Universal Studios Hollywood has unveiled its newest attraction, Fast & Furious – Supercharged! On June 23, VIP guests and members of the media were invited to come to the park and witness the grand opening ceremony and experience the attraction itself; of course, we were there and were very interested to see the latest effort from Universal Creative come roaring to life for theme park guests.
The opening ceremony – parks are starting to refer to them as “moments in time” – took place on the Back Lot of the property, in iconic Courthouse Square. A few hundred people were on hand, including special guests, Universal executives and of course, members of the Universal Creative team that produced Fast & Furious – Supercharged.
Part of the opening was a special red carpet arrival area, which we were not part of. What we’ve found, is that if you opt for a spot on the red carpet, you usually get shafted at events when it comes to a good spot to see the actual opening ceremony take place – so we always stake out a spot for the main event and let others have the frenzy of red carpet arrivals to deal with. Arriving on the red carpet were some of the stars from the Fast & Furious franchise, as well as main players in the new attraction, including Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, and Vin Diesel. Members of the executive team included Ron Meyer, Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal; Larry Kurzweil, President and COO of Universal Studios Hollywood (who arrived in a hot rod in front of the media riser); and of course, Mark Woodbury, President of Universal Creative. The ceremony was also attended by Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, who spoke long and bilingually about the economic benefits Universal’s growth is to the region, congratulating them and publicly backing the park’s unprecedented transformation.
The opening ceremony was produced by Thinkwell, in collaboration with Universal, and it was one of the better “moments in time” that we’ve seen in quite a while – very loud, very flashy and ultimately, it seemed to thrill the crowd of gathered guests with stunts, pyro, and a climatic car jump! Props to our friends at Thinkwell on a job well done!
We opted to broadcast the Fast & Furious – Supercharged opening ceremony live on our Periscope channel; other great sites however, were right there with us shooting the whole thing as well – definitely check out Parks and Cons, Theme Park Review, Park Journey, Theme Park Insider, MiceChat, and Inside Universal, just to name a few – you’ll have Supercharged material coming out of your ears! For those of you who followed along and watched our broadcast live, thanks – we hope you enjoyed it!
Once the opening ceremony was over, media and guests boarded Studio Tour trams that were waiting for us in the Metropolitan Sets portion of the Back Lot, and we headed further into the property to experience Fast & Furious – Supercharged for ourselves.
One of the topics of discussion that I would like to address right away is the presentation of Fast & Furious – Supercharged as a “ride”. The marketing of the attraction certainly presents it as a stand-alone experience and even calls it “a ride”. This is extremely misleading, as it is not a stand-alone ride; it is the new grand finale of the Studio Tour, the trams that take hundreds of guests at a time around the Universal property here in Los Angeles. Fast & Furious – Supercharged is a new experience that is a part of the Studio Tour, just like Jaws, Earthquake, and Kong 360. There are no steel lap bars; hell, the trams don’t even have safety belts. Guests should be aware of this when planning their visit – not to deter anyone from visiting, by any means. People simply should understand what Fast & Furious – Supercharged is, so they can plan accordingly and know where to find it when they arrive. I also don’t think it was the intent of Universal’s marketing to misrepresent the attraction; I honestly think that they simply call it a “ride” out of lack of education from Universal Creative (or input) regarding what type of beast it truly is, and how to go about explaining that in layman’s terms for the general public. Like so many other fan sites, we also echo – this is not a ride, but a major experience that has been added to the world-famous Studio Tour, plussing the hell out of it, and offering a thrilling climax to the tour for guests of all ages to enjoy.
SPOILERS – DISCUSSION REGARDING THE ATTRACTION TO FOLLOW
Since Fast & Furious – Supercharged has just opened, we are going to be careful not to go into many specific details about the experience; that isn’t what we want to do – you should go and see it for yourself as part of your summer theme park rounds. There are however, some things we do want to discuss that are spoilers, so reader beware from this point forward if you want to go into the experience completely spoiler-free.
Guests are introduced to the Fast & Furious – Supercharged story as soon as their tram moves past Wisteria Lane (Colonial Street) by way of one of the hot rods parked suspiciously on the grass next to one of the homes. This sets off an interaction between the live Studio Tour guide and “Tour Security”, which of course, quickly escalates. The narration is pretty clunky and the acting follows suit; this will make some people wince, and others laugh. The introduction of the Fast & Furious story into the tour before the actual attraction is neat, although I would have opted to do it sooner – for instance, it would have been really cool to roll up on the Picture Cars section of the tour and have one of the cars parked there, prompting the tour guide to comment that he/she hasn’t seen that one before – so it must be new. The story could slowly unfold from that point, giving it more opportunity to organically present itself rather than a series of quick video transmissions between Colonial Street and the entrance to the Supercharged attraction; ultimately, the “back story” in this case feels rushed and crammed for time and content. Introduction at the Picture Cars would give it more time and would come after Kong 360, as to not take away that attraction’s thunder.
We’ve only ridden a tram twice through Supercharged as of this writing, so our observation may be incorrect here. However, what we have found thus far, is that the new content that has been created to build up to Supercharged takes place on the tram’s monitors, ultimately forcing guides to bypass any mention of the Whoville set from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Now, the set has been there a long time, and the video clip of the movie as well as the Ron Howard bits that are played are definitely long in the tooth – it’s just odd to ride past such a large set without any mention of it as our eyes are on the monitors inside the tram instead. It’s awkward, and would have been easier to pull off if the Supercharged back story had been injected earlier in the tour; hopefully, this is something that Universal is continuing to tweak.
The show building for Fast & Furious – Supercharged is huge; even bigger than Kong 360. This is because Supercharged is in 3 acts; the first is for guests’ eyes to get used to the dark, the second sets the story/action in motion, and the third delivers the high-intensity portion of the experience.
We love practical sets and effects. In fact, I’d say that most theme park fans these days love practical environments that they can be immersed in, without the use of 3-D glasses or a wall of media. With an IP such as Fast & Furious, the main content of the story features cars and stars doing things that even the most complex show action equipment or animatronic figures simply can’t do over and over, day after day. In the case of Supercharged, Universal Creative employed both mediums – some practical, and a lot of media – to pull this experience off.
Universal Studios Hollywood is a very 3-D-heavy park. Shrek, Despicable Me, Transformers, Kong 360, and now Fast & Furious – Supercharged all feature 3-D media. Next year, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey will join that club, upping the number of 3-D media-rich attractions to 6. That’s a lot for one park. The reality is, with the intellectual properties Universal bases these attractions on, media is generally the best way to approach these experiences, from a design point of view. Let’s face it – even the best show action equipment or most advanced animatronics won’t allow for the type of movement needed to bring something like Fast & Furious to life day after day, year after year. That said, fans of both themed entertainment and movies have made it very clear – increasingly so – that they prefer actual practical sets and immersive environments as opposed to fully digital, which is seen more and more as a creative crutch these days than a specific tool to aid in thematic storytelling. To the credit of Universal Creative, they have mixed both practical and media to bring Fast & Furious – Supercharged to life at Universal Studios Hollywood. As an aside, I suspect more of the same – with perhaps more emphasis on practical – for their Skull Island: Reign of Kong attraction opening next year at Islands of Adventure in Orlando. The tide is turning and creatives are aware that fans want “real” environments at theme parks and in attractions. I really respect that Mark Woodbury and his team at Universal Creative are understanding that and responding to it; in the long run, I honestly don’t think media-based attractions will ever be preferred over good old-fashioned practical dark rides. I truly believe there is nothing more powerful than a richly-themed environment that guests can see, feel, smell, and truly be immersed in when it comes to attraction/themed entertainment design. For me, it’s all about the tangible experience most of the time, even when you have to keep your arms, feet, and legs inside the vehicle at all times.
There is a scrim effect used in “act 2” that is really effective at a very close proximity to the tram. It’s married with a large show action piece (part of a set or a prop that moves) and the overall effect is pretty good. What surprised and impressed us most about this moment, is that each of the tram’s cars gets the same show – large sound/light block “curtains” come down between each vehicle as the sequence begins. This ensures everyone gets a close-up, personal experience and good view of what’s going on. This also means that Universal replicated the scene four times, thus, multiplying the cost substantially so that every guest has a great view. You’ve gotta recognize and applaud that line of thinking; they certainly accrued substantial cost to maintain a high level of show; that’s really great, no matter how you look at it.
The third scene is a straight-up 3-D experience, just like Kong 360. The major problem I have with this sequence is that the screens appear to be substantially shorter in height compared to Kong’s – or they are much further away from the trams, which means that guests sitting on the outside of each row can clearly see the dark space above and below the screen, completely taking them out of the moment. That’s something that really bugs me. On top of that, at the climax of the attraction, we are actually directed by the action to look at the end and top of the screen. Never direct guests’ attention to your Achilles’ heel. Never. If anything, you use effects or action to direct peoples’ eyes away from things like screen edges or awkward building confinements. This is something that cannot and will bot be changed; it’ll always bug me and perplex me why Universal opted to do that rather than stage the climax safely in the center field of vision for all guests.
So, two out of three of the Supercharged scenes are media-based. This means a lot of maintenance is going to be required from here on out – more than they have given Kong 360, which is often blurry, or Transformers, which has suffered from major projection issues over the past year. There’s no way that Vin Diesel (or his reps) will be happy with him being out of focus or tinted green when presented in all of his Fast & Furious glory, you know? No one is going to want blurry stars walking around on the “screen”, so Universal Studios Hollywood is going to have to be all over that from here on out; it’s not a Uni Creative issue anymore – now it’s in the park’s court.
One of the things we did notice as the tram leaves Supercharged, is that guests (at least not the two times we experienced it) don’t seem to lose their minds and cheer the way they do after Kong 360. Now, this could totally be coincidence – or – guests aren’t as wowed by Supercharged because they’ve just experienced Kong as well, so the edge is gone. As themed entertainment designers, one of the golden rules we follow comes from magicians – never show your magic trick twice. It’s quite possible that Kong 360, which is very similar in presentation to Supercharged has taken a great deal of the wow factor away from the new attraction, since it is encountered first on the Studio Tour. It’s hard to tell if that is the case this early in the game, although it wouldn’t surprise me – and if that’s so, it’s a shame. It definitely something that should have been taken into account, however. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the weeks and months to come.
Some people have come away from Fast & Furious – Supercharged underwhelmed for various reasons; others have been raving about it. Everyone will have their own opinions, likes, and dislikes. We found it to be a good plussing of the Studio Tour, which needs a lot of help these days remaining current and relevant. I’m not a Fast & Furious franchise fan at all – but I feel this new ending to the Studio Tour is definitely better than what was there before, and I think that it was a good move for Universal, as there’s certainly someone watching the films, which have now made upward of $4 billion world-wide. Another Fast movie is going into production next year, so the finale of the Studio Tour is going to be relevant and popular for a long time to come.
Congratulations to Universal Studios Hollywood on another successful addition to the park! We look forward to many more future rides with Dom and his crew as we experience Fast & Furious – Supercharged well into the future!
– Rick West