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'Back to the Future' Ride Is History
Popular Universal Orlando attraction is now closed for good
Brian Orndorf (briano)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-02 18:22 (KST)   
When a new theme park ride opens, it's usually intended to stick around for a long time. Seeing thousands of visitors each and every day, these rides are an investment not only financially, but creatively too, intended to plant the seed of imagination in the average patron as they ride, ride, and ride again. While it might not appear as though the closure of a thrill ride would be all that significant, to hardcore fans, it's like the death of a family member.

Universal Orlando's "Back to the Future: The Ride" opened with colossal fanfare in 1991, unleashed on a horde of insatiable park guests and lifelong ride junkies. It was a full throttle, state-of-the-art experience, exploiting a "faster, more intense" use of Omnimax technology, and gave the struggling new theme park the short-lived advantage over Walt Disney World with its use of a globally known and profoundly beloved movie franchise brand name. The ride, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of US$40 million, was an enormous investment in an attraction, and an essential step in Universal's hand-rubbing plans to dominate the Florida theme park business.

For the most part, "The Ride" was a considerable success in getting tourists to take Universal seriously, and quickly solidified itself as a top attraction in Florida. It was a cool blast of ride technology innovation, taking the subculture of motion simulators to the next level. No longer would a large metal box on a wonky gimbal do; "The Ride" delivered wide-eyed astonishment as the Omnimax screen encircled the passenger in a soaring and smashing experience that was unheard of at the time. It also allowed film fans the giddy opportunity to relive the film franchise in a significantly more interactive role.

I was one of those fans, and in 1996 I found myself facing down "The Ride" on a hectic summer afternoon in jungle-like Orlando. At the time, I was a bit of a thrill ride fraidy cat, and mightily feared whatever evils were behind those colorful facades that lined theme park streets. I had to remind myself that it was "Back to the Future" for goodness sake, and it probably wouldn't be interested in scaring the stuffing out of me. I went in with one eye open and two sets of crossed fingers.

Walking into the building, you're immediately hit with the dated, but still bopping, Huey Lewis tunes from the film's soundtrack. During the dreaded summer season, the endless lines move at a turtle's pace, and there's only so many times one can hear "The Power of Love" before dreaming of ways to staple Huey Lewis's lips shut forever. Thankfully, record sales eventually did the messy work for me.

Once inside "The Ride" building, the not-too-helpful employees direct you to the waiting area, where you take a spot on a numbered line. Like the best theme park rides, if you don't know what's happening next, the anticipation can be killer. The parks have a marvelous way of dragging out the pre-show suspense as the hunger for thrills becomes increasingly unbearable.

With a whoosh, Emmett "Doc" Brown reveals himself on a screen to explain the plot of what's about to happen. Since the room is packed with chatty people, it's tough to get the gist of what's happening, but the two-cent version is this: old nemesis Biff Tannen has stolen a DeLorean time machine, and, because Doc has found himself locked up, we have to race through time to capture him. Not really the wonderful stuff of slavish "Back to the Future" canon, but I'll take it.

Ushered into a second "waiting" room, this time in smaller numbers, the safety spiel is laid out for everybody in ways that don't exactly scream Doc Brown, but more skittish Universal lawyers. The tiny room is littered with props from the trilogy, making it easier to avoid skin-crawling small talk with complete strangers that might occur when stuck in a space the size of a linen closest for 10 minutes of silent downtime.

Finally, the doors open, and there it is: the DeLorean, just waiting for somebody to hop in and bum around time. However, there's more to the ride than simply joyriding, as listed by the strict vehicle boarding rules that Universal employees give you .001 seconds to comprehend and carry out. "Let's go, let's go!" seems to be the unofficial motto of the park. Once settled in with your fellow friendly strangers and "securely" buckled up, the ride begins.

Criminally, the car isn't real; in fact, there's a handful of them in the theatre with you just barely out of sight, all pointed toward the towering 70-foot Omnimax screen. Immersion into the action onscreen begins immediately. Accompanied by a series of pistons that rock the car back and forth like a Dairy Queen Blizzard machine with an iffy stop button, the viewer gets a visceral sense of the DeLorean lurching through Hill Valley at top speed, smashing through glass and buildings (after all, we, the sweat-stained tourists, are the ones driving), and shooting through time like a bullet. Directed by special effects guru Douglas Trumbull, the "film" portion of "The Ride" is aces, with extensive and golden miniature and puppet work that has since been replaced by overactive CGI to appease the demanding masses in other, considerably more aware attractions.

However, the secret thing about this ride is that ... well, it hurts. The jerky motion of the DeLorean as we cross into the prehistoric era, are swallowed by a dinosaur, and plummet into bubbling lava, is so great it can resemble a bad chiropractic exam at times. The rider is already in such a small, cramped space to begin with, to be thrown around the car like we dumped it on prom night is the ride's one lone and profoundly painful con.

As Rainier Wolfcastle might say, "My spine! The seat belts do nothzing!"

As quickly as you're forced to enter the car, when the show's over and you've safely brought the DeLorean back to home base, the employees start hustling again to get you out for the next round of wannabe Marty McFlys. Shoved back into the real world (and the blinding Florida sun), with the cursed "Power of Love" blaring yet again, you can't shake the feeling that time travel is hard work and murder on the neck, but oh, so much fun.

"The Ride" is a gargantuan, imaginative creation, but like much of the freshman class at Universal Orlando, the attraction has been lapped considerably by the next generation of simulators and thrill rides. We lost the good-natured "Kongfrontation" in 2002 to the fire-belching insanity of a "Mummy" rollercoaster; and lord help me, the "Earthquake" attraction is becoming more and more like a trip to grandma's house with every passing year.

Still, there is sweetness and retro-warmth emanating from the older rides that would be sorely lacking if they were all gutted to please the base sensibilities of teenagers. I know I would pitch a fit if the archaic but iconic "Jaws" ride was ever torn asunder. The park would never be the same without its reliable, welcoming atmosphere, and I feel the absence of "The Ride" will erase some of the twinkle from a day at Universal.

As of 2006, "The Ride" was reportedly suffering from some major cosmetic issues, most glaringly the shameful quality of the film print used and the rubbed-off details on the DeLoreans. Rumor has it that "The Simpsons" will finally make their theme park debut in this building, complete with an upgraded ride system and a fresh target demo. If anything should replace the perfection of "Back to the Future" it would have to be the perfection of "The Simpsons." I consider it a lateral move.

With satisfying and innovative rides like the 3-D treasure "Spider-Man" (located next door at the Islands of Adventure) taking over the industry, there doesn't seem to be much demand for "The Ride" anymore, or even the "Back to the Future" brand with some younger audiences (personally, I blame the parents). With Universal keeping a hairy eye on the bottom line at all times, maybe it's time to say goodbye to this lovely attraction that served its purpose well over 15 incredibly successful years (nearly a lifetime in theme park years). I will miss it greatly.
For a better look at "Back to the Future: The Ride," or to relive the film portion of the attraction, visit here [VIDEO].
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Brian Orndorf

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