2014 was a year of transition for Universal Studios Hollywood.
Gone is the claim that Universal is the largest movie studio and theme park complex in the world, and in its place is a new mission – one that promises to deliver an uncompromising theme park experience.
Indeed, while the notion of compromise has been firmly embedded in the minds of those that follow Universal Studios Hollywood, the theme park’s recent developments promises an experience that rivals that of its larger peers in Florida, Japan and Singapore, proving once and for all that Universal’s unique circumstances and constraints are no match for creativity and ambition. With a willful corporate parent willing to invest capital into the park, let’s take a look at Universal’s top ten defining moments from 2014 as defined by the Inside Universal editorial staff and you, our readers.
Let’s begin with number ten:
Proving to be somewhat of a lark, Finlays’ curious three-time transformation seemed to embody the ever-growing – and at times unstable – nature of Universal.
Introduced in 2013 as part of the landmark Universal Plaza project, Finlays opened briefly as a general-purpose snack-shack with a small assortment of quick-serve food and beverages for guests passing along Baker Street. Featuring a mustard yellow and neon-green color scheme, the small venue later closed for an undisclosed period of time – becoming a bit of a puzzle to fans and guests. By May 2014, Finalys had been refreshed with a softer, more muted color scheme, though the snack shack still remained closed to the general public.
With the closure of Cinnabon in Simpsons Plaza in 2013, Finalys’ finally received its final transformation in June of 2014. The venue received a new brown and yellow paint scheme in lieu of jarring green and yellow that had marked the building before, and the newly transformed home of Cinnabon has remained open ever since.
In a surprising move, 2014 also marked the change of the infamous StarWay soundtrack.
Featuring the soothing voice of Billy Bush of Access Hollywood fame, the StarWay soundtrack once featured a mix of Universal trivia, music excerpts and various safety announcements. While the StarWay track was – for all intents and purposes – fine and unoffensive for most guests, employees of the Lower Lot would famously perform the walk of shame, or the mandatory trek up and down the StarWay escalators before and after every shift. Thus, after a few weeks of daily work, the songs of the StarWay (and Bush’s voice) would slowly begin to grate on the nerves of team members – eventually becoming a form of white noise as their tenure would progress.
With the StarWay’s refresh in 2014, guests and employees alike were treated to a jukebox of songs from Universal films, including Get On Up and Happy from James Brown and Despicable Me, respectively. While not randomized as some fans had hoped, the new soundtrack provides a continuous mix of songs without endless banter.
Among the more prominent buildings on Universal’s Upper Lot, Victoria Station was one of Universal’s oldest structures, originally constructed in 1977. In its tenure, the venue has housed a number of attractions and restaurants over the years, including Marvel Mania, Chicken Run Maze and many others. However, like much of Universal’s demolitions in recent years, Victoria Station is currently being replaced in favor of a new dining, retail and entertainment complex that will transform the entrance plaza.
We’ll have to wait and see to witness the full extent of this new building and its effect on the park, but for what it’s worth, Victoria Station’s demolition simply reinforces Universal determination to effectively overhaul the entirety of the Upper Lot.
In somewhat of a anti-climatic end, the Blues Brothers would lose their permanent stage during the Victoria Station demolition in late 2014, ending what would have been almost two decades of performances on the Upper Lot.
Unfortunately, as we would later find out, the Blues Brothers would also lose their show altogether – with performers staging informal meet-and-greet until their contract formally expires on February 16.
However, despite this unfortunate end, the Blues Brothers will always be associated with Universal Studios Hollywood as one of the park’s key sideshow attractions during the 1980s and 1990s. With Universal’s new direction as a blockbuster theme park destination glimmering in the distance, the park ultimately decided to pursue a new direction without the musical direction of Jake and Elwood Blues, ending over two decades of performances at Universal.
At the start of the new year, Universal demolished Doc Brown’s Chicken and the Hollywood Cantina – ending Back to the Future’s two-decade presence at the park, starting with Back to the Future: The Ride in 1993.
While the Simpsons Ride originally opened in 2008, Doc Brown’s Chicken (and Hollywood Cantina) remained open as remnants of the original Back to the Future Plaza design. With the success of Fast Food Boulevard at Universal Studios Florida, Universal finally began porting Springfield over to the west coast – transforming Simpsons Plaza into a cohesive experience.
Like Victoria Station before it, Doc Brown’s Chicken and Hollywood Cantina buildings have long been fixtures of the Upper Lot, hosting a number of themes during their tenure. Their unprecedented demolition reinforces Universal’s willingness to discard history and the past in favor of progress and change.
Coming at the heels of 2013’s successful character ramp up, Universal introduced a formal character parade (or dance party) at the start of 2014.
Featuring Lucy, Doc Brown, Dracula, Frankenstein, Betty Boop, Scooby Doo and Beetlejuice, the dance party gathers Universal’s most recognizable characters into one location, utilizing Universal Plaza’s centrality within the park. While not a traditional character parade by any means, Lights, Camera, and Action signified Universal’s willingness to invest in the atmosphere of the park – distracting guests from the otherwise hectic construction occurring throughout the park.
In many respects, WaterWorld 2.0 was a significant moment for the park.
While the new show effects and plot changes are certainly nice – thanks in part to Action Horizons, a new contractor that has had considerable influence over Universal Studios Singapore and Universal Studios Japan’s production of WaterWorld – WaterWorld 2.0 represents a monumental first for Universal: a willingness to modify and refine a show or attraction for the better.
Indeed, while Universal has modified its attractions over the years – Revenge of the Mummy being a notorious example – none have been purely motivated by a willingness to improve the experience. In the case of Revenge of the Mummy, projection costs associated with the finale provided the impetus for the new, cost-saving (and frankly mediocre) change.
In contrast, WaterWorld 2.0 introduced set changes, additional stunts and pyrotechnics, a new plot and an expanded arena all in an effort to improve the show. For that, we believe Universal deserves a hearty kudos for their efforts.
After all, it’s unlike Universal to refine and invest so heavily in a long running show – especially one of WaterWorld’s tenure.
After seven years, Universal’s House of Horrors closed its doors in 2014.
Ending what had been a Universal tradition of operating a year-around maze, Universal’s House of Horrors follows a long lineage of attractions that were once held in the now-demolished Victoria Station venue.
While not extravagant compared to its peers across the street, House of Horrors gave fans of Halloween Horror Nights a small reprieve until the Halloween season. Perhaps more symbolically, House of Horrors also provided an opportunity to revisit Universal’s extensive horror catalog, giving homage to the likes of Frankenstein, the Phantom, Wolf Man, the Mummy, Norman Bates and many, many others.
With its closure, Universal no longer has a year-round monster presence in the park.
In conjunction with the closure of Universal’s House of Horrors, the demolition of Soundstage 28 proved that 2014 was a bad year for horror fans.
As one of the oldest soundstages on the Universal lot, Soundstage 28 hosted much of Universal’s original horror canon, including Dracula andThe Bridge of Frankenstein and Psycho. Indeed, as the years passed, Soundstage 28 gained particular notoriety for housing the famous Paris opera set featured in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera year afters filming concluding – the film’s set having been integrated with the rest of the structure.
Unfortunately, with the adjacent Transformers attraction, filming in the stage proved especially difficult given the noise pollution next door. That, coupled with the theme park generating a higher percentage of profit emanating from the property, allowed Universal to make the decisive decision to demolish the historic soundstage in favor of additional theme park development.
Indeed, we firmly believe that 2014 may prove to be a watershed moment in the company’s history in which Universal City will now focus more heavily on the theme park aspect of the business in lieu of the studio production arm of Universal. So while a historic soundstage was lost, fans can now look forward to a new era for Universal Studios Hollywood.
In a radical departure from the last decade, the opening of Despicable Me gave fans and guests a small sample of what to expect from Universal in the next decade.
Featuring a faithful recreation of Gru’s imaginative house and the whimsical world of Super Silly Fun Land, Despicable Me introduced the concept of themed lands to Universal – jumpstarting the opening of Springfield and Hogsmeade in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
More importantly, Despicable Me symbolized the end of cheap and oftentimes chin-scratching compromises that have plagued Universal’s flagship attractions in the last decade. Gone are the cheap and puzzling murals, and in their place, a fully fleshed out façade featuring neat and delightful easter eggs for curious fans. Following in the footsteps of the now defunct Energon drink, fans could now purchase food and flavors inspired by the Despicable Me franchise with a full fledged minion-inspired menu, with various drinks and plates at their disposal.
In similar vain, Super Silly Fun Land also introduced a fanciful spinner – an attraction that other theme parks seem to take for granted, but was sorely needed for Universal’s younger guests – alongside a fun and explorative wet and dry playground.
After all, who could possibly hate a minion?
In short, 2014 proved to be yet another busy year for Universal, and 2015 shows no signs of slowing down. Given the park’s humble origins, it’s quite remarkable to see Universal emerge from a reluctant theme park operator to a powerful competitor in the global theme park space. It’ll be quite the sight to see what Universal – now celebrating its 50th anniversary – has in store.
However, in the midst of all the ongoing developments occurring at the park, we’d like to thank you – our readers – for your continued support and dedication.
I – along with the rest of the Inside Universal editorial staff – firmly believe in the importance of original reporting, compelling features, and up-to-the-minute updates without the sensationalist guise that so many websites often employ. We try our best to offer a compelling product, and for the past nine years, we’ve attempted to carve out our own niche of Universal enthusiasts. It’s your continued readership that we owe our greatest thanks.
Here’s to an eventful 2015.
Jon Fu is the editor-in-chief of Inside Universal.
Jon originally founded InsideUniversal.net in 2006 as a summer hobby aimed at providing families and fans a resource for all things “Universal Studios Hollywood.” Since then, the website has taken him throughout the United States and around the world – including to places like Universal Orlando Resort, Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Singapore.
Jon currently resides in Santa Cruz, California. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.