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E.T. goes home today. "Shrek 4D" arrives shortly.

Jim Hill

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E.T. goes home today. "Shrek 4D" arrives shortly.

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Today, with little or no fanfare, Universal Studios Hollywood will be closing its "E.T. Adventure" attraction. Why the lack of hoopla? Because the folks who run Universal's theme parks are deathly afraid of offending Steven Spielberg.

You see (as you all are already no doubt aware), Mr. Spielberg is a major media mogul. A rich and extremely powerful man in the industry. Someone that you certainly don't want to piss off ... for fear of ending your career.

That's why -- for months now -- the folks who run Universal's theme parks have been putting off letting Steven know about their intentions. How they were planning on pulling down Universal Studios Hollywood's gentle "E.T. Adventure" to make room for a thrilling new indoor roller coaster ride that would be based on Stephen Sommers' "Mummy" movies.

I mean, it's bad enough that Spielberg is the Academy Award winning director who actually helmed the much beloved film that USH's "E.T. Adventure" is based on. But -- as it turns out -- Steven is also the guy who rode herd on the folks at Universal Creative back when they were originally designing this attraction. Back in the late 1980s, he literally spent hours in meetings discussing the layout of the ride. Talking endlessly with artists about what E.T.'s home planet should look like, what the other inhabitants of "The Green Planet" should look like.

And Spielberg pulled in all sorts of favors to help make Universal's "E.T. Adventure" a truly special attraction. EX: He even persuaded Academy Award winning composer John Williams to come write the score for the ride.

The end result -- Spielberg hoped -- would be Universal's equivalent of Disneyland's "Peter Pan" ride. An amazing attraction that flew USH guests to a magical place. A ride that could entertain theme park guests for generations yet to come.

Well, I'll say this much ... the interior queue for Universal's "E.T. Adventure" really is quite impressive. With its darkly atmospheric forest setting (with that semi-authentic pine scent) as well as those periodic appearances by Botanicus. I always marveled at that part of the attraction. What a nice job Universal had done.

And that moment at the very end of the ride -- where E.T. said your name, just before your bicycle reached the off-load area -- that was nice too. (Though I guess I should also come clean here and admit that I -- and some of my more mean spirited friends -- used to get a big kick out of getting E.T. to say somewhat inappropriate things. How'd we do that? Well, we'd get on line to pick up our boarding passes, then give the poor attendant bogus one syllable names to input into her computer. Then -- provided that the cast member in "E.T. Adventure" load area had swiped the cards through their machine in the proper order, you could get E.T. to say things like "Goodbye ... Bo ... Bo ... Dill ... Doe ..." You get the idea ... anyway ...)

But as for the rest of the "E.T. Adventure" ... with its somewhat scary but decidedly unlifelike policemen and government agents threatening guests as they race through the forest to all of those nauseatingly cute Cloud Bearers, Tickley Moot Moots and Jumpums that populated the Green Planet, I just found this attraction to be a huge disappointment.

And I'm guessing that I wasn't the only one. Given that -- within a year or so of the official opening of USH's "E.T. Adventure" back in 1992 -- attendance levels for this multi-million dollar attraction started heading for the basement. For the last few years, even when every other ride or show at Universal Studios Hollywood has had a 30 - 45 minute wait, the "E.T." ride was always a walk-on.

Why for? Because the word of mouth on Universal's "E.T. Adventure" attraction has been absolutely terrible. Typically, people say that it's a ride that's good to ride if you have small children. Or if you really liked the movie that the attraction is based on. But -- after one trip to the Green Planet via the "E.T. Adventure" -- you've pretty much had your fill of cute little aliens.

Of course, because he had put so much time and effort into the creation of the "E.T. Adventure," no one at Universal Hollywood had the heart (or the guts) to tell Steven that attendance levels for his attraction had been tanking. And -- given that Spielberg never waits in line to board theme park rides anyway (To insure the privacy and safety of the Academy Award winning director and his family, Steven is typically "back doored" onto attractions whenever he visits any of the Disney and Universal theme parks. Which means that his party -- which is typically escorted by several plain clothes members of the theme park's security staff -- quickly and quietly enters the ride, show or attraction via its exit. After the show's over, the whole group quickly disappears backstage. Away from the prying eyes of the public) -- it seemed highly unlikely that Spielberg would ever realize that USH guests just weren't visiting his "E.T. Adventure" attraction anymore.

Comments that Steven allegedly made as recently as last year demonstrate how truly clueless the director was. When asked about the "E.T. Adventure," Spielberg was reported to have waxed poetic. Supposedly saying how much it meant to him that -- every day -- little kids were boarding bicycles and flying across the Moon with his much beloved character. Just a hundred yards or so away from where his production office on Universal Hollywood's lower lot is located.

Since they've known for several years now how truly badly attendance levels for USH's "E.T. Adventure" attraction have been falling off, Universal Hollywood staffers have been talking at least since the late 1990s about what they should do to replace this under-performing ride. But -- again, due to their fear of what Spielberg might do to them were they to suggest shuttering the "E.T. Adventure" -- these creative types keep mum ... and bided their time.

Finally, late last year, a window of opportunity presented itself. On the heels of the less-than-stellar box office performance of the 20th anniversary edition of "E.T." (pulling in just $35 million, which reportedly didn't even come close to cover the money that Universal Pictures poured into promoting the special edition of the film, not to mention the millions more blown on "E.T."'s enchanced special effects), the video and DVD sales of "E.T: The Extra Terrestrial - The Special Edition" didn't exactly set the world on fire either.

Figuring that they could now use the somewhat-less-than-truthful excuse that the disappointing reception that "E.T."'s 20th anniversary special edition had received had suddenly caused attendance levels at USH's "E.T. Adventure" to fall off sharply, the folks at Universal Hollywood finally broke the news to Spielberg that they were THINKING about shutting down the E.T. ride at their park. They (of course) immediately followed this up by stressing that the "E.T. Adventure" attractions at Universal Studios Orlando and Universal Studios Japan would be remaining open. That it was only the E.T. ride in Hollywood that they were thinking of closing. The other two versions of the ride were sure to remain open for ages yet to come. (TRANSLATION: Let the folks at USO and USJ break their own bad news to Spielberg. We're just trying to get our new "Mummy" thrill ride off the drawing board here.)

Surprisingly, Spielberg supposedly put up very little resistance to the proposed change. (It's thought that the public's recent less-than-enthusiastic response to E.T.'s return may have soured Steven's attitude toward his sweet little alien character.) All Spielberg asked was that the closure of the Hollywood version of the "E.T. Adventure" be handled as quickly and quietly as possible. So that the media wouldn't get wind of this and try to make a big deal out of this particular attraction closing.

Oops. Sorry.

So -- with their "Mummy" coaster hopefully up and running by the Summer of 2004 (which, Universal is hoping, will put USH on a much better footing next year when its Hollywood theme park has to go head-to-head with DCA and its new "Tower of Terror" thrill ride) -- what does Universal Studios have up its sleeve to help drive up attendance levels at its stateside theme parks this year? "Shrek 4D."

I'll say this much for the guys at Universal Creative. They've really kept the lid locked down tight on this particular project. For the past year or so that this new CG 3D film (which will be presented in Ogrevision, by the way) has actually been in production, virtually no information has leaked out about "Shrek 4D." Everyone I've asked has kept their lips zipped. And no one at Dreamworks Feature Animation or Dark Horse Comics (the folks who are currently prepping the comic book adaptation of "Shrek 4D") have been spilling the beans either.

So where then did I get the following outline of "Shrek 4D?" Sorry, but that would be telling. All I can safely say is that this intriguing bit of info comes from someone fairly high up in the Universal theme park food chain. Someone who seems justly proud of this new theme park show that's just about to debut at Universal Studios Hollywood and Orlando. Here's a sanitized-for-his-or-hers-protection version of the e-mail I received late yesterday afternoon:

Hey, Hill

I saw last week that you were looking to expand the turf you cover. Maybe move out beyond the Mouse. Well, then how would you like a story about "Shrek 4D?"

I was lucky enough to see an incomplete work print of the 3D movie over the past two weeks. Jim, this film is going to blow the doors off of anything that Disney's got. "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" is going to seem even more lame and dated than it already is when "Shrek 4D" debuts later this spring. "Mickey's Philharmagic" is really going to have to pull out the stops if it ever intends to top Universal's newest 3D movie.

So what's the story. "Shrek 4D" picks right where the original "Shrek" movie left off. Shrek and Princess Fiona are off of their honeymoon. Only they've somehow lost their way en route. In order to get to their honeymoon hotel, should they follow the road that takes them through the pleasant green glade ... or the one that takes them scary, scary woods.

As Shrek stands in the road, trying to decide which way to go, Donkey confers with Fiona. He asks why she's crying ... and the Princess responds that she's tearing up because she's been riding inside of a coach that's been carved out of a giant onion!!

Suddenly a masked man on a dark horse races by and snatches Fiona out of the coach. Shrek and Donkey give chase -- with the audience seemingly now riding along with them in the back seat of the coach. (Look for some really funny gags here as the rough ride causes Donkey to repeatedly fly up out of his seat, almost landing in the audience's lap.)

This section of the film takes the audience through the scary, scary forest (but not before the ogre's coach has an amusing run-in with the Gingerbread Man from the first "Shrek" movie). It ends with Shrek and Donkey wandering around a dark and misty graveyard, searching for Fiona. As mysterious shapes rise up out of the fog, the audience realizes that Lord Farquaad has somehow come back from the dead in ghostly form. More importantly, the evil little monarch seems determined to exact his revenge on Princess Fiona, the ogre, and the ass.

In order to do away with Shrek and Donkey, Farquaad uses his dark magic to bring to life an enormous stone statue of a dragon that's on display in the gloomy graveyard. The dragon now stomps around the cemetery, his jaws snapping, fire spewing, menacing the orge, the ass and the audience. Shrek and Donkey seemed doomed until the Lady Dragon from the first "Shrek" movie swoops in and rescues them from the fierce stone dragon at the last possible moment.

From this point forward, "Shrek 4D" really starts packing on the laughs and thrills. Riding on the back of the Lady Dragon, Shrek and Donkey have an epic air battle with the evil stone dragon. Only some quick thinking (as well as some close canyon walls) save these three from certain death.

Meanwhile, Lord Farquaad and his henchman (You know? That executioner guy who wore a black mask in the first movie?) have tied Princess Fiona to a raft. They intend to send Fiona to her death over an enormous waterfall (So that -- once the Princess dies -- the princess will be free to marry Farquaad in the after-life). Shrek arrives at the last minute to try and rescue his bride. But the ogre bobbles his rescue attempt.

Fiona and Shrek both go tumbling over the waterfall. It looks like they're goners for sure. When suddenly ...

Well, you don't want me to give the whole movie away, do you, Jim? Let's just say that "Shrek 4D" ends happily and the folks at Dreamworks will have no trouble at all picking up Shrek's story right where Universal Studios Orlando and Hollywood leaves it off. Think of this short but funny movie as a brief but clever bridge between the original "Shrek" and "Shrek II."

Whenever you get the chance, Jim, you really need to come out of the woods of New Hampshire and go see "Shrek 4D." It's the first of a string of great new shows and attractions that Universal will be rolling out at its stateside theme parks over the next 18 months.

"Universal Studios Islands of Adventure" showed that we could build a theme park that was just as good as anything Disney could do. With "Shrek 4D" as well as USO's "Mummy" coaster, we're going to prove that our company can consistently produce rides and attractions that are BETTER than anything that the Mouse is producing these days. That IOA's "Spider-Man" ride wasn't a fluke.

So -- if you're getting tired of writing about Disney, Jim -- feel free to start spreading the word about Universal Studios. We're about to start really coming on strong.

Consider the word spread.

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