The Ironically-Named Universal Studios

Reconsidering my opinions about theme parks that treat me like I’m too fat to visit them

Two things I’ve seen recently:

  1. A theme park and roller coaster fan posted a photo to Twitter, showing his hand-made calendar of weight-loss goals he wanted to hit. The overriding goal: to lose enough weight to be able to ride the new Velocicoaster at Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
  2. A couple that makes YouTube videos were at a preview day for Universal Studios Hollywood to prepare for its re-opening, and they wanted to go on its new dark ride for The Secret Life of Pets. But when trying the test seat outside the ride entrance, one of them found he couldn’t fit with the ride vehicle and its restraints. He then did something I’ve never seen from a theme park YouTuber: he said, on camera, how it was a drag that Universal didn’t make more of an effort to make the ride accommodating for larger guests. But then — twist! — he found a way to fit in the ride vehicle, so they resumed their previously-scheduled ride-through and talked about how great the ride was and how Universal had even beat Disney at its own game, etc.

Taken together, I’d say that sums up the state of Universal, in the current Wizarding World of Harry Potter era: creative is doing the work, coming up with rides that seem fun, are full of novel ideas, and have been getting exceptional reviews. But then they’re put into theme parks with what seems like no concern given to actual guests, and then for whatever reason, guests are eager to treat it like it’s their own fault, not Universal’s.

For a while, I’ve been feeling like such a theme park snob for having such a low opinion of Universal Studios, based entirely on a couple of disappointing trips I took with my family in summer in the late 90s/early 2000s. It felt disrespectful to the hard work of so many people, especially since the parks had shown an eagerness to be more experimental and innovative than the notoriously risk-averse Disney parks.

So I made a point not to compare it to my memories of Disney, and instead focus on all the cool stuff they were doing — the fantastic Spider-Man ride, the great theming in both Harry Potter lands, the beautiful layout of Volcano Bay, the ingenious design of Cabana Bay as an affordable hotel that was so cool that people would actually prefer to stay there instead of a more expensive one, and the still-phenomenal tram tour at the original Universal Studios Hollywood.

And I kept being disappointed, over and over again. Because again, the creativity and the design weren’t in question. The problem was that they were constantly being kneecapped by baffling decisions apparently made elsewhere. Entire lands made with seemingly no thought as to capacity. Hour-or-longer waits for a brief “ceremony” at Ollivander’s that chooses only one child in the audience, and doesn’t even give them the wand afterwards. Rides for properties that appeal to younger audiences, but have ride systems that keep younger audiences from riding. And overall, the constant feeling of being told by Universal that I’m too fat, too old, or that my time isn’t valuable.

I realized that I wasn’t the one being disrespectful to the work of the creative teams, Universal was.

The Secret Life of Pets ride looks genuinely charming, and appealing to me even though I have zero interest in the license. There are some very clever effects throughout, combining screens and projections and animatronics and special effects. It could’ve been a wonderful family ride, but it has a ride system that might as well be on a roller coaster.

Any time this criticism is raised, you can see people leaping to Universal’s defense, almost as if someone had dared to criticize Elon Musk online. They make it sound as if these are just unavoidable design constraints that every theme park is subject to — even though we all know that there’s a very liability-sensitive 900-pound gorilla just a few miles away from both of Universal’s American resorts. And on the rare occasion that Disney does make something that’s not (ahem) universally accessible, they get reamed about it online.

I’ve spent most of my life somewhere on the spectrum between “husky” and “fat,” but I’ve very rarely been subjected to the kind of criticism that most overweight people have to put up with regularly. It’s always, always presented as your fault. “You could be skinner if you tried.” “You’re responsible for making yourself unhealthy.” “I lost x pounds, so you could, too.” “If you took better care of yourself, people wouldn’t be such assholes to you.”

Along the same lines, Universal advertises these rides and parks to us, while making what seems like zero effort to make them accessible to us. And everyone acts like it’s our fault. Meanwhile, the parks sell pizza fries, butterscotch-flavored cream soda, and milkshakes with whole slices of cake or doughnuts in them.

To be clear: I absolutely don’t begrudge in the slightest any of the people using a fun-looking rollercoaster as a metric for their own plans to lose weight. On the contrary, that seems like a fun way to do it. What I’m calling out is the idea that we’re obligated to change our bodies to fit the rides, and not that these companies are obligated to change their rides to accommodate as many of us as possible.

I also don’t begrudge any YouTuber who just wants to have fun at the parks (and not piss off Universal with their videos) instead of having to think about any of this bullshit. American society finds ways to make fat people feel bad about themselves multiple times a day, every day, and it’s such a relief to be able to take even a brief vacation from it. Not to mention the anxiety that comes from wondering if you’re going to be publicly kicked off a ride because “you don’t fit” (always worded that way instead of “the ride doesn’t fit you”).

So I’m done giving them a break. Again, by everything I’ve seen, Universal creative is doing some really good work. But I’m kind of done making excuses for theme parks that repeatedly act like they don’t want me there. I’m sure I’ll go on the tram tour at Universal Hollywood again, and I’m looking forward to seeing Super Mario World, and finding out if they’ve made the rides there ridiculously hostile to the overweight.

But I’ll have to leave the Hagrid coaster, and the Velocicoaster, and the slow-moving family ride based on an animated movie about adorable pets, for the average sized. Meanwhile, I’ll be at Disney, where they almost never make me feel old and fat.

“The Fifth Key is Capitalism”

Disney announced a change that affected “The Disney Look,” and the reactions have been everything I expected and lots more that I should’ve expected

This week Disney announced a renewed focus on “inclusion” in its company goals. Along with that came a change to “The Disney Look” that would support a wider range of hair styles, tattoos, traditional head coverings, and jewelry. It also doesn’t impose restrictions based on gender, like make-up, nail polish, and earrings for male cast members.

As you’d expect, there are tons of crotchety responses from people who are horrified on behalf of Walt Disney himself, and whose vacations will be absolutely ruined if the 23-year-old man wearing lederhosen in Anaheim in 99 degree heat wishing you a magical day in Fantasyland also happens to be wearing nail polish.

An awful lot of Disney “fans” simply aren’t happy unless they’re complaining about how much better things used to be. I will never forget being on a message board and reading a thread about a change in smoking areas, and one earnest fan’s post lamenting how upset Walt Disney would be to see people smoking in Disneyland.1When multiple people pointed out to her that Mr Disney was a heavy smoker and in fact died of illnesses related to lung cancer, she replied that that’s all the more reason he’d be anti-smoking in the 21st century.

But most people seem to get it, and recognize that it’s a good thing. The standards were a little hypocritical from the start, introduced by a mustachioed gentlemen in the 1950s trying to keep his carrousel, Monsanto advertisements, and Indian-killing fantasies from being associated with unsavory carnival types. I agree with most of Robert Niles’s take on Theme Park Insider. The “Disney Look” has always been most hospitable to middle-class white people working to make middle-class white people feel safe and comfortable.

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Re: Fwd: Disneyland

Speculation on Disneyland’s proposed expansion plans

Expansion concept art from the Disneyland Forward website.

Last week, Disneyland made an announcement with an accompanying “Disney Forward” website, which I heard described variously as an expansion to the Anaheim theme parks, a third theme park, a west coast Disney Springs, or a second attempt to push through their earlier rejected plans now that the COVID-19 pandemic gave them more leverage with the city of Anaheim.

Looking at the site more closely, it looks to me like it’s just a proposal to re-zone land at the Disneyland Resort to be mixed-use. The stuff I’d read suggested all kinds of grand schemes and/or nefarious ulterior motives, but I should know by now to take everything I read about Disney parks on the internet with a big old salt lick. It’s never as spectacular and magical, or as sinister and profit-driven, as people make it sound.

To be clear, it’s an extremely savvy pitch on Disney’s part, as you’d expect. It’s timed right before the parks re-open, when the city and residents of Anaheim are most aware of how much their economy relies on Disneyland. It’s presented to the public — and using much the same format they use to sell hotel stays and DVC points to guests — instead of as a dry zoning proposal. I’m presuming that’s partly for transparency, to keep it from seeming as if Disney is colluding with the city government, proposing huge projects without any regard for the people affected by them. I’d bet it’s also to get the legions of Disney parks fans excited, to try and change the narrative from “Global entertainment behemoth stomps over small local businesses” to “Opportunistic Harbor Blvd hotel and restaurant chains crush the dreams of children.”

There’s also a repeated idea that sounds, hilariously, like a veiled threat: if this proposal doesn’t go through, Disney’s going to have no choice but to demolish some beloved attractions. “Nice tea cups we got here. It’d be a shame if anything… happened to them.”

But at the same time, everything that they’re saying is obviously true. There is no space left to expand the parks or build new stuff; the Galaxy’s Edge expansion was squeezed in as it was. They have tried to expand using the current hotel/retail/theme park zoning, and the plans fell through on account of pushback from the city. (Technically, their most recent plan was cancelled by Disney judging it not worth the investment when the city refused to give them the tax breaks they wanted. Still tough to choose a “good guy” in that fight, which was why it was savvy of Disney to pitch this one as room for new attractions instead of just room for more profitable hotel space).

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The Back Side of the 1960s

Preemptively heading off comments about the upcoming Jungle Cruise refurb

Today, Disney announced their plan to make changes to the Jungle Cruise rides at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, removing culturally insensitive (and imperialist) references to native tribes, guides, and head hunters, and replacing them with a new storyline about the hapless crew of a previous journey.

I wanted to ask all the Disney parks fans to join together and head off any attempts from the internet to turn this into some kind of controversy. To be fair, I haven’t actually seen any complaints about it yet, because I’m largely out of touch with the usual gang of obsessives on Twitter and in forums. So this might not even be necessary. Maybe everybody’s excited about it!

But: when Disneyland painted its theme park fairy tale castle a brighter color, people responded as if the company had gone back in time and physically assaulted their younger selves. Anything involving “cultural sensitivity” — like, hypothetically speaking, changing a key scene in an attraction that showed the lighter, family-friendly side of both fat-shaming and human trafficking — tends to have people grousing about it for years.

And actually, I get it. Song of the South is undeniably a movie infused with racism to its core, but I still felt more than a little melancholy when I heard that Splash Mountain was being re-themed to The Princess and the Frog. The movie, its songs, and the ride conjure up very specific, wonderful memories of my childhood and my mother, and it’ll never not be sad seeing those erased.

I understand intellectually why it’s necessary to change, and I’m in favor of the changes, but there’s still that emotional gut response aversion to it. That temptation to ask, “can’t we just acknowledge that it’s dated, and keep it with asterisks attached?” Or, “Isn’t it ultimately harmless?”

So here’s a very recent — and pretty embarrassing, honestly — example to demonstrate why having dated, inaccurate, or insensitive images repeated constantly, even if they seem “harmless” or “just a gag,” can be harmful. If you’re like me, a middle-class American or Western European who’s never traveled to east Africa, what is the image that come into your head when I mention “Kenya?”

Is it this?

Image of Nairobi from the Enchanting Travels website

I’m embarrassed to admit that I always pictured what I’d always thought was a positive image: a broad, beautiful, savanna with zebras and wildebeests grazing peacefully. I know that much of the country is actually like that. And I know that my only other frame of reference for “Africa” — the fictional city of “Harambe” in Animal Kingdom — is supposed to be a relatively accurate depiction of the smaller towns that are probably more widespread (at least, as of the late 1990s). But my entire idea of the country, if not the entire continent, was so full of these images of safaris and small towns that they’d completely crowded out even the possibility of a cosmopolitan city center with millions of people.

To compare it to something I understand better: it would be as if I thought the entire state of Georgia was like the small towns in the rural southern part of the state, and Atlanta didn’t even exist. I’m not putting any value judgment on small towns vs city centers; the older I get, the more I think cities are overrated. I’m just talking about preconceived notions of an entire place that don’t account for its variety, and don’t update over the years along with the real world.

Just last week, somebody on Twitter posted a picture of the Nairobi skyline — I can’t remember the exact context, but it was in response to some dipshit trying to say that Kenya was backwards — and I think it might’ve been the first I’d ever even seen the city. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been carrying around those over-simplistic ideas of what the country, and really, the rest of the world is like.

So essentially what I’m saying is that I could understand the complaints about the Jungle Cruise changes: the ride is supposed to be silly and light-hearted and never claims to be an accurate representation. Plus, it’s set during some not-quite-specified time period in the early 20th century, so it’s supposed to be dated. (Similar to the “They’re pirates! They’re supposed to be bad guys!” complaint, as if that were the point).

But my response is simply that images are more powerful than we think, especially when they’re presented as if they were harmless, and especially when they’re repeated so often. We can — and in the case of the Jungle Cruise, absolutely should — keep the old aesthetic, but we’re not obliged to keep the old attitudes. From the gags I’ve seen in their “first look” video, it seems like they’ve got the right idea: it’s still silly and fun, but the humor is more inclusive instead of just making fun of people that don’t deserve it.

Men in Black: Alien Attack

Recommending a friend’s podcast appearance talking about a now-classic ride

Belated YouTube and podcast recommendation: I’ve been a fan of the Theme Park Stop channel for a while, where Alicia Stella does videos about theme park news and rumors, mostly focused on Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. She somehow manages to make even speculation about patent applications interesting, and she also does a killer impression of Mickey Mouse from the Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride.

I haven’t had much time for podcasts since I stopped having to commute, so I missed out on a recent episode of their podcast featuring my real-life pal Dave Cobb. He was talking about the Men In Black: Alien Attack attraction at Universal Studios Orlando, a project on which he was the creative director. It’s a great conversation about the planning and development of the ride, with hosts who not only know the ride inside and out, but are big fans of it not only as theme park guests, but people who try to closely follow the business.

Dave is super-generous with his time, enthusiasm, knowledge, credit, and friendship, and he and his husband have been my hosts in LA and for Disneyland gay days more times than I’ll ever be able to pay back. It’s fun hearing him talk about a project he’s proud of, sharing his personal contributions and emphasizing the work of so many different people that went into making it.

It’s also a reminder of how the ride is the highlight of Universal Studios Orlando, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been kind of an a-hole about Universal Orlando, because I immediately forget that I’m an adult and instead revert back to being an insufferably hyper-critical guest (and rabid Disney Parks fan) in my late teens and early 20s.1And in the summer in Orlando, no less, which just added to the feeling of irritation. I only got to ride Men in Black for the first time a few years ago, and it was immediately clear how there’s a level of thoughtfulness that went into that attraction, from start to finish, that you rarely see even now, in the post-Wizarding World of Harry Potter era. As they say at the beginning of the podcast, there’s a reason it’s lasted 20 years in a park that is constantly changing!