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

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

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

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

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

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

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 6)

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Successful movie-themed attractions (stage shows or rides) create an atmosphere that is often built upon a foundation consisting of confrontation and direct simulation rather than long, sustained narratives. Whether watching a show on a stage or experiencing a ride-like attraction, the park guest is subjected to a series of physical and/or emotional shocks throughout the abridged narrative. Physical movement is also a strong element in an effective and successful movie-themed attraction design. This creates the illusion that the audience member is not only watching the action or horror take place, but part of the story as well. Implementing the use of special effects such as lighting effect or water also improve the guest experience by bringing the narrative to life.

jurassic_park_river_adventureIn the contemporary theme park model, designers seek to create a relationship between the narrative and the audience (or park guest); this is what Geoff King (2000) refers to as “the cinema of attractions.” The park guests want to be transported from a world in which they are spectators to a world in which they are participants in the story. But, themed entertainment has come a long way from its inception into modern society. How the film theme has been fused with theme park attraction design has evolved over the decades to create the convergence and synergy that exists today. This is mostly due to the understanding of spectacle versus narrative. Although these two elements work seamlessly together in a themed attraction, they are not synonymous with one another. An excellent example of a horror/action film that is both spectacle and narrative, and furthermore, is both a film and a ride is Jurassic Park.

A similar example of the infusion of the aforementioned is Jaws. Just as the use of digital special effects (or visual effects) has evolved in film, the use has also evolved in theme parks. Digital (or visual) effects is a broad term, as it covers a range of possibilities that include computer-based or computer-generated effects (Wood, 2002). The “spectacle” of film and theme park rides possesses the ability to transform the narrative, thus adding an extra dimension to the story progression. However, ultimately within the full-spectrum of the elements that make up a film or ride based on a movie, spectacle is subordinate to narrative. Spectacle is needed to dazzle and simulate, but is essentially lifeless without the narrative. (Wood, 2002). Unlike a narrative, which can have great depth, spectacle “is often understood as a particular kind of extended special dimension…depthless, or as having an excess of surface…more image-full than mise-en-scene (meeze-on-syn) everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement, composition, blocking, and lighting] as it accumulates ever more details” (Wood, 2002, 373).

mise en sceneSpectacle should never be relied upon to carry a narrative, but should be considered a useful tool in enhancing the visceral experience of the narrative. Spectacle possesses the ability to be used to create a dynamic time and space through which the narrative expands and can sometimes be manipulated (Wood, 2002). Digital effects can be used to advance the story or comment on the relationship between characters and their respective environments. In terms of theme park attractions, specifically those based on movies, adding spectacle to the narrative of the ride serves to enhance the overall experience of the park guest. The use of spectacle enables the settings, events, and characters to come to life for the park guests experiencing the live movie-based narrative. Effectively used, the guests should feel as though they get transported from the real world to the world of the movie. Theme parks offer escapes from reality; this is also true of most movies. So, by utilizing the tangible benefits of both narrative and spectacle, the designers are successful in creating the illusion that the guest is either witnessing or part of the story.

University of Central Florida professor Andy Milman (2001) further explores this relationship between cinema and theme parks in his writings in the Journal of Tourism (2001). Exploring the infrastructure of the movies, theme parks, and the convergence of the two is a complex research area that is increasingly becoming more important as the movie studios turn to theme parks for revenue, and the theme parks depend on the movie studios for creative direction and expansive guest experiences. In the article Movie Induced Tourism, authors Roger Riley, Dwayne Baker, and Carlton S. Van Doren (1998) explain that movies provide both the objective and subjective material that capture peoples’ gaze and influence them to travel to the places depicted in movies.  The concept of traveling to locations where movies were made has a direct relationship with the concept of designing theme parks based on movies and showcasing the magic behind the movies (Riley et al, 1998). This concept can be seen in some of the most visited parks in the world. One of the goals of a studio like Warner Bros. is to get the fans of the Harry Potter books and movies to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida; and, by way of the flip side of the coin, one of the goals of the theme parks (mainly Disney and Universal) is to turn park guests into movie audience patrons (Milman, 2001).

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