Mario M Likes To Keep It Clean

Dispatches from Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood

Yesterday we went to a soft opening (“technical preview”) of Super Nintendo World on a very rainy day at Universal Studios Hollywood. It seemed like everything was conspiring to give me a lackluster or even bad first impression of the land, but I still had a lot of fun and came away impressed. So I think they’ve done a fantastic job with it.

When I say that “everything was conspiring against us,” here’s what I mean:

  • Over-hyped: Ever since I started seeing the early construction photos from Osaka’s version of the park, I’ve been looking forward to being able to go. My expectations have been so high that they’d be impossible to live up to.
  • Self-spoilage: Not only have I been watching videos from Chris Nilghe at Tokyo Disney Explorer, but Hollywood’s version has been running previews for a week, and I’ve been watching every video from the locals. (Ordinary Adventures in particular). I did the same thing with Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, where my very first impression of everything was from watching a video instead of seeing it in person.
  • Lack of build-up: There’s been so much hype around the opening that I just assumed that there’d be no way we’d be able to get even close to it until at least a month after the official opening. I had thought that we were going to Universal just to make use of our new annual passes and check out the new Nintendo shops, and it honestly hadn’t even occurred to me that we’d be able to actually get into the new land.
  • Bad weather: There’s been an unusual amount of heavy rain in Los Angeles for the past few weeks. Saturday wasn’t one of the heaviest days, but the rain was constant. (And cold). (And windy). My shoes and pants were quickly soaked through, and after a couple of hours, I was in too foul a mood to do anything outdoors, which is most of the land.
  • My anti-Universal bias: I fully admit that I tend to judge Universal parks unfairly, and it’s not all deserved. Much of that comes from years of comparing the Orlando parks to Walt Disney World, which isn’t really appropriate. But my biggest gripe these days is that they don’t seem to care much about accommodating larger guests, they know that it’s an issue, and they still keep building stuff that excludes much of their audience.

I only mention all that to stress that I was predisposed to have a bad-to-mediocre experience, and I still had a lot of fun, and I went away very impressed. There’s no question that we’re going back every chance we can get, and I’m already looking forward to seeing it again in better weather.

As I mentioned, we were there for about five hours. We got to eat at the Toadstool Cafe, go on the Mario Kart ride, and try three of the “key” challenges in the park. My impressions, also in list form:

Crowd Control: Universal Studios Hollywood is crowded even under the best conditions; it’s an inherent limitation of the weird space they’ve got to work with. I tend to be hyper-critical of how Universal does operations in general, and I assumed that the attraction of Super Nintendo World would overwhelm them so much that we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near Studio City, much less the park itself, until April at the earliest. But I was very pleasantly surprised by how well they handled guests on Saturday.

The complicated path down to the lower lot and the land entrance was clearly marked with signs and team members greeting people and answering questions. Inside the land, they had queues set up for everything that might attract a crowd, and there were people everywhere to try and make everything as painless as possible.

Virtual Queue: I didn’t actually use the virtual queue system myself, since I’m engaged to somebody who’s preternaturally gifted with using them.1Not only have I been to the Studio Ghibli attraction in Tokyo, but I’ve gotten to ride Rise of the Resistance in Galaxy’s Edge like six times now, on both coasts. My fiancé is a savant with reservation systems. But I was still standing around wondering what to do first when he announced that he’d already got us a reservation starting in 15 minutes.

I predict it’ll generate a ton of complaints from park guests — at least, if the reservation system for Galaxy’s Edge was any indication — but I’m really glad they’re including it for Super Nintendo World from the start. There’s simply not enough space there to support a huge crush of people all trying to get in at once. From what I’ve seen, they’ve got systems in place to make sure as many people as possible will have a reasonably good time.

Entry: After a photo opportunity (optional) out front, you enter a warp pipe and end up inside Princess Peach’s castle from Super Mario 64. They even play the music. The first time I saw this from Osaka’s version in a video, I audibly gasped and knew that I would have to go at some point.

Seeing it in person was less overwhelming, and more just an excellent, cinematic way to enter the land. They even have the paintings from Super Mario 64 on the walls, although you’re discouraged from jumping into them. They could have skimped on the details for the entrance, but they went to the effort of recreating one of the most memorable aspects of the series, and it totally paid off.

Toadstool Cafe: The only restaurant in the area is a sit-down place themed after a Toad house from the games, and I have to say it was pretty great. They had really polite and enthusiastic team members at the queue, managing the line of guests and having us wait until tables cleared up before we made our order. We waited about 10-15 minutes in line.

Once we ordered, they gave us a tray with silverware and drinks, along with a remote. A team member took our tray and then guided us to a free table. Later (about another 10-15 minute wait, I’d estimate), another team member brought the food to our table.

This was such a well-organized and well-thought-out experience, it reminded me of the sit-down restaurants at Tokyo DisneySea, which have always seemed like the gold standard of food service at a theme park. It was especially notable after seeing the restaurants at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and Pym’s Test Kitchen at California Adventure, where all the focus seemed to be on getting people through the process of ordering. Several times on crowded days, we’ve been left wandering with over-loaded trays, trying in vain to find a free table.

Inside, the restaurant was pretty well-themed, with video displays in the windows showing the Toads wandering through the Mushroom Kingdom, going about their business of playing leap frog or jump rope. Periodically, an event will happen, and it’s pretty neat — not just in that it plays out on all the screens simultaneously, but that it affects the background music as well.

Also, I thought the food was pretty good by theme park standards. There aren’t many vegetarian options; my fiancé had a caprese salad and some garlic rolls. Almost everything has mushrooms somewhere, so people with allergies or aversions need to be cautious. I had the Mario burger — a cheeseburger with bacon and mushrooms, served with a Mario hat toothpick — and I was pleasantly surprised. (Again, by theme park standards).

The negatives about the restaurant: the food was pretty expensive. Two drinks (albeit one in an expensive collector’s cup), a burger, salad, garlic rolls, and a shared dessert, came out to over 80 bucks. Also, the booths were pretty cramped for larger fellows, so it might be a good idea to ask if a table is available.

Power Bands: To interact with most of the stuff in Super Nintendo World, you need to buy a power band themed to one of five characters: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, or Yoshi. You link the band with the Universal Studios app on your phone using a QR code. From that point on, every coin you collect, mini-game you complete, or ride you take in Mario Kart is tied to your account. You’re on a “team” with everyone else who chose the same character, and there’s a competition that resets every couple of hours or so, for which team collectively gets the most coins.

The bands are cute enough, and there’s enough to interact with, that I didn’t think twice about getting one. They’re not cheap, though: $40 each. It still seemed more or less reasonable… until I lost mine. They work like slap bracelets, and mine was constantly in danger of slipping off my wrist until I readjusted it. At some point, trying to negotiate a jacket, umbrella, backpack, collector’s cup on a lanyard, and trying to go to the bathroom, mine slipped off and was never seen again.

Bandless people are still allowed to roam around the park and ride the Mario Kart ride, but it quickly became clear how much of the most fun stuff requires buying one (and not losing it). It’s far less optional than Magic Bands at Disney, or the wands in Harry Potter land. I still enjoyed the ride a lot — you get rewards in your app for riding it, but the ride doesn’t require them — but for everything else, I was left watching my fiancé interacting with stuff, and realizing I was inevitably going to end up spending another forty bucks in the near future. Maybe I’ll pick a different character for better luck. Stupid Luigi.

Mario Kart Ride: Osaka’s version of the land has a slower-paced Yoshi dark ride2And I believe the version that eventually opens in Florida will have one as well, but Hollywood’s just has the Mario Kart ride as its centerpiece. It’s enough, since the entrance and ride building are outstanding, and it’s got a very well-done queue full of references. The references aren’t just to the Mario Kart games, but to a ton of “deeper cut” stuff from various other Mario games. (Some of my favorites were the model of a Super Mario Galaxy world, and the diorama of a level that seemed inspired by the Paper Mario games).

The ride itself was a nice surprise. I think I might be caught in between waves of hype and backlash — when video first came out of the ride in Osaka, people were so underwhelmed that it didn’t live up to their expectations of a ride based on Mario Kart. In particular, it’s more of a slow-moving dark ride than any kind of Radiator Springs Racers-type experience, roller coaster, or even fully trackless ride system.

So it’s possible that my expectations had been lowered, because I thought it was much better than I’d expected. While in the queue, you’re handed a Mario hat-styled visor that you strap onto your head. Once in the ride vehicle, you take an attached set of AR goggles and magnetically attach them to the visor. The goggles are more like screens than glasses; if you were expecting a VR headset like the Oculus Quest, these are much more roomy and open. Wearing glasses isn’t an issue in the slightest, since there’s plenty of space.

Like the Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure (still easily the best theme park ride that Universal has produced), it’s the combination of practical and digital effects that makes it work. The field-of-view of the AR isn’t fantastic, but since you spend the bulk of your time looking straight ahead, that isn’t an issue. And outside the goggles, there are a lot of practical and projection effects happening all around you; it’s very much a full dark ride, with even more permanent, physical features than, for instance, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. The entire thing feels fast moving and engaging, and the vehicle feels like it’s going a lot faster than it really is. Well-placed fans and smoke effects complete the effect.

My biggest gripe with Universal parks is that they tend to not care much about accessibility: so many of their big-name attractions can’t fit big-sized guests. This has been a long-running complaint, but Universal has never seen much need to do anything about it, because people will always say “you should lose weight to fit the ride” and never “they should build rides that fit everyone.” To make matters worse, they tend to put the test vehicles out exposed to the elements, so on rainy days your only options are to sit in a pool of water, or roll the dice and wait 100 minutes in line to find out you can’t ride.

All that said: accessibility wasn’t an issue for either one of us on the Mario Kart ride. It’s got a steering wheel mechanism that pulls down and locks, and I don’t believe either of us had a problem. We saw a few guests in the queue who were our size or larger, and we didn’t notice anyone getting turned away. I only stress the accessibility issues because it introduces an unnecessary level of anxiety to all of the experiences, even if it turns out not to be a problem with any specific ride.

Our wait was 100 minutes, and on that day the lowest wait time we saw for the ride was 60 minutes. The queue was interesting enough that the wait didn’t seem interminable, although I did wonder why so much of it was Yoshi-themed.

Interactive Installations: There are a ton of these scattered throughout the land, and even in such a small space, I still feel like we only found a fraction of them. The beauty of the license is that it’s just inherently fun to go up and punch a question block and get a few coins. Universal made sure to put the blocks at various heights around the land, so that smaller kids could reach them as well. (Although watching a dad lift up his daughter to punch the block was adorable).

There’s a loose over-arching story about needing three keys to defeat Bowser Jr. The keys are at larger installations out in the park, which are pretty clever mini games. You wait in a short queue, tap your power band at the start, do the activity, and then tap again at the end to get credit. I liked that these were pretty varied, and one was played best with two players. (I could help out even though I’d lost my band). Unlike the wand activations in Harry Potter land, the games aren’t “one and done;” they’re reasonably fun to do even if you’ve just seen a dozen people do it before you.

Possibly my favorite aspect of them: you can fail. Theme park interactions tend to be over-generous so that no guest could possibly have a bad experience, but these lean into the game aspect more. I don’t think any of them seemed all that difficult, but we did see guests come up and fail to do it. It didn’t ruin their day; they just went around to the end of the queue and came back to try again.

Music: If nothing else, spending a few hours in Super Nintendo World will remind you how fantastic the music for Nintendo games is. I was already impressed with the deeply nostalgic castle music in the entry way, but there’s familiar music playing all over the place — in the queues, in the restaurant, in the bathrooms, all around the land. Now that I have an annual pass, I feel like I could go for a day just to wander around and listen.

Verdict: After a few hours soaking wet, in the cold, with a back ache, and collectively $160 poorer, I was very much in a mood to leave. But I also knew that I’d be back as soon as possible. They did a fantastic job on just about everything. I’d expected all the Nintendo touches to be fantastic, but I was really impressed by how much Universal has planned and executed on this one. Wizarding World always felt to me like A++ on theming but D- on park operations, but in Super Nintendo World, it feels like it’s all working in sync. I can’t wait to visit again.

  • 1
    Not only have I been to the Studio Ghibli attraction in Tokyo, but I’ve gotten to ride Rise of the Resistance in Galaxy’s Edge like six times now, on both coasts. My fiancé is a savant with reservation systems.
  • 2
    And I believe the version that eventually opens in Florida will have one as well

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