Universal Orlando Resort is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. People come from around the globe to experience its theme parks, hotels, and restaurants. However, many visitors are unaware that Universal Orlando Resort has a long and interesting history dating back to the early 1980s. In this blog post, we will explore the history of Universal Orlando Resort, from its humble beginnings as a small theme park to its current status as a world-class resort.
1982: MCA Purchases Land in Florida
In 1982, MCA Inc. (now NBCUniversal) purchased 423 acres of land in Orlando, Florida, intending to build a new theme park and production studio. At the time, the only other major theme park in Central Florida was Walt Disney World, which had opened just 11 years earlier. Universal Orlando Resort would be a direct competitor to Disney World, and MCA was determined to make it a success.
1986: Construction Begins on Universal Studios Florida
In 1986, Universal announced that it would begin construction on Universal Studios, prompting Disney to make plans to open its own studio-themed attraction, the Disney-MGM Studios.
Development lasted throughout the decade, and the park was eventually opened to the public in 1990. Construction costs were estimated to be $630 million, with MCA Universal and The Rank Organisation (a British entertainment company) jointly owning 50%.
1990: Opening Day at Universal Studios Florida
On June 7th, 1990, Universal Studios Florida opened its doors to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony from Steven Spielberg. Actors like Michael J. Fox and Sylvestre Stallone were also in attendance. The park included several rides and shows based on popular films and T.V. shows.
Universal Studios Florida’s opening day featured 13 rides and shows (not counting the Boneyard, the Marx Brothers, and other lineless attractions). They were:
- Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies
- Animal Actors
- Dynamite Nights Stunt Spectacular
- Earthquake: The Big One
- E.T. Adventure
- The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera
- Ghostbusters Spooktacular
- Murder She Wrote Mystery Theatre
- Nickelodeon Studios
- The Phantom of the Opera Horror Make-Up Show
- Production Tram Tour.
Despite the eventual removal of nearly all opening day attractions, one remains in operation today: E.T. Adventure. While it lacks the thrills and technological sophistication of recent attractions, this classic ride is still charming and nostalgic. For this reason, some consider E.T. Adventure as one of the best rides at Universal.
Universal Studios Florida has come a long way since its humble beginnings, but its original mission to provide guests with an immersive and entertaining experience remains the same.
1993: Announcement of a Second Theme Park
It was announced on September 16th, 1993, that Universal would build a second theme park and several resorts at its Florida complex.
1994 – 1998: Laying the Groundwork for Islands of Adventure
In 1994, executives began laying the groundwork for a multi-day vacation destination. The new park, Islands of Adventure, would feature rides and attractions based on popular movies, T.V. shows, novels, and comics.
In 1995, the Islands of Adventure Preview Center opened as a replacement for the Screen Test Home Video Adventure.
The construction of Islands of Adventure finally began in 1997 after many delays.
Meanwhile, several new attractions opened at Universal Studios Florida, including Terminator 2: 3-D (1996) and Hercules and Xena: Wizards of the Screen (1997). Universal also purchased the popular water park Wet ‘n Wild Orlando in 1998 (it would eventually be demolished and replaced by Volcano Bay in 2017).
1999: CityWalk Opens
As part of Universal Studios Florida’s expansion into Universal Orlando Resort, Universal CityWalk opened on February 4th, 1999. The site was previously a parking lot and entrance for Universal Studios. This complex has a diverse collection of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options, and it is the gateway to Universal’s two theme parks.
1999: Islands of Adventure Opens
On May 28th, 1999, Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened to the public. The park resembles a voyage of exploration, where guests embark on an adventure to visit six different themed islands: Port of Entry, Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing.
Here are Universal’s Islands of Adventure opening date rides and shows (May 28th, 1999):
- Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
- Cat in the Hat
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- If I Ran the Zoo
- Incredible Hulk Coaster
- Jurassic Park River Adventure
- Oh, The Stories You’ll Hear
- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
- Popeyes & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
- Poseidon’s Fury
- Pteranodon Flyers
1999: Universal’s First Hotel Opens
The resort opened its first onsite hotel in September 1999. Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (initially called Portofino Bay Hotel) was operated and partly owned by Loews Hotels, but Universal and Blackstone Group held the other ownership.
Universal initially branded the combination of its two theme parks, CityWalk and the new hotel, as “Universal Studios Escape.” This name created confusion with the general public (because of its similarly named Universal Studios theme park), which soon led to its renaming as Universal Orlando Resort.
2000 – 2009: A Decade of Expansion
London-based Rank announced in June 2000 that it had sold its 50% stake in Universal Orlando Resort to New York-based Blackstone Capital Partners for an estimated $275 million.
On January 19th, 2001, Universal Orlando Resort opened its second onsite hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel. Despite its name, the property is owned by Loews Hotels. That same year, Universal built two parking garages in response to the increased traffic from the new hotels and attractions.
A third hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando, was open on June 1st, 2002.
In 2003, there were rumors that Universal (or Disney parks) would soon construct a Harry Potter-themed attraction. An announcement on May 31st, 2007, stated that Universal’s Islands of Adventure park would include the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and that Universal would build the themed island in partnership with Warner Brothers.
NBC and Universal merged in May 2004, creating NBCUniversal, a new media conglomerate. The company would retain sole ownership of Universal Orlando Resort.
On December 3rd, 2009, Comcast announced that it would acquire NBCUniversal.
2010: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Opens
On June 18th, 2010, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. The highly anticipated area (and the park’s 7th island) was based on the popular Harry Potter book and film series, and it featured several immersive experiences for visitors to enjoy.
Among the highlights was a recreation of Hogwarts Castle, which housed a magical interactive wand experience (now home to the dark ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey). Hogsmeade Village, where guests could explore Hogwarts’ famed wizarding village, and Flight of the Hippogriff, a family-friendly roller coaster, were also added.
In addition to the rides and attractions, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter also featured dining options and several shops selling wands and other authentic Potter merchandise. The opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a significant event for Universal Orlando Resort and Potter fans worldwide.
2011: NBCUniversal Buys Blackstone’s Stake
In June 2011, NBCUniversal and The Blackstone Group announced that they had entered into an agreement under which NBCUniversal would acquire The Blackstone Group’s 50% stake in Universal Orlando. The amount paid for Blackstone’s interest was $1.025 billion. This deal made NBCUniversal the sole owner of Universal Orlando Resort.
2013: Comcast Complete Purchase of NBCUniversal
March 19th, 2013, marked the completion of Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal. NBCUniversal owned and continues to hold the resort. Comcast is the parent company, and Universal Parks & Resorts is the operator.
2014: Diagon Alley Opens at Universal Studios Florida
On March 31st, 2014, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort opened ahead of an anticipated influx of new guests.
After the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade opened with massive success, rumors of an expansion began circulating. Shortly after that, construction started on a new Wizarding World area at the former location of Jaws: The Ride.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley officially opened at Universal Studios Florida on July 8th, 2014, much to the excitement of Potter fans worldwide. The new park expansion is located in the Universal Studios Florida theme park and features many beloved characters and locations from the Harry Potter series. Visitors can explore Diagon Alley, Gringotts Bank, and even take a ride on the Hogwarts Express.
With so much to see and do, it’s no wonder that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley has quickly become one of the most popular areas at Universal Studios Florida.
2016: Skull Island Becomes the 8th Island
Skull Island: Reign of Kong is a trackless dark ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida. Based on the 2005 King Kong film, the ride opened to the public on July 13th, 2016. Skull Island also became the 8th island at Universal’s Island of Adventure.
The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando debuted on July 7th, 2016, just a week before Skull Island opened.
2017: Volcano Bay Water Park Opens
Universal Orlando Resort opened Volcano Bay on May 25th, 2017. The 27-acre themed water park replaced Wet ‘n Wild, which Universal Parks & Resorts acquired in 1998.
Volcano Bay features include an active 200-foot tall volcano with a waterfall that flows into a lagoon and four themed areas called Wave Village, Rainforest Village, River Village, and Krakatau. The volcano has three drop capsule slides, including the 125-foot Ko’okiri Body Plunge, the tallest body slide in America.
2018 – 2020: Three New Hotels Open
Since 2018, Universal Orlando Resort has seen the opening of three new onsite hotels: Universal’s Aventura Hotel on August 16th, 2018, Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suite on June 27th, 2019, and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites on December 15th, 2020.
2019: Epic Universe Announced
In August 2019, Universal confirmed plans to build Epic Universe, its third Orlando theme park. Early construction began, but would soon be temporarily paused in April 2020 due to COVID-19.
2020: COVID Shutdown
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down Universal Orlando Resort from March 16th, 2020, to June 5th, 2020. The closure was the first time in the history of Universal Orlando Resort that it had to shut down for an extended period. The closure devastated the local economy, with many businesses shutting down permanently and thousands of people losing their jobs. However, the resort bounced back quickly, reopening on June 5th with decent crowds and health and safety measures in place. It demonstrates the strength and loyalty of the Universal brand.
2021: Epic Universe Construction Resumes
Universal resumed construction on Epic Universe in March 2021. Following the unexpected construction delays due to COVID-19, NBCUniversal now expects that Epic Universe will open in 2025.
The concept art for Epic Universe shows several indoor rides, two roller coasters, several indoor rides, a high-rise hotel, and several large lakes. There will also be shops, restaurants, entertainment at the new park, and a Super Nintendo World-themed land.
Universal Orlando History FAQs
Who founded Universal Orlando Resort?
The history of Universal Orlando Resort dates back to the early 1980s. In 1982, MCA Inc. acquired 423 acres in Orlando, Florida, for a new theme park and production studio. It was not until four years later that Universal Studios Florida construction began. A joint venture between MCA and The Rank Organisation opened Universal Studios Florida in 1990. They shared 50/50 ownership until Rank sold its entire stake to The Blackstone Group in June 2000.
What was the first hotel at Universal Orlando?
The first hotel at Universal Orlando Resort was the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which opened in September 1999. Loews Hotels operated and partly owned the hotel, with Universal and the Blackstone Group holding the other ownership stake.
The Portofino Bay Hotel was modeled after the picturesque Italian city of Portofino. It featured Mediterranean-style architecture, marble floors, and an outdoor piazza with a replica of Portofino’s famous clock tower. The hotel quickly became a popular destination for guests looking for an upscale and relaxing experience at Universal Orlando Resort.
In recent years, Universal has added several other onsite hotels, including the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites. However, the Portofino Bay Hotel remains one of the most popular and best hotels at Universal Orlando Resort, thanks to its unique atmosphere and a prime location near some of Universal Orlando’s most popular attractions.
Who owns Universal Orlando Resort?
NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast Corporation, owns and operates Universal Orlando Resort. The resort consists of two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure), a water park (Volcano Bay), an entertainment complex (Universal CityWalk Orlando), and eight onsite hotels. Universal Orlando Resort is the largest attraction operated by NBCUniversal and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States.
Why is Universal Orlando Resort Famous?
Universal Orlando Resort is famous for being one of the most popular theme parks in the world. The resort is home to two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, as well as a water park, Volcano Bay.
Universal Orlando Resort is also famous for its Harry Potter-themed area, which includes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida and Diagon Alley at Islands of Adventure.
Universal Orlando Resort’s statistics speak for themselves: the resort attracts millions of visitors each year who come to enjoy the rides, attractions, and entertainment on offer. Universal Orlando Resort is truly a world-class theme park destination.
Ready to book your Universal Orlando vacation?
Are you planning a trip to Universal? For the best experience, we recommend working with an experienced Universal Orlando travel agency.
Vacation planners specializing in this type of travel make booking Universal Orlando vacations much more straightforward and rewarding. That is especially true if you travel to Universal with pets, or small children or if this is your first time at the resort.
From your transportation from the airport to help with your itinerary to booking your theme park tickets and Express Passes, the Vacationeer has you covered. Moreover, they offer their services for free!
Click HERE for a free quote and find out how much a Universal vacation will cost.
Thanks for reading the History of Universal Orlando Resort!