'Back to the Future' ride aims to take your breath away without leaving the ground

June 13, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

HOLLYWOOD -- People are pretty blase when it comes to amusement park attractions. Roller coasters climb higher, tilt-a-whirls spin faster and every attraction in America jockeys for bigger thrills.

So what's left? A trip for the mind, that's what; an adventure that defies logic, challenges perceptions and leaves you breathless when you haven't left the ground.

That's what Universal Studios Hollywood has in store after opening its "Back to the Future -- the Ride"attraction this weekend. Its sister park in Orlando, Fla., opened its version of the ride in May 1991.

The $60 million ride is based on the "Back to the Future" movies and involves a race through time in pursuit of the evil Biff Tannen, who has stolen Doc Emmett Brown's time-puncturing DeLorean and threatens to alter the world as we've known it.

The spectator becomes one of eight avengers of truth, justice and 1993 who are secured in a DeLorean convertible and begin '' their flight through the time-space continuum in search of Biff.

Passengers careen through the movie's Hill Valley in the year 2015, skid into the Jurassic Period, tumble down a volcanic vent and jet into one of the Ice Ages.

Though these flights are pure fancy, there's not a pink knuckle in the crowd. The illusion of speed, sudden braking and slamming through space results from the world's largest motion picture screen, which spans an 80-foot dome and projects a 270-degree image.

The largest permanent sound system -- at 10,000 watts -- provides sound effects. Tactile accessories include wind, liquid nitrogen fog and a vehicle that bumps and grinds as though it were an experimental jet breaking the sound barrier.

There are 24 such eight-man vehicles in the 13-story building, but only three stories are apparent to the onlooker. The ride can accommodate 2,000 time travelers per hour, with 24 cars tumbling through time under two Omnimax theater domes. Fifteen computers in each dome orchestrate the hardware.

The fantasy began five years ago when Terry Winnick, executive vice president for special projects at MCA Inc. (which owns Universal Studios Hollywood), was charged with the idea of converting the successful "Back to the Future" movies into a kinetic attraction.

"We had to invent the technology, including the projection system, which didn't exist when we began," says Mr. Winnick, who saw the original picture 140 times in order to duplicate its details.

A series of lenses was created to project the image that surrounds passengers as they make their way through eons. The ride film, which was directed by special effects wizard Doug Trumbull ("Brainstorm," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), is the most expensive in history: $16 million for four minutes.

To compensate for the curvature of the lens, Mr. Trumbull had to figure out a way of normalizing the perspective so the image didn't curve.

Except for the last two seconds, the entire film consists of photographed miniatures. The 80-foot volcano was an 8-foot replica, Biff's catapulting car was a model about 8 inches long and the Tyrannosaurus rex, which swallows the intrepid time travelers, was an 8-foot puppet.

The movements of the vehicle are synchronized with the movements in the film. There is no motion sickness because what you see coincides exactly with what you feel.

"We created a process called the frequency injection," says Mr. Winnick, 45. "We inject sound waves into each of the cars' hydraulic systems so that we mimic the sense of running over everything from cobblestones to a lava flow."

The cars -- nearly exact replicas of Doc Brown's DeLorean (except they seat eight people) -- twist, turn and accelerate with dizzying speed, yet they never move more than 8 feet, and that movement is not forward but vertical.

And while they are rising vertically from their position on the darkened platform, the passengers are convinced they are plunging headlong into the past.

The ride itself lasts 4 1/2 minutes. "But the experience is 45 minutes long," says Mr. Winnick. "And that's how we define it.

It's not a ride but an experience."


Universal Studios Hollywood is open daily through the summer. Hours: 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Admission: $27 adults, $21 for children 3 to 11 and senior citizens; children under 3 free. Parking is $5.50 for cars, $6.50 for RVs. For more information, call (818) 508-9600.

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