"The Making of Universal Studios Florida: A Conversation with Producer Susan Lustig" By Jason Anders

Designed as a theme park and working studio in 1982, Universal Studios Florida would be the company's first amusement park constructed from the ground up. A meeting between Steven Spielberg and Peter N. Alexander would postpone the project until 1986 when the idea of a Back to the Future simulator came about to open alongside the already planned King Kong-based ride, Kongfrontation. Taking concepts from the Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour, such as Jaws and Earthquake, and developing them into larger stand-alone attractions, Universal Studios Florida would expand the theme park experience into a true Hollywood adventure sporting the tagline, "The only place on Earth where you can ride the movies!"

Today, Universal Orlando Resort celebrates its 25th anniversary. The ever-evolving park is almost unrecognizable twenty-five years later - Amity Island is now Diagon Alley, Gru and his Minions have replaced the world of Hanna-Barbera, Blue Man Group now resides in the former home of Nickelodeon Studios, The Tonight Show ride will soon replace what was once Ghostbusters headquarters, Doc Brown's Institute of Future Technology is now Springfield's Krustyland, and Curious George is swinging through what was once the Bates Motel and mansion. 

Susan Lustig, a producer of Universal Studios Florida, was kind enough to share her experiences in helping create what is, in my opinion, the greatest theme park of all time.  
Jason Anders: Take me down the road that led you to being hired as a producer by Universal Studios Florida.

Susan Lustig: I had been a producer of corporate events for Imero Fiorentino Associates (IFA), a production company in New York and Hollywood, known primarily for their lighting and staging designs for live concerts, road tours and television. When I joined them they were expanding into production of large corporate events, corporate theatre, exhibits and exhibitions. When I was laid off I wrote a letter to Peter Alexander who, at the time, was in charge of Production and Design for Universal Studios Hollywood. After our first meeting I was hired as a producer. I worked on a variety of projects for their Hollywood theme park. Some were shelved and some got the green light.

One of the approved projects was Star Trek Adventure. About this same time, Universal was in the early stages of planning Universal Studios Florida. Since I was origninally hired for the Florida project, when it was finally given the green light I had to relinquish my Star Trek project. Fortunately, Phil Hettema was able to pick up those reigns. The rest of my time there was one of the most enjoyable, gratifying, and amazing journeys of my career. My opening-day attractions were Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies, Murder, She Wrote: Post Production and Animal Actors Stage.
JA: Where did your interest in theme parks originate?

SL: I think it started while I was in high school. Six Flags Over Mid-America (which was later renamed Six Flags St. Louis) had just opened. So, thinking it would be a lot of fun, I got a job as a train conductor. The rest, as they say, is history.

When I went off to college I did so with the intention of being a math major, but then the theatre bug bit me and bit me hard. Before I knew it I was a theatre major. I received my BFA from Southern Methodist University in General Theatre. However, before going to graduate school, I designed the lighting for a live show in Busch Gardens Williamsburg during its first year of operation. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on as a ride supervisor. Later, I moved to New York City and received my MFA in Theatre Design with an emphasis in Lighting Design from New York University.
I’ve always loved a great story. I read all the time and love where stories take me. However, I never considered myself a writer until I started working at Universal where I found myself writing treatments and scripts for shows and attractions. I really enjoy the educational, research, entertainment, and theatrical part of theme parks. While at Universal, we often joked that we were creating “Sesame Street” for adults. We continually searched for the best ways to demonstrate how movies were made while entertaining our guests at the same time. That was our primary goal for Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies and Murder, She Wrote: Post Production.

It just dawned on me that in one capacity or another I’ve been part of the opening-day team for four theme parks, each one owned by a different company - Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios Florida, and Disney’s California Adventure. I think that qualifies me as an industrial-grade “parkie”!
JA: What do you consider your first big career break?

SL: The day after graduating from NYU I was hired by IFA as a draftsperson and model builder. In time, I found myself on the road as production assistant for a variety of projects both large and small. Best of all, I was working side-by-side with a group of amazingly talented people. Although I started with IFA as a production assistant, I eventually moved into lighting and set design and finally producer. I produced a variety of live entertainment shows, special events, exhibits, and unique product introductions.

One of my highlights was co-producing (Joe Layton was the Executive Producer and staged the event) A Tribute to Alan & Marilyn Bergman at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It starred Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Melissa Manchester, Joel Grey, Norman Lear, Carmen McRae, Bea Arthur, Jack Jones and more. What an incredible, memorable, and priceless experience!

Having a strong background in theatre made producing the perfect career choice for me. My father is a theatre consultant so I grew up in the world of design, drafting, specs, budgets, and schedules. As a result, I was able to draw from that background as needed, especially while working for Universal where designing and building theatres were the structural backbone of the project. If nothing else, I knew what was required and where to go to find it.
Having worked on the operations side of a theme park gave me the vocabulary and hands-on experience to know how an attraction should function and provide its staff and performers with essential tools to do their jobs. As with any major and ultimately successful project, hiring the right team is critical. My philosophy has always been to hire people smarter and more experienced than me and they will, in turn, make my job easier and the project more successful... and make me look even better in the process.

I’ve always felt my strength was in the brainstorming phase of a project. However, I also enjoy the left-brain / right-brain aspects of the production process… on one hand working with clients, budgets, and schedules while on the other hand dealing with creative. It was a perfect fit for me. I learned the old adage very early on,“Fast, Cheap, and Good. Pick Two.”
JA: Do you remember much about the job interview process at Universal?

SL: Strangely enough, I don’t. Mostly because it was nearly twenty-five years ago. Needless to say I was awe-struck to be working for Universal Studios, “The Entertainment Capital of L.A.” For me, it was a dream come true. The first couple of years we were housed in the Technicolor building on the backlot. How amazing! Anytime I wanted I could drive through that backlot where so many iconic films were made. On one occasion I remember going to the commissary and there was Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn standing in front of the menu board discussing what each might have for lunch. Another day we were researching for the Murder She Wrote attraction and sat in on an edit session for one of the first episodes of Law and Order. They were discussing the sound effects of a gun and if it was the correct sound for that particular model.
The moment you take a place like that for granted, you need to get out of the business… especially if you were charged, as I was, with translating the excitement of moviemaking into a live theme park attraction with an audience. I had so many "WOW!" moments at Universal working with such astonishing people. One of my highlights was pitching show concepts to Steven Spielberg. The first time I met with him I was incredibly nervous, so much so that I began talking unbelievably fast. I’m sure he thought I was trying to break the four-minute mile. I was moving along like a runaway freight train. However, he seemed to follow along with all my points and in the end he had great questions and insightful suggestions. After the presentation, a vice president who was there had to ask what happened, as it went so fast between the two of us, he couldn’t follow it.

JA: Since you were there from the beginning, were there any projects that never made it off the drawing board and into the park?

SL: That’s such a very good question. I wish I could remember. When I was hired Universal already had a version of the entire park completed and were pitching it to potential partners. Many attractions were conceived and pitched before I was involved. I do know that many concepts were changed or replaced because of feedback from those early pitch meetings.
The first show I was assigned was Murder She Wrote: Post-Production. It was originally pitched as a generic sound effects show. Knowing there is so much more than sound effects that goes into post-production, the first thing I did was pitch a totally new concept. In the new concept we not only covered sound effects but editing and ADR (voice-replacement or dubbing) as well. It was a good thing we changed the show’s premise because not long afterwards we all went to Disney-MGM’s opening day. Low and behold, there was the Monster Sound Show, which was just about sound effects.

JA: What was your daily schedule like from 1986 to 1990?

SL: We juggled multiple attractions at the same time. Very early on, until new producers could be hired, I was responsible for all shows and Craig Barr was to head up all the rides. We both worked for Peter Alexander, the Vice President and Executive Producer for Universal Studios Florida.

I remember our first trip to Florida. Craig and I were sent to a conference room and told, “don’t come out until you have a budget for everything.” So Craig budgeted the rides and I budgeted the shows. Little did we know during those few days in the conference room that we were creating the final budgets to be lived by from then until opening day. The only flexibility we had was being able to move money around from category to category, but the bottom line was cast in stone. No one on our team had prior experience in developing theme park attractions.

JA: Were there ideas considered for the Hitchcock attraction which were cut?

SL: We were pretty lucky. We never had to cut anything. However, one of the areas, in the upstairs interactive space, looked somewhat sparse to my eye. I really wanted to fill it in a little more. But after seeing how the guests flowed through the space it was obvious that such a change was not necessary.
(Psycho stage show portion of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)
JA: The animated collage in the lobby, designed by Diane Stapleton, is burned into my memory from childhood and I remember it immediately capturing my imagination.

SL: As luck would have it, Diane was (and is) married to Chris Stapleton, our fabulous Art Director. Like Chris, Diane is also a noted art director and artist. After Universal Studios Florida opened, Chris stayed and produced Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. Both attractions were part of the new Islands of Adventure.

It’s interesting how we ended up with the collage and film-styled border that wrapped around the top of the preshow. We knew we needed something in that space but in the early stages of design it wasn’t a priority. We hadn’t even thought much about it until we were well into the project.

Eventually I looked through the budget, pulling in a few dollars here and there, until we found enough to make the collage. It was somewhat like going through one’s sofa cushions for loose change. That collage was really the perfect introduction to Hitch’s world. As an aside, we listed the title of every Hitchcock movie in the frames of the film border. Adirondack Scenic in Glens Falls, New York built the collage, as well as many of the Hitchcock set pieces.
(Pre-show lobby of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)
JA: Was there ever a hesitation in making the attraction so lengthy?

SL: I don’t recall that there was any backlash due to the length of our shows. As long as we could gently move the required number of guests through within a given amount of time we were most definitely in pole position. As you can imagine, all parks must set and meet their hourly capacity. Generally speaking, a guest’s length-of-stay, especially at the end of an attraction, is not a problem… hey, can you say merchandise? In fact, the Hitchcock store had the highest sales per square foot in the park.

Consider what happens with Disneyland’s iconic Carousel of Progress. The first group loads, the ride turns, then the next group is loaded. They can keep going ad infinitum as long as there’s no bottleneck that prevents additional guests from entering the attraction. We never had a problem cycling our guests. Each room and experience was short enough to accommodate guest flow.
In a perfect world I would have made some of the interactive sequences shorter, not for throughput but for the guest’s attention span. I learned very early on that once guests are in an attraction they’re already planning where they’re going next and are often very anxious to move on. My sense is that a producer or creative director needs to get to the point of the story immediately, capture the guest’s imagination and interest, and then allow them to move on.

I’ve found that in the realm of theme parks there’s no such thing as enough editing. Short and to-the-point is what works best. In our case, synchronizing the timing of our 3-D film with the Psycho stage was indeed a bit tricky. In hindsight, it might have been easier to place the stage presentation first. However, we did have live actors playing off of audience volunteers and that definitely required flexibility in the segment’s timing. Once the movie is in the can, however, it cannot change. In the end it all worked out for the best.
(The set of The Birds 3-D segment from Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)
JA: Where did the idea for the 3-D portion come from, and were you around for the filming of The Birds sequence?

SL: In 1954 Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 3-D. However, when it was ready for release, 3-D had already run its course and a decision was made to release the “flat” version instead. Fortunately, we were able to access the original 3-D version, both right and left eye. This gave us the idea for the “chaos ensues” section of the first theater. The first part the film was a montage of clips from all of Hitchcock's movies, except the ones to which we couldn’t secure the rights such as North by Northwest (1959). We distributed the 3-D glasses in the lobby where the attraction’s host explained that Hitch made a film in 3-D called Dial M for Murder.

During the last part of the film, the narrator (a voice-double of Hitchcock) tells the audience to put on their 3-D glasses. We started with the scene where Grace Kelly reaches back for a pair of scissors to stab her attacker. The frame appears to jump in the film gate and sounds start coming from the projection booth. This, of course, was the beginning of The Birds attack sequence, all projected in 3-D. When we screened the film for the first time in the theatre we knew we had a homerun when the projectionist jumped up and screamed “oh no” as the film appeared to be jumping and burning. We loved that. It made our day.

I was on the set for the filming of The Birds sequence, and it was a tough one. It was filmed at the Dino De Laurentiis studios in Wilmington, North Carolina where they shot part of the 1976 version of King Kong. At the time they had the largest bluescreen in the country. To make our concept work we needed a huge bluescreen for the flying birds. The premise was for the birds to rip through the projection screen and reveal a sound stage behind. We needed the scale to be huge but believable in our large theater. Gary Gero, owner of Birds and Animals Unlimited, was hired to train and work with the birds. When the lights were up full on the bluescreen we were all required to wear blue-blocker sunglasses to protect our eyes. Otherwise the intense light would burn them... talk about being snow blind. Gary used huge fans to keep the birds aloft during filming.
(Saboteur segment of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)
It was an amazing production. R/Greenberg of New York City was the production company tasked with filming, adding the effects, and editing. Joel Hynek was the wizard who figured out all the shots and 3-D visual effects. They all did an incredible job. What an amazing project and an amazing team!

JA: Tell me about the creation of the Psycho stage show - was it the first theme park attraction to actually be rated PG-13?

SL: I don’t think we ever thought of our show being the first PG-13 rated theme park attraction. We simply felt it wasn’t appropriate for those under the age of thirteen. We wanted to alert parents up front to allow them to make the decision about whether the attraction was appropriate for their children.

It was important in our storytelling to show how Hitchcock used the camera as the weapon in order to convey the brutality of the shower scene murder and not the knife. You never saw the knife pierce the skin in the actual movie. It didn’t need to. That was the true brilliance of Hitchcock. He storyboarded every shot and knew just what the movie was going to look like when it hit the theaters. That’s why we broke the scene down into so many shots, so the audience could visualize each frame of the Hitchcock storyboard. It’s been said that Hitch was actually bored during the shooting phase of production because in his head the film was already shot and edited.
JA: What was it like escorting Janet Leigh through the attraction?

SL: I remember that day quite vividly. Ms. Leigh came on opening day - as did Jimmy Stewart, Tippi Hedren, and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell. June 7th, 1990 was opening day. It was a typical, sizzling-hot and humid Florida morning. Our celebrity guests' interviews were scheduled outdoors on a black stage that had no shade. I’m sure you get the picture. Because of a communication mix-up, hosts assigned to escort the celebrities to the stage ended up taking Mr. Stewart and Mrs. O’Connell inside the Hitchcock attraction instead. We were all on radios and I get a call that they lost Jimmy Stewart. "LOST JIMMY STEWART?" By this time, the Hitchcock attraction was open to the public and guests had chased poor Mr. and Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. O’Connell through the building… all the way to the second floor. They ended up trapped in a stairwell with their quite confused guides. I followed their trail and finally got them extricated safe-and-sound to the stage.
(Strangers on a Train segment of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies)
As the producer I was the MC for the Hitchcock press event. As I was about to begin with introductions and was looking over my notecards one last time, I felt a tugging at the back of my jumpsuit (hey, it was very much in fashion back then!) It was Janet Leigh tucking me in so the elastic didn’t show above my belt in back, she had a very determined look on her face. Can you imagine, an iconic star like her worried about how I looked? Now that is one classy movie star, as well as a delightful human being!

After the press event I escorted Ms. Leigh and Mrs. O’Connell through the attraction. The first theater, as I mentioned, was the Hitchcock tribute (film clips from his many movies). When the sequence with the 3-D bird attack began, Janet Leigh and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell went crazy. They were cowering, bobbing, weaving, laughing, and having a wonderful time along with the rest of the audience. I remember Ms. Leigh saying, “Remember what Hitch said, it’s only a movie!”

The next theatre was the Psycho stage. Fortunately, they both loved it. After the show, Ms. Leigh and Mrs. O’Connell came over to the cast trailer and offered kudos and congratulations to the team and spent time talking with the actors. As a bit of trivia, one of our original Janets was Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm. All in all, the entire day was most amazing!
JA: Did you ever meet Anthony Perkins during the process?

SL: I was on the set for all the filming we did with James Stewart, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe, and Norman Lloyd. Yes, it certainly was amazing having them be a part of the attraction.

JA: Tell me about your earliest brainstorming sessions for theming an attraction to Murder, She Wrote.

SL: The overall theme for the park was the entertainment industry, in particular movies and television. With the tagline guests were invited to “ride the movies” and enjoy the numerous attractions and live shows. That’s a very broad subject and right away we knew we had our work cut out for us as we focused on a huge, yet important, component of production - a little something called post-production, or what goes on after the cameras stop rolling. It may not be as glamorous as being on a set, but it is an essential creative discipline in television and movie making.

For me, post-production is a magical process. An editor can change the intention of a scene with the juxtaposition of selected shots. I can’t remember how it came about, but when we got the green light to turn the sound effects stage into a post-production show, the television series Murder, She Wrote was so incredibly popular that it became the umbrella for our storyline. We hired Kevin Biles Design to handle the production. Anthony Peter Shaw, Ms. Lansbury’s son, was the director (he also directed many of the Murder, She Wrote episodes). It was a great shoot. I was and still am in awe of Angela Lansbury. Her work in theatre has been iconic such as Sweeney Todd and Mame. Working with her was a stunning experience.
The premise for our show was to have the audience play the role of executive producer. They had one line, “no, absolutely not!” (a mantra that played through the entire experience) but they had to say it on specific cues. The line was intended to play to the stereotype of the cigar-chomping, old-time producer. I love putting an audience in the middle of a show and making them participate as characters or making them part of the environment. Our script allowed guests to make editing decisions, create sound effects, and then finally replace the actors' voices with their own.

The big payoff was in the final room where we played the entire scene back for them with all the changes they’d made with sound effects, voices, and editing. It always got great laughs. It also meant that no two shows were ever alike. For the audience, the show was great fun but they also saw first-hand the basic components of what goes on after the shooting stops.

The actors playing the parts of video editor, Foley artist (the person who creates sound effects to be synced with specific moments within a film), and the editor were the show. They were not only funny but also complete riots as their improvisation ran rampant. As long as they stuck to the show’s timing and got the major points established we had no problem with them going off script. Allowing for this improvisational flexibility allowed them to work one on one with the audience as a group and with individual guests. It was a show filled with constant surprises. Most of our actors came from a wonderful improv group in Orlando called SAK Entertainment. In fact, we hired Herb Hansen from SAK to direct the Post-Production actors. He also directed the live action on the Psycho stage.
(Murder, She Wrote: Post Production)
JA: What were a few of your favorite audience reactions and feedback?

SL: The perfect guest comment that defined our goals for the show came from a young couple as they exited the Hitchcock attraction. They felt the show was a "very entertaining PBS special." I was thrilled. Entertaining plus learning is just what we were after. It was “edutainment” perhaps even before the term even existed. And today, because of the live interaction between guests and actors, it might be considered “social-tainment” as well.

JA: You're also credited with the creative story overlay for the Jaws ride, as well as pre-show producer...

SL: Jaws had a dedicated production team from the very beginning so I wasn’t involved with the opening-day attraction. As I recall, it had been open for about a year when Universal executives decided they needed to rethink some of the engineering and give the ride a complete overhaul. I believe it was closed for about two years.
Once Jaws closed I was assigned the preshow as well as the boat skipper’s spiel. I wrote the first spiel draft and Adam Bezark wrote the final script and did the programming. I created the story overlay and components for the preshow (Adam wrote the final script.) The premise was simple - the citizens of the small seaside resort town of Amity were crazed, paranoid, and terrorized from that summer's great white shark attacks. No one escaped unscathed and the town never recovered. The entire town was a basket case, complete lunacy prevailed and they were totally untethered from reality.

Our preshow director was John Larsen from Kevin Biles Design. Some of our actors were a wee-bit inexperienced and simply didn’t know their lines! John, however, did a fantastic job of pulling it all together. Like getting blood from a turnip, John worked his magic with the pros and amateurs alike. Add to that John’s wizardry in the edit bay and it did turn out to be a pretty unique little video.

JA: What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a creative career in theme park entertainment?

SL: Themed entertainment has changed so much since I started in the business and it continues to change today. As for me, I consult in that world from time to time but my main focus these days is creating websites and graphics for my clients.

Advice really depends on a person’s passion. What are their passions? What are their talents? Today, themed entertainment is rebounding from the 2008 financial downturn. As a result, there are more and more creative and technical positions out there - writers, production designers, set-designers, costume designers, audio designers, ride designers, engineers, architects, graphic artists, scenic painters, film directors, effects designers, and editors.
Become familiar with the technologies and vocabulary that are a daily part of themed entertainment today. Many who work in theme parks work for production or fabrication companies that are contracted by Universal Studios, Walt Disney Imagineering, or Six Flags. There is no guarantee that a theme park position will be available when you want one. For that reason, one needs to become multi-dimensional in training, i.e. know more than one discipline. There is no substitute for experience. Once you find a path you know you want to pursue, jump in with both feet.

Become a sponge and learn everything you can about it. In the beginning it may not be exactly what you want, but you never know where it might lead. If nothing else, think of it as a stepping-stone. Above all, don’t stop learning and don’t stop trying! The brilliance of the Transformers and Spider-Man rides cannot be over-emphasized. Those state-of-the-art attractions allow guests to experience the ultimate in movie-making, high-tech ride design. They seamlessly blend storytelling with technology. Today’s theme parks can no longer be accused of using old technology, they are inventing it.

I believe it was Confucius who said, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
JA: Were you able to hang on to any memorabilia from any of your productions over the years?

SL: I have a ton of t-shirts, caps, and sweat shirts from Universal, but no real memorabilia. I do have my Hitchcock team jacket that was made as part of the actors’ costume. Also, I have a ton of under construction Universal photographs. That’s it!

JA: What is your fondest overall memory of opening Universal Studios Orlando?

SL: We all craved watching real audiences go through our attractions. Having invested years of time, blood, sweat, and tears then having to wait for opening day and the ultimate payoff was difficult. I loved going in my shows as a tourist. I’d usually sit in the front row. Then, as the house lights went down, I’d slowly turn around to watch the audience faces and reactions. That was my reward. My bonus, if you will.
One of my favorite films of all time is Sullivan’s Travels. If you’ve seen this movie you’ll understand what I am talking about. It epitomizes why I love what I do. To entertain audiences as I have is the ultimate prize, but to have people love what I’ve done? Well, there is no greater gift.

Thank you so much Jason for your interest in my projects. It was gratifying to hear your reaction to shows we created twenty-five years ago. That's a huge, beautiful, bow-wrapped, glittery present! It was an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Thanks for the memories and thanks again for the opportunity.

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