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How Universal Creative turned "Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast" into "Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem"

How Universal Creative turned "Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast" into "Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem"

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sk anyone who's ever worked in themed entertainment about what the tougher job is: building a brand-new ride, show or attraction from the ground up OR finding a way to shoehorn a brand-new ride into a pre-existing show building. And to a man, they will tell you that the retrofit is always the tougher, more challenging project.

And no one in the themed entertainment would know this better than Mike West, the former Imagineer who is now an Executive Producer with Universal Creative. West was one of the primary forces behind what many now consider to be the gold standard when it comes to theme park attraction redos (i.e. When "Back to the Future - The Ride" was transformed into "The Simpsons Ride"). And what Mike found was that many of the lessons he learned while working on "Simpsons" could then be applied while West began riding herd on turning "Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast" in "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem."


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

"This particular project moved along very quickly," Mike recalled in a recent interview. "While there were some discussions early on about how we could possibly bring Gru, the girls and the minions in the Parks during the Summer of 2010 when 'Despicable Me ' was initially out to theaters, it wasn't 'til January or February of 2011 that we began talking in earnest about building a full-blown attraction around these characters."

Now by theme park standards, to go from Universal Creative having preliminary discussions about possibly building a "Despicable Me' attraction to Guests actually being able to enter Gru's secret lab so that they then could be turned into minions in under 18 months is extraordinary. Which West was quick to acknowledge.

"Yes, this was a quick turnaround. A year and a half is fast. It's far more typical in this industry that you first spend 3 to 4 years on design & development before you then move forward with construction. But with 'Despicable Me,' we had this property that had been a huge success for Universal. It's actually one of the Top 10 grossing animated films in U.S. history. Plus we had the 'Despicable Me' sequel coming in 2013. So it just made sense to get an attraction based on this super-popular intellectual property into Universal Studios Florida as quickly as possible."

And given the popularity of this IP, the folks at Universal Creative wanted to place this new 'Despicable Me' attraction as close as possible to the front of USF. Which quickly led them to decide that this Illumination Entertainment-inspired production would serve as the replacement of the then-8 year-old "Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast."

"Which isn't the sort of decision that we made casually," Mike admitted. "Me personally, the Chicken Dance sequence in 'Nicktoon Blast' is one of my favorite moments ever in a theme park attraction. To be seated in a motion-based vehicle and to then have your ride vehicle do that specific dance move is just a brilliant blending of music, story and technology. I miss that scene even now. But that said, when Guests come to our Parks, they always expect to find new experiences. So in order for that to happen, Jimmy Neutron had to blast off for good so that Gru & the girls could then move into his spot."

But given that this particular show building in USF's Production Central area had already been home to two other attractions (i.e. "The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera" and "Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast"), West and his team knew that -- if they wanted to catch people's eyes as they entered this theme park -- Universal Creative was going to have to make a very big statement. Which is why they decided to build a full-sized version of Gru's house. Which they then deliberately faced towards USF's entrance.


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

"As Gru would say, 'You can't miss this baby,' " Mike laughed. "We wanted the Guests to know -- as soon as they came through the Main Gate -- that this was the real deal. That this wasn't the same attraction that you experienced the last time you visited Universal Studios Florida. That Gru and the girls had moved in. More to the point, given the 37 minions that were now hanging all over the outside of this show building, something fun had to be going on inside of this new attraction."

West wanted to make sure that repeat USF visitors understood that "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" was a brand-new ride. Which is why he and his team at Universal Creative had the entrance to this attraction moved further on down the show building.

"We actually persuaded the Park to give up retail space so that we could then add an additional pre-show scene. Which then helped us better establish the world that Gru & the girls now live in," Mike continued. "After all, you can't assume that every Guest coming through the door is going to be familiar with the 'Despicable Me' film. Which is why it's always important to properly set the scene in every attraction. Make people aware of the sort of story they're about to experience."


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

In the specific case of "Minion Mayhem," this meant establishing a version of Gru's house that Agnes, Edith & Margo had clearly turned into their home. If you carefully look around in this particular pre-show scene, you'll soon see all sorts of signs that this former super villain's lair is now a child-friendly space. Everything from how the girls' crayon drawings are now proudly displayed on the walls to how the iron maiden has now been child-proofed by placing tennis balls on all of this medieval torture device's interior spikes.

"And given that we were trying for a far more sincere feeling with the storyline of 'Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem,' we deliberately steered clear of the you're-in-a-theme-park jokes that you typically find in other Universal shows like 'Shrek 4-D' and 'The Simpsons Ride,' " West explained. "In this entire attraction, there's only one reference to theme parks. That's when Gru -- in the pre-show movie -- talks about the three hour-long written exam that you'll have to take before you can then be turned into a minion. 'So there'll be no seeing the park today,' Gru says. It's only then that Margo says 'We're not doing the written exam anymore.' And Gru the says 'Oh. Okay.' "

Another smart thing that Mike and his team did to make "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" different from "The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera" and "Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast" was by taking another chunk of this show building's former retail space and then turning it into a new post-show scene.


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

"I mean, given that people no longer got to experience what it was like to do the Chicken Dance while seated inside of their 'Jimmy Neutron' ride vehicle, I thought that the very least we could do was turn this attraction's post-show sequence into a dance party where USF visitors could then boogie-down right along with the minions," West said. "So we have a CG line of minions dancing across the top of  our Jumbotron. Plus two Universal cast members dressed as minions out there on the dance floor as Guests exit the main theater. So what we're trying to do here is keep that dance party feeling from the very end of the attraction going for a little while longer. Before Gru cuts off all the music and says 'Alright. Back to work.' And then basically forces all of the Guests to exit the dance floor and then go straight into our Super Silly Stuff store."

Speaking of the attraction itself ... I don't want to give away too much of the "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" storyline other than to say that Mike and his team have crammed an awful lot of fun into this 4 minute-long ride film.

"And I want to stress here that Universal Creative didn't do the 'Despicable Me' ride film all on our own. Chris Melandri and his team at Illumination Entertainment were very much involved in this project," West stated. "Reel Effects of Dallas did a lot of CG work on this project, as did Ken Duncan Studios of Pasadena. And Chris Bailey did a brilliant job of directing this ride film, making sure that every inch of this screen was filled with minion craziness."


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

And speaking of that screen, Mike wanted to make sure that USF visitors understood that it wasn't just the exterior of the "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" show building that received an extensive overhaul. The interior of the main theater underwent a pretty intense makeover as well.

"The screen inside of that theater now is 70% bigger than the one 'Jimmy Neutron' used to be projected on. So it really fills your field of vision now," West enthused. "The 3D projection system that's used in this attraction is the exact same one that we use over in Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure. It's the best 3D that I've ever seen in my life. I mean, you can be seated off-angle and it's still pretty spectacular."

Speaking of "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" 's theater ... This big open space -- coupled with the motion based ride system that West & Co. carried over from "Hanna-Barbera" and "Jimmy Neutron" -- really influenced the sort of story that Universal Creative tried to tell with this attraction.


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort  / Fox. All rights reserved

"Let's face it. 'Minion Mayhem' isn't really like 'The Simpsons Ride.' I mean, sure. They both are motion based attractions featuring CG ride films that are populated with yellow people. But when you're on 'Simpsons,' once the doors of your ride vehicle come down, you're now kind of cut off from the rest of the world. Which is why what happens on that attraction seems to be happening just to you. That's why the characters in 'The Simpsons' ride film often seem to be talking directly to you," Mike said.

Whereas on 'Minion Mayhem,' because the space that this 'Despicable Me' motion based attraction occupies is far more open and better lit that 'The Simpsons Ride,' you can always see the other Guests who are experiencing this USF attraction along with you. Which is why West and his team decided to turn 'Minion Mayhem' into a far more communal experience.

"That's why we filled this show's scenes with hundreds of minions. We're hoping that -- by cramming in so many bits of business, so blink-and-you'll-miss-it gags -- that Universal Orlando Resort visitors will then be forced to ride this new attraction a second and a third time. Just so they can then try and catch all of the stuff that they missed on their first ride-thru," Mike stated.


(L to R) Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher -- the voices of Gru's daughters
Margo, Edith and Agnes -- ride "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" on July 2, 2012, the
official opening day of this new Universal Orlando Attraction. Copyright
Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

"But you want to know my favorite part of the 'Despicable Me Minion Mayhem' attraction? It's that -- in spite of everything that's going on onscreen, all of the craziness with the minions, plus the movement of the vehicle -- people are still able to keep track of this attraction's emotional storyline. I love it when I'm on the 'Despicable Me' ride and I can hear all of the little girls who in the main theater the same time as me say things like 'Save the present!' ," Mike said. "It's the moments like that when you realize that people are really getting into something that you helped create. That they're now emotionally involved in the storyline that you helped write. Which -- given that these ride films are typically only 4 minutes-long -- is a pretty hard thing to do. Hook them in like that. Make them actually care about these characters and their storyline."

Which is why -- when you talk with people who work in the themed entertainment industry these days -- it would now appear that there's a new gold standard. At least when it comes to retrofitting an old show building with a brand-new, story-driven attraction.

So the next time you're at the Universal Orlando Resort, be sure at drop by Production Central to experience "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem." So that you can then see why so many people who work in the themed entertainment industry are now calling this new USF attraction one in a minion ... er ... million.


Copyright Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved

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  • Wonderful! More Universal articles, please!

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