We fans like to talk a lot about the Disney Difference — a vaguely defined set of guidelines and expectations which loosely encircle concepts like immersion, the wow factor, and attention to details. They can often be seen only unconsciously by a visitor. The default assumption for most fans, including me, has been that Universal simply attempts to apply the same formula, but with results far more mixed than is true of Disney. Today I will look at that assumption again as part of an attempt to evolve a formula unique to the Universal parks.

Looks like heaven for a fan of immersion.

While the critical reception to Harry Potter has been quite positive, that could be in part because people are using the same yardstick to evaluate that expansion that they use to measure Disney rides. The Forbidden Journey has all of the elements of the traditional Disney ride in spades: details, immersion, and unexpected surprises. The whole land feels like it came out of a Disney park, with a very real sense of “you are there” created by all that immersion in details. The rest of Islands of Adventure and especially the studios park seem to pale in comparison.

Or do they? If you think about it, it’s really only the studios park that feels so different from Disney. Islands of Adventure is and always has been on par with Disney when it comes to those key elements of details, immersion, and unexpected surprises. Think about it: how many show buildings can you really see from inside the park? It’s only really the themes that are different from a Disney park.

A new addition: this elevated stage was just a flat area before.

The studios park, which is older by a decade, does not share the same design ethos. Ride buildings are hulking warehouses with little or no external theme. Sometimes there is an effort to cover up the boxy show building with a marquee or other design element: think about Men in Black or The Simpsons ride. But the efforts are minimal, and by all accounts, it looks like Transformers ride will be similarly dressed.

Looks like… I know!  NASA’s vehicle assembly building (VAB)

The bigger question is whether this even matters. It could very well be that a Universal ride doesn’t need the immersive details of the Disney attraction in order to be viewed as successful. Like many Disney fans, I was disappointed the first time I rode the roller coaster now known as Dragon Challenge. It had one of the very best themed queues in the entire world… but culminated in a bare steel coaster. True, the ride had its physical thrills, but if this were a Disney ride and the Disney formula were to apply completely, the tracks would have flown around and through a giant mountain. Indeed, that’s what Disney does with its roller coasters, such as Big Thunder Mountain or Space Mountain. Seen from that perspective, Dragon Challenge looks like the formula has only been partially applied.

Take a second example in the form of the Mummy coaster. This time the ride is indoors, so the tracks have that level of theming. But the waiting area and queue provide theming that resist complete immersion. Instead of wandering through fully realized tombs, we walk through soundstages built to look like tombs. Disney would have used this space to make us believe we were actually in ancient Egypt. Universal wants us to think we are watching a film production take place in present-day ruins that look like ancient Egypt. The difference between the two prevents us from actually sinking into the role. It’s like the difference between a regular stage production and one written by Berthold Brecht. Brecht, you may remember from college theater or literature courses, was famous for staging productions that included elements designed to intentionally break the “fourth wall” dividing the audience, and call attention to the whole thing as an artificial construction. It was called the Verfremdungs-effekt (V-Effect), or in English the alienation effect. Because the overall result was that you felt “alienated” from the supposed events on stage. The wink-wink discussion is sometimes called critical distance, since we are meant to analyze rather than merely consume in a Brecht play. It’s the anti-immersion.

Also playing a part here in this discussion of critical distance is the idea of wry commentary. Universal doesn’t just present an immersive experience so much as present an immersive experience with sarcastic asides punching holes in the carefully constructed exterior every few minutes. In other words, it subverts itself even while presenting illusion. In fact, that subversion is part of the illusion. It simply doesn’t feel like Universal unless there’s a jab in the ribs or a jab at the competition. Twister does a great job of showing the mangled remains of the house, but what makes it Universal is what you’ll find attached to the spinning tire wheel of the car in the ceiling: Mickey Mouse ears, as though a famous rodent has been run over.

Potter part 2 – no details or themes are public yet.

In a way you could say that Universal doesn’t take itself seriously in the vein at Disney does. Universal rides are themselves aware that they are presenting a fantasy, and it don’t try to pretend that it’s entirely real. This type of awareness of its contextual situation, or meta-cognition, looks on the surface like something that fights against immersion. The wink and nod that reveal Universal’s awareness that this is just a ride jars the visitor back out of whatever immersion that had previously been established. Cue Brecht again. But in a very real way, this acknowledgment can also be seen by the visitor as an anchor to reality and thus an avoidance of an overly artificial fantasy world. If a fake reality comes across as too puffy or saccharine, the viewer could revolt on the level of believability, no matter how immersive the environment is. Universal rides don’t aspire to be more than what they really are: theme park attractions gussied up to pretend they are somewhere else. The emphasis on PRETENDING, with all that means on both conscious and subconscious levels, is the major ingredient of the Universal formula.

It’s a well chosen one if you remember Universal’s roots as a film studio. The whole point of movies is to act and pretend, and Universal takes an adult view of how that translates to an amusement park. Disney chose to highlight the immersion that a movie provides in its parks, while Universal has historically highlighted the process. Or at least, the grown-up acknowledgment that a movie is actually fake. Not for nothing do people referred to the Disney parks as ideal for children, while Universal parks are for grown-ups.

Besides, Universal’s studios park is meant to show you… a film studio. That *is* the theming.

The formula for Universal attractions seems, then, to orbit around concepts such as pretending, critical distance, and wry commentary. These elements are what made The Simpsons feel like such a natural inclusion to the park when they arrived, as these are also hallmarks of that show.

However, the Universal model is not applied universally in their parks. Islands of Adventure, as noted previously, is more of a Disney park in its application of theme park elements. So when the boy wizard flew into town on a broomstick, his landing spot in Islands of Adventure seemed appropriate. It looked to everyone like Universal was out doing Disney at its own game.

An ice cream shop and the fortune-teller tent have been removed next to Hogsmeade.

But what will happen when the Harry Potter expansion opens at Universal Studios Florida? We just argued that the studios park is characterized by completely different feeling in relationship to its subject matter than Islands of Adventure. Will the Harry Potter expansion shift its own design, so that it matches the rest of the studios park and become anti-immersive? That seems unlikely, given the involvement of famously picky creator J. K. Rowling. More likely, the Potter expansion will feel just like Wizarding World, with all its immersion and earnestness intact. That will make it stick out like a sore thumb in the studios park, where everything else pushes critical distance rather than standard immersion.

Still an impressive castle

I suspect that will not diminish the Potter experience at all, but it might make the rest of the Park suddenly seem more inadequate than was the case in prior years. It might have the effect of turning “everyday visitors” into “Disney fan visitors.” In other words, people who, in the past, used to welcome the Universal formula without comparing it to the Disney formula (every day visitors) right now reflexively compare the park to the Disney formula (as Disney fans always do when they venture up the freeway to this park).

Then again, maybe it won’t matter at all. The older I get and the more frequently I visit Universal parks, the less likely I am to be irritated by the warehouse type exterior of the rides. I think a large portion of the visiting population simply doesn’t care. As long as the ride inside is thrilling, interesting, or otherwise noteworthy, then I don’t think they care what the outside looks like. As much as a fan of immersion as I am, I’m starting to come around to this point of view as well. At least when it comes to Universal parks.

New interactive prop at Muppets?

Something new has appeared in the big queue room for MuppetVision. It’s tall, it’s lit up, and at the moment it’s a mirror.

The stenciling is addressed to Miss Piggy on the mirror crate, and Walter the Whistler on the bottom crate.

It’s no great leap of logic to assume the mirror may melt away into a one-way mirror or even a screen. After all, it’s extremely uncommon to add props for no reason to a really old attraction – especially when you’re adding just one. And spending money to wire it for power.

Disney hasn’t ANNOUNCED anything here whatsoever. Nor have I heard any rumors about a Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom style game in DHS. But this one prop is certainly suggestive, isn’t it?

That said, it’s probably more likely that this is a refresh simply because they had to change the queue anyway. The movie shows Kodak prominently as sponsor, and since that ended, Disney will want to change the preshow movie. I guess they might as well add new interactive props when they do it?

What are your thoughts?

Do you think the formula behind a theme park is something you keep in the back of your mind when planning a visit? In Orlando could it be that one long time industry leader now may have to settle for second place? Any ideas about the MupptVision queue addition? Be sure to scroll down to the discussion below and share your thoughts…

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