Universal Creative's very, very, very good year
Written by Robert Niles
It's the last day of June and - wow! What a month for theme park premieres. I can't remember a string of such impressive debuts as I has the good fortune to attend this month, starting with Disney's World of Color, followed by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and wrapping up yesterday with the King Kong 360/3-D here in Los Angeles.Tweet
Being this positive freaks me out a bit, to be honest. What happened to Robert the Theme Park Curmudgeon? Am I getting soft?
No, I don't think so. (Okay, I hope not!) What's happening this year really is just that good.
While Disney's Imagineering team deserves praise for developing World of Color, I want to pay extra attention in this post to Universal Creative, which, in addition to developing Harry Potter and Kong, earlier this year oversaw the debut of Universal Studios Singapore - the company's fifth theme park. (The other four? Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida, Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Japan.)
What Universal Creative's opened this year is simply stunning. Universal used to be known for movie-themed parks that looked like, well, movie studios. The design esthetic imposed by the needs of Universal Studios Hollywood's production facilities led Universal to develop theme parks that looked as much like studio backlots as they did the more immersive themed environments built by Disney.
Universal began to break out of that mold with the opening of Islands of Adventure in 1999. But in 2010, Universal Creative obliterated what was left of it.
In Singapore and in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Creative has designed facades that not only meet the design standards set by Disney's Imagineers, but elevate them.
The Mummy's Tomb in Universal Studios Singapore. Photo courtesy Resorts World Sentosa.
Far, Far Away Castle in Universal Studios Singapore. Photo courtesy Resorts World Sentosa.
Hogwarts Castle at Universal's Islands of Adventure
As I wrote when I visited Universal Studios Singapore in February: "There's no pretense of being a movie studio in this park, freeing Universal Creative's designers from having to dilute thematic environments by exposing them as mere movie or TV sets."
But complete buildings are of little use to theme park fans if they don't house great attractions. Universal's delivered on that standard, as well, with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey winning raves from fans and from website editors, as well. Harry Potter's become the greatest hit in years in the theme park industry, packing fans into Islands of Adventure.
Universal's Singapore park has become a hit as well, with many weekends selling out and demand for tickets remaining high throughout the year.
And while King Kong doesn't boast the immense facade that you'll find in Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade (Kong is just one element in Hollywood's signature Studio Tour), the show breaks new ground as the world's first 360-degree, 3-D movie with coordinated motion effects. We'll soon see its affect on USH attendance, as well.
Credit Mark Woodbury and his team at Universal Creative for these successes. I don't buy into the "Disney vs. Universal" narrative promoted by some other fans I've heard. This isn't a zero-sum gain, with each Universal success creating a Disney failure, and vice versa.
No, I agree with the true insiders within the theme park industry, professionals who know that the best thing for Universal and for Disney is for both companies to be on top of their work, creating engaging new attractions that draw millions of new fans to their theme park markets each year. What's good for Universal is good for Disney, and vice versa.
Universal Creative's had a very good year. That's great news for theme park fans and great news for the entire theme park industry.
Update: I've not yet seen it, but friends suggest that Universal Creative also should get some points for the new indoor roller coaster at Universal Studios Japan: Space Fantasy: The Ride. Anyone care to comment on that?
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