“Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon” attraction review

img_9103A cute, fun ride, but ultimately a generic experience. The anticipated new Universal Studios Florida attraction Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon began soft openings this past weekend. If you are unfamiliar with that term, a soft opening is when the attraction is essentially in tech rehearsal operations, meaning that it can start, stop, or turn off certain components at any time. With the successful run of Universal Team Member (staff) previews during the latter part of last week, the attraction went directly into public soft openings. When an attraction goes directly from staff previews to public soft openings, that is usually a good indicator that the ride is in prime operating condition. From the time I entered the queue to the time I exited through the gift shop, it was a flawless experience! Everything from the innovative virtual queue to the ride operation went off without a hitch. Due to the park being in the middle of Mardi Gras and the news of a soft opening of a new attraction, this combination certainly brought in the crowds. With a wait time of a little less than 60mins, it was all-in-all a pleasant experience during the ride’s preview. But, I wouldn’t wait more than 30-45mins for this attraction in the future.

Outstanding queue! Ever since Islands of Adventure opened in 1998 and increasingly so since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010 at Universal Orlando, there has been a demonstrable trend in elaborate queue designs and experiences. Not only are ride designers focussed on the ride itself, but now are nearly equally focussed on creative an immersive experience in the queue. Evidence of this can be found in many of the attractions at Universal, Disney, and Busch Gardens that have opened in the last few years. But I digress. Without question, my favorite part about this new attraction is the queue design and experience. Although I have not been to the Rainbow Room, NBC Studios, or 30 Rock (aside from taking the express elevator to the observation decks), I felt like I had just walked off the streets of New York City and into the studio complex to be part of The Tonight Show‘s live audience. Much like a museum, there are exhibits featuring television production equipment over the decades as well as the evolution of NBC’s iconic peacock logo. Clearly the central figure of the attraction is the current host of The Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon, but there are also exhibits that dedicate a showcase to each of the hosts as well as a mural of all of the hosts together. I spent several minutes just walking around the–what amounts to a–museum.

The reason for the ability to casually stroll through the sequence of showcases: a virtual queue. When you enter the attraction, you are given a colored ticket. Each of the colors for the tickets are taken from the six colors of the NBC peacock. The queue is composed of an entry hallway, NBC/The Tonight Show historic exhibits and showcases, and preshow room. Light fixtures and ambient light, in the various rooms, correspond to the colored tickets that determine what group goes next. When the light changes to the color ticket you hold, then you may proceed to the next waiting area. Making it easy to know where your group is in queue, the order of the colors called are the order of colors on the peacock’s tail. The entry hallway features the evolution of the NBC logo from it’s earliest days to the present. A similar exhibit can be found at the NBC Sports Grill and Brew at CityWalk. Making your way from the entry hallway to the first large waiting space, the next room features tributes to The Tonight Show‘s hosts over the years all around the room in addition to some television production technology over the years. With so much to look at, the time really flies by! This is the first room in which you wait for your color to be called; from this room, you walk upstairs to the next waiting area that truly has the guests in mind in terms of creating a pleasant waiting experience.

As much as I enjoy a museum-like experience in a queue, the next room is definitely my favorite! Enjoy Ragtime Gals and Hashtag the Panda? Then, you’ll be delighted to know that you get to be entertained by them in the final room before entering the studios for your exclusive taping of The Tonight Show. In addition to the live entertaining–which I’ll get to in a moment–there are several sofa-like chairs along the wall with ample USB ports for charging your personal electronic devices. Definitely a convenience if you’re like me and are catching Pokemon, listening to music, texting, and taking pictures while at the park. IMPORTANT: bring your own sync cable! If you are carrying a portable charger, then you already have your sync cable; but if you just have your phone, remember to bring your USB charging cable with you into the queue. In the area of the charging chairs, there are large flat panel displays that offer a variety of games to pass the time. Even with all the people in the waiting area, if I wanted to play the games, it wouldn’t have taken long for one to open up. This is partly due to the various offerings in the room as well as every 10mins or so (on that day), one of the colors would be called. The most entertaining element in this final room before getting on the ride is the Ragtime Gals! Their combination of traditional Atlantic City a’cappella mixed with covers of pop songs and a little lip sync battle thrown in makes them a show not to be missed! The sheer stamina alone was impressive. There had to have only been a few minutes between each set and the cast did not change (as long as I was in there). Furthermore, the repertoire was vast, considering that I never heard a repeat for the 30mins or so that I was in there. After the sets, Hashtag the Panda came out dancing and entertaining the audience. Honestly, this is probably the best queue experience I’ve ever had.

Up to this point, you may be wondering why my opening line included “but ultimately a generic experience” because everything up to this point makes for an exceptional attraction experience! That’s because the ride itself leaves a lukewarm “meh” in your mind. In terms of the race, the studio audience is pitted against Fallon in a race through New York and ultimately to the moon and back. Along the journey, you get to listen to the house band Roots, run into some familiar characters from Fallon’s show, and get to see some of the most visited sites in New York. Much like a video game race, there are checkpoints along the way and plenty of laughs to accompany your zany race through The Big Apple. Rumor had it that the attraction platform would be similar to Epcot’s Soarin’ Over the World (formerly Soarin’ Over California), but that is unfortunately not the case–at least, for the most part. If I were to compare this new attraction to a similar experience at Universal Studios, it would be closest to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and at Disney, closest to Star Tours: the Adventure Continues. There are some shared elements with Soarin’ but very few. Essentially, it’s a glorified 3D moving theatre with some water effects to add that 4th dimension to the experience. And that’s just it. What Universal Studios did not need was another 3D theatre attraction; granted, the technology is impressive and the movement of the bleacher style seating is impeccably timed with the movement on the screen. The attraction has some length to it, and it is mildly entertaining; but it simply fails to leave a lasting impact on the park guests. Like I said earlier, the queue is the best part!

What’s missing is more physical movement. With the massive integration of 3D immersive technologies into attractions at most major theme parks, the line between movie and ride is becoming blurred. And that’s not a good thing. Yes, feeling like you are IN the movie instead of learning about the magic of filmmaking (considering there is little magic left in the process) has been the trend for the last decade or so; but, when the experience on the ride feels like just a step above watching a movie, therein lies the problem. The MainStreetMouse on Twitter posted an article recently about how technology is ruining Disney rides, and I think there is a lot to be explored along those lines. Seems like with prolific amounts of mapped projection, elaborate 3D technologies, and synced movement, the unique experience of a “ride” is becoming lost. Physical movement is sacrificed for visual simulation. Not that every ride in a theme park has to be some version of a coaster or dark ride–not the case at all–but when the experience bares little significant difference to watching a movie, the magic of the theme park experience begins to mitigate. Had Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon been closer to Soarin‘ then I would have enjoyed it immensely more, or if it had been closer to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey then the experience would have been memorable, impactful. Since the entire ride experience consists of a moving 3D theatre, it just lacks qualities that make it truly memorable. Theme parks need to lay off the massive integration of 3D and spend more time on how to integrate significant physical movement into future attractions.

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“The Golden Girls” Television Show Review

The_Golden_Girls_opening_screenshotThank you for bein’ a friend! Those now iconic lyrics opened Touchstone Television’s (Walt Disney Company) show on NBC for 180 episodes over 7 successful seasons. Earning multiple awards from Emmys to Golden Globes, this series is also one of only three sitcoms in which each principle actor received an individual Emmy. The Golden Girls was ranked in the top ten shows for six out of its seven seasons, TV Guide (2013) ranked it 54/60 in the highest rated programs of all time, and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) ranks it at 69 out of the top 101 best written series of all time. So many accolades. Created by Susan Harris, the show ran along side another 80s hit The Facts of Life. The theme song, written by Andrew Gold and recorded by Cynthia Fee, is also ranked among the top theme songs of all time. No wonder why it is still running and bringing us endless laughter (currently runs on Hallmark Channel). Much like I Love Lucy has never been off the “air” in its entire existence, The Golden Girls has also been kept on a channel somewhere since it first debuted on September 14, 1985. From laughter to tears, these four women have been such a part of Americana and continue to be referenced in pop culture. Not limited to any particular demographic or cultural group, this show transcends all kinds of racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and cultural barriers. But why has this sitcom (situation comedy) continued to be popular for now 31 years? Let’s explore!

GG_HouseIt’s been 31 years since we were first introduced to Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia at an upper middle-class home in the residential neighborhoods of Miami, FL. Ever since 1985, these four single older women have been coming into our living rooms and, for many, have become part of the family. The sitcom represents a radical move by the Walt Disney Company and NBC in that the show featured so many taboos, at that time, in broadcast television. In many ways, the show was 2-3 decades ahead of its time. The very unique nature of the show is part of why it was such success. However, the continued success of the show goes way beyond just being uncanny for its day. For a show to stand the test of time, it cannot be, in whole anyway, (1) a product of its generation (2) contain proliferated pop culture references that significantly support the plot (3) must have exquisite writing (4) have a phenomenal cast that is as interesting to watch and listen to as the plots are engaging and (5) contains characters that one can identify with decades down the road. Over all, the show has to be unique, timely, and just written and acted exceptionally well. As this is a sitcom, in short, the jokes and conflict have to still be relevant in society for many years down the road. Although entire critical analysis articles could be written about each of the characters (and actors) respectively, the focus of this article is a general overview of why the show is endearing even to this day.

GG Cast CrewBehind every successful show (especially dialog-driven ones), there is solid writing. After creating the show and writing a few episodes, Susan Harris became less directly involved in the series. The head writers of the show (for four seasons) were Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman who would each receive numerous awards during the series’ run. Following the fourth season, they turned the reigns over to Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro who would also go to win awards as well. Other than eccentric 80s attire, it’s the comedic conflict, sarcasm, quick witted remarks, and self-deprecating humor that keeps audiences coming back for more. No matter how many times I have seen each episode, I still laugh every time; the shows never becomes boring. The four women boasted incredibly sharp humor and were very secure in themselves. The creative leadership knew that the show had to leave its mark on television. Quite regularly, the plots were used to not necessarily address outrageous ideas, but important ones. Important ideas and values that had not been addressed in television before. What stands out most about the writing? The fact that progressive values were part of the show’s DNA. From ethnic, racial, religious, cannot forget sex and dating, and of course aging. At its core, the Golden Girls simply made aging fabulous! A good test to understand just how brilliant the writing and comedy is by turning off the picture and listening to the show as if it was a radio broadcast. Most likely, you will find yourself laughing just as much as if you were watching it. You can follow the story without the visuals to accompany it.

GG_Group_ShotBut isn’t television a visual medium? Yes. However, sitcoms are much more similar to live theatre than small cinema. Part of this is because a traditional sitcom is shot in front of a live audience. Just like stage actors feed off of the laughs from the audience, sitcom actors go through similar motions during a performance. Brilliant dialog and plot structure animates characters, and boy were these ladies animated! You won’t find four closer friends. These ladies could insult one another viciously and still remain intimately, but platonically, close. Each and every episode was so very interesting and feels new overtime. Not even a show like Friends holds up as well as The Golden Girls. The relationship between the four women was incredibly dynamic. Hardly an episode goes by that there aren’t alliances, betrayals, misunderstandings, or love triangles. Sometimes we venture to doctor’s offices, restaurants, or the parks; however, most of the time is spent inside the sun drenched Florida multi-champer house. Comparing the show’s floorpan to the exterior of the house, such a floorpan simply cannot exist. Haha. But that’s part of the fun. Unlike movie or television drama, a situation comedy is able to bend logic and make up for that with comedic timing and material. Moreover, the fashion of the girls definitely cannot be ignored. From flashy to trashy, these girls have it covered. The best part of the fashion choices is that, for the most part, the choice of clothing is an extension of the characters themselves. The fashion alone, is something that could be analyzed and actually has been in the past.

GG around tableWhile aging, women’s rights, and dating were reoccurring themes and tied directly to the show’s premise, other once taboo social topics were important milestones in the series’ development as well. Although there are a few social issues that could be mentioned, the one that is the most prominent after the ones that have been mentioned are topics dealing with gay men and women. Nearly a quarter of a century before the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the legal definition of marriage equality, The Golden Girls had already tackled that subject and brought it into the mainstream. There are a few times that a gay character was the focus of a show, but the episode that stands out the most is when Blanche finds out that her brother is gay (and later there is an episode where he introduces her to his fiancé). This is one of the toughest episodes for Blanche and one other best examples of character development. She faced a situation that thousands of parents and siblings face everyday across the country. Before Will and GraceGleeThe New Normal, and other popular shows, these four women highlighted real world problems and social issues that continue to be battled today. Indirectly, gay social issues and stigmas were also dealt with. In the episode where Rose is contacted by a hospital regarding the possibility of her having contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, the girls take the then-unpopular stance that HIV/AIDS was not a punishment for being gay but a disease that knows no social, ethnic, sexual orientation, or religious barriers. They brought out the fact that it could happen to anyone. The brilliance of how these once-taboo subjects were handled is seen in how, amongst conflict and tears, the girls somehow still managed to bring humor into the mix, and leave you with a smile.

GG hugAfter watching this show for many years, it still has the ability to make me laugh uncontrollably at times. And, that sentiment is felt by many who have continued to visit the home of Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia over the decades. There is so much to explore in this show, and why it continues to be popular today. From the writing to the acting and humorous conflicts to dealing with hard topics of bigotry, disease, sexual orientation, and aging, The Golden Girls continues to be a show that can help you laugh on the worst of days. Although there are shows that have attempted to be a modern day Golden Girls, none can hold a candle to these amazing performers and writers. There is a magic quality to the show that can never be duplicated.

“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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“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 7)

My Book

In the current business model of theme parks, the park itself serves as an instant and rapid income generator for the larger parent corporation. “Immediate profits are made in much the same ways as in other mass entertainment industries, such as movies, rock concerts, and mass sports events” (Davis, 1996, p402).  However, the theme park differs from the amusement park because it depends on a narrative around which to build the rides, shows, shops, and restaurants (Herwig, 2006). And this is where the movie studio branches of these large corporations come into play. The movie (usually an epic, horror, or adventure) provides the narrative for the theme park (Herwig, 2006). Instead of the amusement park concept of hiring random performers, “the theme parks, by contrast, specialize in experiential homogeneity (Bristol, 1996). Simply stated, the theme park carefully crafts the types of performers that will be there. Ordinarily, the performers are in live shows directly associated with a work of cinema [e.g. Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage (Walt Disney World), Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue (Universal Studios), or Grinchmas (Universal Islands of Adventure)]. While, midway performers and carnival workers or the golden age of the circus or roller-coaster parks are a hodgepodge of different ideas, the theme park is centrally produced and conceptualized for an experience that transcends from the superficial down to the core (Block, 2012).

If a theme park is designed well, the park guests can easily describe the theme. For instance, Disneyland’s theme would be the Magic Kingdom of Disney fantasy; the guests at Universal Studios can easily understand the theme is the movies. Not all parks are able to draw on a vast film heritage (e.g. Six Flags, Cedar Point, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment). However, the parks with a direct connection to the cinema have consistently out performed their respective counterparts (IAAPA, 2014). There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, though. SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment does not have direct access to a vast film heritage (like Universal or Disney), but it perfected how to capitalize on theming from a historical perspective (as did Busch Gardens Williamsburg) and from a zoological perspective (as did SeaWorld Parks and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay) (Davis, 1996). However, in recent years, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment has tapped into the franchises of DreamWorks Pictures and Sesame Street because of the instant association with cinema and television entertainment (Niles, 2013).

Before tackling this paper’s over-arching concept of analyzing the convergence of theme parks and movies, the question of “why media conglomerates” needs to be explored. It is important to note that in her article entitled The Theme Park: a Global Industry, author Susan G. Davis (1996) tackles this very subject. She suggests that the short answer is the simple fact that well-produced and directed theme parks are extremely profitable in the short-run. But, the fact they are highly profitable quickly does not take away from the fact that they are a massive financial expenditure for years prior to opening the gates to audiences turned guests. Once up and running, these mass entertainment behemoths provide an extraordinary source of virtually endless income for the media conglomerates. This income is used to produce the movies that will eventually wind up in the parks, and are also used for park improvements as technology and public taste or opinion changes (1996).

The acquisition of an existing or development of a new park is a perfect way for media conglomerates to enter into the tourism industry, thus providing a greater array of diversification. By gaining access to the tourism industry, media conglomerates can not only continue to make the movies they want, but can license or operate cruise ships, golf courses, restaurants, hotels, and resorts. In effect, by entering into the tourism industry, the media conglomerate can essentially create an entire entertainment district that acts as the fabled goose that laid the golden egg.

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