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!

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“The Golden Girls” Television Show Review

The_Golden_Girls_opening_screenshotThank you for bein’ a friend! Those now iconic lyrics opened Touchstone Television’s (Walt Disney Company) show on NBC for 180 episodes over 7 successful seasons. Earning multiple awards from Emmys to Golden Globes, this series is also one of only three sitcoms in which each principle actor received an individual Emmy. The Golden Girls was ranked in the top ten shows for six out of its seven seasons, TV Guide (2013) ranked it 54/60 in the highest rated programs of all time, and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) ranks it at 69 out of the top 101 best written series of all time. So many accolades. Created by Susan Harris, the show ran along side another 80s hit The Facts of Life. The theme song, written by Andrew Gold and recorded by Cynthia Fee, is also ranked among the top theme songs of all time. No wonder why it is still running and bringing us endless laughter (currently runs on Hallmark Channel). Much like I Love Lucy has never been off the “air” in its entire existence, The Golden Girls has also been kept on a channel somewhere since it first debuted on September 14, 1985. From laughter to tears, these four women have been such a part of Americana and continue to be referenced in pop culture. Not limited to any particular demographic or cultural group, this show transcends all kinds of racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and cultural barriers. But why has this sitcom (situation comedy) continued to be popular for now 31 years? Let’s explore!

GG_HouseIt’s been 31 years since we were first introduced to Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia at an upper middle-class home in the residential neighborhoods of Miami, FL. Ever since 1985, these four single older women have been coming into our living rooms and, for many, have become part of the family. The sitcom represents a radical move by the Walt Disney Company and NBC in that the show featured so many taboos, at that time, in broadcast television. In many ways, the show was 2-3 decades ahead of its time. The very unique nature of the show is part of why it was such success. However, the continued success of the show goes way beyond just being uncanny for its day. For a show to stand the test of time, it cannot be, in whole anyway, (1) a product of its generation (2) contain proliferated pop culture references that significantly support the plot (3) must have exquisite writing (4) have a phenomenal cast that is as interesting to watch and listen to as the plots are engaging and (5) contains characters that one can identify with decades down the road. Over all, the show has to be unique, timely, and just written and acted exceptionally well. As this is a sitcom, in short, the jokes and conflict have to still be relevant in society for many years down the road. Although entire critical analysis articles could be written about each of the characters (and actors) respectively, the focus of this article is a general overview of why the show is endearing even to this day.

GG Cast CrewBehind every successful show (especially dialog-driven ones), there is solid writing. After creating the show and writing a few episodes, Susan Harris became less directly involved in the series. The head writers of the show (for four seasons) were Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman who would each receive numerous awards during the series’ run. Following the fourth season, they turned the reigns over to Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro who would also go to win awards as well. Other than eccentric 80s attire, it’s the comedic conflict, sarcasm, quick witted remarks, and self-deprecating humor that keeps audiences coming back for more. No matter how many times I have seen each episode, I still laugh every time; the shows never becomes boring. The four women boasted incredibly sharp humor and were very secure in themselves. The creative leadership knew that the show had to leave its mark on television. Quite regularly, the plots were used to not necessarily address outrageous ideas, but important ones. Important ideas and values that had not been addressed in television before. What stands out most about the writing? The fact that progressive values were part of the show’s DNA. From ethnic, racial, religious, cannot forget sex and dating, and of course aging. At its core, the Golden Girls simply made aging fabulous! A good test to understand just how brilliant the writing and comedy is by turning off the picture and listening to the show as if it was a radio broadcast. Most likely, you will find yourself laughing just as much as if you were watching it. You can follow the story without the visuals to accompany it.

GG_Group_ShotBut isn’t television a visual medium? Yes. However, sitcoms are much more similar to live theatre than small cinema. Part of this is because a traditional sitcom is shot in front of a live audience. Just like stage actors feed off of the laughs from the audience, sitcom actors go through similar motions during a performance. Brilliant dialog and plot structure animates characters, and boy were these ladies animated! You won’t find four closer friends. These ladies could insult one another viciously and still remain intimately, but platonically, close. Each and every episode was so very interesting and feels new overtime. Not even a show like Friends holds up as well as The Golden Girls. The relationship between the four women was incredibly dynamic. Hardly an episode goes by that there aren’t alliances, betrayals, misunderstandings, or love triangles. Sometimes we venture to doctor’s offices, restaurants, or the parks; however, most of the time is spent inside the sun drenched Florida multi-champer house. Comparing the show’s floorpan to the exterior of the house, such a floorpan simply cannot exist. Haha. But that’s part of the fun. Unlike movie or television drama, a situation comedy is able to bend logic and make up for that with comedic timing and material. Moreover, the fashion of the girls definitely cannot be ignored. From flashy to trashy, these girls have it covered. The best part of the fashion choices is that, for the most part, the choice of clothing is an extension of the characters themselves. The fashion alone, is something that could be analyzed and actually has been in the past.

GG around tableWhile aging, women’s rights, and dating were reoccurring themes and tied directly to the show’s premise, other once taboo social topics were important milestones in the series’ development as well. Although there are a few social issues that could be mentioned, the one that is the most prominent after the ones that have been mentioned are topics dealing with gay men and women. Nearly a quarter of a century before the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the legal definition of marriage equality, The Golden Girls had already tackled that subject and brought it into the mainstream. There are a few times that a gay character was the focus of a show, but the episode that stands out the most is when Blanche finds out that her brother is gay (and later there is an episode where he introduces her to his fiancé). This is one of the toughest episodes for Blanche and one other best examples of character development. She faced a situation that thousands of parents and siblings face everyday across the country. Before Will and GraceGleeThe New Normal, and other popular shows, these four women highlighted real world problems and social issues that continue to be battled today. Indirectly, gay social issues and stigmas were also dealt with. In the episode where Rose is contacted by a hospital regarding the possibility of her having contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, the girls take the then-unpopular stance that HIV/AIDS was not a punishment for being gay but a disease that knows no social, ethnic, sexual orientation, or religious barriers. They brought out the fact that it could happen to anyone. The brilliance of how these once-taboo subjects were handled is seen in how, amongst conflict and tears, the girls somehow still managed to bring humor into the mix, and leave you with a smile.

GG hugAfter watching this show for many years, it still has the ability to make me laugh uncontrollably at times. And, that sentiment is felt by many who have continued to visit the home of Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia over the decades. There is so much to explore in this show, and why it continues to be popular today. From the writing to the acting and humorous conflicts to dealing with hard topics of bigotry, disease, sexual orientation, and aging, The Golden Girls continues to be a show that can help you laugh on the worst of days. Although there are shows that have attempted to be a modern day Golden Girls, none can hold a candle to these amazing performers and writers. There is a magic quality to the show that can never be duplicated.