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"Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon" combines high speed tour of NYC with affectionate celebration of the history of NBC's "Tonight Show"

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"Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon" combines high speed tour of NYC with affectionate celebration of the history of NBC's "Tonight Show"

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Ask baby boomers about Certs and their immediate response will be (thanks to having watched 'way too much television commercials in their youth) that " ... it's two (click) two (click) two mints in one."

So why mention this breath mint (No, it's a candy mint) at the very start of an article about "Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon" ? Because this recent addition to Universal Studios Florida is kind of the Certs of attractions. In that it's not just a thrilling simulation of a high-speed trip thru NYC. It's also a museum that honors the history of NBC's "The Tonight Show." Not to mention being a fun approximation of what it's actually like to visit 30 Rock and then attend a taping of the Jimmy Fallon edition of this late-night institution.


As confetti rained down on USF's New York backlot,
"Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon"
officially opened to the public on April 6, 2017.
Photo by Nancy Stadler 

And to hear Jason Surrell (i.e., who was creative director on the "Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon" project) talk, this was all done deliberately. Not just because of the many different types of people who vacation at Universal Orlando Resort and then visit its two (but soon-to-be three) theme parks. But also because Fallon insisted upon it.

"Jimmy has long been an active collaborator on this project," Surrell explained. "In fact, he was the one who actually reached out to us back in 2009 with an idea for a ride. Jimmy had just started as the new host of NBC's 'Late Night' in March of that same year. And as a long-time theme park enthusiast ... Well, he just wanted to let Universal Creative know that he was ready & willing to work with us."

Unfortunately for Fallon, since Universal Creative (i.e., the arm of NBCUniversal that actually designs & develops all of the attractions for the Universal theme parks) was busy at that time getting the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter ready for its June 2010 opening when he initially reached out. Which is why they then had to politely take a pass on his proposition. But given Fallon's obvious eagerness to have some sort of role on the theme park side of NBCUniversal ... Well, that's how Jimmy wound up as the "Virtual Studio Tour Guide" of the Universal Studios Hollywood's tram tour back in June of 2011.


Copyright Universal Studios Hollywood. All rights reserved

We now jump ahead to February of 2014. Which is when Fallon succeeds Jay Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show." Jimmy decides to return this NBC institution to its roots by moving production of this television program back to NYC. To be specific, to Studio 6B at 30 Rock. Which is where Jack Parr & Johnny Carson taped "The Tonight Show" from 1960 - 1972.

And just about the same time that the new based-in-New-York-City version of 'The Tonight Show' is shooting to the top of the ratings, Universal Creative decides to replace "Twister ... Ride It Out." Based on Universal Pictures' summer 1997 blockbuster, this physical effects-filled show has been entertaining Universal Studios Florida visitors since May of 1998. But it's now time for a whole new experience that (it is hoped) will then be a far better fit for the New York backlot portion of this theme park.

"So what with 'The Tonight Show' once again taping in New York City and a prime piece of real estate opening up right at the entrance to the New York-themed section of Universal Studios Florida, we knew that the time was right to reach out to Jimmy. So we said 'If you're still interested in doing something for the parks, we think we've now got the perfect spot for just such an attraction.' And he readily agreed. Which is when we then began development of 'Race Through New York,' " Jason stated.


Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

Now please note that this recent Universal Studios Florida addition is NOT called "The Tonight Show Ride." But - rather - "Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon." And that has a lot to do with the large number of international travelers who regularly vacation at Universal Orlando Resort.

"When we initially began developing this attraction, one of the things that we immediately had to take into account was that a lot of our international guests wouldn't be familiar with "The Tonight Show' or Jimmy Fallon. But New York City, they'd know," Surrell explained. "And Jimmy - to his credit - embraced this reality. More to the point, given all those years that he spent in the City while appearing on 'Saturday Night Live' and now 'The Tonight Show,' Jimmy feels that he owes a lot of his success to the people & the city of New York. Which is why he was totally on board with the idea that this attraction would somehow celebrate the City."

But how exactly would this 'Tonight Show' -inspired ride go about paying tribute to the Big Apple? As their jumping-off point for this experience, Surrell and his team decided to use something that was already a key component of the Fallon version of this NBC institution. Which was all of those wacky games that Jimmy plays with his celebrity pals."


Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

"This competition element was already a well-established piece of the DNA of the Jimmy Fallon version of 'The Tonight Show.' But instead of competing with some celebrity, Jimmy's now decided to challenge his entire studio audience to a race. The ultimate race through New York City," Jason continued. "Jimmy would be using a custom vehicle called the Tonight Rider (EDITOR'S NOTE: Which Surrell eventually admitted was an affectionate nod to "Knight Rider," that David Hasselhoff show that aired on NBC back in the early 1980s) while our guests would be participating in the world's first flying theater.

Mind you, to properly set the scene for "Race Through New York," the team of Universal Creative took the old "Twister ... Ride It Out" show building and completely gutted it. Turning the interior & exterior of this 6-stories tall structure into a faithful recreation of 30 Rock (i.e., that historic building in Rockefeller Plaza that has been home to NBC Studios since the early 1930s).

"Jessica Iaconis, Tom Geraghty, and I carefully studied 30 Rock and then did everything we could to replicate its look & feel. Right down to the distinctive way the floors were done in that building," Jason enthused. "We even made sure that Universal Orlando team members who work at this attraction are dressed exactly like the real NBC pages are dressed up in New York City."


Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

Asked what his favorite part of this project was, Surrell - who's long been a late-night television aficionado - was quick to talk about History Hall. Which is the first floor section of "Race Through New York" that celebrates all of the entertainment legends who hosted this show prior to Mr. Fallon.

"This was the portion of the attraction that Jimmy felt most passionate about. He wanted to make sure that this ride had an area that honored all of those great performers who hosted 'The Tonight Show' before him. So we've got display cases here that pay tribute to Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, even Conan O'Brien," Jason stated. "And me personally, one of the most gratifying things is to be down on the first floor and see little kids with their faces pressed up against the glass looking at that Carnac the Magnificent turban and then getting a sense of who Johnny Carson was."


Photo by Nancy Stadler

Of course, if you're more of a fan of today's "Tonight Show," not to worry. The second floor of "Race Through New York" is a celebration of the current era of this late-night institution. Here, you'll be treated to live performances by the Ragtime Gals and/or the easily exhausted Hashtag the Panda. You'll also have time to sprawl on some comfortable couches, play some "Tonight Show" -themed games and/or send a few Jimmy Fallon-esque "Thank You" e-mails off to friends & family members before you then experience this attraction.

"Jimmy has said that '... 'The Tonight Show' is all about fun & positivity & laughter & putting a smile on your face.' And we really worked hard to bring his vision to life with this new USF attraction," Surrell said. "I know that when someone says 'late night TV show,' you don't automatically think 'thrill ride.' But here with 'Race Through New York,' we put as much time & attention into getting the details right with 30 Rock and Studio 6B as we did with Hogwarts and Diagon Alley."

And Surrell is right when he talks about sweating the details on "Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon." Take - for example - how he mapped out the route that Fallon would follow as he drove the Tonight Rider through the City.


Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

"I sat with a giant map of Manhattan in my office. And I said to myself 'If Jimmy were running this as a real race, he'd first get out of 30 Rock, then go down 5th Avenue, take a left on Broadway so that he could then go Downtown." I worked out the precise route and then handed it off to ILM, who produced the amazing ride film that we use in 'Race Through New York,' " Jason recalled. "Mind you, their response - when they got the route that I'd mapped out through the City - was 'You do realize that we've only have 4 minutes of screen time, right?' So as ILM was producing our ride film, I'd periodically get messages where they'd say 'We just blew out another six blocks of Mid-town.' And I'd be like "Oh my gosh. The New Yorkers are just going to flip out.' "

Yeah, residents of the Big Apple probably are going to flip out when they experience 'Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon.' But not because of anything that Jason Surrell & his team got wrong. But - rather - because of everything that they got right (right down to the distinctive smell of New York pizza. A slice of which Fallon sends whizzing by your head before he then takes to the sky aboard the Tonight Rider for a rendezvous with the Statue of Liberty).


Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Thursday, April 20, 2017

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