How much longer should Universal stick with Marvel and Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure?
Written by Robert Niles
ORLANDO, Florida - You can win with theming; you can lose with theming.Tweet
A great theme is bringing great success to Universal's Islands of Adventure this summer, as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has welcomed more than one million riders within its first two months of operation, winning this year's Theme Park Insider Award for Best New Attraction, as well. Universal Orlando's scored a huge hit with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is driving attendance gains for the Universal Orlando Resort, even as arch-rival Walt Disney World deals with a year-over-year attendance decrease.
You'd face a tough challenge to name a stronger entertainment theme in 2010 than Harry Potter. This is the franchise that encouraged a generation of your people, derided for a short attention span, to read 800-page books cover-to-cover. The six Harry Potter films have, to date, grossed more than $5 billion worldwide.
But as some themes draw fans to parks, other themes lose traction over time.
On the other side of Islands of Adventure from Harry Potter, you can see this flip side of theming - twice.
Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island continues to draw visitors for its outstanding Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride and Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Marvel's lost no popularity with its millions of fans across the country and around the world. So that's not the problem threatening this land.
The problem is... Marvel's now the property of arch-rival Disney, which last year bought the comic-book publisher and its characters. Universal's retains the rights to keep the Marvel characters in Islands of Adventure, but Disney's got the rights to the characters everywhere else.
And, according to several sources, Universal can't add any new Marvel characters to its land, beyond the ones it's using already. Nor can Marvel incorporate fresh designs and plot elements from new Marvel movies, books or comics. Simply, the land's stagnant, with little legal room for thematic or narrative improvement.
If we've learned anything about the theme park business over the years, it's that you have to stay fresh, renovating and updating attractions to keep them relevant to new generations of visitors. Even Disneyland's classic dark rides, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, have seen multiple changes and upgrades over the years. Creating revisions that work is tough enough without having to run your ideas past legal to make sure that you have the contractual right to do that.
Spider-Man remains one of the world's most engaging theme park attractions - a 4-D dark ride romp through Spidey's New York. But like many other rides developed a decade or more ago that us film technology, it needs an upgrade to high-definition. Today's 3-D shames the 3-D used for Spidey, whose images suffer in comparison to the sharp new Harry Potter images featured in Forbidden Journey.
Universal does have a fresh "2.0" version of its Spider-Man ride in the pipeline, though - but one based on the Transformers franchise, not Spider-Man. That ride will debut in Singapore next year, coming to Universal Studios Hollywood in 2012.
Could Universal bring Transformers to IOA as a replacement for Spider-Man? The Hulk coaster could be rethemed with relative ease, as could the other two rides in Marvel Super Hero Island - the Doctor Doom space shot ride and the Storm Force spinner.
Sure, all that could be done, I anticipate some of you saying, but why would Universal voluntarily surrender the rights to the Marvel characters, especially when they remain so popular?
Here's why: To elicit a multi-million dollar buy-out from Disney, that's why. Think about it: A top-to-bottom refurbishment of Marvel Super Hero Island, to another theme, one that would allow Universal the complete creative control it can't have with Marvel. And paid for by a budget funded entirely (or at least almost so) by the Walt Disney Company.
Tantalizing, isn't it?
A payday from Disney for the Orlando theme park rights to Marvel becomes even more compelling when you consider that Universal will need to renovate not one, but two lands in IOA. Around the bend from Marvel Super Hero Island stand an even more thematically-troubled land, Toon Lagoon.
Toon Lagoon's top two attractions, Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, remain popular with fans. Both enjoy a relatively strong history in television and movies, despite the lack of recent, successful works. But take a look at Toon Lagoon's main drag:
Comic strips. It's all comic strips - a medium that is dying as surely as the daily print newspapers which published these strips. Take a look at the characters in that photo. How many of them enjoy any traction with visitors under 20? Or 30? Or 40? Beetle Bailey? Hagar the Horrible? Shoe? Blondie?
Give me a break.
Theme park attractions can overcome weak or dying source material. Universal's Waterworld show connects with audiences more effectively than the Kevin Coaster flick it's based upon ever did. Disney's revived Brer Rabbit, et al, as characters in its Splash Mountain ride, even as it keeps their original source, Song of the South, buried in the Disney archives, with private promises never to release it again.
But can Universal do anything to revive a gallery of newspaper comic strips that haven't connected with anyone nearly a generation? And even if it could, should it try?
Dudley Do-Right needs some love: Too much of its flume isn't themed, and badly cries for some decor, even within its visually minimalist Jay Ward style. While I love Ward's work and the snarky humor of Dudley (the "Duck Crossing/Double Crossing" gag made me laugh just now, simply thinking about it), I could accept a new theme for this ride if it that's what it took to get Universal to fill in all the ride's empty spaces.
While Universal's done a reasonable job of maintaining the main walkways through Toon Lagoon, some of the areas off the main path need substantial renovation. Too many of the seats and tables in the land's eateries are chipped, scratched or broken. Universal's going to have to refresh this area if it is to protect the reputation that Harry Potter is building for this park.
But why throw good money after bad? Why renovate an area with a dying theme, when you could spend the money to change to a more engaging theme instead?
What would that theme be? That's a challenge for Universal Creative. As a theme park fan and critic, though, simply allow me to suggest that Universals going need to make a change here, because newspaper comic strip characters from generations ago aren't convincing anyone to visit the Universal Orlando Resort.
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