Universal’s Theme Parks Add to Experience of Studio’s Hits

Universal Theme Parks Rides
Sam Comen for Variety

Maria Santiago and her son, Shawn, eagerly wait for the rest of their family by the exit of Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, an attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.

“I hadn’t been to California in so long,” she says, explaining that she had just moved from Nevada and was visiting the park for the first time in about 38 years. “I think it’s amazing and I wanted to bring my kids over.”

Shawn jumps in, “All I can say is, it’s a really interesting park.”

The theme park today looks very different from Santiago’s previous visit. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem joins such “veteran” attractions as Shrek 4-D, and WaterWorld. The park has expanded rapidly in the past five years as part of a plan that president and COO of Universal Studios Hollywood, Larry Kurzweil, calls an “epic transformation.”

That transformation will come to fruition when the park opens the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the spring. The California location opens six years after the enormously successful “Harry Potter” attraction opened in Florida (another in Japan began operating in 2014). The concept of echoing attractions across multiple parks is nothing new for Universal — the same can be said for franchises including “Despicable Me” and “Shrek.”

Although construction barriers obscure parts of Hollywood’s Potter world, at the moment, the area looks nearly complete. “We are absolutely on target,” Kurzweil confirms. In addition to the immersive landscape, it will include two main attractions: a family-friendly coaster called Flight of the Hippogriff and a 3-D dark ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

HOGWARTS WEST: Concept art for Universal Studios Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

But Potter World is far from the only recent addition to the park: earlier this year, the Studio Tour of the back lot — the backbone of the Universal Studios Hollywood experience — got a partial makeover with a section called Fast & Furious Supercharged. Kurzweil points out that, instead of the typical lag between the movie release and an amusement park attraction, the experience was introduced simultaneously with the film “Furious 7.” He calls the attraction a testament to “the confidence (Universal) has in these major brand franchises.”

John Murdy, creative director at Universal Studios Hollywood, says the relationship between the film studio and theme park are vital to creating exciting experiences. “We’re very connected to the movie studio, and filmmakers,” he says. “We get involved really early in production, when scripts are first available. And we’re always looking for the next thing (to) bring to our guests as part of the studio tour, or another attraction.”

With almost every addition to the park, an outdated attraction is shut down, partially because of sheer lack of square footage. Back to the Future: The Ride was closed in 2007 to make way for the Simpsons Ride.

“Basically every theme park out there, except for us, is master planned,” Kurzweil says. “And we’re not. We are like one big Hollywood movie set where scenes come and go.”

On the immersive ride Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, fans go on a journey in a familiar world, and giggle every time one of those little yellow guys says “banana.”

Kurzweil explains that with the guiding philosophy of immersive worlds the park is able to push and elevate narratives. “It’s on a very different level than what a movie will deliver.”

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