An Island Looks at 20

When Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, nothing worked.  One of the major opening day attractions actually went down for YEARS to be retooled because it just didn’t work right.  No one was suggesting that the park was a flop or anything, but let’s just say Disney wasn’t exactly quaking in their boots.  Their movie studio park (the ethics of we’re not going to discuss here) was doing just fine.

But Universal wasn’t done, and in 1993 they announced a major expansion.  This expansion was to include on-site hotels, the Citiwalk complex, and the Islands of Adventure theme park.  This expansion took far longer than I think anyone intended, and the new park didn’t break ground until 1997. 

The park opened officially opened on May 28, 1999 and….well, it didn’t take off.  A big problem here seemed to hinge on marketing.  First off, they tried rebranding the whole resort into “Universal Studios Escape” and that wasn’t really effective at communicating what was going on there.  When Karen and I planned our first trip to Orlando in March of 2002, we hadn’t even heard of Islands of Adventure (bear in mind 2002 wasn’t exactly prime “theme park website” time).  We only went because my cousin got us a ticket hookup (thanks, Willie!).

Now, when we did go we were super impressed with the place.  The theming was really well done and the rides were fantastic.  We were converts, and we happily ended up getting Universal annual passes a year or two later.  We held onto those APs for several years, despite living seven hours away from the parks.

What follows is a collection of both old and new pictures, as I try to examine areas of the park that have changed as well as areas of the park that haven’t changed at all.  Some of the pictures will be duplicates, as I’ve already got an Islands of Adventure write-up elsewhere on the site, but I hope you’ll indulge me here as I try to use those images in a different context.

Alright, so let’s start at the beginning.

okay, technically this is a map from like 2005. Just pretend, okay?

Islands of Adventure opened with six highly themed areas – (1) Port of Entry, (2) Marvel Superhero Island, (3) Toon Lagoon (4) Jurassic Park, (5) The Lost Continent, and (6) Seuss Landing.  

We’ll kick it off in Port of Entry. Port of Entry functions much like Disney’s Main Street USA – it’s all about acclimating the guest into the environment.  Here we’re moving through a Mediterranean style port…

…with lots of shopping available (including the largest shop in the park – the Islands of Adventure Trading Company…

…as well as one of the park’s two table-service restaurants, which I’d love to tell you all about but the GD place was closed when we tried to check it out. What’s this “closing at 7 when the park closes at 9” bullshit?

To be honest, very little seems to have changed in Port of Entry over the past 20 years (the Christmas decorations are there year-round, as just out of frame is the Christmas Shoppe).

The only thing I can really put my finger on is this Starbucks…

…which seems to have replaced this ice cream stand.  Seems fair, Starbucks is damn near everywhere else these days.

Now, I do implore you to take a little extra time to really look around Port of Entry – the parkitecture here is really quite nice. 

It’s easy to blaze past it rushing to the rides, but calm down a bit.

Here’s a remnant of a long-gone attraction. When the park first opened, Island Skipper Tours would boat folks from Port of Entry over to the Jurassic Park area (similar to the boats at Epcot). This only lasted about two years, however, as there really wasn’t much to gain from standing in line to catch a boat to get somewhere you could hoof it to in like 12 minutes.