A ride based on a late-night talk show does not sound like the most thrilling way to spend time at a theme park. However, add in a flying car, shark, giant panda and space travel – and effects by Industrial Light & Magic – and things get a little more interesting.
That's precisely what happens in Universal Orlando's new attraction, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, based on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which officially opened today.
The 3-D dynamic motion ride is a science fiction valentine to the Big Apple as guests take a seat in "the world's first flying theater" (simulator seats that are replicas of The Tonight Show audience seats) and literally chase host Fallon -- driving, and flying, a super car called the Tonight Rider – through the streets of Manhattan and into the subway, then diving under the East River to encounter Bruce the shark from Jaws, up the Empire State Building to get swatted at by a King Kong-sized Hashtag the Panda, then crossing into lightspeed to journey to the moon. While there, you encounter Tonight house band, The Roots, and zip along a lunar roller coaster before taking a wormhole-esque hamster tube back to earth.
The experience is a fun trip that isn't jarring compared to other simulators and does create the sensation of speed and flying (and works in a pizza scent cue when Jimmy throws a slice your way). The animation and 3-D effects from ILM are bright and crisp throughout the ride.
Also, the ride's presentation is outstanding. You enter through a scaled-down version of the iconic 30 Rockefeller Plaza building (HQ for Syfy Wire, in addition to The Tonight Show), where you're greeted by NBC Pages and tour a 'lobby' filled with memorabilia from previous Tonight hosts. From there, you enter an incredibly comfortable lounge to relax on couches, charge up using outlets and USB ports or play around on video games at interactive desks and email versions of Jimmy's "Thank You" notes. The highlight of this area has to be the replica Studio 6B stage, which features live performances of the "Ragtime Gals" singing renditions of pop and rap -- as well as the never-resting, always-dancing Hashtag.
Since this kind of attraction is not assembled overnight – and, in fact, took three years to create – I wanted to jump on the ride and then jump in for a conversation with Creative Director for Universal Creative Jason Surrell about the experience of bringing Race Through New York to life. Surrell – who theme park fans should know is the author of The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Classic – worked with Fallon and helped turn the talk show into a sci-fi attraction.
When you began working on this three years ago, what did Jimmy say he wanted to have as the focus of the ride and what story did you have in mind?
Jason Surrell: It was definitely a full collaboration with him since Day One. He has told the story that his original idea going back to 2009 was to jump off 30 Rock in a hang glider and the audience would follow him. That was what was presented to me and there were a couple other storylines. It was difficult to find a story that lent itself to a thrill ride experience that felt like it emerged organically from The Tonight Show. There was a point we were banging our heads against the wall … and all of the sudden: The races. Those wacky celebrity races with guests gives us a vehicle, motion and takes us outside the studio.
Is this ride a little like Jimmy's love letter to New York City?
That is a perfect way to put it. Going back to that 2009 pitch, Jimmy wanted to celebrate New York. That was important to him, and to us. The Tonight Show doesn't air in every international market, but we get a lot of international guests. By making New York a co-star, that enabled us to appeal to the segment of the audience not necessarily familiar with Jimmy or The Tonight Show. And if I'm doing any kind of adventure in New York, what would I expect to see? Time Square, the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, 30 Rock. We wanted to take New York staples and populate the ride with them.
Will you talk about these sci-fi elements that you included in this experience?
Jimmy wanted to go to the moon because it'd be fun, but it is also The Tonight Show logo. He wanted to put The Roots on the moon as the first band on the moon. For me, it manifests in things like Jaws. I wanted to pay tribute to the Universal attraction and it's a big part of Universal history. And it lent an element of absurdity. One of the first things I wanted to do was put Hashtag atop the Empire State Building. It derives from a New York staple – Kong on the Empire State Building. We thought, "That's cool, but what if it's a 300-foot panda bear?"
But you also authentically recreate portions of NYC and 30 Rock …
One of the things that was most important to Jimmy was to make it crazy fun. That's when you see a shark in the East River or go to the moon. It's a mixture of authenticity and the absurd. [But] in terms of recreating 30 Rock itself, it was important to have the authenticity and attention to detail. To put it flippantly, just because it's an office building doesn't mean it's any less deserving of the same attention we give to Hogwarts or Diagon Alley. (And one of the things Jimmy and his staff have been going crazy for is the floors because we have the same terrazzo floors as 30 Rock, with marble literally from the same quarry as them.)
What are the Easter eggs in this ride beyond Bruce the shark? I saw a Travis Bickle driving a taxi.
The biggest ones are more for Jimmy. His wife and two gorgeous daughters are standing in front of Jimmy's Pizzeria. The two guys who come in at the end to carry off the Tonight Rider are Tonight Show writers Gerard Bradford and Mike DiCenzo, who worked on this show with us.
Where is the homage to Twister, as this space used to be that attraction?
That's actually down on the street in one of the store windows. You can see Bill Paxton's blue denim shirt hanging on a hook. And there's a stapler with one of those name labels on it that says "B. Paxton." That's our nod to Twister and Bill Paxton. That was done before he passed away but is even more poignant now.
Are you excited to check out the new Jimmy Fallon attraction at Universal Orlando? What are your favorite fantripping destinations?