Does Universal Studios have too many screen-based rides?
April 5, 2017, 6:04 PM ·
ORLANDO — Okay, let's go there. Let's revive the argument. Let's ask a Universal theme park ride designer if the Universal Studios theme parks have too many screen-based attractions.
That's what we did today at the media day for the new Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon experience, which debuts officially with a ceremony tomorrow morning at 8:30. The finale of Race Through New York is that race — presented on a 3D screen to visitors watching on a flying theater ride system.
And that has enflamed the long-simmering feud between many theme park fans online, who seem to love to debate the question about Universal and screen rides. Here's what the Creative Director of Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, Universal Creative's Jason Surrell, had to say when I spoke with him this afternoon:
My $.02? This whole debate makes me flash back to the What time is the 3:00 parade? question. The debate over screen rides conceals other questions and concerns that some fans have about the parks, and if we limit ourselves to just the question asked, we risk missing the bigger issues at play here.
To start, the whole concept of a "screen ride" really makes no sense. What's on the screen is the show element of an attraction, separate from the ride system that carries people to or past it. So is the problem some fans have with the screen-based show, or the ride system that is so often employed along with it?
For Race Through New York, as well as Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers, and the upcoming Fast & Furious Supercharged, that means some form of motion-base ride system. But screen-based rides don't have to run with a motion simulator. At Knott's Berry Farm last weekend, I rode the Voyage to the Iron Reef, which employs a tracked dark ride system but provides its show entirely on screens. Yes, that's an interactive shooter ride, but just because Triotech shooters — and Disney's Toy Story Midway Mania — use screens doesn't mean that interactive rides must employ that show medium. You can develop an interactive ride with practical sets. Just look at Buzz Lightyear. Or — irony alert — Universal's Men in Black Alien Attack.
And, technically, a motion simulator doesn't have to use screen-based story media, either. Obviously, if you're running a motion base on a ride vehicle through a dark ride building, you can use all the practical sets you want. (Examples: Disney's Indiana Jones and Dinosaur rides, and even, to a lesser extent, Universal's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which includes a few practical set scenes.) As for a practical set for a motion simulator theater, Disney's Carousel of Progress knocked on that door without quite getting there. But Dynamic Attractions' Motion Theater, which teased at last fall's IAAPA Attractions Expo, enables not just practical sets, but live actors performing in front of a motion simulator theater.
So I think it's fair to follow up the "too many screen rides?' question with this: Is the problem with the screens? Or the motion simulators?
Or is it both?
I'm going to guess — based on personal, anecdotal conversations and observation — that for many fans, their problem lies more with the over-use of motion simulators than with screens. Simulators and motion bases are tough ride systems for many people, because there's no track ahead to give you fair warning what's coming. And a simulator ride can be programmed to a wilder mix of motion across multiple axes than even the most extreme roller coaster can deliver.
While one bad experience might set people off roller coasters, you typically can show them a milder track and talk them into giving another coaster a go. You can't do that with simulators. The fact that you can't see what you are going to get makes many fans more risk averse with this thrill ride system than just about any other... in my experience watching and listening to theme park fans.
But a motion simulator provides theme parks with one huge advantage over tracked rides — they take waaaaay less space in the park. None of Universal's theme parks are surrounded by abundant expansion space. Most of them are blocked by city streets, highways, or even rivers. While most Universal parks have expansion pads within their boundaries, the fact that space is not an exhaustible resource for them the way it is for Disney in Orlando and Paris, makes a simulator experience an attractive option for a chain that's trying to add something new every year or so to each of its resorts.
[Update: Even if the seats or the theater don't thrash riders about wildly, the 3D that so many of these screen-media attractions employ leaves many visitors queasy. Some guests simply cannot visually process 3D media, and for others, the resulting images look dark or blurry — failing to deliver the crisp "pop" off the screen that 3D should. The 3D backlash already has prompted Universal to remove it from the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, and I suspect that a significant number of fans would be happy if parks never employed 3D media on another new ride again.]
So what about screens in general? I don't think you're going to see another major, world-class attraction built in this industry that does not employ screens in some capacity. The faces on the animatronics at that new Frozen ride in Epcot? Screens. The backgrounds for many scenes in the Frozen live-action musical at Disney California Adventure? Provided by screens. Even the majority of the action on the beloved, and Theme Park Insider Award-winning, new Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Shanghai Disneyland happens on screens.
So the question really isn't the use of screens in new theme park attractions. That's settled. It's happening. The question then is, what is the appropriate percentage of screen use in the show of a theme park attraction?
And here, I agree with Jason. It depends upon the IP whose story is being told. You want stars, such as Jimmy Fallon, Harry Potter, or the Fast and Furious gang? You need screens. Sorry, but the Johnny Depp animatronics on Disney's various Pirates rides are the Mayor of the Uncanny Valley. Heck, that's why Disney's using screen technology to animate the faces of even cartoon characters on its latest generation on animatronics.
That said, I also am totally cool with fans' desire to see screen-based storytelling in theme parks grounded within richly detailed practical environments. If all we are doing is wearing 3D glasses in a theater, as Blake Shelton teased Fallon on last night's Tonight Show, what's the point of paying to visit a theme park? We can get the same experience for less money at our local movie theater. Or, for some of us, even at home.
So here's my take: Within that question about "too many screen rides?" lies a series of pleas from theme park fans. Don't give us an over-priced movie theater experience. Don't abuse the use of 3D. And don't cram us in an over-crowded jiggle box that's going to make us sick.
Amaze us with convincing storytelling that brings us, physically, into a place that we cannot find anywhere else — not at home, not in a theater, and not at some shopping mall or even a regional, discount amusement park. Take us to another world, where our hearts and imaginations can soar... while our stomachs don't. Well, at least, not too much.
As I wrote in that old cast member story post about the 3:00 parade question, one of the tricks to great customer service is learning how to see past what a customer says, to address what the customer really needs. I really do think that's in play here, too. Theme park fans want something more than they're seeing for the parks these days, and I would include Disney in that along with Universal.