Monday, July 29, 2019

Speculation On Universal Orlando's Epic Announcement



On Thursday, August 1st at 10am Comcast will host a press event at the Orange County Convention Center to announce major news and changes to the Universal Orlando resort. Comcast leadership has not been shy in stating their goals: increasing on site hotel rooms, aggressively expanding the resort, and investing more money than the competition to build out a week long vacation experience.

As with any tight lipped media event and vague promises expectations easily skyrocket to include everything and anything imaginable. I have already seen people say they need to show expanded Nintendo concept art, a hotel, and more. The fandom's anticipation has reached a boiling point where even the loftiest announcements could be met with disappointment. I reject these pie-in-the-sky wishes because they quickly become expectations. Instead I want to take the time to pontificate, based on Universal's own words and actions, on what could be discussed on Thursday.

Disclaimer, this is speculation and should be treated as such.

First, let's start with Alicia's January 2019 leak of Fantastic Worlds documentation and a follow up article about Classic Monsters land. The presentation highlights some general concepts of the land: Super Nintendo World, multiple lands, a hub-and-spoke style design, along with the name Fantastic Worlds. In addition to Alicia's column make sure to read our break down of several rumors of lands coming to Fantastic Worlds.

On August 1st I believe we will be left with more questions than we came into the event with. I do not expect we'll find out every land in the new park let alone the attraction concepts. Parks like Shanghai Disneyland did not show their attractions until closer to opening and Universal Studios Beijing still has not discussed its additions. Islands of Adventure's preview center, opened in 1997, featured general themes and broad attraction concepts without diving into details. Do not come into Thursday expecting details of the third park.

Second, there are a lot of outstanding news items Universal can cover while they have the attention of the media: Halloween Horror Nights 29 announcements, the T2:3D replacement attraction still slated for 2019, entertainment announcements like the Dark Arts at Hogwarts show, and Jurassic World enhancements in IoA for 2021. It would make sense for Universal to include at least one of those announcements in a "current state of the parks" opening overview.

Third, I want to focus on two quotes. One, is this quote from the leaked documents Alicia posted:
"Our major competition in our theme park segment had been [given a] "free ride" due to a lack of aggressive competition in stepping up. Over the next five years Comcast is increasing this competition, through investing [more] in our theme park segment than it spent to acquire Universal."
The other is from the Comcast investment call on July 26th, 2019:
"Just looping back to Parks, which was part of your question, Jessica. We continue to remain very bullish on the Parks business and obviously we're investing in Beijing. We're investing in our domestic parks. We think there is a lot of opportunity down in Orlando. We've built a lot of hotel rooms we will be talking more about investment in the state of Florida and it's now about a third of NBCUniversal's total operating cash flow and we continue to love the business and think it fits very well with our animated movie business and other things that we're doing."
Universal isn't mincing words here: they are investing significant amounts of money into Orlando due to Disney's Blue Ocean strategy of My Disney Experience/FastPass+/MagicBands over rides. Universal sees their position as weak competition now flush with guests and cash that can take advantage of their unique position. Disney's weaknesses are complicated planning, poor value, and, up until recently, a lack of new attractions comparative to attendance. Universal so far has attacked at those weaknesses: a focus on relaxation over reservations, on site room deals and ticket promotions, and yearly major additions.

I speculate Universal Orlando will now move to chip away or remove the last remaining pillars of Walt Disney World's lock on the market. Now, I know Universal will never, ever, be able to compete with the animation and movie history Disney now has. Nor will it compete with Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, World Showcase, or Animal Kingdom. Nor the decades of Disneyana fandoms and preserved history. All of these are nearly impossible to hurdle and core pillars of Disney fandom.

Instead Disney has set up several monumental programs and infrastructure in place that keep guests returning and locked in. The primary of those programs is Magical Express, the "free" bus transportation from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Walt Disney World resorts (in 2013 over 2 million guests rode the Magical Express). By removing the cost of transportation on the ground from the equation guests are more likely not to spring for a rental car, taxi, or Uber to explore the rest of Orlando. 

Walt Disney said it best, Walt Disney World has "a blessing of size". Large resorts, entertainment districts, and the ability to build custom facilities was not available to the landlocked Universal Orlando property. Look at what WDW built so far this year: conference space, convention hotels, and transportation infrastructure. While Royal Pacific does offer some convention space it is severely limited compared to WDW's.

With the new land acquired Universal can expand the resort but they're in a unique location to form partnerships in the community. As speculated on Inside Universal a large part of the announcement could focus on Universal partnering with the Orange County Convention Center, local hotels, and one of the major rail projects to drive attendance to the resort. Partnering with the OCCC can bring in over 1.4 million guests as part of Universal hotel/park packages. Working with local hotels will let Universal focus on their new park and premier resort while the vast majority of accommodations will be handled by others (with that likely being reduced as more Universal hotels are opened).

The bigger news would be partnering with an in development Orlando rail line to transport guests from Orlando International to the parks. Over 44 million guests fly through MCO yearly with over 2 million of those using Magical Express, by offering an alternative low cost or free transportation solution to Universal would dislodge Disney's hold on large chunks of the market.

So, what will be announced? At this point here's what's likely:

  • New Universal theme park
  • Overview of the park
  • Partners with local businesses, OCCC, and rail
  • Vision statement
Here's what I'd bet a beer on but am not sure about:
  • Updates on the state of the resort including Bourne announcement
  • Hotel updates, focus on Endless Summer
What I'm betting won't be covered:
  • Halloween Horror Nights 29 announcement
  • Jurassic World coaster or Jurassic Park land overhaul
  • Other attraction projects for USF and IOA
We will know all this by lunch time on Thursday, August 1st. We will be recording a special emergency podcast that evening to cover all the news, so stay tuned for that on Friday, August 2nd.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Parkscope Unprofessional Podcast Hour #176 - Hug Box



Joe, Alan, and Alex discuss all the upcoming coaster announcements around North America, Ghostbusters at Halloween Horror Nights 29, and our time at ACE's KennyKon at Kennywood!

Universal Orlando Hosting August 1st Press Conference on Future of Florida Property

Invitations are extended to select media members for a press conference on August 1st, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. 

While the invite only says it'll cover the future of the Florida property several hints have been released that this will be "the big one": all unannounced projects for 2019-2021 and the reveal of their southern property plans, tentatively called Fantastic Worlds. During July 25th's investment call Comcast leadership hinted at major Florida news soon, old school insider HateToFly hinted at "fantastic" news during that week, and some birdies have whispered in our own ear.

With a focus on the future of Florida we imagine the following projects will be announced or giving updates on:

  • Halloween Horror Nights 29 announcements (Us, Rob Zombie, etc)
  • Jason Bourne show replacing T2 (2019)
  • Endless Summer - Dock Side (opening 2020)
  • New entertainment offerings (2020)
  • Jurassic World upgrades and new coaster (2021)
  • Fantastic Worlds (2023)
For more information on our predictions for Fantastic Worlds check out our article from 2018.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Friday, July 12, 2019

Immersive Irony Experience Theme Park Podcast - Mystery Lodge Memorial Edition



Hagrid opens, Alex goes to the Toronto area and a bunch of parks, Alan goes to New England to ride stuff, HoliWood Nights report, and a live epilogue from In The Loop's FreERT event.

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Conversation and Verbose Thoughts on Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure

Hagrid. It's open(?). There's a lot out there and I have not seen anything that really covers my thoughts or explains things well so here I am writing about my experiences and thoughts on this new coaster. This is way less polished and formal than my usual writing, this is done conversationally based on my discussions with other people.


Photo courtesy Inside Universal

History

In the beginning…. Universal created Islands of Adventure. Opened in 1999, Islands of Adventure combined highly themed lands with cutting edge thrills. Located in The Lost Continent was Dueling Dragons, a ground breaking dueling inverted B&M coaster. Utterly unique in the world of roller coasters, two unique tracks would battle: the fire dragon and the ice dragon.

Ten years later the attraction received an overhaul to fit the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme as Dragon Challenge. No longer two dragons battling it out in a remote castle, the new story focused on the Tri-Wizards cup from Goblet of Fire. Soon after the retheme a guest’s pocket change hit guests on the opposing ride vehicle. The dueling aspect of the attraction was removed and its days were numbered.



Photo courtesy Inside Universal.
In 2017 Universal announced Dragon Challenge would close for a new highly themed Wizarding World roller coaster. Since then we have seen constant construction updates from eye-in-the-sky Bioreconstruct, insider info from Alicia Stella, and sass from Derek Burgan. Now 21 months later Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is open for guests.

We visited opening weekend to ride, see the resort, and have a quick escape from the insanity of real life. Yes, we woke up ungodly early, waited in long lines, and got stuck on ride, but we also had a blast. This article is in supplement to my first impressions posted on Touring Plans

Queue


If you payed attention to theme park social media in mid-June you would have heard and seen the lines for Hagrid. The attraction's queue stretched from Hogsmeade, into Lost Continent, through Seuss, and into Port of Entry. Wait times to ride hovered around three to six hours to ride, shifting based on weather and the temper mentality of the ride system.

We waited from 6:30am to 12:30pm on Friday, June 14 and then again 6:30am till around 9:00am to ride on the following day. On the 14 the attraction had a delayed opening due to an unrelated issue at the park (Mummy opened late too). During the waits Universal provided free water and entertainment, set up large mist fans around the queue, allowed guests to exit the queue for food and restrooms, and offered locations to buy food and beverage in line. 

While hot and tiring it was not unpleasant, not poorly planed, and definitely not unethical. Many have railed on Universal for the lines, including using terms such as "inhumane" to describe it. The USA is currently running concentration camps full of asylum seekers and immigrants with unsanitary and dehumanizing conditions, to suggest willingly waiting for a new ride where free water is provided is "inhumane" is gross as best. I expect better from this community.

I believe the waits for Hagrid are being overblown as this is the first attraction since 2014 to open in Orlando without a line bypassing option (such as FastPass or Express Pass), meaning locals accustomed to not waiting are up in arms.

Anyway, back on track (pun intended).

Google Maps 3D view shows new entrance (left) and blown out old entrance (right).
The queue layout Dueling Dragons/Dragon Challenge is mostly unchanged with all the changes coming from new theme elements. Where as the old queue started walking straight into the stained glass/tent room now guests make a hard left to where the Goblet of Fire used to be. The old entrance was blown out and expanded to fit the new preshow, where Arthur Weasley and Hagrid are working on how to transport everyone to a remote area to view some blast-ended skrewts. After some explosions, fairies escaping, and the required water spray we are on our way through the castle to the thestrals stables to board our vehicles. 

Several of the rooms and hallways, such as the frozen suspended knight, remain but are totally rethemed. Clean up work was also done to the tunnels after the skulls were awkwardly removed during the transition to Dragon Challenge; now the rock work is smoother and less volcanic. A new room was created near the end which Hagrid uses as a work area, here he stores various ingredients and diagrams for his use. For us it's also the merge point for those with an accessibility pass. Wooo.


The old Dragon Challenge "Choose Thy Fate" room and dual load station is completely reworked. Walls have been built at where the load and unload for the trains were, boxing in the room. Above colored LED lighting rigs create patterns on the ceiling, making it look like spiders and Hagrid are above getting ready for class. After a few switch backs guests are paired up in groups and merged to board. The new boarding platform is a moving sidewalk set up where the old dispatch for Fire was. The moving sidewalks actually are not too much of an issue and guests have been able to board quickly, much to Universal's delight. (Reportedly Universal is running the walkways at a slower speed and with fewer trains to compensate for any issues with guests loading.) Conversely unload is now the old dispatch Ice, with a train fitting on a block break section between the two.

Ride Experience


Our ride vehicle is the iconic motorbike featured as the second magical thing in the Sorcerer's Stone movie (right after the owls). Originally Sirius Black's bike, it was then used by Hagrid till Harry Potter inherited the bike after Sirius' death. We ride the bikes while it is still under Hagrid's use, although the time frame of when the ride takes place (sometime between Prisoner of Azkaban and the end of Half Blood Prince). From now on in order to avoid confusion and this explanation I will refer to the ride vehicles as "Hagrid's bike" or "the bike".

Photo courtesy Universal Orlando.
During the ride's speculation period many guessed the ride would feature lean-forward motorbike restraints like Tron Lightcycle Power Run at Shanghai Disneyland. These ride vehicles are denoted by their unique restraint system: guests lean on a stomach pad, feet onto a raised pad, hold onto a grip in front of them, and a back/legs restraint holds them in. Thankfully Hagrid does away with this and instead choses the focus on the more traditional bike, driven like a car and less like a jockey.

What makes Hagrid's bike unique is its sidecar, or more specifically the fact the ride vehicles have one. This creates a coaster with two different eyeliner and two different force profiles. The sidecar features a more traditional coaster experience with more protection around the rider and a less restrictive restraint. On this side the rider sits significantly closer to the track than a normal coaster, giving the experience something more akin to Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom or the Matterhorn (but way smoother). Riding in the side car produces less lateral forces during the overbooked segments but a better sensation of acceleration thanks to being closer to the track. Conversely the sidecar is also the least accessible for those with larger frames.

The bike on the other hand exposes the rider on all sides and entices the rider to lean forward to hold onto the bike bars (but this is not required or necessary, just really fun and cool to do). The lateral forces during the overbooked segments are significantly more intense than I expect, to the point I put my hands down and held on to the restraints/motorbike bars. If you love the lateral Gs on Maverick then the motorbike is for you. The motorbike has the most restrictive restraints with a large restraint that locked in the hips and upper thighs, like a B&M Hyper clam shell. For my money I prefer the motorbike but have heard some say otherwise.



By this point several on-ride videos have been posted of the new attraction. Lots of #hottakes have occurred and I find them wanting of nuance. So I'm going to dive into a "scene by scene" walkthrough of the attraction including notes on themed set design, figures (static and moving), audio, and the coaster sensations. I likely won't be following Universal's definitions of the scenes nor what some have "leaked" in the past, this will start after load and end right before debarking.

Music kicks in a we get a narration from Hagrid about thestrals, the magical creatures only those who've seen death can see. A small LSM boost kicks us into gear and we soon hit a slalom down towards the large abbey ruins before taking a hard right and hitting our second launch of the ride. We quickly bank to the left and get our first real positive G moment of the ride, followed by some floater air time hills on the way to Hagrid's hut. I will be pointing this out in several portions of this ride but Universal and Intamin did a great job simulating the sensation of being on the flying bike that sputters and is hard to control, like the movies. The bike never feels like its ever in control while in the air and always feels like it's being overcorrected in some manner. There are forces on this ride I have only experienced on serious coasters before (like the overbooked turn s-curve/elevation drop).

During construction the hut in the far east of the attraction was referred to as “Hagrid’s Hut” erroneously. Yes, it’s a hut, yes it’s Hagrid’s, no it’s not Hagrid’s Hut. Instead this is more a storage facility where he is keeping the skrewts, which he hilariously thinks can be pacified in wooden cages with blankets and stuffed animals. Oh Hagrid.

Photo courtesy Universal Orlando.
After our wild ride to the hut we land outside and make our way around the interior wall of the hut, the most boring part of the ride from a coaster dynamics perspective. The skrets have escaped to the Forbidden Forest and one is loose in the hut. Hagrid informs us to fly and find the remaining skrewts as part of our class.

The scene is good but not perfect; the skrewt spins and moves in space so there is a noticeable pole coming out of the figure that moves it and Hagrid is impressive but not mind blowing. The skrewt pole is an easy fix, add some “blend in brown” paint and fake nesting material will help.

The bikes exit the hut and make a small sweeping right hand turn to the third launch towards the abbey. This launch, in theory, should be the most intense, instead it’s one of the weaker ones as we are already on a rolling start into the acceleration. The hill into the abbey window and left hand banked descent provides a huge thrill as this is the first true elevation change in the ride but falls short of perfection.

Photo courtesy Universal Orlando.
The abbey doesn’t provide the head chopper effect similar coasters have and the top of the hill has some floater air time but nothing like the ejector airtime on other Intamin launched coasters. All is nearly forgive as the coaster enters the most intense, and fun, part of the ride. The swooping dive through the supports of the abbey and towards the lake does provide a head chopper effect and the tight banked curves above the lake are legitimately intense. For non-coaster heads the sensation is of taking a tight turn at high speeds, not roughness such as on a wooden roller coaster (or poorly tracked steel).

Here is where riding on the bike stands out, the unrestrained upper body and sitting higher off the track produces legitimate lateral forces on par with major coasters. It’s a breathtaking thrill that really makes any comparisons to other family coasters rings hollow.

Our bikes level out and get back under control as we accelerate and take off again, this time banking to the right as our vehicles putter out. This section of the ride really plays into the “ride track provides plot” as the cars feel like they’re losing altitude as they turn, or as coaster heads refer to as a vertical s-shaped turn. Hagrid regains control as we land in front of Fluffy, right before we take off again and bank hard to the left. The famous Ford Anglea is perched on rocks, tormented by Cornish Pixies that escaped during the preshow. The bikes dip below the rocks and into a mist filled trench before stalling out and rolling backwards. Hagrid repairs our bike before we hit an upwards helix in reverse and travel into the Forbidden Forest.

Unfortunately seeing Fluffy and the section of the ride immediately after doesn’t click as much as it should have. There’s a novelty to the use of immediate track switches and allowing the train to stall and fall backwards. One of my biggest pet peeves of Expedition Everest was how the train unnaturally braked on hills as the track switched, Hagrid has totally removed this issue. But here there just seems to be too much straight track for my taste. The backwards helix would have provided more of a thrill if it was afforded more room for trees, instead we mostly see the mural on the show building.

Photo courtesy Universal Orlando.
Inside the Forbidden Forest we feel it cool, with mist and darkness surrounding us. On a ledge a single centaur is perched, watching us with a bow drawn as we pass. We are not watching where we are going as the bikes end up trapped in devil’s snare. The gnarled roots and branches tighten and wrap around us before Hagrid coaches us to use the spell Lumos Solem, a spell crafted just for the pesky weed. Our ride vehicle then promptly drops into a pit below where Hagrid’s skrewts are! Yay! Well, we celebrate as much as we can before they go all explode-y so we accelerate and haul ass out of the Forrest.

I both love and hate this scene. I love the devil snare scene, there are hundreds of different types of tendrils that wrap around, flail, and lash out. There are AA roots that sway in front of guests that are very impressive. The roof above is full of branches that are swaying and moving closer to guests. Next to the vehicles the devil’s snare wraps around itself, closing in on us. The drop is fun and for most unexpected, but it Universal opted for the faster than gravity free-fall in Tower of Terror it would have startled and given more airtime. The centaur scene seems to be the one place the budget was cut the most. There are two issues: show dressing and the figure. For show dressing there needs to be more top cover for a forest, having some fake canopy leaves to hide lighting and the roof would go a long way. The figure also does not move, at all. I do not believe it needs to walk and move with us but having the centaur move its head and raise the bow, plus some lighting changes, would give it enough life to create the illusion of life. The indoor show scenes also suffer from a lack of show doors to minimize the external light in the building.

Photo courtesy Universal Orlando.
After a quick dive we level out into the sunlight. Hagrid tells us to hit the purple button to activate the Dragons Breath, aka Wizarding World NOS. We get one last kick of acceleration before we hit two over-banked turns and land in the ruined abbey we flew through prior. As we hit the block sections and breaks we make a right hand turn towards unload and see a unicorn and her fawn. Guests then disembark on the moving platform and make their way towards Hogsmeade.

The final launch is the doozie, it packs a legit punch and the final two overbanked turns feel like a minituate Millennium Force. This is the ride I wanted from Hagrid, full of speed and impossible maneuvers. Unfortunately it lasts just one or two elements too short leaving the feeling some speed was wasted as we hit the final breaks.

I’m coming down harder on Hagrid than I actually feel; the ride is really great and unique to the Orlando market. My complaints and qualms come from experiencing components of this coaster in other attractions that do it just as good or better. The drop is a novelty that’ll surprise people, it’s also not as intense or startling as Verbolten’s. The launches are fun but not quite as impactful as other coasters of its type. The twisting track and lateral forces are great but very Maverick like. Is this a problem with Hagrid? No, not really. It just softens my ranking of the ride compared to the general public. For 99% of guests they will never have experienced anything like Hagrid and will likely not again.

For my Orlando rankings Hagrid is #2, right behind Mako. If I was rating this for The Unofficial Guide the ride would be five stars, no questions asked. The ride is a massive draw for the resort and guests will continue to compare any new coasters added to Orlando over the next decade to it. While it is fun to be pessimistic on the ride right now, it doesn’t deserve it. There’s a lot of creativity and fun in those ruins and forest that will make guests happy.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Parkscope Unprofessional Podcast Hour 174 - Farting Teacup



Joe and Jeff are joined by Danny Bogue of the Average Disney Nerd podcast to discuss Hagrid's Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure! We talk about our experiences in line, technical issues, the queue theming, the ride experience, and our final impressions. We also discuss the news of the day including Liberty Inn being replaced in Epcot, Endless Summer opening, Halloween Horror Nights, and Big Fire American Fare opening.