Universal Orlando: The Unofficial Story is the ultimate book about the creation and development of the Universal Orlando Resort. Relive the history of the resort from conception through the present day including all the bumps in the road along the way. We recently had the opportunity to interview the author, Nick Sim, about his fantastic book.
C101: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about Universal Orlando: The Unofficial Story. For those who don’t know, who are you and what do you do?
Nick: I’m the owner and editor of ThemeParkTourist.com, a news and reviews website that covers theme parks all over the world. I started the site with my wife, Natalie, in 2009 as a side project and I’m very lucky to be able to say that running it is now my full-time job. Before that, I ran a research team at a telecommunications company, so it’s been a bit of a major career change.
C101: What inspired you to write a book about Universal Orlando?
Nick: I finished writing my first book, (Tales from the Towers) about Alton Towers in the UK, in July. To celebrate its release, we took our son to Orlando for the first time in September. It wasn’t a straightforward thing to do as I’m having ongoing medical treatment for a life-threatening disease, and the trip was one of the best experiences of my entire life. I felt incredibly grateful to the people who designed the attractions that gave us so much enjoyment, and I wanted to write another book to celebrate their achievements.
There are already a number of great books that cover the creation and evolution of Walt Disney World. When I looked around, though, I could find nothing that covered the history of Universal Orlando at all. That seemed like a real shame – Universal has produced some incredible attractions over the years, and I felt that the designers and engineers behind them deserved a similar level of recognition.
C101: Once you decided to write the book, what was the development process like? How did you go about researching it and where did you find all the information?
Nick: Writing my first book was a daunting challenge as Alton Towers is over 200 years old. However, I soon discovered that there is a vast amount of information available online these days. I had instant access to newspaper archives dating back for centuries, and I collated and categorized all of the information using Evernote, which I find to be a really easy-to-use and useful tool.
For the Universal book, it was a similar story. However, as well as newspaper archives, I also found that there was a wealth of information about how the resort’s attractions were created available in both video and text form. Because of my health situation, I don’t have the luxury of time to track down everyone involved to conduct new interviews, so it was a relief to find that there was so much out there. The main challenge was really just to pull it all together into a coherent story. That’s the most important goal when writing a history book, in my opinion – you can’t just list facts. You need to draw the reader into a story.
C101: What I especially liked about your book was how you weaved the story of Universal and Disney together. You keep readers updated on what was going on down the street at Walt Disney World in comparison to Universal. What is the resort’s biggest challenge being so close to Walt Disney World? Do you think it’s ultimately a hindrance or an advantage?
Nick: The biggest challenge is pulling people off Disney’s property. With its MyMagic+ project, Disney is trying to make sure that all of its guests plan their trips down to the last detail – even going as far as pre-booking slots on rides. It hopes that this will mean that they won’t leave Walt Disney World to visit Universal or SeaWorld.
Ultimately, though, I think being so close to Walt Disney World has been a huge advantage for Universal Orlando. Firstly, Disney basically created the Central Florida tourism market as it is today – there just wouldn’t be as many people in Orlando without Disney. Secondly, Universal knew that it needed something amazing to draw guests away from Disney for even a single day. That forced it to spend big money on innovative rides and shows initially to try and “out-Disney” Disney, and that approach has continued to the present day.
C101: What’s the most interesting part of the resort’s history that many people don’t know? Did anything in-particular surprise you while researching the book?
Nick: Because Universal Orlando is so well established now, I’m not sure that people realise what a risk its parent company, MCA, was taking when it first opened the resort. At the time, Universal had never built a single theme park ride, and many analysts were predicting that Universal Studios Florida would close within a few years due to competition from Disney-MGM Studios. The company’s management took some extreme risks and built rides that pushed the bounds of the available technology. It could have been a disaster, and it very nearly was as the three headline rides (Jaws, Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One) all suffered from catastrophic technical problems for months after the park opened. But the risk-taking paid off in the end.
The other thing that many people won’t know is how close we came to seeing a much larger Universal Orlando Resort, with four theme parks and vast numbers of hotels. At one stage, Universal had an additional 2,000 acres to build on, which it had acquired from Lockheed Martin, and had every intention of building two more theme parks on it. Unfortunately, it was then taken over by Vivendi, which had overstretched itself financially. The land was sold in 2003, which is such a shame as the current owners (Comcast) are investing huge sums of money but have very little land left to build on.
C101: In the book you describe how the focus of the Universal Studios theme park has shifted from showing how movies are made to riding or experiencing the movies. Where do you see the future direction for each of the individual parks and the resort as a whole going?
Nick: I think the most recent developments signpost the direction that Universal is moving in pretty clearly. The company has been inspired by the success of the Wizarding World, which completely immerses visitors in Harry Potter’s world. This has a whole bunch of advantages – not least that it encourages people to buy unique merchandise, food items and beverages.
Universal Studios Florida has already added Springfield, which is a similarly immersive area that is focused as much on dining and retail as attractions. Diagon Alley will be another example, and I expect other areas of the Studios park to undergo similar makeovers in future. This means that there’ll be less distinction between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure in terms of the kinds of experiences that they offer.
C101: It will be interesting to see if the long rumored waterpark or third park ever materialize. I really enjoyed the “Hidden Secrets” scattered throughout the book. In your mind, what’s the best kept secret in Universal Orlando?
Nick: There are dozens of “easter eggs” hidden in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but I think the best “hidden secrets” are in the Port of Entry area in Islands of Adventure. Most people blast straight through it in their rush to reach the park’s rides, but it’s worth stopping to enjoy the atmosphere. There are muffled conversations coming from the buildings lining the street, and there are so many wonderful details, such as a sign for “Reliable Rentals” in the stroller rental area, which offers time machines for lease.
C101: Great tidbits of information. I also never knew that the Jaws ride was essentially built twice! What’s one attraction you personally never got to experience that you wish you had?
It would definitely be Kongfrontation for me. It was a throwback to the days when movies were made using physical effects, rather than digital ones, with its 39-feet-tall King Kong animatronics. I doubt that we’ll see another attraction quite like it ever again.
C101: I agree. While there may be a new King Kong ride at Islands of Adventure in the future it will most likely be an all digital creation.
Thanks again to Nick for giving us a peek at the development of his book and sharing some additional thoughts about Universal Orlando. Purchase the excellent Universal Orlando: The Unofficial Story from Amazon.com (now available in Kindle and paperback formats).