By Robert Niles
Yesterday's opening of the new Madagascar stage show at Busch Gardens Tampa surprised a few readers who hadn't heard the news that Universal no longer holds the rights to use all the DreamWorks Animation characters in its United States theme parks. Universal and DreamWorks did not renew that licensing deal, though Universal has re-upped for the theme park rights to the Shrek franchise.
From the Shrek land at Universal Studios Singapore: Go home, Gingy, you're drunk.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment then signed for the U.S. theme park rights to the Madagascar characters, setting the stage for the new production in Tampa this week. Another production of the same show will debut at sister park SeaWorld San Diego next month. Character meals and meet-and-greets are on the way, too.
These deals apply only in the United States, though. A trip abroad can blow the mind of any American theme park fan who's gotten used to seeing certain characters in certain parks. Merlin Entertainments has had the rights to use the Madagascar characters in its parks in Europe. And Universal retains the rights to these DreamWorks characters for its park in Singapore, where Universal's built entire lands devoted to Shrek and Madagascar. Universal also holds the rights to use the Sesame Street and Peanuts characters in its Asian theme parks, where SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and Cedar Fair don't have a presence.
The "Madagascar: A Crate Adventure" ride from Universal Studios Singapore
Licensing rights are multi-million-dollar deals for film studios that don't have their own theme parks, and for parks looking to expand beyond their own intellectual property. Market leader Disney's long relied on its in-house collection of animation franchises to populate its parks. And Universal's going all-in with its own Despicable Me franchise, building a new attraction and Super Silly Fun Land area at Universal Studios Hollywood, to complement the existing Despicable Me ride in Florida. But before Gru and the Minions came along, Universal had to rely on licensing deals, including DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Jay Ward characters.
But these licensing deals pay off for theme parks only when they move people to visit. Of the top movie animation franchises out there today, which is the one that would most influence you to visit a particular theme park, if it featured those characters? We'll make this our vote of the week. We're looking only at feature film animation franchises not developed by Disney or Universal. For our five selections, I've included four of the top-grossing animated film franchise, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, along with an up-and-coming franchise that promises to be the next into the top five, based on the success of its first film (of three now planned).
Obviously, the number-one grossing franchise, Shrek, already is in several Universal theme parks. But consider both existing attractions and the potential for future rides and shows when casting your vote. Or, if that's too complicated, let's just make this easier: Which franchise's characters would you most want to take a photo with in a meet-and-greet?
By TH Creative
Busch Gardens Tampa's Stanleyville Theater will be bursting with thermonuclear "tween" energy when the park premieres its newest live stage show Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation on May 18th. Backed by a live band and a cadre of fresh-faced dancers, the production features characters from the popular DreamWorks Madagascar franchise.
Busch Gardens' Park President Jim Dean poses with his newest star Alex the Lion.
While the park's May 16th media event unveiled the show for the press, Busch Gardens' marketing team wisely packed the theater with a boisterous crowd of elementary school students who were ready to sing and dance with a familiar collection of Madagascar characters. Live on stage to lead the charge were Alex the Lion and Gloria the Hippo, as well as Skipper and his team of penguins – although the loudest squeals were reserved for the Lemur King Julian.
While the show's premise was a bit thin (the vacationing characters must cheer-up Gloria who misses her friends Marty the zebra and Melman the giraffe -- both of whom are absent from the production), the re-designed theater, music, dancers and gorgeous character costumes were more than enough to bring the younger crowd to their feet.
Julian, King of the Lemurs, welcomes his demographic... er, "subjects."
Clearly the jungle setting featured in the film fits nicely with Busch Gardens' theme. Park President Jim Dean expressed enthusiasm about the partnership with the DreamWorks films, noting that the Madagascar films "in particular complement our brand."
Vice President of Entertainment Nancy Hutson reported that the characters presence will extend beyond the Stanleyville Theater. Park meet-and-greets as well as character dining is planned.
While "Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation" will be most popular with the tweener set that turned the film franchise into a billion-dollar enterprise, Associate Marketing Manager Kelly Heckinger correctly points out that the films' humor and charm "work on many levels with adults as well as kids."
Another production of the show will debut at sister park SeaWorld San Diego in June.
By Jeff Elliott
Disneyland – After losing a lawsuit in regards to the It’s A Small World ride, Disney has been testing the ride in the early morning hours to find where the limit of endurance is…and as you can see from the leaked photo below, it is not going well. After the picture leaked, Disney attempted to put a happy spin on the story saying that they were racing the ducks around the ride for charity, but we have to assume that's just a cover story.
It looks like Disney has moved its Glow with the Show technology across the promenade to the original park and are already synching fireworks to their ears.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Now that the Beauty and the Beast characters have found a home in the Magic Kingdom, the buzz is that the Studios' Beauty and the Beast show could be on the verge of closing. Once it closes, instead of a new show going in, we are thinking that the theater will be bulldozed and a dark ride put in that extends nearly back to the parking lot. But to compete and be an additional draw next to Tower of Terror, Rock & Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and Toy Story Midway Mania, any new ride had better be something good.
Paramount Park Spain – This park has cleared their final approval hurdle and is free to start construction as soon as they can get construction vehicles on the site. If they were the Florida division of Universal, they’d already have three buildings up…because it’s already been several minutes since they were cleared to start work.
But the scheme is inspiring some imitators. New Jersey-based "Scheme Tours" is now offering an "RIP" program, where convicts on a work-release program will obtain FastPasses to any attraction, while you wait. Just, uh, don't look over there, okay? Those other guests really didn't want to ride anyway.
Even Disney's getting in on the act. It's new "FastPass++" system will charge the One-Percenters 99% of a front-line cast member's annual wages to skip the lines at It's a Small World. The catch? The rich fat cats might not have to wait to get on, but they'll have to wait two and a half hours to get off the ride. Justice served.
By Robert Niles
With all the attention we've paid to Universal's Harry Potter over the past weeks/months/years, let's not overlook a potentially enthralling theme park franchise that rival Disney has started to develop -- one that's far from realizing its immense potential to engage theme park fans.
I'm not talking about Princesses. Or Avatar. Or even Star Wars. I'm talking about a Disney theme park franchise that the company has yet to introduce to its American theme park fans.
It's the Society of Explorers and Adventurers.
We first heard of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers at Tokyo DisneySea, where the group (take a moment to figure out its acronym…) plays prominent roles in several attractions inside the park. The Society makes its headquarters in the park's Fortress Explorations Citadel, which also serves as home to Magellan's restaurant, which one can consider the official Society dining room.
The headquarters of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, at Tokyo DisneySea
But the Citadel's not the only Society presence in the Tokyo park. DisneySea's Tower of Terror attraction focuses on Society member Harrison Hightower, a world explorer and antiques collector whose arrogance an contempt toward the ancient cultures he seeks becomes his undoing.
And there we find the conflict that animates this wonderful narrative. In Fortress Explorations, we see how the Society inspires visitors with the wonder of scientific discovery. But in Tower of Terror, we see the dark side of global exploration, when the greedy drive it toward exploitation of native people and their cultures instead.
Disney's not left the Society in Tokyo. This month, Disney opened Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, and in it, introduced us to another Society member, Henry Mystic. Mystic's not as overtly evil as Hightower. If anything, Mystic's sin seems more of benign neglect -- failing to properly control his monkey assistant, Albert, who unleashes the potentially destructive magic of Mystic's artifact collection during our visit to the Manor.
Great narratives, such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, expose us to seemingly limitless new worlds of characters and conflicts, which echo archetypical stories from our cultural past. Potter reflects traditional coming of age tales as well as a classic Christ fable. (Harry dies to protect his people, and then is resurrected, all surrounding a chapter called King's Cross. C'mon, Rowling's just beating us over the head with it at that point, isn't she?)
With its conflicts in Tower of Terror and Mystic Manor, Disney's Society of Explorers and Adventurers' narrative echoes epic tales of discovery and of conflict between civilizations at first contact. And it does so while introducing notes of the supernatural, an archetypal element that's driven stories since the beginning of time. This isn't a single narrative driving a single attraction. It's an epic tableau, with the potential to drive a limitless number of attractions around the world.
What Disney has created so far tantalizes visitors with the suggestion of many more members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, with epically engaging conflicts of their own, all as yet to be discovered by us. By doing so, Disney's created space in its as-yet under-developed Society narrative for our own imaginations to fill in, further engaging us in the story. True interactivity isn't simply triggering a special effect. It's causing us to become emotionally and intellectually engaged in a narrative, helping to craft and move it along, even if we're the only ones who see it happen.
Disney's accomplished that grand task with the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. It's driven me to rethink my own budget, to start stashing cash to pay for future trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong, where I again can be with these intriguing characters. And it's making me long for Disney to further develop the story of the Society, and to bring it to an American audience, which, I am certain, will embrace and cherish the Society as much as I have.
By Robert Niles
The leaks keep on coming from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, now under construction at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. We told you in December 2011 about the Gringotts coaster that will provide the centerpiece of the new land, and in March of this year we described about the various shops and restaurants you'll find when Universal Orlando's second Harry Potter land, which opens in the summer of 2014.
Now, we're hearing more about the various atmospheric details that will distinguish this new land.
You've likely heard of Disney's "NextGen" initiative, which, among other things, includes the installation of new animation and interactive elements in queues and other public spaces in Walt Disney World's theme parks. Well, Universal's creative team is raising the stakes with a similar initiative of its own inside the new Wizarding World.
Universal's pushing the intersection of technology and stagecraft with its development of these features, which, if successful, will help make Diagon Alley the most convincing and immersive themed environment ever created in a theme park. If Universal pulls off what it has planned, as one insider told me, Disney's NextGen will be several generations behind Universal's.
So what is Universal planning for Diagon Alley? Let's start by reviewing what we already know:
Concept art courtesy Universal
Diagon Alley Attractions
We've got two rides coming: the Gringotts dark ride, which will blend Premier Rides roller coaster track with a 3D story-driven dark ride. Twin, 12-person, Victorian-inspired open-air cars, arranged in three rows of four, will take riders through the Gringotts vaults, where they will encounter dark wizards, including Voldemort. The ride vehicles will have a motion-base component, making this a blend of Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers in the ride's technology.
The second ride is the Hogwarts Express, which will shuttle visitors between the two Wizarding Worlds: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and the original Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Trains will travel on an elevated track through the backstage are connecting the parks. The windowless train cars will feature digital screens that simulate windows overlooking the passing English countryside -- but don't expect a smooth voyage. As this is a theme park attraction, expect that something will go terribly wrong. (It might be best to keep some chocolate handy. I hear that helps.)
Riders will exit the Hogwarts Express outside the two lands, and might be required to queue to enter the Wizarding World on the other side during busy periods in the parks, according to a Universal survey obtained by Parkscope. The Hogsmeade station will be located underneath the Dragon Challenge track, exiting on the "Lost Continent" side of the Wizarding World. The Diagon Alley station will exit through the facade of King's Cross station, next to the Disaster! exit in Universal Studios Florida.
In addition to the two rides, I'm told that Universal is working on a live show, which will play in the open area under a glass canopy near the Gringotts ride's exit.
Gringotts Coaster building (lower left) and the rest of Diagon Alley under construction in May 2013. Photo from TH Creative's gallery from earlier this week.
Diagon Alley Restaurants
The Leaky Cauldron will be the main restaurant in the new land, standing next to the Wizarding World's entrance. Your other refreshment options will include Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour, located near the Gringotts bank tower, and what looks on the land's plans to be a Butterbeer stand over one the other side of the land, nearer the Gringotts exit.
Diagon Alley Shops
Universal's creating another Ollivander's wand shop, this time with three rooms to handle to the "wand picks the wizards" show. In addition, you'll be able to stock up on Wizarding gear at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment (that will be the store at the exit to Gringotts).
The plans also call for Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley, located over to the left of the land's entrance, underneath King's Cross station. And that's where things get really interesting.
Diagon Alley's Interactive and Animated Elements
Here's where we get to the fresh stuff! The experience will begin even before visitors step into Diagon Alley, as the Knight Bus, which will be parked on the London promenade outside the land, will feature interactive talking heads.
We already know about the giant fire-breathing dragon that will inhabit the top of the Gringotts bank tower. This dragon really will breathe fire (if all goes well in construction, of course), and it represents the largest of the many animated elements planned for Diagon Alley.
It might be worth taking another look at the Weasley Wizard Wheezes scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for some clues as to the additional interactive and animated elements Universal's planning for its version of that iconic joke shop.
Elsewhere in the new land, be on the lookout for suits of armor that fall apart then rebuild themselves, as well as self-stirring cauldrons and some skeletons that perform with a surprising effect that my sources refuse to tell me about in more detail. And goblins, too!
The most cryptic clue I've heard, though, concerns the wands. There's a huge time crush, obviously, to finish this land by June 2014 (for a planned July opening), but I keep hearing hints that Universal's got something planned that involves wands. One's imagination runs wild.
Which, of course, is the whole point. Universal is working to create a land that will appear to come to magical life for each visitor. With so many interactive and animated elements, the idea is that the entire land becomes a platform for an individual experience within the Wizarding World. It's not just about queuing up for a roller coaster ride. Diagon Alley has been conceived as a public place that supports personal stories, as each visitor discovers the various details and elements available throughout the land.
And the technology that Universal's developing for Diagon Alley won't be limited to this land. Expect Universal, at some point after the opening of Diagon Alley, to begin work retrofitting the original Wizarding World with new interactive and animated elements, so that the magical experience continues at the same sophisticated level across both lands.
Update: I'm hearing now that Universal is working on a "new generation" of souvenir wands, which will have interactive capabilities inside the park and some (undisclosed) additional use at home, too. So your old wands won't be able to do what the new ones will. The wands' abilities are described as more complicated than simple RFID-based triggers.
Finally, many of us are debating just how animated the Gringotts dragon will be. Will it just breathe fire, or will it move, as well? I haven't heard a definitive answer on that, and anyone who's been around Animal Kingdom's Yeti can tell horror stories about trying to maintain a functional animatronic figure on that massive a scale. But the dragon inside the Gringotts ride? Well, that appears to be a different situation.
Keep reading: May 2013 Archive
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