Let’s start at the beginning: screens are not the bad guy here. Okay, yes… We can admit that, increasingly, Universal’s formula is feeling a little stale. Our must-read Ride Count Countdown confirms that Universal Studios Florida contains 14 proper rides, and it won’t be a surprise to many here that a majority of them are essentially built on looking at a screen with varying degrees of jostling, with most of that majority requiring 3-D glasses to do so… that’s a pretty tiring idea.
And sure, the still-recent closure of Twister, Disaster!, and Dueling Dragons for screens, screens, and (presumably) screens feels like a turn too far in a park that was already facing a rapid decline in practical effects, Audio Animatronics, and tactile experiences... A Super Nintendo World will undoubtedly tip the scales even further toward screen-based experiences.
Still, screens are not the bad guy. Especially in a park determined to let guests “ride the movies,” they’re essential at best; necessary evils at worst.
And admit it – if you step onto a ride based on Harry Potter or Back to the Future or Spider-Man, wouldn’t zooming on brooms, racing through time, and web-slinging through the city be better captured via a screen than a Daniel-Radcliffe-lookalike animatronic suspended from the ceiling? Screens bring the actual stars into the stories they represent; they bring speed and action and kinetic energy; screens are their own kind of life in 21st century rides.
But there’s more. And today, we’re determined to offer up four kinds of rides that we think are absolutely essential to Universal’s growth… ride genres Disney has, in many cases, mastered; attractions that elevate the experience to a new level. In so many places, Universal is so close. But growth comes from stepping into the unknown… That’s why Islands of Adventure and its Disney design principles was a disruptive game changer… and that’s why the concepts below would keep that forward momentum going and propel Universal further into a must-visit resort. Take a look at our list and use the comments below to let us know: what is Universal missing? What would elevate their parks and keep them lifted?
1. Audio-Animatronic family rides
HOW DISNEY DOES IT From the simplicity of Jungle Cruise to the masterpiece of Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney’s mastered the medium of family rides packed with Audio-Animatronics. These cross-generational attractions are stunningly timeless, packed with detail, and perfect for the whole family. They’re classics that enter the pop culture pantheon.
To be fair, even Disney has shied away from this expensive formula (which is admittedly antiquated in an age where screens can do the work for cheap). But in our must-read countdown of the 25 Best Animatronics on Earth, we saw time and time again how an encounter with a “living, breathing” figure simply inspires awe, reverence, and belief that even the best screen can’t.
WHERE UNIVERSAL DOES IT ALREADY: The truth? Practically no where.
First, Universal’s always historically thought of itself as an “edgier,” more thrilling Orlando offering, so even though the resort’s earliest generation of attractions did usually revolve around impressive Audio-Animatronics, they were typically meant to terrorize… see Lost Legends: JAWS, Kongfrontation, and T2 3-D – not exactly all-ages Jungle Cruise equivalents.
Second, it’s becoming increasingly rare to find any animatronic at Universal at all. Rides like Jurassic Park River Adventure and Revenge of the Mummy are holdouts of a middle-era (between the classics and the modern screens) but you wouldn’t confuse them for fluffy family fare. The two overt "family" dark rides – E.T. Adventure and Cat in the Hat – are smart concepts that have aged and deteriorated over time to the point of disappointment, and you wouldn't classify them on the same level as Disney's grand epic dark rides anyway.
In short, Universal doesn’t have many animatronics, and you won’t find many family rides either, so the Venn diagram of their intersection is woefully vacant… The resort certainly has no peer to Pirates of the Caribbean.
OUR IDEAS: We see five obvious spots for an animatronic-heavy family dark rides at Universal, and truthfully, having all five would be ideal:
- A long-rumored family dark ride through the Jurassic Park Discovery Center (built out on the spot formerly occupied by the Triceratops Encounter)… no terror, no attacks, just a fun “scientific” trip through its DNA Labs, nursery, and infirmary (and maybe some sick Triceratops who sneeze…);
- A much-needed redesign of Seuss Landing’s Cat in the Hat (which should be Disney quality, but is far from it) and a long-rumored family coaster through The Grinch’s Mount Crumpet;
- A copy of the delightful Sesame Street: Spaghetti Space Chase family ride at Universal Studios Singapore (see a video here);
- A bevy of Dreamworks family dark rides (Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, or Kung Fu Panda each seem perfect for an animatronic adventure) that seem so obvious, we’re not sure why it hasn’t happened already;
- An Omnimover-led family dark ride through The Wizarding World’s Forbidden Forest to view Rowling’s magical creatures (seemingly off the table given the announcement that Dragon Challenge will be replaced by a family roller coaster, though we don't yet know if screens will play a role)