The State of Universal: Are they going in the right direction?

On July 24, 2017, I made myself a promise that I've held to this day. The promise was that I would not step foot into another Universal park unless they installed an attraction that was a respectable replacement for Dueling Dragons/Dragon Challenge. Call me bitter, but the fact that they chose to remove a world class attraction unlike any other for reasons that are still unexplained is a thorn in the side of any theme park fan.

Credit: Joe Shlabotnik 

The issue with my ultimatum is that from Universal's point of view, that's a hard task to accomplish. Three of their newest attractions at either park at the Orlando resort have been screen-based simulator rides. When done the right way, a motion simulator is fine. Disney's Animal Kingdom's Flight of Passage simulator is one of the best attractions that I have ever ridden. But Universal's recent simulator rides have been widely rated as very mediocre or poor attractions.

I remember how greatly anticipated the Skull Island: Reign of Kong attraction was, but after its opening, the vast majority of its reviews were disappointing. People have complained about the amount and quality of the screens involved. The way I see it, if you are going to make a bunch of attractions that are just screen-based, the audience mind as well stay home or go to the movie theater.

Not everything can be of Disney's quality, especially with expensive and complex animatronics that only they can build. But at least their most recent attractions have been of a wide variety of different ride systems. Pandora at Animal Kingdom saw the Na'vi River Journey dark ride as a supplement to the Flight of Passage simulator. Same can be said for the upcoming Galaxy's Edge at Hollywood Studios, with one interactive simulator, and one trackless dark ride. Toy Story Land at the same park opened with one new roller coaster, and one new spinning ride for families.

This year will hopefully mark the begin of a turnaround for Universal, as their newest attraction, an addition to the Harry Potter lands will be a type of roller coaster. No information has been revealed yet, but what we expect so far is that the ride will be similar to a motorbike roller coaster, where the ride vehicles are shaped to look like motorcycles. The rumored theme, will be Hagrid's flying motorcycle from the movie series.

Based off of construction photos, it seems like the ride will feature multiple launch segments, and a vertical spike, where the trains will travel in both directions. The way that this coaster will operate is different from anything that Universal has done before, which is a step in the right direction.

One big question is going to remain, and that is how will this ride match up to the ride experience of Dueling Dragons? It's hard to speculate what the final product will be without much information on the ride but we can assume some properties based on what we HAVE seen.

Credit: Midway Mayhem

Theming: One unfortunate quality about Dragon Challenge was that it was always the red-headed stepchild of the Potter area. JK Rowling believed that the ride did not fit well into the theming, and a story had to be built around the existing ride to make it fit. For Universal, this was a critical decision, as Dueling Dragons had been one of their most popular and well-known rides in the entire chain. The ride was doomed from day one, as a story and theming that was sub par to the rest of the Potter universe was slapped on the ride to save it.

With the removal of the ride, it allowed the park and creative team to have a clean slate, and come up with an attraction more fitting to the land itself. It's difficult to theme a roller coaster, as theming elements have to be built on a much larger scale, and the ride system is travelling a lot faster through the course. Considering the fact that this roller coaster will travel a lot closer to the ground, and already is assumed to have ride vehicles themed to an element from the movies, one would assume that this new roller coaster already beats out its predecessor in that category.

Intensity: Dueling Dragons was consistently rated very well in roller coaster polls, and the general public since its opening. In the annual Golden Ticket Awards, between 2000 and 2012, the coaster peaked at the number 11 ranking, and fell no lower than 35th overall. Built by B&M of Switzerland, the roller coaster was among their breed of "inverted" roller coasters, which are well praised for their intensity, smoothness, and comfort.

The new Potter coaster will likely fall into a class of "tweener" rides. While it is not a family roller coaster, it does not look to be an extreme ride either. This ride will appeal to a wide audience, and while being able to accommodate families who want to ride the attraction together, it will have its thrilling moments to please those interested in the extreme rides. Nobody can accurately rank, review, or tell how a ride will turn out until they actually ride it. Most experts in the industry would predict, however that the new ride will not live up to the intensity of Dueling Dragons based on the track that we have already seen.

Overall Experience: Many factors add up to a ride's overall rating and ride experience. While either side of Dueling Dragons would have worked great as a standalone ride at many theme parks, the ride's large marketing point was the whole dueling aspect. No other roller coaster in the world as large as the attraction had ever dueled before at the time. When Universal put the loose article policy in place, banning all loose objects from entering the queue, and prohibiting the coaster from ever dueling again, it definitely hurt the ride experience. Dueling Dragons went from a ride experience that you could not see anywhere else to two intertwining "normal" inverted coasters, which in my mind is a large reason for its fall off of the Golden Ticket rankings.

The new Potter ride will not use dueling as its major focus. The theming built into the area, the ride vehicles, and the forwards-backwards launch transitions will all add up to this new attraction's experience. Do I believe that this attraction is going to be able to meet my ultimatum? I'm not sold yet.

I'm extremely happy that Universal is going for a ride system other than a screen-based simulator. I also believe that this ride is a great addition to the park, the Potter land, and in general given its theming and ride system. However, I am going to hold off until I see another roller coaster that can match the intensity and appeal of Dueling Dragons.

In other words, I have nothing against this new ride or the Potter theme at all, I'm just giving it some more time for Universal to redeem themselves with another project.

I have used Dueling Dragons as a large focal point of this article, but that attraction has not been my only gripe with the chain over the past decade or so. The removal of several classic attractions, such as Jaws, Twister, Earthquake, and several others for poor replacements have upset me over the years. While these attractions were in need of some refurbishment work and rehab, they were in my mind better attractions than their replacements as they used physical sets. (I am upset over the Jaws removal, but Potter was the only replacement that was somewhat justified)

Another project to keep our eyes on over the next year or so is the proposed Jurassic World coaster which may be at a more thrilling level than the Potter ride.  I plan on doing an article about that project soon. For now, I will continue to hold off until Universal can sway me to return.


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