Not Your Average Tourist
An Attraction Designer Explores
Universal Studios Islands of Adventure;
by Adam M. Berger, ITEC Productions
This article originally appeared in ATTRACTIONS MANAGEMENT magazine and is re-printed here by permission. Visit the magazine on-line at: http://www.leisuremedia.co.uk
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to enjoy a theme park the way an average tourist does. As a designer and writer for the Orlando, Florida-based themed design company ITEC Productions, I inevitably find myself searching for storylines, mythic archetypes, psychological subtexts, emotional triggers, and other ingredients that shape (often subconsciously) the guest experience. That’s why I get excited whenever I get to visit the newly opened Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, adjacent to the established Universal Studios Florida theme park.
There’s something wonderfully eclectic about the way that Islands of Adventure is laid out, with its different themed areas surrounding an “Inland Sea” and linked to one another by bridges. From the water’s edge, I can see all five islands: Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing. Each island seems unrelated to its neighbors and the transitions between them are abrupt. Yet the arrangement is not as disjointed as it may seem at first glance.
The Call to Adventure
What unifies the five themed islands of USIOA is a sixth themed zone: the park’s aptly named Port of Entry, a bustling thoroughfare lined with retail shops and food & beverage venues through which guests must pass as they enter and exit the park. The architecture is a timeless blend of African, Asian-Pacific, and European motifs, and the atmosphere pulses to the entrancing sounds of a gamelan orchestra mixed with tropical birdcalls.
More than the USIOA equivalent of Disney’s Main Street USA, Port of Entry provides a vital prologue to the rest of the park experience. This is where intrepid explorers prepare for their forthcoming expeditions. The theme is conveyed most dramatically in the form of an ancient-looking 130-foot (39.5-meter) stone lighthouse that towers over the streetscape.
Supporting details abound: a sign listing prices for stroller and wheelchair rentals also lists the rental fees for dirigibles, rocket cars, and even a time machine; the voices of a pair of bickering convicts are overheard emanating from behind the heavy wooden door of the port “hoosegow”; the walls inside the Confisco Grille restaurant are crowded with props from all five islands, evidently confiscated from returning voyagers who foolishly attempted to smuggle them past Customs. It seems there’s a story around every corner here (and, I learn, all through USIOA). In them, I discern the mythic “call to adventure” with which every classic hero’s journey begins.
Zap! Blam! Krunch!
Crossing the bridge from Port of Entry, the exotic façades give way to the futuristic comic book architecture of Marvel Super Hero Island. The landmarks here are menacingly technological, with the spindly 200-foot (61-meter) twin towers of Doctor Doom’s Fearfall and the bright green Incredible Hulk Coaster visible from nearly every spot along the perimeter of the Inland Sea. Oversized cutouts of Marvel super heroes adorn the isle’s stylized building façades, which are labeled simply “Store,” “Diner,” “Arcade.” Even the background music offers wry flashes of wit; entering one shop, I laugh as I recognize Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” playing over the store speakers.
The premise for the Incredible Hulk Coaster, like many of USIOA’s top thrill rides, can be summed up, psychologically, as “the runaway id,” with passengers subjected to the primal emotions that torment the raging green Hulk. Catapulted from zero to 40 miles per hour (64 kph) in two seconds flat and hurtling through the ride’s seven inversions, I find that premise reinforced with gut-wrenching efficiency.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, meanwhile, sets a new standard for dark rides, combining rapidly moving motion-base vehicles, dimensional sets, 70-mm 3-D film projection, digital surround audio, live pyrotechnics, and dozens of special effects. Spider-Man is, quite simply, one of the most enthralling theme park experiences I have ever encountered. It’s not just me; throughout USIOA, I overhear visitors and employees rhapsodizing about the ride.
Name That Toon
Crossing the next bridge, I find an island inspired not by comic book super heroes but by comic strips and classic cartoon characters from Rocky & Bullwinkle to Betty Boop. The droopy-looking façades of Toon Lagoon are rendered in bright primary colors while cheerful cartoon-style music lilts through the air, punctuated by silly sound effects.
Looking around, I’m impressed at how successfully the designers have translated familiar two-dimensional characters and settings into three-dimensional environments. Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges (a white-water rafting ride) and Me Ship The Olive (a Popeye-themed children’s play area) both capture their characters’ original appeal. But Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls truly outdoes itself. Set in Canada’s Yukon, the flume ride takes place among man-made waterfalls, snow-capped forced-perspective mountains, and real, live evergreen trees. A series of slapstick scenes culminates in a drenching splashdown featuring an exploding ammo shack that magically repairs itself after each detonation.
The mood shifts abruptly as I pass through the massive, torch-lit gates of Jurassic Park, where the walkways bear the imprints of “fossilized” plants. Beyond the prehistoric-looking vegetation lining the path, I note the ominous shape of a 10,000-volt electrified fence. I can hear dinosaurs growling and stomping about, just out of view, as trees and branches crack beneath their mighty feet. I know it’s not real, but it certainly sounds convincing–and the electrified fence suddenly seems woefully inadequate.
The island’s architecture is closely based on the hit 1993 movie–especially the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, which houses a restaurant and a kid-friendly interactive exhibit worthy of any science center. Other highlights include Camp Jurassic (a prehistoric playground) and Triceratops Encounter, where I’m invited to pet a life-size animatronic dinosaur that realistically blinks, growls, snorts, and amazingly.well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
The highlight of the island is the Jurassic Park River Adventure. It begins as an “ordinary” dinosaur sightseeing excursion, but becomes a harrowing ordeal when our raft makes an unscheduled detour through a “backstage” area overrun by ravenous velociraptors and a rampaging T-rex. Again, the psychological theme of the “runaway id” is put to outstanding use, climaxing in a hair-raising eight-story plunge through total darkness that ends with a monster splashdown.
Mythic themes and archetypes are a recurring subtext throughout the park, but they finally take the spotlight within the three stunningly detailed sections of The Lost Continent.
The must-see/must-do attraction in the Celtic-themed area is Dueling Dragons, a suspended coaster that sends passengers hurtling at 60 mph (97 kph) through multiple inversions aboard twin trains running on separate tracks. Thrice during the ride, the two vehicles briefly, terrifyingly, swoop within inches of each other. The ride is thrilling, but I’m equally impressed by its spooky pre-show/queue, which winds through the bowels of a devastated castle–a masterpiece of lighting, audio, and scenic design.
Nearby, in an Arabian Nights-inspired area, the big draw is The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, a live stunt show brimming with swashbuckling action and pyrotechnic effects. Outside the theater, a sarcastic talking fountain heckles me as I pass and then soaks me with a well-aimed jet of water, much to the amusement of onlookers.
Mediterranean-style ruins dominate the third section, which appears to have recently risen, Atlantis-like, from the ocean depths. This is the home of Poseidon’s Fury: Escape from the Lost City, a special effects extravaganza centering on an epic battle between rival gods Zeus and Poseidon. Though the illusions are quite effective, the talented live actor who serves as our guide ends up stealing the show.
Grinches and Sneeches and Whos, Oh My!
Zeus yields to Seuss as I reach the last island on the tour, Seuss Landing. Dr. Seuss’ fanciful freeform drawings are here transformed into life-size structures and vehicles with astounding fidelity. Even the live trees look as though they have sprung straight from one of his beloved storybooks. The island is awhirl with motion and color, exemplified by the Caro-Seuss-el, a merry-go-round with whimsical Seussian creatures for mounts.
Nearby, a huge red-and-white striped hat marks the entrance to The Cat in the Hat ride, which sends me twirling through a series of anarchic scenes aboard an overstuffed couch. Again, I recognize the theme of the “runaway id,” embodied by the ride’s namesake feline. But this time the id character is countered by a reprimanding ego figure (an exasperated pet fish). The resulting confrontation is hilarious. Adding to my enjoyment is the knowledge that ITEC Productions provided the attraction’s sophisticated ride and show control technology. (In fact, ITEC designed, fabricated, installed, and programmed the control systems for eleven of USIOA’s top attractions and also created the Parkwide Attraction Monitoring System that enables USIOA’s managers to view the status of all the park’s attractions in real time.)
Other Seuss Landing attractions include One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and If I Ran The Zoo, both of which have strong interactive elements. And at the Green Eggs and Ham Café, you can get a breakfast sandwich made from–you guessed it–green eggs and ham. I find it tasty, yes I do, and if you try it, you will too!
Which brings me to another observation: the quality of the food through much of USIOA is surprisingly good–far better than “typical” theme park fare. Standout restaurants include The Enchanted Oak Tavern (on The Lost Continent), Thunder Falls Terrace (in Jurassic Park), and Port of Entry’s Confisco Grille. USIOA’s operators have clearly recognized that taste and smell are vital parts of the total guest experience. It is such attention to every aspect of the guest experience that makes Islands of Adventure a benchmark theme park–one that attraction designers like me will be studying for years to come.
The lighthouse at the park entrance serves not only as an icon, but also alerts guests to the themes of adventure and exploration beyond the entry gates.
Threshold Crossing: The inscription on this bridge at the front of Port of Entry forthrightly announces the beginning of the mythic hero’s journey.
Animated features integrated into the fanciful architecture add visual interest to Port of Entry and intensify the illusion of having entered an “other world” environment.
Every Port of Entry building tells a story. Here at the port “hoosegow,” severed prison bars and a makeshift bed sheet “rope” provide humorous evidence of a recent jailbreak.
Singed plaster and a hastily made sign on this Port of Entry façade simply and humorously tell the story of a less-than-competent fire brigade. Such attention to detail adds to the richness of the guest experience.
Even a stroller & wheelchair rental sign gets a thematic treatment at Port of Entry. Every element contributes to the “other world” illusion.
Larger-than-life character cutouts adorn the generically futuristic cityscape of Super Hero Island. The designers rely on the guests’ media literacy, correctly assuming that observant visitors will “get” the island’s many visual jokes.
Spider-Man hangs above guests entering the (forced perspective) hi-rise headquarters of The Daily Bugle, home of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. High-tech thrills take center stage inside, but here on the façade, it all comes down to Spidey’s powerful brand equity.
Fun photo op: Guests love to pose for snapshots aboard the Fantastic Four’s vehicle on Super Hero Island-a simple, yet effective way to get gues
ts, literally, into the theme.
At Toon Lagoon, 2-D comics are very effectively translated into three-dimensional icons.
Root canal: Real and artificial landscape elements blend seamlessly at Camp Jurassic in the Jurassic Park section.
An elaborate “park ranger station” console in the Triceratops Encounter queue (Jurassic Park) adds a touch of
seeming authenticity to the experience while contributing to the atmosphere (oh, yeah-it also gives waiting guests something interesting to look at).
Guests can traverse the Inland Sea aboard one of the fanciful watercraft that appear to be cobbled together from several old boats and aeroplanes, projecting Port of Entry’s mix-&-match architectural motif beyond that zone’s physical boundaries.
Fantastic natural and man-made shapes mingle and merge in the Celtic section of The Lost Continent, effectively blurring the boundary between the imaginary and historic/”real” worlds.
Highly detailed architecture and landscaping give this Arabian marketplace on The Lost Continent a sense of magical verisimilitude
Rockwork with character: Faces in the stone façade of Mythos Restaurant on The Lost Continent contribute to the totality of the fantasy environment, while evoking a sense of mythic grandeur.
No attempt is made to create a gradual visual transition between the various islands at USIOA. One moment you’re on a bridge on The Lost Continent, the next moment-BAM!-you’re stepping onto Seuss Landing. It’s abrupt, but it works (the shift in background music helps a lot).
Brand identity as themed icon: Even without the entrance sign, media-literate Seuss Landing guests cannot possibly mistake what awaits them beneath this giant hat. Even young children “get it” instantly.
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Adam M. Berger is a designer and writer with the international entertainment and attraction design company ITEC Productions (Theme Park Design), a division of ITEC Entertainment Corporation, based in Orlando, Florida