SEE THE STARS. RIDE THE MOVIES.
White text over a black battlefield. Doc Brown chases The Jetsons straight into the Nickelodeon blimp. A submarine-sized Jaws eats a fresh boatload of pastel tourists while the Phantom of the Opera looks on in disapproval. King Kong holds a Roosevelt Island tram like a Hot Wheel he’s more than willing to eat. Among the mayhem, E.T. peeks around a marquee in neon – Universal Studios Florida.
All that and more signed with a single promise at the bottom.
Opening in Orlando, May 1990.
There’s something to be said for subtlety and the early advertising for Universal Studios Florida had refreshingly little. But when the park opened, a month later than expected, one of its least-promoted attractions would prove its most necessary.
On the morning of June 7th, 1990, park consultant and director Steven Spielberg cut the ribbon dedicating Universal Studios Florida. By lunch, yet another breakdown on Jaws left him stranded in the middle of a lagoon with malfunctioning robot sharks in what must be the most specific trigger of PTSD ever devised. An early morning power outage crippled Earthquake before the park even opened. The 39-foot-tall animatronic apes in Kongfrontation stopped listening to the software that kept them from back-handing ride vehicles out of the sky, leaving frenzied employees to control the 13,000-pound figures manually. Guests were hastily offered a free, non-expiring ticket for a second day, a policy that lasted the rest of Universal Studios Florida’s inaugural season.
Kinks were eventually ironed out, but it wasn’t a particularly quick or clean process – Jaws would shut down entirely in September for a complete redesign and only reopened three years later. In that first, ramshackle summer, visitors needed something to do. Something spectacular. Something reliable. Something air-conditioned.
The Ghostbusters Spooktacular condensed the movie’s finale into an 11-minute live-action effects show. Audiences would follow a friendly tour guide into Soundstage 50 for a peek at a painstaking recreation of the rooftop temple from the 1984 classic. The guide spiels about John DeCuir’s set design and helpfully reminds everyone that the special effects from the movie couldn’t possibly be recreated before their very eyes. Then the effects are recreated before their very eyes. Ghosts, translucent and terrifying, begin to materialize. Cue Gozer. Cue the theme song. Cue the Ghostbusters. Cue the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Cue the gift shop.
The ghosts appeared ghostly thanks to one of the oldest parlor tricks in the book, Pepper’s ghost. The effect is deceptively simple – an angled pane of glass is used to reflect an unseen figure which, when lit, appears translucent in front of whatever the glass is covering. Magicians would use it to resurrect a guy in a bedsheet for stunned audiences. The Spooktacular designers used it to conjure up a cast of 16-foot-tall animatronic monsters hiding in a deep pit at the edge of the stage, performing 14 times a day.
If anyone could handle the robotic necromancy required, it was the Landmark Entertainment Group. Founded by Tony Christopher and Gary Goddard, Landmark first worked with Universal Studios on a revolutionary addition to its famous Hollywood tram tour – Kongfrontation. Not to be confused with its younger Floridian cousin, this Kong was the largest animatronic ever built at the time, an engineering marvel that inspired the creation of Universal Studios Florida in the first place. Their next project with Universal was The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular. It did exactly what it said on the tin. Battle axes, wizards, greased-up pecs. But the centerpiece was an enormous, fire-breathing animatronic dragon that rose from beneath the stage. The beast was already sketched out by noted entertainment designer Claudio Mazzoli, but the engineers needed something more physical to work from. Goddard, who’d soon go on to direct Masters of the Universe, asked the staff if they knew any sculptors and someone mentioned a fresh-faced artist, Charlie Chiodo.
Charlie brought his portfolio and, shortly thereafter, his brother Stephen. Landmark hired them immediately. They sculpted a 19” maquette of the monster, lovingly named “Lucy,” and impressed the Group enough to earn some office space for their pet project, a no-budget horror-comedy called Killer Klowns from Outer Space. The Chiodo Brothers, soon joined by youngest brother Edward, were using Landmark facilities for pre-production on Killer Klowns, from auditions to mold-making, when the company got the turn-key contract to design a Ghostbusters live show for Universal Studios Florida.
Landmark came up with the concept but ran into a familiar problem in execution. The ghosts, as drawn, were effective – all skulls and vapor-trails – but lost some personality as maquettes. So they turned to Charlie Chiodo. In the thick of making Killer Klowns, he designed every single ghost in the show, save for the few pulled directly from the movie.
The resulting sketches carry a Chiodo signature, but they hardly need to. Each character basks in that trademark Killer Klowns personality. Rictus grins on wrinkled nightmare faces. Gleeful, terrifying and gleefully terrifying. From the shopping cart hobo to the ball-and-chain prisoner, the finished animatronics look fittingly like extras from a Chiodo-directed Ghostbusters sequel. But there’s one ghoul in particular that belongs in the brothers’ most famous work.
As a tribute to the cult-classic-in-the-making or at least a savvy bit of recycling, Charlie designed a maniacal Jack-in-the-box that lunged out at the Ghostbusters with a big nose and bigger mallet. The murderous toy most closely resembles Klownzilla, the movie’s climactic Klown kaiju, and not just in size. While the Spooktacular never made it into the era of HD cameras, the estranged Killer Klown can be seen traumatizing tourists and their unsuspecting children on tape from 1990 to 1996.
Here’s a particularly clear example:
Killer Klowns from Outer Space opened two years before Universal Studios Florida. After Ghostbusters, the Chiodos, namely Charlie, worked on some preliminary drawings for Jurassic Park: The Ride before leaving Landmark.
It’s only fitting that, as their movie slowly earned an underground audience on home video, the Chiodos were menacing record crowds for almost a decade with a Killer Klown hiding in plain sight.