That big bad mummy Imhotep is now making his nasty presence felt at both Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood, and doing his best to provide theme park patrons with the kind of jolts they have come to expect. But a new ride also incites expectations of something novel, something that raises the technological bar. Universal has done its best to meet these expectations with Revenge of the Mummy — The Ride, the Orlando edition of which opened in May, followed by the somewhat different Hollywood version in June.
The feature that purportedly distinguishes Revenge of the Mummy is that it cross-pollinates elements of dark rides and roller coasters into a new theme park hybrid, which the Universal marketing department has dubbed a “psychological thrill ride.” In practice, that means an attraction that does everything in its power to scare the hell out of riders, exploiting a range of fears: fear of bugs, fear of fire, fear of freefalling, fear of being digested by an angry mummy.
Revenge of the Mummy — the Ride takes off, of course, from Universal Pictures' popular movie franchise; Stephen Sommers, writer-director of the films The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, was enlisted as creative consultant, and appears along with star Brendan Fraser in the pre-show video portion of the attraction. Other holdovers from movies to ride include actor Arnold Vosloo, who portrays Imhotep, music composer Alan Silvestri, and production designer Allan Cameron, who consulted with Universal Parks & Resorts vice president of design and creative development Scott Trowbridge on the design of the ride environment. Appearing in New York earlier this year to promote the ride, Sommers (whose latest film Van Helsing is also being developed as a Universal theme park attraction), said “making the movies and ride were very similar experiences. Both are very big, elaborate, complicated, and take years.” Says Trowbridge, “We wanted to create a theme park experience that felt like a third movie in the franchise, and to embody many of the attributes of the Mummy movies: to be exciting and fun, with a lot of surprises, action, and adventure thrown in.”
Shortly after the first Mummy movie was released in 1999, Universal began looking into the potential for a theme park attraction and what form it should take. “We started focusing immediately on the most significant design and technology challenges,” says Trowbridge. “We wanted an immersive dark ride that turns into a thrill ride, and tried to find a way to make that work. You're always looking at what's being done out there, and you keep it in the back pocket until the technology's matured enough to where it's realistic to do it. Unlike the movies, our development cycle is four to five years, so we're always looking forward to figure out what's going to be ready for us when we get there. If we based everything on technology that's available today, four or five years from now it will be outdated. We try to keep a cutting edge.”
In the case of Revenge of the Mummy, examples of such cutting-edge technology include the latest in space-age robotics and the use of single-sided linear induction motors, or SLIMs, under the track to magnetically propel the ride vehicles during key scenes. But it all starts rather quaintly, as guests enter an ancient Egyptian tomb environment, complete with hieroglyphics on the gypsum walls and a giant statue of Anibus, the god of the dead. They board 1930s mine car style vehicles, which are initially propelled by “standard pacer motors, with rubber tires contacting the undersurface of the vehicle on a steel plate, and pushing you forward,” says Mike Hightower, Universal vice president of production management, the person responsible for getting the ride up and running. “You take off, and you start moving slowly through what is technically a dark ride, like Spider-Man. You're riding along, seeing some skeletons and mummies laying about; you're given no clue at this point that you're going to be on a high-speed thrill ride.”
In the Orlando attraction, the ride becomes more ominous when Imhotep appears, in the form of a 6' 10" animatronic. “That's the one we've been touting as the most advanced humanoid animatronic out there,” says Hightower. “We say that based on his performance characteristics. He's got 40 functions to make him look very, very lifelike — his neck turns, his neck bends, his eyes blink, all his fingers move. We did not invent a new technology, but took the engineering to a new level of application. The high- end animatronic characters are hydraulic, which has better performance than electric or than pneumatic systems. Then, we cranked up the pressure, which gives you the ability to package smaller actuators and get the same force. [This Imhotep purportedly can bench-press 10,000 lbs.] If he moves his arm really fast, at the end of the motion, you don't want to see the arm vibrating. These guys did the engineering analysis to make the motions very fluid and fast, so it doesn't look like a machine. They used high-strength stainless steel with hardly any welds for long life. And the skin is one of the best-looking skins I've ever seen. He's very realistic, very close to you, very dynamic.”
Lighting designer Lisa Passamonte Green of Visual Terrain says of her work on Imhotep, “He's a larger-than-life scary character who has been dead a long time, and it was fun to play with the sinewy textures all over him. The lighting includes not only traditional theatrical fixtures, but architectural fixtures used theatrically to achieve the variety of looks we wanted. It was important to hide the fixtures within the scenic elements, while getting the positions we needed to bring the figure to life.”
In the next scene, Green employed a 25°-50° ETC Source Four® HID Zoom, rotator, and Techniflex Magic Mirrors to simulate a ray of sunlight bursting through the ceiling and bouncing around to reveal a treasure chamber. “We aided the mirror light with exterior-rated landscape accents hidden amongst the treasure to uplight the gold pieces with break-up patterns that create a shimmer effect throughout the room.”
Projected images of Imhotep in different shapes, including a sand-face apparition familiar from the movies, continue to shadow the guests as they make their way through what still seems to be an ordinary dark ride. Figures of evil warriors pop into view, fire effects go off, and riders are spritzed with water before the vehicle seems to reach a dead end, surrounded by walls on three sides. “Then you start hearing the familiar sound of scarab beetles, and see them pouring out of orifices in the walls, in front of you, on the sides, everywhere you look,” says Hightower. “They're a combination of true, physical, molded bugs, and digital projection, so you lose the line between what's real and three-dimensional and what's not.” Just to further unnerve insectophobes, the lights are turned out, the guests once again spritzed with water, “and then, the thing that nobody ever suspects: we launch you backwards.”
This dirty trick is played on riders with an old-fashioned track switch, “so you're not going back the way you came, you're going down a new path,” says Hightower. That path eventually rotates the vehicle to face yet another Imhotep figure, and that's when the roller coaster portion of the ride commences — right into the giant mummy's gaping mouth. “It's a projection screen that we offset from his upper head and lower chin, so you can't really tell what's going on,” Hightower says of the riders' destination. “You get to the top, and you fall between the two screens.” Part of what's startling is how quickly one gets there: with the magnetic propulsion, the vehicle's transit up a 45', 25-degree incline takes all of 1 1/2 seconds. The ride's linear-induction technology eliminates the slow ascent and diminishing speeds around curves that characterize standard roller coasters. On Revenge of the Mummy, the vehicle can accelerate from 0 to 40mph in the blink of an eye, and magnetic brakes bring the vehicle to a stop just as quickly. “The vehicle, which has metallic fins, passes over the SLIMs, which create a magnetic field,” Hightower explains. “The same steel plate the rubber tires rub against is now directly on top of the motor, which provides the thrust to make the vehicle go. It doesn't matter whether it crosses it straight or around a curve: it gets the magnetic force to propel you forward. It literally is a magnetic wave that propels the vehicle through the attraction.”
The remainder of the ride is a hair-raising series of dips and curves and zero-gravity moments, punctuated by strobes and the blacklit appearance of monsters out of the darkness. Green describes the challenge from her point of view: “The varying speeds and the fact that we have multiple ride vehicles, some going forward and some going backwards, all simultaneously, all day long, presents a variety of masking issues and timing issues,” she says. “Lighting throughout the attraction is programmed” — on two grandMA consoles — “to emphasize the movement of the vehicle and to tell the story while also disorienting you within the building. The physical walls disappear, allowing the experience to become more visceral.”All of the lighting is controlled by one grandMa playback triggered by an Anitech system that receives its triggers from an Itec show control system. The second grandMa serves as a redundant back-up for the first and takes over in the event of a problem.
“Then you pull into the unload station — you think,” Hightower continues. “And there's one more attack from Imhotep, which is the brain fire.” This is a real fire effect, lighting up the ceiling directly above the riders' heads. “It's about 13' up,” he says. “We brought it as close as you could within the heat constraints of the national fire code. We built a full-scale mockup at our vendor's shop, and had this stainless steel fire pan suspended on a cable held up by a crane. We started igniting the effects, and measured the temperature the people would feel if they were sitting in the car. We kept lowering it until we reached the threshold that the national code says you cannot exceed, and that was our number.” The temperature allowed by the code, and that the guests feel, is 105° Fahrenheit: “It doesn't leave blisters.” A final zero-G moment then drops guests into “the fiery pit of hell,” followed by more roller coaster jostling before the vehicle arrives at the actual unload station.
The differences in the Hollywood edition of Revenge of the Mummy are guided by the size and shape of the building, and by a few creative variations, though the key personnel are the same. The roller coaster launch is horizontal rather than on an incline, and much of the ride is ridden backwards. At one point, mummy hands reach from the ceiling, grasping at visitors. And the piðce de résistance in Hollywood arrives as four mummy warriors drop from above, swinging their axes at riders. “These guys weigh about 5,000 lbs., they drop about 20' straight down, and they stop about 6” away from you,” says Trowbridge. As with the ride vehicle, the soldiers are guided on a rail and brought to a smooth stop by magnetic brakes. “Up to this time in theme parks,” says Hightower, “if you try to make something look like it's free-falling through space, it can look that way for a little while, and then when we have to decelerate it, it slows down and looks very mechanical.” The use of magnetic propulsion and deceleration changes the nature of such movement, making it appear far more natural.
As is often the case, Hightower says, the ride and the technology evolve in tandem. “Linear motors have only been used since the mid- to late 90s, and the ride wasn't always talked about in terms of this technology. Things just have to kind of merge. We have ideas — ‘Hey, we'd like to do this combination dark ride/roller coaster’ — but until things start to show evidence that we can combine technologies, you just kind of leave it on the shelf. In the case of the SLIMs, we were pushing that one forward. The vendor said, ‘We can do this, but I don't have an installation to show you that it positively works.’ So we take some risk that this thing is going to work out like we hope.” And when it does, there's your cutting edge.