Universal’s Islands of Adventure is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its grand opening — but if some discussions had gone differently, we may have been marking the birthday of a Looney Tunes- and DC Comics-filled park called Cartoon World.

The second park at Universal Orlando underwent major changes from its early concepts to its May 1999 opening. Guiding the park through it all was Phil Hettema, then Universal’s senior vice president of attraction development.

Phil Hettema (THG Creative)

Now the president and creative executive of his own firm, THG Creative, Hettema spoke to Theme Park Tribune to retrace the history of how Islands of Adventure came to be, from scrapped Cartoon World concepts to learning from the troubled opening of Universal Studios Florida.

Theme Park Tribune: You were with Universal for several years prior to Universal Studios Florida opening. From the beginning of the discussions of what would later become Islands of Adventure, how was the process and the goal of this second park different than the Studios?

Phil Hettema: The first park in Florida was really the natural offshoot of the Hollywood park, which was an actual studio behind-the-scenes tour originally and it kind of evolved from that. So the first park in Florida was very much along those lines, all about the movies, all about how movies are made, with a studio overlay to the whole thing.

I think the goal was to really broaden the demographic of what the original Universal park focused on, which tended to be slightly older, less family, older teens, young adults, and things like that, because it had a little bit more of a thrill and excitement component to it — not so much story content, if you will. So the goal was to see what could we do that would really broaden and bring in a wider family demographic.

Obviously, we were competing with Disney in the Orlando market and that had always been Disney’s prime focus and target, that family audience. So the goal was to see what we could do to both win some of that market and expand our own market there, but I think it was also to create a park that was really pushing the envelope with technology and experience even beyond what Disney could do, which was pretty audacious at the time because Universal was considerably smaller than the Disney parks and the Disney creative teams. So Jay Stein, the president of Universal at the time, pushed us hard to think they can to really shoot for something that would be different.

How early were you and your team first throwing ideas around for this second gate in Orlando?

Hettema: I would say probably about six years before opening. We worked for over two years, sort of a blue sky basis, exploring a variety of concepts with different intellectual properties and different kind of structure to them, some of which made it into the final park, but much of it did not.

One of those was Seuss Landing. We thought that would be a great IP. It would focus right in on a key part of the demographic we wanted to move into. Nobody had ever done anything with it, but we had a hard time getting Audrey Geisel, Dr. Suess’ widow, to approve or even look at something, because her husband hadn’t been a big fan of Disney or theme parks in general. She wouldn’t even take a meeting, but we worked for about a year on spec, on concepts and ideas, to kind of figure out how we would translate Seuss into a 3-D world.

Steven Spielberg called, agents called her and she still wasn’t interested, and finally, we managed to get an appointment with her main literary agent at Random House. He came down to Orlando, and we showed him everything we were working on, and he called her up and said “I think you ought to take a look at this.”

Port of Entry at Islands of Adventure (Theme Park Tribune)

How early did you settle on the broad design of the park, having everything centered around a large lagoon?

Hettema: The original theme for the second gate was originally conceived to be Cartoon World and it was all about cartoons. Seuss Landing fit into that and Toon Lagoon was part of that original concept. Super Hero Island, although with a different IP, was part of that original notion, and originally, it wasn’t a lagoon-based project.

For a lot of reasons, we decided not to move forward with Cartoon World. There were a couple of other IPs we really wanted and we did actually about two years’ worth of spec design with other IPs. So we had to figure out how could we take what we had and make something really exciting and dynamic about it.

Jurassic Park was originally going to go into the studio park and we brought that back over as as one of the linchpins of Islands. Then we figured by creating these different realms centered around a lagoon, we could really create something that would have broad appeal. You didn’t like one of these worlds, then the next one might appeal to you even more.

That led to the lagoon concept, with the profile on the water for each one of these lands and the need to move from one to the other as if they were islands. 

For those who aren’t diehard Universal fans, what were some of the concepts in play for Cartoon World?

Hettema: I think it’s probably public knowledge that at the time, we were hoping to make a deal with Warner Brothers and have a big Looney Tunes area, but not Looney Tunes as it’s been done in other theme parks. I will say there are some attraction concepts in the drawer that I think would have been some of the best attractions ever built, between Bugs Bunny, Duck Dodgers and Yosemite Sam. There were some simulation-type, immersive, engaging experiences that were both funny and would have been absolutely amazing ride experiences that were going to go into that park. Somewhere in Universal, in the archive, those still sit in a drawer, and there’s amazing art and amazing concepts behind all of that.

I’m super proud of Islands of Adventure. We really had a chance, especially where we were coming from, to raise the bar significantly, and kind of look Disney in the eye —  I’m a big fan of Disney, by the way — and say we’re going to do something and really target the kind of thing you’ve done and you’ve owned in the past. I think we were able to do that, but it is one of my great regrets that we never got to go forward with some of those ride concepts, because I think they were unbelievably great.

So as you took some of the Cartoon World concept and turned it into Islands of Adventure, where did the idea of the lighthouse icon come from?  

Hettema: I think it was an iterative thing. As we started playing with the notion of Islands of Adventure as this series of the worlds you could visit, then that led to the Port of Entry at the front of the park, which we always envisioned as the place you would go to prepare for this imaginary journey to get your provisions. So architecturally, and even experientially and emotionally, it has a sense of exotic adventure that is very eclectic. There’s kind of this whimsy to it.

So that having that be our entry portal into this world of adventure also led to the notion of, you know, guiding you on your trip. We obviously wanted some kind of icon for the front of the park that would become its symbol, and something that would stand out, as we had CityWalk developing in front, with Universal Studios Florida on one side with its new gate. We wanted another icon in front of Islands that would really stand out.

The lighthouse just seemed like a really apt metaphor. When we were working on Lost Continent, we spent a lot of time looking at mythical architecture and ancient architecture, and that lighthouse is based on the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. It just seemed like a really exciting beacon that said this is going to point the way to a great adventure for you.

You mentioned Lost Continent and Port of Entry. Those are some of the few areas Universal had built up to that point that weren’t based off existing IP? How did your team approach those sections differently? Were they happy about letting their imaginations run wild on an original concept?

Hettema: Obviously, as designers, we loved the idea of being able to create something new out of our imaginations. We wanted a little more adventure and a little bit more sense of story than some of the other places, so we were able to pick and choose what we wanted to do there. I’m not sure that could happen today, where we live in such an IP-based world. We just witnessed the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which is amazing, and in fact, Scott Trowbridge, who led that creative team, was one of our great team members on Islands.

That couldn’t happen today, but it was an amazing thing to be able to put together and to really let our imaginations fly. I think overall, it was pretty successful. We could argue about some of the attractions and how they eventually turned out, whether they achieved their potential or not, but I think the scale and what it did for the feeling of the park overall, the sense of imagination and wonder that I like to think Islands has, those were big parts of it.

How much of the process behind creating and constructing Islands of Adventure was informed by what had happened with the opening of Universal Studios Florida, which had well-documented problems with some of its major attractions?

Hettema: The whole process was certainly informed by that. That was not a pleasant experience for anybody the first time around, but it was Universal’s first big foray into that large of a project. I think we were determined from the get-go not to be in that same position for this park. So there was a very different team structure approach. Randy Prince, who was the project director, he came from Disney and had a much more sophisticated engineering team working on all those rides. We tried to be much smarter about where we were being prototypical and identifying problems and making sure we were really testing well in advance. I was in Europe writing mockups for Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls two years before the park opened.

I think what Universal experienced in the first park where every ride system in that park was prototypical, and there just wasn’t enough advanced testing on those systems or demand on the various ride manufacturers to prove that things could work. We had a much more professional and and accomplished team working on all of that kind of stuff. There wasn’t the sense at the last minute that anything was going to not be functional.

What about Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Very Unusual Driving Machine, the ride in Seuss Landing that was eventually retooled into the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride?

Hettema: That is a good question. Oddly enough, that was one of the toughest attractions. It seems like such a simple concept, it’s sort of a simple monorail. I think it had to do with a lot of things, but mostly that Universal took very seriously that they were now playing in a world class market. Not that safety hadn’t always been important, of course, it had been, but what if there was failure of a unit on that ride system, which ran right through the middle of the park?  I think it was just tough to figure out how to make all of that work, especially with the individual ride units.

That was a system where we got to the opening and it wasn’t functioning the way we had hoped it could. I think the final result of that just proved there just wasn’t a lot of capacity and it never really quite lived up to our vision for what it could have been, but it still added a lot to the land.

You touched on this with the Looney Tunes concepts, but looking back now, are there parts of the park you wish you you got to do differently?

Hettema: I think every designer looks at any project they do and says oh my god, I wish I could have had you know, another six months or I could take another pass at that.

I think Poseidon’s Fury had the potential to be a really, really breakthrough attraction, and it came right up to it, but didn’t quite cross that threshold. Through several revisions, it still never really caught fire. I lamented that because I thought, and I still believe, there was a big concept there. I could I could go on for hours about why I think that never really happened, and it was those kind of lessons as a designer you carry with you for the rest of your life. Because it’s so heartbreaking, to know in your heart that something could be so good and not due to lack of trying on everyone’s part, but the pieces don’t come together.

But I think that is a relatively minor hiccup in the overall profile of the park. I’m immensely proud of what that team did, and how Universal was able to really go for it and created something that still stands today. Of course, what they’ve done with Harry Potter since then, is nothing short of spectacular.

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in 2019 for Islands of Adventure’s 20th anniversary.