By Pete Werner
If you’ve ever watched American Idol, then you’re familiar with the advice that the judges sometime give the contestants: If you’re going to sing a famous song, you’d better be at least as good as the original. Well, apparently the same can be said for theme park attractions. If you’re an Orlando theme park doing a nighttime fireworks show that takes place around a lagoon and has globes displaying images – you’re going to get compared to Epcot’s Illuminations, and in this case anyway, Universal’s new night time show suffers greatly by comparison
The show is called Universal 360, with the 360 being a reference to the fact that there are fireworks and special effects that surround the park during the show. The show is held during the busier seasons during the year, and takes place around the lagoon inside Universal Studios theme park. Spanning the length of lagoon are 4 large globes that display the various film clips that serve as the foundation for the show.
Led by veteran Hollywood director John Landis (who directed cult classics like Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and the Blues Brothers, among others) this show is a disjointed 17 minute retrospective of Universal films over the last 85 years. Now, for starters, if you’re going to make me watch 17 minutes of video, I had better be indoors, air conditioned and seated. The show seems to rely far too heavily on the movie clips, and only on occassion are you compelled to look up or around to notice the other special effects – that’s when you can figure out where to look. There is so much happening on, around and above the lagoon at points, that it becomes just plain confusing.
For instance, at various points in the show you’ll have the movie clips showing on the lagoon, sporadic fireworks over your head, laser effects in the distance and images projected on the buildings – but very little of it happens in your line of site as you watch the show, making you (and everyone around you) look all over the place to see what’s going on. Universal’s lagoon is part of the problem, it’s oblong – as opposed to Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon, which is wider and rounder, allowing more of the show to happen inside the guests line of sight.
Another major flaw are low sound levels. Now, I’m sure this is in deference to the complaints that Universal has been getting about noise from local residents, and I can appreciate their dilemma – they don’t want to upset their neighbors. Personally, I feel if you want piece and quiet all the time, you probably shouldn’t live behind a theme park, but….I digress. I can respect the need to keep the sound levels in check, but if I can plainly hear the conversations going on around me while standing directly under a speaker, then the sound levels are just too low, and it takes a great deal away from the show. At points I really had to struggle to listen over the noise the crowd was making. If the show itself was not so chaotic, this wouldn’t be as big an issue – but unfortunately you spend 17 minutes trying to figure out where to look, trying to dicipher what it is you’re looking at, all the while straining to hear the soundtrack and filter out the 30 conversations that you can plainly hear going on all around you.
To be fair, I went back a second time, and picked a different spot to view from. It has been suggested that you should be at either end of the lagoon to get the best view of this show, but I didn’t find much difference between watching at the middle of the lagoon or at the end. Frankly, as long as you can see a globe, a building and the sky, you’ll get pretty much everything this show has to offer, however disjointed those offerings may be.
Our Recommendation: if you happen to be at Universal on a night when this show is scheduled, then I would suggest watching it. But it's not worth going out of your way to see. I live in Orlando and was disappointed. I’d be even more disappointed if I wasted a valuable night of my vacation on it.
Now, I do want to point out that in spite of this review, I have been and remain a VERY big fan of Universal Studios. I personally feel that Universal is grossly underrated by many Disney fans. Some of the best attractions, dining and hotels in Florida (and arguably the U.S.) can be found at Universal. But Universal is at it’s best when it’s being true to itself, and not trying to blatantly copy Disney. Island of Adventure is a prime example of that. I spoke to a Universal cast member before the show, and asked him how he felt the show compared to Illuminations – I guess he’d been asked that a few times, because he got a little irate telling me “we don’t compare ourselves to Disney” – after watching Universal 360, I understand why.