In 1992, our senior class at Wood-Ridge High School visited Orlando for our senior class trip. We lodged outside of Walt Disney World and visited Disney parks as well as Universal Studios. This new theme park and competitor to Disney had only opened up a couple of years prior. The trip certainly put a different spin on the Disney experience for me, the details of which are better spent when reminiscing with old friends. But alas, there was still some good fun enjoyed at the theme parks, including this first visit to Universal Studios and one attraction in particular.
The big attraction at Universal Studios was Back to the Future: The Ride. The BTTF sequels were not that distant a memory and the attraction utilized revolutionary theme park ride mechanics and technology at the time. The motion similar ride utilized an open vehicle and an IMAX dome screen which improved upon the systems being used in Disney’s Star Tours and Body Wars, which were enclosed simulator rides with all visual action happening on a forward screen. With Back to the Future, the riders could see the action happening around them, which gave the simulation that much more realism and thus more thrill and adrenaline. The ride queue featured prep videos starring Christopher Lloyd in his signature role (no, not Reverend Jim) of Doc Brown, who details the mission ahead for you, the rider. Biff (the inimitable Thomas F. Wilson) returns to his familiar antagonist role, infiltrating the Institute of Future Technology and escaping into the future and past, for we intrepid riders to chase!
For added geekiness, the outside of the attraction featured a full size replica of the DeLorean and the Jules Verne steam train. Once inside the attraction, many other prop replicas and easter eggs are found throughout the attraction halls. And the ride exited you into the ubiquitous themed gift shop where one year I purchased a model of the time-travelling DeLorean. That of course was the rare time we even stopped in the gift shop and weren’t already on line to ride it again!
A few years ago, Universal Studios in both Hollywood and Orlando shuttered their doors on the Back to the Future attraction, with very little fanfare or notice. (One last one exists in Japan.) The ride joined Earthquake and Kongfrontation as the park’s cornerstone attractions gone extinct (with only Jaws surviving). Presumably the dwindling relevance of the franchise in the modern context, along with rumored disrepair, forced Universal to develop something new and inviting. But in the process they dismantled a ride that was synonymous with Universal Studios and a natural extension of a franchise that, in cinematic and cultural circles, is still very popular. Even though its technology was dwarfed by the Spider-Man ride at the Studios’ sister theme park, Islands of Adventure, it was still an advanced system that probably could’ve just used some attention and repair. Much like Star Tours, and unlike roller coasters, the ride’s inherent structure allowed it the possibility of offering a new cinematic adventure with new destinations in time while retaining the same ride system. (Hello, recessionary solution!) The BTTF attraction has been replaced by The Simpsons, a franchise that, despite its quality and attraction, doesn’t exactly appeal to me when it comes to the architecture and adventure of theme park exploration.
Even though the ride’s creation and my time spent on it happened after the ‘80s were over, this still very much qualifies for the Ninetiesology section of the site. (For those who haven’t read up, Ninetiesology is what I refer to as the aspects of the ‘80s, such as music and movie styles, or the lifetime of some TV shows, that spilled over into the next decade, typically ending 1992-1993.) And of course, the ride is based on a heavyweight ‘80s franchise.
The Back to the Future trilogy was recently re-released on DVD including some new features on the first movie’s DVD. The special features now include all of the pre-show and ride footage from the Back to the Future ride. While not able to replace the physical simulation of the ride, it’s nice to finally have a keepsake from a treasured attraction. However, it’s almost impossible to duplicate the convergence of fandom venturing through a theme park attraction, in sunny Orlando, based on a classic movie. The thrill of the motion is gone and replaced by stationery recliner-induced sloth. But if you can get your hands on home movie footage of the attraction’s interior and exterior architecture, shut off the lights and get real close to your big screen TV. Fire up the ride footage and maybe you can time travel yourself to a time when one of the coolest theme park attractions ever still existed. Great Scott! Yeah, that’s heavy!