Universal Orlando Takes Coasters to the Next Level
Roller coasters weren’t part of the script when Universal Studios Florida began taking visitors into the stories and behind the scenes of film and television productions in 1990. The park invited guests to “ride the movies,” but none of its initial ride systems were coasters.
In 1999, Universal Orlando entered the coaster fray in a big way when it debuted its second gate, Islands of Adventure. The park opened with two major-league thrill machines, “Dueling Dragons” and “The Incredible Hulk Coaster” from Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M). Neither roller coaster skimped on the speed and drops or other scream-inducing elements, but they weren’t iron rides that delivered thrills for thrills’ sake.
“We definitely push the thrills. It’s what we are about,” says Thierry Coup, senior vice president and chief creative officer at Universal Creative. Edgy attractions, he contends, are among the reasons why guests visit the Florida resort. “If you want an all-out adrenaline rush packed with excitement, there’s something about coasters that puts them at the top of the list,” Coup adds.
As with the rest of its attractions, the rides are in service to their themes. “We’ve taken coasters to another level at Universal by adding story layers,” says Coup.
In the ensuing years, Universal Orlando has welcomed an impressive arsenal of coasters to both of its Florida theme parks. Its newest entry, “Jurassic World VelociCoaster,” opened in June. Coup marked the occasion by reflecting on some of the resort’s signature rides in Funworld.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Much has been made of the “The Incredible Hulk Coaster’s” tire-propelled launch, which uses powerful motors to accelerate its trains from 0 to 40 mph in a 150-foot-long tunnel—uphill no less—only to immediately subject passengers to a zero-G roll inversion some 110 feet in the air. In order to generate enough energy for the beast of a launch, Universal built a dedicated power plant.
The launch and the subsequent mayhem that the B&M coaster delivers is certainly gripping, but Coup believes the ride experience complements the theme. “The thrills help express the rage of the Hulk,” he says.
At Universal’s behest, B&M even fiddled with the coaster during its construction to add a sound design element. According to Coup, the support columns of many new B&M coasters are filled with sand in an attempt to add soundproofing to them. “The Incredible Hulk Coaster’s” columns, however, were intentionally left hollow so that they would resonate as the trains cycle past them. They yield the ride’s characteristic “groar” (a portmanteau of “growl” and “roar”), sending the gamma radiation-infused hero’s rage reverberating throughout the park.
Revenge of the Mummy
Storytelling figures heavily into the 2004 attraction, “Revenge of the Mummy.” Based on Universal Studios’ remake of its classic monster movie, the theme park resort bills it as a “psychological thrill ride.” Housed entirely inside a show building, “Revenge of the Mummy” includes a number of elaborate scenes, complete with animatronics and fire effects.
“It was the first time there was a lot combination of dark ride and roller coaster [at Universal],” Coup notes of the park’s innovation. “It was also the first coaster vehicle that had variable speed capability.”
The magnetically launched coaster from Premier Rides, which accelerates to 40 mph, includes slow linear induction motors (SLIMs). They are used to move the coaster vehicles at a modest pace through the show scenes in the first half of the attraction. Coup explains that the ride includes a track switch to make the transition from one track to another, while a rotating platform allows the ride to feature a backward element. “It uses a lot of really great technology that was completely groundbreaking at the time,” he adds.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Featuring another innovative ride system, 2014’s “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts” transitions coaster vehicles onto motion base platforms (and back again onto coaster track). Coup says that the attraction was a natural because the Harry Potter films had already established the mine carts that are necessary to reach Gringotts Wizarding Bank’s underground vaults.
The chief creative officer explains the motivation behind the attraction: “Let’s take coaster technology, enhance it by 10 times, and then create an entirely immersive story around it based on one of the greatest intellectual properties.”
Like “Revenge of the Mummy,” dark ride elements provide immersive storytelling elements. “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts” features massive screens depicting characters from the movies. Its motion base technology offers dynamic capabilities to give passengers the perception that they are part of the action. Nonetheless, the Intamin coaster plays an important role, whisking guests deep under London and helping them hightail it away from the dangerous predicament in which they find themselves.
“We were trying to accomplish multiple things in one experience,” Coup says. “We had to figure out how to combine multiple systems seamlessly.”
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
Opened in 2019, “Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure” allowed Universal to create a new breed of ride. Its engaging show scenes, including highly sophisticated animatronics of the half-giant wizard and the magic beasts he adores, are incorporated throughout the attraction.
“You’re totally immersed in the environment of the Harry Potter films,” Coup says. “It feels like an extremely thrilling ride, yet the story is a huge part of the experience.”
Even with its record-breaking seven launches, backward motion, vertical drop, and other elements, the coaster, also from Intamin, remains accessible to a variety of parkgoers, which is intentional.
“We dialed the level of thrills to perfection,” says Coup. “Even if you’re not a big coaster fan, you won’t be too scared—but you will be thrilled.”
Jurassic World VelociCoaster
Thrills are on the menu of Universal Orlando’s latest entry. With two launches—one of which cranks up to 70 mph and sends passengers soaring up a 155-foot-tall top hat tower—and multiple inversions, “Jurassic World VelociCoaster” clocks in surprisingly high on the thrill-ometer.
With such a frantic pace, it would have been difficult to include elaborate show scenes during the attraction. Still, the theme is ever-present throughout the experience. “There’s something about dinosaurs that make them endlessly fascinating,” says Coup, referring to the beasts featured in the popular movie franchise.
According to Greg Hall, Universal Creative art director and one of the attraction’s principal designers. there were three tenets that guided “Jurassic World VelociCoaster’s” development: environment, “teeth” (the slang term used in the films to describe dinosaurs), and thrills. The extensive rockwork, landscaping, and other design features capture the movies’ aesthetics. There are plenty of up-close encounters with velociraptors, especially highly detailed and lifelike ones in the queue. “That’s what makes Jurassic World Jurassic,” says Hall.
As for thrills, the Intamin coaster is teeming with them. How did Universal set the bar and determine the right amount of oomph? “There’s something really aspirational about roller coasters,” says Shelby Honea, show producer at Universal Creative and another one of the attraction’s primary visionaries. “We were trying to make something unique to influence others to add theming to a true thrill coaster.”
Riding into the Future
With the new Universal’s Epic Universe theme park under construction in Orlando and parks in Hollywood, Japan, Singapore, and now Beijing, Coup says that Universal will continue to develop thrill machines: “We’re looking at other kinds of technology to combine with them because we think there’s a lot to explore with coasters.” In other words, the parks will offer new ways to again “ride the movies.”
Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s “The Art of Attractions” column each month.