Last month Universal Studios Florida unveiled a new attraction called Despicable Me. It wasn’t a brand new building; this was the former home of the simulator movie Jimmy Neutron, so it’s no surprise that the new attraction is also a simulator movie.

Despicable Me's marquee
Despicable Me's marquee

They’ve re-themed the outside to look like Gru’s mansion. This is as good a point as any to acknowledge that I never saw the Despicable Me movie, so if I get something wrong here or there, this is likely the culprit. The line winds through and around his “house,” though it’s mostly a facade. A majority of the line is the plain-vanilla switchback you know from countless rides. While that’s not disappointing and not out of character for Universal, it’s a bit less than a fully immersive experience.

In some ways, I’m starting to expect that Universal Creative, their “Imagineering” equivalent, operates at the same level as Disney. That’s a compliment to them based on much of their recent work (the Potter expansion especially), but it’s also an expectation. One corner of the switchback *is* themed to look like a mansion, so there is some effort expended. It’s just not fully immersive.

The outdoor queue is part switchback, part mansion "indoor" room
The outdoor queue is part switchback, part mansion “indoor” room

During the rest of the line, we’re looking at posters and watching overhead videos. Both are doing the same thing; informing us that Gru has figured out a way to create more minions, this time from humans! As we learn by the time we advance to the indoor queue that WE are being recruited to be converted to minions.

The indoor queue, by the way, is much more immersive and a full-bodied simulation. We’re in a giant room of the mansion (living room?) and there are all sorts of whimsical jokes and sight gags around us (probably an indication of what the humor in the movie was like, I’m guessing).

A lion head on one wall is holding a dog in its mouth, and the dog is holding a cat, and the cat a mouse. It’s like the Bremen Town Musicians but in taxonomy form. In this room we get our 3D glasses and hear a bit more story, such as Gru’s attachment to his three little girls.

The final queue is the living room of the mansion
The final queue is the living room of the mansion

The final pre-show room, just ahead, uses very high resolution screens high on the wall as though they were glass, showing us Gru “behind” that glass and giving us our charge before we are turned into minions. The storyline is set up here – something about a birthday present – and then we’re off to the main room.

Gru briefs us in the preshow
Gru briefs us in the preshow

Like Jimmy Neutron, this attraction is fundamentally a series motion-simulator benches arranged in rows and facing a large screen at the front. The screen looked bigger than the Jimmy Neutron screen, but maybe that’s my memory playing tricks. The motion simulator benches were same concept as Jimmy, though.

As you might expect, the ride is a typical simulator movie, which us banging into, falling down, floating up, and swerving around things. It’s fast-paced (again, revolving around retrieving a birthday present that has slipped away in Gru’s factory), which you might expect. The big question in this kind of ride has to do with execution: is it any good? Is it fun?

The answer is an unqualified yes. It’s fun to bounce around the way we do in this movie. It’s hard to quantify exactly why some of these simulator movies aren’t any fun, but this one is. The 3D is also startlingly good, and the visuals are first-rate (some simulators are ruined by the less than stellar visuals, but not this one).

In the movie, we chase after a wrapped present
In the movie, we chase after a wrapped present

By the end of the movie, all ends happily (did you expect anything else?) and we exit off to the side. The exit room contained a surprise for me: a dance studio. Apparently the minions in the movie like to dance? The majority of folks just breezed right through here without stopping, but a few did pause to shake their thing a bit, and I confess that the energy created was infectious.

Exit dance room at Despicable Me
Exit dance room at Despicable Me

The dance room empties out into a store. No surprise this; this trick has been used in most attractions since the 1980s. What did surprise me a little was the level of theming in the store. There are props, yes, but the walls were also themed. They spent a good deal of money on making the store feel like a themed place. And while Universal has always done this sort of thing to SOME degree, I can’t help but feel like they’re doing it now to a DIFFERENT degree. They are essentially matching Disney now on this level too (something I’ve said recently about their new parade, and their other new shop in this park SpongeBob StorePants–the best-named shop in the world, by the way).

Despicable Me Minion Mayhem was fun, frantic, and engrossing. I’ll definitely be back. I may not be back during this first summer, though, since the lines are pretty long. We saw Friday night waits posted at 90 minutes (versus 15 for most non-coasters in the same park). That’s an indication that the crowd agrees with Universal that this is a “major” ride, rather than a minor one.

To say that Universal has been stepping up its game is an understatement. They changed ownership a few years ago, and initial rumors were that new owner Comcast wanted to ditch the parks as a non-core holding of their media portfolio. But in recent interviews Comcast officials have warmed to the Universal parks as a consistent source of steady revenue (and a healthy chuck of operating profit). They recognize that it takes investment to keep the money flowing, so they are investing in the parks heavily (they haven’t said dollar values out loud).

Here in Orlando, their investments are plain to see. In addition to the pinnacle achievement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in IOA, you’ve also got the upgraded Spider-Man attraction. The visuals are stunning in a way you might not expect, and little stuff, like sound effects, are enhanced throughout the ride. In the wider resort, they updated the Blue Man Group show and added a highly-themed mini golf course. Soon they will add a fourth hotel (though for a change, this new one will not include free Express line-skipping privileges).

Over at Universal Studios Florida, the pace of change has been breathtaking. Apart from Despicable Me, you’ve got the new Disney-quality parade, the new fireworks (better than previous efforts, but still not up to Illuminations levels), the aforementioned SpongeBob StorePants, and the removal of Jaws for a land clearing that has not yet been announced — but the world is pretty sure will be a Harry Potter section of “London / Diagon Alley” that will connect to IOA’s section of “Hogwarts/Hogsmeade” via functioning train. The rumored central attraction will a roller coaster themed to the depths of Gringott’s bank.

As if all that weren’t enough, a few weeks ago destruction began on Stage 44, an area that hasn’t been used in a long time near the lagoon (and not far from Shrek). It was once used for Xena, among other things. The space is not contiguous with the former Jaws space, so it can’t be part of the Potter expansion. I traveled around the outside of the walls last week and realized it’s big – bigger than you’re expecting. They can (and will) cram a major ride in here.

Which ride? There are some rumors floating around. We’re in the phase of the game where the only information available is “my friend told me that HER friend got it from a super-reliable source!” So, consume with a grain of salt, but the current rumor is that this may become home to Transformers, a transplant of the acclaimed and well-received ride from Universal Studios Hollywood. Color me delighted and excited. I hope it’s true! Dewayne Bevil of the Orlando Sentinel even has a theory that they may be willing to build a Spider-Man type of ride (Transformers) because they may be mulling a sale of the East Coast Marvel rights to Disney now, while the properties are hot and will fetch top dollar. If they did that, they’d have to close Spider-Man, but they’d be making a few billion dollars, one assumes.

Last week I also had to renew passes for me and my family at Universal. Disney’s premium passes are close to $500, even for “Florida Residents” and including the renewal discount. Universal’s price to renew the preferred pass (their version of WDW’s premium pass, which includes parking)? A mere $173 per person (there is no child price). At those prices, it’s EXTREMELY hard to imagine not renewing. That’s less than two days of regular rack-rate admission – and I get a whole year? included parking? discounts on merchandise?

What are your thoughts on the minions? How about Disney’s pricing lately? Be sure to add your comments below…

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  • ravencroft

    The higher Disney raises the prices, the less crowded it will be at the park. Raise away! It is still a bargain in my opinion.

  • SteveFlack

    I assumed that the construction of a new show building for Transformers meant that they would not be selling the Marvel characters anytime soon. Because if they were, wouldn’t it just be easier to retheme the Spider-Man ride to Transformers (which uses the same ride system) and then retheme the other rides (Dr. Doom’s Freefall becomes Megatron’s Freefall, The Hulk Coaster because the Optimus Prime Coaster etc), and transform Marvel Land into Transformers Land.

    • Timekeeper

      I think it would be just better for them to retheme the rest of Marvel’s Super Hero Island, instead of having to build another attraction variant. What was near Stage 44?


  • jcruise86

    Thanks, Kevin! You are one of the best commentators/critics of an art form (theme parks) that is enjoyed by tens of millions of Americans each yearl

    And thanks to Universal/Comcast for being bold and devoting so much to making excellent attractions! I’m glad you’re being rewarded! Now please speed up the opening of Harry Potter land at Universal Hollywood and make it even better than Orlando’s.

  • It is wonderful to see Universal’s commitment to family friendly story telling attractions. While other parks are focused on spinners, coasters and extreme thrills, Universal has focused squarely on immersive storytelling and family friendly rides. It’s the expensive way to go, but so glad to see them compete with Disney for family tourist dollars.

    Can’t wait for Transformers and Harry Potter expansions.

  • DisneySam

    So I’ve decided to work for Universal’s creative development team for rides and attractions. Here is my idea for every new ride that Universal creates, 3-D movie motion-simulator based. What do you think? Will I get the job?

  • lionheartkc

    I’m intrigued by your comment, Dusty… my experience with Universal is that they are great story tellers, but they fail in one area. Every single ride not only tells a story but in some way spins you, drops you, or in some other way tosses you around. While I understand that a large percentage of the population enjoys that kind of thing, there are some of us who it wears on pretty quickly.

    The last time I was at Universal Orlando, I was with my Aunt and Uncle who are fans of most thrill rides, yet even they, about 3/4 of the way through the day, were ready to hang it up because our bodies were just tired of the abuse. As great as the visual side of the attractions are, it wasn’t worth how bad it was making us feel… I mean, I love Spiderman (high speed spinning), Men In Black (high speed spinning), Harry Potter (a little of everything one can do to a body on a ride), The Mummy (drops and lurching starts and stops), The Simpsons (lots of shaking and jerking), and several other attractions there, but I would love to see Universal add more attractions that had the mental WOW factor without the need for an adrenalin rush.

    Oh… and Disney’s pricing is getting pretty outrageous, but I whole heartedly agree that it needs to be done to thin the crowds.

  • BogLurch

    Here on the West Coast I’m appreciating that same devotion to the parks. Between the new ride (Transformers OMG etc., wipe drool of monitor, continue), the street characters (sat back and watched a very obviously improvised banter session between “residents” of a brownstone tenement as they bickered back and forth) and general attention, it’s made the park worth visiting.