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WARNING!The following contains spoilers. The following is based on an incomplete attraction, and should not be construed as representative of the final product. The ride is in private technical rehearsals, and is not open to the public. Do not go to the park expecting to experience the ride until the official opening date. Your mileage may vary. Discontinue use if rash develops.
Riding a new ride during "technical rehearsals" is always a dicey proposition. It's called a rehearsal for a good reason, since major element are often incomplete, and the fine-tuning that separates a good ride from a great one is absent. Over the years, I've had the privilege of experiencing some of Orlando's biggest attractions weeks or even months before the general public, and it hasn't always been as fun as you'd imagine.
Sometimes it's an exercise in frustration; my first visit to IOA's "Spiderman" involved three hours in the queue, climaxing in the building being evacuated when I was a dozen people from the car. Sometimes it's terribly disillusioning; after my first trip through Animal Kingdom's "Countdown to Extinction," I had to ask the attendants when they were installing the dinos (sadly, it never improved much). Occasionally, the first preview is the best experience you'll ever have on a ride; I'll never forget how wonderfully nauseating the "Cat in the Hat"'s spinning cars were at first.
And sometimes, a technical preview can be like a glimpse of future greatness. Like watching the "work-in-progress" version of "Beauty and the Beast." Yes, the lines are rough, and many of the colors missing. There may even be a mild hiccup in the story (they sing "Be Our Guest" to Belle's father?). But it's clear that you are experiencing something magical. You know that you are watching artists at the top of their form, taking everything they've learned in the past to create something you and your kids will want to experience over and over. And you know that, given a little more time and polish, it just might change the world.
That's what Universal Orlando's "Revenge of the Mummy" is like right now. The rough draft of a masterpiece. And I have every confidence that before the first paying guest steps on it, Universal will make sure it lives up to it's already-obvious potential.
For anyone who's been hiding in a theme-park-news-free bunker, "Revenge of the Mummy" (ROTM) is Universal Studios Florida's new headliner attraction, slated to open later this Spring. A sister attraction is also opening at Universal Studios Hollywood. Both are based on Universal's "Mummy" franchise, starring Brendan Fraser and directed by Stephen Sommers. They may have the distinction of being the first theme park attractions to be significantly better than the movies they are based on. Ok, maybe second after "Waterworld".
The Florida version is housed in the building formerly occupied by the much-beloved "Kongfrontation." Fans of the late great ape, rest assured. Not only does ROTM not desecrate that hallowed ground, it is a more than worthy successor to old banana breath. And, rumor is, you might catch a glimpse of old monkey if you keep your eyes peeled.
Costing a reported $45 million (small change compared to recent E-tickets like "Mission: Space"), ROTM does not radically break new ground in the same way that "Spiderman" did. The basic elements, an indoor roller-coaster with magnetically launched trains, has been seen before. The special effects -- ranging from air and water blasts, to flames, to video projections and sophisticated animatronics -- are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But no ride has combined so many of these effects, in such complex synchronization, at such a blistering pace. Universal touts this as a "psychological thrill ride" with good reason. The dominant effect is total sensory overload, an unparalleled avalanche of astounding sights and sensations that will leave you reeling. You'll exit the ride knowing you missed half of what's in there, and not believing half of what you actually saw.
The experience starts before you even enter the queue, proving once again that Universal understands how important the entire package is, beyond just the ride itself. Attraction cast members performed a brief "streetmosphere"-style interaction with the waiting crowd, picking out "extras" for a "screen test", reminiscent of the "Earthquake" preshow. Other employees scurried about with trays of coffee for the "stars", a gag that carries through the entire attraction. I don't know if this was solely for the benefit of the employee preview, but I hope it continues, and survives the pressures of the enormous crowds this ride will attract this summer. Bravo to the cast members, who went all out despite being attractions personnel and not actors.
You enter the attraction not through the museum façade, as with Kong, but through the Paradise Theater. This is an epic queue line in classic Universal style, and fitting replacement for Kong's legendary queue. The initial sections, inside the building that once held the Islands of Adventure preview center, feature props and design sketches from the first two Mummy films.
Overhead video monitors present a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary about the filming of a new Mummy movie. We are introduced to "Reggie", a bumbling production assistant, and are informed of strange happenings on the set. They also make mention of a mystical symbol that is needed to protect us against the evil Imhotep's curse.
Unfortunately, the high ceilings, hard surfaces, and chattering guests conspire to make the preshow video almost completely unintelligible. This is a shame, since it sets up story elements that are important to the full enjoyment of the ride. As a sound engineer, I can sympathize with the designers, and I trust they'll find a way to overcome the lousy acoustics.
After passing through a black, empty room (I assume there is work to be done here), you enter the attraction proper through the old Kong entrance. There are some cages full of props and costumes, and more video monitors. You turn a corner, and suddenly you are inside an exquisitely detailed Egyptian tomb. I was unsure at this point whether we were meant to be on the set of the new film, or if we were "transported" to an actual tomb by Imhotep's curse. Perhaps the confusion is intentional. It's a moot point because this section features some of the best scenic design ever seen in a queue. Though not nearly as long, it is every bit as well crafted as the queue for IOA's "Dueling Dragons," which is high praise indeed.
Best of all, there are a number of interactive elements to entertain you. A sarcophagus with a handprint engraved on it causes the lights to flicker when touched. A glowing jewel activates air blasts further down the queue, and an adjacent video monitor shows the humorous results (though wouldn't it make sense for the air blasts to come first?). And, my favorite, a hologram of golden treasure blasts with air anyone foolish enough to reach for it. It's unclear how much of the queue those using the Express Pass and Single Rider lines will experience, but this queue is well worth waiting in.
Soon, you enter a tall chamber dominated by a huge statue of Anubis. Wooden stairs spiraling up lead you to the loading platform. There is an elevator for those with disabilities, everyone else gets some exercise. At the top, there are twin loading platforms, to your left and right, each accommodating one car. The vehicles, styled like mine cars, feature four rows of four passengers each. The rear rows are slightly elevated, giving a good view to all. The lap bars are unusually tall, reaching from your waist up to your sternum, but comfortable. The headrests are tall but do not wrap around the side of your head.
And away we go! I won't give a detailed blow-by-blow of the ride. If you want every moment spoiled for you, you can find it elsewhere online. Moreover, I couldn't give an accurate accounting after one trip through the ride due to the sheer volume of stuff thrown at you. The first time through, even in an unfinished state, is so overwhelming that detached analysis is simply impossible. I will give an outline of the experience, and describe some of the highlights.
WARNING: STOP NOW TO AVOID MAJOR SPOILERS!
Still there? Ok...
We enter a tomb, with mummified corpses strewn about. From the first moment you can tell that great detail has been put into creating a complete 360º environment, with lighting and music to match. A voice (the "Reggie" animatronic is yet to arrive) warns us of Imhotep's curse. Around the corner, Reggie is turned into a Mummy by Imhotep (another work-in-progress). You are sent into the next room, which is where things start to get really interesting.
An enormous projection of Imhotep offers you riches for your soul, and piles of treasure are illuminated to either side of you. If you refuse, he warns, you'll die. Mummy warriors appear next to you, lunging at the car (they do not, however, jump on the car). Flames explode around you, and for an extra shock you are sprayed with water. You take a quick turn into a new room, which seems to be a dead end. The wall in front of you suddenly sprouts thousands of scarab beetles, which swarm towards your vehicle. I assume that this projection will eventually be accompanied by a tactile effect, similar to "It's Tough to Be a Bug," but for now there is only light and sound.
You are quickly launched backwards down a short hill, and then quickly come to a stop in a rotating room. There is some more threatening from Imhotep, as you are turned to face an enormous hill. At the top of the hill looms Imhotep's giant head. You are launched up the hill, straight into his gaping mouth.
What follows is the coaster portion of the ride, a giddying minute or so of dips and turns. There are no inversions, and the actual scare-factor lies somewhere between "Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster" and "Space Mountain." It does have the advantage of being an exceptionally smooth and comfortable ride, with well-engineered turns and a pleasant amount of airtime. Heightening the effect are numerous illuminated apparitions, flickering to ghostly life seeming inches from your head. They may be simple back-lit cutouts, but they are extremely effective, much more so than the tacky black light props in "Rock 'n Roller Coaster." Add in the music and sound effects, and this section is far more thrilling that you might imagine the fairly tame drops and banks would be. Don't let the idea of a roller coaster scare you away from this ride - it's much more likely to make you laugh with delight than scream in terror.
Before you know it, you are out of the coaster section and at what appears to be the unload station. To your left, you see the silhouette of a ride attendant inside her booth. I believe another animatronic attendant is yet to be installed. You come to a stop, and they thank you for riding the ride, but Imhotep arrives and vaporizes the attendants in mid-spiel. The ceiling above you ignites in a beautiful "brain-fire" effect that will be familiar to those who have ridden Busch Garden's Escape From Pompeii. You are launched in the final brief coaster section of the ride, similar to the first.
And then... well, I'm not sure. A ride this spectacular deserves an appropriate finale, and I'm sure that by the time it opens, this one will have one. For now, I'm not really sure what I saw. I assumed I'd see some representation of Imhotep being defeated, presumably involving the symbol that was mentioned in the preshow. I don't think I saw that. There were lights, and noise, and frankly I was a bit dazed, but I don't think I saw a resolution to the story.
The next thing I knew, Brendan Frasier was congratulating me from a video screen, and demanding a cup of coffee. There is a goofy sight gag that again calls into question the frame of reference for the story - what is the "reality" of this attraction? And then we were on a fairly sparse unload platform, and down the old exit ramp past the cashiers that sit where the Kong photo op used to be.
END OF SPOILERS. YOU CAN START READING AGAIN NOW!
Obviously, the ride still has a ways to go, which is why the public soft-opening is still expected to be several weeks away. Some of the missing effects are crucial to the story, which as any good theme park designer knows it the most important part of an attraction. The finale in particular needs more of a sense of closure. I also had trouble understanding much of the dialogue in the ride, a problem I don't have on any other attractions. Part of this is psychological, as there is just too much happening at once to absorb it all. There is also speaker tuning that needs to be done during this test-and-adjust phase.
But even in this incomplete state, you can tell ROTM is destined for greatness. The only criticism I can levy is also the biggest compliment - it's too short. Not in terms of time, as its 3½ minute ride time is about average. And not in terms of physical size, since it occupies one of the largest ride buildings in the world, and features sets that are epic in scope. No, you want it to be longer because there is just so much to see and experience that you wish it could just go on and on. A great showman always leaves 'em wanting more, and this ride does that in spades.
This ride will raise your expectations of what a ride can be. You may feel a little let down when you realize that eventually, it ends and you have to get off. At the moment, this feeling is intensified by the fact that the ending doesn't generate the kind of catharsis that "Spiderman"'s high fall or "Indiana Jones"'s rolling boulder does. I have faith that will change, and ROTM will take its place alongside the great theme park attractions of the world.
Universal has proved once again that they are the masters of postmodern theme park design. They didn't invent anything you've never seen before. They've taken everything you've seen in the past, and put it all together in a way that you've never imagined. My philosophical musings on the ambiguous setting of the attraction is a plus, as it indicates the kind of complexity that makes for re-rideability.
Bob Gault, Scott Trowbridge, Stephen Sommers, and everyone else involved should feel very proud of the work they've done. Good luck to the opening crew, and save me a seat (back row, left corner) when everything is 100%!