Is Universal Orlando building the wrong types of theme park rides?

January 13, 2019, 6:09 PM · 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.

Replies (25)

January 13, 2019 at 6:57 PM

Very good insight as to why F&F works in Hollywood but not Orlando and vice versa on Kong. It's all about the set-up and production less than ride itself. I don't hate video rides as much as others if they're done right but F&F showed it doesn't always translate properly.

I think Disney will be able to handle better the Star Wars rides and Universal is still great (I actually love the Minon Mayhem ride). It comes down to how the ride works as I admit I'm a sucker for more traditional rides of various types as it depends on how the ride itself uses the screens to effect more than just a screen ride.

January 13, 2019 at 8:09 PM

I’m an internal team member at the parks . I wholeheartedly agree with what you’re saying. If Universal wants to close the gap with Disney they have to rethink the way the place these attractions in UO. I would love to get my foot in the door with Creative no luck yet though lol

January 13, 2019 at 10:17 PM

I live in Orlando and haven't had a Universal AP in over 5 years, and don't really have any desire to go. Pretty much of all the attractions they've built in the last 15 years give me a headache.

January 13, 2019 at 10:17 PM

While Universal Creative puts most of its resources and efforts into Universal’s Fantastic Worlds, maybe it’s time for a dated attraction with practical sets like USF’s E.T. Adventure to be upgraded/overhauled...

January 13, 2019 at 10:27 PM

Totally agree with you! It’s not that screens are bad, but the source material and how it is presented on those screens that can make it so. Disney’s too attraction, Flight of Passage, is essentially a screen ride, but the queue, pre-show, and the ride itself makes it the best ride in the country (and maybe the world)!

January 14, 2019 at 12:16 AM

I do think part of the issue is Universal taking short segments of the USH Studio Tour and blowing them up into a standalone attraction, but I think a bigger problem is not screens but simply lack of variety amongst attractions. While they are two distinct parks, I'm guessing a majority of Universal Orlando visitors simply treat the whole place as one giant theme park, but doing so exposes that several of the attractions are essentially the same experience in both parks with a different IP. Visitors want unique experiences, they don't want the same thing over and over, so when five attractions in a row are more or less some sort of motion simulator it's not surprising that guests aren't exactly thrilled. I think the new Harry Potter coaster is likely to represent a new direction for Universal, and if it shows what they'll be doing going forward the future should be very bright for them.

January 14, 2019 at 12:56 AM

Try riding IOA's Spiderman and USF's Transformers back to back. Any guest who does can immediately tell they're literally the same attraction using 2 different intellectual properties. I have had foreign guests who had no affinity for either version's IP realize this, guessing correctly what type of scene they'd encounter in the exact order. Sharing infrastructure not visible to guests is okay to some extent but featuring two attractions that are that similar in adjacent theme parks and not going all out to make them each feel unique is not. And yes, there are too many screen based attractions overall. Hoping Universal's Fantastic Worlds and Universal Studios Beijing and all the renditions of Super Nintendo World themed areas don't become more parks filled with screens and interchangeable attractions pretending to be unique.

January 14, 2019 at 2:57 AM

It's not the screens that I'm feeling fatigued by, it's all the simulators. I like good thrills as much as the next guy, but sooner or later I'm going to want to a nice, relaxing ride where I don't have to worry about spilling my lunch. I wish Universal would look towards more boat rides or Omnimover-style dark rides that expectant mothers and people of all heights can enjoy.

January 14, 2019 at 8:42 AM

90% of Universal attendees will never go to both California and Florida, so comparing them is for an extreme minority. There is a very vocal minority of AP holders who insist every ride be a roller coaster. Last I checked they only lost one, in Florida, and will be getting a better coaster style ride. Rides need to be for more people, not ones over 54" I have no problem with the screen rides and understand the nightmares coasters bring. Space, build cost, maintenance, limited clientele, etc. I don't blame them. F&F (horrible movies) may not be their best ride, but most people come out with a smile. Absolutely love Transformer, Kong and Fallon. Just my 2 cents, but I think there are more people out there like me, than the vocal ones online

January 14, 2019 at 10:08 AM

Universal likes to have a new experience each year. In that sense, I can absolutely see the draw in porting over the screen bits from the Hollywood Tour. It's got to be relatively inexpensive to do, and it can makes for an effective marketing draw. The "Fast and Furious" franchise is ridiculously popular overseas and news that there's an attraction based on it, may very well encourage some foreign trip planners to visit. In that respect it doesn't even matter if it's dumb. It was cheap, easy to slot in, it made it seem like there was a big new attraction for the year, and it made Universal some cash while they worked on whatever's coming next.

All that said, I think Universal has certainly gotten the message about screens. They read the message boads too. So I bet the upcoming slate features fewer obvious screen ripoffs. I think I remember reading at some point that the new Potter coaster was going to be mostly practical effects.

January 14, 2019 at 10:20 AM

Agreed with a lot of the article but disagree that Kong doesn't work. Kong is a great ride and the line ups for it prove that. Jimmy Fallon is also good and the limited success for that one is in my opinion more about the content. Not everyone watches Jimmy Fallon so that's probably why the ride part is more cartoonish. They probably figured that many people would still go to the ride but wouldn't know who Jimmy Fallon is so they made the ride experience more "fun" with being shot to the moon.

F&F is probably one of the worst things they've ever done. I was very disappointed with that ride. I realize they probably didn't have the space for it but F&F screams roller coaster. How in the world they thought that a movie based thing like Kong would work for F&F is insane. They should have built some insanely fast coaster with 0-100kph in seconds like the Ferrari coasters in Abu Dhabi. They could have had slower parts in show buildings with screens to convey the story but with F&F you needed to feel real speed!

January 14, 2019 at 10:39 AM

As I recall, one of your recent polls suggested that users are mostly excited for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. A lot of buzz is being built around the actual sets being built (physical storm troopers and even a giant AT-AT walker). Screens are fine, but those physical elements are still desired. I'd love to see some classic Disney-esque dark rides at Universal. I feel that it's still impractical to justify taking my young children to Universal because they don't get to do much while there (though I have plenty to do, which isn't fun for them).

January 14, 2019 at 10:49 AM

Just was in Hollywood a couple of weeks ago, and thought Kong and (especially) Fast and Furious were great during the tour, better than what we expected. In fact we went back and did the tour again primarily to do these again.

Haven't been to USF since these have been open, so can't comment accurately on the Florida versions yet, or how they compare. But a couple of thoughts anyway since it's fresh in my mind:

- The tour is presented as "how they make movies" and is very long and honestly mostly pretty when you go into these segments, they're awesome "plus" features of the tour as a whole. As opposed to "Hey this is going to be an awesome ride in itself" which sounds like how these are presented in Florida and may leave some people feeling like "that's all there is?" after a short experience that may be below raised expectations.

- In the Fast and Furious segment of the tour, you're in a bus-type vehicle that has actually been moving all over the backlot. With that in mind, some of the effects made it feel like you were legitimately moving -- and moving super-fast, the illusion is done really well. No idea what type of ride "vehicle" you're in or how it feels in the Florida version, but I'm wondering if the illusion of moving and speed is as good ?!?

As an aside, my daughter and I love the first couple of scenes at the beginning of the party. The technique used, with filmed characters within real-life set elements is really good; it's somehow lit better there and comes across way better than I've seen it elsewhere. The characters look great.

January 14, 2019 at 10:47 AM

January 14, 2019 at 12:05 PM

When I go on a dark ride anywhere, I look for a good story with a beginning, middle and end and that somehow I will be part of it. As long as the ride system serves the story, I don't really think about what is used. In that sense, I really like Kong and Gringotts. Fallon and Spiderman in my view are less successful on that level. Fallon starts out fantastic, but then you race through New York with the entire audience and somehow make it to the moon and back. It has no real story and the ride system doesn't make it very personal. Spiderman is a great ride system with awesome 3D (and some 4D), but in the story you're just chasing a bunch of villains on the ground until you then somehow fly and follow Spiderman too. I do not think we'll see less 3D/4D based rides because they are just much cheaper than a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean.

January 14, 2019 at 11:22 AM

I don't mind the screen based rides to be honest, Universal are after all a movie studio (my only gripe is with Jimmy Fallon, not the ride aspect but the confusion beforehand. A flashing light on the roof which changes color whilst you are watching a pre show is easily missed and I have missed my call on 2 occasions, it really needs a cast member to call out when your ticket is ready), but my biggest criticism of Universal is Harry Potter. Yes it was fine at the beginning over at IOA, then it encroached into Universal studios. Now another HP ride in what was left of Lost Continent, which I think will result in the closure of Poseidon and yet another HP something or other. Universal Studios have become lost and now no longer really exists it now stands as Harry Potter world.

January 14, 2019 at 1:34 PM

I agree with every single word!

January 14, 2019 at 5:11 PM

I don't think anyone here is arguing this point. I've always been a supporter of screen based attractions when screens are the best way to tell the story. Regardless, UO needs to utilize some different ride systems just to provide some variety.
After the Google Assistant ride that hit the web last week, I'm Jonesing for a ride with original, singable music.

January 14, 2019 at 5:13 PM

One one hand Universal has a real estate problem at the two main parks, and the easy and quick fix is a screen based attraction. I really like Spider-man and Transformers, and many other people do as well, and that is why they have continued with a tried and true solution. On the other hand, they make some people sick. If you have too many, you may have a problem. With Orlando, it is families coming to Disney which primarily is Small World and the Tiki Room, and grandma is not going to want to ride the Hulk five times (although my kids grandmother does and it is awesome). So, it may be a mistake having nothing but screen rides, but I hope they don't feel like they have to stop. Gringotts is an excellent example of having screens push the story forward. Forbidden Journey is the pinnacle the dark rides, and it used both, but look at its real estate footprint. I would hope they could use all forms of technology, practical, screens, and projection in dark rides, but, again, that takes up space.

What I would hope for is a renovation to ET that relies on practical, and a huge, walk through gothic haunted castle themed in their classic monster movies. They can do it, but it may be in the new park, which would have the real estate.

January 14, 2019 at 9:53 PM

I would hope that at some point the creators would wake up and realize that there isn't that much excitement in VR theme park rides. Many visitors want to be able to "touch and feel" the scenes. In another words they want solid objects that are not on a screen. That is why so many of the classic Disney rides are super popular. I can not feel part of the show watching a screen. I do not get the sensation of motion from those screens and all I really see is a movie with its projection flaws. The other part of this is that there are a lot of people out there that can not see 3D so all they get is this blurry picture to watch.
The final thing that I have noticed over the years is that Hollywood itself in general does not have an original idea to present to the masses How many recycled movies and TV shows have we seen in the past 5 years. The critics are amazed when an original story or telling of a story makes it big in the theaters. The people are hungry for original stories. Because many of the population have been brain washed to think that the garbage that is being put out is good when in fact it is low quality with no originality. Although I must admit that if you can make millions without any hard work I guess I would do it too.

January 15, 2019 at 2:13 PM

I undestand there isn't that much room in Universal Studios, but a Fast and the Furios ride should have been a bigger and better Test Track. Maybe if they waited for the mysterious third park... As is, it was incredibly disappointing, especially since I rode the original in hollywood a month later and saw they added nothing to the ride itself. Kong at least added the robot Kong and the intro scenes.

January 15, 2019 at 3:34 PM

Definitely too many screen-based rides at Universal. While I enjoy many of them, including Kong, on our last visit, we noticed the lack of variety. Islands of Adventure has a good mix, but at Universal Studios Florida, I think we did five screen attractions in a row. It was overkill. I love the Mummy and MIB, and wish they had more rides like that.

January 15, 2019 at 5:51 PM

“It was overkill. I love the Mummy and MIB, and wish they had more rides like that.”

You mean like Rip Ride Rocket and E.T.? This nonsense that Universal has too many screen based rides is completely bogus. I do think they have an issue of using the same ride platforms in similar applications, but they’re building attractions that people like and enjoy more than Tunnel of Love-esque boat rides.

The best rides in all of WDE are screen based (FoP, Soarin’, and TSMM), and the new Galaxy’s Edge attractions as well as MMRR are going to be heavily screen dependent (so are Guardians and Ratatouille). Heck, Disney is even using screens in their classic animatronic figures, so either accept being in the 21st Century or continue to reminisce about the “good ‘ole days” where a 15-minute earowrm of a ride was considered an achievement.

January 15, 2019 at 5:52 PM

I don't mind the amount of screen-based rides, but I do agree that the application and execution is where Universal takes a drop in quality. But I do also agree that the past few rides have been too similar in application... screen after screen. Any theme park needs variety, and it feels like for every one or two successful rides, they fumble and make two or three that aren't great.

For example, the Shrek ride as well as the Terminator show always bothered me that you would start as part of the show, then end up watching a movie with no explanation why we are watching. It's jarring and not ideal. Don't get me wrong, I love parts of each but they needed to keep us as part of the show the entire time.

And then the new Kung Fu Panda show... doesn't make sense why a gigantic theater is being pulled through where Po is going. Sure, the projection mapping is amazing, but still doesn't make sense.

Not quite related, but I can't stand the Mummy at Universal Hollywood... the "spirits" on the coaster section are cheap flashing "neon signs" and the entire ending is anti-climactic. It's one of the few rides that starts are fantastic and progressively gets worse.

At least Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey makes sense from beginning to end.

January 16, 2019 at 5:48 PM

At USF, the number of screen-based rides is total overkill: Gringotts, Hogwarts Express, Simpsons, Transformers, Minions, Fallon, Shrek, Fast and Furious. That`s most of the park.

Disney has a much better mix of attractions, and FOP is so immersive that you completely forget that it is screen-based. However, if most of WDW was made up of variations on FOP, lots of people would be complaining, and rightfully so.

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