This summer, Universal Studios parks in Hollywood, Orlando, and Japan will simultaneously unveil the interactive movie attraction, Shrek 4-D. Don't be surprised to see a simultaneous opening next summer of the studio parks' first roller coaster.
Universal already has finalized designs and blueprints for an indoor coaster based on its hit Mummy movies, and has dismantled Orlando's once-signature King Kong ride to make room. I've heard the spooky effects-laden ride described as "a cross between Space Mountain and the Indiana Jones Adventure."
As well, a coaster has long been the most requested attraction by guests at the Hollywood park. And, due to the noise restrictions in the neighborhood, it would have to be indoors. A Mummy coaster could be built relatively quickly; Universal Studios-Hollywood (USH) could retrofit Orlando's designs and already has the building picked out: the creaky E.T. Adventure.
"The E.T. ride is really expensive to operate and maintain, and has really fallen apart during the last couple of years, but has been kept open to keep Spielberg happy," says one insider. With the less-than-stellar reception of the 20th anniversary special DVD, it seems the time is right to send E.T. home.
Although the E.T. Adventure is officially budgeted to operate through June 30, 2004, USH is ready to pull the plug immediately if it can get the financing approved.
The insider suspects USH will have to settle with Shrek 4-D as its only major addition until at least 2005. "Uncertainty about future ownership and poor cashflow have really affected the USH park," he said. "All the major decisions come out of the Orlando offices they seem to have a real bias against advertising and spending money at USH. Most of the good office people have left USH in the last year, and Shrek 4-D is being built by mostly non-Universal people Dreamworks (the 15-minute film) and engineers off-the-clock from Disney Imagineering."
If nothing else, says a source at USH, "Shrek 4D will have the most elaborate queue ever built for a ride at Universal Studios-Hollywood. Uh, wait that's not really saying much."
The planned changes are far more extensive and exciting than anything the park has added in eons, particularly during this past Christmas season. For years, USH has been trying to figure out how it can emulate some of the Disneyland Resort's Christmas-time success. USH readily admits that, between the Small World and Haunted Mansion ride overlays and always-elaborate, park-wide decorations, "Disney owns Christmas."
So this year, the creative team at Universal tried to think of which attraction they could temporarily remake, affordably, in a holiday theme. A plastic snowman in front of the Psycho House? The Jurassic Park dinosaurs chomping on elves? Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work. Still, they wanted to do something.
They ended up with "Santa Kong." They put a Santa hat on the giant animatronic King Kong that appears during the Tram Tour, and added Christmas decorations to the city facades he terrorizes. Instead of roaring at passing trams, Kong growled, "Ho, Ho, Ho!"
As one tram driver explained, "It probably cost Universal $50 for the decorations at the 99 Cent Only Store on Lankersham in Universal City."
Soon after removing the decorations, USH also made changes at the ticket booths. The day after Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure (DCA) raised their admission price $2 to $47, Universal painted new signs to match the price and attached the signs to ticket offices five days later. As one onlooker commented, "Probably the only certainty in the Southern California theme park business over the years is USH matching Disneyland on prices within a week of any changes."
For local residents, Universal is continuing its "buy a full-fare, one-day ticket and get a full-year" pass.
Slightly more successful was the recent appearance of USH employee Brad Demoss as a contestant on Pax TV's The Weakest Link. The actor, who is said to "interview for every game show there is," plays the face character Doc Brown of Back to the Future fame. Although he looks little like Christopher Lloyd, even in costume, he's renowned for his outstanding guest relations skills and encyclopedic knowledge of the Back to the Future trilogy.
During the January 21 telecast, Demoss got the chance to do his Doc Brown voice, chiding a fellow contestant for thinking FDR was on Mount Rushmore. Naturally, his impression was promptly criticized by the show's sharp-tongued host. Later, a fellow contestant also took a jab at Demoss after she was voted off the show, incredulous that he would appear on national television "without ironing his shirt." Alas, Demoss was voted off after the next round.
At Disneyland, rehab work continues park-wide. The 18-month overhaul of the Carrousel seems finally to be heading into the home stretch. One employee reported: "Many of the major components have been put in. The lights were tested last week, and horses are to be put back in next week or so. Then, there will be the tests."
For the first time in 10 years, Disney drained Frontierland's Rivers of America. "The rehab started without a hitch," said a cast member. "To the surprise of many, catfish and carp were found still alive in that toxic sump when it was drained. It is reported that items collected from the bottom were the expected: pagers, cellphones, glasses. The most unusual items found were a toaster and a bowling ball!"
The only hitch was the discovery of a quasi-"quicksand pit" near the Friendly Indian Village. The combination of water, sand, mud, and leaves created a trap that allegedly snared three unsuspecting cast members. All were rescued, but jokesters wondered who or what else may have gotten caught over the years, never to reappear. "A trap?" quipped one cast member. "I thought you were talking about DCA for a second."
Plans to replace Disneyland's Monorails continue to suffer from budget cuts. At last check, at most two new trains will be added and the existing fleet refurbished. Don't hold your breath.
At Walt Disney World, one by one, the Monorail fleet has begun undergoing upgrades to the vehicle monitors. The first, Monorail Yellow, is currently in the shop and will be ready by the end of February.
Now, each Monorail pilot will have a "smart card" that must be swiped across the console to drive the train to the next station. Since the new procedure may prove tedious, cast members may be allowed to wear their cards on a lanyard.
Despite the hassle, operators are excited about the increased operational, safety and security features. The multi-colored touch screens look similar to those on Disneyland's Monorails, the top of the screen color coordinated to the exterior of each train. Efficiency should be improved since ride operators and maintenance crews will be able to identify any problems more quickly and precisely. If pilots receive a door alert, they pull up a detailed map of the vehicle to pinpoint exactly which panel is causing the hold-up.
If a special assistance passenger boards, a Mickey Mouse graphic on the screen changes to a blue handicap sign, to alert the driver. Also, when the driver closes the doors, the wheelchair door won't close until the special door button is deactivated.
All the spiels will be automatically triggered by sensors on the track. The spiels can be changed quickly, so special announcements can be easily substituted.
Each station also has three sensors on the track that must be activated in order to open the train's doors. If the vehicle isn't lined up properly, the doors won't open.
The new system also allows management to track vehicle and driver performance. The computer notes who is driving the Monorail, what their status is (such as ride operator, manager or repairman), how long it took the vehicle to cycle from the Transportation Center, and how long it has been in the station.
As the trains circle the track, each time they reach Magic Kingdom or Epcot, the information in the daily log will automatically be downloaded into the computer for the Shop. In time, Disney hopes to install a direct link, so the Shop can send messages to the drivers.
Don't expect Epcot's newest attraction, Mission:Space, to open any time soon. Imagineering had hoped to open the thrill ride this spring, but construction has fallen behind schedule (although apparently not "Test Track-level" behind schedule). The new target date for soft openings is late summer (end of August) at the absolute earliest.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.