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8/21/2008

The Arts

ATTRACTIONS RUMORS
From the Obamabot to Harry Potter's dark ride

 

Shortly after Disneyland’s 1955 debut, Walt announced the arrival of “International Street,” erecting a construction wall on Main Street U.S.A. with “peepholes” though which guests glimpsed models of the expansion. The “Grand Opening in 1956” signs slipped to 1957, then 1958, and eventually vanished. The street was never built, but a new spectator sport was born: attraction anticipation. Today the Internet propels this pastime, with dozens of fan sites devoted to divining thrill-ride tea leaves. Expansion is essential in justifying ever-increasing ticket prices, recently raised to $75 at Disney and Universal (though still a better value per hour than a big concert or sporting event). With this attractions rumor roundup, try to fool friends into thinking you’re an industry insider. Keep in mind that all my info comes from publicly available sources like financial filings, patent applications and county construction permits – I wouldn’t want any employees getting fired for violating NDAs.

Walt Disney World

In spite of (or perhaps because of) leading the local market, the Mouse officially has little for fans to look forward to in the near future. The company has yet to announce any new rides to follow up Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ insanely crowded Toy Story Mania; an American Idol–themed karaoke contest opening January 2009 is their next announced attraction. Look instead for refurbishments of old standbys like the Hall of Presidents (closing in November to add an Obamabot or a McCainimatronic), Space Mountain (a year-plus overhaul of the track and effects is rumored for 2009), and Star Tours (long discussed but now confirmed in development by Industrial Light & Magic’s Hayden Landis and Anthony “C3P0” Daniels). Farther on the horizon are more Pixar-based attractions and a clone of Disney’s California Adventure’s upcoming Little Mermaid ride.

In the near term, the most noticeable change at Disney will be a dramatic entertainment downgrade. Pleasure Island’s nightclubs, including the Comedy Warehouse and addictively amusing Adventurers Club, will be shuttered in September, and Fantasmic! will be downsized to twice-weekly performances. This may prove devastating to local theaters, whose actors and technicians often rely on Disney dollars to subsidize artistic efforts. Industry-watcher Jim Hill blogged about an ultra-exclusive (and expensive) Night Kingdom park to compete with Discovery Cove, but WDW diehards may have to wait until the resort’s 40th birthday in 2011 for innovations that knock their mouse ears off.

SeaWorld Florida

Next summer, SeaWorld’s entry in the coaster wars is Mantis. Bolliger & Mabillard, designers of Kraken and Hulk, are building a “flying” coaster that will send riders skimming facedown over water at 60 mph. At 140 feet high, it will be slightly smaller than its sister Tatsu in California, but the lush landscaping will compensate. But the real buzz is about the buyout of Anheuser-Busch by Belgian brewer InBev. Analysts anticipate they will spin off the theme parks; the London Daily Telegraph fingers the Blackstone Group (owner of Legoland and the U.K.’s Alton Towers, and an investor in Universal Orlando) as a likely buyer. The best-case scenario for fans of the parks would be a partnership with the Busch family; as an employee of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, I was made acutely aware of August Busch’s personal interest in upholding first-class standards. Hopefully, whoever ends up with the attractions will keep the free beer coming and won’t send the Clydesdales to the glue factory.

Universal Orlando

When General Electric purchased Vivendi in 2004 to create NBC Universal, many predicted a Flip This House fate for the theme parks. Instead, they invested: Form 10-K filings with the SEC disclose $150 million worth of capital expenditures in 2008, with a total of $275 million to $310 million budgeted for recent and upcoming attractions. That includes Universal Studios Orlando’s successful new Simpsons simulator, which will be followed next summer by Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit, the roller coaster code-named “Project Rumble.” Orange County Comptroller permit No. 20080021590 revealed German firm Maurer Söhne as the improbably named ride’s creators, which will run between the Blue Man Group soundstage and the Jimmy Neutron ride. The track will begin with a 167-foot vertical lift (making it the tallest coaster in town) and will feature unique elements like a non-inverted loop, a dive through the Twister firehouse facade and an overhead “crowd surf” near the new Hollywood Bowl–style concert stage (not over CityWalk, as the Sentinel erroneously reported). What it won’t have is any over-the-shoulder restraints; lap bars will suffice to keep riders in their seats. Other advances to the “X-car” ride vehicles include individually selectable soundtracks and built-in cameras, allowing visitors to take home a YouTube–worthy souvenir music video documenting their survival. And based on the load station’s location, look for the ride to be available as an after-hours upcharge for night-owl thrill-seekers.

But the bulk of that quarter-billion is being spent on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This massive reworking of Island of Adventure’s Lost Continent may preview as early as Christmas 2009 and officially will open summer 2010. Work is well underway: The Flying Unicorn coaster is behind construction walls, the gorgeous Enchanted Oak restaurant is rubble, and the massive superstructure of Hogwarts Castle already towers over the rear of Jurassic Park. While the framework indicates an enormous volume, it doesn’t yet approach the height of Cinderella’s Castle; in order to achieve the effect indicated in concept art, I predict guests will enter through “cliffs” at the base of the magical school, with the castle itself mostly a forced-perspective mega-miniature mounted atop the show building. For an idea of what might be inside that enormous space, read U.S. Patent No. 6796908, which describes an interactive Harry Potter dark ride in which tourists use RFID-enabled electronic “magic wands” to “cast spells” that affect the outcome of the attraction. The patent is from Creative Kingdoms’ Denise Chapman Weston and builds on her company’s popular MagiQuest fantasy games, found at Myrtle Beach and in Great Wolf Lodges. The concept predates Universal’s plans, and both parties decline to confirm any partnership; but the cash to be made off selling collectible digital divining rods seems irresistible.

Elsewhere in Potterworld, you’ll find the Three Broomsticks pub-restaurant and other money-spending opportunities, all behind snow-covered Hogsmeade Village facades (crafted by local scenic arts shop Nassal Co.). The Flying Unicorn kiddie-coaster will be re-themed to one of Hagrid’s magical creatures, and Dueling Dragons’ elaborate castle queue will be redecorated (hopefully not destroyed) around a wizarding competition. What’s less certain: the details of “Project Strongarm,” the next-generation “RoboCoaster” that is supposed to be new area’s E-Ticket. After Universal contracted Kuka to attraction exclusivity on their latest robot arm technology, Hill sparked reports of a “flying car” ride based on the Weasleys’ Ford Anglia from the Chamber of Secrets. More recently, American Scenic briefly released (and quickly retracted) designs depicting a benchlike vehicle navigating the Forbidden Forest, an Acromantula nest, the Basilisk’s lair and other environments from the second novel. Fueling speculation, Universal is emphatically reticent on the future of the Sinbad stunt show (rumored site of the project) and official artwork of the development is artfully vague in that area.

While specifics remain under wraps, we can glean something of the two new attractions’ potential by examining patent filings for cutting-edge effects designed by Scott Trowbridge, former head of Universal Creative (recently lured to Disney Imagineering). They include infinitely destructible “transforming scenery” (No. 11457160), a “high-speed punch-through” waterfall (No. 11457160) and a “time-slice multiplex” (No. 11565185) that displays different 3-D images to different viewers on the same screen. I’m most intrigued by the “ride track with motion base” which merges a Mummy-like roller coaster with a Spiderman-style simulator. While none of these ideas are guaranteed to germinate, they show the kind of next-gen engineering being employed.

Universal is expected to leak more information in the coming months, which should only fuel the fanboy fire. To follow the feeding frenzy yourself, go to Screamscape.com and the forums on IOACentral.com, WDWMagic.com and OrlandoUnited.com. Just be sure to bring a large grain of salt with you.

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