Location Matters: the unmarked tomb of Nickelodeon Studios
Location Matters is a series that reflects upon pieces of Orlando immortalized in popular film/television.
Over the years the Universal Orlando Resort has grown to such monolithic proportions that it’s hard to keep track of all the park’s amenities. Yes, you can still “ride the movies” at Universal Studios proper (it seems like you’re just standing around in that Twister attraction, but trust me, you’re riding it), you can meet and greet Spider-Man and several other Marvel superheroes who are riding out their pre-Disney contracts at Islands of Adventure, and yes, at CityWalk you can get some Bubba Gump shrimp or an official Burger King Whopper or even a legendary Cinnabon. Nothin’ says lovin’ in 90 degree August heat like a piping hot Cinnabon!
Alas, in order to reap you must sow, and an entire book could be written about the attractions Universal has shuttered to make way for “progress” like extra Harry Potter environments and the Hot Dog Hall of Fame (which is opening this month). Universal’s Sharp Aquos Theater, today home to world renown performance ensemble Blue Man Group, used to house more than one mere ride or attraction – it was home to a full scale production facility belonging to one of the most cherished cable networks of all time. You sound like a crazy old coot when you talk about it now, but for fifteen years Nickelodeon Studios occupied its own little empire at Universal, complete with an imposing slime geyser out front that shot their trademark gunk up into the sky for what seemed like a goddamn mile!
If Nickelodeon’s first decade was its Golden Age, foisting upon ’80s tots the likes of Pinwheel, Today’s Special, Double Dare, and You Can’t Do That On Television, then the transition to Silver Age began circa 1989 when the channel moved operations to the southwest corner of Orlando’s brand new Universal Studios. Sure, you could experience some facsimile of Jaws or E.T. on the other side of the park, but Nickelodeon actually used Soundstages 18 and 19 to produce real television shows. At any given moment in those structures Double Dare host Marc Summers could be guiding some rube through a physical challenge, or Melissa Joan Hart could be sassing the Clarissa Explains It All cameras in a denim vest. The best part is Nick offered guests a forty minute tour where you could witness such rare delights live and in person.
The Nickelodeon tour took you through the soundstages and into the production offices that sat between them so you could see the dressing rooms, the Gak Kitchen (where Nick produced its other beloved space age substance, Gak), and the Game Lab (where new game show ideas were being tested all the time — on you!). Not that you had to venture inside to get a sense of the fun. Nick Studios’ exterior was decorated in the brash colors always associated with the network, its identifying logo a giant rendering of the orange Nickelodeon splat. And there was that slime geyser, a little pot boiler of a contraption that in retrospect was probably too phallic for its own good. The geyser was given a soft open on June 7, 1990, along with the rest of the Universal park but did not officially begin spewing slime on the reg until October 27 of that year (a special ceremony was held featuring Gilligan’s Island star Russell Johnson).
By the way, the original slime made famous on You Can’t Do That On Television was a mixture of green gelatin powder, flour, and water. Conventional wisdom suggests Nickelodeon Studios shot a mixture that leaned most heavily on the water part of that equation through their geyser lest sticky chunks accumulate at the geyser’s base or in children’s hair. Nothin’ says lovin’ in 90 degree August heat like gobs of neon waste caught in your children’s hair!
What were some of the most notable programs produced at Nickelodeon Studios during its heyday and can you encapsulate them with brief, somewhat humorous descriptions? Why, I thought you’d never ask.
Super Sloppy Double Dare (1989): Whereas the original Double Dare tried to save gratuitous food splatter for the show’s back half, this spin-off was pretty much wall-to-wall mess. Production was actually split between Nick Studios and Double Dare’s native Philadelphia, perhaps because they weren’t sure about this Universal crapshoot. Super Sloppy Double Dare previewed during Super Bowl weekend and ended up winning a Cable Ace Award (which means as much these days as a perfect attendance record from a driving school).
Family Double Dare (1990-1992): The second run of a Double Dare variation that roped parents into the action, usually with the lure of an automotive grand prize.
Super Special Double Dare (1992): Super special because it featured celebrity contestants…who were often borrowed from other Nick programs. One episode pitted Clarissa stars Melissa Joan Hart and Jason Zimbler against each other. More tension than the Frost/Nixon interviews!
Legends Of The Hidden Temple (1993-1995): The beloved Mesoamerica-themed game show where kids competed for a chance to run through an obstacle course teeming with foam bricks, trap doors, and “angry natives.” Featured an enormous talking Olmec head voiced by American Dad star Dee Bradley Baker. Much scuttlebutt during the show’s run concerned whether or not the ending temple was rigged to make kids lose; most people just assumed President Bush’s fitness initiatives were failing.
Nickelodeon Guts (1992-1995): An American Gladiators copy hosted by future Yes, Dear star Mike O’Malley. The program’s centerpiece was a fabricated mountain known as the Aggro Crag that vomitted foam chunks, glitter, and compressed steam. Contestants were all given nicknames like Bob “The Bad Boy” and “Head Crushin’” Caitlin. This is another Nick program where former contestants claim certain production techniques robbed them of glory. Sounds like we need a senate subcommittee.
What Would You Do? (1991-1993): The thinking man’s Double Dare, in that What Would You Do? revolved around contestants attempting to predict the behavior of fellow human beings in various pre-taped segments. And yet no doubt exists that this was a Nickelodeon outing; as Wikipedia so deftly puts it, “the cream pie was central to the show’s premise.”
Clarissa Explains It All (1991-1994): What if Ferris Bueller was an adolescent girl? Mopey-ass Alan Ruck wouldn’t be following him around, for one thing. Clarissa EIA was vital for scores of young women desperately seeking cultural representation and it’s earned Melissa Joan Hart a free pass to make utter crap for the rest of her life if she so chooses.
Hi Honey, I’m Home! (1991-1992): The Brady Bunch Movie lifted its premise from this program wherein a 1950s sitcom family is unceremoniously “cancelled” and must move to “present day” New Jersey. Guest stars were usually sitcom relics reprising their most ballyhooed roles (Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster, the guy who played Dobie Gillis as Dobie Gillis). For a shining moment in history Hi Honey, I’m Home! was a part of ABC’s “legendary” TGIF lineup.
Fifteen (1991-1993): The final two seasons of this very dramatic Ryan Reynolds vehicle filmed at Nick Studios. Sulking teens in leather jackets dealt with “issues,” like drug abuse, divorce, and secretly being from Canada.
My Brother & Me (1994-1995): The sitcom about life in Charlotte, North Carolina you never knew you needed. Inspired the Dr. Cool Money haircut craze, in which mid-90s children demanded to have dollar signs shaved into their wee heads to emulate a fictional pop star.
All That (1994-2005): The first two seasons of Nickelodeon’s answer to Saturday Night Live filmed in Orlando before moving to Hollywood. Ground zero for Amanda Bynes and the Amanda Bynes Revolution. Also Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, the Lewis and Martin of hamburger-related comedy skits.
Gullah Gullah Island (1994-1998): Just your average American family who happen to own a human-sized yellow tadpole. One of my professors in college worked as a test marketer for this show; he said you could make any child’s year by showing up on their doorstep and saying, “I’m from Nickelodeon and I have a show no one else has ever seen that I need you to watch immediately because that’s my job!”
The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo (1996-1998): A single camera detective show (shot on film!) produced at Nick Studios for most of its run. Eight episodes into the third season the crew went on strike over to budget issues, which forced Shelby’s relocation to Boston.
Slime Time Live (2000-2003): Two hours of variety and games, sort of like Total Request Live sans Carson Daly. Slime Time holds the Guinness World Records for most people pied in the face in under three minutes (1,000) and most people slimed in one place (762).
Nick Studio productions rarely if ever wandered out of their Soundstages or the Universal lot; as such, there are no entries where the Gullah Gullah tadpole runs afoul of the Orlando Magic at Lake Eola, or a Shelby Woo case concerning a missing Tijuana Flats in Mount Dora. Disclaimer: I am far from an expert when it comes to these shows and may certainly be ignorant of an outing where the cast of All That visits the Orlando Science Center before picking up pho on Mills Ave.
Things had changed by the time we crossed over into the 21st Century. Universal Studios wasn’t just one theme park anymore, it was two – the thrill-oriented Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, as did nightlife promenade Universal CityWalk. Suddenly watching some lunatic mix up a new batch of Gak had to compete with an Incredible Hulk roller coaster, Popeye-themed river rapids, and Starbucks. The outside world had grown too. Nick was no longer the premiere entertainment hub for kids (have you seen this new shit called the Internet?), and the children who had come of age watching Guts and every iterations of Double Dare were near adulthood. Even more frightening: Marc Summers was starting to become better known for hosting Food Network’s Unwrapped. The slime-soaked writing was on the wall.
Nickelodeon had been moving programs out to Hollywood since the mid to late ’90s, and as the crowds who lined up for the Orlando studio tour steadily dwindled during the age of George W they decided to close up shop for good. On April 30, 2005, Nick Studios said goodbye to the City Beautiful. The slime geyser was removed that May, and the enormous orange Nickelodeon sign came down the following January. Fox Sports and the Sunshine Network moved in to make use of the facilities, though in tribute to the hallowed kiddie network they left many of the bizarre color schemes and animated character murals seen throughout the interior offices in tact.
One item that was not preserved in its original space was the Nickelodeon Studios time capsule, buried April 30, 1992, outside Soundstage 18 in a televised ceremony. Fearing the capsule would be lost forever, workers removed it in August of 2006 and it now resides at several miles down I-4 at the Nickelodeon Suites Resort. The Nick Studios time capsule is set to be opened in 2042; Melissa Joan Hart will be a spry 66 then, I’m sure.
[Items included in the Nick Studios time capsule as voted on by the "Kids World Council" (no longer a recognized governing body): a piece of bubble gum, a skateboard, a history book, a world atlas, news clippings about Desert Storm and the AIDS crisis, copies of Home Alone and Back To The Future on VHS, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a TV Guide from the week the capsule was buried, a Game Boy, a copy of Michael Jackson's Dangerous on CD, a copy of Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em on CD, a pair of Reebok Pumps, and a black baseball cap bearing Joey Lawrence's catchphrase "Whoa!" which was placed in the capsule by Lawrence himself.]
In June of 2007, Soundstage 18 was rechristened the Sharp Aquos Theatre and became the permanent Universal home of Blue Man Group. Virtually all signs of Nickelodeon are now gone, but let’s be frank: once Kel Mitchell’s been in a certain building his essence never truly leaves. Next time you see Blue Man at the Sharp watch for subtle Good Burger references. They’re there, just as sure as Shelby Woo star Irene Ng earned a degree from Harvard in 1997.
Meanwhile, Nickelodeon’s Bronze Age is already in our rear view mirror, iCarly becoming a distant memory for Millennials and Dan Schneider completists. With any luck the next stretch of Nickelodeon history will include a swing back through Orlando for one last super sloppy aggro craggin’ hidden temple event featuring Marc Summers, the yellow tadpole, Joey Lawrence, and Dr. Cool Money.