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Monday Mouse Watch: You'll believe a car can fly

Monday Mouse Watch: You'll believe a car can fly

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Okay. How many of you remember that story that I told as part of last Friday's "Why For" column? Where I detailed how -- back in the early 1990s -- Universal Studios swooped in & snagged the theme park rights to Jay Ward's Rocky & Bullwinkle characters right out from under Mickey's nose?

The reason that I bring up that story again today is ... Well ... After speaking with several themed entertainment industry insiders over this past weekend, I now believe that the Mouse may have just been Moosed again. Meaning that -- even though, as recently as 10 months ago, WDI was hard at work at developing a whole slate of "Harry Potter" -themed rides, shows & attractions -- it's now Universal that appears to have the Snitch.

Wait. The news gets worse. The innovative technology that Universal Creative reportedly plans on using to power this new "Harry Potter" -themed attraction that it wants to build at Islands of Adventure? It's something that Walt Disney Imagineering has known about for at least five years now.

Truth be told, the Imagineers have been desperate to bring this very same technology into the Disney theme parks. Only to repeatedly be stymied by Mouse House officials who either balked at the cost and/or raised some very serious safety concerns about this particular mechanism.

What technology am I talking about? Kuka Robotics. Some JHM readers may recall that I've actually already written about this remarkable technology previously as part of a "Why For" that I posted on this site back in January of 2005. Back then, WDI was reportedly looking to use Kuka's robotic arms as part of an "Incredibles" -themed attraction that the Imagineers wanted to build for the parks. The supposed storyline of this proposed Pixar-based attraction first had guests boarding a pod for a tour of the high-tech facility where Mr. Incredible & his family go to practice their super powers. And then -- right in the middle of their tour (in classic Disney theme park fashion) -- something goes horribly wrong !!

Anyway ... The real beauty of this robotic arm technology is that it can actually be programmed to suit individual rider's tastes. If you follow this link to Kuka's Robocoaster site, you'll actually find a video that shows Legoland guests punching in their thrill preferences before they then board this attraction.

As to how the Imagineers allegedly wanted to tailor this technology for use in the "Incredibles" universe ... Well, if you wanted a really rough ride, you just had to select the "Mr. Incredible" version of this attraction. If you wanted a ride-thru of this "Incredibles" -themed attraction that your toddler was sure to enjoy, you just had to program in the "Jack-Jack" variation of this attraction.

You get the idea, right? That this "Incredibles" -themed attraction was to have featured five separate pre-programmed routines. One for each member of the Parr family: Bob (I.E. Mr. Incredible), Helen (Elastigirl), Violet, Dash & Jack-Jack. Which -- in theory -- would have really increased the re-ride-bility of this particular proposed attraction.

So why didn't the Mouse go forward with construction of this very cool sounding Kuka-based project? Well, cost was obviously a factor. But the way I hear it, Disney's lawyers also played a pretty significant role in putting the brakes on when it came to this "Incredibles" -themed attraction.

You see, these guys have spent the past decade dealing with brain injury lawsuits that have been tied to the extremely rough rides that Disneyland guests used to be able to experience on the "Indiana Jones Adventure." Which (as you might understand) made Mickey's attorneys extremely nervous about an attraction where theme park guests would then have the ability to dial up their ride experience to (throwing in a gratuitous reference for all you "Spinal Tap" fans out there) an 11.

So while Disney's lawyers conferred with the Imagineers about how rough was too rough, Universal Creative also became aware of the Kuka technology. But -- unlike the Mouse -- they didn't hesitate to bring these remarkable robotic arms into its theme parks. Just last year, UC used this technology to add the new "The Fast & The Furious: Extreme Close-Up" sequence to Universal Studio Hollywood's tram tour.


Copyright 2006 Universal Studios

Now -- if you follow this link -- you can watch some YouTube footage of Carnage & Carma (I.E. The two Volkswagen Golfs that are featured in the "The Fast & The Furious: Extreme Close-Up" sequence) literally dancing at the end of a Kuka robotic arm. Pulling off all of these amazingly fluid maneuvers.

Now all you J.K. Rowling fans out there. When you see those cars dipping & bending so gracefully through the air, does that perhaps bring to mind a certain sequence from "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"? More importantly, have you ever dreamed of climbing into the Weasley family's magical Ford Anglia and then flying off to Hogwarts?


Copyright 2002 Warner Bros.

Well, if the folks at Universal Creative have their way, you'll soon have the opportunity to experience just that at Islands of Adventure. According to Universal Studios insiders that I've spoken with, UC has already run a field test or two for "Project Strong Arm" (I.E. The allegedly secret codename for this "Harry Potter" -themed project). Actually bringing two Kuka arms into that theme park to see how they'd hold up under Central Florida's intense humidity.

So what happens next? When does this project actually go forward? To be honest, a lot of that depends on Ms. Rowling. Who (the way I hear it) has yet to officially sign off on this Universal theme park project. I mean, let's remember that -- just 10 months ago -- it looked like J.K. & Disney were going to do business. Only to have that deal suddenly fall apart. Which is why the folks at Universal Creative really began freaking last Monday morning when word initially began leaking on the Web about this "Harry Potter" -themed project.

Now I know (based on reader response to last Friday's "Why For") that a lot of you JHM readers were hoping that this new addition to Islands of Adventure would be tied to the "Wizard of Oz" characters. But -- based on what company insiders told me this weekend -- those L. Frank Baum characters will eventually appear in the stateside Universal theme parks. But only after the movie version of "Wicked" is produced. And given that the Broadway musical version of this Gregory Maguire book is still going strong ... It could be years yet before that movie finally goes into production.

Anyhow ... Getting back to this proposed "Harry Potter" attraction for Islands of Adventure ... Some of you may be asking why Universal is putting an ambitious attraction like this into development right now? What's the significance of this timing?

That part of this story is actually pretty obvious. You see, Universal's gearing up for "Project Strong Arm" because Disney's in the process of building "Toy Story Mania" for both Disney's California Adventure & Disney-MGM Studios theme park. Which many people in the themed entertainment industry perceive as the Mouse's long overdue response to Universal's state-of-the-art attraction, "The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man."

Given that "Toy Story Mania" will add an interactive element to "Spider-Man" 's high-tech selection of tricks, thereby topping Universal's top attraction ... Well, Universal had to do something in order to reclaim bragging rights (I.E. That only its theme parks have the world's most technically sophisticated attractions). Which is why they then dreamed up this new "Harry Potter" flying car ride.

As to how Universal was actually able to steal the Harry Potter characters away from the Walt Disney Company ... Well, I don't know how much of this is sour grapes. But I've had a few people tell me that -- given how difficult Ms. Rowling reportedly was to deal with (She supposedly has some very definite ideas about what a "Harry Potter" -themed theme park should be like, what attractions had to be included, etc.) -- that the Imagineers eventually opted to just let this project die on the vine. Rather than proceeding with an elaborately themed park that might have then had some real problems when it came to recovering its initial construction costs.

As to what the real story is ... I'm afraid that it may be decades before we actually know what went on here. After all, most of the people who worked on all these "Harry Potter" -related projects have signed non-disclosure agreements. Which means that they're literally barred by the terms of their employment contracts from ever talking about a lot of this stuff.

Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, someone may finally be willing to go on the record about what actually happened. But -- for now -- I guess we'll just have to be happy with the whispers of the story that we've gotten so  far. Which (it should be noted here) originated with Arthur Levine at About.com & Lance Hart of Screamscape. Nice reporting, guys.

Anywho ... With any amount of luck (Provided -- of course -- that J.K. Rowling actually does sign off on Universal Creative's proposal), come 2009 or 2010, you'll be able to climb into your very own magical Ford Anglia. Then the Kuka arm underneath your ride vehicle will kick into gear and after that ... Well, you'll believe that a car can fly.


Copyright 2002 Warner Bros.

Which sounds pretty cool, don't you think?

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  • If universal puts something like this into its park, better see it the first couple of months.  They spend 0 on maintanance, and their attractions always seem appalingly hammered and non-functional.  I can believe Disney giving up on it since it might bring back "beastly kingdom".  JK Rowling seems to be one tough customer...  Thanks for the info Jim.

  • Narnia's doing comparable business at the box office as Harry Potter.  Pirates is doing better.  I suspect Disney is opting to go with the uber-successful franchises it owns and controls, rather than do the costly song and dance Rowling will require.  And if Universal sinks billions into this one, I'm not convinced that it is money well-spent.  Sure, a mega-Harry land will do gangbusters for a decade, but how will the franchise age? Is it a "Wizard of Oz" or an "E.T."? I tend to think the former, but there's enough uncertainty on this that I think Disney is spending smart money on Pirates and Narnia if wants to tap into the "see the movie/ride the ride" sentiment that is sweeping the industry...

  • Jim, if Disney's lawyers were reluctant to sign off on this technology, do General Electric's lawyers know something they don't, or are they suddenly more courageous?

    GE is always a very cautious corporation, and so then if Disney passed on what are going to be astronomical costs associated with Rowling's obsessive demands with very little in immediate return, why on earth would GE agree to it? IOA still has great attractions, but by most accounts is a financial failure, and this expense may simply not be worth it.

    I bet they walk away from this deal too, and just sink more money into building jet engines and refrigerators, while any Harry Potter attraction just sits on the drawing board.

  • Jim since General Electric has since taking over the parks spent zero in any new attractions,except for that dark ride/monorail attraction at IOA The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!,Im finding it difficult to believe that first there will spend millions on a Harry Potter franchise.Its become obvious to me that GE have no interest in spending money on these parks and instead will sit by and count the money the parks devision makes.If Universal wants a new family friendly land or attraction why not just use the many existing characters from the Dreamworks Animation Studios.To be honest it would be cool to walk through a theme land based on Shrek.I strongly believe this new deal is just to stop Disney from having another theme park franchise to make millions out of and not really a intent to actually make attractions,esspecially the expensive Robotic Arm you talk about.

    Of course Im suprised Six Flags hasn't made a offer,as its a park very desperate now days to attract family's and the Harry Potter franchise must have more life in it than the fading Loony Toons.    

  • I agree with bhb007. I think they'll go for a more Narnia style theme park idea, before they'll put a Potter park into action. A Narnia theme park looks like more fun to me either way, so I'm hoping for that.

  • I agree with bhb007- Disney should stick with "Pirates", "Narnia", and other properties it owns.  This Disney fan is happy- I'm very anti-Universal, but, since Friday, I've thought that a "Harry Potter" attraction would be much better suited to a Universal park than a Disney park.  I can't find it on its website, but, recently, the Orlando Sentinel had an article about how poorly upkept Universal Studios is, which is what datbates said.  I'm glad Disney isn't getting HP...the last book is coming out soon, and within a few years, the last movie will be out.  In 10 years, how popular would a HP attraction be?

  • "blackcauldron85 said:

    I agree with bhb007- Disney should stick with "Pirates", "Narnia", and other properties it owns.  This Disney fan is happy- I'm very anti-Universal, but, since Friday, I've thought that a "Harry Potter" attraction would be much better suited to a Universal park than a Disney park."

    And I agree with blackcauldron85 and bhb007 ... Disney has enough marketable properties of their own. Who cares if they lost Harry Potter??

    As far as the robocoaster technology goes, I had a chance to try it out at the 2005 IAAPA convention in Atlanta and I have to say it was VERY cool. The smoothness of the motion is pretty amazing. I hope Disney eventually finds a way to put it to good use in one of their parks.

  • Is Disney planning anything around Narnia?

  • I'm not a Harry Potter fan, but from everything I've heard, it sure sounds like HP is headed for a long fallow period.  In my mind I compare it to the period from the mid-80s to late-90s when George Lucas swore-off Star Wars.  

    As of July, the novels are done, right?  There will still be a couple of films left to release, but then what?

    The time to invest millions in HP-themed attractions was about 3-4 years ago.  I should say the time to OPEN those attractions was 3-4 years ago with construction beginning even further back.  Then they could have leveraged 2-3 book releases and most of the film premiers.  

    Universal will get a lot of press over this and it will initially increase crowds dramatically.  But ultimately they will be at the mercy of seemling fickle JK Rowling to continue producing additional material.  If she doesn't, people will move on to other things.  There were pop culture phenomenons before Harry Potter and there will be others to follow.

  • I think tjkraz is right on the money ... the time to exploit HP has long passed ... the whole series is definitely on a downward spiral and probably won't be nearly as popular as it was once the final movie is released.

    Given the long development timeline to release a new theme park ride from scratch, it seems likely that Universal will be opening this ride right in time for interest in Potter to peter out.

    I don't see HP as being a character that endures like Snow White or Peter Pan ... he's a passing fad that, once this generation's kids move on to something else, that will barely be remembered ten years from now. Harry who??

  • True, but there is a timeless nature to Harry Potter, and the books are brilliant in that they attract both adults and kids.  In my family we buy multiple copies and then discuss the book when we are all done.  Parents and Kids enjoying something together has long been what separated Universal (very teen focused) and Disney  parks IMHO.  The Oz books, and Narnia all did the same thing apparently (Although when I read them my parents weren't interested).  So I think that Disney really missed out on something that should have been theirs in the first place......they should have done the movies, and owned the theme park rights.  I think it was the miss of the modern age.  Since, however, it's not their movie property, then Universal is a better fit for Harry and the Hogwarts crew.  And Universal really has the opportunity to change the game here.  I certainly would visit again just to see a really good Harry Potter themed area.  And if Universal gets off their *****, they can show off spiffed up theme parks to the throngs that come visiting.  

    And I am sure Disney will move to compete.  Which means, that I win regardless, because I can see the new stuff over on their campus too.  That's the coolest.

  • I have to laugh at some of the sour grapes going on here.  "downward spiral"?  The last movie made almost 900 million worldwide.  Sure, it will drop off after new movies and books stop being released, but the same is true of any franchise (and the last potter movie will come out years after the last Pirates movie, for example).

    Jim, nobody's buying your spin that you were right ten months ago but the deal changed.  You insisted disney was making the Potter deal, you were called out on it, and now we're getting the confirmation that you were wrong.

  • Not sure if Harry Potter is on a downward spiral just yet as heard the pre orders for books are doing record numbers over at the Amazon sites.Interesting to see how no one seems to be that upset so far about Disney not getting the rights.Also I guess Disney don't want a repeat with the Roger Rabbit dissaster when everything WDI wanted to do involing Roger Rabbit and freinds had to go through Speilberg's company first for clearance.  

  • Disney Co can base a new ride on "Escape to Witch Mountain," and if it's a killer ride, word will spread quickly. Disney has an embarrassment of riches with characters they already own that can be exploited in a ride. The trick is getting the rides built and operating. Multi-million dollar executives will always exclaim the rides cost too much. Strobe-light Yeti coaster needs to get back to scary-amazing yeti coaster. The main thing JK would do for Disney Co is become one more high-priced voice that demands quality and hopefully maintenance.

    By the time Disney Co pays JK, the theme park rights to the book, pays Warner Bros for their artwork and interpretations, and the main actors for their likenesses, the imagineers will be told once again - gotta cut back. Most likely you'd end up with Star Tours flys to Hogwarts. Bumps attendance for a summer, but then Disney Co and JK would never agree on a new ride film.     Take the amazing new ride technology and apply it to Wilbur Robinson's spaceship (since everyone hates Pixar - even though Incredibles would still work regardless of what Universal does).

    The classic Disney ride is "and then something went terribly wrong." The behind-the-scenes story regarding a Disney ride involves "and then the imagineers were told to cut back costs."

  • I'll grant you folks that GE hasn't spent a lot of money on the Universal parks; part of it's probably that they weren't all that sure they wanted to keep them and part of it's that the GE accountants balked about laying out the bucks that it'd cost to build any new stuff. But even the most hard-headed sharp-pencil guy at GE must have noticed by now that Uni's attendance figures have been going in the tank for the past couple of years while Disney's figures have increased, and they realize they've gotta do something before GE's bottom line is affected. A Harry Potter attraction might be worth the expense and the hassle to them if it helps boost attendance.

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