It’s an ongoing debate that has many answers – which is better: Universal or Disney?
Sure, Universal has the thrills and, of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Hogwarts Express, while Disney has Mickey Mouse, more theme parks, and ultimately, more magic.
But with new attractions at the Universal Orlando Resort relying heavily on screens and 3D, are we entering a new era of theme parks where screens are king? And is this a lazy way to approach theme park entertainment?
Universal Orlando incorporates the latest technology in its newer rides to bring Guests an immersive experience. Among those enhancements is the use of 3D technology that is fast becoming a regular part of theme park fun.
It is highly noticeable, however, that the two Universal theme parks are overly reliant on motion simulators – more colloquially known as “screen rides” or “3D rides”. These screen rides can be perceived as being lazy, cost-saving, and somewhat repetitive.
So, does that mean Universal’s attraction designers are lazier than Imagineers at Walt Disney World? Well, we think so.
Think about it. Go around the Universal Studios park and identify all of the rides that use screens. You’ve got The Simpsons Ride, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, Fast & Furious: Supercharged, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D, and the new Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Whew. And that’s just in one theme park.
Most of these attractions are heavily reliant on screens. Unlike Walt Disney World rides – like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance – that use screens to create backgrounds or enhance a scene, these Universal rides’ screens are the ride itself. Jimmy Fallon’s racetrack and The Simpsons’ escape from Sideshow Bob are all up there on the screen.
And that’s where laziness comes into play. The ride buildings are just made up of a screen, a ride vehicle, and a queue area or preshow. These rides are typically thought of as a cost-effective alternative to the extensive use of animatronics or the creation of a roller coaster track; since the rider remains mostly stationary and the level of immersion relies on what is happening in a pre-made video.
Universal’s ride designers, therefore, did not have to deal as much with structural safety, large-scale engineering, or physical scene building.
Then look at the difference between the types of rides in Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom to Universal Orlando’s theme parks.
Disney has more diversity. It is boat rides, like “it’s a small world,” and Living with the Land, roller coasters like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain, and the new TRON: Lightcycle Run, as well as unique attractions like Rise of the Resistance, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Haunted Mansion.
There are rides that use screens in Disney World, such as Toy Story Mania and Smuggler’s Run, that put you in the action, using the screens to create the environment that you control. There are rides that use screens for a traditionally simulated experience – such as Soarin’, Flight of Passage, and Star Tours – but each of these puts riders in a unique vehicle. Unlike Universal’s reliance on row-based cars, attractions like Flight of Passage’s Banshee ride give an additional sensory degree of immersion.
In Universal Studios, there is such a saturation of a single type of ride – screen rides – that they start to become repetitive, and actually uncomfortable for many Guests. And Universal Orlando Resort’s simulator rides are all the same. A ride vehicle, a screen, boom.
We’ve all got that member of our party who avoids simulator rides due to motion sickness. Think Mission: SPACE in EPCOT or Star Tours in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. These motion simulator rides generate that sense of immersion by combining the controlled movement of a ride vehicle with a screen projection, often further enhancing the experience with 3D glasses and wind or water effects.
This can prove to cause discomfort for many Guests, which begs the question – is Universal Orlando Resort becoming more inaccessible for many Guests prone to motion sickness? Are there just too many screen-based rides?
Attractions for younger Guests, like Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, are full of jokes and quirky storylines, but Gru’s 3D glasses and simulator-type ride may be too much for Guests prone to motion sickness. Over in Islands of Adventure, of course, we also find The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
These are all, again, full of screens, but what sets Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey against its other Universal counterparts is its use of physical scene elements. Animatronics, a ‘real’ Whomping Willow, and castle facades.
We see this too with Skull Island: Reign of Kong, but this ride is similar to Fast & Furious: Supercharged. The majority of the ride experience is created by a long dark tunnel of screen activity in a large ride vehicle (think Kilimanjaro Safaris) with not much movement. There are, however, physical scene elements and animatronics similar to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but after riding a huge amount of screen rides in the parks, this use of screens can get tedious and highly noticeable.
So, is this laziness, cost-saving, or just a lack of creativity? It seems that with the popularity of the new thrill ride Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, there is still a desire for rides with no screens, but we shall see what the future brings.
It will be interesting to see what type of attractions will feature in Epic Universe, Universal’s new theme park coming Summer 2025. With four themed lands (one so far revealed to be Super Nintendo World), we’re sure to see some type of simulator or screen ride in the mix, but will it be possible to beat Walt Disney World?