How Universal Orlando’s Most Intense Coaster Was Made
Universal Orlando Resort is no stranger to intense attractions. In fact, the theme park’s entire angle – aside from “Ride the Movies” – is geared much more into thrill rides than competitor parks, and when Islands of Adventure opened up next door to Universal Studios Florida, it offered an entire park full of wonderfully thrilling attractions.
So when I say the VelicoCoaster is the most intense attraction Universal Orlando has ever created, that’s really saying something. The all-new roller coaster opened this summer at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, and it is without a doubt one of the best attractions in all of Orlando. It combines the highly themed nature of something like Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure with the supremely intense nature of Hollywood Rip-Ride Rocket to result in a surprising ride during which you quite literally are almost never sitting in your seat.
I’ve already written extensively about my experience riding the VelociCoaster, but I also got the chance to speak with two of the creatives responsible for putting the attraction together to get some insight into how the VelociCoaster was made. Below, you can read my full conversation with Greg Hall, Creative Director at Universal Creative, and Shelby Honea, Show Producer at Universal Creative about the origins of the VelociCoaster, the challenges they faced along the way, and their favorite aspects of the attraction. It’s an insightful and fascinating look into how an attraction as complicated as the VelociCoaster gets made at Universal Orlando.
When you first got involved in this, what are the pieces that are in place when you come on? What’s there, what isn’t there? At what stage was the VelociCoaster when you both came onto the project?
SHELBY HONEA: What I can say is with any attraction we do at Universal, we’re always looking at the big picture of our parks all around the world. When’s the right time to do, for example, Jurassic World: The Ride over in Hollywood. We really do look at a master plan for 5–10 years in the future. So VelociCoaster, when it started, it had very few parameters around it. It had an opening date. So that was when I became involved, and very shortly thereafter Greg became involved, and it is so awesome because we got to build truly from beginning to end, and really decide what this was going to be, where it was going to be.
GREG HALL: We have a unique plot of land to work with, so that gave us the opportunity to really come up with unique design languages and maneuvers that are brand new to the guests, and it’s different land changes as well, so you’re going to have to go over water at one point. So we really saw opportunity and wanted to utilize that to the best of our abilities.
Image via Universal Orlando Resort
HONEA: It’s probably fair to say too, from a leadership company standpoint, we’re given very limited parameters and then we work to align around some of our own core parameters for us. Those were thrill, teeth, and environment, and those were our really core parameters as we developed from day one of VelociCoaster.
I was going to ask, what were the important hallmarks in that blue sky stage? As you’re sitting there and you’re like, “All right, we’re going to make a rollercoaster for Jurassic World.” How do you do that? Because there are so many different ways you could go.
HALL: Well, we had a expectations to really make it a new iconic thrill ride to the park, as well as a new rite of passage for the guests that want to experience something big and new to them. So, really looking into the Universal DNA and then understanding the Jurassic DNA gave us a good blueprint to start tracing out ideas and figuring out what it takes to achieve a bar that’s so high. And that’s what makes it exciting. The franchise is timeless, and we want to do justice to that. And also the legacy of Universal Islands of Adventure is also amazing and we were trying to build a new legacy with this attraction. So we took it really seriously and we really did our homework, and we studied hard to prepare for opening day.
I don’t know exactly what timeframe you guys are in there, but you have a movie franchise to deal with as well. They were developing or getting ready to shoot Jurassic World Dominion. What’s the involvement of the filmmaking team there, and were there any hallmarks on that side of things that they wanted to see exemplified in the ride?
HONEA: Yeah, we worked really closely with Universal Pictures and we were so lucky to be able to have a collaborative relationship with them really early on. I think we tremendously respect what they do. They know these dinosaurs better than anyone. They know this franchise and the future beyond what we know, but they also really respect the Universal creative expertise of how to translate a film franchise into an immersive environment, a ride, an attraction. We worked very closely with them and it I think was one of the most rewarding aspects of this attraction, that they were as involved as they were. And I think for our storyline, making the decision to place ourselves shortly before the events of the first Jurassic World film, we were really happy that we got their buy-in there. I think they really enjoyed this slice of Jurassic World as it was seen in those films, but also as it was never seen in those films.
HALL: Yeah, really we’re excited about the opportunity to give guests a deeper dive into the backstory of a lot of these raptors, and what it took to train them and take care of them. And how they would be on public display to the guests, because that was never really explored in the film because of the story they were telling, but the information was there. And there are people from all over that worked on every single film and they were really excited to see what we were coming up with.
I’m sure that that timeline was a bit of a relief for you guys as well, because I know, having covered the film industry a lot, those franchise movies can change so much. So you didn’t have to deal with, “Oh, Owen doesn’t have a mustache now,” or “This character’s gone.”
Image via Universal Orlando Resort
HONEA: No, absolutely. And it was great too, because they also helped us with a little bit of very small nuance things, but they know the future of the franchise and they know where it’s going. Now it’s very well known that the Dominion poster has this beautiful piece of amber, and they were even directing us then, “Work in some amber tones. Don’t worry about going all blue.” So they really, really helped us along the way.
I really like roller coasters. I’m not scared of them. I rode this rollercoaster and while I knew I was not going to die, I felt like I was going to die multiple times while riding this (laughs). And I’m curious how you do that, because it’s maybe the most intense coaster I’ve ever ridden.
HALL: So I want to thank the team for that (laughs). A lot of the team is made up of coaster fans. Literally even the operations manager has ridden tons of roller coasters and others have ridden in the 400s. That’s not even just gassing up the numbers, that’s a real fact and they have it listed. So there’s a lot of research and experience within the team on these great moments that we wanted to make sure that we had a world class roller coaster. And then when we were adding this theming, the Universal theme, we were really leaning into making it thrilling and just matching the tone of the Jurassic franchise.
So the combination of both the form and function just created something brand new, something that is a new experience for the guests, that does make you question what you’re talking about. And of course we go through several safety measures. But that illusion of you’re just on a rollercoaster and you’re actually on an adventure. That really is a great result after a nice blend of form and function.
As you were ideating, were there any specific ideas where you’re like, “It would be cool if, but I don’t even know if this is possible,” that the team actually pulled off?
HONEA: Greg, this was all you, but the running raptor window was a real nail biter for me, because we were dealing with technology that was not there yet. And that was one of those ones that we did a first mock-up and you can see how it’s going to be, but is it going to get there? To the point that I practically fell down to my knees when we did the mock-up with everything in place. It’s like, “It works! It works!” But Greg, you knew all along it was going to work.
HALL: Yeah, it was funny. Two of the mock-ups for that window, we couldn’t test a roller coaster run, flying 70mph behind it. So in the mock-up it’s literally me going with backpack just running and the raptors chasing behind me. I might’ve hit 15 miles per hour. I think overall there’s a lot of things that we blended on this ride that were challenging risks that turned out to be worth it. There’s so much rock work in the first half of the ride, really enhancing the experience. All that’s there for a reason and all of it’s there to make sure that you don’t know what’s coming next. You think you’re going right but you go left. And just making sure that we have that much coordinated with all the other things that have to be there to keep a ride operational consistently, that’s the huge challenge. The barrel over the water, that’s another one. There’s a lot of things that no one would really expect to be all together on one attraction, and doing it correctly without sacrificing what’s necessary to make sure that we give the guests something that’s unique.
What goes into the creation of the ride queue? How early are those conversations happening, and what were the different permutations or ideas you guys had for that experience for the guests? Because at Universal it increasingly feels like the queue is very much part of the ride. The ride starts once you get in line.
HONEA: I think for us, it’s an opportunity in our queue and we really had to look at it as part of the holistic experience by necessity, because we have a 70mph coaster. And I think we can tell a really dynamic story, but so much of the epilogue, any information you need, has to come from the queue. But with this attraction in particular it was amazing, because you have first and foremost this amazing, fantastic coaster layout, and then you’re working the functions of how guests will move through the space around it. So as a queue, again, it really started to populate itself very quickly with these things like it going through the queue and opening up that window, even our load window, some of these spaces. So they really do develop hand in hand, hour by hour, while we’re defining the core guest experience.
HALL: And the great part about this particular attraction was it’s a self-aware coaster. It’s a roller coaster in Jurassic World, in the Raptor Paddock. And usually when you’re in an attraction like this, you hear the sounds of the roller coaster. And the guests are already intimidated, or the heart’s pounding, so we wanted to use that to our advantage that this is part of the actual experience the moment you step into the queue. You see Mr. DNA saying, “Everything’s okay,” but you still have that intimidating tone that he has in the film because you hear the rumbling and the screams of the guests on the ride. So it’s that tug of war that we really leaned into, especially right before you go on the ride with Claire and Owen where she’s telling you everything’s fine and Owen’s like, “No, it’s not!” It really works together with the real roller coaster that’s surrounding you.
Well, that leads into one of the aspects that I love about the ride which is the launch, because it’s a fake out. You feel like you’re counting down and then you’re like, “Wait, what?” And then just explode out. I was wondering where that idea came from?
HONEA: Again, that is another small moment that we have with our guests to deliver the story, deliver this moment, and whatever we can do to make it uneasy, to make it uncomfortable, to make it feel like you’re about to be out there with raptors, we definitely took advantage of including that little rollback moment.
HALL: One of the things I love most about the ride is it’s re-rideable. You can bring a friend on there and you’re aware of something that’s about to happen and they’re not. And then you get to witness their reaction, that’s a new experience for you, just to see the look on their faces. There are so many layers to it that’s blended in there so that it’s not a predictable ride. There are new things to discover. You’re sitting in different seats, you might look at a different direction to discover something from that one.
Greg, I think you worked on the ride vehicles for Hagrid’s, which I think are incredible. I was curious if you could talk about the ride vehicles for the VelociCoaster, because I think they’re also a really fantastic, just a great blend of form and function.
Image via Universal Orlando Resort
HALL: Oh yeah. So luckily I got to work on three roller coasters in the same park. So The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster is mine, on Hagrid’s I worked on the motorbike and the chassis for that, and VelociCoaster. So there’s a lot of things I learned and how to fashion an actual ride vehicle design. And there’s no roller coaster in the Jurassic film, so that was just a fun opportunity to try to figure out how to convey the overall tone in this. That’s what InGen would make, and the intelligence that would be in the system to prepare guests to go through the Raptor Paddock and what safety devices would be on there to really keep the guests prepared for going and a live raptor paddock with live raptors. So the design of the coaster, we have those cool lights on there, on the headrest you have the raptor scratch foreshadowing the events that take place.
And there’s a reason for all of what’s on the vehicle. We get really nerdy. For instance, the safety mechanisms we mention in the queue, why don’t these raptors just jump on the roller coaster to get you. And in real life there’s been studies using aviation, to keep birds away from airplanes, they used blue LEDs and red LEDs. And they noticed that with those LED lights the birds would dodge the planes and would go away from them. So we were really looking into that level of depth with thinking about how to keep the story together and also make them then also like a cool looking train.
How did it feel to ride the ride for the first time?
HONEA: Well, I would say for us, you have to imagine when we were first riding the ride, it is still a ways away from how the guests are going to experience. So it’s already a little nail-biting because we have to take off our hard hats step onto a coaster. And Greg, he’s got so many superpowers, but his ability to really communicate in 3D how this attraction is going to look. So we had really beautiful animatics from the guest point of view, really early on. So for me it felt like coaster deja vu, because every turn and every corner, I knew what was coming next, but the physical feeling of it, I had no idea. It was, at least for me, a really bizarre experience too, because it was like, was my butt ever in the seat? And it’s just so different compared to anything else. I was completely shocked, and I had to get off and be like, “What did we do?”
HALL: The beautiful thing about rollercoasters is that no matter how many POVs you watch, and videos you watch, it’s totally different in person. And there’s so many elements and new things that we blend in in this ride together that we ourselves couldn’t predict exactly how that experience was going to be. So even up to the moment that would put the restraints down, I was nervous. I was like, “Oh man.” None of us on this ride vehicle really know how this is going to turn out, which is exactly what you want it to do. You want it to introduce something into the guests and into the world. And it’s always scary and exciting when doing something like that. And something that was pretty awesome is that all of us knew how close the rock work was, where every turn was, and we still were lost in the paddock when we rode it. So just imagining someone who didn’t look at this thing every single day in 3D, and knew every turn, it has to be that experience amplified. So it was pretty cool.
That was, I would say, one of the most unique aspects of the ride is that your butt, it does not feel like it’s in the seat for very long at all. How purposeful was that?
HALL: Oh that was extremely on purpose.
Thank you for that, by the way.
HALL: (Laughs) Yeah, that was extremely on purpose. Like I said, the themes for the coaster is that weightlessness was big thing amongst the team, and experiencing that. On the other rides you’re being pushed against your seat, or you have a different type of experience, but this one was really going to be in its own lane with that alone. So, that feeling of freedom that you felt was on purpose, and it’s definitely something that you remember.
Image via Universal Orlando Resort
Do you guys have a favorite part of the ride? A favorite turn or anything like that?
HALL: Yeah, I think most people would say the mosasaurus roll would be the favorite because it’s just unexpected, and everyone’s claiming it to be the best inversion of all time. Me, I’m just proud of our attraction really blending everything together, it’s a really balanced attraction. So for me, it’s the overall balance of everything.
HONEA: I would say, again, the balance and the fact that we’re telling an immersive story on a 70mph coaster is, I think, my favorite part of the attraction. It’s something we’re very proud of. But being on the creative team, there are two places on the coaster that I always have the hardest time not smiling, or I let it out, I scream, I smile, is that first launch because I think you get a really good impression of people’s reactions, to people’s delight, and people’s excitement. And then I’ve noticed this crazy thing, they scream at that first launch and then they almost clam up and they become almost speechless for the rest of the Paddock part. And then I also love coming in, from having just experienced the ride, back into the load station, because the energy, the excitement, the screaming, the people on the vehicles, screaming at the people about get on the vehicle like, “You’re not ready.” Those are the little things that I could just sit there all day and listen to.
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About The Author
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Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. He’s been working for Collider for over a decade, and in addition to managing content also runs point on crafts interviews, awards coverage, and co-hosts The Collider Podcast with Matt Goldberg (which has been running since 2012). He’s the creator and author of Collider’s “How the MCU Was Made” series and has interviewed Bill Hader about every single episode of Barry. He lives in Tulsa, OK and likes pasta, 90s thrillers, and spending like 95% of his time with his dog Luna.
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