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

Jim Hill

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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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  • Also, who wants to ride a random scene from the second (!!) book/movie with no appeal whatsoever of what makes Harry Potter so unique. Just because the robot arms and a flying car would technically work together, it doesnt mean it captures the spirit of Harry Potter. Broomsticks anyone?

  • Universal did not steal this idea from Disney based upon the Incredibles, it was actually Disney who stole that idea from Universal’s proposed Van Helsing themed dark ride that was also to go into the Lost Continent. The Van Helsing project was sent back to the drawing board after Vivendi balked at the cost of the expensive ride system in question combined with the lackluster performance of the Van Helsing film itself.

    As for J.K signing off on such a project, time will tell.  Universal has already proven that it can work with demanding right holders.  Mrs. Geisel, widow of "Dr. Seuss" is also a tough cookie to deal with, and Universal has done a good job in dealing with her.

  • I just really think everyone in here is just a major anti-Harry fan.  All of you people saying "oh, I've never read Harry Potter"  I think you just hit it on the head right there.  I do not think there has ever been a phenomon quite like Harry Potter.  I do not know the excact figure but I think that the idea of over a billion Harry Potter books sold is not excacatally an excageration.  Harry Potter will live on I think.  I really think this might be a timeless book series and disney will look back on the mistake of losing the theme park rights to HP with regret.  There are so many cool things you could do for rides and there are some absoultly rabid Harry Potter fans.  Probley on the level as some Disney fans out there.  Don't bash this idea, it will make someone alot of money to create an HP ride, and I really hope it is disney.

  • Strange to see such a high % of posters that don't like HP considering the popularity of the franchise.  Most people I know whether at work or elsewhere like HP to some degree with many having read all of the books and seen all of the movies.  When we went to a very expenisve resort in St. Lucia on our honeymoon we ran into an attractive well-off middle-aged couple reading the books on the beach, we chatted and they gave us the next book when they left so we could continue reading.  I cannot think of too many children's books with such broad appeal.  We will definately encourage our children to read the books and see the movies when they are old enough.  Most people that do read the books get sucked in.  Why else would an eight or ten year old read a book the size of a dictionary.  I think the books are the things that will make the franchise popular for many generations to come.

    Did Disney miss the boat?  It depends.  If IOA gets only one ride and it is done poorly or breaks down a lot, the popularity will be short-lived regardless of the character involved.  If it is done well, though, it will probably give people a reason to spend a day there when they normally wouldn't.  Thus taking away visitors from WDW.  Really though HP deserves at least a land of its own if not a small park.  It is hard to be satisfied with a short experience from one ride for such epic detailed stories.  Narnia and LOTR would also be better suited to their own land.    Alternatively, HP could have really helped the flagging Disney MGM Studios park even it is not the best fit.  That park really needs a good shot in the arm.      

  • It really shouldn't matter to WDC where Rowlings brings her business to.  But since INDIANA JONES and STAR TOURS, it's like they have an obsession buying out or tying in "outside" franchises.

    How long will it take for them to realize they've got a pot-of-gold right in their own backyard?  The wealth of unused material and scrapped rides is staggering.  They've got the most valuable, popular, vault in Hollywood which they've hardly begun to tap . . .  They've got ABC now, so advertising the way Walt did with "Wonderful World of Disney" is a cinch . . .  And still no one seems to be doing a damn thing.  It's maddening.

  • I agree with Gallopin' Gaucho- Disney has a rediculous amount of material (that they own) and they do nothing with it.  I'd love to see a re-do of The Great Movie Ride.  With Disney movies.  The animated films are my favorites, but they have more live-action films, and they should do something with them.  Re-do the ride, put amazing scenes from some of these films (like the flying car from "The Absent Minded Professor"), and then interest in these films will greatly increase, thus leading to DVD sales.  I love the "Oz" segment in The Great Movie Ride, but the rest just don't seem to belong.  It's called Walt Disney World for a reason.  Sure, Disney-MGM Studios includes MGM.  Aren't they going to change the name sometime soon?  I love Star Tours, but I'd love it even more if it was Disney related.  Since Disney bought the Muppets (and the Muppets are great- I'm biased), they deserve to stay.  But, bring some more Disney to Walt Disney World.

  • <<minderbinder said:

    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.>>

    Well, Disney WAS working on Potter concepts and discussions WERE going on with JKR’s people. Just because a deal was never worked out doesn’t mean that there wasn’t the possibility of one.

  • <<bhb007 said:   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...>>

    While Narnia did make good box office showing, it in no way has the quality and depth that Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or other ultra successful franchises have maintained. Narnia’s success can mainly be attributed to intense religious backing, not due to exceptional continent. The religious fervor for the film was based on the religious subtext that C.S. Lewis incorporated into the stories.

    It’s hard to conceive of a Narnia based attraction that would provide the level of excitement or interest that one based on Harry Potter could provide.

  • Wow. I'm, actually very glad that Disney lost HP. Downward spiral is right-even though it will probably be more of a downward pitfall now, due to Daniel Radcliffe's recent "escapade" on London Broadway. Harry Potter was cool about 5 or 6 years ago-not now, and it's fitting that Universal gets to add HP to their huge pile of crappy attractions.

  • Wow...can't believe how much snark is flyin' around!

    You Muggles you! : P

    I'm totally stoked to see a HP attraction! who cares where it'll be!

    I'll go!

  • I don't think HP would've really fit in a Disney environment (and I LOVE Harry Potter books). It just doesn't mesh at all.

    As for the Potter dying thing, I reallly doubt that.

    The books will continue to be read, and the movies will continue to be watched for a long ime, IMO.

  • Jim Hill shares what he's heard about Universal's bold new plan to reposition that Central Florida Resort. He also offers up additional information about that after-hours Halloween party that's now in the works for Disney's Hollywood Studios. And would

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