Growing from a film set on a farm to a collection of four full-blown attractions and theme parks in the last 100 years, Universal Studios now has sites in Hollywood, Orlando, Japan and Singapore.
Take a look at our guide below for a history of how Universal started out in Los Angeles as well as all the fun you can have at its biggest park in Orlando, Florida. With details of all the biggest and newest rides, events and shows, we also provide some entertaining facts along the way.
Universal Studios started as the film production site Universal City on 14th March 1915, based on a working farm in what was then a rural part of LA. Realising that the general public had a thirst for the film industry, founder Carl Laemmle started the first tours for a bargain price of just 25 cents and five cents for lunch. But when sound was introduced to films in the 1930s, visitors were too noisy to be allowed on set so Universal was temporarily closed to the public.
Tours were allowed again in 1956, but were limited to buses driving around the backlot so passengers could look at the film location scenery as part of movie-star homes tours. Then in 1964, the first official studio tour rides were run, using specially-designed pink and white striped Glamour Trams. The scale was very small to start with as staff only consisted of a ticket seller, two guides and two tram drivers, with the fare being $2.50 for a ride. But as they were so popular a Visitor’s Entertainment Centre was built the following year at a cost of $5 million.
Despite a large backlot fire in 1967, the studios only expanded in size from here, with additions such as The Jaws Experience, displaying a 25-foot long shark prop, and the Earthquake simulation of an 8.3 tremor. The first standalone ride was introduced in 1991 – The ET Adventure, where people rode on bicycles.
The attractions kept on coming thick and fast after then to make Universal Studios Hollywood the buzzing attraction it is today. But just before ET came to the studios, Universal made its biggest move to date – opening the Orlando Park.
Florida’s famous figures
In June 1990, Universal Orlando was opened, with famed film director Steven Spielberg as one of the co-founders. At 107 acres, the site was far larger and so allowed for bigger and self-contained versions of the favourite attractions at Hollywood, including Earthquake, Jaws and ET but much more besides. Kongfrontation was one of the first new rides to be opened at the park, based on the King Kong films, which is now the site of the Revenge of the Mummy indoor ride.
Some of the most popular attractions at Orlando are Transformers: The Ride 3D, Jurassic Park River Adventure’s splashdown, Men in Black: Alien Attack interactive ride and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man 4D motion-based rides. And at night-time you can take in 100 years of movie memories on a whirlwind al fresco screening showcasing Universal’s most iconic films, all voiced by Morgan Freeman.
Another big draw for people is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is actually split between Universal Studios and its neighbouring 101-acre Universal Islands of Adventure park. You can take the Hogwarts Express between the two parks to visit the replica Hogwarts castle, and ride the Diagon Alley-themed Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts.
As well as all the thrilling rides, the famed Blue Man Group performs its comedy, theatre and concert show nightly at the park. This multi-sensory experience combines dance, art and technology in a haze of colour, lights and partying.
The fun factor is upped further at certain times of the year with events held annually at Universal Orlando. These kick off between February and April with Mardi Gras celebrations, reflecting the spirit of New Orleans through costumed character parades, Cajan food and live performances.
Halloween is highlighted across September and October with Horror Nights that put on extreme entertainment in haunted houses and scare zones. Then the year is topped off with holiday celebrations in December that’ll make you feel all festive, including a parade that’s borrowed from Macy’s New York Thanksgiving Parade.
The biggest and best
Universal Orlando is still the largest of Universal’s theme parks and resorts and many of its rides and attractions are world-beaters. When the Rip Ride Rockit was added in 2009 it had three world’s first manoeuvres – the world’s largest non-inverted loop, the first spiralling negative-gravity move, and the Treble Clef, which was the first to be built in the shape of the musical symbol – pretty clever seeing its origins were a napkin sketch. Also, Shrek 4-D Adventure was the first time an original film cast and creative team have produced an animated film attraction.
However, as is true with many of its film sets, Universal recycles where possible and uses clever tricks to create the illusion of space. The Simpsons Ride reuses the Back to the Future: The Ride system that it took the place of, and as a tribute, Doc Brown from back to the Future makes an appearance in the pre-ride video. To make the ride seem bigger, TV screens are used to display other people taking the ride, so that it appears as if they’re riding next to you at the time.
Always eager to keep on top of the game, Universal is constantly planning the next big ride. Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon™ is now open where you can race the star of the tonight Show, Jimmy himself, through New York. Then coming on 25th May is Volcano Bay, which rounds the number of Universal parks off to three with its waterpark offering, centred by a replica lava-spewing mountain. And finally, 2018 will see the arrival of Fast & Furious – Supercharged, as well as no doubt further additions.
Have a VIP day
If you want to feel extra special on your trip to Universal Orlando, there’s the option of a VIP experience. You’ll get a walking tour with a personal guide, behind-the-scenes experiences and priority entrance into a minimum of eight major rides and attractions, plus reserved seating at shows, breakfast and lunch.
Or if you don’t want to go the whole hog, just add Universal Express passes onto your ticket to get queue-jumping privileges all day. And those interested in rock music can request a free full walking tour of the Hard Rock Café from one of the VIBE hosts, which can include a backstage tour if there’s no live music on that day. Other than the Hard Rock, there are more than 50 places to eat while at the park, from seafood and pub grub, and excellent Italian to gourmet Creole.
What are your favourite things about Universal Studios? And what rides are you looking forward to seeing the most? Let us know below.