“The days of of ‘Build it and they shall come’ are over – An Interview with Theme Park Veteran Barry Upson

For my article about movie tie-in theme park attractions, I interviewed Barry Upson in June 2009. Barry was the executive in charge of the concept, facility design, construction and operation of the original Univeral Studios Tour in Hollywood. For twenty years, from 1979 to 1999, he was executive vice president of Universal Creative. Among other things, he managed the Master Planning of Universal City Florida. He now works as a consultant in his own company. The interview was done via e-mail. It has been slightly edited.

Real Virtuality: Please describe your motivations and the steps you took back when you were creating Universal’s Studio Park. What did you consider back then?

Barry Upson: A little history. In 1914 Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, invited paid guests to view shooting of silent films from bleachers on the lot. The first movie studio “tour” was attended by 500 people per day. During the 1920’s through the 1960’s and beyond, several studios operated small, exclusive walking tours of their lots (Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM, etc.). As you know, Disney used their cartoon and animated film, characters widely in the creation of Disneyland. Universal permitted Grayline Tour Buses to drive through the studio (for a fee) in the late 1950’s. Passengers saw film clips, a make-up show and ate lunch in the Commissary.

The Grayline experience convinced Universal management that there was a business in a working studio tour for several reasons: There obviously was a huge pent-up demand to go “behind the scenes”, see how movies are made, maybe see “stars”. The tour allowed for the promotion of prime time TV shows, of which a majority were being filmed at Universal at the time and offered the possibility of creating new revenue from an existing plant. A tram tour could be routed hourly to either expose or avoid shooting companies as circumstances demanded.

At the outset, and for several ensuing years (1964 to 1980), the studio tram tour and the tour guides were the “stars” and the tram special effects and shows were the “bit players” at Universal. Early tram impacting attractions (Collapsing Bridge; Red Sea Parting; Ice Tunnel; Flash Flood; Runaway Train, etc.) were themed and presented as 4-D film-like special effects – not necessarily tied to specific movies or TV shows. Early very simple effects demonstrations in the tour center were more directly tied to a title: “Creatures From the Black Lagoon”; “Frankenstein”. Original stunt and animal shows (and screen test theater) were generic “behind the scenes” presentations.

By 1980, Universal Tour attendance levels made Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm direct competitors. Larger, bolder and more recognizable attractions were needed to compete and build attendance. This is when “rights” (IPR’s) started to become a major issue. During the 1980’s, major attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood were based on the storyline or adopted the theme and/or name of major Universal IP’s. Examples are the “Conan Show” (live actor-animation), the “A-Team” live action stunt show, the “King Kong” Tram attraction with major figure animation, the “Earthquake” drive-through with major special effects and the “Castle Dracula” live theater attraction.

Even gaining these exclusive rights internally was often difficult and costly because of cast deals, partnerships, etc.

How did you walk the line between creating things that were both “real”, i.e. credible, and entertaining at the same time?

The most boring aspect of movies and TV is the actual filming process and even that can be overcome with the on-set presence of “stars”. Since most, if not all of Universal’s attractions are based on a final film product or selected compelling components of the process (stunts, animals, screen tests, etc.) there was never really a line between “real” and “entertaining” – the attractions had to be both. The studio environment is also always “real” in its own way.

Have any of these motivations or proceedings changed, esp. later when the park in its current form developed?

The motivation is generally the same. Theme parks want to create a compelling guest experience, they want to adhere effectively to a theme or storyline. They have to build attendance, beat the competition, keep to a budget and schedule and make a profit.

Possible proceedings to achieve this are: work on a grander scale, improve the design dteails, use more complex content or infrastructure, achieve a higher capacity and use more sophisticated operations and maintenance.

Securing exclusive rights to strong film properties from any source is more critical now to creating an attraction that cannot be duplicated competitively. Universal Studios Florida would not exist except for Spielberg Film rights. The same is true for Universal’s Islands of Adventure with Spider-Man, Dr. Seuss, Dudly Doright, etc.

Is it different making movie attractions then and now? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

A realistic evaluation of potential market size and composition and effective response to it is more critical today. The days of of “Build it and they shall come” are over.

Other than dealing with the design/development and business practice differences of producing attractions or parks overseas as opposed to the United States, I think the fundamental creative process is the same. At both Universal and Disney, the basic concept is created in-house with design extension done by highly experienced outside firms and fabrication/construction done by the most qualified companies worldwide.

What are the important aspects one has to consider first and foremost when creating a new attraction based on movies?

The most important factors in building a good movie attraction are exclusive I.P.R. Rights, a “pre-sold” successful movie or TV theme, a simple, powerful storyline or concept and a compelling, cohesive guest experience. Moreover you need an adequate schedule and budget, high quality consultants and purveyors, an adequate capacity for minimal wait times, effective experience set-up in the queue line or pre-show. You will want to minimize cannibalization of attendance at other primary park attractions and finally you will need xcellent marketing.

Many Theme Parks simply adopt a movie/t.v. title as a name for a standard iron ride or Show. Universal, Disney and Warners built their attractions around the basic premise of the film. There is a world of difference in these two strategies.

How do you decide which movie to turn into a ride or other attraction?

How to “decide” is based on any number of different factors depending on circumstanc: It’s having an appropriate theme within the park’s attraction mix and a key scene/storyline that will drive a compelling attraction concept. Rights availability and a need for a distinct competitive edge in the park’s market almost always influence the decision. Often the basic idea is market tested with consumer groups and the outcome of those tests can be the final decision maker.

Does the technology inspire the art or vice versa?

Whether “art” or “technology” inspires attraction concepts can best be described by some examples. The “Back To The Future” ride was inspired by the DeLorean scenes in film. Its replacement, the “Simpsons” ride is character driven. The “E.T.” Ride follows E.T.’s film journey home. All the “Dr. Seuss” Attractions at Universal Islands of Adventure are based on original stories and the “T2-3D” Attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood is basically single character-driven. So you could say they were inspired by the “art”. However, “Earthquake”, as part of the Studio Tour, was made possible by very large-scale environmental animation. “Spider-Man” is a unique, complex marriage of 3-D film, animation and ride and has the vehicle at the heart of the attraction. With “Backdraft”, large scale, real fire effects are the show and the “Jurrasic Park Ride” was shaped by the only available hillside site at Universal Studios Hollywood..

How important is good Theming to a working theme park?

You will find many in our industry that think the term “theming” is really overused in almost every facet of our life and has become a cliché. However, true theming is still critical to successful park development and operations. Good park theming is seeing to it that everything in the park contributes positively to its central story line and to a compelling, cohesive guest experience: no jarring, non-thematic events, services or facilities are allowed. This is easier said than done, but it is vital to success. Disney understands and executes theming as well or better than anyone, yet I believe they would be the first to admit that the theme environment of California Adventure was mediocre at best and impacted attendance.

Effectively linking a film’s elements to its name-sake attraction through images, dialogue, sound effects, musical score, and special effects is always desirable because it grounds the guest more strongly in that specific entertainment experience. There are many good examples of these film/attractions linkages at Universal and Disney parks: “Spider-Man”, “Simpsons”, “T2-3D” among them. Universal has just installed a state-of-the-art A/V system in their Universal Hollywood trams that permits guests to view scenes from films while traveling through the sets where they were shot, as well as other visual materials.

Is the theme park business a struggle sometimes? Did you ever terminate a project because you had the feeling it didn’t connect well enough with the movie it emulated?

I actually have quite a few war stories about both winning and losing battles in the Park/Attraction development wars. They range from rocks bouncing into trams during the rockslide effect and a real earthquake at the “Earthquake” attraction that is part of the Studio Tour. At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the perfect animation of a Triceratops was not good enough for the guests and in one case, an entire park concept had to be scrapped due to competitive gamesmanship: about 1979, Universal planned to move the Hollywood park concept of backlot tram tour and entertainment center to Orlando, Florida, which is Disney territory. In seeking a partner for the project, Universal made presentations to Paramount and a few other studios at the time. Shortly thereafter, Disney announced plans to build an MGM-Disney Theme Park at Walt Disney World…fundamentally the same park concept that Universal was planning. Universal elected to proceed anyway, dropped the tram tour component and created the first, true Movie Theme Park concept: Universal Studios Florida.

How does a ride keep up its appeal? When does it get obsolete?

An attraction keeps its appeal by remaining relevant to its market and to the primary entertainment mission of the park. It becomes “obsolete” when the original Film or TV. base drops from sight (e.g. “E.T.”), when the technology becomes passé or when we find that the site or facility is better used for a new attraction.

What is in stock for the future of theme parks?

Ah, the future. Ten years ago, I gave a speech at IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) entitled: “The Future Just Passed By…Did We Miss It?” The premise was that the basic ideas that will drive the future of the themed entertainment industry are already out there in some form. We just have to recognize them. I still believe that.

Can you think of a current example that embodies your philosophy about movie theme park attractions best?

I think the recent conversion of the “Back to the Future” attraction to the “Simpsons” attraction was a brilliant concept and has proved highly successful. The original concept for “Back to the Future” offered the opportunity to create new software for the existing facility and ride system and it worked.

The new Harry Potter Land at Universal’s Islands of Adventure should be a smash hit because of deep involvement by the original film makers, particularly its art director, and a commitment of land, budget and creative team by Universal to fully exploit the strength and appeal of the theme subject.

This is one part of a four-part package on film tie-in attractions in theme parks. The other three are a feature article, a post on how the article came about, and an interview with Craig Hanna (Thinkwell Design).

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