Welcome to the Mushroom Kingdom - officially.
Universal Studios Hollywood this morning officially opened America's first installation of Super Nintendo World to the public. Yes, the land's been open for over a month now, but those were the technical rehearsal soft opening, the annual passholder preview opening and, on Wednesday night, the press grand opening.
Did I go to all four of them? Yes. Yes, I did. Here is the replay of my livestream of Universal's "opening moment" for the land this morning, featuring Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto - aka "Mario's dad," the creator of Mario. [Miyamoto-san rolls in at 7:00 in the video.]
Fans at the front of the line said that they had been waiting since 4am for the official debut this morning. Thousands then poured through the green warp pipe into the land after the opening moment, filling the queues for Super Nintendo World's signature attraction, Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge, as well as the interactive Key Challenges throughout the land.
Super Nintendo World is the latest immersive, single-IP land in the theme park industry, this time featuring what gross receipts show to be the world's most popular entertainment franchise - Mario. Super Nintendo World brings the Mushroom Kingdom to life, not as a giant digital environment, but translated into the practical world.
The story here is that Bowser has stolen the Golden Mushroom from Princess Peach and we are the players who must win it back. We do that by winning at least three Gold Keys to unlock a boss battle with Bowser Jr., who is keeping the Golden Mushroom in his room. Four Key Challenges await us in the land, which require you to race, tap, punch, or twist to win the challenge and get a Gold Key. The four vary in difficulty, and in two them - Piranha Plant Nap Mishap and Thwomp Panel Panic - working with other players will make the tasks much easier.
Keeping track of your keys requires buying a Power Up Band, a $40 slap bracelet that pairs with the official Universal Studios Hollywood app on your mobile device. The app will show you how many keys and stamps you have collected for activities throughout the land, as well as how many total points you have won and where you rank among other players in the land, today and all time.
The character you choose for your Power Up Band will determine which "team" you are playing for in the land, as well.
Most fans won't stop to try the Gold Key challenges when they first enter the land, however. That's because the big attraction in Super Nintendo World is Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge. It's not enough to steal the Golden Mushroom. Bowser wants to prove his supremacy by defeating Team Mario on his beloved go-kart track. So we are here to race for Team Mario to win the Cup, instead.
Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge is more a Mario Kart-themed dark ride than it is a real-life Mario Kart experience. Each guest on the four-person karts has a steering wheel, but this is a slow-speed tracked ride that uses visual effects to create the illusion of high speed, rather than hitting you with the Gs of an actual high-speed, drifting, kart-driving experience. Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge uses augmented reality for much of its animation, including karts around you, the shells that you will throw at Team Bowser, and the question blocks you will collect to capture more shells.
The AR system projects on a face shield mounted a few inches in front of your face, under the brim of a Mario visor you will collect just before boarding. It's a comfortable system that accommodates eyeglasses without problems. Now the deep seat wells of the cart are a different matter - creating a tight fit that some larger riders may find uncomfortable. You will find test seats just inside the ride's entrance.
Easter egg tip: Hold down the two buttons on your steering wheel between 3 and 2 on the countdown to score your first, extra points to help you toward the 100 you need to win the Cup. As you ride, look down to see how many shells you have, as this is not an interactive experience where you can fire at will with no concern for ammunition. The number of shells you have at any moment is limited, so use them wisely as you use them to throw Team Bowser off course.
Be sure to turn the steering wheel as indicated on the AR display, and use your head to aim your shells, which you will throw by pushing those two buttons again. Your sightline also collects question blocks that can replenish your shell supply.
You don't need to be a Mario expert to score well in this game. Heck, I just told you pretty much all you need to know to win those 100 points, and the pre-show videos will tell you the rest. But Universal Creative designers have filled Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge and its queue with visual and audio references to the Mario universe, call-backs that will delight the many dedicated fans who have waited for years to step into a real-life Mario game.
Once you've reached the finish line, you will exit into Super Nintendo World's gift shop, 1-UP Factory.
And if you're feeling hungry, the land's restaurant is Toadstool Cafe, where Chef Toad and his crew will prepare you a lunch or dinner.
My first meal during the previews here was a delight, but my second disappointed. Universal now has expanded the menu with a Mushroom Soup and Short Rib special entree, so we will have to see how well Universal is able to execute this fun, Mario-themed menu in the weeks to come under normal operations.
Yeah, the land was slammed today, and that's rarely a great experience, unless you just want to feed off the energy of being surrounded by thousands of fellow dedicated Mario fans. But when the crowd thins in the coming weeks, as it almost always does for popular new attractions, Super Nintendo World will offer a practical, physical version of the carefree play experience that has made Mario so endearing to generations of fans.
Universal Studios Hollywood will use its Virtual Line system to control entry into Super Nintendo World until demand falls enough to allow the park to leave the land open on a walk-in basis. You can access the Virtual Line through the Universal Studios Hollywood app.
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