In just a couple of weeks, Universal Studios Hollywood will open its most ambitious traditional dark ride in more than a generation (if not ever), as The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! debuts in a new building on the site of the former Globe Theatre.
Featuring 64 animatronic characters, Secret Life of Pets will be a classic, practical dark ride enhanced by modern media technology. What that means is that what media is used within the attraction isn't the movies-on-a-screen imagery that fans have roasted Universal for over the past several years. Instead, Pets will blend media onto practical sets to enhance the storytelling driven by all those animatronics.
A few weeks ago, Universal's Jon Corfino led me and several other invited reporters on a walking tour of the new attraction, which is set in Katie's apartment building from the films. Universal has constructed an entire block of New York apartments on the site, leading it to rename the former Baker Street as Pets Place. With Illumination's Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem next door, the new attraction effectively creates an Illumination neighborhood on the west side of Universal's Upper Lot.
Corfino said the attraction was "about two and a half years in the making with Illumination, working very closely, of course, with Chris Meledandri and his writers and the entire team over there to come up with this adventure. You know, I like to say that the only true unconditional love we get in this life sometimes is from our pets. So, it's that kind of heartfelt experience that extends to the brand and obviously what our objective is with the new ride."
(Warning - now we enter a special neighborhood in Illumination's New York called "Spoiler Land.")
"The narrative is when we first enter Katie's apartment, we are greeted by Norman. Throughout the queue a series of other pets from the films recognize us as lost puppies, in need of a home. So, Snowball, [played by] Kevin Hart, has planned to get us to this adoption fair, which is just about over, but we've got to get across town to the pet store where the adoption fair is to meet to meet our new parents," Corfino said.
"We go through a queue line that's very unique. You're actually going to be going through Katie's apartment building, through a series of apartments. Of course there's no people in there, but you'll run into other animals - other pets - who will also be reinforcing the storyline all the way through."
Corfino said that guests can walk through the apartment rooms at their convenience, stopping to watch scenes play out. Look for iconic moments such as the blender massage from the first film, or a TV showing a YouTube-like channel of Pop's Disobedience School. Try to look through some of the mail slots, too, for Easter egg scenes within.
"We'll see Norman from time to time, who is known for [getting] lost. He will probably find something he thinks is a buddy but it turns out to be a dust bunny. Instead, he just always wondering where he is."
Eventually, you will make your way up the stairs (or elevators, for guests with mobility issues) to the mail room, where you board for your ride to the adoption event.
"The ride vehicles are boxes, because that's how a lot of times puppies are kept. As we get on the ride, one of the first experiences we see is that we make a turn into what I call the grand scene of New York. We pass an electronic store, and the electronic store has a big monitor. As we pass by it, we have our first sample of what I'll call this advanced optical optical gesture tracking technology where we actually see ourselves as puppies.
"It tracks our movements; it tracks our heads; it tracks our eyes. There are 15 different types of puppies, and you're identified as that singular puppy throughout the ride. Your ears move and it's fun," Corfino said.
"It's a technology that our Advanced Technologies Group worked on very closely, and we did a lot of R&D on it to make sure that it worked. If you think about it, you can either be too literal where you're doing this, and it's going to track you precisely, but it won't make your ears move - it won't have the character. It's so important that it be very seamless, where you see yourself, [but] you need to be as lovable an Illumination puppy dog. So facial expressions needed to be pre-rendered, but still follow your facial expression. So it's all kind of technology, but it's also making heartfelt moments," Corfino said, before detailing more of the ride.
"So you'll go through New York, and you'll see the richness of the sets. All along the way, you'll be helped and reinforced by the other pets from the films, and you'll go to a couple of places where we all recognize like Cat Alley, from the first film. Snowball has some wacky ideas about how to get us to where we need to get to, so we go on quite the adventure. At one point he straps a rocket on his back and thinks it's a good idea to go through a fireworks factory, so that becomes very, uh, engaging.
"I don't want to give too much away, but we end going through and getting surviving that. But we're kind of singed up a little bit, so we finally make it to the pet shop, and we've got to take a little bit of a bath. Don't worry, you don't get wet like on Jurassic [World], but they get you cleaned up so you can look your best to potentially be adopted.
"As you go through that sequence, you also once again see yourselves as puppies: getting wet, being blown dry, being cleaned up, and then you actually get to meet your adoptive parents, and then we have a big party at the end."
So why Secret Life of Pets? And why a practical ride, instead of more screens?
"You take a look at where we are right now and the marketplace," Corfino said. "You have this great very broad IP - which is really the sweet spot with Illumination - where it's family. It's not just for kids, but it's family, so it made a perfect perfect complement to the area that we're in right now. It made all the sense in the world to put it next to Despicable Me and have this become kind of Illumination land or Illumination neighborhood.
"Again, you take a look at the toolbox and what you want to do, how you want to execute the immersion level. You want to be close to characters, and the best way to make you feel that is in this case is not through media. In this case it's taking you through the actual places that you'd recognize from the film immerse you in those ways that you couldn't do with a traditional media based experience."
The Secret Life of Pets opens to the public on March 27 at Universal Studios Hollywood. Annual passholders may now sign up for preview rides that begin on March 14.
For discounted tickets to the park, including a Southern California resident discount, please visit our travel partner's Universal Studios Hollywood tickets page.
Update: Universal has released several photos from inside the attraction. Let's start with the front desk of the apartment building, which you see immediately upon entering the attraction.
Here's a closeup of of one of the characters.
And a couple of on-ride photos, showing the ride vehicles.
For more photos, please visit our The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! Photos page.Tweet
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