Universal Formula

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Kevin Yee, Universal Orlando

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Universal Formula

Published on February 07, 2013 at 4:04 am with 32 Comments

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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About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He spent more than a decade working at Disneyland and cultivating a never-ending fascination with that park’s rich traditions and history. Now relocated to Orlando, Kevin enjoys the Disney offerings on both sides of the country. Kevin is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History. Readers are invited to connect with him online and face to face at the following locations: UltimateOrlando.com – Kevin’s personal blog for daily WDW updates Public Facebook page – or friend his personal Facebook account, Twitter feed (user UltOrlando), Google+ account (user cafeorleans), Email at [email protected], Weekly Walt Disney World, a Facebook group of regulars who visit Disney World each weekend. Visitors from out of town are encouraged to come and say hello when in Orlando! Join the FB group to learn when/where the next meet is. Kevin’s books on Amazon

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32 Comments

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  1. I think too much stock is taken in comparing Universal and Disney. Yes, the most recent addition to Islands is very much in the line of Disney theming, but that’s not surprising, considering a lot of Universals Creative Team are ex imagineers and I think, as you said, the Potter 2.0 expansion will be the same, many theme park fans will see this as detrimental to the studios, but we will see I think the main reason Universal are going down the route they are, is to steal some of the “family” market from Disney and I for one think they are doing a great job.
    Great article Kevin, keep it up.

  2. Grreat Article Kevin

    At the present time with WDW and USO, I want the parks to have fresh new ridess, but still be part of an emersive environment. However, it has been 10 years since I have visited Florida, and not much has been added to WDW compared to USO. I am not talking about the new Fantasyland, as I have already been on the Little Mermaid in DCA. It might look pretty, but that is not the main reasn why people visit theme parks. They go to enjoy themselves, and have new experiences on the attractions. USO has seen that with the WWOHP, and that has made them invest in more Springfield buildings, and an expanded Harry Potter. Heck, they have brought in Transformers because of its popularity on the West Coast. It is said that the show building of it will be themed to the street that leads up to it (please tell me what street it is, I think it is New York, or Hollywood). Also, I think, with the recent work with in IoA, they could do some theming before the Potter Land opens. I think the hardcore fans are the only ones that will complain that the Studios park is not highly themed, but the bulk of tourists want attractions that smell of the newness. DCA’s expansion is succceding because of Radiator Springs Racers, because it is a new ride. People want to go because of new things to do. Sea World and Universal Studios Orland both know this, and are leaving WDW in the dust, while they think why the Fantasyland is not as successful as they had hoped. The sad thing abot this, is that instaed of coming up with something new (Sea World has Antartica and Universal has Potter 2.0), they are cloning an entire land, Cars Land. For me, it is a shame that John Lasseter let his guard down of making his pride and joy only at DCA. That is the main talking point at this time.

    Thanks Again Kevin, and sorry is this post sounds like a rant.

    Trumpet

    • Good post, Trumpet!

      And, Kevin, thanks for taking the most fun man-made places seriously.
      Your seriousness may play a small part
      in helping Walt Disney World become more fun again.
      (Maybe after RISC–Rasulo, Iger Staggs & Crofton.)

    • 1. Mission Space
      2. Seas with Nemo and Friends
      3. Soarin’
      4. Finding Nemo Musical
      5. Expedition Everest
      6. American Idol Experience
      7. Toy Story Mania
      8. Little Mermaid/fantasyland area development
      9. Lights Motor Action
      10. Star Wars: The Adventure Continues
      11. Playhouse Disney/Disney Junior
      12. Major Test Track update

      Universal Since 2003
      1. Jimmy Neutron/Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
      2. The Simpsons Ride
      3. Revenge of the Mummy
      4. Disaster (earthquake update)
      5. Shrek
      6. Rip ride Rocket
      7. Forbidden Journey/Harry potter area development

      • Oops cut off
        ****
        “However, it has been 10 years since I have visited Florida, and not much has been added to WDW compared to USO”

        Walt Disney World Since 2003

        1. Mission Space
        2. Seas with Nemo and Friends…

        ****

  3. A lot of the formula you ascribe to Universal is also used by Disney in their studio theme parks. There are plenty of unthemed warehouse style show buildings, both in Disney Hollywood Studios and Walt Disney Studios Paris… and even in the Hollywood area of Disney California Adventure.

    And a lot of the attractions at these Disney Studios parks do not try to immerse you in a story, but like Universal, would have you believe you are experiencing a movie studio in action.

    And while you won’t find any jabs or references to Universal at a Disney park, anyone who has ridden the Jungle Cruise has experienced Disney poking fun at itself. They, also, can have a sense of humor about what they do.

    There is a certain irreverence that seems to be present at Universal Parks that you don’t find at Disney, and this carries over to Islands of Adventure also. And I have to say I find Universal Studios Orlando a lot more immersive, entertaining and even detailed than Disney Hollywood Studios.

    I really think you need to reexamine your theory on what separates Universal from Disney because as presented it really doesn’t hold up.

    • I agree completely. Compare USO to DHS and I really cant find too many differences, aside from maybe bare coasters (though Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster could be argued to make this difference negligible).

      You may be on to something with irreverence, but I have yet to have anyone really convince me of cognisable differences between those two “studio” parks.

  4. Trumpet, the only problem I have with your comment is the facet you want Carsland copied everywhere else. DCA suffers from attractions in which you can find elsewhere versus those tied specifically to this them park. I as a visitor go to a Disney theme park to enjoy that which is unique to a park and not something I can find at any other Disney park. It was nice when Soarin over California was unique to DCA until Disney World decides it needs it for Disneylands 50th anniversary to be placed in Epcot without any new film attached to it. Anyway I think I have made my point where yes classic attractions that have been with Disneyland since the beginning may be cloned but newer attractions should have time to make a theme park unique.

    • I want Cars Land to be a unique land at DCA. It is themed to California with Route 66. California is the end (or beginning) of Route 66. WDW should come up with unique attractions. If the immagineers decide to have Cars Land in Florida, I will bypass WDW at spend more time at USO and Sea World

  5. I think that Universal Studios, on both coasts, does place value on immersion, but they are attempting to make visitors feel like they are inside a film studio. The show buildings are not warehouses — they are supposed to be sound stages. They are purposefully drab. So, the fantasy is that visitors are wandering around a film studio, but get swept up into the movie being filmed.

    • Bingo! That concept, as well as the “irreverence” and “Universal is for Adults” concept is why I love the Universal parks so much more than Disney. In addition, Universal doesn’t seem to be quite as blatant about wringing as much money out of their guests as Disney is. Grinchmas is included with your park admission, as is Mardi Gras and ALL of their events except Halloween Horror Nights (and I have no problem paying extra for HHN because it’s SO worth the money!). Sure, Universal’s “special-events-included-with-admission” may not be quite up to the level of Disney’s separate-admission “parties”/events, but I like the fact that Universal makes me feel like I get more bang for my buck with them. A couple of years ago I was wandering through the Frontierland portion of the Magic Kingdom and I saw a few bluegrass musicians walking out of a “pub” getting ready to perform on the street. Joking, I shouted out “Free Bird!” to them and the banjo player started playing it! After a few measures, he stopped, smiled, and said “That’s the only free thing you’ll get here today.” Hilarious…and true!

      I don’t mind the bland soundstage theming at USF. I actually really like it. I also like the more immersive theming present in Islands. Furthermore, I prefer the more thrilling ride selections at the Universal parks. I know that I’ll get a bunch of flips and thrills while riding a Universal coaster, as opposed to one at Disney (Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster not withstanding), and I know I’ll have more thrills while riding Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls than I will on Splash Mountain. Does this mean Universal is better? NO! It simply means that while I’m a “big kid” now, Disney doesn’t cater to my likes and Disney does. I’m grateful for both resorts in Orlando, but until Disney starts giving me a reason to attend again (and endure the horrific rape of my wallet that Mickey subjects me to), I’m gonna stick with the Universal and Blackstone parks for now.

      • “I love the Universal parks so much more than Disney”.

        I suspect you lost most of the audience after that line…

  6. Interesting column Kevin, it reflects much of the same analysis I did for a series on Jim Hill Media almost 10 years ago. Rather than Brechtian (since there is no economic/political aim to the alienation) I refer to the difference between WDW and UOR as Modernism vs Post-Modernism. Disney wants to create the illusion of a perfected coherent world, while Universal delights in showing the seams where reality and fantasy collide…

  7. Islands of Adventure certainly has more of an immersion factor with regards to its theming but I’ve always disliked that the transitions between “lands” was not very subtle. This is what separates it from Disney to me. Disney was always the master of subtle transitions from land to land (in the Magic Kingdom primarily) so that it was hardly noticeable.

  8. London/Diagon Ally is going to be an interesting dilemma for Universal’s themeing. Currently, Islands of Adventure is themed to be immersive, while Universal Studios is themed to be a bunch of movie sets. With this new addition, the are connecting the two. So, will London/Diagon Alley be a movie set that then transforms you to an immersive environment when you board the Hogwarts Express, or will they dump the idea of the movie set feel of that park, for that particular area, and make it a fully immersive area? I’m guessing that they aren’t thinking that deeply about it and will go with the later, but it would be an interesting design challenge to transition the two parks overall themes.

  9. Hopefully the massive Harry Potter expansion will bring that immersive experience that I’ll enjoy besides the tram at Universal City, Ca. I have mixed feeling about the park since they started adding rides which kinda threw Universal’s formula off for me.

    I’ve been unimpressed with how cold Universal rides have been so far. Rides like Transformers, ET(now gone) and Jurassic are ok, but I have no issues skipping them when I see long lines. I don’t feel like rides are like old friends like at Disneyland. The only reason I pay to get into the park is for the tour of the backlot. Shows I’ve seen since ’70′s are cool but waiting in ride lines make them hard to fit into my schedule. I’m glad that neighbors like Roy Disney made sure they couldn’t build outdoor roller coasters since I don’t ride them and they won’t have this “budget” ride option. I’m ready/hoping for a more immersive experience at Universal to give me more ownership in the rides and theme park section of the studios.

  10. “Disney would have used this space to make us believe we were actually in ancient Egypt.”

    I don’t buy this… the old Star Tours did essentially the same thing… Disney clearly wanted you to feel like you were on a set. If you want to compare the Universal studio park to something, compare it to DHS… you’re going to try and tell me that you can’t see “soundstages” there?

    What I get from this article is that IOA is like a Disney park and USO is something different from a Disney standard, which I really don’t think it is when compared to DHS. You say Potter won’t fit in in USO, and yet Sunset Boulevard fits in in the studios? The Amity Island section of the park seemed to fit in fine at USO.

    Where I think there is a difference in Universal’s complacency with bare coasters… I really don’t see a difference between Despicable Me and Toy Story Mania. Both have themed facades with visible soundstages behind them . Unless you can find some difference there to explain away I just don’t buy this.

    I think you need to write another article, and approach this from a different perspective. If you can cognitively separate DHS from USO I think I’ll have an easier time with this.

  11. Last summer a work friend took his family to Disney and Universal for the first time. I have been to the parks a number of times so was interested in his take. I thought for sure he would like USO over Disney but was surprised to hear the opposite.

    I think that is common. While I really enjoy the USO attractions there is something special about going into the Disney parks. Even DHS is more inviting when you walk down Hollywood Blvd. And the same can be said about Sunset. Then everything behind and left of the Chinese Theater/Hat are more the studios themeing. With that said I am excited about returning to visit USO when everything under construction is completed.

    When you throw in nighttime entertainment that’s where Universal really needs to play catch up. They are becoming more interesting with their new additions, but will likely always lack the Disney magic. Then again do we really want another Disney? Universal is doing it right and both parks will benefit. The competition will make us the winners.

    As for the Muppets, I sure wish the attraction would freshen itself and add another attraction. An additional Star Wars attraction with Cars Land and perhaps a new stage show or two is a lot of bucks but is sorely needed for DHS to keep up.

  12. I generally agree about the theming issue at Universal Studios park, but they did have an attraction that did (at least to my memory) provide immersion. The outside queue for the old King Kong ride was a normal rope back-and-forth, but once you were inside, the area felt like a New York Transit station. The televisions were broadcasting “news” reports about King Kong, and how we were all being evacuated for our safety. by the time I was at the ride itself, I remember thinking how immersive the queue experience had been.

    Then when King Kong’s brerath smelled like bananas, I was back at Universal Studios park.

  13. It’s funny while Disney has continued to focus mainly on the exterior (as you pointed out in your article) it’s the interior’s of their attractions that have suffered, while the interior of the “studio” type attractions you refer to at Universal have in many ways surpassed Disney. At least the WDW property (let’s leave CarsLand out of this for now)

    Look at the new Fantasyland, amazing facades, it looks great. But what’s inside? A D-Ticket mermaid ride (that I absolutely LOVE) and some Princess Meet and Greets.

    Look at what Universal has/is adding in that same time. A highly themed Harry Potter area in IOA with an amazing E-Ticket style attraction. The Transformers ride that on the outside may look like a box, but on the inside another amazing E-Ticket style attraction.

    I think I’d prefer the superior attraction vs a nice looking facade and some princesses.

  14. A discussion of how Brechtian theater and ironic detachment relate to theme park design? YES! This is my kind of post.

    I’d like to add that I think there is still a level of self-conscious artifice present in the more immersive environments that Disney parks generally shoot for… simply because they present such an idealized take on their subjects. What I find, however, is that the Disney Standard Immersion Level (DSIL) is often deep enough to trigger the kind of emotional responses one might get from seeing, say, an actual desert mountain range or unique bustling cityscape, something that a movie-studio-themed park or land doesn’t achieve.

    Personally, I think this is a big part of the appeal of DSIL parks.

  15. This was a great article, Kevin. Universal definitely has been learning. Just as DCA was built on the cheap with minimal theming in many sections, Universal grew beyond the see behind the curtain mindset and realized that it was the immerse environments and big budget rides that really drove attendance. Universal might completely abandon its “see how movies are made” theme in the original park when they realize that people have limited interest in that and enjoy rather to be IN the movies than see how they were made.

    WDW on the other hand, has been holding to cheaper is better for a long time. It has now finally started to really bite them in the rear. I really feel that one more “patch” on HS will not fix the park. A new Cars Land is just money thrown after bad. It needs a real blockbuster new land themed to Star Wars. That would pull in some customers.

    • It needs a real blockbuster new land themed to Star Wars

      gets my vote :)