Last month, The Unofficial Guides released The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, their first dedicated guidebook for Universal Orlando Resort. (I’ve got my copy, and it’s AWESOME!) We caught up with author Seth Kubersky to talk about his new book, and he was kind enough to give up a few minutes of his lunch to chat with us.
C101: For our readers who might not know, who are you, and what do you do?
Seth Kubersky: The thumbnail version is I grew up in New Jersey a fan of theme parks coming down to visit with my family to Orlando every four years or so. After college, I moved down to Orlando the summer after I graduated from college with a degree in theater from the College of William and Mary. I thought I’d be able to get a job working at Disney. As it turned out, I was stuck in endless rounds of interviews with Disney. I walked into Universal’s hiring office one day, and they hired me on the spot. I ended up in Universal’s Entertainment Department from 1996-2000. I worked on the Ghostbusters Show, Terminator Show, The Barney Show, Mardi Gras, Halloween Horror Nights and lots of Special Events.
SK: I left Universal and left the theme park business for a while, but I stayed active as a fan on a lot of early websites. I actually got my start in writing for theme park books by posting on Jim Hill’s website way back in the early 2000’s. He liked my writing and introduced me to a publisher. I found myself writing Universal Guidebooks. Back in 2010, I met up with Bob Sehlinger who publishes The Unofficial Guide. He invited me to come work on his Disneyland Guide. I’m currently working on the Disneyland Guide with him and I contribute to the Walt Disney World guide, the Las Vegas guide, and now this is the Unofficial Guides’ first dedicated Universal Orlando guide that they’ve put me in charge of.
C101: What inspired your writing of Universal Orlando Guidebooks?
SK: To be honest, in a lot of ways, it was the Unofficial Guide. Long before I worked with Bob, I was a fan of the series. I have copies of the books going back to the mid 1980’s – the series is now 30 years old this year. Years in between vacations, when I wasn’t able to visit Orlando, I would buy a copy of the book and plan out virtual vacations for myself. Working the parks definitely increased my appreciation for Universal and also gave me a lot of contacts with people who are still in the industry, so that has definitely helped in my writing over the last few years.
My love of writing goes back to the Unofficial Guide, and before the Unofficial Guide existed, reading the Birnbaum “Official” Guidebooks and the great coffee table books that Disney put out in the early 1980’s. I still have a copy of the “Making of Epcot” coffee table book. I remember sitting in my public library as a kid reading their reference copy, and I’d sit there and read it for hours.
C101: How was the decision made to give Universal Orlando their own dedicated guidebook?
SK: The decision was pretty much made for us by Mr. Harry Potter. For a while, Universal has had two robust theme parks, and a good selection of hotels. Universal in size now is approximately the size Walt Disney World was when the Unofficial Guide was first published. Back then, Walt Disney World had two theme parks instead of four, and a half dozen or so hotels before Michael Eisner came and cranked up the hotel building machine. In terms of scope of content, Universal has probably been ready for its own book for a few years.
photo: TouringPlans/Seth Kubersky
SK: But it was really the reaction to Diagon Alley – the public reaction in terms of attendance and spending and the interest from our readers. People asking questions and wanting more information about Harry Potter. That’s pretty much almost 100% responsible for driving us to create the stand alone guide. The other flip side point is that Disney is also constantly adding new things, and if you’ve looked at the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, what we call the big book, its enormous. It’s about 20,000 pages now. (laughs) Maybe more like 800. Its probably thicker than the Bible by now.
As Universal keeps expanding, every time we add something, something else has to be edited down or cut entirely. So while we’ll still include the information in the Walt Disney World book, at least for the forseeable future, this gives us some breathing room. Where we can provide a very concise guide to Universal in the Walt Disney World book, and hopefully it will pique their interest enough and make them want to seek out the Universal Book for more detail.
C101: How will The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando differ from the Universal Orlando guidebooks that you authored/co-authored in the early 2000’s?
SK: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando is by far the most comprehensive, most detailed, most broad-ranging – in terms of page count, its higher, in terms of word density on the page, its far higher. It’s a massive amount of content. I have the benefit of working with the Unofficial Guide and TouringPlans.com – it isn’t just me. I can be in the theme park three or four days a week, but now with The Unofficial Guide, we have a team behind me. I have guys like Derek Burgan who can help with dining. He knows more about food at Universal than any human being should.
Universal Orlando Crowd Levels. Photo via Touringplans.com
SK: I also have Len Testa and the Touring Plans Stats team who – a lot of things that maybe before common wisdom – rules of thumbs based on anecdotal observation, I can now back up things with hard data that we collect. There are a lot of people who can tell you their opinions on theme parks. There is no other outfit that puts so much technology and man power – breaking it down into numbers and being able to quantify data. The same was that advanced statistics are used to crack the code in baseball, we can apply that same sort of thinking to theme park navigation, and that knowledge has gone into the book, which is something I’ve never had access to before.
C101: What was the research and writing process like for this book?
SK: The first stage is living in Orlando and having an annual pass to Universal and using at least 3-4 days a week. There were times when I’d go to Universal Orlando 8, 9, 10 days in a row, to the point where valet knows me very well. I highly recommend the Premier Pass, because you can valet park for free. I calculated once, and I’ve more than tripled the value of my annual pass in free valet parking. That’s a start. With this book in particular, I was really blessed to have a lot of material to build upon.
photo: TouringPlans/Seth Kubersky
SK: Obviously, I didn’t write every word in that book from scratch, because Unofficial Guide has had Universal Material in their books, which probably added up to 70-80 pages of the 380 page book that we have. We also have tons of material on blog posts and on the Touring Plans website over the years. The first thing I did was go through all of this material, from all different editions of books over the years, all these archival materials of things that have been written. And start putting all of this material together and editing it. Then writing new material and to expand it out.
Every time I thought I was done, Universal would announce something new or close something else. That’s the tricky thing about writing about Universal Orlando, everything you think you know what’s going on there, they’re going to switch it up on you. It was a constant process. Literally down to hours before the book was going to be sent to the printer, making updates like things about Nintendo and King Kong as new bits of information came in to try and get right down to the wire. We even snuck in a mention there that things like Lucy and Disaster, even though we provided the full information for them, that they’d most likely be closed by the time the book was released.
C101: What are some of your favorite bits of history or memories about Universal Orlando?
SK: If you’re into the history of the park, Sam Gennawey is your man, because he wrote a phenomenal book, Universal vs. Disney, which went in depth on the early years of Universal Studios Florida. (Author’s note: Check out our interview with Sam about Universal vs. Disney here!)
Kongfrontation. photo: Geekdad.com
SK: My memories are a little more personal from visiting the park in the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s and enjoying rides that aren’t there anymore like Kongfrontation and Jaws and Back to the Future. When I was an employee, I would take my lunch hour ride one of those rides a few times instead of eating lunch. In terms of fun facts, The problem is I know too much in trying to pick out something in particular that would be of interested. I could go around the park and tell you some little bit of trivia about every attraction. The little tributes to the people that designed the park, and the statues around the New York area, to Steven Spielberg’s head on a prop on the Men In Black Ride. Disney is known for their hidden Mickeys, but Universal doesn’t quite have the same thing. But it’s got a lot of little texture and detail in the hidden corners.
Sting Alley. photo: horrornightnightmares.com
SK: My favorite spot in all of Universal Orlando — that’s sadly overlooked a lot of times — is Sting Alley, one of the original things designed for the park. It’s this little narrow alleyway in the New York area that’s occcasionaly used for Halloween Horror Nights, but its this perfect little corner that you can just stand in and feel like you’re in a completely different place. Diagon Alley of course is that sort of thing on a much bigger scale.
What I love is that Universal has the big attractions, but it also makes room for some quieter spaces. Walk around IOA, sticking close to the Lagoon, and in each land, you’ll find some quiet little pathway or garden or sitting area, where you can really escape from the park. Those are the moments that I love to discover.
C101: Do you have a favorite current attraction at each park?
SK: That’s like asking to choose between your children! I will say that there are certain rides that no matter how many times I go to the park, its very hard to leave the park without riding them. At Islands of Adventure, that’s Spiderman and Forbidden Journey. I really feel like you could go into the park, pay your money, ride Spiderman, ride Forbidden Journey, and if you didn’t get on anything else that day, you couldn’t complain, because you rode pretty much the two best rides in the world.
SK: Over at Universal Studios Florida – I realy enjoy Gringotts. I’m not as addicted to it as I am Forbidden Journey. I’ll ride it as often as I can as the Single Rider line permits. I love the Mummy. I want the Mummy to have a good refurb, and stick around for a long time. And I love Men In Black. I know people flock to Toy Story Mania, but I love being surrounded by real animatronics. Even if they’re a little stiff and cheesey, they’re real. I love the gameplay, and no matter how many times I play, I’m still trying to get that 999,999. I’ve done it a few times, and I know I’ll do again some day.
C101: Where do you see Universal Orlando in the next few years?
SK: I see the parks in the next few years with a lot of construction, and increased attendance. And I see at both parks, Universal going slowly around the park with a big paint brush, and anything that isn’t up to the Harry Potter standards of immersion and quality is going to get upgraded or replaced. I think Universal has seen what doing things right has done for attendance and the mindshare of the public, and they want to keep building on it. They’ve got this ball rolling, and they’re going to put as much cash behind it to keep it rolling as long as they can.
Construction is continual at Universal Orlando. Photos (1) Sapphire Falls Resort, (2) Skull Island: Reign of Kong, (3) NBC Sports Grill and Brew, (4) Volcano Bay Water Park. Photos: Trygve Nelson/TouringPlans
SK: People say, “They’re never going to beat Disney.” They don’t have to beat Disney. What they have to do is just get another day or two out of someone’s vacation, or convince another person or two to make Universal their home base for their vacation, and just go a few days to Disney. And they’ve got a great opportunity here, because as awesome as everything announced at D23 was, other than Avatar, I don’t expect to see any of this major stuff at Hollywood Studios coming around before 2020 or 2021 maybe. By that time, Universal will have opened a new water park, a new hotel, three or four, or maybe even more pretty significant E-Tickets.
There’s a gap here. There’s an opportunity. Obviously when Star Wars opens, whenever that happens, whether its good, bad or indifferent, it will be enormous. It will move the needle in a big way. That doesn’t mean that Universal can’t take every chance and opportunity they can to take advantage of that while they can.
C101: Of the new attractions that Universal Orlando has announced for the future, what are you most excited for?
SK: I’m thrilled for Kong. Like I said before, I was a fan of the original Kong Ride, and I know that this will be much different. I’ve done the Kong Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood, and I like it for what it is, but I think that it only works in the context of the tram ride. I think what we’re getting at Universal Orlando will be inspired by that technology, but will go way way beyond that.
There are people who say Universal is ‘Just Screens.’ It’s all screens – yeah there will be screens, but you’re also going to see craftsmanship and detail and 3D sets and physical creatures as good as anything Disney is doing these days. I don’t think its one or the other – practical or screens, I think Universal has proven that you need to use every tool at your fingertips as long as you use them together smartly. If you look at Spiderman vs. Transformers, you see while they’re both really great rides, I think Spiderman is definitely superior, simply because it has a better balance of real vs. virtual. There are plenty of sets in Transformers, but they aren’t integrated in the same way. They don’t move, they don’t really inform the environment, they’re more framing decivces for the screens, while Spiderman is a really perfect 50-50 balance. I think that Forbidden Journey is a really good balance of using screens for moments in the ride that you couldn’t really express adequately using practical sets, and then bringing us back to the practical sets for the more visceral scenes.
C101: What are your thoughts on the recently announced Fast and the Furious Attraction?
SK: Frank Kincaid is crying in his projection room today. I was out in California just before it opened, and I wasn’t able to get in on the preview. I have a lot of friends who have been on it, I’ve watched a lot of videos from a lot of different angles. I hope that whatever comes to Orlando is a significant improvement to what they have in California in the same way that Kong is going to be an improvement over their Kong.
SK: I have a sentimental place in my heart for Disaster, also known as Earthquake, but it is in terrible shape. The final scene is almost embarrassing in how frequently the effects don’t work, and how unimpressive they are when they do work. It’s definitely time for a change, but I think that it needs some significant upgrades from what they have in California to make it a significant E-Ticket attraction in Orlando.
C101: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
SK: The book is available now. It’s a really great resource for anyone, if you’ve never been to the parks before or haven’t been in years and are planning a trip, or if you’re a big Universal Fan and want something on your bookshelf to refer to and learn some new things that you didn’t know before. You can get it from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and it’s available for Kindle and Nook as well! They should also check out TheUnofficialGuides.com and TouringPlans.com…and follow me on Twitter at @skubersky!
Seth and (a wax sculpture of) Steven Spielberg, Two Universal Orlando Legends. Photo: OrlandoWeekly
Thanks to Seth for his time, as well as Liliane Opsomer with The Unofficial Guides for helping facilitate this interview! Stay tuned to Coaster101 for more great Universal Orlando Content!