Inside Experiential Retail with Robert Cametti, Universal Orlando’s Director of Visual Merchandising
For many amusement parks, retail might be considered an afterthought; a gift shop at the exit of an attraction with countless trinkets and logoed t-shirts, or a larger store at the front of the park that’s meant to entice guests to make one more purchase (often those same trinkets and t-shirts) before heading home.
However, at Universal Orlando, there are several retail options that have become attractions in their own right. While there are still those “traditional” opportunities to purchase park merchandise throughout Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk, the Resort also has a few unique retail outlets that can be best described as “experiential.”
For Robert Cametti, Director of Visual Merchandising at Universal Orlando, creating experiences in retail, be it the rotating Universal Studios Florida Tribute Stores, the Williams of Hollywood Prop Shop, or the recently opened Universal Legacy Store, is an exciting challenge.
“We want to offer guests an unexpected and unique experience, which is why we are creating these types of retail locations,” Cametti, a 21-year Universal Orlando veteran, said. “We want to deliver the unexpected and for the most part today, people do not expect to have such an immersive experience while shopping like they do at our destination.”
The concept of experential retail at Universal dates back several years to 2015, when Cametti and the visual merchandising team wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the park’s popular Halloween Horror Nights event. The tribute store was not a “traditional” store by any stretch of the imagination, but instead had the feel and attention to detail of an Horror Nights maze, just without the jump scares.
“We wanted to create a space that showcased all of our Halloween Horror Nights offerings in one spot, and the location was perfect because it was in the heart of the event’s house activity,” Cametti said of the first tribute store, a space formerly occupied by an extended queue line for Revenge of the Mummy. “Knowing that the store was going to be rethemed after Halloween Horror Nights was over opened up our design path and allowed us to throw just about anything at this store to make it a success.”
“The merch and displays blend so well and naturally with their surroundings, it’s almost like they’re another piece of decor. At its core, the Tribute Store gives you a piece of HHN to take home with you,” according to Universal Orlando in a Halloween 2020 blog about the Tribute Store.
While inspiration is taken from “everywhere” when concepting each new version of the tribute store, (which has returned each subsequent year following its success in 2015) Cametti notes that one of the main goals is to make each new Tribute Store unique and different in its own way, in a way to entice guests to come back and see the new ideas that have been creating. These ideas often take the form of unique food offerings, dedicated photo opportunities, and plenty of “Easter Eggs” for the die hard fans. Oftentimes, elements of the store’s design can be created up to a year in advance.
“Our team is made up of Halloween Horror Nights fans so the challenge of topping ourselves each year is really the driving force behind the designs,” he said. “We’ve grown the store to be much more than just a retail space, it has become an attraction of its own.
“One of the cool things about how all this comes together is it’s all built by this group,” Cametti told the Universal Orlando blog. Nearly everything you see is either handmade or repurposed by this team. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by one of the most creative group of individuals in the business. HHN is huge for us. We love doing it and we’ll keep it [Tribute Store] going until someone tells us to stop.”
Based on guest feedback, more recently, Universal Orlando has expanded the Tribute Store concept to include more special events at the Resort, including Christmas, Mardi Gras, and most recently, the opening of the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. But it’s the fan reaction that’s most rewarding for the Visual Merchandising team.
Update: Universal Orlando has released new footage of the Jurrasic World Tribute Store. We’ve included it below!
“Our guests really have a great time in the store. Even if they aren’t looking to shop or get a snack, they are coming through the store for the experience. Our guests come to Universal Orlando Resort for incredible immersive experiences, and we like to seamlessly continue these experiences within our Tribute Store,” said Cametti. “Being able to deliver an incredible experience to our guests is always very rewarding. Watching them come through the front door and seeing the look on their faces really tells us we’ve exceeded their expectations.”
Guest satisfaction and feedback led to another experiential retail outlet inside Universal Studios Florida; Williams of Hollywood, maybe better known to Universal fans as the “Prop Shop.” Inside this retail store, guests have the opportunities to purchase a variety of park-used and displayed “props” from across the Universal Orlando Resort.
“The demand and requests from guests led us to offering these unique, and often very limited items to our fans as collectibles,” Cametti said. “For us, it’s more about getting these items into the hands of passionate collectors. It’s rewarding to know that a dedicated collector will get to appreciate an item long after its tenure in the park.”
Part museum, part prop “boneyard,” part collector’s treasure trove, Williams of Hollywood has seen a variety of “one-of-a-kind” items in its nearly-six-year history, including the cows from the Twister: Ride it Out queue, props from Terminator 2: 3D, props from various years’ of Hollywood Horror Nights and subway doors from Earthquake/Disaster, just to name a few. There have also been film-used props from Universal film properties including The Mummy franchise. Cametti, a theme park fan, even prior to his time at Universal Orlando, understands the value these props have for theme park fans and avid collectors alike.
“There’s something about owning a piece of theme park history that’s alluring to a fan or collector. These pieces are very unique, not just in the fact that they are interesting items, but they also have historical significance as being used in our parks,” he said.
On the subject of theme park history, one of Universal Orlando’s newest retail establishments leans into it, and into it hard. The Universal Studios Legacy store, opened earlier in 2021, occupies a space that previously housed the Universal Studios Store at CityWalk. In celebration of the park’s 30th anniversary in 2020, the Resort released a number of retro-themed items, which were met with cheers from generations of Universal fans. The Legacy store is a way to honor the past while embracing the history of Universal Orlando.
Inside the Legacy store, guests will find many homages to Universal attractions past, in the form of some larger props, concept artwork and designs, and other clever nods to the past.
“With the success of our retro-themed line of park merchandise, we were looking for a way to enhance this historical experience,” Cametti said. “Many of the prop items featured in this store were stored away behind the scenes where guests could not view them. We felt it was time to showcase some of the props that have been archived and let our guests enjoy them as well.”
Among the decor in the Legacy Store are old Team Member Uniforms for attractions like The Incredible Hulk Coaster and Terminator 2: 3D, models for attractions like Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure and The E.T. Adventure, Gargogyles that sat atop Universal Studios Florida’s entrance, and Cametti’s personal favorite, The Fly Pod from the Universal Horror Make-Up Show.
“The collection of props in the space is the culmination of many passionate departments archiving their historical items. Some were warehoused and others were on display behind the scenes as a way to preserve and appreciate. Some of the artwork [in the Legacy Store] has never been on display before so there are also new archived items that have never been seen before amongst the more familiar pieces.” Cametti told us.
In all honesty, Universal Studios fans could spend hours in this store, not shopping, but just taking in all of the props and tributes on display. It’s as much of a “museum” as it is retail option.
“Guests are really enjoying the store. It’s a hybrid museum and retail experience unlike any other venue we have and our guests are definitely making sure they stop by during their visit,” Cametti said. “It’s about the connection the guest makes personally with their past park experiences. Many of them have been visiting since childhood. To be able to relive some of those emotions from past experiences and be able to share those experiences with family and friends is really exciting.”
Cametti, who came to Universal from a more traditional retail background — “There’s no comparison,” he notes. “This is way more exciting!” — definitely does not take his role in Visual Marketing for granted.
“We’re all about delivering unexpected, fun and immersive experiences to our guests every day,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding aspect of my job.”