April 13, 2013 – Terminator 2:3D. Back to the Future: The Ride. Backdraft. What do these three classic Universal attractions have in common?
They’ve all been replaced.
Back to the Future transitioned to the Simpsons, Backdraft (along with the original Special Effects Stages) made way for Transformers and Terminator is currently in the midst of transitioning to Universal’s newest addition: Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.
Backlash – as you might have expected – ensued from the Universal-theme park community (well, perhaps not for Backdraft, but keep playing along). Three classic Universal attractions had been replaced by newer, and arguably more hip franchises and Universal fans were none-too-pleased.
Even more troubling: the trend of non-Universal films becoming the source for new, major e-ticket attractions at Universal parks. Just look at Universal Studios Hollywood’s recent additions: Simpsons – from Fox, Transformers/Shrek – from DreamWorks/Paramount, and the soon to be Harry Potter expansion land from Warner Brothers. What happened to the notion of only using Universal-produced films? And more importantly, what happened to Universal Studios?
Well, to be honest? Nothing. Nothing happened to Universal. And that’s the point. The studio became complacent.
In the last decade or so, Universal Studios hasn’t produced a film in the same caliber as Avatar, Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings. In short, the studio wasn’t kicking out the same hits in the same fashion that it did in the 1980s and 1990s. Immersive, bankable films (and more importantly franchises) like Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and E.T. weren’t being produced, and the studio resorted to pumping out a slew of good – if not mediocre – movies. True, we did see some moderate hits like The Mummy, The Fast and the Furious franchise and perhaps even King Kong, but nothing truly relatable to average movie-going individual.
Just think of it. At a quick glance, Box Office Mojo’s list of the world’s highest grossing films lists Universal’s 1993 hit Jurassic Park as the studio’s highest entry – and even that alone comes in at number 20.
Compare that to Fox’s Avatar (2009) at number 1, Disney’s The Avengers (2012) at number 3, and Warner Brother’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) at number 8, and it becomes readily apparent why Universal Studios Hollywood began relying on films beyond its parent studio in the mid-2000s.
Even then, the Universal films that have managed to make their way into the theme park were only added as mini-attractions to the Studio Tour, and the results from that endeavor are uneven at best. King Kong 360 – 3D is often seen as a positive addition that revitalized the park, while the Fast and Furious: Extreme Close-up has become a laughable mess. Dancing cars on sticks – why even bother.
So when it comes to a recent major Universal attraction based off a Universal film, only Despicable Me would have that sole distinction, and the announcement of an attraction based off the hit-film appears to have struck a nerve with Universal-theme park fans. So what gives? Why replace the classics, and why can’t Universal simply expand instead of subtract?
When you disregard the issue of space, the answer’s relatively simple: Universal doesn’t have the luxury of always producing timeless films. I can see the angry emails now, so I’ll try to answer your biggest question: what do I exactly mean by timeless? Aren’t films like Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and E.T. timeless?
But compared to Disney, Universal’s major films (aside from Jurassic Park) haven’t aged relatively well. Could it be because Universal films are perhaps inferior? Absolutely not.
But it could be due to the simple medium of animation, and the fact that Universal hasn’t become a studio that is commonly associated with successful animated films. It also doesn’t help that some films from Universal’s highest-grossing catalog are innately related to an older decade in time – whether that be the 1970s with Jaws, the 1980s with Back to the Future or the 1990s with Jurassic Park. Contrast that with Disney’s Golden Age of Feature Animation and the studio’s ability to encapsulate new audiences using the same set of films from the 1990s. Universal simply doesn’t have that level of engagement from modern day audiences.
See, Disney has the advantage of constantly refining and reintroducing the same set of characters in different, innovative dimensions. Mickey, Donald, Belle, and Cinderella are all animated characters that can be detached from the actors that originally voiced them in their respective feature films, and many characters manage to live for decades on end (just look at Mickey). Not the case with Universal. Characters like Marty and Doc are associated with their respective actors, and as any normal human being, actors age and eventually die.
You can attribute Disney’s success to their controversial release program known as the Disney Vault, but whatever their means – it works. It also helps that the company now owns a wildly successful animation studio that’s become a major pool for potential new theme park attractions alongside their recent acquisition of Marvel. Contrast that with Universal’s botched acquisition of DreamWorks Animation.
But even then, let’s take a look at one of Disney’s major parks and how it takes advantage of this seemingly timeless back-catalog of films. In the case of Magic Kingdom, parts of the theme park still feel worn and outdated – in the midst of Disney’s powerful marketing machine. As our editor Chris Lord has expressed in personal conversation, there are areas within the Magic Kingdom that manage to transport you back to the 1980s.
Nostalgia is great in moderation, but it simply doesn’t work for other parks – and even in the case of Disney, things can start to feel a bit worn.
And therein lies the problem.
In order for Universal Studios Hollywood to remain relevant and competitive, it must constantly battle with the notion that the park is a mass of dated attractions. WaterWorld, Terminator, Back to the Future are all attractions individuals still associate with Universal today despite some of their respective closures. And while fans might see that as a sign of the film’s timeless relevance, most individuals see that as a testament of Universal’s outdated nature. Again, nostalgia is great, but I doubt the general public is willing to pay $80 ride a DeLorean once more, despite what fans may have you believe.
Even with the recent introduction of Transformers, Revenge of the Mummy and the Simpsons, many guests still view Universal Studios Hollywood as the host of the same set of attractions from the 1980s and the 1990s – nothing new, nothing innovative. And unfortunately for many fans, the only means of reversing that stigma is by slowly taking out the old in lieu of the new.
And ss history has proven, Universal has been relentless in their removal of fan-favorite classics, as evidenced by their demolition of Jaws at Universal Studios Florida – one of the few seemingly timeless attractions in Universal’s arsenal in comparison to E.T.
This might be painful for fans, but the alternative – stagnation and complacency – could be even worse (as is the possible case of Magic Kingdom). And as we’ve seen, theme park guests are far less forgiving with it comes to Universal than Disney.
So it boils down to this: you can either have a park that relishes in the past or a park that’s far too ahead in the future. That happy medium between the two is seemingly impossible to reach – especially at a land-strapped park like Universal Studios Hollywood – so the choice is yours.
But there comes a time when the future is simply inevitable and the past must be left behind. Back to the Future, Backdraft and Terminator – while fantastic films that have spawned magnificent attractions – have become dated, and their revival at Universal Studios Hollywood remains to be seen (if at all) despite fan protests. Fans need to understand this dynamic and accept that fact – as Universal has proven numerous times before.
So as Bob Dylan has mumbled in countless performances before, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Not sure about you, but I’d rather err on the side of being born. And if we take into account Universal’s recent actions, it doesn’t seem like we have a choice.
Supplemental photos provided by Bruce Babcock – thanks Bruce!
Jon Fu is the editor-in-chief of Inside Universal.
Jon originally founded InsideUniversal.net in 2006 as a summer hobby aimed at providing families and fans a resource for all things “Universal Studios Hollywood.” Since then, the website has taken him throughout the United States and around the world – including to places like Universal Orlando Resort, Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Singapore.
Jon currently resides in Santa Cruz, California with his bamboo plant. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.