In 2008, The Simpsons Ride opened at Universal Studios Florida. But the attraction once took guests on a very different journey...
Universal's owner MCA spent hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that Universal Studios Florida would have a line-up that matched (and its view surpassed) that of Disney-MGM Studios on its opening day in 1990. However, the park's debut was a disaster, with its three headline rides - Jaws, Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One - failing to work properly for months. Jaws eventually had to be closed for 3 years to undergo a complete rebuild.
Even if its opening period had gone more smoothly, plans were already in place to invest still more to maintain momentum during the park’s second year. Now, the battering that the park had received in the press, along with Disney-MGM’s successful debut and expansion plans, made the need for bright, shiny new attractions – ones that operated reliably – even more pressing.
In total, Universal planned to add no fewer than six new shows and one new ride in 1991, with a total price tag of $50 million. Shows based on The Blues Brothers, An American Tail and Ghostbusters were in the pipeline, but the vast majority of that budget would be spent on a single attraction. Having been in planning ever since the Florida project was greenlighted, Back to the Future: The Ride was being put together at the then-staggering cost of $40 million. It had to be good, and it had to work.
Back to the Future: The Ride would be Universal’s answer to Star Tours, the hugely popular simulator attraction at Disneyland that had now been cloned at Disney-MGM Studios. Indeed, Steven Spielberg, who executive-produced the trilogy of time travel movies upon which it would be based, had challenged Universal’s creative team to come up with an answer to Star Tours after jibes from his friend George Lucas that only Disney could produce such a ride.
As with Kongfrontation and Jaws, Universal would push the boundaries of ride technology to fulfil Spielberg’s vision. Ostensibly, the attraction would be similar to Star Tours: a simulated flight through a fictional universe. However, on a technical level, Universal would approach the project very differently to Disney’s Imagineers. “Our philosophy was that Back to the Future would be the most complicated and technologically advanced attraction ever attempted,” said Terry Winnick, the park's vice president of special projects and entertainment.
The ride plot’s would revolve around the theft of Doc Brown’s time machine by villainous Hill Valley resident Biff Tannen, the movie’s “bad guy”. Riders would assist Doc Brown by boarding another time machine and chasing Biff through the past. The queue would wind through the Doc’s Institute of Future Technology, with riders being batched into groups before watching a short pre-show in which Doc Brown explains that on a time travel excursion back to 1955, the young Biff had stowed away in the DeLorean time machine. He was now on the loose, and up to no good. Both Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F. Wilson (who portrayed Biff in the films) reprised their roles, with Biff eventually hijacking the time machine.
Shot on 70mm film, the four-minute movie would be stored on laser disc, and projected onto an enormous dome-shaped Omnimax screen that would be 80 feet in diameter. The DeLorean ride vehicles could hold eight people each. After riders boarded, they would be hoisted into place in front of the screen, 9 feet in the air, by an enormous lift. Once there, the screen would completely surround them, with Universal promising that the only way to avoid the image would be to close your eyes. This contrasted with Star Tours, where riders viewed the outside world through a relatively small viewport at the front of their “spacecraft”.
Riders would clamber into the DeLorean vehicles in separate rooms, to give the impression that they were in individual simulators. In reality, though, 12 cars would be arrayed in front of the screen. There were two identical such screens in the show building, accommodating 24 cars in total.
The DeLorean vehicles sat on a hydraulically-activated platforms, or “motion bases”, enabling them to pitch and yaw in synchronisation with the film to create the sensation of flying. Each was positioned slightly differently to provide the best possible view of the screen, meaning that, in reality, the ride was slightly different depending on which vehicle riders were in.
Universal hoped to pin its turnaround on Back to the Future: The Ride, reversing the negative perception of the park caused by its early troubles. “This will be a whole new positive swing for Universal Studios Florida," said Steve Marble, the ride's senior project manager.
With that came the risk of a Jaws-style disaster. Determined to avoid this, Universal pushed Back to the Future: The Ride back from its originally-scheduled opening date of January 1991 to the spring of that year. The attraction did actually begin hosting riders in January, but remained in “technical rehearsal” for three months, making time travellers of more than 600,000 people during that period. Universal was taking no chances, and declared that the attraction would not be ready for opening until May 2, 1991.
On the big day, the movie’s star, Michael J. Fox, was on hand to try the ride out for himself, as was Mary Steenburgen, who played Doc Brown’s love interest Clara in the final movie. Both were impressed. “You feel as though you're flying, and that you're flying through time, looking down into a volcano, and being swallowed by a Tyrannosaurus rex," said Steenburger. “It's just extraordinary the way they combined the movement of the DeLorean and the film footage.” Fox, who would turn 30 that June, commented: “I like the idea of having my own ride. My own ride - like I get to go on it whenever I want.”
In 2007, Back to the Future: The Ride was closed, with Universal eventually revealing that it would be replaced by a new experience based on The Simpsons. It's not too late to chase Biff Tannen back in time, though - you can still find the ride at Universal Studios Japan.