The Real Issue with Universal’s Screen Attractions

Author: Rob Dodge

If you’re a fan of the theme park industry, you’ll certainly know that much of the recent criticism towards Universal concerns its attractions that are heavy on screens. It started first with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. That was soon followed by:

I’ve experienced Universal at its peak, with great and legendary attractions such as Kongfrontation, Jaws, Twister and Earthquake. But now? Universal has recently just opened its newest attraction: Fast and Furious: Supercharged. Why has this new screen-heavy attraction received such poor reviews when something like Avatar Flight of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom has been hailed as one of the best theme park attractions ever created? For all the criticism that Universal is too screen heavy, there’s certainly a valid criticism there in the lack of immersion compared to physical sets. Nothing will beat going through a physical, detailed environment with animatronics. However, the issue with Universal’s newer attractions is deeper than just their reliance on screens. In the following, I’m going to compare and contrast screen-heavy Disney and Universal attractions in order to show the essential differences between each.

The difference between Disney and Universal attractions first occurred to me when stepping off of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure. As the ride vehicle pulled into the unload bay, Universal team members started to clap. I thought “But why? I didn’t do anything. I was just thrown around chaotically.” I’ve noticed that Universal team members do this for many rides. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s not a matter of applause, but rather a technique used to get guest attention for the unloading process. However, on my initial noticing of it, I thought that it was some poor attempt at immersion. It was my impression that the team members were congratulating me on getting past whatever obstacle was on the ride (The Sinister Syndicate, Megatron, Voldemort, etc.) and surviving the journey. After the success of the immersive Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this seemed like a shoehorned attempt at bringing the immersion factor to other “experiences” (rather than “rides”). Assuming that this was the case, I felt I hadn’t accomplished much. Even though they weren’t clapping for the reason I first thought, from this point, I began to see a pattern.

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Universal’s screen-heavy attractions place you in the middle of the action, but not as a participant, so much as a ragdoll to be thrown around. In Spider-Man, you’re a reporter who stumbles into a mess of villains and you must be continuously saved. In Transformers, you’re attempting to escape “the Nest” with the Allspark but end up just becoming a battering target for the Deceptions. In Escape From Gringotts, you are again just put into a constant cycle of being attacked and saved. The issue with telling a story like this is that it feels like an attempt to just shake you around for the sake of thrill. Universal Studios Florida, when it first opened, shocked many people who expected an experience much like Disney. Instead of calm boat rides and immersive Omnimover ride-alongs, you were thrown into the action with explosions, shark attacks and frightening, giant King Kong animatronics. These rides certainly had the immersion factor of Disney dark rides, but they thrilled in ways that were unexpected, making Universal stand out as something different. Today’s attempts at this thrilling aspect come off as pure chaos. You have absolutely no idea what’s happening and you’re just battered around. There’s no time to take in any distinct scenes and the attractions suffer heavily for it.

Take legendary Disney Imagineer, the late Marty Sklar. A fundamental rule of the attraction creation process under his leadership was to not overload the audience with information. Many have heard a particular story of Walt himself, when during the creation of Pirates of the Caribbean, he insisted that he liked all the activity because it meant that guests would have to ride again to see things that they didn’t see the first time. This however, is a completely different scenario from an attraction such as Transformers. With Pirates, you’re taken on a slow boat ride with distinct scenes: the caverns, the ship attack on the fort, the mayor interrogation, the auction, the burning of the town, the jail cells, etc. There’s quite a bit going on and a lot to see, but the pace of the ride is slow enough to allow you to get the general gist of each scene. There’s always more to see and observe on subsequent ride-throughs, but you understand the general story being told. Transformers though? In an attempt to make this ride thrilling, you’re simply assaulted relentlessly and have absolutely no time to take in the story. It’s just a lot of yelling and sliding around in your vehicle, trying to get a grip on what’s even happening.

Also take for example, the new Fast and Furious: Supercharged. You’re loaded onto a bus and it’s simply an excuse to shake you around while watching some loathsome film. The CGI looks to have been generated by amateurs who just discovered basic animation software. There’s no content that’s even memorable. The only thing that I can remember is how bad and fake everything appeared. It’s as if Universal directed its creative team to just shake people around for the sake of making it “thrilling” while shoving an intellectual property in your face.

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How do Disney screen-based attractions hold up in comparison? Flight of Passage has been highly praised as one of the best attractions ever created by Disney, and it certainly deserves it. First, the CGI for this attraction is phenomenal. It’s a real issue when the completely fictional world and creatures of Pandora, which you expect to look fake to an extent, look much more real than anything on Fast and Furious. Second, obstacles certainly appear in the attraction just as they do in Universal rides. While flying on your Banshee, you evade a goliath water creature jumping into your way, escape an attacking leonopteryx, and almost collide into the back of a stampede. The difference though, is that Flight of Passage is done at a much more digestible pace. You have time to take in distinct scenes such as flying over the ocean, sitting in a bioluminescent cave, or being perched on a rock, taking in the Pandora sunset. The ride certainly brings you thrills, but not at the expense of the visual story. In Transformers, you’re supposed to be bringing the Allspark away from Megatron, but you don’t feel like you’ve done anything other than experience chaos. In Flight of Passage, you actively feel like a participant in escaping the leonopteryx. While fast paced, that particular scene gives you enough time to digest what’s going on. More thrilling moments are mixed in with slower, calmer moments to create a harmony between scenes. Think of the pace as if it were a musical piece. Music without pause or rest in between the notes would just be utter noise. Your favorite melody is the result of not only the notes chosen, but the variance of space between them. Universal attractions simply just don’t know when to stop the noise.

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I think that I’ve covered the main difference between Disney and Universal screen-based attractions. People often point out that physical sets are just better, without realizing the root of the problem which I’ve just described. I do agree to a large extent, in that I would rather experience physical sets and animatronics as opposed to sitting in a moving theater chair, chasing Jimmy Fallon around. However, done right, I think that screen-based attractions can be phenomenal. Many people will probably agree that screens can be used effectively to supplement an existing attraction (think the new compsognathus effect on Dinosaur) but will disagree that they should be used to move the story forward. However, Universal’s Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is both an excellent Universal attraction and an excellent example of screens done right. The story is laid out and advanced on the screens, while the physical sets are thrillingly chaotic and used to supplement the screen-driven story. This is a rare example of the reverse where it’s the physical sets supplementing this screens. The screen portions certainly have a lot going on, but they run at a slower pace, giving you a chance to digest what’s coming next. You have distinct and memorable scenes such as the dragon attack, the spiders of the forbidden forest, and finally, the Dementors. Disney has an attraction much like this too, if you’ve ever experienced or watched a ride-through of the screen-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Shanghai Disneyland.

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Despite the previous criticism, I would like to make it clear that I do like many Universal attractions. Many attractions have the severe pacing issues that I’ve pointed out, but I will admit that I find Spider-Man and Transformers to be fun attractions. (Points go to Spider-Man for also including a decent degree of effects and sets.) Not all Disney screen-based attractions are exempt from criticism either. Star Tours is an excellent example of just simply being thrown around like a Universal attraction, though I will admit that its pace is slightly better. My goal with this article was to point out that screens aren’t necessarily the issue with Universal’s newer attractions. The issue comes from thrill at the expense of story and the destruction of any sense of pacing. Screens or not, a bad attraction will still be bad. Think Stitch’s Great Escape. Until the recent opening of Fast and Furious: Supercharged, Stitch easily took the number one place for worst theme park attraction ever created, even though it’s a physical set with an impressive animatronic.

To conclude, the reason so many people criticize Universal is not because of its reliance on screens. Many people initially notice the prevalence on screens, thinking that this is the issue. However, I think I’ve made a good case for why the problem is instead a matter of content. Universal rides throw you around for the sake of thrill and sideline the story and pacing. Screens or not, a good attraction is good and a bad attraction will be bad.

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