ORLANDO -- For fans of The Simpsons, the long-standing debate on where the iconic family's hometown of Springfield is located is finally settled. It's Central Florida, in particular, here at Universal Studios Florida.
Over the years, the series' creators and writers have scattered tantalizing, coy, and intentionally contradictory hints about the town's location. There is even a site dedicated to the question on snpp.com, the Simpsons Archive: "Where is The Simpsons' Springfield?"
In the series, the generic -- if contradictory -- Springfield has a mountain; a large, navigable body of water; an international border; and a rural area populated by hillbilly yokels. Most speculation has centered around existing Springfields in Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois, with Oregon -- series creator Matt Groening's home state -- as a long shot outsider.
Last spring, Universal ended the debate. They began unveiling what is formally called a "themed area," 30,000-square feet next to the existing Simpsons ride, a digital simulator opened in 2008, which -- by strict theme park protocol -- exits through a gift shop, in this case a recreation of Apu's Quik-e-Mart.
Since then, Universal has been gradually rolling out new features. In addition to a second ride, an outdoor spinner based on the space aliens Kang and Kodos, called "Twirl 'n' Hurl" opened this summer. Most recently opened, across from the original Simpsons ride, is an outdoor photo booth which, for $19.99, allows visitors to pose in front of six back-drop images from the series.
In an exercise in crass commercialization the show's writers would otherwise mock, restaurants and retail outlets emanate from the intersection of Fast Food Boulevard and Evergreen Terrace, where the family resides. Outlets in the food court area include Krusty Burger, serving "Krusty-certified meat sandwiches;" Moe's Tavern, featuring the Springfield-produced Duff beer (as well as outdoor Duff Gardens), actually locally made at a local microbrewery; Luigi's Pizza; Lard Lad's Donuts; and The Frying Dutchman. There will also be The Androids' Dungeons & Baseball Card Shop, the domain of The Comic Book Guy. Life-sized, plastic characters populate the area.
As the author of The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family, I was hoping that Universal might include a replica of the generic First Church of Springfield, with evangelical zealot Ned Flanders in the pew and the unctuous Reverend Lovejoy in the pulpit. But no such luck. Like nearby Disney World, Universal Studios Florida will remain resolutely religion free.
Why not Orlando?
Why shouldn't Springfield be in Orlando? Despite the fact that we have few of the fictional Springfield's topographic or geographic features, we're already the home of Gatorland, SeaWorld, and Harry Potter's World of Wizarding. Also, the "Holy Land Experience," a kitschy, vest-pocket park which recreates first century Jerusalem, built by an evangelical Baptist and now run by a wacky family of Pentecostal broadcasters that would give the Simpsons a run for their money.
On several occasions, Orlando seems to come to the television Springfield. In one episode, Homer's next door neighbor Ned Flanders built a Bible-based theme park called "Praiseland," suspiciously like the "Holy Land Experience." In another, Downtown Disney's Cirque du Soleil rolled into town.
One technical bar to locating Springfield in Orlando? The Simpson family was banned by court order from Florida in the show's 11th season in a spring break beach episode in which Homer drove over an iconic alligator named Captain Jack.
Why not Disney?
Of course, Springfield could have been in Disney World, but only theoretically, given the series' satiric vendetta with the Mouse.
Over the years, the series has taken numerous shots at Disney, its rides, parks, movies and, while he was chairman, Michael Eisner himself. In Season Six, there's a family visit to "Itchy & Scratchy Land," a creepy theme park dedicated to promoting the television cartoon show that is a favorite of the Simpson children. The park features animatronic robots and documentaries about its beloved, full-length animated films, "Scratchtasia" and "Pinnitchio."
Ironically, the Simpsons made an episode-long visit to Orlando, in 2003. The family won a free trip after Bart nominated his fourth-grade instructor, Edna Krabappel (voiced by the late Marcia Wallace), for a Teacher of the Year Award - a competition that sounded a lot like Disney's annual American Teacher Awards. The prize was to visit a theme park called EFCOT. Observing the familiar Future Sphere from their arriving plane, Homer exclaims of Disney's least popular park, "It's even boring to fly over."
After the ceremony, Homer announced that he had had enough of the sterile, ersatz Epcot and was going to Disney World. He then attempted to scale a wall topped by barbed wire dividing EFCOT from what is clearly the Magic Kingdom. Despite a warning from a squeaky, Mickey Mouse-like voice to "step away from the wall," Homer was undeterred, marveling at the park's beauty until he is shocked by an ugly reality at a refreshment stand: a sugary Spanish pastry called a churro going for $14.
The Disney-Universal rivalry goes back a long way, in one case memorialized by The Simpsons. Echoing a real Florida event in 1989, involving a day care center, a pair of Disney's leg-breaking lawyers threatened Springfield Elementary School for painting murals of characters on their walls without permission. The Hallandale, Fl, day care center painted over the Disney mural and -- gleefully tweaked by Universal -- replaced them with characters from the studio's Hanna-Barbera Productions.
So, welcome to Springfield... Florida, officially a Universal experience.
(A version of this article appeared in Orlando magazine.)