Home » If Universal Ever Wants to Match Disney, These Four Kinds of Rides are MUST HAVES

If Universal Ever Wants to Match Disney, These Four Kinds of Rides are MUST HAVES

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. 

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

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

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Universal

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…);

Image: Universal

  • 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)

2. Highly-themed, screen-free thrill rides

Image: Disney

HOW DISNEY DOES IT: At the intersection of screens and thrills lie simulators, and while Disney has its share (increasing by the year), it also offers a catalogue of thrills that buck the trend.

First of all, Disney has a number of exciting roller coasters (from mild to wild) but almost always manages to cement them so well into their theming, they transcend mere “roller coaster” consideration: Big Thunder Mountain, a Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune, and Expedition Everest are full-fledged E-Tickets renowned not only for their thrills, but for their stories. Sure, they’re “roller coasters,” but of a different echelon than the Incredible Hulk or the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

But Disney’s also mastered the genre beyond simply theming roller coasters… Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, DINOSAUR, and Radiator Springs Racers, for example, create thrills out of unlikely and innovative ride systems, while The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Splash Mountain instead use standard ride systems to do something spectacular – themed, thrilling, and without a screen in sight.

WHERE UNIVERSAL DOES IT ALREADY: It’s not at all that Universal doesn’t already do this. Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, Revenge of the Mummy, and Men in Black: Alien Attack are all standouts in this “screen-free thrills” category.

Image: Universal

Each is proof that Universal can and does create thrill rides that approach Disney standards… though oddly, all four of those examples fall into the “middle ages” of Universal Orlando history – the mid-1990s-to-early-2000s, or “after opening but before screens.”

OUR IDEAS: Imagine you and 70 of your closest friends strapping into one of the largest ride vehicles ever created, hoisted eighty feet high before the piercing eyes of an ancient goddess…

Image: Paramount / Viacom

…sent hurtling through the darkness to a synchronized musical score; rocketing skyward and slamming to a halt inches from razor-sharp icicles, flipping through a steaming volcano, and dangling over bubbling, glowing lava pits. It’s hard to believe what Paramount’s Kings Island in Ohio was able to accomplish at a seasonal, regional park, but you can experience it all in one of Theme Park Tourist’s most popular features, Lost Legends – TOMB RAIDER: The Ride.

Image: Paramount / Viacom / Technifex

While TOMB RAIDER: The Ride closed at the hands of a new, IP-free park owner, the concept was brilliant and could literally be rebuilt at Universal today and feel innovative, current, and spectacular. Most importantly, rides like Indiana Jones Adventure and TOMB RAIDER: The Ride prove that strong concepts don’t even need continuous face-to-face encounters with celebrity look-alikes on screens in order to feel that you’re part of an exciting, living, cinematic world.

On the next page, we’ll propose just two more kinds of attractions that would radically change Universal Orlando for the better… Read on…

3. Hidden gems

Image: Disney

HOW DISNEY DOES IT: At most Disney Parks, you could fill an entire day with “hidden gems” – attractions (not necessarily “rides”) off the beaten path. At California Adventure alone, you can mill around the Animation Building with the Sorcerer’s Workshop, Turtle Talk, and the amazing Zoetrope, visit Redwood Creek Challenge Trail’s Spirit Cave, ride the Red Car Trolley from a 1920’s Los Angeles down Hollywood Blvd. (to a sci-fi superhero space prison warehouse power plant), visit the Boudin Factory Tour and snag a sample…

And then there are the family dark rides, like Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, etc… everything from fun, simple asides, hidden walkthroughs, to B- and C-ticket rides are what round out a day at the parks, and most any Disney park can list “attractions” in the dozens thanks to all these charming hidden gems and mid-level family rides.

WHERE UNIVERSAL DOES IT ALREADY: Universal quickly learned what a difference “hidden gems” can make, which is why Universal’s Islands of Adventure  – already their best attempt at a park designed by Disney principles – has its fair share. Seuss Landing’s “If I Ran the Zoo” is a really wonderful family play area and the island’s dark rides (if they were given a complete refresh) would be Disney-quality…

Image: Universal

…the Mystic Fountain is a simple aside that elevates the park; Camp Jurassic and the Jurassic Park Discovery Center are charming if outdated; the meandering paths along Toon Lagoon’s shore exist only to be a fun hidden gem for those who know to find it.

Ironically, one of the most celebrated “hidden gems” at any U.S. theme park was also one of the shortest lived: the Triceratops Encounter in Jurassic Park. It’s quasi-replacement, the Raptor Encounter, is similarly off-the-beaten-path, but a little more brawn than brains – a theatrical meet-and-greet more than an attraction. (Which, if you’re counting, leaves the massive, immersive, spectacular Jurassic Park island with exactly one attraction… a shame.) 

Image: Universal

But largely, Universal Parks are made of headlining E-Ticket after E-Ticket after E-Ticket with woefully few understated gems. We suspect that they realize this odd lack of “small” things to do given Springfield’s simple Kang and Kodos spinner. Even better, Diagon Alley’s Gringotts Banking Exchange (an off-the-beaten-path Animatronic encounter that exists just to build-out the world… and encourage Muggles to trade their worthless American money for an in-universe-stylized Universal gift card) and Knockturn Alley (a mini-walkthrough attraction in and of itself) are exactly the kind of “hidden gems” we’re talking about.

But was the lesson learned? Probably not, given that the Resort’s two latest attractions – Reign of Kong and Race Through New York – are basically mid-level C-Ticket family rides that, for some reason, Universal marketed as E-Ticket headliners. Both would’ve probably been better appreciated if they were simply added smartly, but by trumpeting them as anchor attractions, they fell flat.

OUR IDEAS: This might come back to the same call for family dark rides we proposed in entry number one, but it’s more than that.

Image: Universal

It’s tough. Few bother to celebrate a park for adding something like the Mystic Fountain or Triceratops Encounter. They’re the supporting cast in a star-studded park lineup, not headliners themselves. Yet that’s what makes their presence all the most important and special. There are corners of Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure beginning to be explored, and it’s too bad there isn’t more to see for those who venture forth and do so. 

4. Attractions with original mythology

HOW DISNEY DOES IT: Don’t misunderstand – Disney’s always relied on the stories, settings, and characters of the company’s animated tales as the backbone of its attraction offerings… and during Eisner’s tenure in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Disney even brought outside intellectual properties into the parks (Star Wars, The Twilight Zone, Indiana Jones, The Muppets…) to bolster sagging studio concepts. But some of Disney’s best-loved attractions forego characters we know and instead introduce us to new worlds that become familiar over generations.

Image: Disney 

It’s more than just Pirates or the Haunted Mansion (and its siblings, Modern Marvels: Phantom Manor and Mystic Manor). Disney Imagineers created Dreamfinder and Figment to star in a Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination; an interplanetary technology conglomerate and its bloodthirsty invader in another Lost Legend: ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, or the dozen rides, attractions, and even restaurants connected by the legendary, cross-continental story of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. In so doing, they created homegrown, original mythologies that resonated as much as (or sometimes more than) the produced-and-purchased intellectual properties they own.

WHERE UNIVERSAL DOES IT ALREADY: Look – Universal’s origins will always be deeply tied to being “studio parks.” Even their rare (and successful!) attempt to break out of the beige-soundstage movie mould – Universal’s Islands of Adventure – is still indelibly tied to existing characters and stories (albeit, more timeless and evergreen ones, like Marvel comics, Sunday funnies, and Dr. Seuss).

Image: katsuhiro7110, Flickr

The two exceptions are the underappreciated Port of Entry and the stunning Lost Continent – lands literally designed by Disney Imagineers –original worlds based on ancient myths.  That said, the former has no attractions, and the latter has its own in-depth entry, Lost Legends: The Lost Continent, because much of it has been overtaken by Harry Potter (a worthy successor, to be sure), and the original mythology left in its attractions – Poseidon’s Fury and the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad – needs a refresh.

Overseas, Universal Studios Japan hosts the spectacular SPACE FANTASY: The Ride (see a video here), a truly astonishing family roller coaster so unusually creative, you may be surprised that Universal Creative has this kind of originality, only because they simply don’t use it back in the United States!

Image: Universal

Otherwise, Universal is intentionally stocked with smart attractions and spectacular concepts based on stories you already know. Far from the dreaded “book report” rides, they still rely on your understanding of (and in some cases, appreciation of) a pre-written story, characters, setting, and plot.

OUR IDEAS: Despite its deeply Japanese styling, SPACE FANTASY: The Ride would likely be a family favorite at Universal Orlando, and as the only piece in Universal’s portfolio that comes to mind as featuring original stories, settings, and memorable characters, it’s our first go-to idea.

But until such time as Universal has its own “Dreamfinder and Figment” or “X-S Tech” or “S.E.A.,” there’s simply something missing from its lineup.

To Screen or Not to Screen?

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

As screen-free as our suggestions here may be, this really isn’t meant to be an argument against screens or simulators (though we certainly feel Universal is maxed out and super-saturated with them). It’s also not to shame Universal for the times and places where physical rides get replaced with screens (though, yes, it’s painful). Logically, it’s an easy sell: screens are cheaper and more real than animatronics if you’re looking to recreate a fluid, moving, beloved movie character again and again.

Of course, Universal Orlando is a spectacular worldwide destination in its own right with two unimaginable theme parks packed with some of the best rides and attractions on the globe. This wish list isn’t meant to denegrate or diminish the incredible offerings that this world-class resort has to offer.

But Universal is missing some things… By adding even a handful of the rides above, Universal would surely cement their Orlando resort as a long-term competitor to Disney’s dominance. And that, by the way, would be a good thing for both of Central Florida’s resorts.