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Back to the Future the Ride at Universal Studios

Cutting edge technology, cinema-ready storytelling, a beloved intellectual property... For a generation of themed entertainment fans, it truly may get no better than Back to the Future: The Ride. Considered by some to be the best ride Universal has ever designed, Back to the Future was indeed a hallmark and anchor for the brand-new movie park, a pinnacle of late-‘80s-early-‘90s entertainment, and – quite literally – the reason Universal Studios Florida exists at all.

And that’s why it's earned its own in-depth entry here in our Lost Legends library, where we trace the complete histories of forgotten fan-favorites from around the globe… We defied the gods aboard TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, sailed the frozen fjords on Maelstrom, followed California Adventure’s Soarin’ success around the world, watched Disney cut production on The Great Movie Ride, marveled at the microscopic worlds of BODY WARS and Adventure Thru Inner Space, and so many more. Get the big picture in our In-Depth Feature Library, but also watch for links to in-depth Lost Legends throughout the site!

Image: Universal

And likewise, today we’ll learn the unlikely story behind Back to the Future’s creation, take a virtual “ride” through time, and see what replaced this closed classic. Fittingly, the too-true story of Universal’s maybe-magnum-opus requires that we rev up our engines, put pedal to the metal, and hit that sweet 88 mile-per-hour mark, tearing through time and space to return to the past where it all started…

"Ride the Movies"

Before 2010’s Despicable Me

Before the 1999 opening of Universal’s Islands of Adventure…

Before the 1990 opening of Universal Studios Florida…

Before the 1989 debut of The Simpsons…

Even before Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film Back to the Future

Image: Disney

In 1984, Michael Eisner became the CEO of Walt Disney Productions. Yes, it’s a prologue shared by many of our in-depth ride entries, and one that might seem out-of-place here in the story of a Universal classic. But bear with us…

Eisner had arrived at Disney from a stint as CEO of Paramount Pictures, and he brought with him an understandably cinematic perspective. It was just what Disney needed, given it had endured a decade of stagnation and irrelevance following Walt’s death. And Eisner did end up reviving the studios and using his media expertise to grow it into the Walt Disney Company we know today.

But Eisner’s bravest (and most controversial) idea was that Disney Parks needed an influx of pop culture, too; that Disney Parks should be places where everyone – even teenagers! – would find something worth visiting for; that Disney Parks should be the place where guests could “Ride the Movies” and see their favorite big screen adventures brought to life.

Image: Lucasfilm

Of course, the trouble is that Disney wasn’t making any movies worth seeing (much less “riding”) in the mid-‘80s, which is why Eisner pulled some strings and called on an old business acquaintance – George Lucas, creator of Star Wars – to help.

Though novel, the idea was really simple: Walt had stocked Disneyland with the characters, stories, and settings that had touched his generation back in the ‘50s: Davy Crockett, Captain Nemo, Peter Pan, and Snow White; now, Eisner would update the parks to appeal to a new generation’s tales.

Image: Disney

The experiment began with a blockbuster new attraction designed to appeal to the “MTV generation,” chronicled in its own in-depth feature, Lost Legends: Captain EO. But the real coup came just a year later…

STAR TOURS

As far back at the early 1970s, Disney Imagineers had been toying with the idea of a “motion simulator” ride that would place guests in a cabin that could tilt and sway, perfectly-orchestrated to match the motion of an in-cabin projection. Originally, the concept was drafted as a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea E-Ticket to populate Disneyland’s never-built Possibilityland: Discovery Bay. Though the land (and its would-be headliner) never came to be, they say good ideas never die at Disney…

Image: Disney

That’s good news, because more than a decade later, Imagineers were hard at work deciding how exactly to leverage the new Lucas partnership and turn around Disney Parks’ aging aesthetic fast. The idea of a Star Wars roller coaster (with dueling light side / dark side tracks) was considered, but it would take far too long…

However, a simulator ride could get off the ground relatively quickly, giving Disneyland a new, cutting edge adventure into one of the most popular stories ever told.

Naturally, Disney and Lucasfilm got to work, developing the subject of our in-depth Lost Legends: STAR TOURS feature. Cutting-edge in absolutely every way, STAR TOURS is often recalled as the ride that changed Disney Parks forever… and it did, kicking off a new, intellectual property fueled, box-office-influenced plan that’s become even more extreme in the years since.

But it also changed Disney’s biggest competitor…

Challenge

To be clear, “riding the movies” might’ve been a new concept for Disneyland, but just an hour’s drive north Universal Studios Hollywood had literally created the business. After all, Universal’s famed Studio Tour had been running in its modern form since 1964, carrying guests via trams through the working studio’s revered backlots past historic movie sets, real stars’ dressing rooms, and actual hot sets.

Image: Ollie Harridge, Flickr (license)

But in the two decades since its modern debut, the Studio Tour was becoming equally renowned for its staged special effects encounters, like run-ins with Norman Bates (outside of the real set from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1964), a staged “flash flood” demonstration (added in 1968), and an unforgettable encounter with the vicious great white shark from Steven Spielberg's JAWS (added in 1976).

But their biggest encounter was yet to come. In 1986, Universal Studios Hollywood was prepared to debut another disastrous run-in on the Studio Tour: the King Kong Encounter, putting guests nose-to-nose with the banana-breathed, 30-foot tall animatronic Kong designed by Disney Legend Bob Gurr. Kong was ready for his debut in June, and Universal favorite Steven Spielberg was on-hand to take an early ride with Universal Creative executive Peter Alexander.

Image: Universal

As the story goes, Spielberg mentioned to Alexander that he’d just taken a test ride on the new Star Tours set to debut at Disneyland that December, and that he was impressed with Disney’s new simulator. He also mentioned to Alexander that his good friend George Lucas had mentioned how Universal could never build an attraction like Star Tours.

As you might imagine, the challenge incensed Alexander, who became instantly determined to show that Universal could indeed meet Disney’s new standard and present their own multi-media simulator ride. Spielberg, for his part, recommended that Alexander’s team look into Spielberg's still-new Back to the Future film released the year before and see if it could translate into a new ride for Universal.

Image: Universal

The massive 1985 sci-fi comedy action hit followed the unthinkable adventures of seventeen-year-old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his run-in with the eccentric Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) whose time traveling, iconic, Plutonium-powered DeLorean strands McFly back in time in 1955. Contending with the bully Biff, a young Doc Brown, and his own mother falling in love with him, Marty's mile-a-minute adventure to find his way back to 1985 spurred two sequels – Part II and Part III – that altogether earned nearly a billion dollars between 1985 and 1990...

Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, and Steven Spielberg on set. Image: Universal

Now, Spielberg's suggestion that the series could be a Star-Tours-level coup for Universal inspired Peter Alexander. He would later proclaim that the revelation was the impetus he and his peers at Universal needed to revive the long-languishing plans for a new Universal Studios theme park in Florida… This Back to the Future ride might be just the thing that would make Universal a contender in Disney World’s backyard…

And just like that, war was declared… Read on…

Universal had been thinking about building a park in Orlando since 1982, but the idea had always stalled as Universal had never built an intentional, master-planned theme park before (having only gradually turned their working Universal Studios Hollywood into a theme park via the Studio Tour and its later accessory attractions).

If Universal was determined to build in Disney World’s backyard, they needed a heavy-hitter… a must-see E-Ticket that could make this new Universal park a contender, even against a much-larger adversary. But Spielberg’s 1986 ride on STAR TOURS and his ensuing consideration of a Back to the Future ride changed that, and made it seem possible that this new kind of simulator could be Universal’s secret weapon….

Not-so-secret

Speaking of secrets, Universal’s ambitions in Orlando weren’t one.

As a matter of fact, Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner knew full well of Universal’s plans for a Floridian studio park (perhaps as a result of his time at Paramount), and he was determined to outwit them. This is the part of the tale where the history of Unviersal Studios Florida merges briefly with that of Walt Disney World. Eisner – again drawing from his filmmaking roots and entertainment industry connections – decided to keep Universal out of Central Florida with a preemptive strike.

Image: Disney

Before ground could move on the proposed Universal Studios Florida, Eisner announced that Walt Disney World would undergo an unprecedented expansion, growing the proposed Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride from an EPCOT Center pavilion into an entire third park. The Disney-MGM Studios would be a fusion theme park / working movie studio, and its headlining ride would be – you guessed it – a tram-led studio tour through the park’s real production facilities and staged special effects encounters.

Having stolen their bread-and-butter studio tour, Eisner must’ve thought that Universal would relent and cancel their studio park in Orlando. Instead, they doubled down.

Image: Universal

Brilliantly, Universal sliced away the individual elements and encounters of Hollywood's Studio Tour and built each one out into a full-fledged, standalone attractions based on Earthquake, King Kong, and Jaws.

Opening… almost

Universal Studios Florida opened June 7, 1990.

Not since Disneyland’s infamous “Black Sunday” had an opening gone so awry.

Image: Universal

Universal's plan to build a park filled almost exclusively with showstopping E-Ticket attractions based on the Hollywood Studio Tour's segments was brilliant, but perhaps overly ambitious.

Just hours before Steven Spielberg cut the ribbon and welcomed guests into the brand new park, a massive power-outage frazzled the (at the time) cutting edge computers that managed the special effects on Earthquake: The Big One.

Image: Universal

Meanwhile, the park's starring Lost Legend: Kongfrontation was even more complex. The "talkback" software that communicated between the massive animatronic Kong and the ride vehicles was still not operating properly after weeks of testing, which meant the Kong figure had to be operated manually (or risk passing into the vehicle's ride path too early, causing a collision). In a ride packed with dangerous special effects, a short-circuiting computer control left Kong closed most of the day.

Image: Universal

The Jaws ride was famously plagued with technical problems galore (to the extent that it eventually closed entirely and was literally redesigned and rebuilt from scratch, only "officially" opening years later, as detailed in its own in-depth Lost Legends: JAWS entry), and immenent Floridian thunderstorms kept the ride closed most of opening day.

Put simply, Universal had banked on a "big 3" collection of movie-themed thrills, and all three were unmitigated disasters.

Smartly, Universal determined that it had a lot of work to do, and officially pushed back the opening of the would-be park headliner based on Back to the Future. They simply couldn't afford another disastrous opening, so the expected January debut was pushed back to May 1991 – nearly the park's first anniversary. Because as formidible as animatronic apes, waterlogged sharks, and cutting-edge special effects had been, the sheer technological brilliance of Back to the Future: The Ride would surpass them all...

Behind the ride

Image: Universal

During initial planning meetings in 1988, it was suggested that a roller coaster ride "back to the future" would be a surefire way to bring thrillseekers (and Disney's oft-neglected teenage demographic) racing to Universal Studios. However, the plan suffered from the same downfalls that had grounded a potential Star Wars coaster at Disney Parks: a long lead time, and a ride too fast to convey any sense of story.

It was George Lucas' comments about his Disney-delivered Star Tours simulator that had so inspired Universal to push farther, so perhaps appropriately, they decided that a simulator of their own would be the answer. But how to create an innovative, technological attraction to surpass Disney's? How could guests feel as if they were seated in the film's famous DeLorean DMC-12 time machine? Surely not in a 40-person simulator pod... In fact, the answer was more than a decade old...

Image: Franklin Institute

In the early 1970s, the San Diego Hall of Science (now the Fleet Science Center) began searching for a film format to project in their 76-foot tilted dome Planetarium. IMAX Corporation stepped forward, creating a new kind of projection technology. OMNIMAX premiered in San Diego in 1973, distorting a projected image to wrap around viewers, across the inside of a domed surface. OMNIMAX (today called Imax Dome) fills viewers' peripheral vision, creating an immersive, wraparound view that's convincingly real. The novel technology has become a mainstay of science centers.

Universal's plan was brilliant. Twelve ride vehicles (each a "new, eight-passenger convertible DeLorean model") would be divided across three tiers, placed in "garages" under a dark, 85-foot OMNIMAX screen.

Image: Universal

Then, each vehicle would simultaneously be lifted eight feet out of the "garage" and into the dome, where a three-piston motion base attached to each would allow it to rise, fall, and buck along to a projected ride video. Most astounding of all, each DeLorean would be precisely positioned so that, once they rose out of the garage, riders would be unable to see any other vehicle, making it seem as if this massive, all-encompassing, larger-than-life experience was happening just for them!

The ride under construction at Universal Studios Florida (and concurrently at Universal Studios Hollywood, aiming for a co-opening that would eventually be delayed two years due to foundation issues) would double the arrangement, with two OMNIMAX domes, a total of 24 DeLoreans, and a fool-proof plan: even if one dome went down for technical difficulties, the other could continue so that the ride would rarely (if ever!) need to be closed completely.

Add in special effects genius Doug Trumbull (the force behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Trumbull was brought on to deal with production problems cropping up in the making of Back to the Future: The Ride and singlehandledly shaped the project into the Lost Legend we know: a technological, cinematic marvel that put Universal Studios on the map.

Image: Universal

Using scaled miniature sets (the same filmography technique used to bring Star Tours to life), Trumbull oversaw the creation of the 4-minute ride film (shot on 70mm film).

From concept to opening, the five-year project topped $40 million. However, when Back to the Future: The Ride opened on May 2, 1991, it kicked off a blockbuster summer season during which Universal Studios Florida beat the Disney-MGM Studios' attendance numbers... no small feat after the disastrous opening of "the little park that could."

So what did guests find inside the Insistute of Future Technology? On the next page, we'll step inside and take a historic turn on Back to the Future: The Ride.

World Expo

When Disneyland opened in 1955, its themed "lands" were truly revolutionary. Designed by filmmakers, these lands represented idealized, romanticized, fantastical realms, based on (but never too similar to) the real world... a Midwest Main Street, a jungle outpost, a frontier town, a European village, a city of tomorrow, each passed through a hazy lens of nostalgia and pop culture.

Image: Universal

What's often forgotten, though, is that Universal was doing it first, and doing one better. Universal Studios Hollywood's backlot was littered with realistic cityscapes that could convince even the most eagle-eyed movie viewer that they were truly looking at a European marketplace, the streets of Chicago, or a Central American village. That same photorealism was translated to the new Universal Studios Florida when it opened in 1990, offering seemingly-habitable "lands" (more properly, "lots") believably recreating New York, Hollywood, San Franscisco, and Martha's Vineyard.

Image: Yesterland.com

The exception is here, along the shores of the park's central lagoon in Expo Center. Ostensibly themed to the World's Fairs of old, the Expo Center is built around a singular imposing structure. Rising high above the lagoon is the geometric, nondescript exterior of the Institute of Future Technology.

Those new to the Back to the Future series will find appropriate exposition in the winding queues through the Institute's exterior, as footage from the trilogy catches us up on the time-hopping exploits of Marty McFly and Doc Brown and the merciless bully Biff. Then, we're dispatched via a set of continuous ramps along the pavilion's exterior, rising higher and higher over the park.

Back to the Future: The Ride is comprised of three load levels, each with its own pre-show room that can hold 64 riders (in 8 rows of 8, corresponding to the 8 time machines on each level... phew). It's there that we'll be caught up. The premise is simple so long as you don't mind centuries-spanning mythos. Suffice it to say that – following the conclusion of Back to the Future Part III (which opened in theaters just weeks after Universal Studios Florida's debut) – Doc Brown and his family settled in 1991 (eh hem... that's today) to establish the Institute of Future Technology.

That's where you and I come in. We're tourists, "volunteering" to test out a simple experiment: traveling one day into the future in a new 8-passenger DeLorean DMC-12 time machine (and a convertible, to boot). But, Doc Brown is quick to warn us that that ne'er-do-well Biff has graduated from High Valley High (class of 1955), stowed away in one of Doc's time-traveling teams doing research in the past, arrived at the Institute, and stolen a DeLorean of his own.

Image: Universal

"He's got the DeLorean, this is terrible!" Doc cries. "He's gonna alter time! History as we know it will be completely obliterated! ... Wait a second... What am I thinking? My newest invention – the eight-passenger DeLorean time vehicle, that's it! There's no way I can get to the time machine... Hold on a minute... I can't get to it, but, my time travel volunteers... You're my only hope! The eight-passenger DeLorean is behind that door, where you're standing! I can pilot by remote control from here, but I'm going to need you to help navigate. You've got to catch Biff! The fate of the universe is in your hand! Now, try to relax as we go over some safety instructions..."

Suddenly, our mission has changed... We're going to need to load into the DeLorean, pre-programmed to pinpoint Biff's location in time with Doc at the remotely-operated wheel, hit that sweet 88-mph threshold, find Biff, and "bump" him, opening a tear in time to bring us all back home!

Easier said than done.

Back to the Future: The Ride

Image: Universal

With Biff on the loose, anything could happen. As the doors open, the beautiful DeLorean shines ahead. A total of eight passengers will move quickly, sliding into the convertible beneath its scissor doors. A corrugated metal garage door is ahead. But we won't be using it.

Once we're seated, a press of Doc's button sees the car electrify to life, beginning to hover. It rises up through the garage and into an almost-unbelievable sight... We're completely and totally immersed within a massive 85-foot projection dome that surrounds us, completely filling our peripheral vision. And most astoundingly, it appears that this all-encompassing, larger-than-life experience is just for us... our single car of eight passengers treated to this engrossing and unimaginably scaled experience.

With a burst of burning rubber and an 88-mph acceleration, we're off! The DeLorean tears through time, arriving back at Hill Valley in the incomprehensible future year of 2015. A video screen embedded in the dashboard connects us to Doc. "Hill Valley, 2015! And there's Biff! Let's get him!"

Image: Universal

Biff's broadcast on the dash. "Gotta get some gas, Doc!" Turns out, Doc's remote control operation leaves something to be desired as we smash through a Texaco marquee. We're just seconds behind Biff, riding wildly through town. In hot pursuit, we crash through neon signs and around neighborhoods. "I think we've got him!" Doc cries as the iconic Clock Tower from the film comes into view. "Bump him!"

"Sucker!" Biff taunts, honking his horn and accelerating to 88-mph, tearing away through time and disappearing. That means we're off, too. With another burst, a new world comes into view. Or... an old one.

"Looks like we're headed a million years back in time! That's Hill Valley below us, in the middle of the ice age!"

"Back again?" Biff taunts. "Well, come on in." 

Image: Universal

We do, diving down into the icy caverns and frozen glaciers below. It's a prehistoric game of tag as we swerve through the caverns. Biff sounds the DeLorean's horn, triggering an avalanche inside the glacier. As massive pieces of ice fall toward us, Doc steers up and down, pulling us up and out of the chasm just before it collapses. Unfortunately, he's ended up with us teetering on the edge of an infinite canyon, and the engine is dead. "Lean back!" It's too late! The DeLorean nose dives just as Biff disappears into the time continuum again. At the last second, Doc remotely restarts the car, reversing us to 88-mph.

In a flash, the icy world is replaced with something new: a fuming, steaming, roiling, red-hot world of volcanoes as far as the eye can see. "Hang in there, volunteers! There's Biff, headed toward that volcano!"

"Hello buttheads," Biff overtakes the monitor again. "Hey, you guys don't know when to give up, do you?"

Image: Universal

"Prepare yourselves, people... I suspect that the primeval Hill Valley that we're about to enter could be a pretty rough place." He's not wrong. Flames envelope the DeLorean as we dive into the ancient magma pits. Timeless geologic processes have carved an endless subterranean world here, but the solitude of these endless caves is soon replaced when a rockform comes to life.

Great Scott, a dinosaur! It's a Tyrannosaurus rex!" The towering creature stirs, huffing in the direction of Biff. He shines the headlights on the creature. "Right this way, Gramps! Now, sic'em!" The titanic monster gnashes his enormous jaws at us again and again, finally capturing the entire car in his mouth! "He's swallowed us!" But with a burp, we're free. The DeLorean falls down into the molten caverns at his feet, splashing down in a lava river. Biff's ahead of us, and broadcasting via our monitor.

Image: Universal / Doug Trumbull

"Doc... Doc! My flux capacitor is out! Help me! Doc, help me! There's a waterfall... no, a lava fall!"

Ahead of us, Biff topples over the edge of a 400-foot drop, his DeLorean spiralling toward the magma lagoon below... As he screams, we teeter and fall right behind him! In mid-descent, the engine revs. "Hold on, Biff! Going 88 miles per hour! Bump him!"

Success!

As Biff screams, our bumped vehicles tear open a new time portal. "We bumped him! The impact between the two vehicles should send us straight back to the Institute!" Racing us back through the stars, the Institute of Future Technology comes into view and we smash through its front entrace.

To the tune of Huey Lewis and the News' "Back in Time," the Delorean lowers back into the garage and its doors swing open. We made it, and the world is officially saved. "You did it!" Doc screams. "Not only did you catch Biff and save the universe, but you proved that my latest invention is a success! Go forth time travelers, and remember: the future is what you make it!"

Spectacularly, there are two options for seeing what a ride on Back to the Future was really like. The first is an "official" point-of-view video released alongside the 2009 DVD and 2010 Blu-Ray release of Back to the Future. Unfortunately (but somewhat necessarily), the wide, domed, OMNIMAX ride footage was cut to about 20% of the original size (somewhat like wearing blinders that reduce the view only to what's directly in front... a disservice to the tremendous work of Doug Trumbull). A very large computer-generated "DeLorean dashboard" (set to the ride's opening date in Florida, May 2, 1991) further obscures a large amount of the picture. However, this video includes the "dashboard" monitor and spoken audio.

The second option is a brilliantly remastered version of the full OMNIMAX dome video giving a more complete picture of the massive scale of the ride. However, this full view lacks the dialogue and the in-cab monitor.

Future

An exciting, immersive, multi-media, 21st century thrill ride to match Disney note-for-note, Back to the Future: The Ride was literally the reason executives decided to move forward with a Universal Studios Florida... a magnificent headliner themed to one of the hottest film properties of the era, it jump-started Universal Orlando as a contender in the Orlando market. And yet, even the most astounding E-Tickets based on movies have an expiration date... Right?

On the last page, we'll dissect what happened to Back to the Future: The Ride and put its story to rest. Read on...

Back to the Future: The Ride was an instant and undeniable classic; a cinematic, cutting-edge thrill matching Disney’s most earnest attempts, expertly fusing film and technology to E-Ticket standards to meet (and some might argue, exceed) the standards Disney had set with STAR TOURS and its counterparts. And even though it was drenched in '90s humor and a rather – eh-hem – ambitious idea of what 2015 could look like, Back to the Future: The Ride (like the series it was based on) seemed self-depricating enough to be retro-cool even into the distant future.

Image: Universal

For that reason, the ride seemed poised to fly on as a shining example of a multi-media attraction years ahead of its time... even when it inevitably fell years behind.

So what happened? Why would Back to the Future: The Ride close?

Changing times

Beginning with 1989's Disney-MGM Studios and 1990's Universal Studios Florida, a wave of "studio-themed" parks spread across the globe – Australia's Warner Bros. Movie World (1991), the five Paramount Parks (1992), MGM Grand Adventures (1993), and more.

Image: Universal

Ostensibly, each was meant to showcase the glamorous "behind-the-scenes" of filmmaking; the stars; the special effects; the sets!

However, the late-'90s began to change things. For one thing, the rise of the DVD and its making-of featurettes, digital special effects, reality TV, and the Internet began to take some of the "glamour" out of behind-the-scenes. To make matters worse, a new era of theme parks (led by Disney's Animal Kingdom and Universal's Islands of Adventure) changed industry standard. Suddenly, those old "studio" parks crammed with unrelated intellectual properties, lighting rigs, and big boxy tan showbuildings looked like cheap cop-outs; like distinctly '90s parks left over in the dawn of a New Millennium.

Image: Universal

The 1999 opening Universal's Islands of Adventure had set a new course for the themed entertainment industry, incorporating timeless characters and habitable adventures in immersive, themed worlds (including one actually designed by Disney Imagineers! We told that full story in Lost Legends: The Lost Continent). By comparison the old Universal Studios Florida (barely a decade old, mind you), looked like a relic... a '90s-styled studio park populated exclusively by films from the '70s and '80s. Yikes.

In the early 2000s, Universal set to work. They began systematically reformatting their Studio park in Florida, aggressively working to reconfigure it in two ways:

1. STORIES – Fresh to death

Image: Universal

In the early 2000s, Universal began replacing the old '70s and '80s films with modern intellectual properties. It must've occured to executives and designers that – fair or not – most '90s kids (who were becoming teenagers just then) had practically no allegiance to the films that had defined their parents' generation... films like Jaws and King Kong reflected that "old" style of movie-making, with practical effects, dragging pace, and dated references. Call them ungrateful, but millennials simply weren't going to come to Universal Studios to see rides based on Earthquake or King Kong or – dare we say? – Back to the Future...

Maybe, if Universal (or anyone) was determined to operate a theme park dedicated to movies, it had to be equally dedicated and forward-thinking in knowing when to change out its lineup to reflect new movies for a new generation.

So systematically, Universal began tearing them out, replacing Kong with The Mummy, Hanna-Barbera with Jimmy Neutron, Alfred Hitchcock with Shrek; The Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show with Fear Factor; Earthquake with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (twice over); Twister with Jimmy Fallon; and Jaws with Harry Potter... come hell or high water, Universal was determined to pack its studio park with the hottest box office blockbusters possible, even if it meant that ride's lifetimes would be measured in seasons rather than decades.

2. LANDS – Copying Disney's formula... again

Image: Universal

In Islands of Adventure, Universal had built their best impression of a Disney theme park, meeting (and in places, exceeding) Disney's hallmark commitment to detail, immersion, and innovation. Islands of Adventure was a park comprised of Disney-style "lands" that each contained decidedly timeless characters and stories, not just references to classic, fan-favorite movies. Seuss, super heroes, comic books, Jurassic Park, mythology... these subjects would never become outdated like the neighboring studio park did.

The breakthrough of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter only reinforced the importance of immersive, themed, storytelling... in the streets of Hogsmeade, guests queued for hours to get into gift shops! People would pay big bucks to feel like they were literally inside of their favorite stories, drinking Butterbeer, buying "house robes," and selecting interactive wands...

Which is why Universal set out to transform its studio park in the same way: by retroactively crafting themed, immersive, Disney-style lands a step above the photorealistic cityscape "backlots" and "sets" the park opened with. (This is especially apparent at Universal Studios Hollywood, which was never designed intentionally as a "theme park" proper... yet now has a central park "icon" at the end of a "Main Street," branching off into lands themed to Despicable Me, The Simpsons, and Harry Potter.)

Flexible future

Image: Universal

Though Back to the Future: The Ride was one of the last Universal classics to fall, it was also one of the hardest hits for fans. In early 2007, Universal Studios shuttered one of the ride's two OMNIMAX domes, publicly citing that it was studying the ride's future. They must've made their mind up quickly, because on March 30, 2007 – after an admittedly long run of nearly 16 years – Back to the Future: The Ride closed forever in Orlando. The Hollywood version followed in September.

Though a profound loss for many fans, the closure of Back to the Future did give Universal an unusual opportunity. As one of the first multi-media attractions right alongside Star Tours, Back to the Future was also one of the first chances to see how such a "blank canvas" could be re-used by simply swapping out the media...

Image: Fox / Universal

Universal's plan was to reuse the guts of Back to the Future to create a new simulator themed to the massively popular and long-running Fox television series, The Simpsons. As "timeless" as Dudley Do-Right and as American as Popeye the Sailor, The Simpsons has been a staple of animation since its 1986 debut, with a record 30 seasons under its belt. Naturally, it felt like a brilliant opportunity to bring an agreeable, renowned intellectual property to the park and The Simpsons Ride was announced.

Replacements with reason

In 2007 – with the former Institute of Future Technology behind scrims – the word got out. Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood would soon be home to The Simpsons Ride, based on the long-running American animated sitcom by James L. Brooks and Matt Groening. The Simpsons – with a record 30 seasons – is a deeply-engrained piece of pop culture and, admittedly, was a smart fit for bringing a colorful, fun, animated intellectual property to Universal Studios.

Image: Universal

Behind closed doors, work was already well underway updating the ride experience. Groening, Brookes, and executive producer Al Jean came on board with Universal Creative to design the new ride that would re-use Back to the Future's infrastructure. In the new ride, we'd join The Simpsons on a visit to Krustyland (filled with clever nods and jabs at Disney, SeaWorld, and Universal) for a ride on Krusty's new "upsey-downsey-spins-a-roundsy teen-operated thrill ride" with the murderous Sideshow Bob in pursuit. Packed with dry humor, recognizable characters, and eerily familiar rides, The Simpsons Ride is, admittedly, a pretty significant triumph for Universal, even if it's forever stained in fans' eyes thanks to what it replaced.

Image: Fox / Universal

Inside, Oceaneering International (the sub-sea engineering firm responsible for the groundbreaking SCOOP vehicles on Universal's own Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man) was brought on-board to replace the old Intamin DeLorean motion pods. New 4K projectors with 60 frames-per-second framerates (more than double most films' 24 fps rate) were installed to showcase a 4-minute ride film designed by CGI animation firm Reel FX (based on a 2D version of the ride created by the show's Film Roman studio). Perhaps most impressively, The Simpsons Ride features more than 24 characters from the series voiced by their original voice actors.

The Simpsons Ride officially opened May 15, 2008 at Universal Studios Florida and four days later at Universal Studios Hollywood.

In one particularly obvious shout-out to the building's former resident, a pre-show clip shows poor Doc Brown "two years earlier" standing outside the Institute of Future Technology, applying for a loan to keep it out of foreclosure. Just then, Professor Frink arrives via a time-traveling DeLorean, mowing down the banker and forcing an irate Doc Brown (voiced by Christopher Lloyd!) to sell to the maniacal clown.

Does The Simpsons Ride resonate more with 2017 audiences than Back to the Future: The Ride would? We'll let you duke it out in the comments...

However, it's important to know that The Simpsons Ride had a secondary role... not only did it replace an aging movie reference with a modern modern (and even "timeless") brand, it also kicked off that second aspiration of Universal Studios Florida: themed lands.

Image: Fox / Universal

In 2013, the "World Expo" area that had made the Institute of Future Technology feel right at home was leveled and transformed into Springfield, U.S.A. While perhaps less sought-after than Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, the transformed area created a full-fledged Simpsons land in both Orlando and Hollywood, where (following the Wizarding World model) guests can grab Duff Beer, Flaming Moes, Lard Lad Donuts, and Krusty Burgers. A much more apt use for the space than the cold World Expo, the new Springfield land angles both Studios parks closer to the immersive, themed model they're after.

Though it all, one remaining Back to the Future: The Ride did last.

Image: Thord Daniel Hedengren, Flickr (license)

A version of the ride opened alongside Universal Studios Japan in 2001, a decade after Florida's debuted. Fittingly, it closed a decade after Florida's did, taking its final rides May 31, 2016. Rather than The Simpsons Ride, Japan's Institute of Future Technology was instead transformed into Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (which had replaced Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast and fellow Lost Legend: T2 3-D in Florida and California, respectively).

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Universal / Illumination

The ride there is a much-needed headquarters for all things Minion (wildly popular in Japan), and an entire Despicable Me themed land called Minion Park was construction at its entry.

OUTATIME

For you and I, the chance to ride Back to the Future: The Ride is gone.

Image: Universal

The best we can hope is that this dedicated Lost Legends entry is enough to spur an appreciation for what may be the greatest ride Universal's ever showcased... a cutting-edge, immersive simulator brilliantly juxtaposing the technology of the past, present, and future in a showstopping, headlining E-Ticket. And whatever you think of Back to the Future: The Ride, we can say pretty confidently that without it, Universal Orlando Resort wouldn't exist at all.

Now that you've blasted through time, don't forget to relive the cinematic excitement of Universal Studios Florida's co-starring Lost Legends – JAWS and KONGFRONTATION – and visit our In-Depth Feature Library to set course for your next adventure.

Image: Universal

Then, use the comments below to tell us your thoughts... Did Back to the Future: The Ride really rival Star Tours? Looking at it through the 20/20 hindsight of 2017, could this one-time blockbuster really have stuck around at Universal Studios, or would it be an embarassingly outdated adventure to today's crowds? Is The Simpsons Ride a good attraction compared to Back to the Future? What about in its own right? Do you miss this time-traveling adventure? 

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Comments

I never rode the original, but loved the Simpsons ride on our first visit soon after it opened. But last year it was incredible how much the video quality has deteriorated. It was barely visible, and REALLY needs to be redone. It’s embarrasingly bad. Totally agree about the land, though, Springfield is a lot of fun.

In fact the motion hydrolics on the ride were too highly strung and beat the living hell out of me when I rode it in the 90s. I almost didn't go on the Simpsons because of it but that turned out to be OK.

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