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Men In Black Goes Into the Dark

Once again Universal Studios Florida's newest attraction -- the largest dark ride to date is a show stopper featuring Men In Black and new technology. Jacquie Kubin offers a trip inside.

Outside Universal Studios Florida's newest attraction -- the largest dark ride in history featuring Men In Black! All photos courtesy of Jacquie Kubin.

A trip inside Universal Studios Florida's newest attraction -- the largest dark ride to date featuring Men In Black!

The best entertainment wraps things that we know in new packaging. The Universal Studios Florida theme park proves this by premising its attractions on popular studio films such as Terminator, Twister, Jaws and King Kong. Rekindling the real-world mystery of the July 1947 alleged crash of an extraterrestrial vehicle near Roswell, New Mexico and then mixing it up within a 1964 retro-modern-style plaza plucked from the New York World's Fair, Men In Black (MIB): Alien Attack is the largest dark ride ever conceived. "The art of making a theme park track attraction is the art of making an assembly line interesting and with MIB we have taken the traditional dark ride and put it on its ear," explains David Cobb, Creative Director for Men In Black: Alien Attack. "This ride is a people eater and the art form is to make it unique. With Men In Black, the idea was to create a dark ride attraction with repeat ride-ability. Now we have done a 3D ride in the dark before, and our Spider-Man attraction is a 21st century dark ride, but MIB: Alien Attack is a step back to showmanship and technical flair.

A variety of instantly recognizable aliens compose a large part of the amusement park's new ride.

Enter MIB

For the theme park, MIB offered itself as the perfect property for its next incantation on multiple levels. It combines theatrical visuals with fast-paced thrills while thrusting its occupants through a life size, interactive video game where the points earned actually affect the outcome of the riders' experience. In addition, the movie enjoyed a broad demographic appeal with its combination of comedy, action, adventure, drama and science-fiction. Cementing the concept was that movie lead actors, Will Smith and Rip Torn, were both willing to participate in the attraction's development. The conceptual phase began in December 1997 with the first ideas of a dark ride emerging in February 1998. The entire development, including designing more than 400 aliens, the story, vehicles, guns and animatronics took from concept to opening day an aggressive 27-months. Able to move between 2,000 and 2,500 people through the ride per hour, the high capacity attraction's pre-show is timed to be 2 to 3 times the length of the average wait time.

When people enter the experience, they are greeted by MIB Director, Agent Zed (Rip Torn), who apologizes about the phony theme park nonsense that they, as new MIB trainees, had to endure. During the pre-ride "holding" process Agent Zed provides a training lecture regarding aliens that live among humans and MIB's mandate to keep them under control. Trainees learn a little bit about alien spotting, as well as the proper use of the MIB issue guns and the vehicles they will be using during their training mission. In keeping with the movie, MIB facilities and actions are secret, even though they are hidden in very plain site. All of this is taking place in a massive 70,000 square-foot building!

Then two training vehicles, which operate in tandem teams of 6 people, blast into an interactive video game whose goal is to shoot as many aliens as possible. Game players quickly learn from Agent Jay (Will Smith) that a shuttle carrying some nasty bugs being deported to Planet LV-428 has crashed and those bad bugs are roaming the streets of New York City. Featuring some of the most extensive animatronics ever seen in a dark ride, MIB combatants square off against 127 varieties of aliens in an effort to rack up points, individually and as a cumulative total for the car. Each of the alien figures has its own animatronic technology, with movement, lighting and sound.

Aliens Get Special Attention

The comedy-based attitude of the aliens, as seen in the movie was important to the design of the ride. "The aliens had to have an instantly recognizable look even as the riders are whizzing by at 4-feet per second," Cobb says. "There is a real art to the design and programming of a visual look that makes the aliens funny and recognizable in the gaming sequence." Inserting alien gags into the ride was the domain of character art director Desiree Soto, who has aliens jumping out of trashcans, exploding out of mailboxes and swinging down from light poles. Huge animatronic aliens straight from the movie including The Twins, whose arm-span is 12' from fingertip to fingertip and a bit more than 5' tall, are featured throughout. The dispatcher alien, the last friendly face seen before you take off on the adventure, is 6' tall and 3' in diameter. "These aliens are human scale and are run on hydraulics and pneumatics hidden beneath skin designed to look funny, slimy, goofy. The challenge here is to make huge industrial robots, like the ones that assemble cars, that are warm, fuzzy and can be continually run for hours every day," says Cobb. The largest animatronic ever assembled by the Universal Studio talents is the ride's finale Big Bug. A warehouse sized alien bug 30-feet high, this bad guy has teeth that are eight to 11-feet long and 20-foot long claws. Part of the bug is sculpted scenery with other elements, such as the teeth, fangs, head and pincers being operated by a hydraulic the size of a small travel vehicle with enough power to lift a Winnebago at the rate of one time every three seconds. As riders approach the big bug split-second decisions are crucial as they are literally pulled into the "belly of the beast" and Agent Jay encourages them to shoot their way out of the slimy intestinal cavity. Depending on the riders combined skill, they are either given a hero's welcome or a loser's farewell before being zapped with an MIB neuralizer, erasing their memory.

The MIB game-ride encourages riders to return again as every trip is slightly different depending on game performance scores.

The game background, conceived by artist James Pickering, is filled with as many possibilities as New York has city streets. Taking into consideration that the theme park has visited NYC streets within two other attractions -- King Kong which offers a very realistic and cinematic view of the city and in the real-life environment of the theme park's "Central Park" rest area -- the MIB attraction is based within a theatrically stylized setting that combines Broadway stage with Technicolor film noir.

One More Time!

While most theme parks are designed to move large numbers of people from one attraction to the next, what may be the most unique aspect of MIB: Alien Attack is the way it encourages riders to rejoin the queue and ride again. "The experience is different depending on which track your vehicle is on and which aliens you shoot," Cobb says. "The ending you will see will change depending on your car's cumulative score. Even the most experienced games won't get the top ranking right away, it takes numerous rides."

Men in Black: Alien Attack is a project that combined an array of talents, from illustration, to painting, sculpting, architecture, aerospace and mechanical engineering. Animators were used for the scene and alien illustrations as well as for the character designs and computer generated animation elements. "I like theme park work because it gives me a chance to be working with industrial elements, movie sets and theater design side by side with tremendous talents," Cobb says. "Working on a project like Men In Black is like having the keys to the greatest toy box on the planet and each of these people really put their hearts into their work."

Jacquie Kubin, a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, enjoys writing about the electronic entertainment and edutainment mediums, including the Internet. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and Krause Publication magazines. She has won the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Association of University Women.

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