"The Simpsons" has been a part of my life for pretty much all of it. I remember when it was an interstitial short on the "Tracey Ullman Show." I remember when it was a Christmas one-off special. And I remember when it became infamous as the anti-"Cosby Show", with schools suspending kids for wearing "Eat My Shorts" t-shirts. I can't say monorail without singing it three times.
So to watch my four year old dance to "Everybody Do The Bartman" on the sidewalk in front of Duff Breweries, across the street from Moe's Tavern, Krusty Burger and Comic Book Guy's store and down the block from the statues of Jebediah Springfield and the enormous Lard Lad — well, that was just about the best thing ever.
No, make that second-best, since I ended our family trip to Universal Studios Orlando's new 30,000 sq. foot Springfield, U.S.A. expansion by closing down Moe's. My wife and son had returned to the hotel while I hunkered down at the bar to quaff a few final Duffs in the theme park's spot-on replica of the animated drinking establishment.
There were pennants on the wall for the Isotopes (and, of course, the Ice-o-Topes). The Love Tester was where it should be in the corner (I even scored "Cassanova") as was the "out of service" sign on the jukebox. There were photos of Moe, the show's beloved barkeep, in the army and the Pin Pals. The windows looked hand-drawn, as did the phone that has received so many prank calls, and the taps poured out a couple types of Duff, Buzz Cola and the bar's piece de resistance, The Flaming Moe, which bubbled and boiled and poured white smoke across the bar's counter top.
Eventually, Moe's closed up, but when I asked if I had to finish up my beer elsewhere, the bartender in his familiar green smock said "regulars" could stay, and poured me another pint while he cleaned up around me. It was, well, kind of moving.
Universal Studio's Springfield, USA Expansion. Story continues after the gallery.
This may seem like an overstatement, since it took place in a Floridian theme part, but I'm certainly not alone. The extreme and consistent popularity of the award-winning Simpsons Ride, which launched in 2008, prompted the expansion. And the area was crawling with superfans blissed out to be buying Duff hoodies at the Kwik-E-Mart, or snapping their photo beside Chief Wiggum, or grabbing some seafood from the Frying Dutchman, a slice at Luigi's or a taco at the Bumble Bee Man's stand.
The later, alongside Cletus' Chicken Shack, was one of the few parts of the park that isn't drawn directly from the show but serves a chicken 'n' waffle sandwich which was the most perfectly cartoonish item I could find on the menu.
But, really, the whole area is perfectly cartoonish — as it should be — considering "The Simpsons" creators played a pivotal role in the new Springfield, even going so far as having show staffers write the menu copy and the signs.
"It all had to be very authentic," explained Universal's Mike West, who helmed this expansion as well as the original ride. "The colours of the building, the colours of the graphics, the taste of the food, the kind of food we served, very much had to fit into 'The Simpsons' style and what guests would come to expect if they were in Springfield."
"We spent a lot of time developing each element of the expansion with Jim Brooks and Matt Groening very specifically," he adds, "the food in 'The Simpsons' is almost as much of a character as Homer and the family so we spent a lot time developing all the foods with the chefs here in Orlando and did taste tests with the folks at Fox and Gracie [Films] and that was one of the most fun parts of the project! We developed a microbrewery for Duff Beer that you can only get here at Universal Orlando," said West.
Another part of the appeal is that the show crosses age and gender lines. "A lot of times in the parks guests will split up in families because somebody will go on Transformers and it's a bit wild for the younger or the older guests. But this is an area where guests can spend a couple hours together, not separated."
That's the rub, of course. What makes the Springfield addition to the long-running theme park so special is also what has made Universal's "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" such a hit over at Universal's Islands of Adventure next door. Rather than just throwing up a ride, like the cool new "Transformers: 4D" ride or the popular "Despicable Me" and "Shrek" ones, the expansions create experiences.
Kids lose their minds wandering Hogsmeade — and will soon get to do the same once the Diagon Alley expansion opens up later this year at the original park — because they'll be physically immersed in the world they've spent so much time watching, reading and fantasizing about. And the same goes for adults in Springfield.
"The guests pretty much drove it," West said. "They came and they loved The Simpsons ride, they loved everything about 'The Simpsons' and we just thought, 'what better way to bring more of 'The Simpsons' world to the guests than creating an avenue or an area where guests could come with their families, see these iconic characters, places and moments from The Simpsons and have it be a part of your memory?'"
"The Simpsons" and "Harry Potter" also give the park attractions with legitimate longevity. While Disney is all about its classic creations, Universal stakes its claims on more current pop-cultural hits. But that's a bit risky, as attractions like the one for the 1996 film "Twister" or the long-cancelled reality show "Fear Factor" seem hopelessly dated. "The Simpsons", however, is perfect because it's longevity makes it both current as well as a classic and after so many years it has become an intricate creative construction.
Some things had to be left out — "Itchy & Scratchy Land was a little heavier than we would do for our guests probably," said West, "but it's certainly a funny episode"— but there is a Krusty Land, complete with a midway where you can win Sideshow Bob or Radioactive Man plushies. There's also a new ride, the amusing and kid-friendly Kodos and Kang Twirl'n'Hurl which joins the "guest-favourite" original Simpsons Ride, but the rides are almost beside the point.
It's just being there. Well, being there and washing down a pink Lard Lad donut the size of your head with an ice-cold Duff Beer or a Squishee while you daydream about them one day adding a monorail... monorail... monorail!
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