3 Ways Universal’s Jimmy Fallon Ride is the Grim Future of Theme Parks

Universal Studios Orlando has just opened their new Jimmy Fallon Ride — Race Through New York, replacing the old Twister show.

They nearly stole Disney’s crown with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter a few years back. And since that time, they’ve poured out a never-ending stream of quick jabs (Transformers, Diagon Alley, Reign of Kong) — all while Disney laboriously slogs forward on a few high-profile attractions.

The Jimmy Fallon ride is the culmination — Universal’s re-invention of the theme park. But as Universal finds success with this approach, fans really should be asking themselves if this is the future they want.

Virtual Queue and the War Against Lines

The Jimmy Fallon ride is the first to feature Universal’s Virtual Queue system, which supposedly frees you up to do other things like buy chocolate frogs. The next big roll-out will be the Volcano Bay water park — yet another project that was built in less than the gestation time of a baby elephant.

Here’s how it works.

You can use either an in-park kiosk or the Universal phone app to reserve your spot. The employees whisper that you will get only three return times from the kiosk, but a plethora of options from the app. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s just FastPass+.

Then it turns insidious.

When you come back at your appointed time, you are issued a hall pass corresponding to a color in the NBC peacock. You are free to roam around the lobby, and when the lighting of the room transforms to your color, you are allowed to proceed up the stairs to the second floor.


NBC Peacock Logo

“Don’t worry, kids. When the peacock’s left buttock lights up, then it will be our turn.”

The scenario plays out again, this time with Jimmy Fallon video games, Jimmy Fallon clips, and the occasional appearance by the Ragtime Gals barbershop quartet or a dude in a Hashtag the Panda costume.

Once again, the lights will eventually flash your color and you proceed to an actual queue area. Here there are overhead monitors with more Fallon clips — the same clips from levels 1 and 2. Finally, you are herded into the preshow area.

How magical is this virtual queue process?

45 minutes worth of waiting in sheep pens magical.

Annoyances abound. For instance, when you gain the second level, you’ll find that the lobby lights are several steps ahead of your group. You have to wait for the entire peacock to cycle through its tail feathers before you get a chance to move on. All the while, more groups are jamming into the area from the ground floor while others fight their way to the next holding cell. Meanwhile, there’s only enough seating for 12 people. Couch sniping becomes a sport.

Waiting area on the second floor of the Jimmy Fallon ride

Nope, definitely no waiting around here.

Some of this is no doubt to make the experience seem more substantial. The actual ride is a milquetoast motion platform that resembles the old Jerusalem simulator ride from Epcot’s Millennium Pavilion. Remember that classic? No?!

Most theme parks try to eliminate the waiting in line. Universal would rather hypnotize you into believing that there was no line.

A Simulation of a Thrill Ride

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey marked the start of the Universal renaissance. It relied on a mix of practical sets, animatronics, and integrated movie screens.

Here’s what they seemed to learn from it:

Lose the corny spider robots. Go all-in on simulators.

Escape from Gringotts relies on even more screens than Forbidden Journey. The Simpsons ride, of course, is a re-purposed simulator — as is Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. Transformers is just another version of Spiderman. Reign of Kong is the biggest paper gorilla of them all — a nice show building disguising a big steaming pile of projection poopery.

In a park that already includes legacy movie attractions like Shrek 4-D and Terminator 2, the Jimmy Fallon ride is the ultimate manifestation of Universal’s simulator obsession.

There is no attempt to augment the ride theater with any sort of theming. You grab your 3-D glasses, sit in benches designed by the same demon troll who did the Fantasmic bleachers, and watch Jimmy Fallon race a CGI car via the magic of a large screen TV.

I would offer a spoiler alert, but there’s nothing to spoil. It has not a single memorable moment. You — the studio audience — are racing Jimmy, for no apparent reason. Along the way, you see New York City. And maybe the moon.

Jimmy Fallon Race Through New York logo

Because logo.

That’s it.

Universal shows no signs of relenting. Their next ride is another screen-based attraction themed to The Fast and the Furious. It wouldn’t surprise me if half the water slides at Volcano Bay are just bathtubs with televisions.

Fast – Cheap – Good. Pick Two

You business types have heard of the Iron Triangle. Projects have three aspects: Fast, Cheap, and Good. And you must sacrifice one.

Guess which one the Jimmy Fallon ride picked?

If Disney has taught us anything, it’s that great theme park attractions are meticulous works of art, announced almost decades in advance, with a painstaking approach that rivals the cathedrals of the Rennaissance.

Universal has conceded Quality in a race to lock up Fast and Cheap

It’s breathtaking how fast Universal can get a product to market. Diagon Alley seemingly went up a few months after Hogsmeade. Reign of Kong was built in a weekend. Transformers literally sprang from the ground when the light of a full moon struck a packet of magic beans.

It’s like one of Jimmy’s contrived late night games. Bring in a movie star and present him with a bucket of everyday activities. When he draws one, he has to come up with a silly theme park concept around it.

And 30 seconds later, the game is over.

I like vanilla ice cream as much as the next person, but here is an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road white guy who runs a talk show where he sits behind a desk talking to celebrities on couches. His brand involves kindergarten instruments, tight pants, and smashing raw eggs on your forehead.

There is literally nothing about Jimmy Fallon that screams “thrill ride.”

30 Rock show building for the Jimmy Fallon Ride Race Through New York

Except maybe this office building facade.

The Jimmy Fallon Ride Verdict

For many years, fans have argued that competition from Universal can only force Disney to step up its game.

But as Universal invests more and more into cheap simulators and lipstick-on-a-pig virtual queue gimmicks, we can only hope that Disney is not crazy enough to follow them down this rat hole.

Already projections are replacing practical effects like the hitchhiking ghosts. Animatronics with video faces have become the norm (Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Frozen Ever After, Hatbox Ghost), while classic Disneyland dark rides like Peter Pan and Alice are augmented with straight-up movie screens. Projected backgrounds are a huge part of Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean and both Pandora rides.

At least Disney still understands that they can’t go all virtual. Bob Iger says that Disney still believes in a manufactured form of reality. Then he goes on to talk about the technologically advanced Avatar figures, which we all know will break down within a month.

But hey, I’ll take the Disco Yeti over a virtual Jimmy Fallon any day.


Comments (19)

  1. Virtual Queues work well over at Volcano Bay. I think the interior setup was just badly done at Fallon’s. Gone once and don’t plan on returning anytime soon. Thought the ride itself was okay, not great but okay.

  2. I think that there is a place for projection in theme park rides, but only if they are MORE immersive than the practical alternative. You may argue with me here, but the Mine Train Dwarves and Frozen Figures are much more expressive and immersive than the alternative. Mystic Mannor in Hong Kong and Ratatouille in France are other good examples of the “good” use of projection.

    Perhaps Test Track goes a little too far, but its arguably so. For the overall theme of the attraction as a “virtual” simulation, it seems to work.

    As long as Imagineers are sitting asking at the planning meetings “What would look and feel better in this spot? A prop or a projection?” I’m okay with it.

    Amen to every one of your critiques of Universal. My kids are Harry Potter fans, so we spent some time there last year. Potter world(s) came the closest to being immersive, but the overall look and vibe of both parks at Universal was no competition compared to Disney World theme parks (I’m giving DHS a pass here for obvious reasons). And NO ONE moves people through lines like Disney. My most horrible experiences in crowds at Disney would be exponentially worse at any other theme park. I can’t verify this, but I believe it wholeheartedly.

    Lets hope they continue to “get it” at Disney World and use those projections where it’s appropriate and enhances the awesome.

  3. I have just returned from a vacation in Orlando, and I rode the new Jimmy ride at Universal Studios. My whole family are Jimmy Fallon fans, so we were looking forward to this experience.
    The “experience” was horrible. We got out que times to return to the show, and was looking forward to an experience. Basically, it was being herded from room to room. There were so many people in each room, that you couldn’t even see the TVs half of the time that you were in there. There were several “games” yoiu could apparently play, but they were so limited, that you would have to be in a fist fight to play anything. After 45 mins of being herded from room to room where you basically just WAITED with no real entertainment, except the endless loop of Jimmy Fallon clips that repeated quite quickly, we were ushered into the ride.
    How BORING. With new technology happening all the time, you would think that this simulator would have been good. It wasn’t. I felt like we were going back in time in terms of simulator rides, and not forward. The “storyline” of racing Mr. Fallon through NYC was stupid and cheap. The was no ‘thrill’ to the ride what-so-ever and the seats we sat in were extremely uncomfortable. The whole “Experience” Took about 1 hour. What is the point of a que, if the holding cells they called experience rooms were horrible experiences, where people were so jammed inside, that others were practically sitting in my lap? (I was in a wheelchair) and the ride itself wasn’t even fun?!?! I can say my family was very disappionted in this ride and it was a waste of an hour.
    For a new ride, it was awful. It’s not even worth a 10 minute wait, in my opinion. The minions ride, which is geared more towards families was more “Thrilling” than this. I’d rate this ride a D.

  4. We rode Jimmy’s on 5/5/2017 and they have gotten the wait times down somewhat. It took us about 35 minutes from start to finish but there was not much to remember about it. I want to see the day when you wait 10 minutes for a twenty minute ride, not 4 hours for a 45 second ride. The seats upstairs were comfortable but you can hardly get one and you can’t see the pre-show from them. The seats in the ride where horrible, so I guess that it is good the ride is short. The seatbelts were terrible – my wife’s wouldn’t lock and mine would not release at the end. I see no reason that we would ever ride this again or recommend it to anyone.

    • They are probably the most uncomfortable ride vehicle seats I have ever been on. They push your back awkwardly forward. 35 minutes as the “fastpass” time to take in this lightweight story is just ridiculous.

  5. The idea of a “ride” where all you really do is get transported around to look at a bunch of screens is so dull and lazy, it was forgivable with the Potter ride because there are still plenty of animatronics but the screens are the weakest element (I haven’t had the chance to ride the other big Potter ride yet)

  6. We were there 2 weeks ago and your description of the ‘virtual queue’ is perfect. Our 50 minute non-line was the longest time we waited for any attraction. Ironic when you show up at your scheduled time. And each color change was a chaotic mass of people moving in different directions. It made an old fassioned line seem civilized by comparison. I can’t imagine ever doing it again. It must have seemed good on paper.

  7. I’m not going to lie, I was a few paragraphs in before I realized that “Race through New York starring Jimmy Fallon” was real and not something you made up. I haven’t been to Universal since it opened, I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Ugh.

  8. In fairness to Universal, they don’t have the historical attractions that bring back generations of people. Disney gets to depend on a pretty sizable fanbase by depending on classic rides developed by Walt and the first generation of Imagineers. People will keep coming back to show their kids the rides they (and their parents) saw as kids. That gives them the freedom to do long-term projects.
    Universal doesn’t have those classic rides and probably never will. The world is different now, and not even Disney new attractions will be cultural touchstones like Pirates, the Haunted Mansion, or iasw.
    Universal only gets people through the turnstile by showing them something new. If you want new stuff every year, you go with Universal’s model. Bad news for theme park nerds like us, but it seems to be what the general public wants.

  9. While I agree that Fallon sucks- I’d rather wait I’m the “pens” than in switchbacks. Also, Diagon may have been built quick but it is easily one of the best themed lands on earth.

    • My issue isn’t pens vs. switchbacks. If that’s the debate, then I agree with you. But they are marketing this as saving you time in line, and I waited 45 minutes in the pens. That’s bait and switch.

      And no argument from me about Diagon Alley being fantastic. They had a lot to draw on from the movies and books. But it is beginning to look much more like lightning in a bottle, rather than Universal figuring things out. Case in point: Volcano Bay, which is a horrible mismatch of Wet-and-Wild primary colors and an ugly, skinny brown rock pimple.

  10. I’ve never been to Universal Studios. I’ve seen videos of it and I’d like to spend a day there sometime. However, it just doesn’t have the same appeal to me as Disney. As for the future being motion rides with screens, I hope you’re wrong. I’ve seen the video of the Pirates ride at Shanghai and it looks really cool, but there’s nothing like audio animatronics and elaborate sets. Star Tours is a fun ride, but I’ll take a good rollercoaster any day. I’m really hoping they replace the Speedway with a Tron coaster.

    • Just saw that WDW News Today is saying that a WDW is planning on having a Tron rollercoaster built before Oct. 1st, 2021. I know you both rode the one in Shanghai. Is it is cool as it looks? I liked Tron as a kid, had some action figures and pumped Lord knows how many quarters into the video game. I even had the little handheld video game. I also enjoyed Tron: Legacy so I’m pretty stoked about the possibility of the rollercoaster coming to WDW.

      • Well those rumors have been floating for a while Greg do who knows.

        Only I was in Shanghai but yes, the Tron coaster is next level cool. Both seeing it an riding it is very immersive and satisfying. Now I am not a huge coaster fan so I am ok with it but a common criticism is that it is short, and it is.

        I’d add 30 seconds to a minute more but the look and feel are stunning. It would energize Epcot big time. If you like Tron then all the better but you don’t need any prior knowledge. It is done extremely well.

        • Assuming that they are not going back to the original idea of Epcot, then a Tron coaster is a no-brainer. With no first hand experience, I can’t comment on the length. But I will say that 4 years to build a copy-cat coaster seems like an extraordinarily long time.

  11. I must begin by saying that I, like you, are fully on the Disney side of the fence in this and that while the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a pretty neat place, I didn’t find the areas themselves or the attractions therein to be far superior to any DIsney experience.

    I am also a little disturbed by your description of the virtual lines. It seems that the virtual queues will actually increase the wait times overall and only create an illusion of not being stuck as it were. Further, I feel that the Imagineers have done a pretty good job of creating queues that through visual props and music can create an atmosphere that lessens the “pain” of waiting. I further believe this was case prior to creation of the interactive queues.

    In many ways, the Imagineers created the ultimate themed queue when they built the Swiss Family Treehouse as that is what the walkthrough attraction is in essence.

    • The virtual queue is a huge letdown. The fact that I still waited 45 minutes for this attraction really bothers me. The thing is, because they force you to enter the second level in groups of peacock feathers, there is no avoiding this once the attraction hits capacity. It will simply throttle everyone down. The only way to do it is to reduce the number of return times, so that you don’t have a gazillion people waiting for the feather colors to cycle through. It’s just a shell game. I much prefer the themed Disney queues to this trickery.

      • So what’s the solution? Eliminate the “pre-shows” and just return time straight into a 5 minute ride?

        Jimmy Fallon is an experience, just like Twister was. The pre-shows and everything are part of that “experience.” Twister had you wait in a short queue, then go to two pre-show rooms before the final stage show with the tornado. It built up to the finale and occupied your time. Fallon does essentially the same. They’re building you up to the finale, albeit not very well because I have no idea what the storyline is here but still. Moral of the story, for people who live here and visit these rides every other day, yeah, the pre-shows are going to get repetitive and annoying when you just want to skip to the ride portion, but for the people who only get to come here once or twice in their lives, they might want a little more to their experience.

        If I came to Universal for the first time, had maybe seen a couple episodes of Fallon, waited an hour outside to walk around and check out shops, then came back and walked right onto the ride, I would have no idea what was going on because I had no backstory provided.

        • To answer your question, we first need to understand 2 things:

          1. Are pre-shows a good idea in general?
          2. Do these holding pens in Race Through New York fit the definition of a pre-show?

          Pre-shows have traditionally existed to bring people up to speed on the attraction, giving them relevant info in order to understand the ride. Thus, we get a movie explaining why the haunted elevator got zapped in the Hollywood Tower hotel, or exactly why you are boarding a high-speed limo in the middle of an L.A. parking garage, or exactly what sort of dinosaur you need to find before that meteor hits.

          I personally think these types of preshows are lazy storytelling. I don’t hate them, but I much prefer elegant ideas for attractions that do not require an “explanation” video beforehand. You only have a 5 minute ride to begin with. If you need another 5 minutes of video to explain it, then maybe your original idea needs some work. Classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean or Kilimanjaro Safari don’t require any advance knowledge in order to understand them. Even a ride like Harry Potter and the Foribbiden Journey doesn’t really require anything in the way of explanation other than familiarity with the HP universe — though for some reason they felt the need to shoehorn in a few scenes explaining why your bench is flying.

          So yeah, I think most rides would be better off eliminating pre-shows and having stronger ideas.

          But if you’re going to go with a crazy story that requires explanation, a pre-show is acceptable. Ironically, the Fallon ride desperately needs some sort of explanation about this “race” you’re in because it is totally nonsensical. But the holding pens can’t be bothered to fill in the story gaps. They are just cramped waiting areas, with a few exhibits and video games.

          They do immerse you a little bit in the Fallon/Tonight Show brand, which is perfectly fine as a diversionary tactic for a long line (like HP and the Forbidden Journey). But the main difference is that Fallon is billing itself as not having a line to wait in — Virtual Queue! — then sticks you into a really long line anyway.

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