and actual physical effects to create a flawless world. The area also features Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, a pair of towers that shoot guests straight up, and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. Hulk was the first B&M coaster to feature a launch. Characters routinely rush the streets and save the day from bad guys in a ATV parade, while villains lurk in the shadows.
Port of Entry-This area is where guests enter the park and can shop or get something to eat. It originally was the launching point of Island Skipper tours. The tours featured odd ships and would take guests to the different islands. Jurassic Park and Toon Lagoon still have their docks, though they are not used at all.
IOA features some of the most amazing attention to detail that you’ll see in any park. Under the bridge at Mythos there’s the sound of a troll, because that’s where trolls live in myths.
In Seuss Landing there is an absence of straight lines, because Seuss never drew in straight lines. All of the drawings of characters in Marvel Super Hero Island are done by the same person, and his name can be found somewhere in the painting. Also, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall is all a plot to destroy the Fantastic Four, so outside of the ride you can see char marks on the ground where the Four have perished. You can also pick up one of the phones and hear Captain America die.
In Jurassic Park River Adventure you will notice there is a pair of night vision glasses and a taser gun on the side. In the Trike Encounter queue there was a display of these items, with one of each missing, giving the implications that the person using them died fighting raptors.
While the park has changed a bit over the years, the best is yet to come. This summer, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will get Hogsmeade Station where guests can ride The Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley. There’s also rumor of interactive wands coming to the area.
I first came to the park in 2003, and was flat out blown away. It was every fantasy I’d had as a kid brought to life. The spirit of adventure was alive and the limits were being pushed. Sure, there have been some times where things didn’t look so great, but those times are long gone as new owners have turned the park around. As an adult it’s great to look back at what once was, but it’s even better to look at the park through childlike eyes and live out the fantasies of superheros, gods and dinosaurs. Still, as we look to the future it might be time to monkey around, as rumors point to King Kong coming to the islands.
Here’s to 15 great years of living the adventure…and to many more years of the adventure living on!