Send in the Clones – A Closer Look at Universal Orlando’s Transformers

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

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Published on June 04, 2013 at 1:00 am with 11 Comments

It was a big weekend for Universal fans, as they opened not one but two new areas in their Orlando park. Both are high-level experiences and welcome additions to the lineup. Transformers faithfully reproduces its cousin from the Hollywood park, and thus raises the bar for simulator rides in Orlando. The Springfield area, only half finished, is the sort of dining experience that should have been offering from the very beginning.

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Transformers looks and feels like its West Coast sibling. Twice during the attraction we are taken on an elevator ride without even knowing it, while a larger than normal screen envelops our entire view. It was absolutely seamless and not detectable from a motion point of view. The queue struck me as possibly different from the Hollywood version, but that could be my memory playing tricks. Either way, it was an incredibly impressive feat to build this attraction in only six months.

For those who have not seen Transformers before, it’s a ride much like Spider-Man. You travel in vehicles that have a motion base, alternating between 3-D screens and physical sets. There are fewer sets in Transformers than in Spider-Man, which gives a slight edge to Spider-Man in my opinion. However, the action in Transformers cannot be denied. It’s fast, furious, and unrelenting, and your first experience is almost certainly going to be overwhelming — in a good way. I also cannot wrap my mind around one particular effect, when they make your car feel like it is racing forward into — or perhaps with — the screen. It just strikes me as super effective every time, even though I know there must be no actual forward motion.

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I do wish the ride did not depend so heavily on the same formula used by Spider-Man. The roster of effects and illusions appears to be largely the same. The first scene offers an establishing shot, with something heard but not seen. Introductions to the bad guys then follow one that a time, while folding in a water effect and a heat effect. The finale in both cases is a freefall toward certain death, only to be saved by the hero at the last moment.

In many ways, Universal now operates at Disney’s level. That begs the question whether the public will start demanding the same things from universal that they demand from Disney. I’m thinking here in particular of the irritation many fans feel when Disney clones a popular attraction from one coast on the other coast. Many Disney fans profess to wanting different experiences in Orlando in Anaheim. They would rather spend money to travel to the other side of the country every so often and see new rides, than have both resorts offer equivalent experiences and thus no reason to travel. Universal has long cloned its attractions on both coasts, but now that they are more and more competing directly with Disney in the themed environment, will that be a problem for its fans?

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I have not yet seen the level of fan outrage for cloning at Universal parks that I have seen for similar activity in Disney parks. That could be because Universal fans are less critical. Or it just could be that there are fewer of them in general. But I suspect a major portion of the reason has to do with expectations and historical precedent.

When Disneyland was new, it was so different from other amusement parks that it became a major travel destination almost overnight. It’s true that the Magic Kingdom was essentially one giant cloning project, but the next three Walt Disney World parks to come were original inventions, offering original rides with only a couple of tiny exceptions. For many years, the expansions to those parts were also original — think of the first Rock ‘n Roller coaster, Tower of Terror, and Expedition Everest. In the most recent decade, Disney has begun cloning again, in some cases duplicating the popular Orlando attractions in other locations, and in other cases building a new ride in multiple venues simultaneously, like Toy Story Midway Mania. It’s this recent decade of cloning that irritates fans. The thirty years before that offered lots of reasons to travel to both coasts and find original experiences, so travelers became used to an expectation that the resorts would be different from each other.

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The historical precedent at Universal is a little different. The studios park was always meant to offer a full-scale equivalent to the Hollywood park. In some cases, it was meant to offer enhancements, such as a longer King Kong experience or a Jaws boat ride. The expansion in 1999 with Islands of Adventure was meant to elevate this resort to the flagship property. They advertised the two-part resort as Universal Escape, a name which did not catch on but which did signify the company’s intention to mark this resort as different and unique from its older sibling. Universal has now been nibbling at cloning for some time. The Mummy coaster is yet another example of the same ride appearing on both coasts.

But there are important differences from Disney’s example. Universal has rides in its studio park that Hollywood does not, such as Men in Black, Rip Ride Rockit coaster, and the retained attractions ET and Terminator 2 3-D.

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In essence, Universal has never sent a clear message about cloning between its parks. They’ve always had some cloning and some original attractions. Disney, by contrast, has had periods of clear cloning, and periods of clear original growth, which is not the same thing as a consistently mixed lineup, and sets expectations in a way that Universal does not.

That may look like Universal gets a free pass while Disney does not, but this is not the case in all parts of the experience. The food service, in particular, continues to lag at Universal — sometimes dramatically. The new Springfield food court is a good leap forward for them, and I liked it quite a lot, both in terms of its use of decoration and its attempt to provide an actual simulation in the case of Moe’s Tavern. I also liked that the food included unique twists, such as tater tots instead of fries with your fried fish, and you simply must ask for extra special sauce on your Krusty burger. But for all of that, their food has a mass market feeling precisely because it is built for the masses; which is to say, their restaurants must cater to the ill-conceived all-day dining plan. Even the wonderful new Springfield food court unabashedly displays the pre-cooked burger patties in a steamer table in front of you. Nothing is freshly grilled here — the market just doesn’t call for it.

Despite the minor shortcomings of the food court, the area is still overall a definite hit. Combined with Transformers, it makes for a roundly entertaining weekend of new experiences. And that pretty much sums up what I love about central Florida, and its ever-changing roster of themed entertainments.

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About Kevin Yee

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

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  • eicarr

    While I’d rather they update the tram tour at the actual studios than adding too many clone rides from the global theme parks, I do think a cloned cohesive area like Harry Potter will be a less-random/awkward fit at Universal City. They just kill the overall experience by dropping random rides in random places. At times it seems like Amanda Byles laid out the park.

  • Tielo

    I think there is a very minor but vocal group that doesn’t like the cloning of rides. I’m not one of them. I only visit Florida. The flight from Europe is long enough and I don’t care to fly to the west coast.
    The thing with Disney is maybe that, for instance, when The Little Mermaid ride opened at California Adventure it was received as a mediocre ride. Surely no one at WDW was waiting to get that thing. With Universal we see they only copy e ticket rides. No complains there I guess.
    Also using the same ride systems or same story structures is a bit of a stretch to complain about. A lot of Disney dark rides have the people gobbling Omnimover and most of the rides and shows related to Disney movies tell the exact same story as the movie and because of that have the same structure. You almost never hear people complain about it. I guess they like the recognition and comfort of a story that they already know. I think it’s boring as hell and prefer Universals take on it telling a unique story in that universe instead of compressing the original story in 4 minutes.

  • LoveStallion

    I wouldn’t argue that cloning from Disney has become commonplace only in the past decade or so. I think it coincides with the new Tomorrowland in 1967 and the wheels turning on the Florida project. After that, how much stuff has been truly original, at least between the Disneyland-type parks?

    Both parks had Space Mountain and Big Thunder. Both have Splash Mountain. Most of the dark rides are the same. Both have Haunted Mansion. Western River Expedition was (unfortunately) canceled and Pirates haphazardly put in place in Florida.

    I don’t think that having Little Mermaid in one park and then the other is any different than having Space Mountain in one, to be followed a year or two later by the other.

    But I’m with others in not liking the “cloning.” I can at least be satisfied with more original takes on the classic attractions (see: Disneyland Paris – best Big Thunder, best Haunted Mansion, best Pirates), but straight-up cloning is unfortunate, especially for non-E-ticket rides.

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    As someone who visits parks on both coasts frequently, I wish there was more diversity. But the fact is that the bulk of guests don’t take frequent bicoastal trips like I do, and they want to see a company’s top rides regardless of where it was built first.. Because Universal Hollywood is a Studio first and Universal Orlando is a theme park, you’ll find lots of unique rides at Universal Orlando Resort. But it is much easier for Universal to get away with cloning than Disney, expectations are different for Universal.

  • Instidude

    As a yearly visitor to WDW, I have no issues with cloning, since I have only made it out to California twice. I have made it to Disneyland Paris once, and the cloned attractions still have a different feel to them. Buzz Lightyear and RnR Coaster have essentially the same components, but a much different set-up.

    When I’ve been to California, even the same basic ride has a different feel to it. The queue for Soarin’ is different, watching Patrick Warburton’s mouth not move quite right when the Over California part is removed from the title is always amusing to me.

    So, even clones are different to me, since I don’t visit the west coast too much.

  • StevenW

    At Hollywood, it is really is a working studio. It isn’t merely a theme park. The Florida version is not a real studio. It was a resort from the beginning.

    Cloning doesn’t work since Universal Studios Hollywood doesn’t have much land. They do propose to increase the square footage for the theme park aspect, while also increasing square footage for actual movie production. Look up their plans. I hope they at least increase the amount of attractions and entertainment to a full day park.

    On whether theme park fans will demand no cloning from Universal, it is hard to say. It is best to compare the cloning of attractions to its overseas locations. The Mummy is cloned. No one will say this attraction is much beloved. It is pretty clear to me that fans have objected to The Wizarding World being cloned here in USH. Fortunately with Diagon Alley opening, Florida will continue to have unique attraction. I doubt this second phase of Harry Potter will make its way to Hollywood for the land restrictions.

    • Eric Davis

      I agree. I fiecly objected to the cloning of the WWOHP out in Hollywood. I wanted this one to remain the single place in the world you could visit Hogswart. But… with Diagon Alley coming and the Hogwarts Express… I personally am now OK with them cloning WWOHP Phase I in California.

  • Big D

    I think the difference is that Disney is so good, that people are willing to visit their parks in both California and Florida, where as Universal Hollywood is not good enough in my opinion for someone to fly out to LA just to see that. Universal Orlando is, and while I’m sure most people will tack on Walt Disney World or Discovery Cove or Sea World while there in Orlando, there are people who would fly out to Orlando specifically for Universal and make it there home base. Universal Hollywood doesn’t even have it’s own hotel, so that tells me that clearly they don’t think of themselves as an attraction that people would travel specifically to see. Universal Hollywood is an add-on that people might see on a trip to LA or Disneyland, but Universal Orlando can be the reason for a trip to Florida for some people.

  • jcruise86

    Thank you, Kevin!

    I hope to get to Universal again some day, but the incoming Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Hollywood decreases my desire to see it at Universal Orlando. I hope they make the Hollywood version substantially different and so excellent that it inspires me to visit Universal Orlando.

    Universal Orlando should build a bus station across from Downtown Disney and give free rides to people with WDW passes.

  • MainSt1993

    I’m a bit disappointed that the dining in Springfield is a facade covered food court vs. the actual locations. I totally get the logic, but after WWOHP I thought they would be attempting a more authentic attempt at Springfield.

    As for clones, I fall into the “it depends” category. If you compare many of MK DL clones, they’re mostly different interpretations of the same general idea. That they are distinctly different is what keeps each park special. Exact replicas to me are a cop-out, and makes the experience feel far too processed.

  • M3wThr33

    Transformers is just so good, it needs to be in Orlando. I’m not bothered when both Universal parks need more to improve. They can de-clone later. Right now, they just need to justify longer operating hours and use the space better, which they are clearly doing.