Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Review

I finally had the opportunity to experience #HagRide at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After two previous attempts to ride the mindblowing attraction, I was able to mount my motorbike and be hurled into a world of adventure. My experience was enhanced because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and we got to ride it together for the very first time! Additionally, I was able to share the experience with my friend Dani (her review here) because she was just 30mins ahead of us in queue–we found out each other was at the park in queue for HagRide on Twitter–small world! If you’ve heard it characterized as a storycoaster, you’ve heard correctly. HagRide represents the best of coaster and dark ride technologies all rolled up into one innovative attraction that is unparalleled by any other I have experienced. And if you’re like me–averse to the proliferation of screen-based attractions–then you’ll be immensely delighted that this storycoaster is full of practical effects, sets, props, and groundbreaking animatronics. And to answer the question that is likely on your mind, I only waited for 1.75hrs. Would’ve been 1.5hrs but it was momentarily delayed–no surprise there. Is it worth the 3+ hour wait that many are still reporting? For that, I will not provide commentary; however, my brother-in-law who isn’t a big theme park fan because of the wait times said, and I quote, “that was worth the wait.” Thankfully we had unlimited Express Passes because we were staying at the Royal Pacific Resort, but HagRide does not offer an Express Pass queue nor does it open during the hour-early resort guest hours. Bottom line, this coaster is one that you do not want to miss during your visit to Wizarding World Orlando!

I feel that I have been in the Forbidden Forest ever since I began receiving the Press Releases containing artwork, progress photos, and descriptions of the highly anticipated addition to Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. Every time I read about a new magical creature or the animatronics, I grew increasingly excited. Unfortunately yours truly still isn’t important enough to Universal to be invited to the media events, but I am glad that I at least get the media emails from the resort to keep up with the goings-on at the park. Thankfully, I can now provide you with the review of my first time on the motorbike (I rode the motorbike, my sister and brother-in-law were directly behind me in the motorbike/sidecar respectively). Although it is not fair to compare it to any existing theme park attraction because of its uniqueness, if you compare it to the two existing Harry Potter attractions, then it has the ride vehicle innovation of Forbidden Journey and the storytelling of Escape from Gringotts. The queue and attraction include more than 1200 live trees to truly immerse you in the forbidden forest. Longtime visitors to Islands of Adventure will recognize parts of the queue as belonging to the former Dueling Dragons turned Dragon Challenge coaster. I love looking for the remnants of the past as incorporated into new attractions.

The story begins in the queue–specifically–the preshow (from which, you are looking at 45mins to 1hr wait). Just as Dumbledore opened Hogwarts to muggles, the premise for the story found in Forbidden Journey, Hagrid opens his Magical Creatures class to muggles! Love the parallel there. During your tour, you will encounter magical creatures with which you are familiar and a brand new hybridization created by Hagrid known as Blast-Ended Skrewt. During the preshow, you also get a first-look at your ride vehicle, Sirius Black’s flying motorbike (that you can also see in the video on the Hogwarts Express as you travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade). After the preshow and prior to mounting your bike, you continue to meander the labyrinth of hallways filled with dragon and other creature eggs, graffiti from Hogwarts Students dec the walls, yes even venders selling food and drink in queue because of the long wait time. Because Hagrid loves the students, their sneaking around and all, he is wokring with Arthur Weasley to finish the train of motorbikes that will take students and you out into the Forbidden Forest in large groups to see the Blast-Ended Skrewt. Of course, something goes terribly wrong and hijinks ensue! Prepare for the ride of your life as there are launches, twists, turns, and even some pitfalls along the way.

HagRide excels in both its delivery of the narrative and spectacle. It is both impressive from a technical marvel perspective and experiential one. The long and short of it is that HagRide is FUN! You will want to ride it again and again. Although you will probably not want to wait 3+ hours, time and time again. Whereas I do not typically scream on or truly get lost in an attraction, this one successfully transported me to the Forbidden Forest in both mind and body. I screamed and whoah’d multiples times! Not knowing what lies ahead held me in suspense, and delivered in spades, after every windup. I was holding onto the handlebars of the motorbike as if I was actually on one. If I closed by eyes, I’m confident that I would truly feel that I was on a motorbike zooming through a forest. Every moment, every prop, set piece, and turn earns your screams and laughter! You’ll be captivated by the production design and incredible animatronics the entire time and even after you exit the attraction!

Impressive. That is the one word, aside from fun, that truly captures what it is like to experience HagRide. The combination of technologies integrated into the design of the attraction has never been seen before. No flight simulator can replicate what Universal Orlando Resort was able to deliver in this attraction. There is even a moment that you shot up a nearly vertical ~70ft track section, just to pause for a few seconds then shot backwards through the dark–think Expedition Everest, but BETTER and more intense. That’s not the surprise that awaits you on HagRide, there are seven launches and a 15ft drop (won’t tell you were it is). There was such a huge possibility that the focus could have so easily been on the technology–see what we can do now–but I am pleased to report that the technical advancements never take away from the narrative. There is a perfect balance of spectacle vs narrative; the show and ride technology serve the park guest by enhancing the experience. HagRide effortlessly weaves the story into the mechanics of the attraction in such a manner that you will truly want to experience it again and again to witness what you may have missed on the first time around. I certainly need to return for more re-rides to continually take everything in.

With so much to see on HagRide, you will likely notice some detail in the queue or on the ride that you may have missed before. Definitely make the time to experience Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure!

You can catch Ryan most weekends at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, or Walt Disney World. So if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him in the parks.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and has been writing on theme parks for more than five years. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration Nighttime Spectacular

Last night saw the first official Cinematic Celebration at Universal Orlando Resort. Although the show has been in technical rehearsals since the beginning of the month, the official debut was Monday evening. Fortunately, the biggest difference between the show in rehearsal and the official opening is the opening narration. An excellent touch! Replacing the previous version of this show, the new iteration focusses on intellectual properties that have a presence in the parks versus a tribute to Universal Pictures’ cinematic legacy. In terms of the show technology, water fountains, and special/pyro effects, the new show is a major win!

From the moment the show begins with an excellent narration setting the context for the show to the breathtaking dancing fountains, you will be awestruck by the sheer spectacle of it all! The combination of water, pyro, laser, and projection effects is outstanding. It truly feels like a cinematic experience! There is something for everyone in this show. My favorite parts were Jurassic World and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. You’ll also find clips and scenes from Trolls, Transformers (which includes scenes from the attraction), Fast and Furious, Despicable MeHarry PotterHow to Train Your Dragon, Sing, Secret Life of Pets, and Kung Fu Panda. In addition to the water screen projections, the buildings on the opposite side of the lagoon are also integrated into the show. Incredibly immersive. My sister was impressed! Which was important to me because we have been going to Universal since the early 90s, and like to experience new attractions and shows together whenever possible. She lives out of state, so we try to time it just right when new offerings open! Helps to create lasting #UniversalMoments.

Beginning with last year’s Magic of Hogwarts Castle show, Universal Orlando has been stepping up its game in the nighttime spectacular competition amongst Florida theme parks. For years, it has largely been thought, and accurately so, that Disney World was the king of nighttime shows. With the introduction of the Hogwarts Castle show and the new Cinematic Celebration, Universal shows that it is a formidable opponent in the arena of nighttime shows. Not only is the show impressive from a technological perspective, the music is fantastic and the combination of water screens, projections, and pyrotechnics is top notch. You will certainly be wowed by the dazzling array of lights, movie clips, water effects, and more. Whereas the previous nighttime show had some water effects (and of course the water screens), this show makes the famous one in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas look like something you put together in your back yard. The water fountains beautifully dance along with the music and accompanying images from the film selections. Whereas some shows with many fantastical effects and elements can feel like many separate parts thrown together in a tossed salad, so to speak, this show seamlessly blends all the elements together to generate one show, one experience. The manner in which the show is designed allows for Universal Orlando to update it with different films as the interests of the park guests change.

Of all that this show has going for it–and it IS a great show–I cannot help but wonder why Universal fails to include any mention of its history, the fact that it essentially birthed the American horror film, and other iconic properties of the entertainment giant. Obviously, the goal was to connect the show to the in-park IPs, but the show like it was nearly all spectacle and little narrative to speak of. Thankfully, the narration at the beginning does help to add context, but the experience of watching the show leaves me wanting more. Leaves me wanting more, in that I was looking for something with more emotion behind it. In my opinion, she shows lacks a strong ability to make an emotional connection with the audience. This is often the result of a themed attraction or show that focuses so much on the spectacle of the show, that it falls short of containing a strong narrative. One of my favorite quotes is, “the greatest art is the art of storytelling” (C.B. DeMille); but unfortunately, the new Cinematic Spectacular does not live up to the art of storytelling, but instead concentrates on the spectacle of show.

Although I have highlighted some elements of the show that I am disappointed in, don’t get me wrong, it is a fun show that is well-worth the time to find a great place from which to watch. You should definitely make the time to see the show during your visit to Universal Orlando. The best place to view the show is from the Central Park area of Universal Studios. I watched it from the waterside behind the big boulders. Presently, the show begins at 9:45 in the evening and guests begin to select viewing locations about 30-45mins before showtime. As the show just officially began, you may want to allow for an hour to find a great spot from which to watch the show. Definitely a show that you don’t want to miss.

For some highlights from the show, please see our video!

“Skull Island: Reign of Kong” Theme Park Attraction Review

IMG_5531“What’ve they got in there…King Kong?” (Malcolm, Dr. Ian 1993). That is precisely who you will encounter on your expedition into the jungles of Skull Island at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure this summer! Fortunately, I was able to take part in a soft opening on Saturday afternoon and am able to share my thoughts with you. The presence of King Kong at Universal Orlando Resort represents a long awaited triumphant return ever since Revenge of the Mummy took the place of Kongfrontation at Universal Studios Florida (original park). Although the ride design is completely different than the previous attraction, it is exquisitely designed and integrates trending themed entertainment attraction technology with practical effects and animatronics. From the queue to the ride path itself, you will be completely immersed into the dark and frightening world of Skull Island. Along your expedition, you may encounter prehistoric-sized creatures, the dead, and maybe even the undead.

Please visit Thrillz.co for the ultimate theme park review website!

IMG_5512For those who have been hanging in and around Islands of Adventure for the last week, you may have had the opportunity to partake in a soft opening of the highly anticipated attraction. If not, definitely plan a trip to the park soon in order to experience the newest attraction (although, the Hulk coaster is reopening soon). What I appreciate most about Skull Island: Reign of Kong is the attention to detail, experiential storytelling, and production design. As an entertainment scholar, I was incredibly impressed with the ability to see horror film theories and frameworks woven throughout the experience. Now, is that something that the typical park guest is going to notice? Probably not. However, the fact that feel that I am going through the diegesis of a horror film serves as empirically-based observational evidence that the ride meets the expectations of both spectacle and narrative. As I mentioned on Twitter, the writings of Freud, Carol Clover, Geoff King, and Linda Williams are alive and well!

IMG_5445The experience of the attraction begins even before you enter the queue. As you gaze upon the exterior design of the attraction, you will begin to feel drawn into the world of Skull Island. What lies beyond the massive 100% to scale gate? Once the thoughts of feeling compelled to venture into the jungles behind the gate enter you mind, you will have no choice but to sign up for the next expedition. If you have been to a Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens theme park, you are already familiar with the theme and story of the attraction beginning at the queue. The Reign of Kong queue is full of creative design to capture your attention and compel you to further descend into the dark catacombs. Prior to entering the indoor part of the queue, the outside is lightly themed with bamboo, greenery, and some rock formations. Thankfully, you have a great view of Kong’s massive stone gates. The heaviest of the queue theming begins once you enter the catacombs.

IMG_5515It’s not called Skull Island for nothing. Between the entrance to the catacombs and the loading platform, there are hundreds if not thousands of skulls within the rock walls and openings. This is where I can really infer the adherence to horror film theories explored and defined by the scholars I referenced earlier. Just like going to see a horror film with the foreknowledge that voluntarily subjecting oneself to terror is part of the experience, the same can be said about this attraction. In Freud’s writings on the principle of unheimlich or what we refer to as the uncanny, he explains that we are psychologically drawn to that which should otherwise remain hidden. Certainly skulls of the dead are items that should remain hidden beneath the earth; however, they possess an attraction that begs for one’s attention. Moreover, scholar Carol Clover writes prolifically on the concept of the unpleasurable pleasure. What does she mean by that? This concept is a framework through which to view why we are drawn to that which would otherwise terrify us. In real life, if you were to see a foreboding cavern filled with low-key lighting and the remains of the dead, you would most likely run IMG_5526away. But since we know that this is a ride at a theme park, we are totally okay with venting further and further into the dark now knowing what awaits. Because we are aware that we are in a safe zone, it’s okay to experience otherwise unpleasurable sights and sounds. Just like going to see a horror movie. Both Linda Williams and Geoff King write on similar topics and theoretical frameworks that deal with spectacle, pleasure, and attraction. The sheer spectacle of the queue is enough to beckon anyone; and from the radio announcer, 1930s music, and witch/priestess’ frightening words, there is a coherent and steadily flowing narrative throughout the attraction queue. Even if you have never heard of King Kong (I know, that is doubtful), after passing thousands of skulls and listening to the witch-priestess chant in an unknown language about Kong, that plus the fire and cavernous rumblings tell you that Kong must be powerful and terrifying. Even after the witch-priestess causes fire and darkness, do you turn back? Of course, not!

IMG_5528One of the most interesting additions to the queue concept that has never been done before, except during Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is including entertainment team members commonly known as scare-actors. Scare-actors are entertainment cast, in themed costume, whose goal is to frighten you with a classic jump-scare. Ordinarily, this is something that is only done during HHN since everyone who has come to the event is there with the intention of being scared. Interesting to use the same concept on a daily operations attraction. But, this is a frightening attraction and setup very similarly to a horror film. So, looking at it that way, it is a logical progression in queue development to include live performers who can increase the scare factor. IMG_5527Additional animatronics are also integrated into the queue in order to heighten the sensations of terror among the park guests. After meandering and wandering through the catacombs of Skull Island, you finally locate your ride vehicle and driver who is going to take you on an expedition beyond the stone gate. Following picking up safety glasses in order to protect your eyes from harm–oh the irony–you board the expedition vehicle. After riding in the front row on the the truck, I would advise not sitting there. So often, row one on a ride is the best no matter what is said about every seat providing an equal experience; however, on this attraction, I would advise sitting in the middle or back if at all possible.

KongVehicleThe ride vehicle at Reign of Kong is massive. It seats up to 78 park guests. So, the benefit to that is moving large crowds efficiently and quickly. Of course, there was no Express Pass queue during the soft opening, so that will definitely mitigate the efficiency and speed of loading standby (or standard queue) guests once it officially opens. At first, I thought the driver was real! The driver moved naturally and in a non-robotic fashion. Turns out that the drivers are, in fact, animatronics! Just goes to show the quality of immersion, storytelling, and theming went into Kong. The image in this paragraph is from publicity photos and shows a real driver; but the animatronic driver sits right up front behind the wheel. So Cool! Once you leave the IMG_5510loading dock, you proceed through the catacombs and outside to the pathway leading to the colossal stone gate. Unlike the forced perspective that is often found in the Disney and Universal parks out of logistic and engineering necessity usually, the King Kong gate is full scale. In many ways, you will feel just like Jurassic Park’s Malcolm when the doors open and you venture out into the wilds of Skull Island. During rainy weather, the attraction designers paved a way for the vehicles to bypass the gate which does take away from some of the initial impression but ultimately will not negatively affect the park guests’ experience on the ride.

SkullIslandBatHaving experienced the Kong attraction as part of the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, I was very interested to see how that same technology was integrated into this stand alone attraction in Florida. Although the rides are not identical, Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Islands of Adventure borrows heavily from the Universal Studios Hollywood counterpart. After proceeding through the stone gate, you will encounter prehistoric sized creatures over head and on the ground. You won’t be able to ignore the giant gorilla skull and bones just inside the gate. As your driver is working on his or her PhD, you will have the opportunity to Kong_T-Rexmeet some of his or her colleagues in the field along the expedition. As to not spoil the actual ride portion of the attraction, I will not go into too much detail but provide more of an overall analysis of the storytelling. As I have written in previous articles, a theme park attraction based on a work of literature or creative media is essentially a short film. It has, say 3-5mins (sometimes longer if it’s a show) to take the park guest through a three-act story. Paralleling the plot structure of a movie, Reign of Kong provides an exciting story for those who dare to explore the jungles of Skull Kong_AnimatronicIsland. You have a well-defined beginning, rising action, crisis, showdown, and denouement. Although my ride experienced a technical glitch on one of the 3D screens, it did not significantly take away from the enjoyment and thrill. There are many elements I like about the attraction, but I was hoping for more practical effects and animatronics than proliferated 3D screens. Still, the visuals are fantastic and do an excellent job of immersing you into the wilds of the ancient jungle. I cannot be certain, but I believe one of the video sequences is taken from the Hollywood counterpart attraction.

IMG_5519Best part of the experience awaits explorers just before disembarking. I won’t tell you what it is because it will ruin the surprise. But, I will tell you that it is truly a welcoming and beloved echo from the past. Theme park technology and what the modern guest is looking for may change over the years, but some things remain a constant. Being a fan of theme parks turned scholar, I greatly appreciate the closing scene on the ride. I was even a little teary-eyed when I rounded the final corner. Whether analyzing Skull Island: Reign of Kong from an objective or subjective perspective, it is clear that the attraction is and will continue to be a huge success for Universal Orlando Resort. Excited to ride it again!

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 5)

My Book

Over the decades, there has been a strong convergence between cinema and theme parks. Studio executives, filmmakers, and theme park designers are working together in ways that serve to support both the movies and the parks that have rides based on the movies. Historically, the beginning of the convergence of cinema and theme parks became apparent in the late 1970s. Following the decline and eventual fall of the original Hollywood studio system in the 1960s, there are some areas that have changed in the production of films (and other entertainment media). According to Allen Scott of UCLA in the writings of Dr. Ralph Casady (1957), some of the changes and transitions dating back to the 1970s are: (1)The penetration of digital technology into all stages of motion picture production (2)The intensified geographic decentralization of production in the greater LA area (3)The proliferation of new markets based on the cross-promotion of intellectual property rights (4)The increased penetration into themed entertainment and video gaming and (5)The merging of, or buying out of major studios by giant multinational media conglomerates (2001). Along with anti-trust government regulation as a result of the Paramount Decision* and the reluctance of big banks to continue to finance motion pictures, film studios were forced to seek new revenues from other sources.

Inside the show building from the former Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies attraction at Universal Studios Florida.

Inside the show building from the former Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies attraction at Universal Studios Florida.

More than ever, filmmakers and attraction designers need to know what the cinema patron and park guest both want in order to create a synergistic and dynamic entertainment experience based on a single narrative. The idea is to generate a similar or complementary emotional response during the themed attraction to that experienced by the movie patron during the respective movie. According to researchers Enrique Bigne, Louisa Audreu, and Juergen Gnoth (2004) of Tourism Management, visitor emotions, in a theme park environment, influence satisfaction and behavioral intentions; and, emotions consist of two independent dimensions: pleasure and arousal (2004).  Theme parks are a form of leisure activity because they provide an opportunity for entertainment during an individual’s discretionary time (Milman, 1991). More specifically, movie-based theme parks provide live themed entertainment experiences that immerse the individual into the world of filmmaking or into the narrative itself. As media conglomerates continue to grow and acquire theme park properties (either through the development of new or re-envisioning of old ones) and intellectual property licenses, the popularity of movie-based theme parks will likely continue to grow.

(Check out what you missed by buying my book on Amazon)

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal’s Islands of Adventure

The creators of theme park attractions from movies have to keep in mind two areas to communicate through the attraction: (1) selecting elements from the setting, characters, and narrative to translate; (2) Translating the aforementioned elements in a manner which can be communicated in a physical, tangible, multisensory way. Theme parks have traditionally used two models for cinema-based attractions. Examples of these models can be found at the Universal Studios Florida park (Failes, 2014). One model is the behind the scenes of movie-making and the other model is the ‘ride the movie’ concept (“ride the movies” is the original slogan for Universal Studios Parks). The former is traditionally more of a stage show that takes the park guests on a journey through the production process of a movie (i.e. Earthquake: Ride it Out or Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies). The latter is usually a more conventional amusement ride that involves moving vehicles through the world and characters of the movie, often facing some sort of challenge within the narrative (i.e. Harry Potter: The Forbidden Journey and StarTours: The Adventure Continues). In recent years, there has been a move from the “behind the scenes” rides/shows to more participatory rides, placing the park guest into the narrative as a de facto character from the movie.

* U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948) The US Government forced the eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization.

For previous articles this series, click here: