Universal Studios Florida: the Hollywood that Once Was

It’s no secret that Universal Orlando Resort’s history is rich with television and film production. But where has it all gone? The short answer is that republicans took over the state government in 1998 and began chopping away at the incentives for filming in the state. If you look at the former (mainly TV) productions that used to film at Universal Studios Florida, you’ll notice that the late 90s and early 2000s are when the numbers began to drop to nearly nothing of consequence, save a TV episode here and there. Correlation may not equal causation, but this evidence to support the republicans killing off Florida’s film business may be anecdotal, but no less significant. All kinds of shows and TV movies were filmed in the sound stages and in and around the “working studio” theme park. Recently, Jennifer Beals was announced to be the sheriff in the new Swamp Thing TV show, and that prompted the idea to explore the history of productions in the park since the original 90s Swamp Thing TV show was filmed where the Men in Black attraction is located. Call it nostalgia; but knowing what used to flourish may prompt voters to think about who’s moving into the governor’s mansion this November. More than the politics of showbusiness and state legislature, delving into the variety of shows that once called Universal Studio Florida home proves to be an interesting and fun journey.

Headlining the most high profile productions to use the theatrical and television production facilities at Universal Florida is Nickelodeon Studios. Not only was it the most recognizable name using the production facilities, it was also incorporated into the park’s operations in order to further immerse the Universal Studios guests into the magic of TV and movies. In November 1988, Nickelodeon moved to the sunshine state and built its colorful office building with the big orange Nickelodeon sign on the front and eventual slime geyser in the forecourt. Although the production facilities were in use prior to the theme park officially opening, the official opening of the studio coincided with the theme park on June 7, 1990. The official opening allowed park guests to take a tour of the studio and guests could even audition for or join the studio audience during tapings of shows. Double DareFigure It Out, Legends of the Hidden Temple, GUTS, All That, and others are among those that regularly filmed. Shows like What Would You Do? often brought the cameras into the park in order to interact with guests. Sound stages 18 and 19 along with seasonally leased Stage 21 were home to some of your favorite Nickelodeon shows from the 90s. When the studios were in operation (many regard this as Nickelodeon’s golden age), more than a dozen kid/teen sitcoms, twenty game shows, and five children’s shows were shot at the main studios. Operating throughout the day were tours of of the facility for Universal Studios Florida guests; but during tapings, interested parties could signup to be in the studio audiences and kids/teens could even audition for the game shows when taping.

Well, what happened? After the republican legislation took over Florida in 1998, and the film incentives were greatly reduced, Nickelodeon along with Universal and Disney-MGM Studios began to book fewer and fewer shows. Furthermore, with the transition Nickelodeon was going through from live action game shows to more traditional sitcoms not intended for live studio audiences in the way Clarissa Explains it All, All That, and others in the early-mid 90s were, the studio shifted its focus back west. Eventually, Nickelodeon built new studios in California. So, it was a combination of lack of state film incentives and changing the direction of the content that were responsible for the eventual closure of the studio operations in 2004; and eventually, the administrative offices were moved to Santa Monica in 2005. From hundreds of employees to double digits, and eventually none at all, Nickelodeon employed many showbusiness professionals in Florida. And since the closure of the studio, the opportunities have greatly dwindled. Returning the state film incentives could recreate film and television opportunities. The story of Nickelodeon from 1988 to 2004 represents a kind of Hollywood that existed that was responsible for careers and unique theme park experiences.

Not only was Nickelodeon responsible for the “Hollywood of the east,” as Universal Studios Florida was considered from the time it opened for about 8-10yrs, there were a number of other shows that were also filmed there. Where many Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) houses are now located, used to be the stages where television and film was made. While Nickelodeon and Universal were the only “permanent” residents of the studio property, other shows and movies taped there throughout the early to mid 1990s.

Although the filming of this next movie for Universal Television (released on Showtime) was supposed to wrap before the park opened, early park guests had the rare opportunity to watch Anthony Perkins reprise his iconic role as Norman Bates in Psycho IV. That’s right, the last installment in the Psycho franchise was taped right there at Universal Florida! Until 1998, the Bates House and Motel were located where Barney is now. Park guests could get up close and personal with the standing sets much in the same way they can at the world famous studio tour in Hollywood. In an effort to have a working studio theme park concept, high profile productions were needed to cement the idea of Hollywood made here. Showing a production on a famous set in the park was a brilliant way of taking park guests behind the magic of the movies. The park’s slogan at the time was “ride the movies,” so this took that concept further, and allowed park guests to “experience” the movies. Not only was a Hollywood movie getting made at the brand new Universal Studios Florida, it became an attraction and popular photo opportunity for the next eight years. For those who missed the filming, park guests could still get up close and personal with Hitchcock’s most famous movie at Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies.

A couple of multi-season different shows called Universal Studios Florida home for the duration of their respective run. SeaQuest DSV (starting season 2) and Swamp ThingSeaQuest moved from Los Angeles to Orlando in 1995 for the filming of the second season. Other than some scenes that were shot in and around Orlando Tampa, most of the show was filmed in Sound Stages 20, 24, and 28. When the park offered a backlot tram tour, park guests could occasionally see into the sound stages when not not closed for filming. In nearby Sound Stage 21, the Universal picture Parenthood was filmed. Office building 22 housed the permanent and rental office space for the various productions on property. On the other side of the park where Men in Black is now located, was the Swamp Thing set. Although not part of the studio tram tour, guests could book additional tours of some of the active sets on property. Over the years, there were many other television shows and movies filmed at Universal Studios Florida. Knowing that movie and television magic was being made right there in Orlando added an intrinsic value to the experience of the theme park in its early years. It truly felt like Hollywood was right here in Orlando.

Those who love movies and theme parks were in awe of all the attractions and movie magic on display at Universal Studios Florida. And if you are a kid of the 90s, you remember all too well the closing of Nickelodeon shows “recorded in front of a live studios audience in Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Florida.” And your parents likely remember the neon logo at the end of Swamp Thing and SeaQuest. What could be better than a movie-themed theme park that was also a bustling studio for a movie and TV fan? Not a whole lot. Unfortunately, when Florida switched from a Dem to a GOP governor in 1998, slowly the number of productions began to dry up as the state ended its desirable incentives. Sound stages were empty or primarily used for Halloween Horror Nights, Nickelodeon turned into Blue Man Group, sound stages destroyed for Rip Ride Rockit and more from the early 2000s to today. Very little is left of the Hollywood that once was. Still there are buildings in the park that sand testament to the role the theme park played in the many productions that took place, by in large, from 1990-2000. So much history–right here in Orlando! Hard to believe all the movie magic that was made part of the experience of visiting Universal Studios Florida.

If you live in Florida, and would like to see movie magic return to the Sunshine State, think about who will push for those state-level tax and other financial incentives to generate a renaissance of opportunities for those who love movies so much that they want to be part of making them.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Thrillz (theme parks): Thrillz.co

Thank You for Your Interest in Our Company…

…unfortunately, we have chosen another candidate at this time but we will keep your resume on file for future positions that are more in line with your qualifications (the biggest lie next to “I have read the terms and conditions”). How many of you have received hundreds of those emails? I certainly have. So many, in fact, I could usually determine which recruitment automation software the company used. Occasionally, my name wouldn’t even be in the “to whom” area; it would simply read “dear candidate” or worse “dear NAME.” Hashtag, mail merge fail. When you constantly receive rejection emails from potential employers and collectively fewer than 15 interviews over more than two years, you breakdown emotionally and psychologically. How could it be? I did everything society says you’re supposed to do in order to make-it in this life. I had many years of valuable work and volunteer experience, bachelors and masters degrees, 12 indie films, and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and a book. Still. I was unsuccessful in landing any position directly or even indirectly related to my professional and academic experience. After 956 unique resumes and cover letters and searching for over 26-months, I finally landed a position after graduate school AND it’s in my field; but, there were plenty of times along these more than two years that I was simply ready to give up. After a while of searching without even an interview, depression set in and it became physically sickening to continue to search for a job.

Although I was confident that I was doing everything I could in order to catch the attention of a company, I knew that I could not expect different results if I kept doing the same thing the same way (or some variation of it). I reached out to career services at USF and began working with the VP of career services. Having hope that he would be able to look over my resume and cover letter and be able to determine why I wasn’t receiving interviews, I was disappointed when he said that my resume, cover letter, and portfolio looked fine. He did mention that my cover letter was too long and I needed to edit the length, add more “you” and less “I,” and an active close; however, all that said, he was puzzled why I wasn’t landing interviews. Taking his advice, I edited my cover letter and highlighted how my skills would be valuable to a position instead of a longform version of what was already on my resume. So, I suppose looking back, my cover letter did need help. Fortunately, he said that my resume was an excellent one and even used it as an example for other students and recent under/graduates. After meeting with him a few times, I did get a few interviews coming in (collectively, over two years I had less than 15. I think the number is closer to 10 out of nearly 1K resumes/applications). Eventually, I stopped hearing from him. Even after I had an interview with a company that worked with career services–when I didn’t get the job–he reached out to them and asked why. He sad he was going to meet with me to discuss an area of improvement in my interview technique (that wasn’t terribly major), but he never got with me. And I emailed him a few times to set something up.

So, I was back to being on my own again. Even though searching for a job was beginning to really drain my confidence and energy levels, I was fortunate to have a job at USF, MOSI at the time, and a gig I still have editing an NPR show. So, I am not trying to paint a picture of sheer destitution because that would be unfair to those who are unemployed. But all my jobs together still came to less than $24K a year. Hardly enough to live on, independently (with a roommate). Although there was certainly financial struggles, I think the urge to give up was from exhaustion of having done everything right and still failing. There were also plenty of times that I wondered if I was going to have to move back home AGAIN, because I couldn’t seem to hack it. Little more than a year into my job search, I landed an additional part-time job at USF, which combined with my then-current one, gave me 40hrs at $15/hr. Other than not getting paid for holidays, no sick time, no vacation time, and losing a week of pay between Christmas and News Years (and yeah I know, that’s a lot of “not”), I was nearly able to be stable. Last fall, I was hired on at the University of Tampa as a part-time faculty member in the communications department teaching film and writing. Finally. I finally landed something that I could not have without my graduate degree. Of course, I am still juggling multiple part-time jobs at this point. Despite not getting paid between semesters, the job at UT worked wonders to assist me during my larger job search.

Most of my downtime at work and at home was spent on Indeed and on any company I could find through a Google search to find a job. Learned quickly that the LinkedIn jobs feature is completely useless, and even when positions were being posted but already taken. Just have to be posted because of EEO laws. Boy, did I learn a thing or two about EEO. There were a few occasions that I interviewed with mostly female companies. I would interview very well, meet all minimum qualifications plus the preferred, and still not land the job. Would find out later that it went to a female candidate. Although I may be over analyzing that, there were a few instances in which the recruitment process was incredibly fishy and left with the notion that they simply wanted to work with another female. Another time I had an awful interview experience was with a company that conducted the phone interview and decided to bring me in for the in-person one. The whole time during the in-person interview, I was questioned as to why I even bothered applying for the job because they feel that I didn’t have sufficient experience. Why did you even bother to bring me in to begin with??? Interviewed for a city government job, and one of the members on the panel was on his phone the whole time. Made eye contact only when he had to. And I was well-prepared. Had an interview setup at a company where I had two friends; it went poorly too. The interview itself went well, but they never got back with me and even asked my friends if I was applying for an entry level job that was compensated much less than I even made at USF. Long story short, I don’t think he paid attention to anything I said.

Financially things have progressively gotten tighter over the months. Sometimes there was relief when a little extra money would come in from a side gig but ultimately, it was getting harder and harder to continue to live sufficiently. Saved a lot of money by biking to work (after I got one for Christmas), and that proved to be excellent not only for my wallet but my health too. I began getting creative with food over the last couple years. I often cooked at home to begin with, but now I was breaking out all my mom’s old recipes and making them. Most of the recipes were casseroles, chicken/beef and rice, and others that could be stretched over a few days. My roommate grew a fondness for my mom’s recipes too. Now I know how my mom kept the family fed when my dad was in graduate school. One day, I was on the phone with my sister and she asked me if I ever seriously prayed about my situation. I responded, “well sure, I have.” She then asked if I was fervent or even offered up something of mine as an offering. Now that, I had not done. She reminded me of the Old Testament story of Hannah, who wanted a child so desperately. She made God a promise that she would dedicate him to God if He were to bless her with a son. Long story, short. He did, and she did. Now I did not have much to offer. I already gave as much as I could to others and would offer a helping hand whenever it was needed. But, I did have an income. And although I would tithe from my income, I was not regular. I made God the promise that if He were to open the door to a job that I would commit my first 10+% no matter how tough times got.

Around that time, I had a series of interviews with HSN (Home Shopping Network), Feld Entertainment (Disney on Ice, Disney Live, Marvel Universe Live, Monster Jam, etc), and contacted about an upcoming position at the University of Tampa as a supervisor in Media Services. All these came around the same time. Now, I am not saying that because I made a promise that I got the leads, but it is definitely something to ponder. After several interviews with HSN and having known the recruiter for 5 years over the course of interviews in the past, the position went to a friend of mine who was also a candidate. I literally got the news of my rejection (for the 4th time from that company) on my way to my in-person interview at Feld. As you can imagine, I was incredibly disappointed and even hurt once again. But, I could choose to dwell on the negative and allow that to affect my approaching interview or take it as a message that I have to absolutely kill this next one and leave a strong impact. I chose the latter. The following weekend after that interview was payday. And, with not teaching at UT over the summer and with having found out the previous week that I was losing that second job at USF (that added the 10 hours to the 30 I had in Mass Comm), I was facing dire straights once again. I seriously thought of not offering God the top 10+% because I could easily rationalize it as a need to keep due to my income essentially getting cut in half until UT started back up. But, I made a promise “no matter how tough times got.” So, I put money in my savings account and set aside my tithe+ and prayed that it would all work out. That following Tuesday, even after being told by Feld that the recruitment process would take weeks from the in-person interview, I received a phone call. I was pretty well sure that the recruiter was calling to tell me that I didn’t get the job, but to my amazement, I heard wonderful news. God sent me a miracle–little ol’ me.

I’ve been waiting more than two years to hear those words–we would like to offer you the position…–and it happened. I was speechless. I even received $2K more than I had on my application. I prayed for a miracle and I’ve no doubt that’s what I experienced. What happened to that possible UT job that I was contacted about even before it was posted??? I never heard back from UT on that one position and received rejection emails from other companies. Fortunately, working at Feld still allows me to continue teaching part-time at UT as a Film & Media Arts instructor and continue to edit the NPR show. Looking back, I feel strongly that I would not have received the interview, much less, an offer from Feld if it had not been for my four years at USF working in video production and the TV studios. My three years at Disney World, my bachelors degree, past films, Masters degree, and time at USF all worked together to open the door that the Lord brought to me. Interestingly, I wasn’t even looking at editing jobs as a rule of thumb because my producing skills were better than my editing skills (albeit, I am a competent editor and learned a lot through my work at USF), but this job popped up in an Indeed search several months ago. Who would’ve known that would be the job that I would land after more than 26mos of searching.

Over the months, I’ve been able to help others who are facing the same grim career landscape. With my vast experience with resume writing, submission, and interviewing, I have been able to coach others along the way. My story is one of many, but I wanted to–as briefly as I could–write it down in hopes that it may inspire you or keep you from falling into a deep depression like I did a few times during this long journey. Bottom line is, don’t give up. Learn all you can where you are in life. Surround yourself with encouragement. And, never underestimate the power of a prayer and promise.

A Short History of How Cinema Shaped Theme Parks (part 1)

studiotourtramEver since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audiences from around the world have been drawn to the temple of the height of the visual and performing arts, the cinema. In many ways, the early days regarded the cinema as an attraction, an amusement. In fact, many of the first silent films were shown in carnivals. Nickelodeons dotted the landscape in drug stores and clubs. Elaborate and ornate movie palaces housed some of the first big screens, and orchestras played along with the narrative. Over the last century, cinema has gone from existing in sideshows to achieving a dominant presence in our society that has evolved into the very rollercoaster to which many critics and lay people compare it; and, not only metaphorically…

For the full article, click HERE to be redirected to Thrillz! YOUR source for theme park news, reviews, and information from around the world!