Updated: Aug 11
If you think about it, it’s a theme park ride about a theme park ride.
And as of today, the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios Hollywood closes its massive gates for the last time to make way for future iterations of the franchise. A move announced earlier in May of 2018, although with very little information covering what the newer iteration might entail.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the franchise's film success
In the 25th anniversary year of the blockbuster film’s success, it seems that the powers that be at Universal (now entirely owned by Comcast) are placing a sizable bet on the reboot’s success and transitioning the fan favorite ride into something new.
Let’s start waaay back at the beginning, the original medium was a literary piece. A 1990 novel by Michael Crichton caught many, many imaginations on its release; something my own father enjoyed at that time and then passed on to a far younger version of myself.
Who didn't love the film?
I had an affinity for dinosaurs which stretches back as far as I can recall. I still find them incredibly fascinating, but perhaps having grown into adulthood some of my pastimes have changed and dinosaurs take a back seat to other, more pressing matters...
As a child, Christmas and birthdays were always a bounty of plastic dinosaur figures, but also nerdier pastimes such as books and model skeletons. My parents were only too happy to oblige all aspects of my dino-fever.
Later, I’d find myself enjoying somewhat overlapping interests in what are arguably today’s remaining dinosaurs – reptiles, the legacy of some creatures co-existing or evolving from the same order of animals.
Now we’re talking more about the hip structure of birds and of modern turtles and crocodilians, less about theme parks… OK. So I get a little distracted when discussing these things – I did mention there was a bit of childhood passion involved, right?
The ride is the physical manifestation of a childhood fantasy
You can imagine my delight when my father handed me his second-hand copy of Jurassic Park. I’m unsure in which year the book fell into my grasp exactly, but it wouldn’t have been 1990 as there’s no way I was ever that cool and on top of the trends – but it was certainly some couple of years prior to the film thrashing its way into cinemas. So, let’s say 1991!
That was probably the first and perhaps only novel I’ve ever re-read in more than once. I read it a few times, I'll admit the some of the earlier sections really creeped me out in my single-digit years.
I was enthralled by the dino-action and the imagery the pages brought to my young imagination. But as mentioned, not all the thrills began with a goat-snatching T-Rex or toe-tapping velociraptor. Some dinosaur characters were busy preying upon infants in their cribs or unlucky adult men, having been overwhelmed by roaming hordes of small, chicken-sized scavengers – the compsognathus.
Again, I was so removed from the world of media at that age, that it wasn’t until the 93 film's release became imminent when I became aware that some genius had distilled the essence of the story into a Hollywood film!
What more could a kid could want?
I'm unsure how much I pestered my dear old dad to see it in cinema, but it was certainly popular. We even ran into some family friends from another town at the theater because they too had boys my age. It was the only place in some considerable geographic radius that you could catch the experience on a truly large screen.
Fast forward a few years more, and again, unbeknownst to me, Universal had it in mind to do what they do best with movie magic – bring it to life in their parks!
Although the Hollywood park’s ride opened in June of 1996, duplicate attractions were opened at the other parks in time, namely the 1999 opening at the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure park in Orlando, Florida – but there is another, near-identical river raft adventure ride at the Singapore installation.
Again, behind the trends, I didn’t ride this majestic beast in its opening year. It wasn’t until 2000 when I would first grace the immense rapids with my presence and enjoy the animatronics and storyline which ushered in the 84-foot drop to thrill both story enthusiasts and ride-goers. A world's highest for a water ride at that time, I might add.
It all starts with a rather cool passage through the very cool, King Kong-esque gates and meanders past a trove of dinosaurs. Some perceived as friendly, others neutral or indifferent to our presence. Later, life finds a way and the chaos achieves its crescendo with a not-so-surprising cameo by the infamous T-Rex before dropping guests off a cliff edge. Spoiler alert, you actually do just drop! At 51 degrees, the the drop was also among the world's steepest at the time of construction.
From novel to film, film to ride
My most recent visit in 2017 was perhaps a little ahead of the trends. My then fiancée (now wife and Chief Fun Officer here at Odyssean Travel), Holly and I made our way around Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure that May, although only a week too early to explore the debut of the third park, the Volcano Bay Water Park.
Regardless my poor timing to get hands on a Tapu Tapu at Volcano Bay, the Islands of Adventure ride was a welcome piece of nostalgia, alongside a thrilling drop and appropriate splash! It is one of the few rides which still (at that time) did not require patrons to secure their belongings in a locker, so I was able to make some lasting memories on film for the bulk of the experience – we’ll see how this trend continues.
I should note I was asked to put away my GoPro just prior to the drop and happily obliged, no one wants to be the nerd seen on social media being thrown out of a theme park because they refused the demands of an operator and endangered everyone’s fun (at best) or safety (at worst).
There are some signs of a dated era gone by, some original, embedded television monitors and less than HD footage broadcasting entertaining snippets to those waiting in line. So it could use a bit of a touch up. But it might be nice to see a full-on overhaul and see if they can replicate the magic in the Skull Island: Reign of Kong attraction – something done incredibly right in terms of modern ride-going experiences (more below).
It seems, however, that Comcast hasn’t got the same punchy attitude toward upgrades and innovation as the earlier owners. Comcast having secured full ownership in 2013 following a series of actions of intent and later acquisition, including buying in full from General Electric after earlier purchases
Comcast seems to want to try out the new experience before committing to additional investments, or at least that’s how it seems to me. Admittedly, there was a years-long gap between attractions appearing in Orlando following the original Hollywood installation.
The new experience is to be re-branded, following the popularity of Jurassic World
Speaking of Jurassic World
Personally, talking dino-DNA was about the biggest stretch of the imagination I could endure at the age of 8. I was willing to suspend that disbelief and get on with the story that DNA could be found even somewhat intact from the fossilized remains of amber-embedded parasites, and that some other plot-inducing DNA might be inserted. Frogs, if you recall. Hence the gender-swapping roles among creatures in the park, remember?
But in my mind, the latest franchise reboot goes takes it that one step too far – beyond the point at which I'm willing to suspend my of disbelief at least. Really, one of the characters almost goes to break the 4th wall and posits, “aren’t dinosaurs cool enough?” or something to that effect.
Unending plot-holes aside, I certainly struggled with the characters and the way their back stories didn't hold water. Why is it that Bryce Dallas Howard’s lead can wrangle her way to the top of the corporate totem pole at the world’s largest entertainment installation and deftly handle the whims of an eccentric billionaire, but the first sign of trouble with the systems she oversees and her character just melts!?! Don’t get me started on the heels – although she did rock them.
Anyway, I’m just a humble travel agent, what do I know about films, right?
Back to the ride, what do we know?
Well, not a lot.
Closing today, the ride is expected to be re-branded and rebooted, much like the franchise has been during the past couple of years. There is some discussion on excavation and a quick turn-around, maybe as little as 9 months.
Universal has suggested the ride will reopen in 2019, giving them a bit of leeway in terms of duration of renovations, but an end date operation of up to 15 months if we're simply looking at the calendar.
What are they digging up in Hollywood?
A lot can be achieved in 15 months, don’t get me wrong, but remember that the original ride was in planning during the shooting of Jurassic Park – the film came out a full 3 years before the ride was operational.
With excavations suspected and a great improvement in movie effects and robotics having occurred since the late 90s, I’m hoping the ride takes on a few exciting enhancements and stays true to its animatronic roots. What could they be excavating? Perhaps a longer, more meandering path? What about a deeper pool, allowing larger vessels or a somehow longer drop?
What I’m desperately afraid of, is the need for modular technology in park entertainment. If you’ve visited more than a couple times during the last few decades, you might have noticed some re-invigoration of theme park rides at Universal properties and elsewhere that should have you wondering what future attractions might entail.
For example, The Simpsons ride is apparently a re-use of the Back to the Future ride's structure and mechanical elements, with a fun story line taking place on simulator-like carts. I find the video screen aspect to be more overwhelming and somewhat less fun than actual motion, especially when the wind-rushing-through-my-hair feeling is removed.
Is the future just VR in a park?
I get it, big rides are expensive and require a lot of maintenance. But they’re incredibly hard to beat! You’ll never grow tired of the thrill of a roller-coaster. There's something divine in that end-of the day luxury, when your coaster pulls into the station and there isn't anyone waiting to get on... the operator screams in their microphone, "one more time???" and you fly off for an equally thrilling 2.5 minutes of twisting bliss.
Can you imagine finishing up on a story-based attraction and wanting to hear those same words more than once every year?
Last year’s addition of the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, for example. The building is very novel and includes some great memorabilia, keeping waiting patrons entertained while they queue up for their turn. But the thrills of the ride itself are, I feel, so intrinsically tied to the story that you wouldn’t be entertained on your third or fourth lap. By comparison, getting blasted off the end of The Hulk via Gauss effect will never get old!
I applaud the novel approach and the way materials are preserved, it is surely better for the environment. But as more and more rides become somewhat virtual experiences, twinned with the incredible technology available at home already and slated for mainstream audiences during the next few years, at what point does it become more fun to stay at home because the theme park has become a giant video game?
Want real entertainment magic? You need a wand shop
To balance against my fears, I’d argue that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is an undeniable success. I was never a fan of the franchise, the books being a few years behind my demographic and I just couldn’t fall in love with the films – however even I was whisked away in the magic of the town and castle perched at the edge of the park.
Some of the characters and story arcs made little sense to me, I’ll probably never actually understand the cultural significance of a Butter Beer, but again, there’s no escaping the fact that Universal made an entire film world pop up out of the ground and gave the whole thing a truly magical feel.
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A real wand shop to help your aspiring little wizard (or adult one, don’t get me wrong) interact with real-world items around the wizarding side of the park. It’s a lot of fun to just watch the children trying to get the correct wave of a stick to make stuff fly around the shop fronts on the streets outside of Hogsmeade.
Of course rides without the virtual touch also undergo change, the Dueling Dragons ride of the late 90s became the Dragon Challenge of the Wizarding World as part of the effort to bring Harry’s universe to life. Probably more a lick of paint for the actual coasters, the area surrounding the ride got an incredible makeover and now feels a bit more appropriately placed within the Potter fantasy.
Reign of Kong does it right
Universal's Island of Adventure also features a rather unique sort of hybrid in the two platforms, the Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride does features a narrative, heavy on plot but not without excitement.
It is however presented with a somewhat novel series of screen projections and other imagery tricks which blend well in the format.
The exterior of the attraction area is also well presented, with a rather cool scrapbook-like feature at the outermost extremities that really do make it look like you’re staring off into a misty, mountainous vista. The visual effect is lost in photography, you have to see it with your own eyes.
Classic Jurassic or New World Order?
When it comes to Jurassic World, it is again unclear if there are plans for the Orlando park or other international destinations, perhaps we’ll have to do as Comcast does and wait and see if there’s success in Hollywood. I read that the original Jurassic Park attraction cost Universal some $110 million. Wow!
One way or another, there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in the world of travel and some huge investment in the future successes of theme parks.
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