Universal Studios Hollywood has created one of the most compelling recreations of an animated franchise in theme park history. And it has done so by putting aside Universal's recent obsession with screen-based storytelling to crate an environment that finds its heart through dozens of animatronics and practical effects.With The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash,
SLoP (really, does anything think about acronyms when naming these things?) uses Universal's Virtual Line virtual queuing system. So - in normal operation - there would be no physical queue in front of the attraction entrance at 3637 Pets Place on Universal's Upper Lot. To ride, reserve your ride time in Universal's official app, or scan your park admission ticket at the subway station next door to get a time. Then just show your QR code to the doorperson and you will be welcomed into this upscale Manhattan apartment building.
The preshow queue is a walkthrough some of the apartments that will be familiar to fans of the Illumination animation franchise. Universal Creative's production design blends the realism of luxury New York apartments (seriously, can I live in these rooms while the park is closed?) with animated touches that sell the idea that this really is the home of these popular characters. (Spoilers ahead from here on.) Take the time to peek inside the mail slots and watch the ventilation grates for some visual surprises.
When we reach the living room where impressive animatronics Max and Duke are talking on the couch, we learn the attraction's twist - that we are dogs, too. Specially, we are puppies - and without collars. That means we are strays, in need of a home.
Fortunately, there's an adoption event today at The Pets Store. (Yes, that's also not-coincidentally the name of the merchandise location at the ride's exit.) Max suggests that we go see Snowball in the next room, who can get us to the event.
Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart, is the reformed leader of The Flushed Pets gang who now promotes himself as Captain Snowball, the savior of pets and would-be pets, such as us. Unfortunately, every plan he ever concocts ought to be followed by the words, "and then things went horribly wrong," so get ready for an adventure.
We ship out of the apartment building's mail room in two-person vehicles fashioned to look like cardboard boxes - appropriate for puppies being sent to adoption. On the ride's initial turn, we get our first look at ourselves in puppy form, thanks to some neat digital trickery. Go ahead and wave your hand. You will see your paw shake in the "window" as you move, too. (I suspect that the ride's 34-inch height requirement might be to support this visual effect as much as anything involving the ride itself, which is physically tame with a few gentle rotations.)
With Pets and the Minions, Illumination is known for slapstick animation, and Universal has crammed this dark ride with more practical gags than you possibly could hope to catch in a single pass. But the "horribly wrong" has to come, so we turn another corner and intrude upon the home of The Alley Cats. Yet that problem isn't as bad as Snowball's solution - strapping all the pets to fireworks to fly us to The Pets Store.
What follows is pure visual chaos, in both digital and practical form, before we actually do make it to The Pets Store, where Gidget declares our singed fur is no condition for making a good impression. So we're bathed and blown dry - with appropriate water and wind effects - before we see our puppy form again... and then meet our new family.
With this penultimate scene, Off the Leash (which is a silly name given that, as new adoptees, we're presumably going to be on the leash pretty soon) sets up and hits a poignant emotional beat. After a year in which so many of us have experienced layoffs and isolation, it's heartwarming to feel wanted and welcomed again - even if it's just by an animated family. Right now, I will take that.
The final scene delivers a celebration, with another flood of visual and audio gags to process through multiple return visits.
The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash delivers the family dark ride that Universal Studios Hollywood has lacked ever since the old ET Adventure closed on the Lower Lot two decades ago. But this adventure surpasses anything that Universal has done in this space before. With outstanding production design, clever visual trickery and an emotionally validating story, The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash claims a spot among the world's very best family theme park attractions.
Here is our POV video of the walkthrough pre-show and full ride experience:
Universal Studios Hollywood is open with limited capacity to California residents only, until further notice. Date-specific tickets are required, and our travel partner has some nice discounts on many dates, including on popular weekends. Please visit their Universal Studios Hollywood tickets page to check the deals and book your tickets.
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