Universal Orlando Theme Parks

DISASTER!  Starring You!

Location:  Universal Studios Florida
Pro’s:  “Musion” technology is groundbreaking
Con’s:  The rest of the attraction is little more than a rehash of its predecessor “Earthquake”
Rating:  6.5 out of 10

When Universal Orlando first opened to the public in 1990, the attraction "Earthquake" was considered one of its 'must do' rides.  In Universal’s best tradition, the Earthquake attraction gave you a behind the scenes glimpse of the 1975 disaster film, complete with introduction by the film’s star, Charlton Heston. The attraction showcased everything from the special effects used in the film, the techniques used to shoot certain action sequences, and a ride on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)- the subway system in San Francisco.  In 1990, this was hot – but by 2007 this once venerable attraction had passed the point of irrelevance, and become a symbol of the problems that have caused Universal to consistently lose market share over the last few years.  Outdated rides based on outdated films.  It was time for a change – and that change came in the form of “DISASTER – starring YOU!”.

Using our Premier Annual passes, we were able to use the express pass line (the Premier annual passes at Universal include express pass admission after 4pm on most days). We were led into the pre-show room where all occupants were repeatedly (and loudly) instructed to “move as far to the right as possible”. Once the room was full, we were greeted by ‘the assistant’ to the great disaster film producer Frank Kincaid (portrayed by Christopher Walken) who explains that we’re needed to help them finish filming scenes for Kincaid’s new summer blockbuster – “Mutha Nature” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson” .  10 volunteers were selected at random from the audience to assist later on in the show.  With the new ‘plot’ for the attraction laid out by the assistant, we were moved into the first of three areas.

Upon entering the first room, I first noticed that the stage seemed oddly lit.  Eventually I understood that this was to enhance the special effects we were about to see.  The ‘assistant’ was buzzing around the stage hurriedly as Christopher Walken enters. That's when pretty much every jaw in the place dropped.  Using a new technology called “Musion”, they are able to create a life-size, 3D video image , and have that image move about the stage fairly unencumbered.  I was trying to see what the image was being projected, but since the image, and the assistant (who was live) were sharing the same spaces at various points during the show, it was clear- there were no screens or mirrors on the stage. Think of it as really good 3D without the stupid glasses. 

I’ll go on record now and say that whatever you may think of Universal (or this attraction), I predict that this technology will be as ubiquitous in theme parks 20 years from now as audio animatronics are today – it’s that impressive.  In fact it’s so impressive that your left to wonder just how good the rest of the attraction will be, and therein lies the problem.  They saved the best for first on this one.

The truth is very few changes were made to the rest of the attraction over its predecessor.  The second part of the show involved watching the aforementioned volunteers filming a variety of scenes that will be used in the “Disaster” movie (a trailer for which you get to see at the end of the show).  Filmed against a green screen (so that special effects can be added later), the volunteers jump, flail and scream their way thru the filming.  With the exception of a few “Disaster” logos placed around the set and the rather monotonous script, this is virtually identical to Earthquake.  I knew that they were going to borrow elements from Earthquake to use in this, but I thought they would have gone a bit further in trying to really give the new version it’s own identity, rather than just slapping a fresh coat of paint on everything.  Also, I have to say that I thought the script they were using was particularly bad.  The humor relies almost entirely on jokes about celebrity rehab and Lindsay Lohan.  We hear this not once, not twice but three times.  Universal has some great writers working for them (Halloween Horror Night’s 'Bill & Ted' show is an excellent example), so when they have to do repetitive celebrity rehab jokes, it’s clear someone wasn’t trying very hard.

From there we’re led into the third and final sequence, the “Subway” (it’s a tram). Those who had experienced Earthquake before are very familiar with this: you take the “BART” into the Embarcadero subway station when a major earthquake hits.  The tram begins to shake from side to side as the street above collapses, trucks explode, fire erupts and thousands of gallons of water rush in.  With the exception of flat panel TV’s being added to the trams, there were no obvious changes here either.  The special effects are the same as they were in 1990 when it opened.  I was expecting something a little different.  I was hoping we’d see Christopher Walken walk out on to the subway platform after the scene was over to remind us one more time just how impressive the Musion technology is. 

As the tram moves in reverse back to it's starting point, you're shown a rather funny completed trailer for the movie you just filmed, and this is where we get to see Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for all of about 10 seconds.  The trailer was funny, and was a nice addition to the attraction.

Overall, this is a better than average addition to Universal's line up. Then again, when you consider that the Earthquake attraction was 17 years old and the movie it was based on was 35 years old, "Liza Minelli's Wild Horse & Buggy Ride" would have been a welcome change. Also, I think this attraction demonstrates a consistent problem that Universal faces - flashes of brilliance surrounded by mind numbing mediocrity. The first five minutes of the attraction showcase bleeding edge technology, while the remaining 10 minutes are little more than "kinda sorta what it was before but not really".

I will say in Universal’s defense, that they were careful to play down expectations for this.  Their press release announcing it’s reopening refers to its use of “the best, most dramatic elements of Earthquake with an all new storyline”.  One other area I need to give Universal credit is that this time they created a ride based on a fictitious movie.  “Disaster” is more timeless and does not have a legitimate film property to date it.

Now, while I found the 2/3rds of this a bit disappointing, judging from the reaction of those around me – this was a crowd pleaser.  The lines for this will be long (especially thru the peak periods) and the explosions and earthquake effects of the final sequence may be too intense for younger children, but the rest of the kids will love it. 

While it may seem from this review that I didn’t like this very much, I am adding this to our “Must-Do” list at Universal for the sole reason that a five minute demonstration of the Musion technology is worth a one hour wait in line.  If you go in knowing what to expect, you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more, and after all – that’s why we're here.

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