Last month, I began the first of three theme-park related columns with my rave review of Disney's Rivers of Light, a show that greatly exceeded my tempered expectations. This week, we wrap up this attractions trilogy by taking a trip to the Big Apple – or at least Universal Studios Florida's version of it – for a "technical rehearsal" sneak preview of that park's big new summer addition, Race Through New York With Jimmy Fallon.
The new Tonight Show-themed experience, which replaced the cheesy cult-favorite Twister walk-through, sits on the very same spot where I enjoyed my first employment in Orlando, as a technician on the Ghostbusters show. So I'll admit in advance to holding Universal's latest ride to an elevated standard, if only for sentimental reasons. After over a year of anticipating Fallon's arrival, the affable Tonight Show host's attraction turns out to be both a giant leap forward for crowd management, and a small step sideways for simulators.
As for first impressions, the new building's facade – an exacting scaled-down replica of NBC's historic offices at 30 Rockefeller Center, including the Art Deco bas-relief carvings and lighted marquee – makes a far better anchor for Universal's New York area than Twister's bland, boxy soundstage did, and gets bonus points for window-dressing nods to the late Bill Paxton. You may be tempted to charge through the front doors, but slow down: In a first for a major Central Florida attraction, there is no standard standby queue; instead, all guests (except those with Express passes) must first be assigned a Virtual Queue reservation time via Universal's smartphone app or automated kiosks that resemble Disney's old FastPass dispensers.
At their appointed entry time, "NBC pages" dressed like the real thing (or, if you've never toured the building, like Kenneth from 30 Rock) assign guests a color-coded boarding group. When the lobby lights change to the proper hue, it signals your turn to ascend to the building's second level. While you wait, there's a handsome exhibit to explore that pays tribute to all Tonight Show hosts past and present, including Steve Allen, Jack Parr and even Conan O'Brien, complete with a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog puppet. Take your time here to inspect the artifacts, rather than herding in front of the staircase as many guests seem to do.
Once upstairs, guests await their audience with Fallon in a plush lounge featuring comfy couches, USB charging stations and touchscreen tables loaded with custom 8-bit video games and emailable "Thank You" notes. The highlight of this high-tech holding pen is a replica of the Studio 6B stage, which hosts live appearances by accident-prone mascot Hashtag the Panda and the Ragtime Gals barbershop quintet. Directed by Jason Horne, who has also been pulling double duty directing the Mardi Gras parade, the ensemble performs medleys of pop and rap hits with a cappella harmonies; just think of them as the Dirty Dapper Dans. With a wealth of bits in their repertoire – including classroom instrument covers and lip-sync battles – this is the best new live musical show in an Orlando park since Celestina Warbeck debuted in Diagon Alley.
When it's finally your turn to ride – about 20 minutes after entering the building once the attraction is at full capacity, according to Universal Creative designer Jason Surrell – you'll grab your de rigueur dichroic 3-D goggles and line up for one of the attraction's twin 72-seat simulators, each of which sports six 12-passenger rows with wood accents that mimic Fallon's actual studio audience seating. Dubbed "the world's first flying theater," the DyMoRides-based motion platform has more in common with Universal's Despicable Me and Shrek shaking seats than with Epcot's Soarin, but it does generate remarkably smooth movement that most guests should be able to stomach.
A four-story-tall curved screen provides razor-sharp visuals as you chase Jimmy's juiced-up jalopy (named the "Tonight Rider," natch) from Times Square to the Statue of Liberty, with a side trip to the moon. Unfortunately, the clarity highlights the rendering flaws in the ride film, which was produced by the usually reliable Industrial Light and Magic; Fallon and the other obviously green-screened live actors look like cartoonish Colorforms plastered atop hyper-realistic backdrops. A more fundamental problem is that, while devoted Fallon watchers may laugh in recognition at characters like the "Ew! Girl" and "Tight Pants," as someone who quit watching the Tonight Show when Carson retired, I was left nonplussed by the jokes. Surrell says they can swap out the preshow entertainment over time to stay current, but Jimmy's pre-recorded material already feels dated after only a few visits.
Ultimately, Fallon's new attraction is a E-Ticket wrapper surrounding a C-Ticket ride. Race Through New York's real legacy won't be clear until it officially opens and we see if it operates efficiently enough to fulfill its promise to eliminate the usual queuing that curses most theme park visits. If it can, look for similar strategies to spread to other new attractions, like 2018's Fast and Furious ride. Then, the only question left for Universal's designers to answer will be: What to do with all the guests who aren't standing in lines?