October 24, 2015 – Imagineers at Disney have been attributed to the phrase “Disneyland is not a museum” and that idea can be reflected at all theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood notwithstanding. Over the past many years, a lot has come and gone at Universal Studios, to the point that every few attractions have survived over the many decades since it became a park. So referencing its past is important, especially as the park has celebrated many recent milestones, including their 100th anniversary of the tram tour and the movie studio, and the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future.
While theme parks aren’t museums, they can have those aspects inside them, like art galleries or select memorabilia. That’s where the Universal Experience comes into play. Originally the site of the “Lucy: A Tribute”, the space was filled with a modest amount of things from Lucille Ball’s career, along with props from I Love Lucy, including a scale model of the original soundstage.
In early 2008, that attraction closed, signalling much of the radical change in the park to come, and reopened later that year as The NBCUniversal Experience, focusing on a more broad part of the brand’s history, featuring props from both TV shows and the movies that made Universal famous.
While theme parks aren’t museums, they can have those aspects inside them, like art galleries or select memorabilia.
In addition to props, you could also find marketing merchandise, like Papa John’s pizza boxes from promotional campaigns for the most recent Mummy movie. For a while, you could also get up close to an actual Oscar statuette, award for Best Picture to The Sting back in 1973. There was a large collection of all things displayed which made it a fun hunt to figure out what was new on each subsequent visit to the park, especially since aside from a few big centerpieces, there was not much promotion of the contents inside.
In the back you could often find posed maquettes in scenes from Coraline and ParaNorman. The space was quite constrained towards the back, so it was a brilliant use of the back area. Many guests would walk out, though, confused at how abruptly the walkthrough ended into a small patio. Footprints were later added to help guests have a single flow through the experience.
Up until the recent closing, it displayed a wide variety of items from shows like Parks & Rec with the Cones of Dunshire or the Child Size (Read: “The size of a child”) drink from Sweetums. It also consistently cycled outfits from the Fast & Furious franchise, Battlestar Galactica, and a whole host of films from their entire centennial catalog. Plus there were tablets in front of each display that would play information relevant to the props on display.
As the park moved forward to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, more theme park attraction additions made it into the experience, with old ticket books, pamphlets, club cards, and even one of the E.T. animatronics from where he used to be, across the way in the Lower Lot.
Ultimately, the area failed to attract any notable attention, aside from being a small area to find some air conditioning and quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of busy theme parks. That’s a large part of the reason why the attraction found itself on the chopping block this year, as the park makes big plans for things to come.
As ticket prices climb, matching demand, guests expect more for their money, and with the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in two other locations, Universal is expected to create an environment that feels complete. Ever since Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem opened – completely redoing that section of the Upper Lot, by adding a row of fake facades of houses, and a water play area – all attractions at the park have been strengthened by theming the area around it. The era of a gray dead block with a movie poster on it is behind us. Even existing attractions have been radically plussed up, like the Simpsons Ride receiving the Springfield makeover.
The footprint of a theme park is always a constant force that needs to be battled. There will be casualties along the way. Last year we covered the demolition of the historic Soundstage 28 on the Universal lot. One of the oldest surviving structures, housing iconic films like Phantom of the Opera, was demolished to make way for larger things to come. Of course, it didn’t come down without attracting attention. Our article got a huge amount of reaction and we personally read every one of your emails about it. Some felt that it needed to be preserved, given how the original set was still inside, just covered over with plaster walls. Today, that soundstage is a barren lot, used to house “AMC’s The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far” maze for Halloween Horror Nights, and promoted as their largest maze ever.
The current whereabouts of the artifacts from the historic soundstage are currently unknown, but we have reason to believe they’ve been preserved and might reappear at a more opportune time for closer examination, rather than being permanently covered up from public view.
With that in mind, we return to the NBCUniversal Experience and its future. At the time of this writing, the building was already fully vacated and being refurnished. Most of the pieces inside can be easily relocated to warehouses for appropriate viewing at a later time, whenever that may be.
In all honesty, these showcases are quick to build and put together given how little operation work they need aside from the occasional scheduling to cycle displayed artifacts and cleaning windows. It would be surprising if Universal didn’t find a place to restore something like this in the future, albeit in a different form, even if it was just window displays as you approached the main gates. So much of their tram tour is focused on past films and shows, that this is a natural fit for the park.
Above all else, there is one large draw for the experience we haven’t touched on. The Back to the Future DeLorean “A” car. Of all franchises to come and go at Universal Studios, Back to the Future remains a key part of the history. Even as the ride was retired and replaced with The Simpsons in 2008, people still pine for the days when they could pile into The Institute of Future Technology and board a DeLorean as they chased Biff throughout time.
During the time when the ride was open, the main hero car from the film was driven around the lot. So it not only has a history in the movies, but the theme park, as well. Being kept outside, and with regular use over the years, it got pretty nasty towards the end. Thankfully, with the 30th anniversary, Universal Studios saw fit to allow Bob Gale to hire some of the coolest fans in the world to restore the car.
Suffice to say, it was a serious undertaking. So much so, that there was a documentary made about the restoration, and a Kickstarter campaign to fund it, raising nearly $80,000, with the impending release of the film only a few days away.
Of course, that’s the bitter situation of this all. A huge amount of effort went into restoring arguably the most famous vehicle of all time, and the building that houses it is demolished just a few short weeks before the date many have waited decades to reach. While we can assume that Universal has properly preserved the vehicle, being out of the public view yet again is a slight disappointment, especially given how close guests were able to get.
We heard rumors regarding the future of the DeLorean and the NBCUniversal Experience, but they’ve all proven to be unfounded. The fact the rumors exist, however, is encouraging, because it gives the sign that displaying the studio’s past is something in which guests find value. Also it bears mentioning that all the work that goes into the newer show buildings means that if the NBCUniversal Experience resurrects itself, it will be in a much more appropriate space, rather than re-theming a room that housed a tribute to a single sitcom.
Universal isn’t the only park struggling with keeping an operating museum inside the park. Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida is home to One Man’s Dream, a tribute to Walt Disney, featuring an incredibly in-depth collection of artifacts from his career, wrapping up the walk-through with a film detailing his life. However it was recently announced this month that the film would be temporarily put into storage to make way for showing a preview for Pixar’s newest film.
Fans were upset, as could be expected. The awkward placement of a film preview at the end of a tribute to a man who died decades before the film was even conceived seems confusing at best, especially at a theme park dedicated to Hollywood studios, where theaters should be in large supply without needing to repurpose existing ones.
It’s understandable to expect people to be upset as attractions lose their purpose. Things will always come and go, and theme parks aren’t museums. But that’s not to say small museums will never come back. Theme parks exist solely based on the visitors they receive, so making sure guests are satisfied is a huge portion of determining a park’s success, and honoring the past is a part of that.
With that, we say farewell for now to the NBCUniversal Experience and anticipate the future changes to the park. The last few years have proven they had a good head on their shoulders and are making the tough changes the park needs to stay competitive in the busy southern California landscape.
Theme parks exist solely based on the visitors they receive, so making sure guests are satisfied is a huge portion of determining a park’s success, and honoring the past is a part of that.
Chris Glass is an editor for Inside Universal.
Chris is a Los Angeles native who grew up around some of the best theme parks in the world. His day job as a game programmer keeps him busy enough, but he still tries to find time on the weekends to get out to Universal Studios. He lives with a lingering guilt for not riding Back to the Future: The Ride enough times before it closed down, but there will always be Universal Studios Japan on his bucket list.
You may contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.