Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular and Universal’s Superstar Parade (Pics)

After the eye-rubbingly spectacular performance of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you might expect Universal execs to sit on their laurels and just collect paychecks. Or, perhaps they could opt to give the world more Potter, since that’s what they seem to like. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.

Instead, they’ve doubled down. The year 2012 is “The Year to be Here” according to their marketing department, and boy howdy is there a lot new. Disney might just be a bit green with envy over this level of activity, in addition to the Potter envy!

You’ve got the revitalized Spider-Man (verdict: it’s amazingly good), the new Blue Man Group show (no verdict from me; haven’t seen the new version), and the Drive In Mini Golf in CityWalk (verdict: the horror side is lacking, but the sci-fi side is inventive, funny, highly themed, and just generally spectacular). You’ve got smaller things like a new SpongeBob shop (near E.T. and the pet stadium). Wet & Wild later this year will open a family water playground with fifteen slides (that’s a LOT!) And the replacement for the Jimmy Neutron simulator, based on Despicable Me, will open this summer too.

If that roster doesn’t sound impressive enough, add now the two nighttime shows: the Cinematic Spectacular in the lagoon at USF, and the daytime (or nighttime!) Superstar Parade, also as USF. Both are good. The parade might even reasonably be classified as great.

The Cinematic Spectacular replaces the underwhelming Universal 360 show, which utilized giant white domes as screens. The resulting film images were often distorted. That show also made use of the nearby wharf buildings for projections, which never quite lived up the potential (the idea must have sounded good on paper).

The new show is lagoon-centric: there are few fireworks and no use of the surrounding buildings. The focus is on the screens, which are now using a new waterfall technology. Nozzles spray a thin layer of water with such precision that the images projected onto them are crisp and sharp – much better than what you’re used to at Fantasmic and World of Color.

The show is like World of Color in a few moments: there are a few dozen fountains that dance, spritz higher, and have colored LED lights below them. There are too few fountains to be considered impressive, though, so this part of the show is a bit muted. That’s also true of the fireworks—they are a bit subdued, and there aren’t that many of them. There are also some colored searchlights that add to the dynamic kinetics at times.

The music amps up the energy, with familiar tunes like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, while the film clips play on the waterfall screens. It’s mostly a montage show. The clips are well chosen and the editing is decent, and the voiceover narration by Morgan Freeman is first-rate. Personally, I found the show’s pacing to be a little sedate; it doesn’t build energy (or emotion) in a clearly defined manner, and could (apologetically) be said to be all over the place emotionally. It’s probably really hard to do this sort of thing. Even the Disney master of such shows, Steve Davison, gets it wrong sometimes.

No such issues dog the parade, dubbed Universal’s Superstar Parade (by the way, since when does Universal add the word “Universal’s” in front of all their entertainment? That has been Disney’s mode of operating for some time; I guess Universal does it now too?)

The Superstar Parade represents nothing less than Universal’s entry to yet another battlefield with Disney. I didn’t realize it until this past weekend, but Universal has never really gone head to head with Disney on this topic before. They have the Macy’s Day parade, but they don’t build those floats. They have the Mardi Gras parade every spring, but that’s a nighttime only parade that has an adult vibe. They haven’t really done Disney-style parades with foam-head characters, big floats, and action-oriented performers. Well, the battle is joined now. I quite liked this parade.

There are four main sections to the parade, each anchored by a big float and maybe a few smaller floats (and numerous walking/skating/jumping/pogoing performers). The sections are themed to characters: Despicable Me, Hop, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Dora/Diego.

The characters have all the quality of Disney costumes. The floats look as professional as Disney floats. The kinetic performers on the side bounce, dance, leap, and soar as well as Disney performers. In short, it looked and felt like a Disney parade, but with non-Disney characters. That was kind of weird in some ways.

The show has a great deal of energy and movement. It’s not just a parade; in the New York and Hollywood street sets, they actually come to a stop for a few minutes to turn it into a street show.

It takes 400 people to staff the parade, which is a lot. It’s a big production! I’m not sure if it was part of the press event we attended or something that will happen every time, but confetti cannons sprayed the crowd at the end. The show most reminded me of the long-ago Disneyland parade Party Gras. Our family will definitely be back to see this parade, probably many times over.

Disclosure: I was given press access to a private party celebrating this event, featuring free food and drinks. My family was also invited. Here are some press-event-specific photos:

Show Director Lora Wallace created the Superstar Parade:

Creative Director Michael Aiello supervised the lagoon show:

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.