MAY 1999 — Grasping your ticket in hand, you strain to see through the crowd. The air is electric. It’s opening day at a theme park –a brand-new, pristine park untouched by the masses. You’re one of the lucky few to get a peek inside at a whole world of state-of-the-art attractions and you just can’t wait.
Welcome to Universal Studio Florida’s Islands of Adventure!
At last the gates open and you rush inside to Seuss Landing where the imagination of the beloved author has been painstakingly brought to life with nary a straight edge in sight. Beyond that is The Lost Continent with Dueling Dragons, one of the most exciting rollercoasters in the world. The queue alone is worth hours of exploration! Around the corner is Jurassic Park, and with its faux visitor center and rapids ride you truly feel as if you’ve stepped right into the movie. Moving on you enter the fanciful Toon Lagoon, home to Popeye, Dudley-Do Right and countless other iconic cartoon characters. Finally, you round the bend and gaze in awe at the majestic sight before you. It looks as if the characters from your favorite comics have jumped right out of the panels! You crane your head at the rides zooming above and at the many shops and attractions. You hold your breath as you come face to face with the most popular resident of this island … Batman.
But Islands of Adventure is home to Marvel Superhero Island, not Gotham City. Islands of Adventure is where you’ll find Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and all the other Marvel characters.
Batman would be completely out of place.
Yes, he would. But to find out what the heck I’m talking about you’ll have to travel back in time with me to 1992, when Islands of Adventure, or Project X or as it was called back then, was taking shape. Back then the people who sat around and dreamed up the rides, shows and shops were given free rein to come up with whatever they wanted. Any idea was explored, no matter how crazy.
And believe me when I tell you that in later columns we’ll explore just how crazy some of these ideas were. I’ll give you a hint: they involve messing with your very brain.
In the theme park business they call this stuff “Blue Sky” stuff. Meaning you’re free to let your imagination soar to the sky and beyond — put it all down on paper. Throw nothing away. Keep everything, no matter how small or insignificant.
So when these designers were tasked with coming up with ideas for a comic-book based land at Project X, they turned to pop culture and guess what they found? Batman! DC movies were the dominant force and no force was greater than the Dark Knight. In 1992 the only Marvel properties to even come close to the big screen were Roger Corman’s FANTASTIC FOUR and Dolph Lundgren’s THE PUNISHER. Not exactly theme-park material. But there on the big screen, ol’ Batsy was heating up the box office in BATMAN RETURNS. He had a stable of colorful villains, a look that could be duplicated — even if that look wasn’t quite as friendly as most theme parks are — and most important, just about everyone knew who Batman was. If you had shown a picture of Wolverine to people back in 1992, only us diehard comic fans would have known him, but Batman and the Bat-Signal were already a 3-year-old part of our pop-culture fabric. There were toys, happy meals and pajamas — even shoelaces and bubble bath. In short, Batman was chosen as the most viable property to build a theme park property around. They came up with dozens of ideas for the World’s Greatest Detective — full-scale dark thrill rides (not just the mildly themed coasters they have at most Six Flags parks), shows (again, not just half-baked stunt shows like at Six Flags where some lame “Director” yells cut between takes and then sets up the next sequence) and themed shops. These ideas were real cutting-edge stuff that still hold up today. Exciting ideas for theme-park attractions that will make your head spin with their promises.
Interested? Want to know more?
Come on! Gotham City is just past that churro cart and I can already see the Batjets zooming by overhead on their way to battle the Joker! There are so many things to see it will take all day!
Right in front of the entrance you’ll find small statues of some of Batman’s greatest foes: The Riddler, The Penguin and the clown prince of crime himself, The Joker.
But these small idols pale in comparison to the imposing Batman statue that stands guard over the entrance to Gotham City. He towers over everything, at least 5 stories tall, with his flowing cape stretching out at least the same distance horizontally.
You can cross under him and into the first attraction — The Batcar Interactive Dark Ride (The Batmobile is called the Batcar in the proposal — guess with all their exhaustive research the designers never ran across the proper name for Batman’s car.)
It looks as though the Batcars zoom around the perimeter of Gotham City and even through Axis Chemicals –the factory that was featured so prominently in the 1989 Tim Burton film. On the bottom right of the picture you can even see the large pipes pumping out the very industrial waste that turned Jack Napier into The Joker in that same film.
But we’ll resist the urge to board the ride immediately and instead turn to the left and enter Gotham through one of the back alleys where a lamppost shines a circle of light onto the dark street (perhaps this is meant to be a re-creation of the scene where Bruce Wayne drops a rose on the street to mark the place where his parents were killed and where Batman was born. Not exactly the kind of feelgood experience you normally find in a theme park. Maybe it was suggestions like these that derailed the entire process.)
Moving on you’ll see those Batjets zooming around on tracks that circle the entire area. At the far end is City Hall where you can queue up to take your own flight and help Batman fight the forces of evil. City Hall is a large building so you just know the ride will be more than a simple rollercoaster trip –there are many dark elements that heighten the experience and really put you in the action.
There are parked cars in front of City Hall to make it look like a real functioning building (in fact, the entire area is made to look as real as possible with walls and facades to complete the illusion. There’s none of that theme-park nonsense of “a working movie set” that swept the parks in the mid-1990s. There are no plain brown “soundstages” or items to make it look like you’re visiting the set of a Batman movie — this place is meant to be the real deal with a total immersive experience.) Square in the middle of the land is a large building that sort of resembles the museum from the 1989 film but is more likely the Gotham Opera House, which is home to a multi-sensory show that stars Batman and Robin fighting the Joker with a little help from the Man of Steel himself! (We’ll get into that show in a future column –it’s a doozy that was fully fleshed out before the plug was pulled. Trust me, it’s stellar.)
There are shops all around and even a restaurant or two and high above it all shines the comforting Bat Signal –proof positive that no matter how dire the situation, the Caped Crusader is on his way to save the day!
(I have no idea how they hoped to create a fully realized Bat symbol in the sky, but the drawing has lines around it so they may have been experimenting with projecting the image onto smoke much like Disney projects onto water during “Fantasmic.”)
Interested? Like a Starship Trooper, do you want to know more? Come back next time when we’ll stop staring slack-jawed and actually enter some of the buildings here in Gotham City. But since it’s so close, let’s wander over to the Penguin Pops cart and grab a drink and a popsicle to tide us over until then. (Yes, an actual suggestion for the project!)
See you next time!
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.