Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” (2018) movie review

Seuss’ beloved Christmas classic gets a brightly animated treatment. Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the furry green Christmas-hater with a loyal dog named Max. Dr. Seuss’ works are no strangers to screen adaptations. Many of his books have been adapted to animated successful TV specials and movies, including my favorite adaptation How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). We have the original award-winning 1966 version narrated by Boris Karloff and animated by Chuck Jones, the moderately entertaining live-action 2000 version, and the one we are reviewing today, a truly watch-worthy feature-length animated feature that has the soul of the original with some heartwarming additions. Needless to say, as much as there is to like about this new version, it does not rise to the same level as the Jones’ original, but is certainly superior to the Jim Carrey version. In addition to the main plot points from the book, this film takes some creative liberties to introduce new scenes and provide additional character development for the Grinch, Cindi Lou Who, and Cindi’s mom. Much like with the previous feature length animated and live-action films, this one too contains the quintessential Seussian architecture that lacks any straight lines (incidentally, this same concept is embraced at Seuss Landing at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure). From the top of Mount Crumpit to Whoville town square, if you are a fan of the book and original, then you will certainly enjoy this one and may even add it to your holidays this season. Oh yeah, Angela Lansbury has a cameo as the Whoville mayor!

Ordinarily this is where I summarize the plot, but we all know the story, so let’s jump right into this particular version. Arguably, two of the greatest, profound, and most celebrated Christmas stories feature a central character who hates Christmas; of course, one is an old British miser and the other is furry and green. Collectively, Charles Dickens’ Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ Grinch from How he Grinch Stole Christmas confront the commercialism, greed, loneliness, and the results of hardening one’s heart to friends, family, and the spirit of generosity. Themes that are just as relevant today as they were when first penned. The plots are so simple, yet so incredibly profound and inspirational. Both these stories benefit from simple plots and complex characters. Many of us have been either a Grinch or a Scrooge in our lives, or perhaps you know of one now; and it’s because of the relatability that we can identify with the characters. Taking the tentpole elements of the original animated version and adding a modern touch, 2018’s The Grinch seeks to capture the imagination of young audiences but concurrently providing a wonderful experience for adult audiences too.

One of the most memorable elements in the production design of the original animated classic is the stark contrast between the warm Whovillian homes and the cold, dankness of the Grinch’s lair. One is full of smiling faces while the other is solitary. Anyone who’s read Dr. Seuss’ books notices that there is something incredibly unique to his designs. As pointed out in the opening remarks, there are no straight lines anywhere in a Seuss book or even at Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure. While this may not seem like a big deal–it is. Truly, it’s one of the illustrated elements that gives the images their trademark look. I greatly appreciate the Illumination Entertainment artists for successfully carrying this over to the film. Even down to the drinking glasses, there are no straight lines anywhere to be found. Another highlight from the original is the music! More specifically, the songs. Instead of simply including the original songs in this feature length adaptation, they were reimagined for a new generation. Although I feel You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch suffered in the translation, the rest of the songs worked really well, and were a lot of fun! In addition to songs inspired by the original, there are song numbers integrated that you may recognize from today’s Christmas music. The new number that was the most fun was the Whovillian Christmas carolers played by Pentatonix singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Not just the song itself, but the choreography of that number was perfect! It combined the stereotypical “annoying caroler” trope with slapstick comedy in a chase scene of sorts.

Because of the feature length runtime of the movie, the writers have the ability to provide subtext that is often more difficult in short films. Not that the original is lacking–certainly not–that’s why it stands the test of time and continues to be adored by millions. Chuck Jones’ animated masterpiece is still teaching us today. That being said, with the additional storytelling time, we learn a bit more about the Grinch and Cindy Lou’s parallels to one another. Both of them have a stated mission and external goal at Christmas. The Grinch wants to steel Christmas away disguised as Santa Claus, and Cindy Lou wants to capture Santa in order to give her mom a Christmas well-deserved since she is a single mother raising a family. Giving and steeling Christmas. That contrast provides a lot of opportunity to play around with the meaning and value of Christmas to the hopeful and the jaded. Both the Grinch and Cindy Lou start their missions with the same two words: Santa Claus. But what they do with those words couldn’t be more polar opposite than the North and South Poles. Further parallels between these two iconic characters is the method executed to achieve their respective goals. Both of them plan and assemble a team, equipment, and traps without anyone finding out. And like each other, both are successful at achieving their goal. The Grinch does steel (what he thinks is) Christmas and Cindy Lou does capture (whom she thinks is) Santa Claus. It’s that chance encounter between faux Santa and Cindy Lou that alters the course of the evening and Christmas morning. Two completely separate plans intersecting in providence that teaches that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store…maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Much like with the live-action version, we have new characters introduced in this one too. However, the focus is never off primarily the Grinch followed by Cindy Lou. It’s important to note that keeping your central and opposition characters the focus enables the internal needs and external goals to be developed more effectively than shifting focus between too many characters and subplots. Speaking of which, who are the central and opposition characters? Contrary to the “good guy” being the typical protagonist and the “bad guy” being the typical antagonist, this story flips that script and it works beautifully! In The Grinch, the Grinch is our central character and Cindy Lou is actually the character of opposition. The “good guy” is not always your central character. The Grinch has the external goal to steel Christmas from Whoville accompanied by the internal need to make other suffer as he has; opposing his goal is Cindy Lou who also had her own set of internal and external goals. But in this story, the character opposing the central character’s goal/need is actually the “good guy.” Interesting stuff, right?!? Think of main characters in terms of central and opposition, not protagonist and antagonist.

Outside of the Grinch and Cindy Lou, there are important supporting players. Our favorite dog is back, and endearing as ever! Max is even given a bit more screen time and substance in this version. He is truly the Grinch’s only friend, and although gets taken advantaged of, it’s clear that the Grinch does care for him. There is a story of loyalty here, and it’s an element that cannot be overlooked. If the Grinch was completely evil, then Max would likely not stay with him. So, the fact that Max remains by his master’s side teaches us that there must be some good in the Grinch somewhere. We are told that his heart is two sizes too small–not non-existent. How’s about that character of Fred?!? I fell in love with him instantly. Fred, the plus-sized reindeer, plays an important role in the story that I cannot go into without revealing a spoiler. However, I can tell you that he is adorable; and he, Max, and the Grinch form a non-traditional family that works incredibly well in this film and plays into the Grinch realizing that there is value in love, friendship, and community.

Perhaps this animated feature is not as magical as the original; but you now what, it is still incredibly well directed, written, acted, and animated. I am someone who watches the original every year and even have the book. Still, I am able to find tremendous value in this version, and will likely add it to the list of movies that I watch every November and December. There is something for everyone in this movie, and you may even find your heart growing three sizes as a result of this new take on the timeless charming tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Echoing the end of Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, what does Christmas mean to you? What would you say if the Grinch asked you?

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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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.

Christmastime is “Magical” at Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando guests can now experience the magic of Christmastime in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You’ve asked for a holiday overlay in the Wizarding World, and now you can experience it. From Christmas Pudding at the Leaky Cauldron to the Magic of Hogwarts Castle mapped projection show, your holiday spirits will be uplifted throughout the Wizarding World. This marked the first year that the WWoHP receives a Christmas overlay during the holiday season, and it is not to be missed. Between Grinchmas (see my review from last year as it is largely unchanged) at Islands of Adventure, the Mannheim Steamroller, Holiday Parade, and Harry Potter Christmas at Universal Studios (as well as HP IoA), you will find plenty to fill your day. In fact, my friend Dani and I found so much to do that we didn’t experience one ride because the time just wasn’t there. But when you’ve ridden everything hundreds of times, you feel that there is the time to spend on the limited time engagements.

For months, I have been looking forward to the brand new Harry Potter Holiday offerings at Universal Orlando. This will be the first time that JK’s WWoHP will receive a seasonal overlay of decorations and attraction offerings. Now that WWoHP has received the Christmas treatment, perhaps Halloween will be next! Between both parks at Universal Orlando Resort, there is a world of holiday happiness around every corner, or in this case, through walls. With so much going on, it can be a little daunting to try to fit everything into a day. For annual passholders who visit regularly, this won’t seem as tough because the rides can be skipped. For those who are visiting on vacation, definitely consult the Universal Orlando app or website for show schedules in order to map out your day to make sure you get everything in (for vacationers, you definitely need to plan 2 full days minimum). On our way to the park, Dani and I looked at the park schedule on our way across the I-4 and made a general itinerary of the order in which we wanted to experience the limited time engagements. If you plan out your itinerary, you’ll find that getting to see the shows and parades you want will be much easier and definitely less stressful once in the park.

Our first stop was Diagon Alley to see the There’s Nothing Like a Holiday Spell Celestina Warbeck show. I adore this show, and often watch it when I am in the park. Her voice, the costumes, and music genuinely create the atmosphere of a 1940s jazz nightclub. The Celestina Warbeck show still has the quintessential Wizarding flare to it, and the original songs were superb! Expecting no less, Celestina’s Christmas gown was drop dead gorgeous and her Banshees were killer as well. Although the vocal artists/character performers who portray Celestina always look like they are having a great time, the degree of enthusiasm from Celestina was greatly increased during the show. I imagine it’s due to the show being new, and it’s a break from the regular song lineup. If I could suggest one way to start your holidays at Universal Orlando, this is the show that I would recommend hands down. And get this, at the finale of the show, Diagon Alley is covered in snow flurries!

After leaving the Celestina show, Dani and I made our way to the Leaky Cauldron to see the decorations and to see if they had some seasonal offerings on their menu. To our delight, there were some additional items AND a Christmas Pudding for dessert! I’ve read of Christmas Pudding in Charles Dickens’ timeless masterpiece A Christmas Carol, but never had the opportunity to try one. Without even knowing what was in it, Dani and I both ordered the pudding with her banger sandwich (her regular) and my Guinness lamb & beef stew (my regular). Although the interior of The Leaky Cauldron is not nearly as decorated as the streets of Diagon Alley, the subtle additions of pine garland created a festive atmosphere. After eating out main courses, it was time to dive into our Christmas Pudding. The mini pudding came out in the shape of a bundt cake with icing on the side to drizzle over top of the pudding. I was aware that British puddings were more like buddy cakes, but still to see a pudding in that shape was pretty cool. Once the icing was drizzled, Dani and I sunk our forks into the moist pudding and took our respective bites simultaneously. It was unanimous–YUMM! We both absolutely loved the pudding. Its flavor reminded us both of a spice cake with currents. Hints of cinnamon and sugar were also found in the pudding. We would both definitely order the Christmas pudding again.

After our early dinner, we were ready to board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade for the Magic of Hogwarts Castle show. Upon approach to Kings Cross Station, we saw the wait was 60mins; so needless to say, we decided to walk to IoA. On our way, we stopped in the Universal props store where they sell old props to attractions. With HHN having ended just a couple weeks prior, there were many HHN props and decorations for sale. Annual Passholders do not get a discount at this store, but it’s definitely worth a browse because you may find a piece to a show or ride that you enjoy. Once we arrived at IoA, we were greeted with a new holiday mix of music at the Port of Entry instead of the whimsical tunes that are present for most of the year. On our way to WWoHP Hogsmeade, we passed through Dr. Seuss Landing. In no area is there a greater feeling of Christmas than in Seuss Landing. Much like Dickens is credited for inventing Christmas in how we commonly celebrate it, Seuss has also been incredibly instrumental in fostering the Christmas spirit through his brilliant book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Since we saw the show last year, we did not make the time to see Grinchmas again this time. But, I plan to watch it before the holiday season is over. If you haven’t seem it, definitely check it out as it is the live theatrical presentation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As The Lorax is a favorite book of ours, we stopped to take a picture with he who “speaks for the trees” since he decorated the Onceler’s place for Christmas.

We arrived at the base of Hogwarts Castle about 1hr prior to showtime, and there were already about a dozen or so groups of people sitting down in the taped off viewing area for the show. With the queue for Forbidden Journey reading 45mins, we decided to go ahead and select our spot for the new show on its debut weekend. It’s a good thing that we did, because in no time at tall, the area was filling up quickly. Since the show begins at sundown (the times guide states dusk–believe me, it’s after sundown), the start time varies based upon sunset. As the sun goes down, you’ll notice that the cliffs beneath the castle begin to get covered in snow. I’m aware that is mapped prediction, but the snow dropped cliffs look quite real. You’ll begin to hear the familiar Harry Potter theme as snow falls over the castle, and that marks the beginning of the show. And, such an amazing show it is! Simply breathtaking. It has a great blend of familiar images from the movies as well as Christmas animations. The song selection was excellent and paired with eat animations nicely. Whether you have seen the Harry Potter movies or not will not negatively impact your experience of this seasonal show. It is enjoyable for everyone! There is a warmth that iminates from Hogwarts during the show that will have you completely wrapped in the magic of the season.

After making our way through the overly crowded and disorganized streets of Hogsmeade (I’ve heard Universal modified the guest flow of traffic on night two, which is good because leaving the courtyard was horrendous Saturday night), we quickly headed for the Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller concert at Universal Studios. I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the music of Mannheim Steamroller at Christmastime, and I look forward to their limited time engagement at Universal Studios Florida every year. Even if you do not know them by name, it is highly likely that you are familiar with Chip Davis’ combination of synth and orchestra pieces. The company at Universal is the Mannheim Steamroller Orlando compliment and not the full company (because they are touring at this time), but the sound is just as big and the showmanship is excellent. Since my mom does not live around here, I made sure to FaceTime with her so she could vicariously enjoy the concert with me from 500mi away. Attending the concert was the perfect way to end our day of holiday enjoyment at Universal Orlando.

Suffice it to say, Universal Orlando has done an outstanding job with its special limited time holly jolly holiday offerings this year. The addition of the Christmas overlay in the WWoHP more than doubles the festive events going on now. Don’t miss out on the “magic” of Christmas at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure this holiday season.