Every theme park in Southern California must accept the fact that they will always play catch-up to Disneyland. The Happiest Place on Earth has a hammerlock on the market out here, with everyone else vying for second place. Universal Studios, which earned its spurs by establishing a unique identity separate from other parks, struggles with issues of size and relevance. It needs to add new, more exciting attractions, but has very little space to do so. It has responded by betting big on 3D: virtual attractions that don’t take up a lot of territory. It’s proven a reliable formula, and when it works provides perhaps the most efficient outlet for 3D technology.
Their new Transformers ride makes the “shock and awe” potential of 3D manifest in a frankly terrific way. Set in the live action Michael Bay universe, it deftly dispenses with all of the superfluous baggage required for a motion picture and simply mainlines the adrenaline straight into our veins. In a lot of ways, it’s an infinitely more enjoyable experience than sitting through one of Bay’s relentless movies. More importantly, no other park in town has quite replicated it.
Guests enter a tram car that seats about twelve people, intended to be the “driver’s seat” of a heroic Autobot. The Decepticons are after the Allspark again and engage in a running battle with you and the other Autobots to get it. Basically, we play Shia LeBeouf in the midst of a typically Bay-esque action sequence. The car moves between a combination of practical elements and 3D screens to give the impression of zipping through streets, fighting across construction sites and helping Optimus Prime slug it out with Megatron.
It works incredibly well. Universal has designed the cars so that every seat provides an excellent view and the immersive nature of the ride means that everyone gets a good look at the effects. It also captures the best parts of the Bay movies, along with cleaner fight scenes and an effective means of combining the 3D images with practical effects like lighting and steam. The Universal staff members on hand all get into the spirit of things – dressed in fatigues and saluting visitors as “freedom fighters” helping to save the planet. The only downside is the comparatively short length, which might not justify the lengthy waits in line required to get there. (The line itself contains a lot of fun elements however: videos of an impending Decepticon attack and panicky officials informing us that we’re “the planet’s only hope.”)
The ride officially kicks off this May, providing what Unviersal hopes will be a big boost in ticket sales. It still can’t put them in the same league as Disneyland, but along with the parks other a-list attractions (such as Terminator 3-D) ensures that customers won’t leave the park disappointed. With the bloom off the 3D rose in theaters, the ride shows us where the technology can do the most good: stripped of its dramatic conceits and delivering a little slight of hand to put us face-first in a great experience. Well-played Universal. The films could have used a little more of your magic.