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Interview with Universal Creative's Mark Woodbury: On Harry Potter, King Kong and Transformers

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Published: August 10, 2011 at 11:38 AM

When I was in Orlando, I had a chance to sit down one-on-one with Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury, who talked with me about theme park attraction design, as well as three of the top projects Universal Creative's worked on recently: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, King Kong 360/3D and the upcoming Transformers ride.

Mark Woodbury

Listening to Mark provides theme park fans a delightful opportunity to peek inside one of the minds of the designers who dream up and then make real some of the world's best theme park attractions.

Theme park attractions, obviously, are a different medium than movies, stage or architecture. But creating an attraction prompts designers to draw upon similar skills as creators in other media, Woodbury said.

"From a development standpoint, the process is quite similar. You try to understand the parameters, you try to understand the property, you try to understand what you want the end result to be, and you start to craft the roadmap to get you there."

Designing great theme park attractions requires balancing the various media elements that come together to create a unique experience, he said.

"I look at what story are we trying to tell, what visceral experience are we trying to create, and what immersive experience are we trying to create and how do we bring all of those together so that they are all pointing in the same direction," Woodbury said. "That, to me, is the trickiest part of what we're doing, to get the story and the visceral experience and the immersive experience all to line up.

"You can shoot someone in the air in a roller coaster and that's a great experience - you go upside down and you create some really great Gs and you do all that stuff - but to find the right fit of that visceral experience to a story, or vice versa - a story that you're trying to find the right technology to - that's really a tricky piece of business."

Unfortunately, as a relatively new medium with few new creative works each year, theme park designers don't have a long history or huge repertoire to draw upon for inspiration and guidance.

"I guess we've kind of created our own history, and I don't mean that to sound self-congratulatory," Woodbury said. "We don't spend a lot of time looking around. We look at the evolution of the things that we've done, and in each case we try to create some revolution in what we're doing next.

"What I mean by that is, we started with these big epic prototypical experiences going way back to Jaws and King Kong and employing all kinds of different technology to create big, major immersive experiences," he said. "Each time we do it, we're building on the evolution of the things that we've done before it, and finding in that process what's going to take it to the next level: What's the revolutionary part of the experience we're trying to create?"

"In the brainstorming process, if you're really good at it, it's a very open forum and ideas are thrown about like nobody's business. And the crazier, the better. Occasionally, someone will throw out an idea and it'll just silence the crowd for a moment, and everyone will be like, 'Wait a minute. That's not just an idea. That's genius.' That happens quite often in the process, and it's this volleying back and forth of ideas coming from all different directions, and some totally irrelevant to the topic we're on. If the process is working really well, even the craziest ideas become a stepping-stone to build on."

"That happens by creating an open forum and a body of talent that is really important to that process. When we do it, it's not just a bunch of Creative folks sitting around. We have creative folks, we have engineering, we have project managers, who knows? We'll even have people from our legal team, our marketing team - a lot of people will participate in some of those early brainstorming ideas. And it's really great to see where some of the best ideas come from. They may come from the least expected person in the room. When your finance guy throws in a really great idea, or your lawyer, and you're like, 'Darn it, why didn't I think of that?'"

On Harry Potter

"Potter was one of the best examples of trying to find a way in which we could really bring the iconic fiction to life. How are you going to fly with Harry Potter? When we started thinking about Forbidden Journey, that was one of the big things we thought about. What technology would be employed that would give us the variety of experience we wanted to create in one single ride?"

"Before Potter was a seven-book, eight-film franchise, we already knew that it was going to be a great theme park. That was after just the first book. On one hand, you'd like to know that you have this proven franchise, with tremendous box office results, but in the case of Potter that really wasn't it. We knew it had the makings of a great theme park experience because of the characters, because of the action, because of the magical places that Jo Rowling created."

"Oftentimes you go down a path technologically to tell a story and you get to a point when they're not quite lining up. You might have this really cool visceral experience and you might have this really cool story, but they're not necessarily building on each other. And there comes a moment in time when you have to make some hard decisions."

"There was some of that on Forbidden Journey. When we were doing Forbidden Journey, we knew that the technology we were going to use to tell the story was the right technology, but there's nuance to that, there's subsets to the technological challenge, part of that has to do with dispatching and all that stuff. Because we were using a really small, four-passenger vehicle, we're dispatching very quickly, but we wanted to make sure that we had an individual experience. We didn't want to see a lot of the vehicles going around. At the same time, we wanted to spend a lot of time with the characters.

"So we had to find a way - and this was a revelation way later in the process than we would have liked (laughs) - but we came to a point in time where we were not spending enough time with the characters, and we knew how important that was to the experience and to the storytelling. So we abandoned the direction we were going and created a new direction."

"We were struggling and struggling with how we can to solve this problem and the more we worked on it, the more evident the problem became - that we kept coming up to the same wall. Finally, somebody broke through and said, 'What if we do this?' We pretty much dropped everything we were doing and built a mock-up to see if we could pull off the interface of this vehicle and those media moments. And the reason to do that was to get more time on screen, more time with the vehicle and the characters together in order to really bring the story to life and give you the opportunity to fly alongside Harry and Ron and do all that stuff. Figuring out how to create that interface happened way later in the process - it was a totally different ride experience before, and then we hit that, and we were like, 'That's it.'"

On King Kong

"We did a great King Kong attraction in California. There was a case where we had an opportunity - it was by virtue of a disaster that the opportunity arose - but it clearly was a moment in time when we thought, 'Gee, Kong is gone, what are we going to replace it with?' And that moment lasted, in my mind, about 10 seconds. I was, 'We gotta bring Kong back.' What better thing to do than to bring Kong back from the ashes of a historic attraction and create an opportunity to really bring it back in a completely different way? Then it gets into, 'How are we going to go about that?' Certainly, the only way to go about it in that case was to collaborate with Peter Jackson. It's kind of an interesting process, how that all comes together, and it's different every time we do it."

So will we see Kong in another Universal theme park?

"Of course, one of the first things we thought [afterward] of was 'where else can we do that?' Because of the uniqueness of that site [on the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour], there are not a lot of places you can take that particular experience. What you can take away from that experience, though, is this really wonderful fully immersive, multi-dimensional [technology] that Kong created."

"What was a revolution is now part of our evolution, and we can continue to build upon it, because it really was a stunning experience when you are fully surrounded by 3D and that whole world comes to life in a totally different level of immersion."

On Transformers

"We're doing this really spectacular Transformers attraction right now [under construction in Hollywood and in Singapore]. And there were a couple of [breakthrough problem-solving] moments there. We have a very limited piece of real estate and we wanted to tell a really big story, so we devised a way that we would be able to create a vertical experience.

"The adversity was that we didn't have enough real estate. The idea that we could go vertical created an opportunity to create a media silo, a 60-foot-high silo that we would really be able to explore the full scale of the characters. So we solved the technical problem of real estate by creating a double-decker, or two-story, attraction."

"The technical problem leads to creative challenge, because here we have a 28-foot robot and how are we going to get this guy to unfold in a single-story space? Well, we created a volume of space that enabled us to do that as well as solve the technical problem of the real estate."

"We had tight real estate in Hollywood and we had tight real estate in Singapore, so the solution was beneficial in both locations, and it's exactly the same building [in both theme parks]."

Woodbury said that Transformers is on schedule to open later this year in Singapore and in 2012 in Hollywood.

Readers' Opinions

From Diana Vick on August 10, 2011 at 12:07 PM
While I think that the Harry Potter area is fantastic, although it really needed more space, I absolutely hate the ride. It utterly fails to tell a story and that is it's biggest problem. It is chaotic and incomprehensible. Considering how well Universal has done so many other things, I was shocked at how bad that ride is. It makes me sick to my stomach and does not entertain me in the least. I am so disappointed.
From 209.203.77.11 on August 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM
I'd have to say that the biggest let down for me was The Mummy... despite it having a smooth ride on the track, the abrupt stops make it a pain for some people. The "spirits" that are revealed while going in reverse aren't A+ quality... more like something you'd see in a City/ State Fair. Not to mention, Hollywood's version is missing the faux loading station.

And to top it off, the ending is extremely anti-climactic regardless if it's your first time riding or fifteenth. So disappointed in that ride.

From Brandon Mendoza on August 10, 2011 at 3:08 PM
Oops... forgot to log in! The Mummy is my biggest disappointment. I have yet to visit since the addition of King Kong 3D. I'm torn about Transformers as I dislike the movies, but the ideas are very cool. I hope it's like how the Water World movie is terrible, but the attraction is fantastic!
From Caroline Davis on August 10, 2011 at 4:06 PM
Meh, I've never understood the amount of love Revenge of the Mummy has. It's a half-assed roller coaster and a half-assed dark ride. Not a combination of the best parts of the two, like some people say it is. I think it was the biggest disappointment when I went to Orlando last year.

I've only ridden Forbidden Journey once (add it as number one to a list of regrets in my life) and IMHO the amount of detail is the great thing about it. It really just overloads the senses. In this day and age what else is capable of doing that? I am a huge fan of the Potter series though, so maybe I'm glorifying the ride.

From Jeffrey H on August 10, 2011 at 6:53 PM
Thank you Mark Woodbury (and Thierry Coup) and all the other awesome people at Universal Creative that bring us immersive, thrilling rides using the latest technology! Ignore the trolls. They can go sit on Omni-Mover rides all day. Meanwhile, I'll go enjoy another round on Revenge of the Mummy and Forbidden Journey.
From Anthony Murphy on August 10, 2011 at 7:59 PM
Great Interview! This is a BIG find!
From Anthony J on August 10, 2011 at 8:19 PM
Great interview, Robert! I'd love to the pick the brains of lots of Universal Creative. Now, where did I miss the question asking "So, what Universal attraction are you most disappointed by?" lol

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is fantastic and that only excites me even more about Transformers. Keep pushing the limits, Universal.

From m johnson on August 10, 2011 at 9:08 PM
Robert where is the one question I wanted to hear. When is Harry coming to the west coast.
From Brandon Mendoza on August 10, 2011 at 9:27 PM
Well considering Mr. Woodbury said "You can shoot someone in the air in a roller coaster and that's a great experience - you go upside down and you create some really great Gs and you do all that stuff - but to find the right fit of that visceral experience to a story, or vice versa - a story that you're trying to find the right technology to - that's really a tricky piece of business."

That opens things up for us to say "Well, The Mummy and Incredible Hulk just do that... bad attempt at a story"

From Caroline Davis on August 11, 2011 at 5:41 AM
I'm trying to picture the Transformers attraction, what do they mean by a 'silo'? A 28-ft robot sounds pretty impressive, even if I don't like the franchise.
From Robert Niles on August 11, 2011 at 6:44 AM
Let's remember that Mark is an executive, as well as a designer. You've got to read between the lines to find anything negative about a Universal attraction. He won't explicitly criticize his own stuff on the record.

Reading in between the lines of his comments about visceral experiences and story working together, I think it is clear that he's more proud of rides like Potter than, oh, say, Rip, Ride, Rockit.

And I did ask about Potter coming to other theme parks, and he declined to answer the question. Universal's PR rep would say only that SEC documents state Universal has in its contract with Warner Bros and Rowling an opportunity to expand its use of Potter. Again, reading between the lines of what Mark said, Universal Creative has thought a lot about doing more with Potter - but UC people blue sky a lot of things, too.

As for a media silo, the best example of a vertical media silo I can think of is the vertical lift on Journey to Atlantis at SeaWorld San Diego. As your boat goes straight up that elevator shaft, images of dolphins are seen on the silo walls around you. That's not exactly what Mark's talking about for Transformers, but it's an example of what you can do with media in a vertical environment.

FWIW, I'm kicking myself for not moving the interview along faster so that I could have asked about Madagascar in Singapore, and what went wrong there to hold up that ride for a year. But I am working on scheduling an interview with Thierry Coup at some point, so I will be talking more with the people at Universal Creative for the site.

Which brings up the question: Who else would like me to interview for Theme Park Insider? I welcome suggestions!

From 74.174.234.2 on August 11, 2011 at 8:12 AM
This is a really nice article. Did Mark hint at upcoming attractions for Universal's U.S. parks -- other than the Transformers ride at Universal Studios Hollywood? There have been rumors mentioned at other prominent theme park web sites that Universal is planning to expand Harry Potter land at Islands of Adventure, taking over the rest of the Lost Continent section. Any hints from Mark about this or other new rides or shows?

Also, to offer a suggestion for other theme park people to interview, it would be great if you could do an article about the folks who work at Sea World Parks & Entertainment (or whatever the former Busch Creative people call themselves these days). They're on a bit of a creative roll, these days, with the well-received Cheetah Hunt coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa. In the pipeline: A mystery project at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in 2012, rumored to be a highly-themed coaster with a German Autobahn motif. And, further down the road, a highly themed dark ride at Sea World Orlando.

- Brian

From Melissa Donahue on August 11, 2011 at 8:27 AM
Robert - How about interviewing Cedar Fair's new president and soon-to-be chief executive, Matt Oiumet, after he's had some time to settle into his new position? I'd love to know what he has in store for this amusement park chain.

Nice job with Mark's interview, by the way!

From 75.31.187.82 on August 11, 2011 at 9:09 AM
Universal Creative has been on a roll lately. HP and the Forbidden Journey was absolutely wonderful and worth the wait and hype. Waited 9 hours to experience that ride on opening day and it was worth it, I can't wait to get on it again. King Kong 360: 3-D was beyond my expectations. It's just so much fun. Thats the reason why I'm super excited for Transformers, and anticipating it more than any other ride that has opened.
From Dominick D on August 11, 2011 at 10:08 AM
You should have asked about Despicable Me. Im aching for details now the one of my favorite rides closes in 7 days. RIP Jimmy Neutrons nicktoon Black. :'(
From Brandon Mendoza on August 11, 2011 at 10:33 AM
Just hearing that there will be a 28 foot robot in the building is mind blowing! Considering how Sea World's Atlantis has that silo (which unfortunately is starting to show its age due to wear and tear and lack of maintenance), the effect is very startling and will put a smile on your face if it's the first time you experience it!

Maybe the next interview can be with the person who decides on what new coaster gets introduced in a Six Flags Park? Or maybe who decides on the merch available in a park and why they decide on certain things? I'm not sure how much you'd get out of the Disney ones, but it'd be interesting to see how Universal handles souvenirs versus Sea World.

From Manny Barron on August 11, 2011 at 2:07 PM
Universal rocks. Great interview and looking forward to the Transformers ride.
From Robert Niles on August 11, 2011 at 2:28 PM
I only had half an hour, and obviously, Mark's not just going to volunteer spoilers on every new ride they've got going. But I was excited to hear some of those details about Transformers. Couple that with the leaked queue and attraction art we have (click the Singapore link), I we're beginning to get a sense of what the ride might be like. It's not simply a Spider-Man clone.
From N B on August 12, 2011 at 2:25 AM
Wow, I don't get the cofusion over the Forbidden Journey.... You are on an enchanted bench traviling via Floo Powder all over Hogwarts and through the Forbidden Forest... I understood the story the first time I rode it.

The Mummy is a bit rough, but a really fun ride. I guess having children and sharing the ride with them is different. My youngest daughter loves the Mummy, so I took just her to Unversal while mom and my oldest went back to the hotel for a swim and food at the Beach bar.

We rode it six times in a row (thanks Express Pass) and she still couldn't get enough.... she knows every line by heart. I think some people are never happy or just like to complain about everything. FJ is one of the most advanced rides in the world with the best queue theming I have ever seen.

I thought it was amazing...

From Adam Dodds on August 12, 2011 at 8:37 PM
I agree that the story behind the Forbidden Journey is spotty at best. Die hard fans of HP will tell you why. Why are the main characters away from teh Quiditch match? Why are we Muggles there, and why are we sneaking out of a lecture? What are the odds that dementors, a dragon, the giant spiders and a quiditch match happening at the same time? Why is this journey so forbidden?

My main complaint is that half the ride feels like nothing more that a simulator. All those video segments are lack luster, especially the way Spider-Man videos segments blend in with physical scenery and effects.

The dementors look like balloons covered in fabric. They don't suck anyone's souls anymore.

Did I mention that most of the ride seems like a simulator?

From Sylvain Comeau on August 15, 2011 at 2:41 PM
I'll never understand this fixation on story in theme park attractions. The "story" is just a loose framework for various ride experiences. The experience is what it's all about, because rides are too short for a strong, coherent story, and immersive theming lends itself far more to visceral responses.

The story in Forbidden Journey or Mummy take a back seat to the experience, which is to their credit. It shows that Universal has their priorities straight.

From Doug Jenkins on August 15, 2011 at 5:21 PM
Any news on a Transformers ride coming to Orlando Universal?

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