Live Active Cultures 

Disney makes it OK for some people to jump the line; Universal's new mini golf course is ingenious but undemanding

Earlier this month, I reported on Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and Habit Heroes, two of Walt Disney World's latest high-tech interactive experiments. Truth be told, those two are only the tip of the spear. A spate of advanced amusement alternatives are being introduced across the Disney parks as part of a billion-dollar project dubbed “NextGen.” Epcot's Kim Possible Adventure will soon be replaced by a similar cellphone-based game built around Disney Channel's Phineas and Ferb, and a circus tent full of mechanized distractions will debut alongside Magic Kingdom's recently relocated Dumbo. As Fantasyland's expansion continues, expect cutting-edge preshow playgrounds, much like the interactive graveyard installed outside the Haunted Mansion, to open outside the new Little Mermaid ride and Peter Pan.

Imagineers say these new efforts are about expanding storytelling opportunities, but the business case for this capital investment lies in “xPass,” the imminent evolution of Disney's FastPass queue-skipping system.As reported by industry watcher and former OW columnist Jim Hill at jimhillmedia.com, in the future Disney guests will be able to book appointment times at most park attractions months before their vacation, much as they do for dining. Staying at luxury resorts and booking well in advance will net multiple prime-time passes to the popular rides, while locals and last-minute daytrippers could be stuck with leftovers. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the queue from the guest experience, at least for well-heeled early birds.

While I'm enjoying building my Sorcerers deck, I remain skeptical about NextGen's value versus a similar investment into expanding ride capacity. I doubt any- one flies cross-country for collectible cards, as they would for a Potter-beating E-ticket. But Mickey isn't alone in substituting makeovers for big moves. Ever since Disney purchased the Marvel comic characters, speculation has swirled as to whether Universal's Islands of Adventures would replace their Marvel-themed attractions, perhaps by turning the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man into Transformers (which is based on similar technology).

Instead, Universal recently reopened a spiffed-up version of Spider-Man, strongly implying that the web-slinger is here to stay. Though the attraction's essence is unchanged, new high-definition 3-D (driven by dichroic digital 4K projectors, similar to Disney's revamped Star Tours) and ultra-detailed environments equal a whole new experience; I caught myself gasping like I did on my very first spin back in 1999.

Still, as stellar as Spidey's spring cleaning was, once in a while you need a break from the blur of high-intensity wonders. Surrounded by artificially intelligent interactivity, I sometimes suddenly find myself longing for the lo-fi. Which is why I was grateful to get on the greens last week for an old-fashioned game of mini golf during the official opening of Hollywood Drive-In, the latest expansion at Universal's CityWalk. It took some ingenuity to insert two full courses into the space between the Cineplex and valet parking, but the end result doesn't disappoint; Universal's designers have put the same imagination into this putt-putt that they put into the parks, producing an experience that trounces most competitors, even Disney's excellent offerings.

As the name implies, Hollywood Drive-In is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to monster movies from a half-century ago. The Haunting of Ghostly Greens is an 18-hole journey through graveyards populated by parodies of Universal's classic ghouls, culminating inside a mad scientist's basement laboratory. The other course is Invaders From Planet Putt, where you play past adorable aliens and attacking robots and walk through Area 51, a flying saucer and a spaceworm's intestinal tract, which are all rendered in a goofy, kid-friendly style.

Both courses feature pun-laden plaques setting the story at each tee and mood-setting soundtracks; hidden speakers serenade you with “Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man” on the sci-fi side, while on the horror half you'll hear “The Time Warp” and “Thriller.” Best of all, the entire layout sports integrated LED lighting with an array of theatrical projections. I highly suggest playing post-sunset for the most spectacular visuals.

Neither course is challenging; I'm a terrible golfer and managed to come in only 1 over par … per hole, that is. There are a handful of ramps and windmill-type obstacles but most of the layouts are straightforward, excepting their elaborate aesthetics. The price is somewhat steep by area standards ($14 adults/$12 kids per course, plus parking; 25 percent off second course) and nonplaying parents can't watch their kids for free (unlike at Congo River Golf's locations). But how can you put a price on sinking a ball into a glowing alien orifice under a starlit sky?

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