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

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Immerse Yourself into “Pandora: the World of Avatar” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Prepare for an expedition into one of the best examples of themed environment immersion at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK). Journey to the planet Pandora to experience the sights, sounds, and beauty of the world of the Na’vi. Whether you are there for the rides or the sheer spectacle of it all, you will no doubt immensely enjoy your experience at Pandora. For those who may be worried that the extreme separation of time from the first Avatar movie and still a couple years from the next one(s) mitigates the full experience of this world based upon that which was created by director James Cameron, no need to fear. Whether you have seen the movie once or multiples times or even enjoyed the movie or not, the Disney Imagineers who conceived this themed land, based upon the movie, designed it to be equally enjoyed by fans of the franchise and those who may not have even seen the film. In theory, that approach works very well; however, the disconnect from the movie and perceived disconnect from the future films does little to immerse you into the story of Avatar. After previewing the land, I am left wondering if the land would have been more appropriately titled Pandora: World of the Na’vi. Personally, I did not care for the movie–found it to be Dances with Wolves meets Fern Gully meets Pocahontas; but we are here to explore this new land, not the movie. My point is, if you are looking to feel as if you are part of  a story, then you may be a little disappointed in some of the important experiential factors of a themed entertainment land; however, despite the separation between this land and the cinematic franchise, the enjoyment factor is still exceedingly high. For fans of Soarin at Epcot, Pandora’s new attraction Flight of Passage will blow your mind and take flight simulator attractions to a “whole new world.”

Before we get into further details about Pandora, I want to take a moment to point out a little known rock formation that rests just above the river park guests cross over on the journey from Discovery Island to Pandora: the World of Avatar. Those who are familiar with the park’s early (pre-open) days, you may recall that what became Camp Minnie-Mickey, home to Festival of the Lion King (former CM at the Lion King show here), was originally slated to be a mythological creature land. Even more interesting, the Dragon Challenge coaster (formerly Dueling Dragons) at Universal’s Islands of Adventure was originally built and intended for this mythological land at DAK. Anyway. The rock formation I spoke of is in the shape of a dragon’s head. It was built there when the land was going to be home to dragons and other mythological creatures, but of course the theme of the land changed. With Disney’s attention to details and aversion to cross theming between lands (to avoid contamination of the experience), one might have thought that the rock formation would have been removed–not so. All through the days of Camp Minnie-Mickey and even today, the dragon head is still there. In fact, one might say that the land has come full circle, as Pandora is a mythological world and the Banshees appear closely related to dragons.

From the moment that you first enter the land, you will instantly feel transported to a far away world, rich in flora and fauna. Imagineers worked diligently to make sure the outside world–even DAK itself–was completely left behind. Those that live in Florida are no strangers to lush greenery; but for those who come from desert climates, mid-Atlantic, or northern parts of the country that are not green year-round, Pandora will serve as an escape from the dry or cold harsh world to a land flowing with crystal clear water and flowers of all shapes, colors, and varieties. There is little left of Camp Minnie-Mickey, and rightly so. However, if you pay close enough attention to walkways, you might see some of that old world in this new one. Make sure you have plenty of room on your phone or your camera’s SD card because you will want to take dozens of pictures on your first visit. There is so much to see on your first visit to this land. While many are talking about the floating mountains–and those are pretty dope–I am more excited about the exceptional lighting and forced perspective of the mountains off in the distance. Up until this point, Universal Studios always boasted more realistic forced perspective in its parks; but, this new land at DAK proves that Disney can integrate forced perspective just as well–if not better. I also appreciate the layout of the pathways. The pathways are laid out in such a way that the land feels larger than it actually is; furthermore, the different elevations also lend to the realism of the world and providing various perspectives and vantage points form which to gaze upon the exquisite design. Who doesn’t love a great water feature? There is something about moving water that is instantly refreshing, and there is plenty of moving water, water falls, and water creatures in Pandora.

Pandora: the World of Avatar offers two attractions: Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey. Each ride offers a completely different attraction design. Compered to other attractions in the Disney parks, both the new rides at Pandora have entrances that are organically woven into the environment. This adds to the natural beauty of this lush planet and the aversion to the effects of industry on the landscape. Located on opposite sides of the land, the layout will aid in crowd movement and control during the spring break, summer, and holiday seasons when the parks are at their busiest. Pandora’s Flight of Passage is a brilliant flight simulator design in the vein of Soarin and the Na’vi River Journey is a boat ride, a classic Disney design, in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean and the new Frozen Ever After.

Flight of Passage was epic! The suspension of disbelief was incredibly real. Disney Imagineers have really outdone themselves this time. It’s no secret that Soarin is one of the top draws at Disney World and that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is still one of the top attractions at Universal Studios. Essentially, Imagineers took the ride platform of Soarin and combined it with the feel of Forbidden Journey and threw in some Spider-Man (Univ/IoA) to create an amazingly innovative ride experience. Only suffering from high demand, low capacity, sluggish turnaround time (hmm, now that I think about it, that’s kind of a lot), this attraction will convince you that you are flying on the back of a banshee (the English name for the ikron in Na’vi language). Matched with an avatar that allows you to move about Pandora as a Na’vi, you then make your way into the flight chamber to board a jetski like device that allows you to maneuver your banshee throughout the skies and caverns of Pandora.

If you allow yourself to breakaway from the 4D simulation (4D because there are aromas, wind, and water effects), you’ll notice that the ride design is similar to Soarin in that there are multiple levels of these ride stations in front of an IMAX screen. The big reveal is done exceptionally well because as the screen is revealed, there are several busts of bright white LED light that conceal the movement of the wall in front of you. Unless you are looking for the mechanisms that create the magic, you’ll not notice the wall ascending or descending. One of, if not the, longest rides at Walt Disney World, this attraction lasts several minutes and each second is filled with high-flying adventure. Honestly, it is the most incredible simulator style attraction that I have ever been on–and I’ve been on a lot. Prepare yourself for a wait time of up to 4hrs standby (standard queue) or 6hrs (extended queue) for this attraction when it opens. If you are in the standby queue, the research facility that you get to walk through is certainly a site to behold as well. And don’t miss one of the most lifelike animatronics in aqua suspension as you make your way through the line to the launch facility.

Perhaps you’re afraid of heights or even the most organic-feeling flight simulators make you not feel the greatest. Then, make your way over to a classic Disney ride design reimagined for Pandora. The Na’vi River Journey is a serene, gently moving boat ride along a tranquil river surrounded by plants and animals bursting with bioluminescence. If you’re lucky, you may even catch rare glimpses of the Na’vi along the way, hidden in the foliage. Featuring some of the technology first debuted on Epcot’s Frozen Ever After, this boat ride offers a time to relax and simply absorb all the gorgeous plant and wildlife of the planet Pandora. While most of the non-plant life is clearly rear mapped projection, there is an impressive animatronic Na’vi shaman chanting as you glide by on your boats. Everything from the smells, to the sights, and sounds of the Na’vi river will convince you that you are in fact traveling down a mystical river. With no height restriction, this attraction is perfect for a family or group with young ones who may not meet the height restriction on Flight of Passage.

Pandora also offers two quick/casual service restaurants with robust menus of food and drinks. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to experience the restaurants because they closed about 15mins before the preview ended. I’ll definitely have to go back and try the food and drinks as they looked absolutely scrumptious.

Over all, I was impressed by DAK’s newest land! Was it worth a nearly five year wait? That is certainly up for debate. But, the end result is beautiful and provides Animal Kingdom with a new draw that will hopefully figure into the next set of movies in Cameron’s Avatar universe to be released in a couple years. Whether you choose to see it as a botanical garden or Rainforest Cafe on steroids, or the most amazing experience you have ever immersed yourself in at a theme park, you are definitely going to enjoy everything that Pandora: the World of Avatar has to offer. I highly recommend booking FastPass+ for the rides as soon as your 30 or 60 day window opens (30 for passholders and 60 for on-site hotel guests) as the lines for both these attractions will be incredibly long. Hopefully the Cast Member and Passholder preview weeks will aid in mitigating the initial flock to the attractions and not force the rides to use the extended quests right out the gate or close the lines before park close. Ordinarily, Disney does not offer previews in the same manner that Universal Studios, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens do, so this is a welcomed sign of the growth of passholder and Cast Member appreciation.

“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.