Last week, while I was away in Anaheim attending the run-up to Disneyland's 66th birthday, Disney Parks chairman Josh D'Amaro dropped a bombshell on California's themed entertainment industry by announcing the relocation of 2,000 employees — including most of the famed Imagineers — to Orlando's Lake Nona. The implications of this move will reverberate in attraction designs for decades to come, but I don't want to let this news overshadow another recent seismic shift I observed in my West Coast visit. For years, Universal has been known for high-tech screen-based rides, while Disney was the domain of physical sets and animatronics; but as the SoCal park's big 2021 additions prove, that old conventional wisdom seems to be kaput.
Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure made its year-delayed debut on June 4, offering Disneyland visitors the chance to walk into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In many ways, the new expansion feels like Disney's response to criticisms levied against Star Wars Galaxy's Edge, whose commitment to its fictional canon barred beloved characters and background music out of the land. Here, you'll hear the 8-bar Avengers theme on an incessant loop while watching Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff team up with Steve "Captain America" Rogers to take on the Taskmaster, despite the fact that she's dead and he's 120 in the current continuity.
At Avengers Campus, aspiring heroes can also participate a surprisingly emotional warrior training session with Wakanda's shorn-skulled Dora Milaje or enjoy some birthday-party magic from a Benedict Cumberbatch clone in Dr. Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, all while munching mega-sized snacks from Ant-Man's test kitchen. About the only things you won't find are a scrap of shade (apparently Avengers aren't affected by sunstroke) or the Marvel name, since Universal Islands of Adventure retains those exclusive rights.
The new land's biggest "wow" moment comes during the periodic launching of their prototype Spider-Man stunt double. Designed in part by the late Grant Imahara of MythBusters, the amazing animatronic brings pedestrian traffic in the area to a halt whenever propelled through the air above the new Web Slingers attraction. That brief ballyhoo might just be better than the ride below it, which follows in the footsteps of Universal Orlando's award-winning 22-year old Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Truth be told, Disney's 3-D videogame starring Tom Holland's take on Peter Parker is a lot more fun to play in person than it looks on YouTube, providing an energizing physical workout as you fling about your forearms to sling virtual webs at scurrying spider-bots. (Pro tip: Aim for red and gold targets in the rear corners, and don't bother making Spidey's split-finger hand gestures; just keep karate-chopping like crazy.)
Although it's a blast competing against friends and family for first place (and my non-gamer wife repeatedly kicked my butt), I'm ultimately disappointed. It's too bad that Disneyland's first original Marvel attraction ended up only being a D-Ticket Toy Story Midway Mania, with sharper graphics and upgraded versions of the Triotech hand-tracking sensors from Legoland's Ninjago ride. Other than Spidey himself, no other recognizable Marvel characters participate in the adventure, and although there's a nice holographic preshow similar to Universal's Harry Potter rides, there's nary an animatronic inside the building. Worst of all, a mandatory Virtual Line system (identical to the one used for Rise of the Resistance) plus hour-plus queues means you'll be lucky to ride once per day, making the $30-and-up score-improving toys they sell even more absurd.
On the other hand, nearly all the weaknesses in Web Slingers turned out to be strengths of The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash, which opened at Universal Studios Hollywood earlier this spring. Though not quite on the same scope and scale as the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, SLoP has almost as much charm and imaginative detail as those all-time Disney classics, and is easily the best family-friendly dark ride Universal has built since the E.T. Adventure.
Even if you're unfamiliar with Max the Jack Russell (Patton Oswalt, replacing Louie C.K. for obvious reasons), Snowball the bunny rabbit (Kevin Hart), and the rest of Illumination Entertainment's adorable domestic animals, you'll enjoy touring their detailed New York brownstone apartments — filled with multiple aww-inspiring animatronics — before embarking on a gentle journey to your own "adoption." The four-minute crawl through sight-gag stuffed sets, enhanced with explosive projection mapping effects and populated by dozens of huggable animated figures, put a big silly smile on my face from start to finish and rewards repeat rides. Happily, Universal's version of Virtual Queue doesn't require you to smash your smartphone exactly at 7 a.m., and I waited less than 40 minutes in the entertaining queue. My only gripe is that unnecessarily restrictive seat restraints and too-short boarding walkways make it unfriendly for infants, larger folks and the disabled.
SloP is joined this summer at Universal Hollywood by the completed Jurassic World water ride, which finally received a show-stopping new finale featuring an enormous animatronic Indominus Rex that could eat Expedition Everest's Yeti for lunch. Illumination has already been named as an anchor IP for Orlando's upcoming Epic Universe park. Designers have downplayed talk of retheming IOA's aging Jurassic Park River Adventure, but after riding both in California, I'm impatient for them to come east. I say rip out Shrek 4-D to slap down SloP, and pluck out Jurassic Park for more Pratt.