Legends Reveal the Beginnings of Universal's Spider-Man Ride

November 17, 2021, 11:12 PM · At the IAAPA Expo in Orlando Wednesday afternoon, three theme park legends shared their stories about the making of one of the industry's most influential attractions.

Scott Trowbridge, Phil Hettema, and Thierry Coup all have worked for Disney and Universal and other employers during their careers. "Just like Spider-Man," quipped host Bob Rogers. But it was during their time at Universal Creative that these three collaborated on the development of Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure's award-winning The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

The ride we know today began as part of a DC Comics land in a planned Cartoon World theme park. But when Warner Bros. backed out, Universal scrambled to find a replacement, eventually making a deal with Marvel, which was emerging from bankruptcy.

"I still say some of those concepts, which are sitting in a drawer somewhere at Universal, are some of the best work I've ever seen. But they will never see the light of day," said Hettema, who was the senior VP of attraction development for Universal at the time.

Yet the switch to Marvel allowed the Universal team to work with more sympathetic characters, the panel agreed.

"But there's something different about the Marvel characters, and there's something particularly different about Spider-Man that I think works really well for us, which is he's a kid, right?" said Trowbridge, now Walt Disney Imagineering's Star Wars portfolio executive, who was the creative studio leader and show producer on Spider-Man. "He was not born on Krypton. He is not the son of a billionaire. He is not imbued with these powers that come to him from some God on high. He's a kid who got lucky, or unlucky, depending on your perspective.

"He's a kid that's just like us. Right? And so he gave us this kind of lovable, relatable, could-be-us kind of character that I think really gave us the opportunity to play with that. We might have awe for the DC Comics characters, but I think with Spider-Man - it's true for the Marvel characters more in general - he's somebody we can be friends with and hang out with. I think that actually helped us a lot."

But before fans could do that, this $100 million attraction spent years in development, featuring a first-of-its-kind blend of a motion-base ride system with rear-projected 3D media and practical sets. As one might expect for such a unique attraction, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man faced plenty of technical obstacles on its journey to opening day.

Prompted by Rogers, Trowbridge told the story of an audio glitch that kept silencing the attraction's soundtrack in the same place on the ride track. The glitch frustrated the design team, which played a process of elimination to try to find the culprit.

"Eventually we figured out that what was happening was in a different part of the building, there's a scene where the character Doc Ock fires at the audience with a liquid nitrogen effect from a cone," Trowbridge said. "What we had help in finding was the liquid nitrogen was so cold when it went through this metal cone, it was stripping ions off the metal and projecting them like an ion beam at the computer on board the vehicle in a different scene.

"No way we would have ever figured that out," he said to laughter from the crowd. "It was definitely not something like, 'Let's make sure we don't build any unintentional ion cannons.'"

Other technical challenges actually helped lead to improvements in the ride's design. Thierry Coup, Universal's Creative Senior Vice President who then was the production designer on the attraction, talked about a budget-busting estimate for scenery construction that led the team to choose instead trompe l'oeil-style printed backdrops for some scenes. That allowed the Spider-Man team to use the same digital textures on the backdrops that they were using in the filmed media, creating a better visual transition between the screens and practical sets.

But it was the decision to switch from eight-person ride vehicles to the now familiar 12-person SCOOP that made the biggest positive difference. And not just for higher ride capacity. The switch forced the team to cut three scenes from the ride to make room for the larger ride vehicles, which resulted in better pacing throughout, Coup said.

"From the very beginning, it's been about storytelling. It's about pacing. And that's what makes Spider-Man one of the most successful attractions to date. The pacing of the attraction is perfect," Coup said.

"You get in the vehicle and I want to analyze it, but after the first scene I can't think about anything else but the story. The pace, it is very much like a symphony. It's about using pacing as a philosophy to deliver emotion and story."

"There is no formula" for pacing, Coup said. "It is a trial and error. It's something that you feel. It's instinctive."

On any project, a team needs a champion to push the project forward, said Hettema.

"Every audience comes to the experience with a context of some sort. Whether what they did that morning, or what they know about that IP, or what they think about it. They come with a set of expectations," Hettema said.

"On every project, my rule of thumb is I have to meet those expectations - to check the boxes. There are certain things they expect Spidey to do. And then having met those expectations, I have to surprise the audience with something else they didn't expect. If you can do that on every project, then you're always moving forward."

For his final question, Rogers asked the panel about their biggest mistake and how they got out of it. And that lead to the wildest moment in perhaps all of IAAPA Legends panel history, when Coup responded.

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Replies (1)

November 18, 2021 at 4:01 AM

Thank you for the article Robert. The part of the ion cannon was new for me and must have been a head scratcher.

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