Month: January 2019

A Blatantly Honest Review of the Universal Studios Parks

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In November 2018, I visited Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood exactly six days apart. Now, I didn’t experience everything as the Orlando visit was for a private party during which only 1/3 of the park was open. However, as this was my first visit to a stateside Universal park in quite some time, many of the attractions were new to me and I noticed a lot more screens than there used to be.

BEHIND THE SCREENS

In each of these film-based attractions (I’ll use a term introduced in the 1990s – “ridefilms”), it is the characters, the shape of the screen, and the shaky mechanism for the seats that defines its uniqueness.

And also the plot.  Though the plots are so similar, there’s actually a key to defining them.

In the mid-1990’s, filmed attraction veterans Charlotte Huggins and Ray Spencer came up with the following formula, which is still followed to this day:  The genre is split into six plot categories: 1) Roller coaster/Track, 2) Flying, 3) Underwater, 4) Racetrack/One Plane, 5) Object/Person point-of-view and 6) Dark Ride. Within those plots, the following devices are most common: A) Sister Ship, B) Molecular Shrink, C) Time Machine, D) Crisis Landing, E) Something’s Wrong With Our Ship, F) Save the Planet, G) Oops! Wrong direction, H) Time Clock, I) Encounter an Evil Creature, J) Camera point-and-shoot and K) On-camera “host.”*  So…using the formula,the classic Universal attraction Back to the Future: the Ride comes across as 2ACDEFGHIK.

There are a few elements in each ride that, though most guests may not pick up on them, add to the uniqueness of the attraction. In The Simpsons Ride, the vehicle, disguised as a dark ride car, slightly edges forward as if about to go through a pair of doors, only to rise up into the theater. At the end of the experience, riders believe their on-ride photo is being taken. But it’s a trick. The actual photo comes a few seconds later.

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The other Kung Fu Panda film attraction. Publicity photo from MOTIONGATE Dubai.

The film in Kung Fu Panda Adventure is actually a clone of the one used on the Kung Fu Panda: Unstoppable Awesomeness 3D simulator attraction at MOTIONGATE Dubai. But instead of being a direct port, the 2D film in Hollywood expands around the interior architecture of the DreamWorks Theatre through the use of additional projectors and crisp image blending. The designers and animators took full advantage of this and guests will notice the architectural elements integrated into the film, such as faux windows that animated characters climb through.

PEOPLE CAN’T SEE THE DARKNESS

For almost all of its 3D attractions at both parks, Universal uses INFITEC technology, developed by Daimler Benz. INFITEC has its advantages – a single projector can be used and it can be projected onto a single white screen, rather than a silver painted screen to increase light gain.

INFITEC also has a major shortcoming – the filters drastically reduce light levels. One study I’ve read reported that light levels dropped by 94%. This means that for the setup in this study, researchers were only able to see 6% of the brightness of a 2D image when viewing in 3D. And that sucks.

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Photo credit: INFITEC

The 3D images at Universal are noticeably dark. For a movie theater that’s running Dolby 3D (Dolby has the cinema license for INFITEC), it makes sense to pump up the light level if you’re only showing a film four or five times a day. But if you’re a theme park operating an attraction nonstop for twelve or more hours each day, that becomes costly. So the easy way out is to limit light output and hope nobody notices or cares. (If you’re a Universal pass holder, ride Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and then immediately go to The Simpsons Ride or Kung Fu Panda Adventure – you’ll see for yourself how dark the 3D image gets).

Now don’t get me wrong here – INFITEC is actually my favorite 3D technology. When done right, the images and the color are amazing. But to be done right, you really have to pump up the light levels. Hopefully, the next generation of RGB laser projectors will be able to fix this issue at Universal in the future.

There are two 3D attractions that stood out as being the exception to the norm – King Kong 360 and Fast & Furious: Supercharged, both on the Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour. As best I could tell, the glasses handed to us for the tour were not INFITEC, but rather polarized. The image that we had on both attractions was crisp, clear, and vibrant, making them my second and third favorite attractions at the Hollywood park. I wish I could say the same about the Orlando version of Fast & Furious, but that version of the attraction was not designed by humans.

THE RECAST AND THE EGREGIOUS

Ever since he was a young lad growing up near the port in San Pedro, Kevin had wanted to become an attraction designer for Universal Studios. As a teenager, he would cut class and take the bus to Hollywood, sneaking onto the upper lot, where he’d talk with KITT, dress like a Klingon, and take a tram tour through a spaceship full of Cylons.

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Kevin (center) and his design team for Fast & Furious: Supercharged at Universal Studios Florida

After thirteen years of intensive schooling at the California Institute of the Arts and an internship at Medieval Times, Kevin’s dream finally came true (sort of) when he was hired to work the mail room at Universal Creative.

Over the years, Kevin worked his way up through the ranks until one day, he was called into the office of the big boss himself, Mark.

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Mark. Source: Universal Parks and Resorts

“People are loving Fast & Furious: Supercharged in Hollywood,” said Mark. “I want to bring it to Florida – faster and more furious than ever. And Kevin, I want you to lead the project.”

Kevin knew he could do no wrong and he pulled together a crack team of theme park design and technology experts.

Among the first things Kevin wanted to do was to push the film franchise’s message of family. “I think we should bring in a couple of characters from the films for a pair of preshows and have them interact with support staff,” he told his team. “They can have serious, concerned conversations and make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the family.”

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Archive photo of Bob announcing his acceptance into the Walt Disney Imagineering intern program

“Brilliant,” said Bob, the attraction’s story writer. “But I have a big concern. If we have the actors from the film come in and exhibit emotion, interacting with trained Equity actors on stage, people might get too gushy about being in the family and never want to leave the preshow rooms.”

“I’m listening,” said Kevin. “Go on.”

“How about instead,” continued Bob, “we pay Ludacris and Jordana $10,000 and a cup of Starbucks each and just have them talk into the camera without any emotion? Then, instead of trained actors, we transfer some shirt folders from retail and have them interact on stage with the emotionless videos!”

“Brilliant!” said Kevin, “Let’s do that!”

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Archive photo of Stuart, taken at 2008 TEA Mixer at Walt Disney Imagineering, Glendale

Suddenly, Stuart, the attraction’s audio-visual integrator chimed in. “We can’t do this ride in 3D.”

“Why not?” Kevin asked.

“Because I only have one eye,” Stuart replied. “Besides, it will look better in 2D. The image will be 94% brighter!”

“Brilliant!” said Kevin. “Let’s make a blockbuster attraction.”

Kevin brought the final plans to Mark, who replied, “This is brilliant! We’ll start construction immediately.”

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The TEA surrounds Mark like Minions on a banana.

A few months later, the Themed Entertainment Association found out about the attraction. “Brilliant!” said all its members. And they bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon Mark.

THREE TRUTHS AND THE THREE BROOMSTICKS
  1. Every park has that one attraction that ends up being sub-standard for any number of reasons (budget cuts, vendor and contractor issues, poor interdepartmental communication, The Jungle Book) – Journey Into YOUR Imagination, Rocket Rods, that General Electric ride at SeaWorld where you ride through the spin cycle of a washing machine with, for some reason, penguins.
  2. Mark Woodbury’s lifetime achievement award is very much deserved. He and his team have established remarkable new standards in the theme park and attractions industries.
  3. Where Universal excels is attention to detail in creating three dimensional 360-degree immersive spaces. Orlando’s Fast & Furious attraction was a beautiful piece of architectural design. Unfortunately, that means the thing I remember as being most remarkable wasn’t the preshows or the ride itself, but rather the exit ramp from the second preshow room to the station for the ride vehicles. Every time it snakes around, the ramp becomes thinner, siphoning guests from a large crowd into a single person line without the majority being aware this was taking place, or how.

Check this out. This is the ceiling of a restaurant:

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This is the Three Brooms Restaurant at Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not only was the food delicious, but the environment came alive simply through its scope and detail.

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Such attention to detail could be found throughout the Wizarding World. A trip to Olivander’s Wand Shop began with a visit to a secret room where a young wizard (a child-like guest) is fitted with a wand. This is a short and quite enjoyable show (with long lines later in day) that uses lighting, music, and physical effects.

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The audience is let out into the actual store itself, where they can purchase an interactive wand. Wandering around the land, they can then use the wand at various marked locations to execute spells. A small show leads to an impulse buy which leads to exploration, retention in the land and the high potential for increased purchase of retail and food & beverage. Genius.

And holy crap! A dead girl talks to you in the restroom!

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Springfield at the Hollywood park is a glorified food court. But oh how glorious it is. Behind this facade is the highly detailed second story seating area for Krusty Burger. We sat around the corner in the second story of Cletus’ Chicken Shack, enjoying well seasoned chicken tenders and a chicken and waffle sandwich in a fully rendered Appalachianesque shack turned chicken joint, complete with childrens’ overalls hanging on a wash line. Above us an oversized TV showed video of animated characters vomiting. I would expect nothing less from The Simpsons.

RATING THE ATTRACTIONS FROM 1 (VERY BAD) TO 10 (RIDE AGAIN AND AGAIN)
Revenge of the Mummy (Florida)

Fantastic as hell and a great use of the cavernous space once occupied by Kongfrontation. The projection technology is obviously a bit outdated, but this ride is due for an overlay. Unfortunately, did not get to experience the Hollywood version, which I understand has a much different profile. Rating: 9

Fast & Furious: Supercharged (Florida)

Ummmm……no. My riding companion, an analyst well known in the industry, has never seen the films and was very confused with the attraction. Without the stereo images behind them, the smoke and spray effects appear static. I will always remember how little of the film I actually could experience as the ride kept spraying me in the face with what, at worst, was water, and, at best, Grey Goose vodka. Rating: 2

Transformers (Florida)

Dark INFITEC images and a lack of emotional connection as found in the similar Spider-man ride kind of ruined this for me. But it was fun and the hidden rise to the second floor was really cool. For some reason, I recall it being brighter in Singapore. Rating: 6

Rip Ride Rockit (Florida)

Another holy crap! First of all, going through the metal detector and getting wanded made me feel like I was at a concert. Then I made the mistake of riding while wearing my glasses. I didn’t think it would be a problem. I had ridden all three coasters at SeaWorld Orlando earlier in the week and didn’t have an issue. Coming out of the first drop and into the inverted loop, my glasses started to fall off. I grabbed them, holding so hard I popped out a lens. So now, holding my glasses and the separated lens tightly with my left hand, I reached out into the air with my right hand and zoomed through the rest of this fantastic ride, all to the perfectly synched music of Daft Punk. Rating: 9

Race Through New York (Florida)

I love this attraction. Let me say that again. I love this attraction. There’s a lot of inside humor revolving around Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show, but even you’ve never seen it, you’ll get most of the jokes. The first floor lobby shrine is classy. Only two problems – the INFITEC darkness again and, since the seats on the motion base are modeled after those in Fallon’s studio, the seat belt situation was a bit awkward. Rating: 9

Walking Dead (Hollywood)

This attraction is like a freebie from Halloween Horror Nights. The queue area features a fully 3-dimensional environment that includes hanging ceiling tiles and exposed wires. There was one part of the attraction – a loading dock – with a doorway leading to a backstage area. It was so realistically themed that the VIP tour guests in front us went through it thinking it led to to the next set and we ended up in front – just where you want to be in a haunt maze. Rating: 6

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (Hollywood)

The queue sucks. It’s a long, bland, boring switchback, and the video seems to repeat every 15 minutes. I would expect nothing less from Gru. The preshow rooms are cute. The Hannah Barbara/Jimmy Neutron theater from Florida seems to have been cloned here, taking over a spot once occupied by the beautiful Miles Dyson Memorial Auditorium. INFITEC darkness ruined what should have been a vividly bright ride. The dance area made no sense and even kids were ignoring it. The retail and food outlets were great. Greatest part of the area – Super Silly Funland. We discovered a new interactive game. Find your way through the splash zone to the cleanest, most enjoyable, least well known restrooms in the park – and find your way back – without getting soaked by a flipping bucket of water. Rating: 4 for the ride, 7 for Super Silly Funland

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Studio Tour (Hollywood)

The tour has become even more of a hodgepodge than it ever was. It’s become too reliant on video, which turns out to be a Jimmy Fallon skit here and there and a lot of special feature materials from DVDs. Earthquake is always fun, but the train didn’t come out of the tunnel. The flash flood and Jaws remain as the other two physical effect showcases. Kong 360 and Fast & Furious were amazing. It felt (unlike Fast & Furious in Orlando) that we were actually moving at high speed and, for Kong, that we were twisting in circles. Rating: 5 without the 3D attractions, 10 with.

The Simpsons Ride (Hollywood)

The queue sucks. It’s a long, bland, boring switchback, and the video seems to repeat every 20 minutes. I would expect nothing less from Krusty the Clown. I love how the preshow video briefly honors the Back to the Future ride. The other original video clips poking fun at theme park conventions were great as well.  Unfortunately, we became sick of them by the fifth go-around. The preshow rooms are fun, with some great Simpsons insider humor. Now,  I loved the ride – thank you Mark for not turning this into another INFITEC travesty – but had one small little problem.  It was a little weird to have the preshow all 2D animation and the ride animated in 3D (animated, not projected). Anyone who’s seen Treehouse of Horror VI (or IMAX’s Cyberworld 3D) knows that the Simpsons can only become computer animated characters by entering a dimensional gap hidden behind a bookcase and that it usually ends with Homer falling into a dumpster in our universe and entering an erotic cake store. This is true. Watch the episode on Hulu.  But darn was that a fun ride. Rating: 7

DreamWorks Theatre (Hollywood)

The night before Universal, we went to the Two Bit Circus Micro-Amusement Park in downtown Los Angeles, where they have this updated version of the arcade game Battlezone. You sit in a D-BOX seat wearing a virtual reality headset, shooting everything. This was kind of like that. You sit in what, by all appearances, is a D-BOX seat while a wraparound screen shows what I’m guessing is an XBOX ONE Kung Fu Panda video game being played by a six year old, who wins the game in the end. Having only seen the first film, I had no idea what was going on or why, but it sure was fun. Thank you Mark Woodbury for keeping out the INFITEC darkness. Rating: 7

Waterworld (Hollywood)

This show is as good as when I saw it opening week. It remains a worthy successor to the A-Team and Miami Vice stunt shows that preceded it in this location (I miss them both). Only one small problem, and it really is petty. The actress playing Helen had the brightest glowing bleached teeth I have ever seen in my life. Now, if I recall the international blockbuster film correctly, people in this distopian future urinate into a machine to get fresh water. So, if Helen’s brushing her teeth with that water, it makes me wonder what’s in the urine. Folks, this is ThemedReality, not Forbes. Rating: 9

Hogsmeade/Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Hollywood)

Thank you Mark Woodbury for removing INFITEC from this ride before I experienced it. I feel sorry for those that did.

I have never been a big fan of the Harry Potter franchise. I’ve long thought the books to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ripoffs and the overall story arc to be nothing more than Star Wars fan fiction.

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After entering this gate, I am a convert. Rating: 10