Don't dismiss Universal's new, interdisciplinary take on theme park rides
ORLANDO — Okay, let me make sure that I've got this logic right...
Cedar Point has built a lot of roller coasters, so it should stop making roller coasters and build other rides, to keep fans happy.
Disney has made a lot of animated movies, so it should stop making animated films and develop only live-action family movies, to keep fans happy.
Legoland has built a lot of attractions that look like Lego bricks, so it should use other surface decorations on their new attractions, to keep fans happy.
Dollywood has a lot of musical shows, so it should it should stop using music in its new live performances, to keep fans happy.
Universal has developed a lot of screen-based attractions, so it should stop developing new rides that use screens and build nothing but animatronic dark rides, to keep fans happy.
Am I getting this right?
Okay, I'm trolling hard here, but I just don't get the this standard that some fans seem to be applying to Universal for its theme park attractions.
Universal uses a lot of IP that relies on actors — real human beings whose instantly recognizable faces cannot be convincingly recreated in animatronic form. (Just take a visit to the uncanny valley of Disney's Hall of Presidents creepshow to see how badly some familiar faces look in animatronic form. Sorry, but that is not Barack Obama.) Unless Universal wants to throw many millions of dollars into animatronic R&D in an attempt to beat Disney at its own game and develop mechanical faces that look and react exactly like Daniel Radcliffe, Helena Bonham Carter, Vin Diesel, and Jimmy Fallon, then it's going to need to use screens to bring these people into Universal's theme park attractions in a convincing way.
Because of Universal's reliance on live-action, actor-driven IP, Universal's theme parks necessarily are going to include a higher percentage of screen experiences than any other parks in the industry. The only way to avoid that is to create experiences such as Men in Black Alien Attack, where the lead actors are either marginalized onto supplemental screens (Will Smith) or eliminated entirely (Tommy Lee Jones). Universal can pull that off every once in a while, but it needs to deliver that stars that define its IP franchises on a consistent basis to please their fans. That means screens.
What about Gru and the Minions? Those are animated characters. Couldn't Universal have created an animatronic ride for them? Yeah, I'll give the haters that one. But let's remember that Despicable Me Minion Mayhem was one of the last major new attractions that Universal developed before its Harry Potter windfall allowed the company to buy out Blackstone Group, take full ownership of the Universal Orlando Resort, and escalate the budgets for its new attractions. Minion Mayhem was budgeted as a reskin of the old Jimmy Neutron ride, which itself was a reskin of the original Hanna-Barbera attraction. (Google it, kids. And join me later in the bottom of that rabbit hole. "Grape Ape!")
Fans loved the Minion Mayhem ride film and Universal made a sound business decision to dupe it in Hollywood and Japan. If Disney fans want to give Universal a hard time for passing on developing an original idea merely to dupe a cheaper, existing concept from its park on the other coast, I would invite them to Google "Pirates of the Caribbean" "Western River Expedition" before proceeding.
To Universal's credit, it's vastly improved the setting for Minion Mayhem with each installation, creating a Super Silly Fun Land (with spinners and playgrounds — no screens!) in Hollywood and an even bigger Minion Park coming to Japan this year. But, yeah, I'd love to see Universal create an animatronic-driven Minion dark ride experience some day.
All right, let's move down the list. Wanna talk about Transformers? Until I hear a solid refutation, I will go to my grave believing that Universal had no intention of bringing Transformers to Orlando, relenting only when it appeared that it might need to close Spider-Man in a deal to trade the Marvel theme park rights to Disney as part of a major financial transaction that would have released Steven Spielberg from Dreamworks (which has a distribution deal with Disney) so that he could return to Universal. But Spielberg elected to stay with Dreamworks, scuttling the negotiations. Ever wonder why Universal was in such a pants-on-fire rush to get that ride built? It didn't want to be caught for any length of time without a replacement for its all-time highest-rated attraction, so it rushed plans to dupe the Transformers ride from Singapore and Hollywood. Maybe I'm wrong here. But I'd love to hear a more convincing explanation for why Universal pulled the idea to build Transformers in Orlando out of nowhere and put it into the park in mere months. (Leak to me, people. You know where to find me.)
What about Kong? More screens there! Let's look at the unusual context around the creation of that experience, too. When a backlot fire at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008 destroyed the Kong Encounter on the Studio Tour, Universal knew it needed a replacement. With Peter Jackson having directed a reboot of Kong for Universal in 2005, the park chose to turn to Jackson to help develop a new Kong encounter, based on his film. At that point, every encounter on the Studio Tour was practical, which actually made little sense given how much of filmmaking in the 21st century is digitally-based. Adding a digital encounter on the tour helped alleviate a deficiency on the attraction.
So when Universal decided to return Kong to Orlando, it had a wildly popular attraction from California to offer. But instead of simply duping King Kong: 360/3D, Universal plussed it. It encased the Hollywood Kong encounter in richly decorated new practical setting, added an extra video scene, then installed an animatronic and live actors in the queue, and finished the ride with a massive new Kong animatronic for its finale.
But the haters ignored the animatronics and the actors and grunted, "no more screens!"
We didn't know it yet, but Kong established a template that Universal followed this year with Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon. That attraction features another screen-based ride, with a flying theater, but it also includes a richly decorated setting, a character meet and greet, and a live musical performance.
I know that Universal's critics simply want to see a more diverse mix of attraction experiences across the park, including animatronics, coasters, dark rides, water rides, live shows, and, yes, even screens. I do, too. But instead of balancing its overall portfolio by building no-screen rides exclusively for a while, Universal is blazing a new path toward creating that balance.
With Kong and now Fallon, Universal is creating a diversity of experiences within each of its new attractions. They're not just screen rides. They're hybrids that employ screens, live performances, and for Kong, animatronics, on top of different ride platforms in either case. Kong and Fallon advance a model expands the definition of a theme park attraction beyond "a queue and a thing." They can involve multiple narrative elements — live, filmed, and mechanical — that launch from the moment you enter, not when you reach the load platform or pre-show area.
If this is the new model at Universal, balance will arrive soon enough. (Heck, rip out Shrek and Minion Mayhem in Orlando in favor of that animatronic Minion dark ride of my dreams, and the resort would be there right then.) So please excuse me for sitting out the "no more screens at Universal!" furor. I think what Universal is doing with its theme park attractions is fascinating, not lamentable.
I haven't been to Orlando, so I can only speak for Hollywood, where I was employed once upon a time in the days of the ET ride and the Star Trek guest participation show. I hadn't been back for about 20 years. When I finally did get the chance to experience the park again, I found that while I liked the newer technology and the motion simulators, I did wish for something, ANYTHING, that didn't jerk me around so much. Even the tram tour made me feel like a martini. Maybe it's my age talking, but a nice, calm Small World or Haunted Mansion type ride would be very welcome.
"I know that Universal's critics simply want to see a more diverse mix of attraction experiences across the park, including animatronics, coasters, dark rides, water rides, live shows, and, yes, even screens."
People often forget other AA heavy attractions Universal has made, unfortunately overseas: Speghetti space Chase and Madagascar adventure, and the now extinct ET. So it is frustrating for fans like me to know that Universal can create great Fantasyland style dark rides but take the easier and cheaper 3D route. I actually don't mind screens, it's more the 3D that I get really tired of. It was awesome in the 80s when it was novel but now after 1 or 2 3D rides I'm ready to experience something real. It was no surprise to me that VR failed in its launch this year. People will always prefer the real thing. Forbidden Journey and Hogwarts are 2 of the most complete and immersive attractions I've ever experienced. They are a perfect balance to me of screens when needed and real effects when possible.
"Yeah, I'll give the haters that one."
Robert... From my perspective, you are preaching to the choir on this issue !! I love, love, love roller coasters and will visit the local Six Flags park (GA) for my cheap and local coaster fix. Or even go up to Charlotte to ride Fury 325. But Universal Orlando resort offers me something much more important. A chance to enjoy these rides with my wife and 7 yr old grandson. My wife has had 4 back surgeries in the past 10 years and a fear of heights that keeps her off coasters. But she loves riding almost everything at Universal (Even Mummy, go figure). My Grandson loves coasters too, but has not reached the all-important 54 inch height. Being a typical 7 year old, he loves superheroes and Transformers. When we took him on the Transformers and Spider Man rides last Nov, he thought it was the coolest thing ever !! And... I don't recall him saying anything negative about the screens.
I heard Transformers was rushed because an unexpected tax windfall due to HP. In other words with the cash, use it or lose it. So they made the (literally) last day decision to add it. (Also, although the ride vehicles are similar, the building is not so if it was to replace SpiderMan, that building would have had to have been demolished.)
I think a unique ride experience will always beat a similar one, even if it is very well done. I enjoyed older Universal attractions that varied (Twister, Backdraft, Jaw, BTTF) more because each had their own gimmick.
Most of the arguments in Robert's post simply fail to hold water. For example: you talk about Disney's animated movies, and that is completely beside the point. The comparison is between theme parks, and Disney offers far more variety of experiences in their parks.
Forbidden journey has the perfect mix of screens and practical effects for me, and set expectations. Sitting in front of one screen isn't enough now and people will soon be sick of the Tonight show museum etc after multiple rides.
At least in my opinion, screens are not the issue. The problem is that a number of attractions within the park essentially provide the same ride experience, just with a different IP. Sure, Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks are full of roller coasters, but each one offers different elements and different riding sensations to guests. Disney's dark rides all contain unique settings and individual tricks to create immersive environments...not everything is a room of singing animatronics. Meanwhile, what is the difference between Simpsons Ride and Despicable Me? Unless you look deep at the technical specifications, primarily aesthetics. Even though there is more to other rides, it is hard to disguise when riders are simply sitting and watching a movie. If too many rides do this, it will get old over the course of a day.
Bravo, Robert! As a designer of attractions that use both screens and animatronics (Creative Director for Sally Corp here), I can appreciate what each brings to the guest experience. Screens give designers freedoms that robots don't...namely freedom of movement and depth. At the same time, robots come with their own advantages...being able to "touch" the audience in a way screens just can't. They are just tools in a toolbox though. It all comes down to good design. The best rides will make guests forget the technology behind the magic and just have fun.
I laughed when I read Robert's first few paragraphs of this post! He makes a lot of sense and honesty this should go for more than just the screen debate. The constant one side is right and the other is wrong and if you disagree you are lame and you don't matter (not always said this nicely) is tiresome.
The thing is I like Disney cartoons, CP rollercoasters, Legoland Lego, so more is fine if they keep the quality high. But I don't like screen based rides (with only a few rare exceptions such as Soarin' or Impressions of France). I not only don't want additional screen rides, I actually prefer none. Kong looks great with the vehicles, queue, show building, etc., but the screen action sucks bigly. Minions should be a dark ride, not a screen. Transformers and Spiderman suck as well with the screens. I don't feel a part of the action or narrative at all on those rides, and the 3D just makes it even worse. If Universal continues with the screens, they'll find themselves in the same position as Sea World with declining attendance because they're not giving the audience what it wants and doubling down on what it doesn't want.
To most points, I agree Robert. I rarely tire of the same thing which is odd. If the movie is entertaining, I don't mind watching several of them. An entire park of simulators might even be a stretch for me, but that's not the case.
Amen to the article. People are getting to sensitive today or maybe they just need a quiet space? Try finding a quiet space in a theme park. There is good points to all major theme parks. Universal has hit a home run with its immersion with Harry Potter and ran with it. With its interactive wands doing real effects (no screens), live shows (no screens), costumed employees (no screens), merchandise (no screens), and rides (some screens), a tram that moves you from point a to point b, and restaurants (no screens, that would be unpleasant). Immersion is the name of the game at Universal not just the screens. I rode the simpsons ride when it was just a ride and I thought it was ok. I really wanted to try those fake carnival games that they had on the facade of the ride. Now at Universal they have created a whole area of Simpsons where I can eat, drink, and walk through Springfield. The whole immersion aspect makes the ride seem better then it was now to me. Maybe it was just the Duff beer but I enjoyed the new entire simpsons experience.
What if Cedar Point built nothing but woodies. Would I expect them to build something else?
The real question, and the one that should drive theme park management from the top executive down to the people operating the attractions, is whether everything is fun. Bottom line, Universal Orlando is fun. Currently, it is more fun than Disney. There are many reasons for this. Now, for somebody that gets motion sickness from simulators, maybe Disney is a better alternative. Having several relatives with that particular affliction, probably theme parks aren't the best place for them in the first place. Universal does have a few dead spots. ET is desperate for a renovation. Jurassic Park needs to spruce up its dinosaurs. The food is nowhere near the quality of Disney, and the parks need to stay open later, but I will take wonderfully fun attractions with reasonable wait times any day of the week.
Personally, my main gripe with the overuse of screens at Universal is they're brutal on anyone (like myself) who gets motion sickness. I can't go on a significant portion of their attractions because they make me nauseous, and I'm sure I'm not the only one with this issue. They desperately need a wider variety of rides.
Bravo, Robert! This.
I agree for the most part but does every ride need to spit water at you at some point?? Drawing the line there people!!
A lot of the people criticizing Universal's superfluous use of screens are Disney fanatics. Then again, certain people just love to complain about ANYTHING.
A HUGE thank you Robert for this great article. I 100% agree with you and I love Universal for all the great things they've done. They are a movie based theme park and not having screens is not an option!!! I love the practical sets too but I have never thought they had to many screens and if you hate screens that much then don't go to Universal. The comparison with Cedar Point is great. When I want to go on roller coasters I go to Six Flags or Cedar Point so keep building them. When I want to escape and have a great time forgetting about the outside world I go to Universal. I really don't care if all their future rides have screens as long as they are fun and entertaining.
Still a fan- Keep quiet. Robert- A very well written and thought out article. Well done.
This is an excellent article. Robert managed to pull a lot of opinions and factual bread crumbs and make a logical argument that makes sense. Why would Universal do it different? Universal isn't Disney. Actually, they are better in some respects and worse in others.
Thanks Robert for calling this out.
Granted I'm growing bit weary of the screens myself, but I give Universal major credit for adding attractions. I still love and miss the "innocence" of what Disney used to be. But, as I've said before, going to Disney has become way too complicated.
I'll stay out of the argument 'cause I like all types of rides... though I will say that I wish Universal used a LITTLE less 3D simply because I hate wearing 3D glasses over my REGULAR glasses. That being said, I love the new Kong :-)
It boggles my mind how people make the jump from Universal Studios is based on movies therefore, their attractions must also be movies?? Did these people never visit Universal Studios before 1991 when they opened their first simulator ride? They do realize Universal studios existed 27 years prior sans screen based attractions or simulators???
Bravo, Robert! Like anything else in this world, not every theme park is going to appeal to every fan. The beautiful thing is, if you don't like it, you don't have to go! I had a lot of other thoughts running around my head, but I think that sums it up. Attendance numbers indicate that plenty of theme/amusement parks around the country/world are appealing to plenty of fans. If you don't like one, find one that suits you better. (And all of us here in the comments will save money on blood pressure medication.)
Can't wait for the Avatar boat ride as I love Mexicos boat ride and the Land boat ride , it's a small world boat ride, Pirates Boat ride and was so happy when Frozen was a boat ride as well :).
I AGREE WITH YOU
I am a broken record on this point, but since it is now the debate is which is more fun, Disney or Universal, for my family it has nothing to do with simulators or practical effects. It is that Disney has a massively broken line reservation system and going there simply is no longer fun because of it. By the way, is this MaxPass system possibly going to be an upcharge where in addition to photos you can get extra fast passes for a price? I know it would cause an uproar, but they have to do something or I just won't go back. I love Star Wars. Much more than Harry Potter, but I can ride the Forbidden Journey six or seven times a day even when it is most crowded. If I can only ride a Star Wars attraction twice a day during moderate times, I think I will explode.
Wow, the Universal astroturfers and shills certainly came out in force!
Tony, I am a Disney nut. I can name every person that designed the Haunted Mansion and can negotiate MK blindfolded. EPCOT is a pure joy to me and may be my favorite place on earth. I just cannot fail to voice my opinions about the changes that has caused our enjoyment to suffer. The thing is, I think they can get back on track. They had issues with some box office flops, now they are printing money, so they are capable of changing things.
A Spielberg deal, as escribed by the blogger, was NEVER on the table.
Thank you for the history lesson, Daniel. Yes, I believe THESE people know or at least understand the history of Universal. The clarification is appreciated. It's a shame they decided to evolve with technology and develop their own claim to fame within the theme park world. And succeed quite well in the process. That is truly mind boggling!
I actually LOVE the screen rides. I think they stay truer to the "Ride the movies" theme, that Universal originated. There is a vocal minority out there that thinks every ride needs to be a roller coaster or animatronic, but the majority seem to like them, as Universals attendance is at an all time high.
It's great to read everyone's pro-screen based attractions comments.
Barry, that's how you counter my arguments, by saying I should just shut up? That's pretty feeble minded, isn't it?
This seems like an apologist article for Universal to be honest. Very biased. I love Universal and Disney, Always have. I have zero problems with any of the screen based rides although I havent seen Kong yet and believe Fallon is going to have little if any re-ridability. But this article is reaching very very far in its analogies. I love most of your articles but this one stands out in the wrong way for me.
I really like this piece, my only gripe is that Kong sucks. The ride is anti-climatic... I have owned annual passes for 5 years now, despite living out of state, so I'm a die-hard Universal fan... but that Kong ride was trash, when it ended I was left wondering how that was the end of the ride. One quick fight scene and it's over. The ride makes you feel like something bigger is coming, but never actually happens. That's why I dislike Kong, idc about the screens.
I did a little simple math, and the number one park in central Florida for highest percentage of attractions using primarily movie screens or motion simulators is - Epcot!
I think Universal is smart to use screens because they are easier to keep working on the most popular rides. Rides are ruined when a robot breaks or half works like the first dinosaur on Jurassic Park or the one that bumps you off course not coming up or the Trex not moving.
Bottom line: Universal has been given us the same old thing for a long time now. It has nothing to do with Epcot. Universal has just two parks, and way too many rides dominated by screens. To me, one of the great things about theme parks is the vast variety of experiences you can enjoy in them. So it is alarming when Universal seems to be going in the direction of turning their parks into giant 3D multiplexes, with moving seats instead of stationary ones.
126.96.36.199 and Tim Hillman are spot on. Tim, thanks for the maths as well -- very interesting.
"Still a fan" nailed it 100%, rebutted Robert, and won the thread.
I want to thank Tony Perkins for naming a winner of the thread .... that's what we all have been waiting for. Thanks Tony Perkins.
Tony, you are so much a Disney fanboy it's hilarious! Here's your "unbiased" words:
Tony - it's hard to believe that someone like you whom only likes screen based rides at Epcot doesn't like Universal technology. Shocking.
Ad hominem attacks from Universal apologists and shills, and no substantive argument, I'm not surprised.
On the other fansite, I read on a regular basis. Micechat. Which is much more, caliornia and disney fan based, a lot of disney lovers (in fact, did), loudly criticize disney for the screen based submarine ride. I also saw, some critism from disney lovers, when midway mania came out. although, that subsided after a short while, because, people realized it was pretty repeatable. The avatar land, is (if reporting is correct), one screen ride and one slow boat ride, with ani montronics. Animontronics, are more expensive. Maybe, that is why disney, has been opening attractions, slower.
Um, Tony, ad hominem means to attack the person rather than the message. Other than being a bit snotty when I labeled you a Disney fanboy, everything I said was aimed at your message and not you.
First, I'm not a fan of screen attractions in most cases, period. I pointed out Impressions and Soaring as two that I consider quite enjoyable. And nothing Universal has done screen-wise has come close to those two for me. As for the rest of the Epcot screens (Canada, China, etc.), they're old, tired, boring and way too many of them. That's my opinion.
Definitely a big backlash, and it becomes obvious when you check out other theme park message boards. And most of it doesn't come from "Disney fan boys" because those people wouldn't even know what is going on at Universal -- since they don't even visit those parks. I do visit them, and one of the selling points for our Orlando trips is the new attractions opened since our last visit. Well, in Universal's case, it appears that the new stuff is still way too much like the old stuff.
Tony -- since you're "not a fan of screen-based attractions", and I'm not a fan of creepy human animatronics, we'll agree to disagree. For instance, I like the Pirates @ Shanghai approach, with physical sets and screens, but I find the human animatronics to be very fake and take me out of the story. I'd rather see Depp on a screen only, honestly. And you said that Robert's article was "an apology for universal" -- not so. In fact, his article was in support of the new combination of disciplines that create an overall experience.
@Tony and Still a fan
You guys are hung up on the idea that these are incredible attractions and we should all just be tickled pink instead of complaining. Sorry, we're going to keep complaining, and there are a lot of us on message boards who are saying that we don't like getting the same thing, packaged differently, over and over.
I love Disney and Universal both. Always have. Both have strengths and weaknesses. Never felt a preference towards one or another based on brand or nostalgia - they're both a huge part of my childhood. At the end of the day, the attractions that stick with me the most are the ones that I feel immersed in, where I can truly pretend I'm IN the setting the ride is trying to present. Unfortuately, the vast majority of Universal's recent output (Transformers, Minions, Gringotts, Kong) have left me VERY underwhelmed and apathetic, which I never want to feel leaving a ride. It's always bugged me as to why, and it seems as if I'm not the only one experiencing this feeling. I mean, I know I've enjoyed plenty of screen-based rides in the past, so what gives? I've been thinking about it for a while, and here's what I've come up with (again, for myself personally)...
Diversity in rides requires diversity. Rocket is an example, Fallon and minions for whatever reason are simply more of the same.
Universal does have an over reliance on screen rides. Some are more well done than others. Spider-Man and Gringotts were great. Simpsons and Transformers were meh. Kong was terribly disappointing. I absolutely give them all the credit in the world for the live actors in the queue and immersive experience from start to finish, but I groaned once we got in the vehicle and into the ride and pulled up to a giant screen. It was a huge letdown.
I usually stay out of the screen debates because they're cliche, exhausting, and generally pointless. The comments here are an indicator why.
I was terribly disappointed when the word broke that Skull Island was just a plussed version of the experience in Hollywood. It could have been the greatest ride in Orlando, if they had really decided to build Skull Island and immerse
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