A Look Back At Back To The Future: The Ride

The current rides and attractions at theme parks based on popular IP are quite popular, but there are many extinct rides that are sorely missed. One of the most beloved is Back to the Future: The Ride which was at Universal Studios Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Japan.

Back to the Future: The Ride opened first at Universal Studios Orlando in May 1991 and later at the Hollywood location in June 1993 and finally at the Japan park in March 2001. For anyone who does not know the attraction was a POV simulator ride that used dome-shaped IMAX screens. It served as a mini-sequel of sorts to Back to the Future, Part III, although whether or not it should be considered canon is up for debate.

The premise was that Emmett “Doc” Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd, reprising his role from the films) founded the Institute of Future Technology, and opened the scientific institution for tours of his facility and inventions. Doc Brown’s prized invention is a fleet of modified DeLorean cars which can fit eight passengers, plus the driver, and travel through time. The actual building where the Institute of Future Technology is located houses the 70-foot OMNIMAX dome screen and 24 ride vehicles.

At some point, Biff Tannen (reprised by Thomas F. Wilson) from 1955 stows away in one of the DeLoreans and arrives in the present. At the institute, Biff steals one of the DeLoreans and takes off into the timestream while trapping Doc in his office at the institute. Unable to escape, Doc implores you, as one of the tourists, to take a modified DeLorean that he will remote control, and catch up to Biff. Riders see this entire short film on overhead monitors as they wait in the queue.

From there, riders enter a small room that featured many props from the Back to the Future films such as newspaper clips, photos and the pink hoverboard. Doc Brown comes on a screen and provides instructions; when they find Biff’s car the riders are to accelerate their car to 88 miles per hour and bump their own car into Biff’s. Doing so creates a temporal vortex which brings both vehicles back to the present.

The modified DeLorean was a stunning replica of the car featured in the films only larger. Even the front panels looked just as it appeared in film with the flux capacitor and a dashboard display that showed current time, destination time and previous time.

After the gull-wing doors closed the vehicles “lifted” off since they had the hover technology and accelerated to 88 miles per hour. The first destination was Hill Valley in 2015, which was the same fantastic future showcased in Back to the Future, Part II with a chaotic traffic of hover cars and floating signs. Biff can be spotted in his DeLorean as he taunts the riders (he also pops up in small monitors in the riders’ car, as well as Doc). Biff escapes in time after a chase and the riders wind up in the ice age barely keeping up with Biff. The final destination is the Cretaceous period where both cars run into an angry tyrannosaurus rex. After literally escaping from the dinosaur’s maw, the riders rescue Biff, whose car is damaged and trapped in a lava flow, by bumping his car and sending both vehicles back to the future.

Back at the institute, Biff is captured by Doc’s workers and all is well. This sequence was actually cut short as it originally ended with Biff being showered with manure as was his fate in the films. However, Doc Brown warns riders from the PA speakers to quickly exit the ride or else they would run into other versions of themselves and risked disrupting the time continuum! Unlike most rides today, this one did not exit directly into a gift shop, although one was located nearby the main building, which sold nifty souvenirs. These included replicas of the DeLorean (see picture) of various sizes, license plates with OUTATIME, and T-shirts.

As far as simulator rides go, Back to the Future: The Ride was one of the best. The movements in the DeLorean felt real and jerky; you actually felt as if you were flying in a barely controlled car. Plus, the visuals projected onto the OMNIMAX were stunning, kinetic and richly detailed. FX master Douglas Trumbull directed these sequences and the visuals engulfed you into the ride.

Originally, the ride was planned to be a roller coaster, but that changed when deingers realized it would be difficult to tell a cohesive story using a fast-moving roller coaster. It may be hard to believe but the ride came about as a dare from George Lucas. After the success of the Star Tours ride at Disneyland, Lucas jokingly told his friend Steven Spielberg that Universal Studios, where Spielberg consulted with developing rides, could never make a ride that rivaled Star Tours. Taking the challenge Spielberg went to work and helped develop Back to the Future into a ride that wound up surpassing the original Star Tours.

Why was it better? Well, the ride felt more intimate as the movements were more pronounced and intense. That probably was because you were confined to a smaller vehicle versus that used in Star Tours, which was basically a small theater that moved. Another thing that made Back to the Future: The Ride more superior was the film itself. You were immersed in a wraparound screen that helped with the illusion that you were in a flying car. The best ride system that can be compared to the Universal attraction is Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Sadly, as we all know Back to the Future: The Ride does not exist anymore. Starting in 2007, Universal Studios closed the attraction at both U.S. locations and the one in Japan closed in 2016. By the time the rides closed they were not as well maintained and Universal wanted to inject new life into its parks. Unlike Disney, Universal Studios is limited by space and often closes beloved attractions to make way for new ones. The Simpsons Ride replaced Back to the Future: The Ride in the U.S., while Despicable Me Minion Mayhem replaced the one in Japan. Those rides are a lot of fun and the Springfield themed land that replaced the Institute of Future Technology is very well detailed. But one cannot help but miss the charm of the previous ride. There are remnants of the ride (and the films) at the parks. Replicas of the DeLorean and the time train are displayed in the parks and actors playing Doc Brown can be spotted, as well.

The films in the ride (which can be found on YouTube and as a special feature in the Back to the Future Blu-ray) could have been updated since after all, we are now past 2015, but this was doable. Star Tours was able to be reinvigorated, so should have Back to the Future: The Ride, The vehicles’ motions were fine, though the vehicles themselves could have been spruced up.

But who knows what lies in the future? Universal Studios is building more parks, including a third gate in Orlando. One challenge for them is coming up with IP to use for their rides. Instead of dealing with IP from other film studios they just use their own IPs, which have stood the test of time, including Back to the Future.

José Soto



4 comments on “A Look Back At Back To The Future: The Ride

    • Thanks! T2 was another terrific attraction that is sadly gone. The Back to the Future ride was so memorable because it captured the spirit of the films, thanks in no small part to the actors returning to their roles (the same applied to the T2 attraction).

      At least we still have the film of the ride to enjoy and imaginae what it was like. Thankfully the footage was taken from workers who got on the ride and filmed it, otherwise it may have been lost forever.

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