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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.