Universal 1-ups the competition with Mario Kart attraction
Super Nintendo World to open at Hollywood park in February
On the latest episode of the Attractions Group Podcast, I join host Ryan Suhr to talk about my three-decade career as a theme park and travel journalist. We discuss the industry’s most pivotal events as well as its most influential people, the ways that guest attitudes have changed through the years, favorite coasters, and a bunch of other topics during the freewheeling conversation. Check it out and consider subscribing to the podcast.
Universal has been hogging the klieg lights lately. I just reported about the new Villain-Con Minion Blast interactive game attraction coming to Universal Studios Florida, along with the changes planned for that park’s KidZone as well as the intriguing, new escape room experiences that just opened at Universal Orlando’s CityWalk.
On the other side of the country, Universal Studios Hollywood just announced more details, along with an opening date of February 17, 2023, for Super Nintendo World. The highlight of the land, which will interpret the super-popular video game franchise in a three-dimensional theme park setting, will be Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge. The sophisticated, interactive dark ride will incorporate augmented reality along with vehicles that will seem to drift like their video game counterparts.
There is also odd news about high-profile departures from Universal Creative, the team that develops attractions such as Mario Kart for the Universal parks. I’ll address that at the end of this post.
Visitors will enter Super Nintendo World through the game’s signature green pipe and encounter a hyper-stylized Mushroom Kingdom landscape replete with animated toadstools, spinning coins, and other brightly colored set pieces. Depending on your gamer sensibility, you will either find yourself in dream-come-true paradise or an oversaturated fever dream.
Mount Beanpole will serve as Super Nintendo World’s central weenie and as the entrance for the Mario Kart queue. Before making their way to the ride vehicles, guests will wind through Bowser’s Castle, which will likely be a highly themed walkthrough experience (think: Hogwarts Castle). Among the features will be an enormous statue of King Koopa himself, Bowser. The queue will establish the storyline of the attraction, which is that guests will be competing for the prized Golden Cup by racing to nab coins and score points. It will be a Mario video game come to life.
Participants, who will be made honorary members of Team Mario, will be issued red visors that will look just like the one worn by the mustachioed plumber. When they get into the four-person ride vehicles, they will pop face shield-like attachments onto the visors. The transparent headsets will allow guests to see the attraction’s physical scenes and props all around them, as they would in a traditional dark ride, as well as synced media that will be superimposed onto the gear. That’s the whole idea of augmented reality or AR.
Designers have attempted to meld virtual reality with park attractions, but the results have been mixed at best, and the fad has waned. AR, which doesn't shut out real reality, allows guests to maintain the social connections that are at the heart of the theme park experience. It holds a lot of promise for attractions, and Universal’s Mario Kart represents one of the industry’s biggest AR gambits yet.
In the spirit of the season, consider giving yourself (or somebody else on your list) a gift of a paid subscription to “About Theme Parks,” my ad-free, reader-supported publication. For a limited time only, I’m offering 25% off an annual subscription. In addition to my public posts, you’ll get subscriber-only “Rode It! Loved It!” ride reviews, “ART Talks” audio versions of posts, and access to “What’s the Attraction” discussion threads. And you would be giving me a gift by supporting my work. Paid subscriptions are my only source of revenue for “About Theme Parks.” I’d be most grateful for your consideration. Take advantage of this special offer for the holidays now!
While much has been made of the Mario Kart-inspired drifting that guests will experience on the attraction, the vehicles will actually be relatively slow moving (but will appear to be speeding through the use of media and other theme park trickery). The karts will have the ability to rotate left and right, which will likely approximate the sensation of drifting. Each passenger will have a steering wheel, but it will probably have more to do with gameplay and scoring points than actually controlling the vehicle.
In addition to Mario Kart, visitors will be able to interact with question mark blocks and other features throughout the land. Triggering some of them will activate Nintendo-ish bleeps, blurbs, and other sounds. Guests will also be able to collect coins and keys. Purchasing optional Power-Up Bands will enhance the interactive gameplay (and Universal’s coffers). The wearable technology will enable guests to engage in adventures with Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach.
Dishes at the land’s Toadstool Cafe will include Princess Peach Cupcake and Super Mushroom Soup. The 1-UP Factory will be the place to purchase Nintendo-themed stuff.
California will be the home to the first Super Nintendo World in the U.S. It follows Universal Studios Japan, which opened a similar land in 2021. The Japanese version is larger with an additional attraction. It is set to expand with a Donkey Kong-themed area in 2024. Universal Orlando’s third theme park, Epic Universe, which the resort says is on track to open summer 2025, will debut with Super Nintendo World as one of its main draws. With more acreage available than at Universal’s original Hollywood studio, Florida’s ode to the video game powerhouse will reportedly be considerably larger.
Thierry flies the Coup
In unexpected news, a number of executives at Universal Creative, the company’s division that is equivalent to Walt Disney Imagineering, have left. According to TheWrap, Thierry Coup, chief creative officer and senior vice president of Universal Creative, and Mike Hightower, its president, are both taking an early retirement offer from NBCUniversal. Other high-ranking officials have also accepted the offer as well as Mike Harrington, vice president, engineering and safety at Universal Studios Florida.
The timing of the departures is especially curious. With vertical construction recently started on the massive Epic Universe, it seems odd that so many of Universal’s key visionaries and stewards would abandon the project. It’s not as cataclysmic as Disney’s Iger/Chapek switcheroo, but the losses will certainly have an impact on the parks. Then again, the critical design and planning phases of Universal Orlando’s expansion were likely wrapped some time ago.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview Coup on a number of occasions and always found him to be delightful, passionate, and refreshingly candid. Case in point: He was the talk of the industry when he admitted that he regretted green-lighting Universal’s often-maligned Fast and Furious attractions during a presentation at the 2021 IAAPA Expo.
It’s unlikely that somebody as talented as Coup, who was among the chief creative leaders behind The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and other groundbreaking projects, will get on his broomstick and fly off into retirement sunset. My guess is that he has plenty more stories to tell.
Are you a Nintendo geek? How psyched are you about Super Nintendo World? Will you be making your way to Universal Studios Hollywood to check out Mario and the gang? What are your thoughts about Universal Creative’s surprising loss of many of its leaders?