I spoke with Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative, about the attraction as well as other issues of interest to park fans. An edited version of our conversation follows:
ARTHUR LEVINE, Theme Parks Guide, About.com: In what ways will the Florida Transformers differ from its counterparts at Universal Studios Singapore and Universal Studios Hollywood?
THIERRY COUP: The Orlando attraction will be exactly the same -- same storyline, same characters, same ride experience. The only difference will be the exterior themeing of the building and the preshow. When you go through the N.E.S.T. facility as a recruit, it will be laid out differently.
A.L.: Could you shed some light about how you decide which attractions will go to which parks and at what time? When and why was the decision made to bring Transformers to Universal Studios Florida, for example?
T.C.: We opened the other two Transformers and they were successful. We thought that this is something we have to bring to Orlando as soon as possible. We want it here before the next [Transformers] movie comes out. It's a blockbuster attraction. Why wait?
A.L.: Why such a fast track for this project?
T.C.: It's definitely one of the most ambitious [construction periods] ever done in the theme park world. It's a one-year turnaround. We've designed this twice before, we have the same team working on it, and they know exactly what to do. That's why we can build it so quickly. We have been bringing new and exciting experiences to our guests every year, so why not continue on that path?
A.L.: You said the other two Transformer attractions were successful. How do you gauge success?
T.C.: We get guest feedback. We look at how the attraction affects overall attendance. And we look at throughput. How many guests at the park go through the attraction? And now, we can read the blogs, see the [online] commentaries, and watch the YouTube videos almost instantly. The response has been huge [for Transformers], unprecedented.
A.L.: With the popularity of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the big attendance spikes at Islands of Adventure, are you trying to reach parity between the two Florida parks? Is your plan to open some exciting things at the Studios park so that you can draw some attention and generate attendance there as well?
T.C.: We always want to maintain the same level of attractions and interest in both parks, so yes, it's how we gauge things. We want both parks to offer our guests the same amount of excitement and offer things for the whole family.
A.L.: Were the improvements to the Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure a few months ago in part to make the technology and the experience comparable to what you will be offering when Transformers opens?
T.C.: The technology was older. We were using film projectors. The quality of the imaging -- the clarity, sharpness, and the details -- back in 1999 when we opened Spider-Man, we were not able to bring it to life the way we can do it today. So, in order to bring this to a level that is expected by our guests, who have become much more savvy with HDTV, 3D systems at home, video games achieving a level that is so high quality, it just made sense to brng Spider-Man to that level.
A.L.: What did you learn from Spider-Man, which was an incredible breakthrough with its roving motion base concept, that you are bringing to Transformers?
T.C.: We are always looking to blend the actual word, with sets, and the virtual world with imagery. We were able to make it even more seamless when we remade Spider-Man last March, and we've learned some cool techniques. Transformers is a much more photorealistic world than the comic book world of Spider-Man. You really feel like you are inside a city with Transformers, and when you are face to face with the characters, the experience is incredible. We are so proud of what we've been able to achieve. We get compliments from our competitors.
A.L.: Is Transformers mostly projected media, or is it more physical sets?
T.C.: It's about a 50/50 ratio. We have more screens in Transformers than Spider-Man. The sets are much bigger, because they accommodate the larger-than-life characters. Instead of human size, Optimus Prime is 30 feet tall. The screens and sets have to be large enough to get our guests face to face with him.
A.L.: What are some of the elements in Transformers that you are most excited about bringing to guests in Orlando?
T.C.: I'm really proud of one thing that is invisible to guests. We built the attraction on two levels and developed a 60,000-square-foot experience on a 30,000-square-foot space. During the ride, you are transported upwards [to the second level] with a lift system. But you are immersed in the story with the large screens and sets, and don't even notice. Even though they are being lifted up, guests think they are moving forward in a race through the streets as they are being chased by some of the [evil] Decepticons. The illusion is perfect.
Another small thing I really love about the ride is that at the end, for the last scene, we placed, as an homage to [good guy] Bumblebee, a little Volkswagen Bug, which is what he started as in the original stories. For the fans, it's kind of fun to look for that.
A.L.: What about bringing guests back down from the second level to the first level?
T.C.: We bring them down to the unload area on the lower level toward the end of the ride. They think that they are falling off of a 300-foot building.
A.L.: Ah! So, it is similar to the finale of Spider-Man. But, in this case you incorporate the downward motion of the lift into the effect?
T.C.: You don't really feel the downward motion of the elevator. We're able to use the full effect of the vehicle's motion base while it is on the lift. We have these enormous screens that show the media throughout the downward motion.
A.L.: What is next Thierry? You have all of these tricks and tools and technological breakthroughs. Will you be able to break the wall down even more between virtual and reality?
T.C.: We're constantly working on that. We have R&D efforts going on right now. We have great plans for the future. We want to apply what we've learned, take our guest feedback, and apply it to new adventures. I can't divulge anything, but great new things are coming. We don't think that the future is all about media. There is also room for some really cool, large animated figures. We have some incredible brains at Universal creative, and they are always focusing on the future.
A.L.: Might there be a 3D attraction that could be experienced without having to wear 3D glasses? What about incorporating holograms into park experiences?
T.C.: We'd love to do that. The technology is not quite there yet. We partner with companies all over the world who are developing those technologies. Those are the types of dreams we would like to bring to reality.