All aboard the 2020 Hype Train for The Secret Life of Pets

December 23, 2019, 3:31 PM · We've been counting down the 10 new theme park attractions that we're most looking forward to in 2020. Today's entry comes from Universal Studios Hollywood, where Universal has an opportunity to establish a new model for what its theme park attractions will look like in the new decade.

The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! is taking over the site of the former Globe Theatre on the park's Upper Lot. Scheduled to open sometime this year, the ride appears to be departing from Universal's recent model of screen-driven, motion-base rides. In its announcement last year, Universal said that the ride will feature "live, dimensional and animated characters" along with filmed media. (Remember that "Audio Animatronic" is a Disney term, so Universal often says "animated" characters for that.)

Beyond that announcement, though, Universal has not done much to fire up the hype train for this new attraction. Still, the new building that will house the ride impresses, recreating a block of New York apartments across from Gru's neighborhood and the Despicable Me ride, effectively making the western half of the Upper Lot into an Illumination animation studios land.

The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! construction

So what's the story here? "Guests will assume the roles of stray puppies as they join a familiar cast of leading characters from The Secret Life of Pets — Max, Snowball, Gidget, Chloe and Duke, along with a host of other animal friends — on the ultimate quest of finding forever homes," Universal announced.

I love the idea that Secret Life of Pets will transform visitors into pets. Great theme park attractions fire up our imaginations, encouraging us to see ourselves as participants in an adventure, rather simply as observers of someone else's story. This franchise relies upon the conceit of letting us in on housepets' points of view, but it never explains why we have access to that POV. Off the Leash answers that question, at least for the ride's sake, by making us pets, as well. That should charm a lot of kids who visit... plus quite a few adults, as well.

Beyond that, I'm excited for Off the Leash because I want to see Universal try something it hasn't done much before. Screen-based rides provide the most accurate and reliable way for fans to spend time with the movie and television stars that Universal builds its attractions around. But people who spend money to visit theme parks instead of movie theaters demand a more immersive, life-like experience than just looking at flat screens.

Universal Creative has heard that message. (Loudly and clearly, from my conversations with some of its creative leaders.) With a multi-story show building and the potential of advanced dimensional shows effects and next-generation ride vehicles, including maybe even trackless navigation systems, Universal has some interesting tools to play with here.

I can't wait for this secret to be revealed.

Previously on "All aboard the 2020 Hype Train":

Replies (5)

December 24, 2019 at 8:32 AM

I just can't get excited for this attraction. Universal has been so mum about what the experience will be like, and while I believe they are listening to guest comments about the proliferation of screen-based attractions, I worry that this will go too far in the other direction where we end up with a listless, boring, outdated experience like what Cat in the Hat has become.

I also worry about the popularity and viability of the IP here. Even the voice talent here is not super distinctive. The original lead, Louis CK, has been ostracized, while the sequel's replacement, Patton Oswald, is ubiquitous. Kevin Hart has the cache to carry the IP, but plays a minor character and is known more for other projects than this animated franchise, most notably Jumanji (BTW, his Danny Glover impersonation in the current sequel is AMAZING). So even if UC leans on the original voice talent, it won't have much sizzle (though a safety video with Hart's Snowball would be a MUST for me).

I think current theme park guests are looking for more than riding through scenes of a movie, even if they're being pulled into the story as participants instead of observers. The multi-level feature portends some potential thrills - I think the elevators on Transformers are one of the most clever features on a modern dark ride, but UC has to be careful to not make the experience too edgy where height restrictions limit the audience or it is too intense for the the youngest guests to whom the characters are most likely to appeal.

In the end, UC is in a tricky spot here, because this attraction has a lot of niches to fill - satisfy older crowds, younger crowds, fans seeking something new and different, and make a middle-of-the-road IP accessible to everyone. The lack of publicity regarding this attraction is also a bit concerning - you'd think if UC were excited about this, they wouldn't be able to contain themselves about breaking their current screen-philic stereotype, and let's face it, they haven't had a great track record of late with operational issues for Hagrid, awful F&F, mediocre Jimmy Fallon, and decent though unspectacular Kong: Skull Island (though I think Kong is underrated and underappreciated). With all of the success Disney has had recently with their most anticipated attractions (RotR operational issues aside), UC needs to deliver and give fans confidence that future attractions (including Nintendo World and an ENTIRELY new park, Epic Universe) will start moving in an upward trajectory. Universal really needs a hit outside of the Wizarding World.

December 25, 2019 at 11:29 AM

FWIW, Universal doesn't do advanced hype for its attractions the way that Disney does. (And especially not in Hollywood.) So I am not concerned about the lack of information coming from Universal here. It's their SOP.

The IP got in trouble because of delays and changes flowing from having to recast its lead character due to Louis CK lighting his career on fire. But Patton Oswalt is a great replacement, and so long as theme park pros are writing the script for the new ride, the characters should resonate well with guests.

December 26, 2019 at 7:00 AM

This could be a real game changer for Universal and they need to go all out. Ive often contended that it is Universals main weakness: the lack of charming family dark rides that Disney excels at. I wished Simpsons and Despicable Me would be like this and I dont think theres been any significant ride like this from Universal since the good but outdated ET.

December 26, 2019 at 8:30 AM

@Robert - They certainly don't do the slow, yet constant build that Disney does for new rides, but the last we've heard from anyone at Universal about this attraction was WAY back last April when Steve Burke, who's leaving his post next year, gave us the official name and basic premise of the attraction. That's nearly 9 months of silence from the park. While Universal tends to not spill the beans regarding their attractions far in advance, there are at least some leaks here and there that build excitement within the fan community. Aside from the multi-level aspect to the ride, there have been very few specific details leaked about this attraction. Either UC has their staff on tight lockdown, or they're not breaking any revolutionary ground here with this attraction. That might not be such a bad thing, but it sounds likely that a clone of this attraction will be coming to Epic Universe to anchor an Illumination land, so the hope would be that this would punch above the popularity of the IP. FWIW, I think the IP has potential, but it could also be a huge flop if not handled right like what happened to F&F. It will also forever be linked to Ratatouille, which has already established a strong track record in DSP, even though Disney's animal-based trackless (assuming Pets is also trackless) dark ride will be debuting on the opposite coast.

@Daniel - I actually really enjoy Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, and even though it is just a reskinning of one of the original USF ride platforms, it is a solid use of the IP that connects with guests on multiple levels and with multiple demographics. The Super Silly Funland in USH does a lot with very limited space, and shows the potential of Illumination IP to anchor an entire land. I do agree that Universal has shied away from the classic family dark ride that Disney has excelled at, but perhaps they have stayed away from that genre because they didn't want to compete in this space. Now that they're branching outside of their target demo (teens and thrill-seeking young adults), they realize that they need to fill in the gaps of their attraction lineup.

I hope this succeeds, because it could spell trouble for Epic Universe. I worry that this IP just doesn't have the necessary popularity to connect with the average USH guest, and it's a bit outside of UC's historical wheelhouse with little publicity to attract an entirely new type of guest that would truly appreciate a ride like this.

December 27, 2019 at 11:45 AM

USF in particular has become a glorified multiplex. While I enjoy screen-based attractions like Spider-Man, Kong and Gringotts, Universal went way overboard with the same kind of experience, while Disney maintained a good and exciting mix. I`m not into the Pets movies, but any new ride with sets, practical effects and AAs is always exciting.

While the Simpsons is a fun ride, imagine what it would have been like with AAs of Homer, Krusty, etc...

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