Regular readers might have noticed I exhausted last week’s column on the earth-shaking observation that “Wicked was overhyped.” Well, no duh! – or, should I say, no d’oh! You see, a funny thing happened on the way to that column. About two weeks ago I got word that the Simpsons Ride, Universal Studios’ highly anticipated successor to their Back to the Future simulator, had quietly soft-opened for “technical rehearsals” in advance of its May 15 grand opening. I headed for the park, dreams of penning the attraction’s first published review dancing in my head.
Seeing the ride’s finished building for the first time since the construction walls came down, I couldn’t help smiling. The drab gray Institute of Future Technology has become the eye-popping azure Krustyland, home of Springfield’s cantankerous kosher clown. While a complete reconstruction of the tenuously themed “World Expo” area would have been preferable (please replace the International [Fried] Food and Film Festival with Moe’s or Krustyburger!), Universal’s designers did a bang-up job within their budget, from mock midway games (the nailed-to-the-table milk bottle toss!) to the music loop of Alf Clausen classics.
After passing under a 26-foot-tall Krusty head, waiting guests are amused by a mix of classic Simpsons clips and fresh widescreen segments from Film Roman, animators of the TV show. The vintage vignettes are well-chosen, particularly ones of park parodies like “Itchy
& Scratchy Land” and “Selma’s Choice” (the visit to Duff Gardens.) The highlight is new footage of Professor Frink accidentally sabotaging fellow crackpot scientist Doc Brown (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), forcing him to sell out to “that mercenary clown.” Shame the video repeats after 30 minutes, since the wait will far exceed that during peak season.
After approximately 90 minutes, I reached the interior queue, featuring carnival booths fronted by familiar faces – Groundskeeper Willie shills for the bottle toss, Patty and Selma staff the lost and found, and Apu hawks “100 tacos for $100!” With all the cartoon cacophony, supplemented by a satiric slide show advertising other Krustyland attractions, it’s nearly impossible to absorb all the gags.
That is, unless the ride experiences a “brief delay,” as it did while I waited. That holdup went from minor to major, and after about two hours in line I was “evacuated” out of the building with no hope of riding that night. Such snafus are expected during the necessary pre-opening shakedown period – I once waited three hours to beta-test Spider-Man, only to have it break down as I boarded. Over the next few days, “Simpsons Now Open!” promos showed up in advertisements and on billboards around town. Some marketing maven must have decided to get a jump on the competition (Disney’s Toy Story Midway Mania opens shortly at Hollywood Studios), much to the chagrin of the operations and guest services departments.
So, after spitting out my Wicked whine, I sent a quick “WTF?” e-mail to the friendly folks at Universal PR. They immediately replied with an invitation to ride sans wait – journalism might not pay, but it has its perks. The next day I was back at the attraction accompanied by Creative Studios executive producer Mike West, who described for me his two-plus years of work with Gracie Films and its founder James L. Brooks on the project. He pointed out details like the caricature of series creator Matt Groening in the pre-show holding room as I guffawed at the hyperviolent “legally mandated safety video.” Finally, the door to the ride vehicles opened, revealing a clown-faced car resembling the former gull-winged DeLoreans. (West assures me the similarity is superficial, as the simulators’ structures have been entirely rebuilt.)
The 80-foot domed screen is the same, but IMAX celluloid has given way to a quartet of cutting-edge Sony 4K digital projectors – the image is dimmer than I expected, but at least it won’t degrade with dust and dirt. I was also surprised by the style of the ride footage rendered by Blur Studio and Reel FX: textured CGI reminiscent of The Simpsons Hit & Run Xbox game or the “Homer Cubed” sequence from the “Treehouse of Horrors VI” episode. While I understand the desire to give the ride a distinct look, as well as the impracticality of hand-animating a giant-format film, it’s jarring after the traditionally styled pre-shows; cell-shading a la the most recent Simpsons video game might have been a better choice.
There’s little time for aesthetic quibbles, as the ride is a nonstop assault for its nearly five-minute run. The plot (no spoilers here!), involving yet another murderous scheme from Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer), is a loose excuse for a chaotic cavalcade of cutting commentary on theme-park culture; spot the sendups of Pirates of the Caribbean, Shamu and many more. There are so many quips and cameos that re-riding is required to catch them all. Thankfully, it’s significantly smoother than its vertebrae-smashing predecessor, though just as thrilling.
As a BTTF diehard I’m relieved to declare the Simpsons Ride a more than worthy successor. It isn’t quite the scuttled Simpsons area (featuring Otto’s School Bus Ride) once slated for Islands of Adventure, but it’s the next best thing. Hint: For the best view, politely request Level 2, Room 6, and sit in the front row. Meantime, anyone know where I can buy a used flux firstname.lastname@example.org