Universal Formula

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Universal Orlando

Tagged: , , ,

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…

More information and updates

Readers are invited to connect with Kevin online and face to face at the following locations:

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida.

Browse Archived Articles by

  • Bubba B

    I went to Universal Hollywood last summer for the first time in 20 years. What struck me was how nearly every attraction tried to make you think your life is in jeopardy. Disney rides don’t often threaten murder to elicit an emotional response. Also, they made me appreciate how well Disney uses (or doesn’t use) 3D technology.

  • themur

    Thanks for you thoughts Kevin; not sure I agree with all your points but definitely the general tenor. The Studios park is really a mish mash of things which was made worse when they added that steel coaster Rip Ride Rockit.

    Obviously the Potter expansion will be hugely detailed; they have to deal directly with Rowling. Left to their own choices, not sure you would get the same thing. It will likely feel out of place as Kevin has noted.

    The real deal here (and a bit surprised some have not railed on it more because if Disney did it people would be out of control) is that Universal is setting up a huge money grab. Many visitors to Orlando head over to IOA for part of one day to get in Potter and maybe spend some more time elsewhere then head back to WDW that same day. Now to fully experience everything Potter you will have to purchase their equivalent of a Park Hopper Pass which is quite a bit more expensive.

  • toonaspie

    The studio backlot theme in the Florida parks (both Uni and Disney) is not holding up like it used to, especially if neither studio is actually being used for filming. I know to some degree or another they still do filming projects in both parks but they are no longer the strength of the parks or why the guests visit them to begin with.

    Immersive theming is far more visually appealing and stimulating to the guests as opposed to walking into a warehouse. I welcome the changes to the Uni parks in Florida.

    Universal Hollywood though is an actual working studio/park hybrid to a greater degree so the concept still works there.

  • Uncle Bob

    Definitely an interesting article, thanks Kevin. I largely agree with the premise. I think that comparing DHS and DCA’s Hollywood Land is a little suspect due to the fact that those were clearly created to emulate the Universal style. The premise is however is largely true and if you look at it from the perspective of the overall history of both companies and the inception of their parks. At times both have copied aspects of the other, so there’s certainly no hard and fast rule. But Disney parks overall have always been much more focused on immersion.

    It does seem like immersion is experiencing a new renaissance and finding a lot of success. Personally I’m happy about this because I greatly prefer these types of experiences. However, I’m definitely among the many who are frustrated with a lot of things that Disney is doing right now. They have done a lot of good things at DLR, but they have made a lot of bad decisions over the last few years.

    Uni is putting pressure on WDW and their reaction has been pathetic. Avatar Land just doesn’t sound that appealing and I hope it ends up dying. If it happens, the second Cars Land will probably do ok financially for DHS, but it won’t be a hit on par with the original. Star Wars would so obviously be a far bigger draw, but anything exciting that we’ve never seen before would succeed as an anchor. However, they need to do more, they really need to rethink a lot of DHS and rushing in Cars Land seems like it will be a mistake for the long term.

    MyMagic+ seems like it’s going to end up being a disaster and giant money pit. I’m not sure if I want fail so that management learns a lesson or for it to succeed enough that it doesn’t end up soaking away money for future new projects. But it seems complex, invasive and I can’t believe they’re going to let teens spend money with their bracelets unless parents specifically tell them not to. I fear this alone could be a disaster when some kid spends their parents entire rent money at WDW. I can’t imagine this policy can last.

    When I first heard about Nextgen I was hopeful that they had secret more exiting ways to use this technology that would improve the guest experience. Unfortunately it’s nothing more then a complex system to monitor guest behavior so they can reduce operating costs clothed in a reservation system that will probably fail to really deliver much of anything of new value to the guest.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant but I haven’t posted in a while and have been frustrated by recent news.

  • Bb5

    I don’t get the bashing on Universal Studios Florida’s theming. Only a small portion of the park focuses on that “studio” theme, which includes the soundstage look which seems to be so highly criticized. The rest of the park is something to behold. New York is so well themed and so well detail. Just peer into one of the windows. San Francisco and Hollywood both follow New York’s “formula” and are equally as immersive. Not to mention that Springfield is in the works, along with Harry Potter phase 2.

    It just seems so hypocritical, especially when two of Disney’s parks try to follow the same formula as Universal Studios (not Islands of Adventure), but it is executed way worse. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is literally a mess when compared to Universal Studios Florida, and I don’t think anyone can argue that.

  • andretheng

    In my opinion, the difference in theming between Florida and California is due to the fact that the main attraction in California is the studio tour, and the other rides are sort of like an addition to the studio. That is why the theming is particularly bare. On the other hand, the other Universal parks, including the one in Singapore where I live is nothing like Universal California – obviously there are no movie studios here and that’s why a more immersive, Disney-like approach is used in the theming. The Mummy ride is actually designed to look like ancient Egypt, rather than a movie set. This probably applies to all the other Universal parks outside California.

  • danielz6

    The studios park is a failed experiment. Universal built that in Orlando because that’s all it knew how to build at the time. Ever since, it has been going in the other direction, more towards the Disney formula of total immersion. That is what works best, and why Disney has easily ruled the theme park market for more than fifty years now.
    The worst decision Disney ever made was to create MGM studios. Eisner and gang simply wanted to destroy universal by building a direct competitor to Universal studios, and in doing so they went against everything that Disney had accomplished and pioneered in the immersive theme park from Disneyland to WDW in the last 30 years. Huge mistake. And they’re paying the price. Don’t forget that the weakest Disney theme park is exactly that, Disney studios Paris. The only park that deserves to be a studio park Is US Hollywood because it actually is a movie studio!
    Everything that universal has done since IOA opened has been striving for the Disney style of -immersive themeing and with WWHP, for the first time in over 50 years, Disney had competition. After investing heavily(maybe too much) in CHINA, WDW is desperately trying to refocus. And now sea world wants in on the action. Only time will tell if WDW waited too long, I think the next 10-20 years will be some of the most exciting in theme park history. But to me nothing beats old Disneyland, CA, the original and best imo.

  • Kevin Yee

    Years after IOA opened, Universal gave us Simpsons (not heavily themed outside), Rip Ride Rockit (not themed at all, track-wise), and Transformers (another big box), so I’m not sure I agree they ONLY build Disney-style immersion now. But Potter sure it!

  • CJ Powers


    Just wanted to say this is a really insightful article. You put on paper thoughts that I’ve had but I couldn’t quite figure out how to express them.

    I do want to echo what some other commenters have said… Universal Studios Florida has never tried to be anything more than a Studio. You are, in essence, “riding the movies” by stepping into a working soundstage and onto the set. Call it innovative, or call it a way to save money.

    Even themed buildings, like MIB, literally bring you behind the facade (in the extended queue) to see it is nothing more than a soundstage (if you look at the building from the opposite side, which unfortunately guests cannot see, you will see it is decorated and numbered like all the other soundstages on property).