Universal grants theme park fans' wish for original IP with Volcano Bay
May 5, 2017, 10:20 AM ·
Who's ready for this Memorial Day weekend, when Disney introduces a new screen attraction based on a movie and Universal opens a completely practical attraction based on original IP?
Okay, I'm grossly oversimplifying (and possibly trolling) with that question. Walt Disney World's Pandora - The World of Avatar is much more than a single screen-based attraction. It might be the most beautiful attraction that Walt Disney Imagineering ever has created — which is an amazing standard to uphold. We'll be writing much, much more about Pandora over the next three weeks, but today I want to take a moment to acknowledge that it's Universal that now is doing something that theme park fans have been wanting for years — creating a new attraction based upon an original IP.
Universal's long-standing motto was "ride the movies" and it developed its attractions to match that. Walk through any Universal Studios theme park and you see ride after ride, show after show, based upon movies and television shows. (Or the occasional book or comic, too.) Universal is the theme park industry's IP king, aggregating not just its own Universal Pictures franchises, but properties from Warner Bros., Fox, and other studio competitors, as well.
But for its new Volcano Bay water theme park, Universal has skipped the opportunity to develop a park based upon its own or a partner's IP in favor of developing an attraction with its own, original backstory. The story of Volcano Bay is the story of the Waturi people, who crossed the Pacific looking for a mythical golden fish who would lead them to a new home. Here's the official backstory from Universal Creative.
Okay, if you really want to stretch for a movie IP tie-in for Volcano Bay, "Waturi" was the last name of Tom Hanks' boss in the 1990 movie Joe Versus the Volcano, which was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. No industry does better with recycling than Hollywood.
But Volcano Bay isn't about that guy, or that volcano. It's about creating a new experience that borrows from a wide variety of South Pacific influences to create a unique experience that frames the physical activity of riding water slides, floating down lazy rivers or simply lounging by a pool within a story that helps to transport you mentally to a different place — one so exotic that it can exist only in imagination.
That's what great theme park attractions do — they transport you to a fantastic place, time, and experience. Starting with an established IP from other media allows park designers a head start, as you come to those attractions with a knowledge of and (presumably) an affinity for that franchise that designers can build upon in creating an experience for you. When a park starts from scratch with an original IP, it must find ways to set the scene and introduce its story in a way that captures the imagination of visitors who come in knowing nothing about the experience.
Universal obviously is building upon widely-known South Pacific themes in crafting its story for Volcano Bay, which should help build the appeal for the park among people who never will bother learning the word "Waturi." But having the backstory and weaving into the experience of the park gives Universal an opportunity to create something even more engaging for visitors than a well-decorated water park loaded with palm trees, thatched roofs, grass skirts, Hawaiian shirts, and Tiki bars.
The Disney and Universal theme parks are part of large media conglomerates whose leaders look for every opportunity to build franchises that work across multiple media — from movies, to television, to recording and publishing, to toys and collectibles, to theme parks. With theme park attractions costing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, each of those parks gets few opportunities to develop major new attractions each decade. Why risk one of them on an original IP when there are so many well-established IPs to grow and promote with those attractions, instead?
That's what makes Volcano Bay so unusual, and well worth watching. Will Volcano Bay's original IP resonate with visitors? Or will it prove an irrelevant aspect of the experience? We will start to find out when the park opens officially to the public on May 25.
But if Volcano Bay's IP is a hit, who wants to take bets on when Universal develops some TV show based on it?