Orlando History Center's exhibit lifts Universal's curtain

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Universal Orlando exhibit

Onstage occupations such as acting and backstage roles such as makeup artists are highlighted in the Universal Orlando exhibit. (Orange County Regional History Center / January 31, 2013)

A new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center flashes back to the early days of Universal Orlando and demonstrates the relentless churn of theme-park entertainment.

"A Year in the Life: Backstage to Onstage at Universal Orlando Resort" features behind-the-scenes information detailing the creative processes of events such as Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights. But, happily, it also works in some of the history of the attractions.

"It's always fun to pull up the archives and start looking at stuff that really was the beginnings of some of the bigger projects," says T.J. Mannarino, director of art and design at Universal Orlando.

Early in the exhibit, there are three king-size aerial photographs of Universal property. The first is the land without development, the second showcases the boom of the late 1990s (no Universal CityWalk, only one of the two mega-garages) and the third from a few years ago. Why does a pre-Wizarding World of Harry Potter era seem so long ago already?

One goal of the exhibit, Mannarino says, is to show how entertainment projects created in Central Florida can have global influences.

"Some of these events have grown to massive size and they actually touch, in effect, the world," he says. "Halloween Horror Nights is now in four separate parks, from Singapore to Japan to Hollywood to here in Orlando."

I counted in excess of 150 photos documenting more than two decades of Universal attractions, plus there are rarely seen blueprints of Horror Nights houses, costume sketches and prosthetics on display. Watch for a fake eyeball or two.

The exhibit also has a video component, including shots of show rehearsals.

"Nobody ever sees that. It all happens all under cover, in the dark of the night," Mannarino says. "To see some of the videos that we have of the performers rehearsing, I think, is probably unique for people who follow this industry."

One long wall holds an enormous graph that's a timeline for Universal's annual projects. Points are plotted for the planning stages of Horror Nights, Mardi Gras, the holiday season and two attractions that debuted last summer, the Superstar Parade and the Cinematic Spectacular lagoon show. Here's the big picture: It's pretty much always busy, even if guests can't see it onstage.

Next is a larger display area that will rotate items seasonally. The exhibit debuts with Mardi Gras, including massive heads that represented a king and queen on a bygone float and costuming — plus a random fiberglass shark. Universal's Mardi Gras celebration begins Feb. 9.

"Backstage to Onstage" wraps up with a wall revealing entertainment-related career options, including dancers, painters, technicians, recording engineers, float drivers, rigging and staging professionals, actors … and scareactors. By the lack of bean counters, one might get the impression that there are no stuffy desk jobs in the entertainment industry.

"Most people think, 'Well, if I can't dance or sing, then entertainment isn't a career for me.' We wanted to show that it was a piece of the career, but it's not the whole component," Mannarino says. "We need different kinds of people from technicians to stage managers to designers — and designers are vast, from audio to lighting to special effects."

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477

'A Year in the Life: Backstage to Onstage at Universal Orlando Resort'

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 26, 2014.

Where: 65 E. Central Blvd., Orlando

Cost: $9 general, $6 ages 5-12

Call: 407-836-8500

Online: thehistorycenter.org

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