Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Jurassic Park at Universal Parks: A Retrospective

It’s been 25 years since Dr. John Hammond so confidently and proudly stated “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” And in 1996 in California and 1999 in Florida, Universal Studios welcomed the world to visit John Hammond’s resort destination park. With the 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park today, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the real Jurassic Park that you can visit as part of your epic adventure at Universal Studios Hollywood (USH) and Islands of Adventure (IoA) in Orlando. As you have heard, the original Jurassic Park the Ride is closing in September in Hollywood to make way for a Jurassic World themed attraction and the one in Orlando will likely be rethemed as well (but we don’t have a date for that closure yet). Although there have been changes to Jurassic Park at IoA over the years, it has largely remained the same as is the case with the location in Hollywood. I was fortunate enough to get to preview IoA before it opened in the Spring of 1999, so I’ve been able to watch as it’s evolved over the years. And I was able to visit the USH location for the first time in 2012. Hoping to make it back before JP the Ride closes in Sept.

I can distinctly remember making my way through the IoA Port of Entry down to the lagoon. And there it was. The Jurassic Park Visitors Center across the water proudly standing to welcome you to an island “65 million years in the making.” After spending time with the whimsical characters of the world of Dr. Seuss and exploring the ruins of left behind on the Lost Continent including an AOL Internet Kiosk (no, really, that was a thing), we approached the trademark gateway to Jurassic Park complete with fire and that timeless trumpet fanfare from the Jurassic Park Main Theme written by John Williams. You felt instantly transported to that island off the coast of Costa Rica that Hammond “leased from the government to set up a kind of biological preserve–really spectacular–spared no expense.” And the attractions really did and still do “drive kids out of their minds.” My parents, sister, and I were completely awestruck at just how real everything felt. It was one of our favorite movies, as a family, and to experience the real thing (figuratively anyway), was an incredible feeling. The most noticeable difference between Jurassic Park at USH and IoA is size. Although the Jurassic Park area at USH was the original, it is mostly the ride itself and new Raptor Encounter whereas Jurassic Park is an entire land at IoA boasting more offerings. But there is a magic at USH that doesn’t exist at IoA. When at USH, you feel more of a connection to the film itself because you are mere steps from the sound stages where it came to life.

Before the photo stops were automated, there were Jurassic Park photogs to take your pictures at vignettes from Jurassic Park and The Lost World. So many park vehicles along the park’s pathways. You had the original Jungle Explorer, gas Jeep Wrangler, and customized Mercedes-Benz M320. A side note: I’m such a fan of the franchise that I owned a Ford Explorer and ML320. We never really spend anytime in the park aside from the basic tour, but I imagine the park must’ve looked similar to what we experiences walking through the jungle. Just like in the movie, our first stop was the Visitors Center (“Discovery” Center). So incredibly similar to the one from the film! It was nearly uncanny. Instead of walking into it from the main pathway, my family and I walked down to the lagoon so we could enter in from the front just like in the film. Ascending the stairs, the imposing structure was soon directly in front of us, with only a door left to be opened. Even the entry doors were nearly identical to the ones in the film. Since my parents knew how much I loved the movie, they opened the doors and I walked in!

Everything was there, the murals, giant T-Rex and Brachiosaurus skeletons, staircase, and more. So many educational exhibits around the perimeter of the main gallery. You could watch baby dinosaurs hatch, build your own dino with DNA, climb inside a dinosaur to look out of its eyes, and so much more. Even Mr. DNA was featured at one of the exhibits. The interior reminded me a little of Innoventions at Epcot, in that there were educational exhibits based on various parts of the movie. Not on this trip, but later after I moved to the area and became a passholder. I had the opportunity to adopt a baby raptor from the Visitors Center and I named it Barbra as I’m a fan of Streisand! Back to my first experience. It was lunchtime so we walked up the staircase rounding the trademark skeletons in the center of the gallery and dined at Burger Digs (at lease I think it was called Burger Digs back then–that is a little foggy at this point). On the upper level, I love coming across nods to the film in the paintings, wall art, and murals. Wish the dining room resembled the one from the movie a little more, bur I can understand how that could be problematic logistically with it being a quick service restaurant. Fortunately, there are lots of tables inside and out! Personally, I enjoy dining al fresco.

After we finished our dino-sized burgers at the restaurant, we exited and continued to stroll around the park. To our left was a big fossil of a triceratops at the entrance to the (former) Triceratops Encounter! Located where the Raptor Encounter is today, was an attraction that left a talking impression on me and my family. Unfortunately, the attraction did not last long but the memories are still there. I can still remember meandering the long pathway along the electric fence through the jungle. Through open gates and past open of the gas Jeeps. At the end of the pathway was an unassuming shed. But the magic happened on the inside! On the inside of that shed was a life-sized triceratops who was going into labor. For real! Or for all intents and purposes, real. Remember that scene from the movie where the park gusts stumble upon the sick Tric? That same feeling you got when you saw that majestic creature on screen? You got that same feeling at this attraction. It was so incredibly real–even to the touch. You even got to see the baby! The technology reminded me of how the dinosaur must’ve been built for the movie. I imagine the complex technology is what lead to the closure of the attraction. Once it broke, perhaps it was just not cost effective to repair (i.e. Disco Yeti at Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom).

From a triceratops encounter to a river adventure, we made our way to the flagship attraction. The Jurassic Park River Adventure. Based on the Jurassic Park the Ride at USH, this attraction began with inspiration from the novel more so than the film. In the novel (and in the Jurassic Park video game in the 90s), there was an entire sequence of events and on the river. So instead of a replica of the basic tour, Spielberg desired to immerse the park guests into the river adventure from the novel because it’s something he wanted in the movie, but just didn’t work out that way. The queue for the attraction takes you through a series of switchbacks with models of the island and other information along the way. Overhead are park broadcasters who inform you about dinosaurs you will see. Just as if you are in THE Jurassic Park about to take a tour. It feels as if you are actually there. Even the park employees are in Jurassic Park uniforms. Eventually you make your way down to the river and board your raft boat.

For the most part, the attractions at USH and IoA are largely the same. There is a notable exception though. The original attraction in USH includes the wrecked Jungle Explorer falling over the retaining wall and crashing below–a crash with a big splash! Otherwise, the ride path is the same. Other minor differences exist as in the placement of dinosaurs in the lagoon and in the command center. Just like in the movie, your river tour is narrated! I remember floating along the river in the boat for the very first time. Amazed at everything! One of the most memorable parts is the beginning as the narrator welcomes you to Jurassic Park as the big gates open to reveal all the dinosaurs in the lagoon! With the growing trend of simulated reality, this attraction is still a testament to physical movement through an attraction that you can “see, feel, and touch.” You cannot replace the way real light bounces off real objects and into the human eye. Same can be said the filmmaking. That’s one of the things that I still love about the attraction–is the commitment to truly immersing you into the world of Jurassic Park without use of screens, glasses, or some other type of VR. As a kid, I almost thought the dinosaurs were real–like I was a guest at Jurassic Park taking the tour.

Everything seems to be going according to John Hammond’s plan until the raft is knocked off course–heading for the Raptor containment unit and command center/genetics lab. Something is definitely not right, as evident from the crashed watercraft and compys fighting over a JP uniform with the nametag Mickey on it. Love that touch! The first time we went underneath the raptor transport contained I remember screaming as it came crashing overhead. Nothing beats the first time on Jurassic Park River Adventure or Ride! I wish there was a little more to the command center/genetics lab than there is, but it’s still a lot of fun to go through. The first time has surprises around every corner. As soon as you go inside, you know that you’re about to be in trouble. As a kid, this moment was so incredibly tense. Especially coming face to face with velociraptors and dilophosaurus attacking your raft as it ascends to the top of the lab. I remember heading the iconic stomps of T-Rex and the tears through the walls. One of the scariest moments going up the ramp was the electric fence with the raptor lunging out of it. And just when you think it’s all over, you encounter a fog, and in that thick fog is THE dino herself T-Rex. Before the park operations eased up on the movement and fog, I distinctly recall the mouth of T-Rex coming into close proximity with the raft just before the steep plunge into the watery depths below. What a fall! Definitely steeper than Splash Mountain and Dudly Do Right Falls. Just as the characters in the movie narrowly evade being eaten by the dinosaurs, we too narrowly escape the jaws of T-Rex. When we exited through the gift shop, I recall looking at all the merchandise that you can actually find in the film. During the scene when Hammond and Ellie are debating about control and illusion. Some of that merchandise can still be found today in the shop, but most of it has sense been replaced by Jurassic World merch.

What wonderful memories have been had at Jurassic Park at Universal Parks! I am glad that I have been able to experience both parks but most of my memories are at the IoA location. Although parts of me will be sad to see the Jurassic Park branding and attractions change to Jurassic World, it’s all part of the evolutionary process a theme park goes through. I have hope that there will always be some uniquely Jurassic Park moments or locations because “life cannot be contained…does not adhere to park schedules…life finds a way.”

Checkout the linked videos to both the attractions at USH and IoA

2019: the Year of the Park

2019 is shaping up to be quite the year for U.S. theme parks in Florida and California. Many major theme parks have made announcements in the last few weeks that are of out-of-this-world Jurassic proportions! Looking to history, it feels as if we are in a “space race” of sorts. Except, instead of the United States and Russia vying to be the first in space or one the moon, major US theme parks are breaking new ground, pushing boundaries, and innovating new experiences to vie for your money. Arguably, the biggest expansion is Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS) and Disneyland, followed by Lego Movie World and Sesame Street Land at Legoland Florida and SeaWorld Orlando respectively, the new Harry Potter themed rollercoaster at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure, Jurassic World replacing Jurassic Park at Universal Studios Hollywood, and lastly Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway also at DHS. Just one of any of the aforementioned announcements would be big news, but collectively it is quite possibly the most massive collection of openings at any given time in recent years.

The sheer economic impact of these attractions on each of their respective parks will be of epic proportions. Beginning with Universal’s Islands of Adventure (IOA) in 1999, the last decade has seen a colossal convergence of cinema and theme parks like no other! And even more so since the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) at IOA in 2010. From the original concept of the movie park immersing guests into the magic of filmmaking to creating immersive environments that place the park guest into the world of the movie itself, the movie park has grown by leaps and bounds. As the process to make a film became less magical, the parks compensated by wowing guests with the ability to feel as if they are characters in the film itself. Attendance at theme parks took a dramatic downturn after the housing collapse and financial crash of 2007; and with theme parks being a vacation destination or luxury for many, they had to innovate new ways to attract guests–give them new reasons to return to the parks. By creating new experiences that were unlike any other, the parks knew they could increase their bottom line and share of the marketplace. Universal’s addition of Harry Potter and Disney’s addition of Pandora were major impacts. Moreover, the addition of Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars land) at Disney’s Hollywood Studios & Disneyland Resort and the eventual Nintendo expansion at Universal Orlando Resort will each likely bring unprecedented numbers of guests into the parks.

News from Disney and Universal on new lands is not exactly groundbreaking–the news anyway–but when SeaWorld and Legoland are tossing their hats in, for a piece of the 2019 action, then you know that a wave of innovation is sweeping through the parks of Florida and California. California is interesting. For the longest time, the majority of the big theme park news came out of Florida but more recently the California Disney and Universal parks have made big expansions and announcements. Most recently, Radiator Springs at Disney’s California Adventure and WWoHP at Universal Hollywood opened to rave reviews and dramatically increased park attendance. Next year is bringing about an unprecedented number of additions to theme parks that will even more greatly increase the revenue and attendance than we’ve seen in the last several years. And it’s not just the parks that are going to feel the impact of all the 2019 openings. The local hotels, resorts, beaches, and secondary attractions (zoos, aquariums, museums, etc) will also feel a huge boost from the new theme park lands and rides.

More people than ever will be flocking to the parks next year. And let’s face it, the majority of those numbers will be boarding the Millennium Falcon and Mickey & Minnie’s very first attraction, but the numbers heading to experience their favorite Lego movies, Harry Potter, or your furriest friends at Sesame Street land will be impressive. Local hotels and resorts need to start planning on the massive influx of theme park guests, some of which may be visiting for the first time in a long time or for the first time ever. Although a tourist may spend most of their time at the parks, beach, etc when coming to Florida, the hotel stay can play an important role in the over all experience of the trip. Often times, it’s the hotel (whether on or off property) that sets the initial tone of the trip. So, I hope that non-Universal/Disney/Lego hotels are keeping up with the news because they are about to see crowds likely never seen in any other year, except for when a new park opens.

So far, we’ve heard big news from most the major theme parks of Florida and California, but Busch Gardens Tampa seems to be the wallflower this time around. It’s entirely possible that we will hear of a new attraction offering at Busch Gardens in 2019 but so far there do not seem to be any indicators for that. Fortunately, Busch Gardens may continue the complimentary beer promotion in order to not get completely left behind in 2019. But who knows, 2018 is only about halfway done, so there is still time for Busch to make a 2019 announcement as well. If so, hopefully it will revolve around the space occupied by the former Gwazi wooden coaster.

Okay so here’s a breakdown of what’s coming to theme parks in 2019, so far.

Walt Disney World

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge– a new land with a 14 acres expansion, transporting guests to a never-before-seen planet, a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space where Star Wars characters and their stories come to life. And yes, you’ll be able to fly the Millennium Falcon!

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway– After screening an exclusive cartoon in the theatre, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway will put you inside the wacky and unpredictable world of a Mickey Mouse Cartoon Short where you’re the star and anything can happen.

Universal Studios Florida

Harry Potter rollercoaster– The all-new attraction will take guests on a journey that incorporates the characters, creatures and transportative adventures of the wildly successful book and movie series when it opens in 2019. In its announcement, Universal positioned the ride as one of the most “highly-themed coaster experiences” they’ve ever created — which is major, considering The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is already known for immersive attractions utilizing ride systems and technology in ways rarely seen at other theme parks.

SeaWorld Orlando

Sesame Street Land– “We are excited to transport our guests into the colorful and creative world of Sesame Street through immersive theming, character interactions and interactive play,” said SeaWorld Orlando President Jim Dean in a statement. Sesame StreetLland also brings with it SeaWorld’s firs daily parade!

Legoland Florida

Lego Movie World– Based on “The LEGO Movie” and the upcoming sequel, the new world puts guests in the middle of Bricksburg, the city where Emmet lives in the movie. The area will feature two new rides, character meet-and-greets, and a giant themed playscape.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Jurassic World the Ride– Details of the “Jurassic World Ride” are being kept under wraps. But a press release release describes the plans as “epic,” featuring “never-before-seen dinosaurs, enhanced storytelling, lush scenic design, an entirely new color scheme and unparalleled state-of the art technology.”

Disneyland Resort

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge– As of now, there are only two new rides in development. There’s the Millennium Falcon ride, where players are ranked on how well they perform their mission (if you bang up the ship, expect trouble at the cantina). There’s also one in the works where guests are inside a Star Destroyer hanger bay during a major battle between the First Order and the Resistance, though there isn’t a lot of information available on that one yet.

Star Wars and Nintendo: Battle of the Parks

The big question is which will be the bigger draw??? Although it first debuts in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Universal Studios Japan’s Super Nintendo World is one of the most highly anticipated theme park expansions, rivaled only by Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars Land) at Disney parks in the US debuting next year! Two enormous intellectual properties (IPs) that will undoubtedly drive up guest attendance by exponential amounts. But which will prove to be the more popular expansion? Arguably, both lands will significantly impact the attendance of, character meet-and-greets in, and merchandise of the parks. The competition is heating up between Universal and Disney parks and resorts–reminds me of the US and Russian space race of the mid-1900s. While there is no doubt that both lands will be major successes, therein lies a question of which one will prove to be more popular. Not that it truly matters in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of those things that is interesting to talk about and synthesize some research.

After the opening of both Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) lands at Universal Studios Florida (and subsequently the Hollywood expansion), it was no surprise that Disney World was running to catch up, hence the opening of Pandora: the World of Avatar. As amazingly beautiful and detailed as Pandora is, it has not managed to draw the continued crowds and fandom that the WWoHP has been doing since 2010. According to the website Touring Plans, the increase from 2015 to 2017 attendance at Animal Kingdom rose marginally on the average whereas the Miami Herald reports that the increase at Universal Orlando during this same time period was more significant, and the forthcoming TEA Connect and AECOM reports are predicted to show greater growth at Universal than Disney World. Suffice it to say, the fanbase for Harry Potter far exceeds that of Avatar; however, the great battle for the crowds is currently between Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge combined with Toy Story Land and Super Nintendo World with further Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts developments in the worksTo understand which is likely to out-perform the other, one has to delve into the individual fanbases and economic impact of both properties primarily in question–Star Wars and Nintendo.

Unfortunately, there is little to no empirical way to quantify the number of fans either property has because of all the variables. Furthermore, movie ticket DVD/BluRay/VOD sales cannot be weighed against video game console and interactive media (video games) sales to determine fanbase size because it would not be an equitable means of measurement. Understanding the fanbase is crucial to predicting which property will be the bigger draw, which will have the biggest economic impact on its respective park. At the end of the day, both expansions are winners. Both will prove to provide vast positive affects upon the parks. Still, the friendly competition gives rise to the question which will be the bigger success. While the number of fans cannot be realistically quantified, the amount of revenue generated by Star Wars and Nintendo CAN be quantified, and that is precisely what Statista does. According to Statista (and the more than 18K sources from which the company compiles the information), Star Wars has generated $7.5B in revenue compared to Nintendo‘s $75B. What??? Yes, that’s right. Nintendo exceeds Star Wars in revenue 10x. While Nintendo may far exceed Star Wars in revenue generation, it’s important to note that Star Wars is the leading movie franchise in terms of merchandise sales. Yes, more than Harry Potter (and I’m house Ravenclaw). And merchandise sales is a HUGE component of theme park operations and sales.

Since park guests base their visit on more than just a single land, the presence of Toy Story Land at Disney World and Wizarding World of Harry Potter should also be taken into account when determining whether Disney World or Universal Orlando will see the bigger boost to attendance and increase in revenue. Arguably, Harry Potter (inclusive of Fantastic Beasts) is the bigger franchise family based on book sales, ticket sales, current theme park attractions, etc. Therefore, Star Wars land has to be big enough to not only compete against Nintendo World but also Harry Potter. One of the biggest advantages that Star Wars has over Nintendo and Harry Potter is merchandise sales and collections. Star Wars has exponentially more memorabilia and collectors than Nintendo, mostly because of the success of the films and the fact that Star Wars predates Nintendo by several years. But I imagine that Universal will continue to rely upon WWoHP for the bulk of the merchandise sales at the park since it can compete with Star Wars Land on that playing field. Analyzing the fandom of Nintendo is a little more difficult than that of Star Wars because Star Wars is the big umbrella under which all the movies, video games, and merchandise fall. Fans identify themselves as a Star Wars fan, whereas the fans of Nintendo’s product line are more prone to identify with a particular game franchise (Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, etc) more so than identifying with Nintendo proper. All evidence points to both brands being strong, viable candidates that will provide a close competition.

Both Star Wars and Nintendo are worldwide phenomena–no question. Combine Star Wars with Toy Story and conversely Nintendo with Harry Potter, and you have two powerhouse destinations for theme park fans. With the recent expansions at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood, Disney World/Disneyland needs to ramp up their game–go into hyperspeed. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge pulls into space dock in 2019 just in time for episode IX. We are still a few years away from a domestic Super Nintendo World, and do not know much about it; however, we do have an idea of what to expect at the Universal Studios Tokyo and can by extension apply that knowledge to Universal Orlando. From what we know so far, Star Wars land will be a completely immersive environment that will essentially transport park guests to a “galaxy far far away.” If the WWoHP is the best example of the successful translation from book to screen to theme park for a world of fantasy, then Star Wars land will be on par with the best.

An interesting element to think about is the future of both Star Wars and Nintendo. It’s old news at this point that the most recent Star Wars movie The Last Jedi was not popular with longtime fans–new fans, yes–longtime fans, no. Nintendo is successfully holding onto both the old and new fans because the video games and consoles continue to appeal to those who had an NES as a kid or just bought last year’s Switch. Even legacy properties are holding onto what made them popular, but incorporating trends in interactive media (the term now often used to define that which was formerly video games). Mario Builder is an example of the aforementioned concept. If Star Wars continues to lose its longtime fans, abandons them for the new fans, then the new land may not fair as well as Nintendo World. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a new generation Harry Potter movie that largely appealed to BOTH the old and newer fans. Therefore, it could be said that Universal Orlando’s most popular themed lands may have a longer life than Star Wars if the movies keep dropping the older fans. Just something to think about.

The Battle of the Parks is hot, and will just keep getting hotter! Fortunately, healthy competition breeds innovation, so whether or not Universal or Disney has the better new land expansions, the real winner in this battle is the consumer! Both parks will greatly benefit from the expansions and only time will be able to tell which one wins this race to be the best.

Innovative New Interactive “Harry Potter” Dark Ride Coming to Universal Orlando?

WWHP_LogoRecently, there have been rumors floating around regarding a possible new addition to Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. Between the recent acquisition of the film rights to the Harry Potter franchise and the the newly uncovered patent, these evidences provide support that assists in substantiating these rumors; however, there has yet to be a formal announcement. This possible new addition brings up some issues to consider. Already, there are park regulars who are not welcoming this decision. Why not? Because Universal would tear down the Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons) roller coaster in Hogsmeade and replace it with an interactive dark ride that would enable park guests to test out their technique and spells. Think Toy Story Midway Mania but perfected and with an increased experiential factor. Even before this rumor, Universal is increasingly being thought of as a theme park overrun with 3D screen attractions. Anecdotally, this is an accurate observation since the most recent additions to the park are all on similar ride platforms (just with different thumbing). One of the elements that I have researched is the requirement that the park guest experience physical movement and be emerged into a psychical atmosphere that transports the guest from the real world into a world of fantasy, adventure, or horror. Although this new ride sounds impressive and innovative, it bears a striking resemblance to many of the attractions that already exist. While no one would really complain about an indoor attraction, as Florida is notoriously hot and humid more than half the year, the concept of a ride moving in front of 3D screens does not appear to be eliciting the response that was intended.

CedarPointOne of the primary elements that separates a theme park from an amusement park is the concept of continuous storytelling complete with proprietary theming. While amusement parks build more rollercoasters and other visceral thrill rides, theme parks create thrilling atmospheres and experiences. It’s a fine line. Take Cedar Point v. Walt Disney World for instance (while ignoring the former’s seasonal operation). Both parks offer amusement, thrill, and entertainment; yet, they are both vastly different experiences. Remember in geometry: while both are polygons, every square is a rectangle but not every rectangle is a square? That principle applies to this analogy as well with WDW being the square and Cedar Point being the rectangle. What makes the difference? Intellectual property, theming, and story. If one were to total up the number of roller coasters or traditional thrill rides at both Cedar Point and WDW respectively, obviously Cedar Point’s numbers would dwarf WDW’s. That’s because the focus of the park experience is different at both places. The focus of Cedar Point is on the thrill while the focus at WDW is the experience (or immersion). The former does not adhere to any cohearant or continuous theming while the latter has built a vast empire on theming and story. A similar argument can be made with cinema. Literary and cinema researchers Linda Williams and Geoff King both write about narrative vs spectacle. Amusement Parks like Cedar Point are almost entirely focussed on the spectacle of the park experience while WDW concerns itself more with the narrative of the experience (although, WDW does strike a balance between the two). Much like WDW, Universal Orlando Resort (and Universal Studios Hollywood) seek to create a thrilling atmosphere complete with rides, shows, and a high caliber experiential factor. Whether it’s the story OF the movies or about the stories told by cinema, Disney and Universal Parks transport the park guest from reality into fantasy.

Dragon-Challenge-695x361So, what does all that have to do with this possible (but likely) new Harry Potter dark ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure (IOA)? A lot, actually. The controversy or concerns seem to stem from Universal’s trend away from physical to virtual environments. Not that 3D/virtual environments aren’t accompanied by the physical. For example, Escape from Gringotts pairs simulated elements with physical production design; however, there is a measurable trend to relying heavily upon 3D IMAX screens as opposed to tangible production design. A great example of this trend is the new King Kong attraction at IOA. The outside of the show building and the queue are impressive. It looks and feels just like you are a character in the movie–cool right? After you pass through the massive gates to Kong’s jungle, the attraction is 75-80% 3D screens. Likewise, the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Florida/Hollywood is also comprised of mostly 3D screens.

DragonChallengeLosing a traditional roller coaster in exchange for another 3D dark ride could likely rub some park guests the wrong way. Although park guests of the Disney and Universal Parks are there for the experience, story, and incredible themed design, this does not negate the desire for more traditional amusement within these worlds of fantasy. Looking at the parks of Central/West Central Florida, it is clear that Busch Gardens has the largest number of roller coasters, and there are many park regulars, including myself, who go there for the traditional thrill rides. On a side note: I also find the methods Busch Gardens integrates the animal encounters and experiences outstanding–best of what a zoo and amusement park offers. Anyway. With Universal possibly removing a roller coaster that can cycle guests very quickly (due to the two tracks of Fire/Ice) and replacing it with a greatly mitigated cycling attraction like a 3D dark ride, it could prompt longer waits for a similar experience (Transformers v Spider-Man) that can be had at the other 3D attractions. Another forecasted closure in the near future is Revenge of the Mummy. Again, this is a popular traditional (indoor) high speed roller coaster that may be replaced by a 3D style attraction. Even though Universal and Disneyland has to work around issue of being land-locked when planning expansions and improvements whereas WDW has geographic room for expansions, is replacing traditional roller coasters with 3D dark rides the way to go?

I am totally excited for expansions to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWHP) in light of the film rights acquisition and the new movies. I am even more excited to see additions made to the parks that I frequent the most! However, I don’t believe it best planning to sacrifice more traditional rides. The best solution would be to design an attraction that would provide a platform for gusts to test out their magical skills while experiencing the visceral thrill of a coaster type ride. As with all industries, theme parks too have to change with time and with the desires of those who buy the tickets. Theme parks are a business model usually owned by media conglomerates. If the addition of 3D attractions is what increases revenue, then that is the decision that is to be made. The business of filmmaking is also very similar in that respect. I hope that the possible new attraction is one that breaks the mold of the typical 3D screen moving ride and reaches new innovative design heights! We will just have to wait and see and we learn more about these upcoming changes.