What is the future for movie studio-themed parks?

May 2, 2016, 11:54 AM · If you haven't visited Universal Studios Hollywood in a few years, prepare for a surprise.

The haphazard collection of lightly decorated upper lot attractions is gone — replaced by a richly-detailed collection of themed areas. Universal executives probably have mixed feelings about this, but I've heard more than one recent visitor exclaim, "It's feels just like Disneyland now."

Universal Studios Hollywood's transformation didn't happen in isolation — just because some studio executives felt like changing things up to make the park look more like its competition down the 5. Across the theme park industry, studio themed parks have been changing their focus from behind-the-scenes looks at movie production to building themed environments that put visitors into the action. The trend is away from deconstructing the movies to reconstructing them.

The new template for a movie studio theme park was set by Universal Studios Singapore, which opened in 2010 with no production facilities nor any reference to them. Nothing in the park was intended to be a movie set — the park's lands were intended to be those locations instead of the places where they were filmed. Its stories where those of its franchises and not of their production. Most recently, we have seen the same model under construction in the United Arab Emirates, where motiongate Dubai will offer zones themed to various movie studios' franchises and not the studio lots upon which they were created.

In my Orange County Register column this week, I look at Why Universal Studios Hollywood has gone Disney, and why the same thing has been happening at movie studio theme parks around the world, including Disney's own Hollywood Studios park in Orlando.

But that doesn't mean that fans don't still care about what goes on behind the scenes on a movie shoot, or about the history of filmed entertainment history. Even as Universal Studios Hollywood transforms its park, one of its must-see attractions remains the Studio Tour of its historic backlot. And other movie studios around Southern California, including Universal's next-door neighbor Warner Bros., offer studio tours that take a much less fanciful look at production than Universal now offers. I'll write about the Warner Bros. tour for the Register next weekend, so look for that column in the paper and on the Register's website then.

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Replies (12)

May 2, 2016 at 3:24 PM

Admittedly I haven't been there in over a decade, but I was disappointed back when i did that the Backlot tour had been discontinued at the Australian Warner Bros park.

But they haven't disappeared, they've just become more sophisticated. You've mentioned the WB Cali tour, and Harry Potter fans seem to be just as excited about the London WB Studios tour. I guess for those actually interested in movie-making, a half day is a much better experience than a quick out-and-back with a chromakey demo.

May 2, 2016 at 3:56 PM

I think a key to what Robert argues is that Universal has switched from deconstructing movies to now reconstructing them. At Universal Studios Hollywood, the theme park elements were built over the existing studio infrastructure. Universal back then, pre-USF, was slowly, slowly learning the ropes of the theme park business. Without the budget or expertise of Disney, they turned their inexpensive flat facades into the major selling point. Pure postmodernism! Rides like "Jaws" and "KONGfrontation" later occasionally treated the shark or ape as "real," not a prop, and over time Universal got better at this, and did more of it. Now they're doing "realism" park-wide, because now they can! Through deconstruction Universal learned learned the tools; through reconstruction they use them!

May 3, 2016 at 3:49 AM

They just better not get the crazy idea of ever replacing the Horror Makeup Show at Universal Studios Orlando. That is gold, and needs to stay forever...

May 3, 2016 at 7:01 AM

Another thing about Universal's evolution is the name of their parks. If their focus is no longer the Studios themselves, why is it still part of the name? With the exception of Hollywood, none of them are working studios anymore. Its only a matter of time until they drop studios from the name.

May 3, 2016 at 7:27 AM

Well said Douglas!

May 3, 2016 at 8:23 AM

While I'm all for studio parks being more immersive, but I feel like playing Devil's Advocate here.

Tell me, how would you rather learn about science: watch an episode of Bill Nye, where a charismatic person will teach it to you in a very entertaining way, or go to Epcot where a charismatic person will teach it to you in a charismatic way, plus you actually get to physically experience the science? Well, granted, one of the attractions does have Bill Nye in it, but you know what I mean.

Same thing goes with movies. There's nothing wrong with watching behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube or Blu-Ray, but that's but there's learning about something and then there's experiencing something. If Earthquake has come out on Blu-Ray yet, there's probably a neat little video all about how they filmed the earthquake sequences. But at USH/F, you could actually take part in filming an earthquake scene yourself!

Plus, while I love Diagon Alley and can't wait for Star Wars Land, I often fear that USF and DHS will lose their own individual identities. Both of their respective resorts already have parks that take guests on fictional adventures, IOA and MK. The original idea was that IOA and MK would transport you to worlds of fantasy while USF and DHS would teach you how that fantasy was created. With all that gone, USF becomes IOA 2.0 and DHS becomes MK 2.0.

Also, in order for all these extremely different themes, there has to be some unifying theme to tie them altogether so that it doesn't feel like the park executives just mixed a whole bunch of popular IPs together that feel mismatched. The reason why MK can get away with having a rollercoaster on one side of the park that takes you through a gold mine set in the Old West yet also having another rollercoaster on the other side of the park that shoots you into outer space is that they were smart enough to give the park the theme of being this one big kingdom where all the magic of Disney lives. DHS is going to have to come up with a really smart way to explain why you go from a child's backyard to a fantastical galaxy with aliens and space samurai.

May 3, 2016 at 8:26 AM

Florida is still an active Production Studio. http://studio.florida.universalstudios.com/

May 3, 2016 at 8:36 AM

I always considered the movie studio theme park DOA from the get go, because the financial motivations between a studio and a theme park are vastly different. The idea of incorporating thrill rides into a studio tour experience still has some validity, but there are two vastly different audiences.

A true movie studio experience should be geared towards film fans and those interested in learning more about the behind the scenes aspects of movie making. Unfortunately, in order to satisfy those people, thrill rides are simply not an effective way to deliver that experience. Conversely, those that want to be immersed in the movies, and care little about how movies are made, a walk through of a sound stage is akin to a trip to a dusty, boring museum.

I'm all for this distinct split between the studio experience and the theme park experience. If I want to tour a studio, I want to see sets, sound stages, props, and the like, and don't want to have some watered down, stupified narration on a never actually used on film effects stage. If I want to go to a theme park, I want to be immersed in the worlds being portrayed, and don't want that 4th wall broken.

I do think Universal Hollywood has a market for guests that want to do a studio tour, but that should be offered as a separate experience from what is now an immersive theme park.

May 3, 2016 at 9:56 AM

Universal Studios Hollywood needs to fix the Lower Lot, which is largely unthemed except for the Jurassic Park ride. They need to add elaborate facades for The Mummy and The Transformers rides. They are essentially in studio soundstage warehouses. This won't work for the new theme park model.

Universal should extend the studios tour facades to the lower lot. The visitor can immediately walk in the jungle, the Egyptian tomb, and an urban cityscape in the surrounding streets. Immediately outward, they should walk into London for Diagon Alley with a train station to take them to the Hogwarts castle.

May 3, 2016 at 10:31 AM

USH is a production studio with a themepark attached to it, not a themepark with a studio theme. The charm for me visiting USH has always been the amazing history of the movies filmed there. The beautiful location in the Hollywood Hills. Being immersed in the backlot. I am not excited about Universal Studios Hollywood loosing that.

May 3, 2016 at 2:20 PM

I completely agree with this article. In order to attract visitors to a theme park, the park must offer something that they can't get elsewhere. With the increase in availability of behind the scenes featurettes the appeal of visiting a theme park to see how movies are made just isn't there anymore. This is especially true with the rise of CGI, as many effects are done digitally now and there aren't as many sets to tour or tricks to display. Now, in order to draw audiences, guests want to live the movies. The USH Studio Tour is a really good example of this transformation...15 years ago, it was primarily a tour with some staged events along the way as demonstrations and to add thrill elements. Now, it is primarily a ride with some tour elements to take advantage of the existing production facilities.

I do agree with the anonymous poster above, however, that this may not be a good change for the parks. Particularly in Florida, this could lead to parks losing their identity and appeal. Universal Orlando has the simple option of combining both parks into one mega park (which would eliminate the $50 upcharge for the Hogwarts Express), but what about Walt Disney World? If you've got two parks consisting of a collection of various IP-based attractions with little to create an overall theme, is there motivation for visitors to bother with visiting both or should they just visit the one with more IP they care about?

I still think a movie studio theme park is viable, but the approach needs to change. Instead of showing guests how movies are made, guests need to have an active role in the making of a movie. This would probably be more of a specialty experience and less of a theme park in the traditional sense, but I could see it providing a nice draw. The current versions of studio parks just don't work, as they leave both the film fan audience and the theme park audience unsatisfied.

May 3, 2016 at 4:30 PM

(Sigh) Isn't it so nice that for once we have a Disney/Universal-related thread without having it devolve into yet another flame war, or just mindless complaining about Disney being an evil empire? So many intriguing ideas and thought-provoking opinions! Instead of losing my fairth in humanity, I feel like I'm actually gaining something! We should do this more often!

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