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.

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 9)

My BookIn order for the creative teams at cinema-influenced theme parks to understand what the public is going to want months, sometimes years, ahead of time, they have to understand the past attractions, the present ones, and what to look for in the future. Over the years, the attractions at these parks have undergone many changes. And, with the way the trends are going, the “behind the scenes” and nostalgic movie-based attractions are going by way of the dodo, and glorified IMAX® simulator interactive multi-dimensional rides are taking their place. Some of the prominent attractions in the vein of “behind the scenes” and robotic movie or television show attractions were located at Disney’s Hollywood (MGM) Studios and Universal Studios (Florida and Hollywood). Although a few of the park-opener attractions are still around, most have been replaced by other attractions.

MSW_SoundstageOriginally Universal was an excellent theme park for learning about the magic behind the camera and the, mostly analog, technology that enabled directors to become magicians. There was a clear educational component to the theme park experience. And, to some extent, Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the same way. But, with the movie technology changing as rapidly as it is, some of the more nostalgic legacy attractions are going away. Many of the original Universal Studios attractions were about taking you behind the magic, revealing the secrets of movie and TV making. From 1990-1996 at Universal Studios Florida, there was a Murder, She Wrote: Mystery Theatre with sound stages that showed the audience about video editing and foley sound generation based on the hit series starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury. On the tour, the audience would get to watch scenes from the show, talk to industry professionals (played by actors), and volunteers would be used to interact with some of the equipment. But, probably, the most prolific and inspirational attractions about the magic of movies was the Alfred Hitchcock: Art of Making Movies attraction (1990-2002) and Bates Motel and House set from Psycho IV (1990-1998), both located at Universal Studios Florida. (I am actually going to write a separate article on this specific attraction after this series of excerpts is completed).

Psycho_SoundstageThis was a main attraction at the theme park until its dismantlement in 2002 to make way for the Shrek: 4D experience. From the aforementioned explanation by one of the producers of the attraction, the audience was completely immersed in the magic of bringing a Hitchcock thriller to life, and got to witness the most famous single scene in all of cinema history. This was all done with practical effects, just as Hitchcock would have done it. But, with the advent of computer-generated imagery and incredibly accurate and time efficient non-linear video editing, most of the effects can be generated in other ways. Although it remained one of the most popular attractions at the theme park until its closure, Universal saw the future of attractions and decided to do away with nostalgia and pave the way for digital simulated attractions (Singer, 2013). Doing away with cinema and television nostalgia wasn’t the sole prerogative of Universal. Although Disney World is famous for holding on to the nostalgia of the past, especially at Magic Kingdom (Singer, 2013), its parks, too, have learned to adopt new attractions for what they feel the guests want. On the (now closed) Studio Backlot Tour, guests would take a walking and tram tour through a special effects water show on the set of Pearl Harbor, featuring volunteers from the audience, and ride a tram through the production houses where props and costumes were made. Also on the tour was a special effects sequence in an oil refinery canyon that burst into flames and was also flooded. This put the guests in the middle of the movie-making action.

Disney_GG_HouseUntil 2003, there was a street called Residential Street on the tram tour. Here, park guests would come face-to-face with some of the most famous houses in Buena Vista/Touchstone Television shows. The most famous of the houses was the upper middle class home of the Golden Girls. The house was a replica of the North Saltaire Street house in the Los Angeles area that Disney used for the exterior shots during the first few seasons. From 1989-1992, Disney used the replica at then Disney-MGM Studios for shooting the exterior shots of the house. In 2003, the houses were torn down to make way for an epic car stunt show, featuring how car action sequences are filmed in the movies. Keeping with the over-all theme of the park, this was staying with the concept of learning about the magic of making movies. As of October 2014, the Studio Backlot Tour was closed (History of the Backlot Tour, 2014).

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“10 Cloverfield Lane” movie review

10CloverfieldExtremely suspenseful and enigmatic! Within minutes of the beginning of the movie, you will be sucked into the twisted and claustrophobic subterranean world at 10 Cloverfield Lane. Not directly connected to Cloverfield (2008), this film quite possibly takes us to a moment concurrent to or just before/after the events in New York City caught on the handicam. Director Dan Trachtenberg and Producer J.J. Abrams work together to shock the audience with a movie that will keep you guessing right up until the end. Brilliantly cast and written, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an excellent old-school feeling horror film that you have got to experience in IMAX. Just when you think you have it figured out, you will immediately begin to second guess yourself. Probably the most brilliant part of the film is the fact that three principle characters can keep your interest and attention the entire time without ever a feeling of boredom or annoyance. From the writing to the cinematography and visual effects, this film is sure to keep you on the tip of your toes.

Following a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up with an IV in her arm and chained to a wall [wait, is this Saw?]. With no cell reception and no recollection of what happened, she begins to fear the worst. Upon meeting her capture Howard (John Goodman), she fears for her life. Not buying his story about saving her and keeping her from the hard during the fallout from the attack, Michelle attempts to escape. Failing to overcome Howard, she slowly begins to accept the worst. To her surprise, she is not the only one in Howard’s fallout shelter. Michelle meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr). Thinking that Emmett’s injuries are from escaping, she learn that his broken arm is from fighting to get INTO Howard’s shelter. With this new revelation, Michelle begins to settle into life with Howard and Emmett. Still, something just isn’t right. From car noises to sunshine, Michelle has doubts of the alleged apocalypse and must solve the mysteries, puzzles, and covertly plan her escape.

One of the most intriguing elements of the movie is personally feeling the claustrophobia that the principle cast is experiencing in the movie. That is thanks to the excellent cinematography, production design, and lighting. That additional experiential element is not terribly common in films, even horror cinema. But it was very instrumental in generating the feeling of suspense, anticipation, and intrigue during the movie. Much like Super 8 and in the vein of other J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot productions, the movie begins with a fantastic and blood curdling accident. Just like a rollercoaster, once that car accident hits the screen, the movie will take you up and down thrilling hills on a track that you will struggle to see 10 feet ahead. It’s difficult to talk about how the movie keeps you guessing and second guessing yourself without giving away a lot of what makes the movie thrilling. So, you will just have to take my word for it. Like with any good horror/suspense movie, it is necessary to include strategic comedic relief or lighthearted moments. And writers Drew Goddard, Daniel Casey, Matthew Stuecken, and Josh Campbell weave together a brilliant combination of terror and humor to keep the movie alive and dynamic.

John Goodman is absolutely brilliant in the film. Not that he has anything to prove. He is one of those actors who, with the slightest tweak of the face or shift of the eyes, can have you laughing one second and terrified the next. His ability to turn his character’s emotion on a dime makes him equally weird/quirky and frightening all at the same time throughout the story. Is he a weird old man who, in his own awkward and bizarre way, is keeping Michelle and Emmett from hard or his is a sadistic serial killer who forms inappropriate intimate bonds with his “guests”? That is for you to discover in the movie. Both Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr were perfect choices for their respective roles as well. Winstead brings that independent spirit and look to the character of Michelle and Gallagher provides the audience with a country boy charm. The ability for an actor to capture the emotion of extreme terror and sell it as a legitimate, believable emotion is tough. Selling that acute and powerful emotion can make or break a horror film–if the director’s intent is to make the story as real as possible and not a parody or satire of itself.

You may be wondering how this film is even loosely connected to 2008’s Cloverfield. And that connection isn’t really made until the end of the third act of the movie. Unfortunately, I cannot go into too much detail without giving away the climactic and over-the-top ending, but I can say that it does a great job of being connected just enough that it can essentially stand on its own but when you think of how it is or could be connected to Cloverfield, then the movie becomes all the more intriguing. Interestingly, the manner in which this installment in the Cloverfield universe was directed and produced, it definitely could begin a franchise with movies that are never directly connected to the previous film or even Super 8, but are taking place at or near the same time, each with it’s own respective story.

It isn’t often that I watch movies that are best seen in IMAX, but this is definitely one that is best appreciated and experienced in IMAX; however, if you want to take the old-school feel of the movie to a who other level, then you may want to consider watching the movie at a local drive-in. However you choose to watch the film, you are going to definitely enjoy the adventure.

“Everest” Movie Review

Everest“Climb every mountain…” Universal Pictures’ Everest is a breathtaking docudrama/biographical picture of a mid 90s all but completely failed expedition to the top of the world, frocked with tragedy. For those of us who have never been to Mount Everest, which is most people, this movie takes you up close and personal with the “most dangerous place on earth.” Never before has a movie taken the audience to place where you are viscerally confronted with the famed mountain in the Himalayas that dares even the most intrepid of climbers to scale. Although the movie has a fantastic cast and the panoramic views of Everest are breathtaking, Everest plays off more as a glorified documentary than a work of cinema. Not saying it isn’t impressive–certainly the movie has some very impressive elements–but, it lacks the cinematic structure of a traditional movie plot/subplot, theming, and subtext. It pretty much is what it is: a reenactment of an actual event on the treacherous slopes of the rooftop of the world. Shot mostly in the French Alps, with pickup shots and IMAX footage of Everest herself, the footage is beautiful and inspirational. If you dare to ascend the forbidden mountain, be sure to do it in IMAX!

Everest is about the 1996 Everest expedition of Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand-based company ran by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Hellen Wilton (Emily Watson). Facing dire financial times, Rob and Hellen need this expedition to be a successful climb to the top of the world. Attaching a journalist from an outdoor adventure magazine, Rob and Hellen will pull out all the stops to land the front cover. Once the expedition team safely arrives at basecamp, it becomes apparent that a storm looms on the horizon. Rob teams up with rival expedition leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) in order to lead both teams to the summit safely and back to camp before the severe storm collides with the mountain. As the best laid plans of mice and men often meet with disaster, so does this ascension.

In regards to the plot, there isn’t much to tell. The movie is about an expedition to the summit of Everest, and that is what you get. The writers try to include some subplots, but they really add little more than establishing where people are coming from and if they have a family. When the movie opened, I thought that the cinematography was amazing! The mountains were so real that I felt the chill of the air and the choice of angles showcased Everest and the Himalayas quite well. However, it was midway through the film that I realized that the cinematography wasn’t anything extra special. Certainly, it was above average and the IMAX footage was brilliant to behold; but, it was above average–nothing in particular to note. That being said, the camera was handled with care and the shots were carefully crafted. I think what gave the illusion of breathtaking cinematography was the fact that the mountains were displayed majestically on the giant screen. The majesty of the mountains enhanced the cinematography. So, it was the beauty of the mountains, not the cinematography in and of itself, that was outstanding.

I really feel this movie is meant to be viewed in IMAX because of the grandeur of it all. Watching it in a standard theatre or at home will not do the film justice. When a film’s foundation is built upon the visual stimulation, and not the psychological or emotional aspects that are common of films, then a movie needs to be screened in the best possible auditorium or IMAX theatre. This is a larger than life story, and should be seen on larger than life screens. Despite the lack of a traditional plot, I appreciated the film’s dedication to focussing on the expedition itself and not getting wrapped up in a love story or an underdog’s triumph.

If you enjoy epic adventures, bio pics on Nat Geo, or just want to visit Mount Everest, then check out Universal Pictures’ Everest opening in mid-September across the country. Word to the wise, don’t eat a massive lunch or dinner prior to seeing this film.

Tomorrowland (movie review)

TomorrowlandYou love visiting Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom, now experience it in a whole new way in Disney’s Tomorrowland! If you have yet to see the movie, definitely watch it in IMAX. This refreshingly (mostly) original movie is a pleasant change of pace from the countless reboots and remakes out there. As a researcher into the convergence of cinema and theme parks (my thesis will be published soon), this movie is of particular interest to me because of how it translates the theme park land into a narrative film. Often we see the opposite: a theme park experience being inspired by or based on a movie. This movie is well paced, developed, and produced. Ordinarily, I receive much flack for how hard I can be on Disney. That’s because when you profess to be the best, you need to consistently deliver a quality product, and acknowledge the criticism both positive and negative. However, this is one Disney review that I am particularly excited to write because I truly enjoyed the movie immensely, and could see a glimpse of the classic Disney style that the brand and studio still bank on (but not necessarily still deliver) today.

Tomorrowland takes you from present day Cape Canaveral, Florida to a land that is bustling with dreams, ingenuity, and talent. Follow young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) as his trip to the 1964 New York City World’s Fair becomes much more than he could have ever anticipated. It’s there he meets a young lady named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who shows him the futuristic city of Tomorrowland. Speeding up to present day, meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) who is doing everything in her power to thwart the demolition of the Kennedy Space Center NASA launch platform in order to save her dreams and her dad’s job. Through a series of unfortunate events, Casey comes into possession of a pin that shows her the world of Tomorrowland. Inspired by the glimpse of the city, Casey is determined to find out more about the mysterious pin. Only, Casey could never have dreamed about what this chance finding of the pin would mean; and furthermore, she could never have imagined the adventure she is about to find herself on to save the future of her world and Tomorrowland.

From the time the theme song “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” from Disney Carousel of Progress, located in present day Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom, begins to play, you know right then and there that this movie will capture your imagination. For fans of and frequent visitors to either the park in Florida or the original in California, you will find many Easter Eggs (film jargon for references to other movies, books, theme park attractions, etc) from the Disney parks. Experience It’s a Small World right there in the movie theatre; and during the sweeping shots and panoramic views of Tomorrowland, see Space Mountain and a upgraded People Mover. Even some of the weapons are based on the ones used on the Buzz Lightyear attraction. If you have been on the People Mover ride, you will recognize that the design of Tomorrowland bears some resemblance to the model seen on the iconic attraction that is said to be the inspiration for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Taking the existing attractions in the theme park land Tomorrowland and translating them into the diegesis of the movie Tomorrowland was done incredibly well and I feel Walt would be proud of this grand example of the convergence of two entertaining mediums.

Even though here are obviously similarities in the plot to other movies that carry along them theme “if humanity doesn’t change, it will mean the utter destruction of the world in acute and violent ways,” there is enough original content and development that it will not feel like another doomsday movie with the ticking-time-bomb plot device. The movie focusses on two characters and then their paths merge with one another. If you were to envision the movie as a road, think of it as two separate roads merging into one. I would even venture to say that there is a little of the 1980s classic The Neverending Story in this modern tale of dreams, destruction, change, and the future. Despite how easy it would have been for the writers to have greatly emphasized the socio-political context of much of the movie, the socio-political themes are mostly subtle and the film doesn’t feel like propaganda (much in the same way Avatar certainly did). When a movie essentially has two protagonists, it can become problematic for the writers and director, because fully executing thorough character development, grows increasingly difficult in the storytelling process (like trying to 100% focus on two things at the same time–it seldom happens). But, both the characters of young and adult Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey are handled very well respectively and both have unique character arcs.

Although the obvious CGI integration was sometimes a little too much, and I would have preferred practical set designs and special effects, both the “real” and the computer generated facets to the films production design were well-crafted and used effectively in the narrative. Sometimes in movies designed to be best-viewed in IMAX, the studios will play to the screen size, so to speak, even if it’s breaking away from the authenticity and very essence of the movie. No so, with Tomorrowland. The movie uses the IMAX technology as a storytelling tool, not merely a spectacle. Unlike many movies I have seen in the last couple of years, this one has well-defined central characters, with clearly established external goals, well-developed internal goals, and clearly defined opposition to those goals by way of the antagonist Nix (Hugh Laurie) and to a lesser extent, time itself. It has everything a wonderful movie needs to have in order to make the most of an exemplary narrative and excellent entertainment value.

If you are looking for a movie to watch this Memorial Day weekend, even though the remake of the horror classic Poltergeist may be tempting, definitely plan to see Disney’s Tomorrowland. You will be delightfully entertained for the entire runtime of the movie. It is highly unlikely that you will become bored in this film. Grab your friends, after your Memorial Day cookout, and head to the theatre.

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Also, a big thank you to all the men and women who serve in the US Armed Forces, as we specifically remember the ones who currently serve or have fallen on this special weekend.