Universal brings The Tonight Show experience to Orlando

March 7, 2017, 11:45 AM · ORLANDO — Themed entertainment designers don't just work on theme parks. Watching the success that the theme park industry enjoyed in connecting with a large and diverse audience, other institutions that welcomed the public have taken notice. Today, museums, sports teams, breweries, car markers, and other businesses are hiring creative teams who've worked in theme parks to develop "branded experiences" for their visitors.

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.

Rate and Review:

Replies (14)

March 7, 2017 at 12:37 PM · Expensive packaging housing a cheap present? Not a lot said about your views on the actual ride. Seems underwhelming?
March 7, 2017 at 12:58 PM · The ride was fun! I don't understand the hate. It's not Diagon Alley... it's more like Jimmy Fallon's Minion Mayhem. But it's an entertaining experience throughout.
March 7, 2017 at 1:03 PM · I think it's awesome what they were able to do rather quickly, and with a very small show building area.

- Update the look of the New York area
- New restrooms
- New events area (on top)
- Nicely themed queue
- Unique ride experience
- Interesting merchandise / gift shop

Remember that this isn't supposed to be a Diagon Alley attraction, just a bit fun romp through New York and Tonight Show history!

March 7, 2017 at 1:27 PM · Can you explain more how the ride works? Is it like Soarin' or Minion Mayhem?
March 8, 2017 at 12:05 AM · We'll give it a shot while we're in Universal next Fall. And I'm intrigued by the flying theatre concept. But my complaint is the same as it has been for a few years now: when Disney enters the design phase of a new attraction, it seems that they will explore any and all methods of presenting an experience or a story. At Universal Creative, it's become the same old story: "okay, how can we present this with lots and lots of screens?"
It's lazy and it's cheap. After all, you can make legions of CGI scenes and characters for the price of one AA.
March 7, 2017 at 2:25 PM · All the negative comments & reviews are Universal's fault. We just got Kong mostly screens, next year is Fast & Furious all screens. On top of the other too many to name screen attractions. I think with this new Tonight Show screen ride it's just has reached a tipping point!
March 7, 2017 at 3:03 PM · The ride system is a flying theater, which means the seats move as a unit, but independent of the screen. Imagine Minion Mayhem but with all the seats - six rows of 12 - mounted on one ride unit, which is placed in front of a Soarin'-like half-dome screen. There's more ride motion than Soarin', which barely moves once the rows are in place. But there's much less turbulence on Race than on a true simulator ride such as Star Tours.
March 7, 2017 at 4:37 PM · Robert Niles. Have you ridden Busch Gardens Williamsburg Europe in Air? Seem very similar to that ride system. Do you think once Fallon has passed it's prime it can be re-theme to something more evergreen like say Saturday Night Live ride possibly in future? Any tribute or easter eggs from past attraction like Ghostbusters and Twister found yet?
March 7, 2017 at 5:32 PM · I have no doubt that this ride - taken on its own - is fun, and that the overall project is worthwhile for the way it improves the theme of New York. However, it seems to me that another 3D simulator is pretty much the last thing USF needs right now (and there's yet another one coming next year). It's even more glaring with Minion Mayhem right across the way; regardless of ride system particulars, it sounds (from reports) that the two rides are incredibly similar in terms of overall feel and the various gags in the ride film.
March 7, 2017 at 8:50 PM · This is NOT the flying theater concept that was released by Dynamics a while ago, where the theater lifts like Soarin' and then the floor drops out below you. I was hoping it would be but it was not. To call it a flying theater is really misleading. It's a simple simulator, though smoother and less active than most jiggle boxes like Star Tours.
It resembles Corkscrew Hill or Minion Mayhem if it wasn't split out into ride cars.

I found the ride itself to be a bit of a letdown as the last thing Universal needs is yet another screen ride and simulator. Also I was hoping that it would be an actual tour of New York landmarks like Soarin' with beautiful imagery, but it was more cartoony and suddenly you're in outer space.

I think it's all managing expectations for this attraction to succeed. It's not an E ticket, not should it be expected to be. So I wouldn't wait longer than 20 minutes for it, and with the virtual queue you may not need to (though it's really hard to say how long it will be once inside.) there are 2 holding tanks before the official preshow and for us it took 45 minutes all in all. Novel idea for waiting areas, though I wish there was just the one room to wait with entertainment, not first waiting downstairs before going up to the main waiting room.

March 8, 2017 at 5:39 AM · "I don't understand the hate. It's not Diagon Alley... it's more like Jimmy Fallon's Minion Mayhem."

I think you've just answered your own question. It's just a similar version of an old, existing ride with a different theme. Of course people aren't going to be happy.

If anything, from your own review and elsewhere, it sounds like the queue is better, and more entertaining, than the actual ride itself.

March 8, 2017 at 6:45 AM · I don't watch The Tonight Show (never have, never will), have no attachment to Jimmy Fallon or the memes/inside jokes his tenure as host has created, and I'm not extraordinarily impressed with the ride in general. Having said that, they did a great job with what little room they had. It's the Alien Encounter/Stitch's Great Escape conundrum: how do you make the best of what little room there actually is there? The funny thing is that the answer was: "utilize more than one floor". Here's hoping Disney takes notes.
March 8, 2017 at 8:19 AM · You guys and your "screen ride" shade. What do you want, an audio-anamatronic Jimmy Fallon?

I like physical sets as much as anyone, and I like how the HP rides blended the two elements -- physical effects and screens. King Kong even does a pretty good job at this -- the ride vehicle, the gate, the flying beasts, the Kong animatronic -- all real physical elements.

But when the action gets intense and you need to "ride the movies", there is a benefit to a screen.

March 8, 2017 at 11:11 PM · No one wants an AA of Jimmy Fallon. What we would've preferred was a completely different ride concept, preferably one not entirely dependent on screens (again). I'll ride it when I go (mostly because it's new) but this is more of the same.

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