Has Universal Orlando been building the wrong type of theme park ride?
Attendance has been rising each year for the past three years at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, though that rate of growth has been slowing. Obviously, the resort is in no danger of failing anytime soon. So this is really a question about potential — namely, is Universal taking full advantage of its Orlando parks' potential with its recent attraction decisions?
Some vocal fans say that Universal Orlando has been building too many screen-based attractions in recent years, and that's saturated the market. The last three attractions to debut at USF and IOA have been:
Each of those attractions features substantial use of screen media. Furthermore, the three attractions to open at the resort before those were:
...all of which rely on media, as well. The last new non-media, year-round attraction to open was Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl in 2013, though Incredible Hulk Coaster was rebuilt in 2016.
With each debut, the criticism has grown louder... and the reader ratings for each new ride have gotten worse. But is Universal Creative's use of visual media in these attractions the source of guest frustration? Or is there another factor in play here?
When Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon opened, fans already were questioning Universal's reliance on media. So I asked Creative Direction Jason Surrell the question:
At the time, I suggested that the motion simulations and 3D employed in Universal's media rides might be driving as much frustration as the screens. But after the opening of Fast & Furious, I would like to suggest another potential culprit for that frustration.
Let's preface this by noting that fans pretty much embraced Transformers and the two Harry Potter rides (once they started operating reliably, of course.) The "too many screens!" criticism really focuses on the three most recent attraction, with the most complaints about Fast & Furious. This could simply be the result of a building critical mass of frustration over the use of screens, but let's consider an alternative explanation — that there is something else in the execution of these later rides that is discouraging fans.
Here's one final bit of context before I give you my theory: Two of Universal Orlando's three most recent attractions started as encounters on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. Universal modified those experiences to become stand-alone rides in Florida, something it's been doing since the park opened in 1990.
I loved both King Kong 360:3D and Fast & Furious - Supercharged when they opened in Hollywood. (Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2.) And I wasn't alone — those encounters have been extremely well received by visitors in Hollywood, which helped convince Universal executives to bring them to Orlando. (For what it's worth, I also enjoyed the Jimmy Fallon ride, though more for its offride elements than the final show itself.)
So why didn't these Florida installations connect better with fans? Again, attendance at the parks continues to go up and a lot of people enjoy these attractions. But Universal has shown that it can develop widely acclaimed hits. These did not reach that high level of praise. Why?
For two of these three attractions, we have a couple of useful data points: Hollywood and Florida. Let's look at the differences between these installations for some insight as to why the fan reaction to them differed so much.
For Kong, the Hollywood encounter basically gets no set-up. It's simply introduced on-screen by director Peter Jackson as an exercise in special effects — the first use of 3D in a 360-degree environment on a major theme park ride. And, as that, it works. Kong provides a visually thrilling 90 seconds of mayhem, emphasized by some gentle physical rocking and 4D effects. (T-rex spit!) For an attraction devoted to taking visitors into the workings of a major Hollywood studio, Kong plays an essential role on the Studio Tour in illustrating the use of digital media that drives so many action and adventure films today.
In Orlando, Universal strips the ride of that "industry insider" context, opting instead to play the encounter as an actual visit to Skull Island. Universal turns Hollywood's trams into themed transport vehicles, then supplements the encounter with additional video as well as a massive Kong animatronic at the end of the ride. A richly detailed queue also helps set up the experience.
So what's the problem? All the extra stuff that Universal threw into the Orlando installation threatens to overwhelm the Hollywood video. What exploded with life in the context of a backlot bus tour in Hollywood lies relatively flat on the screen in the context of so many wildly decorative practical elements in Orlando. I also think that fans expectations for Skull Island: Reign of Kong were skewed by inaccurate reports in advance of the ride's opening. We leaked the plans for the attraction months before its opening, but some other sites misreported what was on Universal's blueprints, leading people to believe that some of the practical elements in the queue would be full realized scenes on the ride itself. That left fans disappointed when all they saw once entering the show building in the ride vehicles was the screen encounters and the Kong animatronic.
Still, if Universal had followed Kong with anything other than more screen-based rides, I think fans long would have gotten over such disappointments and embraced Kong as the fun encounter that it provides. But instead, Universal's problems with setting up its new Orlando attractions continued with Fallon and Furious. (That would be a great band name, BTW.)
On Race Through New York, Universal raised the standard for pre-show experiences. The first-floor "The Tonight Show" museum could stand on its own within the park, but Universal rewarded fans even more with its second-floor experiences, which include live musical performances, a character meet and greet, and — blessed be — couches where you can sit, recharge your phone, and play some silly video games. After a day on your feet in the parks, the Race Through New York "Green Room" provides welcome relief.
Fallon and his house band, The Roots, kill it with a delightful pre-show video, which leads you into a recreation of The Tonight Show theater. But you're not watching a 3D video of Tonight Show episode. No, you'll be participating in one of the show's go-kart races through NBC's 30 Rock headquarters.
Okay, cool. But instead of getting into a go-kart ride vehicle, Race Through New York's conceit is that the entire theater will be the race vehicle. And here, we lose all touch with the illusion of authenticity that Universal so carefully built in the museum and Green Room. It's jarring, but Mr. Fallon's Wild Ride still works as fun visual tour of New York City, with Easter egg call-outs to Universal theme park icons Jaws and King Kong.
And then we go to the moon. I think that is the moment when Race Through New York loses many of its visitors. From that point, the adventure we've been on degenerates into cheesy visuals. It's generic and not the unique Tonight Show or New York experience that we had been promised. If Hashtag had just thrown us into the 30 Rock gift shop that we walk through after exiting the ride, instead of throwing us to the moon, I think that ore fans would have endorsed this experience. But in the end, Race Through New York doesn't live up to the promise of its premise.
But it's on Fast & Furious - Supercharged that it all goes horribly wrong. Again, I like this ride — not as much as I liked it in Hollywood, but it's still a fun attraction, and one that adds some welcome cast diversity to the park.
Unfortunately, in bringing Fast & Furious to Orlando, Universal lost the context that originally made the Hollywood encounter one of the best things Universal's ever produced in its parks. In Hollywood, Fast & Furious completes the Studio Tour by pulling off an amazing narrative twist. After half an hour of watching as Universal deconstructs the process of making movies, Fast & Furious - Supercharged abruptly casts us into one.
An on-screen interruption from a security officer initiates the switch, which is completed when our tram is diverted into Sullivan's garage as the FBI sweeps the Universal backlot in search of Dominic Toretto. But it's not the protagonist of the Fast & Furious films who has put us in danger. No, it's Toretto family foe, Owen Shaw... who is looking for an informant who's on our tram.
The switch reminds me of the moment in the final act of Adaptation when the narrative shifts from Charlie Kaufman's struggle with writer's block into his fictional brother Donald's cliche-ridden action romp. (Continuing the gag, both the real-life Charlie and the fictional Donald earned the screenwriting credit for the movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award, making Donald Kaufman the first fictional character ever nominated for an Oscar.)
Like in Adaptation, the Supercharged finale twists what up until that moment had been presented as reality upon itself. It's the moment that Universal stops telling us about making movies and shows us how it's done. We are sucked into the action, after which there's no deconstruction of the encounter as a fictional moment, as Universal often does with its Studio Tour set pieces. Universal just drops the mic, parks the tram, and we leave.
In Orlando? Yeah, there's no tour. Which means that Supercharged loses the context that gave it such power in Hollywood. In Hollywood, the audience is in peril from the beginning of the encounter. Roman's party is wildly out of bounds for the moment, amplifying our danger. In Florida, we board the party buses willingly, and any danger doesn't appear until later into the attraction, reducing the emotional stakes. It's just another "and something goes terribly wrong... but we escape" moment that we've seen countless times in theme park attractions before. There's no Adaptation-like twist.
Universal also scrubbed part of the exchange between Roman and the FBI agent, in which the agent ordered Roman to the ground. (Universal applied that change to the Hollywood version, too, after the Orlando opening.) While I suppose Universal wanted to erase its depiction of a racially-charged injustice by law enforcement, part of the franchise's appeal is the voice it gives to minority audiences too often ignored in Hollywood blockbusters. The edit with the FBI agent just further dials down the tension that was created in the USH original.
Switching the location from LA to San Francisco — to accommodate the existing exterior architecture in Universal Studios Florida — also undercuts the world building from the film series. Throwing Mia and Tej into an extended pre-show just blurs the focus, too.
In the past year or so, Universal has taken to cutting much of the set-up to the Hollywood encounter on the Studio Tour, making Supercharged less impressive than it was originally. And that just hardens my belief that if Universal has a problem with its attraction development right now, it's not with screens. It's with set-up.
The Orlando version of Supercharged fails to set the emotional stakes necessary to help that attraction resonate with a wide audience. The Jimmy Fallon ride betrayed the set-up so well crafted in its pre-ride experiences with a cheesy and generic conclusion to its theater show. Kong set up a richly detailed practical environment that didn't match with the heart of the experience it ultimately delivered.
I suspect that Universal will turn all this around with its next attraction — the new Harry Potter coaster experience in Islands of Adventure. If nothing else, J.K. Rowling's well-established oversight of her Wizarding World will keep Universal Creative on task. But I think that Universal also is helped by the fact that this new experience will not be something it's trying to port over from Hollywood Studio Tour.
Hard truth for Universal fans: None of the Studio Tour transplants have proven themselves as enduring break-out hits in Florida. Earthquake, Kongfrontation, and Jaws are all gone now. Jaws came closest to accumulating a devoted following, but that's because Universal revamped it into its own, twisted version of Disney's Jungle Cruise instead of throwing visitors onto yet another mildly decorated version of a Hollywood tram tour vehicle.
Yeah, Universal probably needs to lay off from media-driven attractions for a while now, if for no other reason than PR. But what Universal Orlando really needs to avoid is not media in its theme park rides. It needs to stop trying to repurpose Hollywood's Studio Tour.
The future of theme park attractions lies in compelling world building. The Studio Tour's iconic moments exist in the world of that famous backlot. Universal Orlando's next great attractions will need to arise for the bespoke worlds that Universal creates for them — not transplanted from a unique experience at a sister park.
And when Universal creates those worlds for us to enjoy, it needs to carry them through to a coherent end, and not bail out halfway through as it did with Fallon. That will be the difference between creating new attractions that rise above the simply good to the truly great.
If Universal's designers can do that, I don't think anyone will care how many screens they use.Tweet
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