Los Angeles Times

Universal Set To Unwrap Edgy Mummy Attraction

Sentinel Staff Writer

Just three months shy of its spring opening, Revenge of the Mummy is part construction site, part thrill ride.

Its maze of stage sets is nearly complete, and a roller-coaster track coils like a whip through its building on the back lot at Universal Studios Florida.

But a foam cutout holds the place of a robotic figure in one scene, and no one passing by seems surprised by the demon warriors springing from their hiding spaces as workers check whether the monsters are operating properly.

Universal has a reputation for edgy attractions, but executives say Mummy, which is entering its final weeks of construction, will be unlike anything the company has built.

It will take passengers on a four-minute "psychological thrill ride" that includes a skeletal villain, a roomful of flesh-eating bugs and a chamber where real flames roil overhead.

A ride as elaborate as this one is "a very complicated thing to pull together," said Scott Trowbridge, vice president of Universal Creative, which designs attractions for Vivendi Universal's five parks in the United States, Spain and Japan.

It also is crucial to keeping Universal competitive with its archrival Walt Disney World, theme-park consultant Dennis Speigel said.

Competition between the resorts "continues to be an armaments war, and if you don't come out with a big gun," you're not going to attract tourists, said Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati consulting firm.

Construction on the Mummy started more than a year ago, even before Universal unwrapped plans to spend $80 million on a pair of Mummy attractions at its theme parks in California and Orlando.

In fact, an army of artists and engineers had been working on the attractions since before the movie that inspired them was released in spring 1999.

That's not unusual.

Ride designers typically start thinking about possible rides several years out because it takes so long to build them, Trowbridge said.

Some of those ride plans are shelved because the story is weak, while others are filed away because they would cost too much to build or there's no room for them, he said.

But building a thrill ride based on The Mummy was "a natural," Trowbridge said.

The movie, like its 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns, is about a mummy, Imhotep, who returns from the dead and wreaks havoc.

"We thought, 'Here's a story line that's classic Universal,' " Trowbridge said.

Company officials are careful about what they will say about the ride. Universal will talk about the making of the attraction but won't say what happens after the first few scenes, and it won't allow photos of the work in progress.

One of the first decisions the designers made was to have the attraction combine an indoor attraction with a roller coaster -- an idea that had been on the shelf since the early 1990s.

Space Mountain and Rock Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney are indoor coasters, but Mummy will be different because the coaster is simply one more twist in the attraction's plot.

Passengers will ride a 1930s-style open "railcar" and pass slowly through several scary scenes, stopping for some, before the slow-moving ride becomes a fast-moving coaster.

But while the designers settled on the coaster idea early on, "it took a good year to a year and a half to find the beats" -- the twists and turns that make up the ride's story, said Jennifer Sauer, the Orlando ride's creative director.

Sometimes, an idea that works on paper might not play as well in 3-D, Sauer said.

Ride designers routinely build real and computer models of the ride to get a clearer idea how it will look to paying guests, she said.

"It really does evolve over time," Sauer said.

Several of the proposed scenes in the attraction were so elaborate that the designers built full-scale mock-ups off-site to see whether they would really work.

One idea Sauer's storytellers came up with was a room where fire licks the ceiling.

"Your first reaction is, 'Oh, you can't do that!' " said Bob Shreve, a creative producer with Universal.

"Then, the second reaction is, 'Oh, you can't afford to do that,' and once you've worked all that out, you go, 'Oh. How can we pull that off?' "

Shreve joined Sauer's team in 2001 and spent the next several months coming up with a way to create a fire effect that was safe and could be reset every 24 seconds -- the length of time between cars leaving the ride's loading platform.

Workers built a mock-up of the room where the effect was planned. They suspended three pans -- each larger than an SUV -- upside down from the ceiling. The shallow sides trapped natural gas beneath the pans.

When the gas was ignited, the flame rolled beneath the pans in an effect called "brain fire" because the roiling flames resemble a brain.

"We played with different heights, different amounts of gas for a couple days until Jennifer said, 'That's the look I want,' " Shreve said.

But they decided to remove one of the three pans because "we kind of figured out we were truly making a roaster. You could have warmed your sandwich in there," he said.

"We really want people to feel threatened in there," but "it isn't as dangerous as it looks," Shreve said.

"You're using lighter-than-air gas," he said, and "we built the room so it can never catch on fire. In terms of guest safety, they're 100 percent safe."

Passengers will feel the heat, but federal safety guidelines say the temperature on riders' foreheads can't exceed 111 degrees and can last only a few seconds -- about the same as opening the door on a broiler.

Another big decision that the designers had to make early on was where in the park to build it, Trowbridge said.

"Real estate is obviously a huge concern," he said.

The only soundstage big enough was on the park's New York back lot, but it was home to one of Universal's signature rides, Kongfrontation, based on the 1976 remake of King Kong.

Despite its aging technology -- the 30-foot gorilla could move its arms, slowly, but that was about all -- the attraction had a loyal following.

"But we felt this [Mummy] attraction would be more popular, and we're all about updating [the park]," Trowbridge said.

Kongfrontation closed in September 2002, and workers began striking the ride's New York street sets almost immediately.

The soundstage has about 70,000 square feet of floor space and is about 55 feet tall, but fitting Mummy into the building created problems because of the ride's design, said Mike Hightower, vice president of project management with Universal Creative.

"Everything is right on top of each other," he said.

What's more, the stage has only one entrance in the rear for construction equipment, he said. So, the builders had to install the attraction like a tourist packing luggage into the trunk of the family car, making sure everything would eventually fit.

"It takes a tremendous amount of planning to schedule the sequences," Hightower said.

Now that the major sets and coaster track are in place, crews will spend the next several weeks testing the equipment and finishing the sets before opening the ride intermittently for "technical rehearsals" and making any final adjustments.

Universal hopes to have Mummy's official opening sometime in late spring, before the summer vacation season.

Sauer spent a recent morning in the ride's queue, telling a couple of workers where to place a broken "stone" column. It looked to weigh as much as a car, but they lifted it without much effort.

During a break, Sauer said she had lost track of how long she has worked on the ride. "I started four, four and a half years ago?" she said, doing the math in her head and reacting in mock horror at how quickly time had passed.

"Where did my life go?"

Todd Pack can be reached at tpack@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5407.

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