Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

Still on that Real/Fake Experience Theme

Remember the big fire at Universal Studios in 2008? They lost some backlot structures and library material, all replaceable, and King Kong.

The ‘Kongfrontation‘ attraction, in case you didn’t know it, involved a giant robot that picked up the bridge that your tour tram was crossing, and shook it. Life sized. A giant robot! King Kong! Thirty-seven feet tall! Only slightly less awesome than his Florida counterpart, but only because in Florida you were up in the air in a cable car when the helicopter attack came.

Dwell on that for a moment. Giant robot. Cable car. Helicopter attack.

They’re replacing it with something that they believe will be better – a ‘4D experience’, which involves 3D movie projection combined with physical effects. Yes, you’ll have to wear glasses.

I went to the theme park last week and used my year pass – from where I am it’s not much more than a fifteen minute drive down Ventura Boulevard and I needed a change of scene. I’d sprung for the year pass so that I could drop by and see the Waterworld show whenever the urge took me; it’s a live-action stunt spectacular with high falls and explosions that ends with a full-sized seaplane coming in over the back of the set and crashing a few feet in front of the audience. I wasn’t going to blow the surprise for you until I saw how heavily they feature the moment in their promotional video.

I thought I’d just do a couple of hours and catch the show but when I got there, it was ‘closed for refurbishment’. So I saw the Blues Brothers show (OK) and Terminator 3D (as underwhelming as I remember it – a dimly-projected 3D mini-movie bookended by live action sequences) and then went on the Jurassic Park ride with its sub-Disney animatronics and awesome water plunge, even more awesome when you sit in the front row.

When I came out they announced that there’d be a Waterworld show after all, at 3pm. It’s a slow time of year for the park, with no lines anywhere, but the outdoor auditorium filled up quickly. I reckon it might have been a dress rehearsal for a new cast… it was badly-paced, had missed cues, and two of the boats broke down.

But at least the seaplane did its stuff. And instead of being drawn into the show, I found myself reflecting on what made the rest of it work. When I told my daughter – as big a theme park freak as you’ll ever meet – she wrote back, I actually think it’s pretty cool to see a flawed production as long as you’ve already seen a perfect version – it’s interesting to see and highlights the complexity of what they’re trying to achieve.

While I was in the park I learned that they’re closing the Backdraft fire-effects exhibit (OK, so no big loss – the buildup to the payoff leans heavily on a movie that few people now remember) and replacing it with a Transformers ride. The way they describe it, the Transformers ride is going to be another ‘4D experience’, the same kind of thing as the Spiderman ride in Florida. The feature they’re most proud of is the way they’ve programmed the 3D screens so that the perspective convergence lines shift in sync with the moving carriage to maintain the point of view.

Which, let’s be honest, is an impressive feat. But to my mind we’re looking at the difference between a museum with amazing authentic stuff in it and one of those ‘interactive experience’ exhibits full of kids hammering buttons and ignoring the lame snippets of information that come up on screens. Stuff, versus pictures of stuff.

Me, I’d rather see a giant robot or a live seaplane crash any day. But maybe I’m just out of step.

You can read about the new attraction in the LA Times. Apparently the cost of virtual Kong is more than six times than that of rebuilding the animatronic. This is what you’ll be missing:

And here’s what you’ll get.

6 responses to “Still on that Real/Fake Experience Theme”

  1. Retched! ‘Kongfrontation’ might have been a bit cheesy, like all the backlot attractions, but it was great because it was a massive flipping robot. When I first went on the tram tour (almost twenty years ago now), when it ended up with the Battlestar Galactica laser battle and the revolving Avalanche tunnel, I even loved the fact that when they parted the waters of the ‘Red Sea’ if the driver didn’t push his foot hard on the accelerator pedal everyone in the last tram where I was sitting had to quickly lift their feet up as the water started pouring back in.

    Along with the flash flood, the rickety bridge and the Earthquake experience, they were an absolute hoot. Back then the water tank was used for the “Miami Vice Action Spectacular”, which involved actors arsing around in speedboats shooting at each other… and it was just brilliant!

    When I went a second time, maybe seven or eight years later, we did the Back to the Future ride a couple of times, the lame ET ride – which the girlfriend and her mum wanted to go on – and the Jurassic Park ride. On that one I made sure I sat near the back simply because we had spent Boxing Day at Disneyland and been convinced by everyone that I’d stay dry sitting at the front of the log on the Splash Mountain ride. I still can’t believe I fell for it. Not only did I get soaked through but I wasn’t expecting the final plunge into darkness. In the souvenir photo there’s my girlfriend, her mum and the friends that came along with us laughing merrily, and me right at the very front, soaking wet, gripping the front of the log, and screaming in abject terror.

    After all the other rides it was probably the perfect end to the day, and we got out just in time for the evening firework show. If everything is going toward 3D and “4D”, taking away the interaction (however slight) and leaving everyone simply looking at “pictures of stuff” we might as well sit in the hover chairs now and wait for our free cupcake in a cup.

    Although at the Paley Center for Media’s recent Lost panel, I liked the idea producer Damon Lindelof came up with when someone in the audience asked whether Disney was planning a theme park attraction based on the series: “Just put people in a dark room, spin them around for a minute, have them walk out of the room, punch them in the face and say, ‘You’ve just had the Lost experience.’”

  2. I'm glad it's not just me. When my kid came out to visit last year and I found the Universal experience lacking the zest I remembered from it, I thought that maybe time was eroding my mojo. Then a couple of days later we went to Disneyland and I went on the Indiana Jones underground jeep ride, and my faith was restored.

    As for Splash Mountain – you just reminded me of something that's worth a post in itself.

  3. Oh, the Indiana Jones ride! I’d forgotten about that. Sometime around the mid-1990s my folks went on a jaunt around the western states with some family friends. Flying into LAX, they took in Palm Springs, the Grand Canyon, Vegas, Death Valley, San Francisco and the PCH. When they got back and I asked how the trip went my mother was raving about Universal’s Back to the Future ride, which she had gone on twice, and the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland as much as anything else. This was when they were both in their mid-60s. I was thinking, good grief, they’ve entered their second childhood already. What are they doing going to theme parks?

    When we got back to the apartment in Burbank Village on that Boxing Day my girlfriend’s mother told me that when it was announced we were going to Disneyland for the day my face just dropped. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much. But we started out on Space Mountain and then Thunder Mountain, sitting in the front car both times, and I was just laughing my head off. It was an absolute hoot! On Thunder Mountain I loved the animatronic goat with the stick of dynamite in its mouth. In the afternoon we got around to the Indiana Jones Adventure and the Haunted Mansion amongst others. First you get tossed around, then your senses get messed with… what’s not to like? At no point did I think this would all be so much better if it was on screens and I could only experience it through wearing annoying 3D glasses.

  4. I thought the 'Jaws' boat ride was one of the best in Florida, and that's all animatronic effects (even though it broke down the first time we went on – the benefit then was we got queue-jumping tickets, supposedly for one or two attractions, that they kept forgetting to take off us so we pissed people off all day, jumping lines). The 'Jaws' bit in LA was slightly less over-whelming as it was on the back-lot tour and the tram just kind of dipped as it went over a bridge. Is that still the same?

  5. Still the same… the shark effect only really works if you're on the right-hand side of the tram somewhere around the middle, otherwise it's very much a 'what just happened?' moment.

    About 5 years ago we did Universal's all-day VIP tour which wasn't cheap, but had a lot more in it for the genuine cinephile. You got to visit sets on sound stages, walk through the prop store, even stop the cart and get out at the Bates Motel. It was a big contrast to the usual 'Magic of the Movies' tourist presentation and at the end of it you went to the head of the line for every ride and show.

    A word for the Warners tour, though, which has no rides or rigged-up attractions but offers a genuine close-up look at a working backlot.