That's how a tours of places such as a brewery or a chocolate factory turned into the Heineken Experience and Hershey's Chocolate World. These aren't passive walks through droning factories. They're attractions where people are invited to interact with the history and mission of a business through engaging displays, before embarking on some sort of journey — a main attraction, if you will, that's often an enhanced theater experience or ride, or both.
The designers who create these experiences take the lessons of theme park attractions, from museums and from past factory tours and apply them to creating a new form of themed entertainment that educates, entertains and engages. (At least, that's the goal. As is the case in many creative businesses, the quality of each installation varies, of course. Usually — but not always — in proportion to the project's budget.)
With Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, Universal brings this trend full circle, returning a branded experience to its theme park roots. And I think that's the way that fans should look at Universal Studios Florida's new Tonight Show themed attraction. It's not so much a traditional theme park screen ride as it is a branded experience for one of the most enduring brands of Universal's corporate sibling, NBC — The Tonight Show.
In a preview this morning for invited reporters, Creative Director Jason Surrell talked about how the attraction came to be, and described how Race Through New York provides a unique experience for theme park fans.
Once it opens officially on April 6, Race Through New York will use Universal's new Virtual Line system exclusively, requiring visitors to reserve return times via the resort's app or at kiosks next to the attraction's entrance. Once it's time to enter, visitors will walk into a recreation of NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza home. Team members are dressed as NBC pages, a costume that will be familiar to fans of Kenneth on NBC's 30 Rock.
By placing one of New York's most iconic buildings in the New York section of the park, Universal fixes one of the big problem created by Race's predecessor, Twister: Ride It Out. New York gets tornadoes about as often as Oklahoma gets hurricanes. But 30 Rock fits in this land.
Inside the building, fans can wander through an impressive black-stone lobby, admiring the collection of Tonight Show history displayed in windows devoted to each of the late-night talk show's six hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, and Jimmy Fallon.
Fans are given a color-coded card upon entry, and when the room's accent lighting changes to your card's color of the NBC Peacock rainbow, it's your turn to head upstairs to the Studio 6B Lounge.
A cynic might think this the second pre-show waiting area, but Studio 6B provided as much entertainment as some theme park attractions do in their entirety. You'll find Hashtag the Panda, working the room and posing for selfies.
Like one of Jimmy's guests on the show, you can sit on one of the many available couches. Unlike the guests on the show, though, you can charge your cell phone using one of the plugs or USB ports provided on the couches, too.
Okay, I'm assuming that Tonight Show guests aren't charging up while being interviewed. Never been in that position, so I can't tell for sure. ;^)
The tables in front of the couches are interactive, allowing you to browse the Tonight Show website, write some Fallon-style thank you notes, or play a collection of 8-bit video games. But the highlight in the room (sorry, Hashtag), is the stage at the end of the hall, where the Ragtime Girls perform.
If you're not familiar with this bit, it's a barbershop quintet that puts a ragtime spin on modern hits, often featuring lyrics that will never, ever emerge from the mouths of Disney's Dapper Dans.
This isn't a screen. These are singers performing live in an intimate setting, creating a unique experience for theme park fans. The idea isn't just to suggest or remind you of watching The Tonight Show — it's to make that experience come alive and connect you with it, in a real space.
Then it's time for what in a traditional theme park experience would be the main attraction — the race. (Now entering spoiler territory!) For this, Universal has installed two, twin flying theater attractions, each seating 72 people. Instead of racing one of the Hemsworth brothers, Jimmy's racing the audience this time, and the race isn't staying contained to the hallways around Studio 6B.
Sure enough, you break through the walls of 30 Rock and are racing Jimmy's "Tonight Rider" vehicle through Times Square, into the New York subway and past the Empire State Building, with a stop for a New York slice of pizza along the way.
Watch closely for the Easter eggs, including Travis Bickle driving the cab that crashes into Jimmy ("you talkin' to me?"), Fallon's wife and kids standing outside the pizza joint, and Tonight Show announcer Steve Higgins conducting a subway train.
Longtime Universal Studios Florida fans might also appreciate the appearance of a certain great white shark when the race takes a detour through the East River. And the theme park references continue as Hashtag gets its turn as Kong atop the Empire State building, where he flings Jimmy and us straight to the moon.
That detour allows Universal Creative to employ a few more visual gags, including a weightless Jimmy Fallon and a roller coaster ride back to Earth. It's a fun trip, with sharp 3D graphics in the ride film, rendered by Industrial Light and Magic. I didn't feel like the theater moved all that much — there's enough rocking to provide a gentle thrill, if that's a thing. Kids must be 40 inches to ride with a parent or 48 inches to ride alone.
Here's a brief highlight reel of on-ride footage, courtesy Universal:
Of course, none of this is in New York — the natural home for this type of branded experience, as that's where The Tonight Show tapes. It's at the Universal Orlando Resort, where many of the visitors might not be Tonight Show fans. So with this placement, Race Through New York shifts from brand experience to brand evangelism — an opportunity for NBCUniversal to employ that good-ole corporate synergy to maybe entice some Universal Orlando visitors to tune into Jimmy when they get back home.
But whether you care about Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, or NBC's ratings, or not, you can enjoy the impressive decoration of Universal's faux 30 Rock, the meet and greet with Hashtag, the live musical performance... and the fun 3D romp around New York.
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