Universal Studios, revisited
About a year ago, I was in Orland for a work event, so I found some time with my colleagues to sneak off to Universal Studios. Mostly, I was interested in seeing Harry Potter World.
Walking into the park, I felt the exact same way I did as a kid: completely excited and ready for some kind of adventure. I remembered, in the back of my mind, how huge the rides felt… how it felt like you were actually in whatever movie was being modeled, how there was actual fire, and water spraying and…
Getting into Harry Potter world took me through Diagon Alley… and it really felt like I was right there in the books. Even the shops were done perfectly. Olivander’s wand shop had an amazing variety of wooden wands that had electronic sensors built in so kids could aim them at windows in the park and get ghostly figures to appear.
The lines to get into the rides were spectacular. In the Gringott’s ride, there were animatronic bank tellers that would occasionally look up at you. It felt eerie and wonderful. The walls looked like they were covered in actual gold, and the sound effects were immersive. The references to the book were all around us and there were palpable excitement in the air.
Getting on the rides was exciting. You get strapped in to something that looks a lot like a roller coaster seat, and then you’re whisked away into a dark cavern…
…and you end up in front of a screen. You then watch a sequence from what could maybe pass as a Harry Potter TV show (complete with the real actors from the movie), with a script that includes Voldemort shouting things he would never say in the books. Things like “I’ll get you, Harry Potter!”
After you watch a sequence, you’re whisked away to another screen. Same idea, different stupid plot, sometimes in 3D. This was pretty much all the rides, except for a wooden roller coaster that contained an animatronic Hippogriff (we didn’t ride this one because the line was too long).
I was left wanting more. That same magic that I felt drinking butter beer in the park or wanting to buy a wand or a prank from the Weasley gift shop… that’s what I wanted in the main event.
We made it to a couple of other rides before the park closed, including ET, which hasn’t been updated since the 80’s. In ET, the entrance is way less decorated than the Harry Potter rides – just a screen showing a clip of Spielberg talking about the movie.
The actual ride puts you on a bike on a track that flies over various scenes from the movie. No screens. Just moving animatronic pieces, and a miniature cityscape that makes you feel like you’re actually flying above a city. And I remember some of the other, older rides were like this as well.
The Jaws ride had actual fire, that you could feel on your face. A bump underneath the boat and a great actor made you feel like there was trouble at sea. In the Earthquake or Disaster ride, you actually feel like the subway station’s ceiling is breaking, and there’s a bus headed right for your trolley. In King Kong, you’re faced with a gigantic replica of King Kong, with beautiful marble eyes that left you haunted as you left the park.
While the Harry Potter world was immersive and beautiful, the rides just showed us the same thing we’re always looking at. A screen. And one that is playing not so great content. Who wants that?
ET on the other hand gave an all around immersive and magical experience. I assume that the reason for the screens on the newer rides is that it’s much cheaper to do… but man, it takes away the fun of a theme park like Universal.
If I could give advice to the people at Universal it would be this: magic and wonder aren’t cheap. They aren’t always the result of efficiency. If you’ve lost the magic and wonder in your product, consider looking where you last left it.