DEGREE PROGRAM 


;Let's face it: Summer days ;in Orlando suck. For nearly one-third of the year, we locals spend the daylight hours scurrying from one air-conditioned hurricane shelter to another, dodging brush fires and tourists as we go. But, oh, those summer nights. Starry skies, balmy breezes — and, best of all, extended hours at the theme parks. When the workday ends, you can grab your annual pass and enjoy hours of relatively uncrowded E-Ticketing under the stars.

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; Of course, keeping a park staffed until 10 p.m. or later for a handful of guests makes no financial sense, so parks must have an incentive to prevent the tourists from escaping back to their motels. Hence the nighttime spectacular, a concoction of sights and sounds brewed specifically to keep guests (and their wallets) firmly in the park until the bitter end of the operating day. For years, Disney has been the reigning king of these nightcaps. The Magic Kingdom's charming "Wishes" and "SpectroMagic," Disney-MGM's "Fantasmic" (an underwhelming-yet-popular shadow of the Anaheim original) and Epcot's "Illuminations" all run year-'round, effectively maximizing guest satisfaction and per-capita revenue.

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; Now, Universal attempts to join the game with "Universal 360: A Cinesphere Spectacular," an ambitious new show being staged nightly through August at Universal Studios Florida. The show combines large globes floating in the central lagoon with video, laser effects, pyrotechnics and stirring music in a 15-minute production. If you think that sounds a lot like Epcot's much-loved "Illuminations," you'd be right — on paper, at least. "Universal 360" is an excellent show and a huge improvement on the long-gone (and unlamented) "Dynamite Nights Stunt Spectacular," but it's no "Illuminations." (Heck, the current "Illuminations: Reflection of Earth," with its treacly New Age pop soundtrack and indecipherable video montages, can't hold a candle to its classic pre-1997 version.) While "Illuminations" celebrates the majesty of the Earth and the unity of mankind, "Universal 360" is all about the majesty of Universal's films (and, by implication, your unity with their DVDs at the gift shop). The result is perhaps not as noble, but it's surprisingly moving and entertaining on its own terms.

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; The "Cinespheres" of the show's title refers to the four enormous white inflated globes floating in the park's central lagoon; fans of The Prisoner may do a double take. Internal video projectors turn these giant ping-pong balls into movie screens displaying a skillfully assembled montage of memorable Universal movie moments. This is synchronized to laser effects, pyrotechnics and large-format projections on the surrounding buildings. Those looking for a first-rate fireworks display may want to head to Disney instead, as disputes between Universal and its neighbors have relegated those noisy sky-flowers to a cameo role. (Apparently, some folks along Turkey Lake Road don't think their skyrocketing property values are adequate compensation for flaming fallout in the azaleas; see our article "Is the sky falling?", published May 11.) The Cinespheres themselves, while large and bright, leave a bit to be desired in terms of focus (the curved surfaces have a funhouse-mirror effect, giving all your favorite stars Jimmy Durante noses), and the lasers don't make much impact until halfway through the show.

;;The real stars of the show are the enormous video projections cast onto the facades surrounding the lagoon. The Men in Black and Back to the Future rides and the buildings of New York are painted with elaborate animations, synchronized to the show and uniquely customized for each building. The "Louie's" facade facing the Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue theater is the backdrop for some particularly stunning images, with realistic flames leaping from the windows and an enormous B-movie insect crawling across the building's surface, pursued by roving searchlights. While each of these elements has technical flaws (at least, they were there during the preview performances), the combination is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

;;The beats of the show will be familiar to anyone who has seen the finale montage at Disney-MGM's "Great Movie Ride." Kicking off with the familiar Universal Studios logo, the intro juxtaposes a classic Blues Brothers moment ("… it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it!") with the nitro-injection sequence from The Fast and the Furious to launch us into a tribute to action films. This is followed by a series of "inspirational" moments from films including On Golden Pond, A Beautiful Mind, To Kill a Mockingbird and even The Deer Hunter. (A case of inspirational Russian roulette?) Next is a montage of horror films, featuring a healthy dose of Universal's classic monsters, and some not-so-classic MST3K fodder. A choice Abbott & Costello quip transitions into comedy clips, from vintage Richard Pryor to Steve Carell's 40-year-old virgin. This leads into the requisite "beautiful/romantic" segment, which leans heavily on moments from Jurassic Park and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. A false finale sets up Belushi's classic "Over? … Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" monologue from Animal House and a climax that's full of people running and screaming, iconic star moments and explosions. A brief flurry of fireworks, an apropos closing quote, and it's time to cattle-drive the shellshocked patrons out the door.

;;The effect the show will have on you depends entirely on your emotional connection to the films excerpted. If you, like me, are the kind of person who finds yourself welling up at the clip packages shown during the Oscar telecast, this show is for you. The clips in the montage are expertly chosen and edited, due in part to the creative participation of director John Landis. His influence can be felt not just in the clips from at least three of his films, but also in the use of black-and-white classics and some obscure horror flicks (though older cinephiles may still be frustrated that the vast majority of clips are from the last 25 years). The emotional resonance of the films is viscerally enhanced by the effects: Blue lasers simulate being beneath the water's surface for Jaws, and the concussive pyro punctuating "Say hello to my little friend!" from Scarface brings cheers from the audience. If, on the other hand, you have a low tolerance for anything that smacks of commercialism, you may be less appreciative. A companion who saw the show with me, while respecting it on a technical level, felt it was nothing more than a glorified commercial for Universal Pictures, and others may feel the same.

;;If you're staking out a spot, the best view is from the deck behind "Richter's Burgers" in the San Francisco area. Stand near the designated smoking area, look toward Men in Black and move to your left until the closer globe is lined up between the MIB and Back to the Future facades. This is right below where the show control booth is located, and should give you a perfect view of two of the globes, as well as the effects on MIB and BTTF, in a single vista; if you turn to your right, you can catch the effects on "Louie's" as well. Make sure you stand a few feet back from the railing, as the newly installed speakers are positioned directly above the water's edge and require a little distance for the full sonic effect. Another good vantage point is the waterside landing in front of the "International Food & Film Festival" near BTTF. Despite what the park guide says, not all locations along the lagoon provide good views; I found the view from the bridge in front of MIB to be particularly poor.

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;"Universal 360" is a solid effort and a great added value for those interested in the rest of the park's attractions. It remains to be seen, though, if the show will drive enough revenue to extend beyond August. Universal has a habit of closing as early 5 or 6 p.m. in the off-season, something that needs to change if CityWalk is ever to reach its financial potential. Hopefully, this new show will be a step in that direction. If not, the Cinesphere technology has intriguing possibilities for special events like Halloween and Mardi Gras; I for one look forward to seeing what new uses Universal can put it to.

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;Now, can we get some love for Islands of Adventure? There hasn't been a major new attraction there since the park opened seven years ago, and we need something
;to do other than ride Spidey for the 1,000th time ….

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UNIVERSAL 360
Through August
Universal Studios Florida
(407) 224-5500
www.universalorlando.com
$48-$63
(includes park admission)
feedback@orlandoweekly.com

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