An Oral History of Jurassic Park: The Ride

An Oral History of Jurassic Park: The Ride
Written by Techbot

When Jurassic Park hit theaters 30 years ago this weekend, it was with a roar as loud as that of a Parasaurolophus. Though Michael Crichton’s book had been a huge success when it was initially released in 1990, Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur-filled cinematic vision (and a sensually reclined Jeff Goldblum) helped make it a smash. The Universal Pictures production would go on to gross over a billion—with a B!—dollars at the global box office and spawn multiple sequels, all of which have raked in even more money with their tiny little T. rex arms.

While it might seem de rigueur these days for any cinematic blockbuster to become a theme park ride or even its own multifaceted in-park world, in the early ’90s it was a novelty—especially for Universal Studios, which at that time was pretty much just subsisting on studio back lot tours, an E.T. ride, and a live Flintstones show. Around the time Jurassic Park hit theaters, the theme park was looking to up its foot traffic and attraction prowess in order to compete with the Disney properties, and they thought a dinosaur-packed adventure ride could be the way to do it.

The resulting attraction, Jurassic Park: The Ride, launched at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1996 and was, at the time, the most expensive theme park attraction ever built, costing more than $100 million—about twice as much as the studio spent making Jurassic Park itself. The river ride became a smash hit, and subsequent versions later launched at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando and Universal Studios Japan. In recent years it’s been retooled and rebranded to mirror the Jurassic World releases, but it’s still one of the parks’ bigger attractions, drawing millions of thrill-seekers each year.

To launch Jurassic Park: The Ride, Universal Studios enlisted the help of several of the world’s biggest amusement park attraction experts, including Landmark Entertainment Group and Sarcos Robotics. Here’s how it went from a movie, to a phenomenon, to a wet and wild theme park mainstay.

From So Simple a Beginning

A former Disney Imagineer, Tony Christopher, started Landmark Entertainment Group in 1980 in part because he wanted to compete with his former bosses. He quickly picked up Six Flags as a client, and then Universal Studios, for which Landmark designed the show for The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular. That attracted moderate attention, in part because, as a park, Universal Studios was pretty minimal at that point. (“They were really just showing how movies are made, like ‘You throw a fake punch like this,’ ‘We use green screens here,’ and it was all pretty boring,” says Christopher. “They only had, like, three people working in the creative department at the park.”) Landmark’s next gig for Universal, though, ended up having a slightly bigger scale.

Tony Christopher, CEO of Landmark Entertainment Group: We got a call from Peter Alexander, who was a writer and Steven Spielberg’s college roommate. He said, “Steven’s making the Jurassic Park movie, and we’re thinking about maybe doing some sort of attraction at Universal.” At this point, all there was was a script, and it was pretty top secret.

Peter said, “Take a look at the Jeep scene in the movie,” which, if you remember, is when they’re in the Jeep and the T. rex is running after them. All of that was really well formulated in the script, and we knew it would be cool, but from our perspective, we believe that you should never take a movie and try and recreate that live on stage or in a ride.

We went to the Jurassic Park book and realized there was a scene where the kids were trying to escape the dinosaurs by getting on a log and floating down the river. We thought, “Wow, maybe this is our opportunity to do a Pirates of the Caribbean-type ride,” and so we pitched it to the people at Universal and they said, “That’s pretty cool.”

A river ride is always a big draw in a theme park—or an E ticket, in industry parlance. Christopher and his team also knew they could do something new with the attraction, settling on an eight-story waterfall drop near the ride’s conclusion, the largest aquatic freefall to that point.

Once they had the concept in place, though, they had to wait.

Christopher: When you develop these attractions, it’s a three-year process. They were still working on the movie and doing filming and postproduction, and Universal wanted to make sure that the movie was a hit before they spent $100 million dollars doing the ride. Everybody thought it was going to be a hit, because of Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton and this great new book, but they just wanted to be sure.

When it came out, I was in New York City, and I told the people I was with, “Guys, I’ve gotta go see Jurassic Park.” I remember being awestruck by the CGI, which seemed magical. Of course, the movie blew everybody away.

Designing Dinosaurs

After the deal was signed, Landmark started really digging into what they wanted the ride to look like. They convinced Universal to let them hire Jurassic Park actor Richard Attenborough to appear in the ride’s introductory video, which was filmed on the movie’s actual set. Christopher and company knew they had to find ways to play into the movie’s storyline while creating a uniquely thrilling ride experience, but luckily they knew how to do that.

Christopher: We had to make sure every time you saw a dinosaur on the ride, it wasn’t the same thing. We were trying to keep the interest of the guests all the way through. We did drawings and then we did movement diagrams, like, “This dinosaur is going to have a head move, and his mouth is going to open.” We also created the soundtrack, because the soundtrack is 50 percent of the whole thing.

At some point during the ride’s creation, Universal sent in a budgeting team that priced out everything Landmark had planned. That led to one of Christopher’s favorite ideas getting nixed.

Christopher: We had to cut one scene that I really liked that we called the Pterodactyl Aviary. There was going to be a dome, and we wanted to have these pterodactyls come to life and then fly around you and dive over your head. That didn’t make the cut.

Eventually, everyone agreed on a design. After the riders’ boats left the dock, they’d go up a brief hill before taking a quick plunge toward the Jurassic Park gate. As it opened, riders would enter Ultrasaurus Lagoon, where they’d see a large, partially submerged Ultrasaurus and her young. They’d also glimpse two Psittacosaurus. Next, the raft would float into Stegosaur Spring, where riders could glimpse the titular stegos on either side of the boat. Hadrosaur Cove followed, where a duck-billed Parasaurolophus would rise from under the water and bump the raft, setting it “adrift” toward the raptor containment area.

Things got a little hairier from there, with rustling leaves and raptor sounds echoing around the boat. Riders also came across an overturned vessel where a Dilophosaurus appeared to be chewing on what was left of its passengers, and after a Velociraptor ran across the path of the boat, a park Jeep almost “falls” on the raft. Finally, it enters the water treatment facility, where it begins its climb toward the waterfall. Two Dilophosaurus spray the riders with “venom” (water), and a few more Velociraptors jump out. As the raft takes a 180-degree turn, water pours on the riders through a hole created by a T. rex snout, and after dodging “poisonous gas,” riders are confronted with a roaring T. rex who then reaches down and almost snags them. Shaken passengers are then plunged down the waterfall, which delivers the soaked and spooked guests back to the ride’s loading area.

To craft the ride’s complex animatronic dinos, Universal enlisted Sarcos, a robotics company that does work for the US government, like manufacturing salvage robots and body-powered exoskeletons for the Department of Defense. At the time, Sarcos also worked on theme park animatronics, having developed figures for two Disney attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean and The Great Movie Ride, which was at the company’s Hollywood Studios park in Orlando.

Fraser Smith, chief innovation officer, Sarcos: We got called by Universal Studios around 1990 to do a failure analysis on King Kong, because it kept breaking and had fatigue cracks all over the place. It was during that work that they thought, “This is exactly the type of thing we would need for the Jurassic Park ride.”

Once Sarcos came on board, the robotics company started working on bringing the dino designs to life.

Smith: They really wanted to impress people with the scale of these creatures, and what it would be like to be near one.

Christopher: Theme parks also have to rely on technology that’s not new. The rides have to run continuously for 12 or 15 hours, so if they break down, there’s a lot of disappointment.

Smith: We’d made robots for the government that went 20,000 feet under the ocean, so we were entirely familiar with the issue of water protection. Some of the robots lived 100 percent in the water, like the Parasaurolophus. That certainly needed attention, but we were well equipped from an experiential perspective to deal with that collection of problems.

Sizing Up

The water wasn’t the only challenge Sarcos had to deal with, though. Making massive, dino-sized animatronics brings its own set of obstacles.

Smith: The dinosaurs had to run basically all day long, all year long, so they had to be designed like real machines, not just one-offs that could look pretty for a few minutes. Putting a skin on top of a mechanical thing like that is not so trivial, either.

We had hired a whole gang of about 15 sculptors and mold makers, and we had to make a big saw so that we could cut the big pieces of foam. We also had to make a clay sprayer so we could spray the outside surface of the dinosaurs to get the right texture. We had to make molds of the full-scale sculpts to do that, too, because we were making the skins at the same time.

We also had to create a whole structure underneath the skin to make it not look goofy, because when it bends you don’t want little pockets forming. That’s not really a problem with humanoid robots, but it was for things like the Ultrasaurus, which had a very long neck. It all had to be supported properly in a way that didn’t wear out the skin.

The dinosaurs were so big that we had to use weld shops across the whole United States. We were tapping into every resource that was available, because everything was being done almost all at once. The first figures we did were the smaller ones, because the machine shops found it easier to deal with those kinds of parts, but as we got into the larger pieces, they were all welded together by a submarine manufacturing company in Salt Lake City.

T. Rex Success

In the end, Sarcos had to create 16 dinosaurs, including both a 22-foot-tall T. rex and a 7-foot T. rex head, both of which were used near the end of the ride, when the boat was just about to go over the falls.

Smith: The T. rex we made was larger than a real T. rex, because we really wanted to scare people, but most of the others were actually quite faithful to the scale. There were even a couple of paleontologists involved at the beginning to try and keep everybody honest, especially about how the figures would look and sound.

Actually, if you look at the full-body T. rex on the ride, you will notice that the head doesn’t move side to side too much. It actually could move side to side very rapidly, but when they started testing it out and exercising the lateral motion, the whole building started to move, because the figure weighs 80,000 pounds and the builders hadn’t really anticipated just how dynamic these robots were. In the end, they had to tone down that motion.

Though Universal Studios doesn’t release rider statistics, it’s safe to say that millions of people have ridden Jurassic Park: The Ride. It’s succeeded not just because of the strength of its IP, but because of its design.

Christopher: The original budget for the ride was $67 million, and by the time we started working on it, I think it grew to about $100 million. But rides have become very expensive, and there’s no way you could make something like Jurassic Park: The Ride for anywhere near $100 million now.

By the way, Universal Studios just did a renovation of the ride a few years ago and turned it into Jurassic World. While I like some of the things they did in the redo, I’ve got to say, there’s still nothing like the original.

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