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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Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies (1990-2003)

Since we are gearing up for the highly anticipated Halloween events at theme parks around the country and with Halloween Horror Nights Orlando and Howl-O-Scream Tampa beginning soon, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of my all-time favorite attractions at Universal Studios Florida that was built around the magic of movies and the macabre. Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies was an opening day attraction at Universal Studios Florida, and stood as tribute to the Master of Suspense and father of the modern horror film from 1990 to 2003. In addition to the attraction/show in Production Central near the front entrance of the park, the Bates Motel and house were located near E.T.. This set was used for the filming of Psycho IV: the Beginning, and welcomed guests from 1990 to 1998. The very heart of Universal Studios Florida was immersing the park guests into the magic of filmmaking and creating an experiential journey, placing you on the set of your favorite movies. Shifting away from the magic of movie making to completely immersing park guests into the movie worlds themselves, Universal Orlando replaced the Hitchcock attraction with Shrek 4D. Fortunately, the Horror Makeup Show and the seasonal Halloween Horror Nights event still keep the heritage of horror and suspense alive, as Universal essentially invented the American horror film. As I love exploring the past, present, and future of the parks, I thought it would be fun to hop in the wayback machine to analyze just why this attraction was popular then, and why there’s been a resurgence of interest and popularity. Perhaps we will see Hitchcock return to Universal Studios Florida in a move permanent way in the future with horror and suspense films being some of the biggest box office and critical success of recent years. Prior to analyzing the former Florida attraction, it is important to head to the other side of the country to briefly visit the word famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood! Believe it or not, the Universal Studios tour dates back to 1915. That’s right. It predates Walt Disney’s Disneyland. So, one could hypothesize that Disney appropriated the idea of turning a movie studio into a theme park from Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios. Starting as a walking tour that included a stunt show until “talkies” forced the studio to shutter the tour, until it reopened as the tram tour in the 1960s, one of the crowd favorite parts of the tour is driving past the infamous Bates Motel and Bates House. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other horror films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house. Uncanny, referring to that which is revealed that should remain hidden–the return of the repressed. For more on how Freud’s uncanny influences horror films, please see my article The Psychology of Horror.  Central to Psycho and the single most famous moment in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the brilliantly perfect shower scene. And, it served as the main event at the former Universal Studios Florida Hitchcock attraction. Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock. For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of the magic of creating horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. Checkout this video from Defunctland. The aforementioned attraction was divided up into four distinct parts, with the famous shower scene being the central focus (ThePsychoMovies.com, 2014). According to an interview with one of the producers of the attraction, Susan Lustig describes the process of creating a horrific live experience from the horror of the iconic movie itself. Just like a horror movie is divided up into parts, or has a cinematic structure, so too did the Hitchcock attraction. There are many parallels between the famous shower scene and the live attraction. In the movie, the sequence leading up to the shower scene is very much a preshow in the same way the attraction contains a preshow area. The preshow in the movie is when Norman is gazing through the peephole into the room of Marion as she undresses. Just like Norman is visually gathering information about Marion, the park guests in the preshow area gather information about Hitchcock’s career and a glimpse into his masterful techniques. Checkout the old preshow video below courtesy of OrlandoRocks! Next, the park guests sit through clips of 3D versions of Dial M for Murder and The Birds. Before 3D movies became commonplace in your local cinema, Hitchcock experimented with it back in the mid 20th century. Much like he was a pioneer of more traditional visual storytelling, he also experimented with color 3D films. On the note of his groundbreaking decisions as a film director, Hitch was also a pioneer in the early days of television with his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While sitting in the Hitchcock 3D theatre, park guests watched an entire scene from Dial M for Murder and select scene from The Birds. In a manner of speaking, this part of the attraction worked to assault the eye with suspense and terror; moreover, this presentation prepped the mind for experiencing the horror in the next room. Paralleling this element of the attraction to the film, is Norman’s actions after he spies on Marion and before “mother” takes over. Between the time Norman looked upon Marion through the peephole and puts on the wig and dress, he sits in the kitchen and presumably debates with mother on what to do. In a similar way, you were also faced with what to do with the information you gathered from the presentation. You could go onto the next room or exit the attraction. As we all know, following that scene, “mother” returns to the bathroom to save her son from Marion. And you, much like Normal/Mother, will soon head to the infamous Bates Motel bathroom. The old Hitchcock 3D theatre is the one currently used by Shrek 4D, an attraction that pales in comparison. After the 3D movie, the park guests enter the Hitchcock Stage and look upon recreations of the motel, shower, and house. The main show at the attraction is the Hitchcock Stage where the infamous shower scene is reenacted before a live audience. A side note: if you experienced the Krampus HHN26 house, then you were in the old Hitchcock stage! In addition to the Bates House and Motel, there is a recreation of the tub/shower used by Hitchcock to film the scene. At this point in the movie, Marion is thoroughly enjoying her shower, cleansing herself from her transgression of stealing the money. Hitch constructs the scene in such a way that the audience gets both objective and subjective camera shots from inside and outside the shower. All of a sudden a shadowy figure approaches the opaque shower curtain and throws it open, wielding a knife. The sinister figure stabs Marion repeatedly; and through more than fifty cuts (editing cuts), the scene is played before the people in the dark. Likewise, this same scene is brought to life for the studio audience at Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. Through mechanical engineering and film production techniques, the cast of the show reveals how the master of suspense filmed this iconic scene. Whereas you may think that this reveal of the “man behind the curtain,” so to speak, may impact the brilliance of this scene, it actually gives audiences a greater appreciation of it. It’s attractions like this that I miss from the Universal Studios parks and resorts lineup. In order to experience the show for yourself, checkout the following video from Nick Chander. Following the show on the Hitchcock Stage, the park guests walk into a museum-like room revealing many of Hitchcock’s secrets and techniques in some of his most notable films. It parallels the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist is analyzing Norman and explaining how and why he did what he did. You could even peer through binoculars to the apartment building across the street just like in Vertigo. For the cinephile or film buff, this museum opened eyes and minds to the magic that was the films of Hitchcock. If there was any doubt that he was a pioneer ahead of his time, which may explain why he never won an Oscar but was nominated several times, then this exhibition puts those doubts to bed. Just like Norman was the forerunner to the classic slasher and father of cinematic psychopaths, Hitchcock is still the master of the art of suspense and horror cinema. Horror has always been popular and bankable; however, in the last several years with arthouse horror making it big, classic franchises getting new installments, and horror television taking off with the debut of American Horror Story, there has been a resurgence in popularity among general audiences and younger millennials. Since horror is the best genre for creatively and viscerally exploring what it means to be human, social and institutional constructs, gender roles, religion, and more, the general public is drawn to it in order to provide a different perspective on social commentary. With this newfound interest in the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock is once again in the forefront of minds. When movies such as the recent Searching and others such as Get Out, A Cure for Wellness, and A Quiet Place being compared to Hitchcock–or at least elements of the respective films–those whom are developing their taste for cinema look to see why and how Hitch was influential. Interest in the Master of Suspense is once again growing. With such an interest and growing fanbase, perhaps Universal will once again look for a way to integrate Hitchcock into the park, even if just for HHN.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. 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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him! Follow him! Twitter: RLTerry1 Checkout my book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks Bibliography
  • Cosgrove, Ben, The Shower Scene in Psycho, Time Magazine, November 16, 2012
  • Davis, Susan, The Theme Park as a Global Industry, Media Culture and Society, Sage Publications, July 1996
  • Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, London, 1919
  • King, Geoff, Ride-Films and Films as Rides in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema of Attractions. Cineaction, 2000
  • Milman, Andy, Future of Themed Entertainment, Journal of Travel Research, Sage Publications, 2001
  • Murdy, John, The World Famous Universal Studio Tour, The Park Insider Magazine, Summer 2002
  • Movie Massacre.com, Dismantling of Universal Studios: Bates Motel and House, June 21, 2010, Accessed from http://www.moviemassacre.com/blog/the-evolution-of-universal-studios-florida-part-1
  • Oliver, M., & Bartsch, A. (2010). Appreciation as Audience Response: Exploring Entertainment Gratifications Beyond Hedonism. Human Communication Research
  • Psycho, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal Studios, 1960
  • Singer, Matt, Jaws and the Changing Face of Movie Theme Parks, Independent Film Channel website, 2011
  • Universal Studios Florida Attraction, The Psycho Movies.com, Accessed from http://www.thepsychomovies.com/archive/floridaattraction.html

Are Theme Parks Pricing Millennials Out of the Ability to Experience the Magic?

If you’re a Millennial like me, then you may have asked yourself the same question. In fact, I read an article recently on another Theme Park website that explored how changing demographics are changing the theme park business. Fascinating article. However, there was an item of mention that troubled me. When commenting on the observation of the addition of food and wine festivals, expensive up-sell experiences, and line-skipping passes to appeal to adults without kids, it was stated in the form of this development being great for Millennials. And that got me to thinking. Is it, though? Considering the current economic climate and the career status of those who are in their early 20s and to early to mid 30s, are these new trends truly accommodating of this group?

Instead of limiting this topic to the changing population (baby booms versus baby busts), I think it’s more effective to explore this topic of how changing demographics are changing the theme park business with the addition of the income criteria coupled with population. This is an important element to add to the discussion because it’s no surprise that it’s taking much longer to land a full-time position earning a truly livable wage for us than it did for our parents (see images 1-3). In fact, the Pew Research center (image 4) shows that our parents had far more purchasing power when they were rearing us than we do today. Essentially, non high-level mangers or non-executives have exponentially less disposable income correlating to the cost of living than our parents did in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. Furthermore, it’s much harder to get a mortgage than it was 10-20yrs ago, rent rates are way up, and student loans enter repayment. When theme parks keep adding expensive up-sell experiences in order to capture the young single adult or young couple without kids (as we are currently in a baby bust that doesn’t look like it will change with GenZ), I am not entirely sure they are considering the financial burdens and increasing cost of living that 20 and 30-somethings currently face. Our parents COULD afford more vacation than we can today.

Whenever I see a Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or blog post about a new experience at Disney Parks especially, but also Universal Parks, lesser so at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld (who DO tend to cater to where current finances are for Millennials), I wonder who is actually paying for these experiences? Most of these special tour and dining experiences are in excess of $100/person and often much more. After paying for either day tickets or annual passes, hotel nights (if applicable), plane tickets or fuel for the car, I find it difficult to believe that the typical Millennial is able to afford these experiences. Therefore, if the typical Millennial possesses an inability to afford all the increases and special experiences in the parks, then perhaps this “changing of the theme park business” is actually not a good thing for those of us who are in our 20s and 30s. Seems to me, that the more logical course of action would be to follow the median economic status of the biggest group of park guests.

According to the the article that inspired me to write mine, the largest group of park guests is trending toward late GenX and Millennials (with GenZ not being too far behind) without kids. It makes perfect sense for the parks to add in “adult” activities in order to entice Gen-Xers and Millennials such as food and wine festivals, line-skipping passes, and special events, but the prices of these events is outpacing the income of the group that the theme parks know will soon surpass the number of “families” that are guests at the parks. The disadvantage of a proliferation of high-priced up-sells is alienating the very group of current and potential park guests that is outpacing the more traditional families that have been the main source of income for the parks. More than anything else, in terms of spending money on entertainment, Millennials are looking for a good deal–more than our parents–because we have much higher overhead and less purchasing power than they did when they were out ages taking their kids (us) to the parks. Therefore, it’s important for the current theme park business model to recognize the desire for Millennials to continue to support and enjoy the parks as more traditional families get smaller and Baby Boomers getting older with currently empty or soon-to-be-empty nests.

Although it seems common sense for the parks to adapt their respective business models to accommodate the finances of Millennials, the opposite appears to be coming to pass. Instead of packing better deals for young professionals without kids, the trend seems to be catering to only upper-middle and upper class individuals and families. The antithesis of what should be done in order to capture the next generation planning vacations to the parks. If the trend of continuing to add expensive additions to your park ticket continues, then theme parks will become as exclusive a destination as a European vacation or exotic cruise. “This park wasn’t built to cater only to the super rich, everyone in the world has a right to enjoy…” as Dr. John Hammond countered the lawyer’s desire to charge exorbitant prices during the lunchtime debate scene in Jurassic Park (one of my favorite scenes from the iconic film)Disney and Universal should borrow a line from Hammond and modify the business model to create magic for Millennials–especially Disney Parks, as they are increasingly catering to only the super rich.

So yes, we are experiencing theme parks changing their business models to adjust for fewer families and more singles/couples without children. And Food and Wine festivals are a huge hit! I truly enjoy them. But, in developing offerings that attract adults without kids, the parks are in danger or pricing Millennials out of enjoying the magic. Millennials are looking for those after-hours events, food and wine fests, and line-skipping passes but not at the cost of not being able to go to begin with. Theme parks should reevaluate the pricing structure and take the current economic times facing millennials into question. Millennials represent the majority of folks soon to be going to the parks as young professionals, with the traditional families of 3-5 becoming less common. But, Millennials are burdened by rising rental costs, rising student loan repayment cost, lower salaries than our parents, and rising cost of transportation.

Christmastime is “Magical” at Universal Orlando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Theme Park in Flux

DHS_MainIt’s no secret that the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) is undergoing some massive builds and refurbishments. With Universal Orlando (UO) stealing the leading market share from the media and entertainment conglomerate’s flagship resort, Disney is running to catch up. Although there are a number of refurbishments and builds presently taking place, the one that is the most obvious and potentially dangerous is the near-reboot of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). Just this week, it was announced that the extremely popular thrill ride Rock ‘in’ Roller Coaster is soon to be closed for a relatively short amount of time; however, during this time, all references to Aerosmith will be removed. Whether that is due to inside or outside influences is not what’s really important. What IS important is the number of closures over the last couple of years and even ones that are reported to be taking place within the next few.

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GMR_VintageIt’s the late 1980s, and then Disney CEO Michael Eisner has an idea for a new theme park at WDW. Unlike other parks which were more strategically planned, this one has a rather spontaneous birth. In short, Eisner desired to put a movie-based ride at Epcot. The name of that attraction? The Great Movie Ride (GMR). Sound familiar? From that attraction concept sprung the now Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The genesis of this park parallels Universal Studios Florida in many ways. Both began as Florida production counterparts to their respective Los Angeles headquarters and both opened within one year of one another featuring attractions based on film/TV IP; furthermore, both parks were active film and television production facilities and offered tours, live audience opportunities, and meet and greets with some of the stars. Back then (from 1989-2008) DHS was named Disney-MGM Studios with a scale replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as the centerpiece. The operating hours were less than Magic Kingdom or Epcot because of the few offerings, so DHS was originally operated as a half-day park. The design of the park was mostly based on the idea of Hollywood at the hight of its golden age in the 1930s and 40s. From the buildings to the backlot, it was clear that this park was celebrating the art of motion pictures.

Map_MGM_Studios

Here is a map of the park at the height of attractions offerings (minus Toy Story Midway Mania and The American Idol Experience both added in 2008).

Disney_GG_HouseDuring the late 1990s and early 2000s, both Disney and Universal began to phase out the Florida production facilities. With that phasing out, the connection to the art of motion picture making began to mitigate. Specifically speaking about, Disney-MGM Studios, there were two major changes that directly affected the identity of the park during this first period of flux. While many may not recall the set tours of Adventures in Wonderland or playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, many long-time fans and guests of the park will remember the closure of Residential Street (part of the Backlot Tour) to make way for the now-closed Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show. Residential Street included, among other houses, THE Golden Girls‘ house (used for the exterior shots starting in the 2nd season). During the pilot episode and the first season of the critically acclaimed show–still–with a huge fan base today, the house seen in the exterior shots (which you can drive to today) was/is located in Brentwood, CA. But I digress. With the closure of Residential Street, the now-closed Backlot Tour had to be reinvented to accommodate the new stunt show. This closure represented the first steps in the eventual identity crisis of the park.

DHS_TOTRegarding the addition of new attractions, the 1990s were a booming time for DHS because in 1994, something huge dropped in. The iconic and popular flagship attraction The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (TOT) opened on Sunset Blvd! At the time, it was considered the most technologically advanced theme park attraction in the world. The attraction was so popular in Florida that a counterpart was constructed at Disneyland as part of Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). Sadly, Disney has confirmed all rumors and timeframes regarding the rebranding of the DCA Tower of Terror to be rethemed with Guardians of the Galaxy. Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage and The Tower of Terror welcomed the addition of Rock ‘in’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith (RRC) in 1999. RRC was the first (and still only) roller coaster at DHS and continues to be a huge draw today. In addition to the 1990s welcoming TOT and RRC, Sunset Boulevard would also become the home of the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic! With room for close to 10K park guests, Fantasmic continues to be a popular show that requires guests to arrive 1-1.5hrs prior to showtime. However, the popularity of Sunset Blvd is not immune to radical changes. As you may be aware, and as I wrote in the opening paragraph, it was announced recently that RRC will be undergoing a short but drastic refurbishment in the next month that will transform the coaster into a more generic version of its current self. (Personally, I’d like to see RRC Starring Journey, 21 Pilots, Bleachers, or a range of songs by bands/artists about rollercoasters).

My sister "wearing" Mickey's hat!

My sister “wearing” Mickey’s hat!

The mid to late 2000s began to see some changes that would completely redefine the identity of the park as it continued to move away from the production of television and film. From Residential Street to the center of the park, due to licensing issues with the then new owners of the real Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Disney erected Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat to serve as the centerpiece for the park and as the logo for marketing. In retrospect, the erection of this hat upstaged the Chinese Theatre, representing the end of the first season of Disney-MGM and ushered in the second season. Contrary to popular opinion, the hat was not connected to the eventual renaming of the park in 2008 but the result of the owners of the Chinese Theatre wanting more money for the famous Hollywood landmark to be featured in marketing materials. Obviously, if you have been to the park in the last year, you have noticed that the Chinese Theatre is back to being the centerpiece thanks to–again–new owners of The Chinese Theatre (TCL). It would appear that DHS is going back to its roots in the art of motion picture production, but that may not be the case. While the entrance to the park is almost back to its vintage state, the rest of the park is being redefined and is presently in a state of flux as the seasons change once again.

DHS_NewLogoEven before Star Wars and Frozen, DHS was already in a identity crisis. The most notable change, whether you are a park regular or not, was the complete renaming of the park in 2008 from Disney-MGM Studios to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (on that note, the park will be getting a new name again with the opening of Star Wars and Toy Story lands). Although the renaming is partly due to the disconnect from motion picture making, it is mostly due to MGM falling into bankruptcy. 2008 continued to be a big year of changes with the opening of the still-popular Toy Story Midway Mania attraction located in the Pixar area near then-Animation. Furthermore in 2008, DHS opened the now-closed American Idol Experience (licensed from Fox). It took the place of Doug Live in the show building that was vacant from 2001-2008. From 2008-2012ish, it was extremely popular and hundreds, if not thousands, of park guests auditioned everyday. Towards the end, the attraction would have to cancel shows because so few guests auditioned. The attraction finally closed its doors at the Superstar Theatre in 2014 to make way for the Frozen Live show that can now be seen daily. More recently, the–what was left of the–Backlot Tour is now closed, DHS_ OFSDLalong with the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground, Streets of America (home to the now deceased Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights during the holidays); and it’s rumored that in 2018 that The Great Movie Ride (GMR) will be massively rethemed to a Mickey dark ride. Supporting evidence of this is in the decline to renew the–actually still new–licensing agreement and sponsorship of GMR by Turner Classic Movies. The removal of GMR would essentially mean the park will lose all connections to the original idea for the park. Theme park researchers are also predicting the closure of the Indiana Jones Stunt Show to make way for more Start Wars. Looks like DHS is moving into season three of its life. What does all this mean?

dhs_map_2016_aHere is a map of Disney’s Hollywood Studios today. Notice anything?

DHS_TSL_WallIt is clear that this park is continuing to truly find and solidify its identity. If you look at the map above, you will notice that there are far fewer offerings than in the mid-late 2000s at DHS. This new season of DHS is simply the next in a long history of fluctuations. Originally designed as a half-day park, it appears as though DHS is unofficially returning to that model–for now, anyway. Once RRC closes (even though it is for a relatively short time), there will only be a few rides left: Star Tours, Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror, and Toy Story. As far as other attractions, guests will still be able to enjoy Indiana Jones, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasmic, Little Mermaid, and Muppet Vision 3D. Comparing that list to what was offered in DHS’ prime years, the offerings are somewhat anemic. Although it is too early to announce a target opening date for either Toy Story or Star Wars Lands respectively, Disney is known for prolonged expansion construction. So, it is safe to assume that we are looking at 3-5yrs until the lands open. The danger in closing so many attractions over the years and nearly cutting the park in half (when it was already small) is a potential side effect of a significant drop in guest numbers. Hopefully, the numbers will climb back up once the lands open. DHS_SWL_WallThat being said, here is an idea. It’s no secret that Disney is presently losing out to Universal. Of all the parks, DHS is definitely seeing the sharpest decline in numbers (which translates to revenue). Not knowing what the daily operating cost of the park is, I can only speculate; but,  WDW may be in a better position if it were to completely close DHS for 18-24mos and ramp up the construction of Star Wars and Toy Story. With the park remaining open, the construction moves more slowly than if the entire park were to shut down. Cities have proven that this approach works when it comes to massive repairs or expansions of expressways. Would you rather keep a park open that has a few attractions and the new lands take twice as long to build or would it be better to close the park (which could potentially save money in the long run) and the lands open up in half the time? Whatever the case, it’s definitely something interesting to think about. All we can do is watch as Disney’s “movie” based theme park transforms yet again. On the plus side, the new lands look awesome! I will, though, miss the magic of the movies at this park.

Me and my sister during her first trip to Disney World.

Me and my sister during her first trip to Disney World.