Jurassic Park: The Ride has been a centerpiece of Universal Studios Hollywood since its opening more than two decades ago. Its showstopping mechanical dinosaurs, along with the majestic 30-foot King Kong that burned in the 2008 fire at the studios, helped make this relatively compact theme park feel epic.
It was also a theme park ride that possessed a story worthy of a film, one that included a clever and slightly meta understanding of theme parks.
The park-within-the-park early in its aquatic narrative featured an awe-inspiring scene of an ultrasaurus munching on grass. We knew there would soon be havoc — the 84-foot boat drop was visible from outside the ride, after all — but the surprises came when we veered off course to drift into Jurassic Park’s mock maintenance bays.
Consider it a peek, so to speak, behind a theme park curtain. Things became more humorously sinister when we spied a tiny dilophosaurus in a ride vehicle just like ours, the animal apparently finishing a hearty meal of vacationers.
That ride, however, has been revamped with newer, bigger effects and is now known as Jurassic World: The Ride. It starts not with the former’s calming, mesmerizing scene in which the elongated neck of the veggiesaurus towered over our boats. Instead, we glide into an aquarium with a shark-eating mosasaurus looking hungrily at us tourists. Forget any moments to luxuriate in John Williams’ rousing score; we may as well be dangling on a fishing rod from the ride’s opening seconds.
It is gorgeous, and far more stunningly crisp than any theme park screen in Southern California. But it immediately makes clear not just the updated ride’s difference in tone but its change in intent.
Special effects, thrills and getting guests drenched are Priority No. 1. The robotic ultrasaurus may not have possessed much movement, but it stood before us as a real-life feat of human engineering and molded artistry.
We were still, in essence, in the presence of an ultrasaurus rather than marveling at how lifelike our digital animation has become. In other words, we were in Jurassic Park, rather than watching “Jurassic Park” happen to us.
The original was developed in conjunction and concurrently with Steven Speilberg’s film. And coming just a few months after Disneyland’s 1995 opening of Indiana Jones Adventure, it was a statement — a message that Universal could serve and volley with its bigger, more enveloping Anaheim rival when it needed to. When Universal shut down the ride last year and said it would be re-themed to the current slate of “Jurassic World” films, there was equal cause for celebration and concern.
The ride did need an update. Its dinos were looking more static with each passing year, details were disappearing and its best effects, such as a falling Jeep, had long been in need of repair. But the two “Jurassic World” films are narratives that put thrills-per-hour ahead of story. They are, in short, cinematic attempts at lesser theme park attractions, one the original Jurassic Park: The Ride certainly was not.
Thus, Jurassic World: The Ride is an imperfect ride but the perfect one for where the “Jurassic Park” franchise has gone. It packs plenty of tension and scares and wow-inducing special effects into its five-plus minutes. But it does this at the expense of a sense of awe, grandeur and basic grasp of storytelling that the original attraction possessed.
Jurassic World: The Ride isn’t lacking in entertainment. It’s hard, after all, to screw up a ride with dinosaurs, which remain a key draw for Disneyland’s railroad despite those animatronics dating to the 1960s.
“Dinosaurs were bigger than anything we can relate to,” Spielberg told The Times before the ride opened in 1996. “That’s why they fill us up with a sense of awe.”
And that’s why it’s disappointing for Jurassic World to open with a mosasaurus in a giant virtual fish tank, which recalls less the reverence for dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” and more the silly theme park disaster movie that was “Jaws 3.”
Whereas the original ride took a more patient route and gradually ramped up its sense of danger, Jurassic World’s first major scene has water descending on riders from above, as screens surrounding the boat depict the gargantuan whale-like mosasaurus gobbling prey and angrily making waves.
The digital illusion impressively has the dino then appearing to break the glass to create an effect of water seemingly hitting guests horizontally. But while Universal has notably found a way to make it feel like water is spraying at us from a cracked fish tank, there is no immediate massive blasting of alarms at the breach of glass.
One could argue that Jurassic World has already accounted for this lapse in logic.
An entertaining pre-show features the film’s stars Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and BD Wong giving purposefully awkward interviews for what’s designed to be Jurassic Park’s cheesy in-park network. One second of Wong’s pompous Dr. Henry Wu talking about his genetic mutations and it should be clear that the dinosaur park we’re about to ride through didn’t always put the little details first.
A key component of the original’s success was a sense of misdirection, that the dinos were blocking paths or wayward boats were sending us into marked-off and dangerous territory. Jurassic World keeps things simple; this is a theme park ride gone wrong from beginning to end.
It delivers in giving us new mobile predators, including the mostly friendly Blue from the current films, even if the ride’s transition from outdoors to indoors appears to create, depending on when it’s ridden, a shift in time zones from day to night.
No matter, what follows is the monster-meets-disaster movie finale with which we’re willing to get drenched: a T. rex battling the weaponized genetic disaster that is Indominus rex. The fight appears to disrupt the very foundation of the park, and 84-foot boat drop and photo op here we come.
What we gain in excitement, however, we lose in narrative finesse. Jurassic World: The Ride is panic and water from start to finish, whereas Jurassic Park: The Ride sought to amaze us before soaking us, to let us briefly bask in the hope and wonder that we would be riding a boat among the dinosaurs — and then create the panic by having dinosaurs toy with us by shifting the direction of our boat.
Yes, the update is an adrenaline-inducing blast, but it’s fun in the same way as Disneyland’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout is fun, which also swapped a tension-building narrative pace for instant gratification.
But when our Hollywood blockbuster franchises start to lose nuance, perhaps it’s too much to ask that our theme park rides pick up their slack.