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Seth gets a sneak peek at Universal Studios' new nighttime spectacular

The surge of spring break crowds has subsided, leaving us locals a few brief weeks to enjoy Orlando's attractions before the summer surf smashes in. That means now is a perfect time for the parks to roll out their latest offerings, in time to polish performance before getting pummeled by peak season. Though Disney recently announced that the next phase of its Fantasyland expansion won't debut until July, a Phineas and Ferb segment will be added to the Cinderella Castle projection show later this month. And on April 27, SeaWorld Orlando opened TurtleTrek, a domed 3-D theater that gives a turtle's-eye view of the ocean.

We'll save the simulated saltwater sojourn for next week; today's feature screens exclusively at Universal Studios Florida. With customers still straining at Islands of Adventure's gate to visit Harry Potter, Universal's designers have turned their attention back to the resort's original attraction. On May 8, Universal premieres the next evolution of their evening entertainment, alongside a new kid-friendly daytime parade, for the purpose of pulling people back to the original park. A new Despicable Me ride opening this summer, followed in the future by an officially unannounced Gringotts ride (replacing Jaws, R.I.P.), may finally fully rebalance the Potter-crazed crowds.

Coincidentally, it was just short of six years ago that I penned my first feature for this newspaper, a review of Universal 360: A Cinesphere Spectacular. That then-new nighttime pageant was the park's first pass at an end-of-day dazzler a la Epcot's Illuminations. A blizzard of film clips, projected onto Prisoner-esque inflated balls, were backed by lasers and brief fireworks. At the time, I tepidly praised the show as a “solid effort,” but it never solidly connected with audiences and has been on hiatus more often than not for the past year.

Last week, I was part of the second public audience to see a sneak peek of Universal's Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories, which handily surpasses its older sibling. The 17-minute show once again centers around short clips from Universal's century-deep library, selected for their audio-visual impact, quotability and/or intense emotional associations. Indeed, many of the iconic images are identical to the previous production. But the editing is now slightly less ADD, giving memorable scenes a few more moments to breathe, instead of being a constant “what film was that?” blur. More importantly, the clips are now explicitly organized around identifiable themes, such as “Heroes,” “Horror” or “Laughter.” New framing narration is provided by actor Morgan Freeman, who ladles warm gravitas over the proceedings with his Academy Award-winning voice.

Instead of image-distorting spheres, razor-sharp video is projected onto supersized sheets of water. Said water screens spout from a trio of raft-mounted scaffolds floating in the central lagoon; the hardware is unobtrusive at showtime but industrially ugly in daylight. Filling out the performance package is a platoon of high-powered fountains fitted with color-changing lights. Colored water blasts skyward in sync with the souped-up soundtrack, as barrages of fireworks burst around the park's perimeter.

For the former show, my favorite vantage point was the waterside dock behind Richter's Burgers, but the orientation of the new water screens makes that spot less optimal. For the preview, I perched in Central Park on the opposite side of the lagoon. Since the show's writer-director, Mike Aiello, showed up to watch from the same spot, I suppose I chose wisely. There the shoreline's curvature produces a panoramic picture; other excellent angles are found in Battery Park and near the Simpsons ride.

Cinematic Spectacular is a serious step up from its predecessor, and a welcome reason to stick around USF until closing time. Your emotional mileage may vary, but more than a few of the featured flicks evoked strong memories for me; if you get teary over Oscar montages, you'll go ape over this. And though Universal's fireworks can't hold a Roman candle to the Magic Kingdom's (blame nearby neighborhoods), they are notably beefier and better paced than previously.

CineSpec is certainly no World of Color killer; anyone overwhelmed by the massive scale and scope of Disney California Adventure's signature spritzing show will be merely whelmed by this comparatively modest distant cousin. I also can't see tourists returning to it time and again, as they do with Illuminations or Fantasmic, Disney's nighttime fireworks and water show. But taken on its own terms, this show is a spectacular way to celebrate Universal Studio's centenary. Just mind the “splash zone” signs if you go on a breezy night. And if it's a blockbuster success that draws masses away from Hogwarts next door, so much the better for me to ride.

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