80s, 90s, Amusement Parks, Attractions, Movies — January 6, 2015 3:23 pm

Remembering Back to the Future: The Ride

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It was like no other attraction that came before it.  Back to the Future: The Ride opened in 1991 at Universal Studios Florida as the culmination of the latest technology in motion simulator entertainment.

A look at how the ride was developed.

When development began on the attraction, Universal Studios Florida didn’t yet exist.  By some accounts, it was Steven Spielberg’s interest in adapting the film to a ride that got the park project itself off the ground.  In this regard, Back to the Future: The Ride is a key turning point in the theme park’s history.

All across the surrounding tourist areas of Orlando, Florida, billboards teased the ride’s opening.  Imagine a billboard with giant Doc Brown eyes peering at highway drivers, exciting movie fans and thrill seekers on vacation.  With marketing strategy like that in place, the attraction opened to an eager audience.

A Universal Studios Florida commercial showcases Back to the Future: The Ride as its flagship attraction.

Immersion was the key to the ride’s success.  Park guests were taken into Doc Brown’s world the moment they entered the ride building.  Riders entered the attraction under the premise of becoming time travel volunteers for the new Institute of Future Technology.

The storyline that unraveled throughout the experience served as a pseudo-sequel to the movie trilogy.  TV monitors throughout the line featured clips of Doc’s time traveling adventures, showcasing the moments where he met history greats such as The Beatles and Albert Einstein.  The further along park goers got in line, the more the story of the ride developed.  Time travel volunteers discovered Biff Tannen was on the loose and Doc was locked up, leaving them with one option in this sudden emergency situation: to get in an eight seater convertible DeLorean and save the day!  Suddenly, riders became part of the story, not simply viewers from a distance.

Guests continued to walk through the institute’s labs, treated to props from the movies.  Eventually, guests were grouped into parties of eight to enter a small room.  In there, a final video monitor explained the rules and offered Doc’s vote of confidence.  A door on the opposite end of the room shook, giving a sense of anticipation for what was in the next area of the building: the DeLorean itself!  Riders were already thrilled by this point and they hadn’t even board the car, yet.

A promotional video for the ride accurately states “illusion has become reality!”

Once the entryway opened, passengers were crammed into the motor vehicle.  There was an eerie silence as everyone boarded, a stark contrast to the thundering sound just a moment earlier.  The time circuits in the car were on and the flux capacitor was… fluxing.  Doc appeared on a monitor on the dashboard, assuring riders guaranteed success as he would be driving the car via remote control.  At this point, the car lifted from the ground and accelerated to 88 miles per hour.  In reality, the cars were lifting on a platform into a giant IMAX Dome theater, but the perfect combination of lights, sounds, fog, and vibrations made the effect seem real.

The theater was a dome shape and, unless you went out of your way to peek over the DeLorean doors, you couldn’t see the other cars in the room.  The giant ride film followed a taunting Biff as he raced through time, from the future back to the dinosaur age.

Visuals in the film were stunning.  Many motion simulators rely heavily on computer images, but Back to Future: The Ride kept the immersion intact by use of giant scale models.  This allowed the camera to capture unprecedented detail and offer a realistic perspective to viewers.

Another behind the scenes look.

Adding to the sense of realism was the synced movement of the car with what was happening in the film.  Along the way were a few moments of danger, though by the end, the time travel volunteers manage to get Biff back to the institute and save the day.

As the doors to the DeLorean swung open, Huey Lewis and the News music filled the room.  The voice of Doc Brown ushered volunteers out of the room in a hurry so they didn’t accidentally encounter their past counterparts.  Truth be told, I once stuck around long enough in the room to see myself enter the DeLorean.

Next to the time travel institute stood a Back to the Future store where movie fans could purchase anything from pencils to t-shirts and matches.  That store gobbled allowance money as if it were a free holiday dinner buffet.

There was a long-standing rumor that a paper or Styrofoam cup could be seen on set during production of the 2015 sequence.

The 1997 IMAX documentary Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun explores several motion simulator rides throughout the amusement park industry.  According to the film, Back to the Future: The Ride was still regarded as “one of the greatest ride films ever created” even several years later.  Despite such high praise for the ground-breaking popular ride, both the Hollywood and Orlando locations closed in 2007.  According to countless YouTube comments, time travel volunteers have been disappointed ever since.

Press event announcing the ride closure.

The ride film itself lives on, at least, in some form as a bonus feature on the Back to the Future Blu-ray set.  Though watching it on a TV at home could never replicate the immersive experience of actually being in Doc Brown’s lab, it’s still fun.  Back to the Future: The Ride is still operating at Universal Studios Japan, however, you may want to get your last ride in sooner than later since the future depicted on board is 2015.  Though time travel seems infinite, irony can only go so far beyond the present.

Guess which ride was promoted as the headliner at Universal Studios Japan.

PopRewind.com: We’ll take you back (to the future)!

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