Visitors to Universal Studios in Orlando on Monday night got to witness the premiere of the new high-tech, dancing-fountain, cinematic show to end the day in the park in what the show’s creator called "a kiss goodnight."
It’s full of images from the movies that the theme park’s many attractions are based on — from the dinos of Jurassic Park to E.T. to the Transformers and, of course, the boy wizard Harry Potter. The magical film franchise transformed Universal into a theme park powerhouse since his Wizarding World opened eight years ago and brought double-digit attendance gains.
The show uses projectors and sophisticated software to turn a wall of water from 120 fountains into a screen for movie images. Meanwhile the fountains dance, and thanks to tricks of the light, can look like sparks or balls of fire.
Working with water as a backdrop can be tricky, and the images sometimes were cut off if the water didn’t rise high enough or the wind was playing with the "screen." And some of the speakers seemed to cut in and out. By the end, it can feel more like a commercial for all the movies in Universal’s catalogue, some of them popular but not destined for "classic" status.
But these are small quibbles in a show that’s a lot of fun for pop culture movie fans. It had the crowd dancing to Justin Timberlake’s 2016 earworm Can’t Stop the Feeling from the Trolls soundtrack, and they let out a collective, "Awww," when E.T. and Elliot appeared to fly that bicycle across the moon.
The show doesn’t begin until 9:45 p.m. and visitors are advised to line up on the Central Park side of the lagoon in the New York section of Universal Studios, near the Cafe LaBamba restaurant. Those on the other side of the lagoon, in front of the Fast and the Furious ride? "They’ll see an awesome fountain show," said Michael Aiello, director of entertainment creative for Universal Orlando Resort and the show’s creator. But they won’t see the movie images on that side.
Unlike past uses of projections, the audience can see pretty much all the images along the length of the wide lagoon and even up the sides for a bit, but the back side of the show is fountains only. Still, it’s a huge improvement in projection technology.
A new three-tiered viewing area gives a good view across the lagoon where the buildings lining the New York street are turned into canvases. The ferns of the Jurassic jungle wave across the buildings to enhance scenes of Chris Pratt facing a T. rex, and the facades appear to catch fire when Megatron the Transformer bad guy shoots up the town.
I hate to give away too many spoilers, so check the bottom of this for my favorite moments. Because you are better off putting down your cell phone camera and just taking it in. It’s not just the spectacle, but the narrative Aiello has worked into a highlight reel of Universal’s most popular characters.
In addition to the lights and lasers and pyrotechnics, special effects include a "splash zone" on the edge of the lagoon when some of the images appear to make a 3D charge for the crowd. And there are clever moments when a carefully timed firework explosion adds to the story we are seeing played out on the watery screen.
Both Disney and Universal have been making greater use lately of digital projection mapping tools, like the ones that make the turrets of Cinderella’s Castle spin and change colors. But Aiello admits he shouldn’t just use these new toys for their gee-wiz sake.
"We have these great tools and a very creative team, so we also wanted to capture moments and tell a story," Aiello said on Monday, grinning from ear to ear after his baby’s debut.
Stop reading if you don’t want spoilers because some of these were really fun to be surprised by. Here’s my favorite moments:
• The fountains don’t just dance, they add depth to the images. Carefully aimed red and gold light were used to make it look like flames were coming out of evil Voldemort’s wand. When Harry shows up to scream, "Expecto patronum," the white light that explodes from his wand is blinding. And in a nice touch, the banners of each of the Hogwarts houses drop onto the facades of the New York buildings.
• Much is made of the projections, but the first two to three minutes are just a fountain show — and what a show it is. With 120 of them lined up in a grid, some shoot columns of water four stories high, while some sway and dance, and some appear to make perfect globes. All at the same time.
• During the Jurassic Park segment that kicks off the show, the booms from the speakers make it sound and feel like the ground is shaking as the giant beasts approach. One of the more clever effects is that famous scene from Jurassic World where the Shamu-like Mosasaur leaps out of the water to snatch some prey mid-air. And when the dino splashed back into the lagoon, the front row got a shower.
• In an homage to the Fast and Furious movies, cars race across the full length of the wide lagoon and when two of them crash into each other, the sudden eruption of fireworks adds a nice explosive effect.
• The first sign of E.T. drew sighs and even an "E.T.! I wuv you," from a little kid behind me. It’s a nice tip of the cap by Aiello to the E.T. Adventure ride, one of the park’s original rides when it opened in Orlando in 1990 that was later replicated in other Universal parks. But in 2003, the Hollywood version closed, and Japan followed in 2009. The Orlando version was also slated to be removed, but Steven Spielberg, who directed the film, was angered by the previous removals, which saved the ride. Ínstead, the Orlando version was refurbished in 2017.
• Can’t stop the dancing when "I got that sunshine in my pocket/ Got that good soul in my feet," begins an extended dance party to Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling. That leads to a fun series of clips of more singing cartoon characters, from the Minions to the Secret Life of Pets to a gorilla from Sing belting out, Elton John’s I’m Still Standing.
• Favorite Harry Potter images abound, from the flying car to the wand fight, but I thought the brief appearance by the merpeople, the half-human, half-fish hybrids from the Triwizard Tournament, was particularly clever to make it look like they were swimming through the fountains.
This show replaces the previous "Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Magic," which Aiello also created, and was narrated by Morgan Freeman. It ended its five-year run on Oct. 10, 2017.
"The entire show’s story is a culmination of the experiences the guests have had throughout their day, rather than being montage based," Aiello said. "It’s like a last kiss goodnight."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.