Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Modern Day Theme Parks: Where's the Character and the Class?

When I saw J.J. Abrams's Super 8 on Friday, I was excited to see the Amblin Entertainment logo in front of the credits. I'm sure you know the image of Steven Spielberg's production company (or would know it if you saw it - picture provided after the jump): it's the silhouette of that lovable little alien, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, riding in the basket of Elliot's bicycle as they fly in front of the moon. I was never all that attached to the movie itself, but a Spielberg production is always deemed exciting and relevant by the entertainment industry. Plus, it seemed extra relevant for me, because I had plans to visit Universal Studios: Hollywood - where the offices of Amblin are located - the very next day!

But my excitement was quickly replaced by a pang of nostalgic despair. Amblin's offices and the odd souvenir doll are now all that remains of the E.T. tradition at Universal, as the former dark ride bearing its name, E.T. Aventure, shuttered in 2003 to make way for Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride. Wow, talk about backing the wrong franchise. That would be like if Disneyland replaced Star Tours with Avatar: Pandora's Pride. (In fact, Star Tours was just given a recent 3D update, so the comparisons to Avatar are not that far off.)

E.T. Adventure was not an amazing ride, by any means. It didn't have breathtaking visuals or gut-wrenching drops and turns. But it did have character (such as when your multi-person bicycle turns into a spaceship to take you to E.T.'s home planet) and class (such as when an animatronic E.T. personally says goodbye to each and every person on the ride before you disembark). However, progress is progress, and I suppose it's the natural order of things for class and character to gradually give way to thrills and chills. And it's my feeling that the changing layout of the Universal Studios theme park - as well as the evolving slate of Universal's films - reflects that.

The ride that replaced E.T. Adventure is certainly thrilling: after setting you in a line resembling the archaeological/adventurous aspects of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, Revenge of the Mummy plunges you into a series of pitch-black roller coaster twists and turns, before sending you through a different track backwards! It's a well-constructed experience... but the problem is that the whole thing lasts approximately 30 seconds. Not classy at all...

It's also no more relevant than E.T., even after all these years (especially considering that E.T. was basically remade with a Cloverfield flavor in Super 8). Revenge of the Mummy opened its doors in 2003, two years after The Mummy Returns and five years before the ill-advised Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Now I know Universal has a rich history of monster movies, having produced no fewer than nine Mummy-related titles dating all the way back to 1932, but the ride definitely doesn't have a retro feel. Speaking of Universal's monster history, the House of Horrors haunted attraction does a good job of taking visitors on a tour of Universal's horror film tradition (with re-creations of sets from various Dracula, Mummy, Chucky, and Frankenstein movies), while also scaring their collective pants off. We walked through at the end of the day, after about half the "scareactors" had already gone home - imagine how frightening it would have been before lunch!

I understand replacing the Back to the Future ride with The Simpsons Ride to coincide with the release of 2007's The Simpsons Movie, especially because the show is still running (somehow) - although I do object to the weird "Treehouse of Horror VI" 3D rendering used in the ride cinematics. Also it doesn't leave quite as bad a taste in my mouth because I like the KrustyLand layout, and the format of the ride itself was left pretty much unchanged.

The King Kong: 360 3-D addition to the backlot tour was as good a replacement for the original King Kong Encounter as could be hoped for following its destruction in a 2008 fire. It was pretty sweet to be surrounded by two 187 ft. by 40 ft. screens, each broadcasting glorious 3D footage of King Kong battling a flock of T-Rexes on either side of the tram. I was frankly surprised at the level of excitement of Peter Jackson's involvement with the ride following the general lack of excitement of Peter Jackson's involvement with the film... but it was fun and impressive nonetheless.

Going through the backlot tour and seeing reminders of such iconic movies such as Psycho, Jaws, and The Sting juxtaposed with sets from Desperate Housewives, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (/shudder... I thought they'd want to do anything but remind people about that movie's existence, but I guess there's nothing else to be done with all the styrofoam it took to create Whoville) made me think of how drastically the movie landscape has changed over the years. Listening to John Williams's score while waiting in line for the Jurassic Park ride while looking up at giant posters for Bridesmaids and Larry Crowne made me realize how much class and character can be overlooked even in the span of just under a decade. And now I hear that the Backdraft attraction closed last year to be replaced by an upcoming Transformers ride? I'd be hard pressed to say that either of those movies has much class, but one is the clear frontrunner in terms of character.

So if you're ever in LA, I suggest considering a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood. It's fun to get a tour of a working movie studio, even if it's been dressed up and touristified almost beyond recognition. Just try to get a Southern California resident to buy your ticket so you can get a discount... cuz whatever they have to offer sure ain't worth the full price of admission.