Thursday, May 22, 2008

requiem for a flux capacitor

Universal Studios Hollywood has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a small child, my parents would take me to the theme park to play on "Fievel's Playground" where I could slide down a giant banana peel or crawl around on oversized thread spools. In high school, my dad and I would take our annual passes to the park every day after school and ride the studio tram tour at dusk, usually in Spanish or Japanese. In the fall, the hillside deer walk up to the trams curiously, which is such a lovely way to relax after the King Kong and Jaws attacks.

My strongest memories of USH take place in stationary bicycles and DeLoreans. As a roller-coaster pansy to this day, the gentle swooshes of the E.T. ride and the mild jostles of the Back to the Future ride were always just the right amount of thrill for me to handle. It was always such a treat to walk through the fake-pine-scented forest, sit in the middle of the front row of E.T., just behind the fake light-up creature that would pop up intermittently, and then hear his robotic voice read off my fake name (Julio) at the end of the ride. Even more than that, I feared that evil Biff would win in the end, so I sat in that DeLorean time machine through volcanoes, T-Rex snack attacks, and horrible puns, knowing that I had lifelong crush Michael J. Fox by my side.

When the E.T. ride left, I was mildly upset, but the Mummy ride coming in to replace it promised to be as exciting as the recent Jurassic Park addition (and even the T2:3D show), which I was by then old enough to appreciate. In fact, the Mummy ride is currently my favorite ride at the park, and whenever I'm on my lunch break from work I do what I can to ride it a few times before I have to be back to the office. But when they got rid of Back to the Future, it hit me pretty hard. I wish I had the opportunity to ride it one more time, but I can understand why it's no longer fresh enough to be such a big attraction.

The Simpsons Ride opened to the public this past Saturday in its place, and I made the time to ride it yesterday. The design of the place is incredible. A garish cross-section of the Krustyland amusement park (with a gift shop that combines stylistic elements of a Kwik-E-Mart and the The Android's Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop), there are interesting things to see at every turn. Disappointingly, there is no "single rider" line as the Mummy and JP rides have, so the 50 minute wait was pretty lonely. However, the artwork and entertainment in the lines and holding areas of the ride are very impressive. TV screens that once played uber-'80s clips of Doc and Einstein and oh so many hijinks have been replaced by hi-def widescreens playing segments of the sixth season "Itchy & Scratchy Land" episode, interspersed with commercials from throughout the series (Canyonero, The Juice Loosener), and new clips of the world's favorite family at Krustyland made specifically for the ride. There is a brief segment joking about Doc Brown, the Institute of Future Technology, and Professor Frink, which I appreciated. The walls are painted with posters advertising different rides and exhibitions, giving us a taste of things to come.

The basic set-up of the ride is exactly the same as it was for Back to the Future. The building seems to have been only refurbished and repainted, as the blueprint of the place felt unchanged. Instead of hapless crash test dummies in the safety video, it's Itchy and Scratchy pretty much mimicking their movements. Even in the car, I felt like so little had been changed that I could expect to see McFly and friends, but once the visuals began, I was in awe. Also, among the Krustyland and Springfield locales there is another nice throwbac to BttF, as the Hill Valley town square makes a brief appearance!

According to the Inside NBCU internal website article about the ride, the image is twice as hi-def as a digital movie theater screen, and the projection is a 90 ft. diameter dome. I was craning my neck all over the place to try to take in as much as I could, but I don't think I'll appreciate all of the details of the animation for another 5 or 10 more rides. There are a couple of integrated water effects (de rigeur for all USH rides now, it seems), and the motion simulation is about as advanced as motion simulation has ever been. But if I'd been standing still and bone-dry, I think I still would have been staring open-mouthed at the scenes flying past me. Using 3-D animation technology which blew me away in the Homer³ segment of seventh season episode "Treehouse of Horror VI," the Simpsons artists have really outdone themselves this time. I can't wait til the lines speed up and I can ride it a few times in a row to get the full effect.

Upshot: One downside is that they take a picture of you and your fellow passengers in the most boring part of the ride, and then charge you $5.00 to email it to yourself. A plus is that the premise for the ride's story is way better than The Simpsons Movie's was.

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