Author’s Note: Because it’s a subject I find really interesting, I spend a lot of time in this installment talking about the history of Transformers and how the toyline developed, since it’s an important part of our history as well. Still, I understand if you’d rather get right to the trip story, and you can do so by clicking here.
A funny thing about life is how you never know which little moments will have the most profound impacts. If you stop to think about it, we all have “those little sparks,” as Dreamfinder might say, sprinkled throughout our past. Maybe you saw a football game on television and it made you a fan for life, or seeing a movie or reading a book at the right age influenced your career path. In my case, one of those moments happened at a K-Mart in Lawton, Oklahoma, at an end cap display near the front registers.
After our trip to Walt Disney World, my memory becomes a jumble of painful moments. I remember the moment when my parents broke the news that Scotty had passed away. I don’t know why it sticks with me, but even though I’d only ever helped Mom a little bit in the kitchen, I had this notion of baking a cake for him. Everything after that comes in flashes, little vignettes of family, friends and teachers visiting our home, or pieces of his funeral.
Later that year, we also lost my grandfather. I always remember how much I loved sitting in the den at his house. He’d converted the garage into his den and library, and every time I saw it I felt a sense of awe. We’d play football in the backyard with a tiny red and white OU ball, to the point I always think of those days when the Sooners play. Iced tea always accompanied stories traded across the dinner table as the family would gather together1.
The first happy memory after all that came during an ordinary trip to K-Mart, not far from our house. We made our way to the checkout when something caught Dad’s eye, and he ushered me and my brother over. No one could have known what I’d see would remain a part of my life for over thirty years.
I remember Dad handing me a package that looked like two cassette tapes, but smaller(I’d never seen microcassettes before). One was red, blue and silver while the other was all black with silver details. Both had a pair of silver chrome weapons in a bubble above them. The artwork above depicted a humanoid robot on one side. The other, the one that stuck with me, was a black panther, leaping forward. Their names, according to the package, were Rumble2 and Ravage, and they were Decepticons.
More importantly, they were Transformers.
The shelves were filled with more of these toys, other cassettes and two different sizes of cars, which were called Autobots. There was a trio of Decepticon jets, but the most striking were the two bigger Decepticons. One transformed into a Walther P-38 with stock, stock and silencer, as realistic as many of the cap guns in the toy aisles. And then there was the cassette recorder, which could eject the tapes as well as transform into a bigger robot. While we already owned several Gobots, this line captured our imagination in an even greater way.
Dad probably took notes of which ones we looked at that day, as well as what we picked out in the infamous Sears Wishbook that year, because our first Transformers were waiting for us under the Christmas tree that year3. Who would have known that, thirty years later, that line would still be going strong, and that Transformers would even guard the sign in book at our wedding celebration and play a major part in the second leg of our honeymoon?
The truth is, the people who dreamed up the line probably never even imagined it would last that long.
Like many things in pop culture, it all started with Star Wars.
While action figures date back to 1964 with the advent of the original G. I. Joe figure line4, Star Wars changed the game for toy manufacturers. The Kenner figures offered not only a wide range of characters and vehicles, but were also supported by an incredibly popular film. It sounds crazy today, but a number of prominent toy companies, including Mego and Mattel, turned down the Star Wars license. With demand so high that Kenner struggled to meet it, other toy companies started looking for the next big thing.
An entirely new solution came in 1981. Twelve years earlier, ABC aired a Saturday morning cartoon series called Hot Wheels. Of course, that also happened to be the name of a series of Mattel toy cars, and complaints flew to the Federal Communications Commission(many of them, it should be noted, from Mattel’s competitors). The FCC came down so hard on the series via its advertising regulations that it lasted only two seasons, and toy lines based on cartoons became almost non-existent.
That changed in 1981, when new FCC commissioner Mark S. Fowler took office and abolished those ad restrictions. Now the toy lines could copy the Star Wars formula with their own fiction, along with accompanying cartoons. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe became the first major success of this new era in 1983. The venerable G.I. Joe line was relaunched in 1982 and took things a step further, with a cartoon miniseries and tie-in Marvel comic book. Hasbro wanted to replicate that success, all they needed was a product.
They found the answer in Japan.
Importing Japanese toys was nothing new, as Mattel had created the successful Shogun Warriors toy line in the 1970s, which combined toys from various anime series into a single, unified toy line5. In 1983, a team from Hasbro visited the 1983 Tokyo Toy Show and eagerly reported back to the office about a pair of toy lines from Takara, Diaclone Car-Robots and Micro Change. The series were offshoots of a popular line called Microman6, and featured two distinct play concepts. Car-Robots, as the name implies, were robots that could change into real, modern cars, while Micro Change were based on common household objects.
Hasbro quickly negotiated to license the lines for the United States, adding a few pieces from other lines to fill out the initial ranks of what they would eventually call the Transformers. While the Diaclone line in Japan were lifeless mecha piloted by tiny figures7, Hasbro decided to make them sentient robots and once again enlisted the help of Marvel Comics.
Then editor-in-chief and legendary writer and later Batman editor Denny O’Neil helped craft the backstory, with O’Neil coining the name Optimus Prime. Writer Bob Budiansky would later work on both the comic and write the “tech specs” that would appear on the back of packages. Sunbow, who produced the G. I. Joe cartoon, teamed with Marvel Productions, best known for the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends to create the cartoon show.
There was only one problem, and that was that competitor Tonka beat them to the market, both on toy shelves and on the small screen. Their Gobots line, created from toys licensed from Bandai’s Machine Robo line, hit toy shelves in 1983, and the Hanna Barbera produced cartoon aired a few months before the original Transformers miniseries. I wasn’t the only kid who owned Gobots before I even learned about Transformers.
In the end, Hasbro held a few key advantages. In their rush to get Gobots to the market first, Tonka didn’t create the same elaborate fiction as the Transformers toys, and it showed in the presentation. Gobots were packaged as robots, with static, toy-accurate depictions of their two modes. The Transformers came in their alternate modes, with more dynamic artwork depicting their robot forms. The Gobots had only a name and a designation of “Friendly” or “Enemy”, while the Transformers came with detailed tech specs and bios that described their personality and weapons. The Transformers also came in a wide range of sizes, from the tiny mini cars and cassettes to the larger Optimus Prime and Megatron figures, versus only a Gobot and Super Gobot size class for their rivals.
The fiction of the Transformers universe was demonstrably better as well. While Challenge of the Gobots wasn’t nearly as bad as some people make it out to be, there’s no denying the anime influence of Transformers made it stand out. The Transformers comic was another ace up Hasbro’s sleeve. In fact, the third issue of the comic featured no less than Spider-Man in a guest starring role! While the Transformers were later excised from the Marvel Universe, that early connection helped.
I could probably go on at length about the fascinating journey that took the Transformers from a tie-in toy cartoon to a major Hollywood blockbuster and an integral part of pop culture. There were some real highlights(the 90s rebirth of the property as Beast Wars and the seminal Transformers Animated, arguably the story telling high point) and a few stumbles along the way(the follow up Beast Machines and the head scratching decision to make Transformers a toyline that didn’t transform via the Action Masters), but then this would get more out of hand than it already has.
Transformers remained a part of our life after that first Christmas, as I eventually owned Ravage(twice, actually, and he got lost twice over the years) along with a bevy of other Transformers. They overtook He-Man and G.I. Joe as the centerpiece of my birthday and Christmas celebrations, and more often than not they were the thing I circled most often in the Wish Books and what filled my Christmas lists. There were a few that I never got, like Hot Rod, Bluestreak, Omega Supreme and the original Predacons. But more than once, I got some really fantastic surprises as well.
My ninth birthday stands out as one of the most memorable, if for some embarrassing reasons. Transformers the Movie debuted in theaters that year and introduced a host of new characters. I begged for Ultra Magnus above all the others, as I loved his character and the toy looked really cool. Well, about a week or two before my birthday, my older brother Kevin came up to me and wanted to show me something in the garage.
Dad had converted our garage into a workshop, with the centerpiece being a big work bench in the middle, with a cabinet with sliding doors on the bottom. That’s where Kevin led me, and opened it to reveal not Ultra Magnus, but a new toy called Metroplex, the Autobot City. Now, in these days Transformers were packed in styrofoam… so we might or might not have actually carefully opened the box and taken him out a time or three.
The night before my birthday, I went outside to grab a soda, and couldn’t help but take one more look at what awaited me tomorrow. To my surprise, not only was Metroplex there, but I could see a bag containing Ultra Magnus! I was thrilled, so thrilled I probably spent a minute too long gawking. I heard someone pounding on the garage window, and saw Mom outside, telling me to get away from there.
Sure enough, the next day I had both Metroplex and Ultra Magnus, and feigned surprise at the gift. I’m not sure Mom ever told Dad about what I did, but she did give me a look and say, “No you’re not” to my act. Sadly, karma bit me as one of the arms for Scamper, the small car that came with Metroplex, broke the first day I had him8.
I talked about this a bit in my first Disneymoon post, but Transformers was one of several touchstones that I shared with my future wife when we first started talking. She loved many of the same cartoons and video games I did, and we’d both grown up loving Transformers. There were times our first conversations would turn to the toys we loved and the ones we wished we could have again(Ravage for me, Swoop for her) and how the 1986 Transformers film destroyed us emotionally.
Beast Wars had just aired episodes solidly connecting it to the original cartoon(which coincidentally involved Ravage yet again), so the love of the old series came back in earnest. As fate would have it, the fan convention BotCon took place in southern California only two weeks after I moved there, and it was one of the first things we did together.
Of course, being a recent transplant who’d only just started a new job, I had the misfortune of attending a convention with no money, as I’d barely been able to buy my admission. She knew about my love of Ravage, however, and actually bought him for me when we found one at a dealer’s table for a reasonable price9. I even walked away with the first Soundwave I ever owned when another attendee was going to just throw away a badly broken one they’d gotten in a big lot of stuff.
The Transformers connection never really stopped from there, though it waned from time to time as we moved on to other interests. We once drove all over southern California trying to find two new Beast Wars figures, eventually turning up Rampage and Depth Charge in a KB Toys in an all but derelict mall. We got hooked on collecting Alternators, a collector themed line that paired authentic, realistic vehicles with classic Transformers designs. Our love of the Skids Alternator was so strong that we eventually test drove and bought a Scion xB.
Our relationship and now our marriage was built on a bedrock of love, trust and understnading, but fandom has been an important mortar for the house. We love watching old cartoon series, animated movies and playing video games, and Transformers runs deep into our childhoods. We didn’t realize it, but it would play another huge part in our relationship as we moved on to Universal Studios.
Cabana Bay and Transformers the Ride 3-D
We woke up early to bit farewell to All Star Movies and, in a greater sense, Walt Disney World. The last leg of our stay would be at Cabana Bay, one of the on-property resorts at Universal Studios Orlando, and a town car had been hired to take us there. After a quick breakfast, we loaded up our things, checked out and drove off Disney property. It was a bittersweet moment, and not without a little bit of anxiety on my part.
I really didn’t know what to make of Universal. While it’s starting to change, there’s still a lot more information for planning a Disney trip than one to Universal Studios. Neither park had anything similar to the FastPass system at Walt Disney World, so we really didn’t have any particular structure to our day. In some ways it felt like we were heading into the great unknown, the place some Disney fans still derisively refer to as That Other Park.
Pulling up to the front of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort allayed a lot of those fears.
Classified as a value resort by Universal as compared to its (at the time) three deluxe cousins, Cabana Bay Beach Resort feels as though it was plucked out of the 50s and 60s and plopped down right in the middle of Florida. The lobby is filled with retro furniture in whites, blues and oranges, with stylized tile work behind the front counter. We didn’t linger too long, however, as we dropped our luggage off so we could get an early start on our day at Universal Studios. We had no idea that the staff at Cabana Bay had another trick up their sleeve to make our stay even better.
Like at a Disney resort, there’s a shuttle to take you to CityWalk, where you can also access the parks. The Deluxe resorts are even closer, which brings me to one of the first real advantages of Universal: Proximity. While Walt Disney World is spread out across a wide swath of property, pretty much everything at Universal Studios Orlando is within easy walking distance, not unlike the Disneyland Resort in California. We planned to tour CityWalk a little later in our trip, though the main attraction there are the many restaurant options.
Despite my initial trepidation, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw the Universal globe in the distance and we made our way inside. What struck me first was how quiet the park was. It was a simple matter to look around, though there was no doubt where we were headed first. We walked past the Shrek theater and made a right, where we saw the large gray building just ahead: The headquarters of NEST.
Transformers the Ride 3D is based on the Michael Bay films, and while your mileage may vary with them, there’s no question the intense action would make for an incredible ride experience. But there’s just something about seeing a gigantic building with an Autobot symbol that makes that inner child wake up. And if that didn’t do it, what happened next certainly did.
We intended to head straight for the attraction entrance, but something to the right caught our attention… or should I say someone. Standing there in front of a small set was Optimus Prime! Again, this version was based on the Bay films, but you’d be hard press to care when you’re looking up at a real walking, talking Transformer that towered over guests. As a child I’d gone to Six Flags in the 80s and met the Gobot commanders(I still have the sticker to prove it), but there was no contest.
So of course we stopped to get our picture taken with him, as Peter Cullen’s voice spoke to us. Look, as cool as meeting Disney characters was, that was one of our most memorable experiences. If they ever switch to the original G1 versions of the characters, forget about it, it’s going to be the coolest thing ever(and I’ve heard a rumor it might happen, but as with most theme park rumors take it with a whole shaker of salt).
From there, we made our way to the front of the attraction, greeted by the massive form of Optimus Prime, standing on the roof. It’s an awesome visual, but even more impressive was the “10 minute wait” sign above the entrance, manned by soldiers in NEST uniforms. You’re ushered inside, and into the world of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.
The line was non-existent, and we happily let other guests pass as we watched video of General Morshower and Ratchet briefed us on the current situation. As you make your way through the queue, the briefings continue, complete with familiar sights from the movie such as the Allspark shard and the severed tail of Scorponok, introduced to the other Autobots on the team along with the Decepticons that remain at large.
Further into the queue, warning lights flash as we’re told the Decepticons are attacking and we need to be taken off site. A new Autobot, Evac, volunteers to take you to safety and serves as your ride vehicle. 3-D glasses are distributed before you’re filtered onto Evac to escape the facility.
Simulator rides are a specialty at Universal, to the point some people criticize them for it. They probably haven’t been on Transformers, then. Things kick off with Ravage(yes, he shows up again) stealing the canister holding the Allspark fragment, and things only intensify from there, as you meet everyone from Megatron and Starscream to the mighty Devastator, even getting a front row seat to a battle between Optimus and his old foe.
What makes Transformers special is that it takes places across two levels, and practical effects blend with the 3-D projections and movement to create one of the most immersive ride experiences I’ve ever had. There’s a point in the ride when Megatron fires a missile, and you can feel the heat as it passes over Evac. At another point you’re pulled into Devastator’s waiting maw, the effects serving to enforce the incredible scale of the Transformers.
At the end of the attraction, when features one of my favorite drops in any ride, there’s a neat little touch as the cast members who help you off are dressed in NEST uniforms, and applaud you on a job well done before ushering you into, you guessed it, a gift shop. After looking around for only a few minutes, I turned back to Christie and smiled.
“Want to do it again?”
And like Star Tours, we rode it for a second straight time, before picking up an Evac figure for our honeymoon memento shelf and a few other goodies before moving on. And it’s worth mentioning, I thought the ride got better the second time around.
While Transformers was our main priority, most visitors to Universal Studios are there to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal Studio Florida’s section, Diagon Alley. The entrance to the area is brilliant, with a replica of King’s Cross standing out front, alongside the Knight Bus from the third film. The shrunken head is even inside, and joins the driver in talking to guests. As cool as all of this is, the main attraction is just beyond that facade, and Diagon Alley itself.
The entrance itself is just one of the really nice touches, as it’s designed to look like the shifting brick wall from the movie. You can ever hear the sound of the bricks grinding together as they slide into place, even though nothing’s actually moving. It’s a great touch, and a wonderful introduction to one of the most impressive areas in any theme park, hands down.
There’s no two ways about it, Diagon Alley is gorgeous. You could easily spend a couple of hours just wandering around and taking in the details, even if you’re not a fan of the boy wizard. From the unique architecture to the massive dragon guarding the entrance to Escape from Gringotts, you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped into the movies. There are plenty of wonderful details to catch your eye, from animated characters in the shop windows to signs that make reference to the books. What’s more, no cast member is out of character. They don’t work at Universal Studios, they’re wizards who live and work in Diagon Alley.
One of the cooler touches(not to mention brilliant marketing plans) comes in the form of collectable wands. For an additional charge, you can buy an interactive wand that, at various points across the Wizarding World, can activate hidden features. We stood and watched in amazement as a simple flick of the wand brought a suit of armor in the blacksmith shop to life. From there, we found a nearby stand to try one of the most popular things in Diagon Alley, butterbeer.
Based on a drink from the books, butterbeer has become a must get for visitors to the park. A butterscotch flavored cream soda with a butterscotch flavored whipped topping. You can also get it frozen and even hot if you’re so inclined, and there’s even butterbeer flavored ice cream. Sadly, I think for us the hype might’ve ruined the experience, as we both found the flavor to be a little too strong. After wandering around and finishing off our cups, we made our way to Ollivander’s Wand Shop, which is one of the more enjoyable experiences in the park. There’s a small show you can wait for and this is one where I won’t spoil anything. Let’s just say if you’ve seen the first movie and remember what happened when Harry got his wand, you’re going to love it.
Another neat touch is that Knockturn Alley, the small side street dedicated to the Dark Arts, exists here as well. You can visit Borgin and Burkes, a shop that plays a prominent role in the Potter books and films, and it’s absolutely perfect. There are so many great details to find around here, in particular a really amusing gag with a trunk near the front of the store. Just wait, it’s worth your time. Little touches like that are what really make Diagon Alley stand out.
We decided to have lunch at the Three Broomsticks, the quick service eatery in the area. Both Christie and I opted for fish and chips. When it came to drinks, the Wizarding World doesn’t serve soda or even tea, but instead offers some unique drinks in addition to butterbeer. I tried Otter’s Fizzy Orange Juice while Christie ordered a Pumpkin Juice. In another fun touch, the Pumpkin Juice comes in a fun specialty bottle, and both drinks were tasty.
The fish and chips, on the other hand, were a bit of a letdown. They weren’t bad, of course, but came across as about the same quality you might get at a fast food place. Of course you’re paying theme park prices, but I was hoping for a little more. Still, the real star of the meal was the building itself, with its long bench seating and perfect ambiance. There were funny messages written on the walls and more nods to the Harry Potter books sprinkled around, and it made up for the lackluster meal.
Springfield, Terminator and Cabana Bay Revisited
After we finished our meal, we made our way toward Springfield, an area based on The Simpsons. Before I get to that, however, I think it’s worth pointing out the one real negative I can say about Universal Studios Florida. Over the years the themes of various areas have changed, though vestiges of old areas still remain. As a result, the park can feel a little scattershot, especially compared with Islands of Adventure, which I’ll talk about next time.
The Simpsons ride took over the old Back to the Future attraction, utilizing the same simulator ride system, and it’s both funny and surprisingly thrilling(and a bit bumpier than we expected). It’s still a lot of fun, and it’s surprising some of the jokes that Universal let the writers get away with, even taking a jab at the ever present exit gift shops. Unfortunately, we found ourselves in the middle of a torrential downpour as soon as we stepped off, and didn’t really get to explore more of Springfield.
The venerable Terminator 2 3-D provided a good respite from the weather. Having known little about it other than the snippets I heard about when it was first being made, I was surprised at the live action elements, as the actors playing the Terminator and John Connor ran right behind our seats as part of the show. It certainly shows its age in a few spots, but it’s still incredibly entertaining and a connection back to the old “Ride the movies!” tag line from the early days.
But perhaps one of our favorite memories from Universal came as we stepped into the gift shop, where Terminator busts and costumes from the attraction worn by the actors mixed with the usual trinkets you could take home with you. Christie stopped to get a picture of the costumes, when a stranger stepped up behind her and said, “Oh, you might want to use the flash.”
Except he wasn’t a stranger, it was Doc Brown from Back to the Future.
We stood and talked with him for a few minutes and, in a weird twist of fate, he grabbed her camera and took a picture of us. It reminded me of the childhood trip to Walt Disney World and what I’ve heard can be found at Disneyland still, where you can spontaneously run into characters. The fact that it was Doc Brown, from one of our favorite movies, made it even more memorable. From there, we looked at the main studio gift shop, and decided to head back to Cabana Bay to have dinner and then head up to our room for the night.
Do you remember, though, how I said Cabana Bay had a surprise for us? As we picked up our bags and carried them to our room(there’s not bell service to help there, unfortunately) we were surprised to find ourselves in a room far larger than we originally expected, complete with a small bar area and separate smaller living room. Indeed, the staff had seen the note that we were on our honeymoon and had upgraded us to a suite.
Bayliner Diner completed our love affair with Cabana Bay. With several different stations serving a wide variety of food, you can find some really delicious food for reasonable prices, and the dining area had large TVs which played retro TV commercials. I tried their Cabana Bay Burger, with caramelized onions, mushrooms and special sauce, while Christie had the roast turkey and provolone sandwich with potato salad and took them back to our room. Both were delicious, and by all accounts everything there is just as good. We’d get our first chance to try their breakfast the next morning, but we settled in and braced ourselves for the next day.
Islands of Adventure awaited us next, in what would compete for the best day of our entire trip.
1 – One of my biggest regrets in life is that I was too young to talk to my grandfather about writing and the early days of science fiction, because there was so much of his history I didn’t know. In 2008 I received an e-mail from Brad Ricca while he was researching what would eventually become his excellent book Super Boys, and learned my grandfather had known Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel for years. He created and distributed fanzines long before the internet or even desktop publishing and Dad and I have talked often about what he could’ve done with modern technology. I hope that what I do on this web site in some small way walks in the footsteps he left for me.
2 – Believe it or not, this is actually one of the biggest controversies in the Transformers fandom. The toy line offered two recolors of the same mold. In the toyline, the red cassette was Rumble, and the blue was Frenzy. When the original cartoon came out, it prominently featured the blue cassette but called him Rumble. The argument had persisted over the years, with even members of the creative teams taking sides and even a (probably apocryphal) story of a fight at BotCon. There’s even acronyms for each side, Team FIRRIB(Frenzy is red, Rumble is blue) and Team FIBRIR(Frenzy is blue, Rumble is red), and an untold number of love poem jokes.
3 – My first two Transformers were Ironhide and Ratchet. My brother got Sunstreaker and Prowl. Look, I will always love those two characters, but take a look at the links and tell me who got the better toys. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
4 – This isn’t the familiar four inch tall Joe and Cobra figures that many people remember from the 80s and inspired the feature films, but an earlier, twelve inch tall line that featured a basic military and later adventure theme. This character would later be given the name Joe Colton and was made an official part of the 80s storyline.
5 – Interestingly enough, an issue of the Shogun Warriors comic even featured a villain named Megatron. The line also featured Leopardon, the transforming giant robot from a live action sentai(think Power Rangers) version of Spiderman.
6 – The Microman line had made a previous appearance in the United States as the Micronauts, released by Mego and folded into the Marvel Universe. In a strange twist, the Micronauts IP was eventually acquired by Hasbro and will now be part of their shared universe. Microman toys also showed up under various names in the U.S., and I can remember having several of the small pilots as a kid before I got my first Transformers.
8 – Sad but true fact: A couple of years ago Hasbro released a new Metroplex, but it came out when I was still on disability following one of my surgeries and I couldn’t afford to get it. I regret missing out on Scamper more than the two foot tall Transformer. One day, I will find one.