The End of Back to the Future
If, like Huey Lewis, you "gotta get back in time," better hurry — time has run out. Universal recently confirmed the worst-kept secret in Orlando and officially announced the closing of Back to the Future: The Ride. March 30 is the last chance to board a faux DeLorean and take a simulated flight "across the time-space continuum." The handwriting has been on the wall since last September, when one of the ride's two domes was shut down, and there have been complaints about its deterioration for years. After limping along for months at half-capacity (though guests were still willing to wait an hour or more for it), BTTF will be shuttered Friday. But before the Institute of Future Technology vanishes into the past, let's remember how it once saved Universal's ass.
Universal Studios Florida opened with a lineup of attractions that emphasized spectacle and detail over thrills. Headliners like E.T. and Kongfrontation were slow- moving, leaving the Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera as the park's wildest ride. USF's first year was plagued by breakdowns, and the park struggled against Disney/MGM Studios for market share. So Back to the Future's 1991 opening reinvigorated USF, giving it bragging rights to "the greatest thrill ride of all time." BTTF established Universal as the destination for teens and young adults seeking more aggressive adventures than what Disney offered. It's a niche they continued to nurture, culminating in the coaster-centric Islands of Adventure.
BTTF took flight-simulator technology similar to Disney's Star Tours, added massive Omnimax (now called IMAX) curved screens and used intimate eight-passenger vehicles to create the illusion of a personal adventure. Repeat riders could look around and see the 11 other cars sharing the dome, but for first-timers it really felt like it was just you and your family helping out Doc Brown. While it's now common to see B-list stars in the parks (watch Gary Sinise read cue cards at Epcot's Mission: SPACE!), in 1991 it was a novelty to see Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson reprising their screen roles. With direction by Oscar-winning effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull and score by Alan Silvestri, the $40 million ride/film was billed as the most expensive movie ever per minute. What really endeared it to fans were the little touches: the Far Side cartoon on the waiting-room bulletin board, the test dummy safety video, the Dixie cup hiding next to the clock-tower model — all will be missed.
BTTF was not without its flaws; chief among them was the forcefulness that helped make it popular. It was a whiplash-inducing experience, particularly in the rear seats — many chiropractors made boat payments off its victims. The curvature of the screen gave everyone except those in the middle cars a distorted view. The line was not air-conditioned and featured "Power of Love" on an endless loop, which may have violated the Geneva Conventions. Lastly, the script (though chock-full of "Great Scott!"s and flux capacitors) had little to do with the settings or themes of the films: After a brief visit to the future Hill Valley from Part II, most of the ride was spent in the distant past dodging dodgy dinos.
Sixteen years is a healthy lifespan for any E-Ticket, so it's probably best BTTF closes before it decays further. Rather than demolish, Universal is expected to rehab and adapt the existing structure to a new theme. What creative license is a worthy replacement for the Zemeckis/Spielberg-created classic? Terrifying rumors circulated of a Fast and the Furious cash-in, and Transformers and Harry Potter have also been mentioned, but reliable sources all point to The Simpsons. Ironically, a ride themed around Otto's school bus was originally slated to be part of Toon Lagoon at IOA. With a feature film debuting this summer and a show that will run in syndication long after we are all dead, it seems a sound choice. Hopefully they'll do more to re-theme than just slap nuclear power plant smokestacks on the old building — I want to drink a Duff at Moe's.
Kong saw hordes of annual passholders brandishing bananas at his bon voyage, but Universal has announced no ceremony to bid Doc Brown farewell. There's also no official word on a replacement, as they will only promise "the fresh innovative entertainment that our guests expect from us." Universal may want to look to their competition, as the Mouse has become increasingly savvy at building buzz for new attractions. Walt himself briefed reporters on Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion years before they were built. Today, Imagineering monitors web forums and slips concept art into stockholder reports to stoke excitement. Universal's reticence, on the other hand, sometimes creates more fan aggravation than anticipation. Whatever the new ride ends up being, I hope it will signal willingness on the part of management to invest in the TLC both Universal parks need.
— Seth Kubersky
I Love a Piano
Irving Berlin is the Picasso of musical theater. He started early, lived long and never wanted for new material. With one of the largest catalogs of successful Broadway shows and tunes out there, it's unlikely even Andrew Lloyd Webber will surpass his productivity. The jukebox show I Love a Piano gives 50 or more snippets of songs, some nearly complete and some cut back to just a few bars. The writers' challenge lay more in what to cut than in what to feature, and few clunkers clutter this delightfully fluffy collection of hits and rarities.
Michael Edward directed this collection of Berlin songs set to lighthearted skits, and it's just the sort of thing at which Winter Park Playhouse excels. The cast is large by WPPH standards, with regulars like Roy Alan tapping though "Two Cheers Instead of Three" and Mark Richard Taylor rattling the sound booth with "The Girl That I Marry."
Musically, the show covers the hits with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "White Christmas," but it digs deep for lesser gems like Todd Allen Long's version of "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" and the treacly "Snookey Ookums" with Ame Livingston and Cristi McKay. There's a loose thematic arrangement (the speakeasy, the movies, summer stock), but there's time for some physical comedy as well.
In the silent-movie segment, Alan plays Buster Keaton running from the law while Heather Alexander holds up caption cards and makes silly sound effects. It sums up the whole show — these are important hits, but it's still just pop music. Don't take anything here too seriously. (final shows 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Winter Park Playhouse; $22-$30; 407-645-0145; www.winterparkplayhouse.org)
— Al Pergandearts@orlandoweekly.com
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