ORLANDO — Across the path from the wharf area where the shark hangs from a hook and people pose for pictures near its giant jaws, a building is unfolding skyward.
This summer when the cranes move to their next project and the construction fences blocking the site from the curious come down, the sounds of digging and banging and diesel engines will be replaced by screaming. Lots of screaming. Just as planned.
Transformers: The Ride — 3D will occupy that building by the lagoon in the middle of Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. The theme park sits a Hard Rock Cafe away from Universal’s Islands of Adventure, home of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The two parks and three hotels, with the 20-acre CityWalk food and entertainment complex in the middle, make for one Universal resort.
But, like “Transformers” hero Optimus Prime, the resort is evolving before guests’ eyes. Its seemingly individual pieces — the roads, rides, and restaurants — will come together in something bigger and better.
The Transformers simulator ride was created with help from Industrial Light and Magic and the Hollywood talents of director Michael Bay and the “Transformers” cast, and features high-definition Infitec 3-D and screens 45 feet tall.
The goal, says Mike West, executive producer of Universal Creative, is for guests to feel as if they are riding along with one of the Transformers.
“There’s guns blazing and 3-D elements popping on your hood and jumping around and you’re falling off buildings, flying through the air, being pulled by Starscream through a building. It’s just so much fun,’’ he said. “People get off and they just kind of go, ‘Wow.’ And they breathe and recover — and then they want to get back on again.”
Universal Orlando went through its biggest expansion in 2012, highlighted by the updating of the popular ride Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man on Islands of Adventure and the opening of Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem in Universal Studios.
Transformers will use the same video systems as Spider-Man and Despicable Me, West said.
“In the old days, with the 3-D video, if you got a little bit off-axis to one side or the other, you’d start to lose the 3-D,” he said. “With this new system, you can sit almost flat up against the screen, and you can still see the 3-D.”
The Spider-Man ride is in Marvel Super Hero Island, where the buildings and storefronts seem to be Stan Lee’s drawings come to life. In the street, heroes and villains pose with guests. Among them is a very earnest Captain America who, regardless of the length of the waiting line of anxious fans, takes extra time to talk to little kids about the importance of staying in school. When thanked by one person for his time, he responded, “It is my honor to be at your service.”
Despicable Me lives in Gru’s house (on the former site of Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast and the The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera before that).
The ride itself lasts four minutes, but the “guest experience” — from the line, inside to Gru’s living room to pick up 3-D glasses, to preshow and story setup in the first “lab,” through the actual ride, into a dance party with the yellow, overalls-wearing minions, and the requisite exit through the gift shop — takes an enjoyable 25 minutes.
Whereas Spider-Man and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey involve guests spinning through a building, Despicable Me is a shared, family-friendly ride with 12 pods in front of one big screen. The story involves Gru and his three daughters (voiced by the movie’s original actors, including Steve Carrell and Miranda Cosgrove) and the misunderstanding about a surprise party he is throwing. The ride guests pitch about a bit in their pods, but the projection technology of the motion simulator is where the magic happens so that everyone feels as if they are falling and flying next to the minions. (As pod movement is minimal, motion queasiness can be counteracted with a shutting of the eyes.)
The new video systems are so good, the experience so well-thought-out that Universal guests can’t help but be let down by some attractions from another (technical) generation.
Across the street from Despicable Me is Shrek 4-D. Though it features the movies’ A-list voice cast (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, etc.) and clever dialogue, it is ultimately done in by its technical limitations. After coming over from Gru’s house, this 10-year-old ride, with its movie theater seats and air blowing on your ankles, feels old and quaint.
Transformers is not a brand-new ride, as it opened at Universal parks in Singapore in 2011 and Hollywood in 2012.
In Orlando, it is one of the many construction projects guests snake past in the two parks. The Simpsons area, on the other side of the lagoon, has construction projects directly to its left and right. The details of those projects, like the plans for the work site near Harry Potter, remain under wraps.
What has been released is that a fourth onsite hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, is scheduled to open in early 2014 and will begin taking reservations as of today, March 31. When complete, it will feature 900 rooms (starting at $119 per night) and 900 family suites ($174).
Staying onsite at Universal has two excellent benefits, especially for a family.
First, the elliptical nature of the resort layout means a car is not necessary, and a short walk or boat ride on the connecting canal will deliver guests to the park entrances in 15 minutes or less. Second, all onsite guests get complimentary Universal Express tickets. This pass (sold for $36 to $120 per person for both parks, depending on date) is similar to FastPass at Disney World, and allows guests to skip the regular lines. On a recent trip, having Universal Express passes saved 15-30 minutes on the most popular rides.
Like many resorts, there are room bargains to be had for lengthier stays. However, despite all of the growth, the parks can be covered comfortably in a day each.
On the extravagant side, a VIP tour starts at $250 per person. Lucas, one of the personable park guides, led a recent group through secret doors and the wrong way up exit ramps. After just a pointed tap of his name tag, ride operators led him and his party to the very front of any line. On a behind-the-scenes walk between parks, through key-coded gates and empty sound stages, he explained how Universal Studios, true its origins, still functions as a set for TV, movie, and advertising shoots.
Be warned: It’s hard not to get spoiled by the VIP tour. When Lucas’s group came out of Circus McGurkus restaurant in Seuss Landing and into a cold rain more suitable to Boston than Orlando, it found a soaking-wet Lucas waiting, holding new Universal rain ponchos for each of them.
As a mom in the group was putting hers on over her sweat- shirt, she said, “I don’t care wherever we vacation in the future — Europe, the Cape — we’re taking Lucas with us as a guide.”