There haven’t been many interviews over the course of my career that I needed to acquire steel-toed shoes, a hard hat, and safety goggles for. Then again there also haven’t been many that I walked the construction site of a brand-new, 1,556 meters, 70 mph roller coaster inspired by a global blockbuster phenomenon from my youth.
After the ride was officially announced (after much anticipation, upwards of a gajillion churro-stand related tweets, and even an osprey claiming it as home), it started to gain more and more enthusiasm, intrigue, and people clamoring to know more.
I recently had the chance to walk the construction site with Gregory Hall and Shelby Honea, the Art Director and Show Producer of the project, and with muffled voices behind their face-coverings and over the noises of construction machinery, they told me the history of the ride, the future of the ride, and what they think fans will be most thrilled by (hint: all of it).
Building Toward This
Starting around mid-2017, in a 56 by 140 foot trailer located on Universal’s backlot, 60 or so Team Members spent pretty much every day together developing what we now refer to as Jurassic World VelociCoaster — the first Jurassic World attraction at Universal Orlando Resort. But before the name, before the track, before anything else fans have speculated about, the Team Members behind the ride knew one thing.
“The DNA of Universal Islands of Adventure really does have that extra thrill,” Shelby Honea, Universal Creative Show Producer, says. “So right off the bat — before we had Jurassic, before we had anything — we knew it had to be thrill.”
Keith McVeen, Universal Creative’s Assistant Director of Production Design and Programming, was first tasked with developing some preliminary layouts and ideas for what this new thrill ride in Universal Islands of Adventure could be. He looked at different sites, put together some presentations, and essentially kept the ball moving down the field until the project had some real traction. That was when Greg Hall, the ride’s Art Director, became involved.
Greg had worked with Keith before, working on several projects like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D, and most recently the upgrades to The Incredible Hulk Coaster in Universal Islands of Adventure in 2016.
“Keith is awesome,” Greg says. “When I was first an intern in Universal Creative, he was really my mentor. So, for this project, the trust was already there and we knew what the other was capable of.”
Greg started at Universal in 2009. Growing up in Florida, he saw Universal as a rite of passage as he got older — one that he thought about every time he rode in the backseat of his mom’s car and saw Universal billboards.
“When I was a teenager, Universal was like the cool-kids park,” Greg says. “ And as I was growing up, Universal was, too. I remember when they were building Islands of Adventure and I was just like, ‘what is THIS?’”
After going to school for visual effects, a few years working on military simulation, and even making cars as a hobby, Greg started his internship with Universal Creative.
“My first project here was TRANSFORMERS,” Greg says. “It just all came together — knowing how to simulate the rides while at the same time animate something visually interesting. Sometimes it can be too technical and you forget the fun, sometimes you go too visual but it’s impossible to build. Understanding both is important.”
Greg definitely had plenty to learn still in his early days at Universal — architecture, new design programs, the general gist of taking design elements he knew and applying them to roller coasters in a theme park — just usual learning-curve things at any new job, of course.
Due to his background in filmmaking and simulation visual effects, Greg considers Jurassic Park a pivotal film that he refers to as “ahead of its time and something to study even to this day.” As executives and Team Members were still deciding what that new thrill ride in Islands of Adventure would be, Greg was reminded of a thought he’d had consistently over his tenure at Universal.
“I would be looking across the lagoon and think to myself, ‘someone needs to do something big over in Jurassic Park,’” Greg says. “I was working on Hulk, so I never thought years later that it was going to be me, but — I’ll take it. And I had always felt that if I had the opportunity to make something as part of the Jurassic universe that I would make sure I represent and really honor it.”
Shelby also feels a connection to the franchise, reminiscing about how much she looked up to the character of Ellie Sattler when she first saw the movies as a young girl.
“I remember sitting in the theater as a kid and watching the original Jurassic Park and being blown away,” Shelby says. “When this project popped up on my radar I was like, ‘Please, please, please I want to be on it!’”
Shelby grew up in Nevada, so it was a bigger haul for her and her family to come visit Orlando, but she remembers coming for the first time to Universal in 2001, shortly after Islands of Adventure was built.
“I remember walking around and just loving this place,” she says. “And I think a lot of my career is due to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (in Islands of Adventure). It was a technical marvel and it felt truly like magic. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
Shelby was always interested in art and the sciences and knew she wanted to do the type of work she’s doing now. She got her degree in engineering and really focused on graduating with a strong portfolio — whether it was a local gym needing a haunted house designed or a small theater needing a set, she put herself in the right position to gather relevant experience.
With Shelby working as the show producer for Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Greg working as the art director, the duo works very closely in bringing the ride from the “Islands-of-Adventure-needs-a-new-thrill-ride” stage in 2017 to the current “Woah-did-you-see-what-they’re-building-in-Jurassic-Park?” stage.
Both of them walk the attraction’s site each morning with leaders from the construction team, engineering team, and show team to make sure everything is running smoothly and the creative vision is coming to life.
“Shelby is the protector of the team and the project as a whole,” Greg says. “The team and I are focusing on making sure that we’ve delivered the best visual and thrilling experience ever. Shelby’s making sure that all the obstacles that may stop us are being knocked out of the way.”
This feels like as good a time as any to point out what you may have noticed from the photos of Greg and Shelby throughout this blog — they’re fairly young. In fact, Shelby and Greg are one of the youngest teams within Universal Creative.
“This is why I really think this is an attraction that represents the new generation of theme-park designers,” Greg says. “We played our roles in the other attractions and this is the one that we can really say our generation built from scratch.”
More Than “Just a Coaster”
One of the things the team behind VelociCoaster believes: no room for fluff in roller coasters.
“Everything is there for a reason,” Greg says. “The whole team made sure that every element makes the whole experience better for the guest. Whether it’s upping the safety or the storyline — everything about this ride has multiple purposes..”
For Shelby, this has been one of the most exciting parts about being on this project — working with a team that at every chance was looking to elevate the experience. They knew first and foremost the project was going to be a thrill coaster, but once Jurassic Park was decided on as the location and the franchise that the ride would focus on? Talk about upping the game.
“The challenge of taking a coaster and elevating it to meet the immersive levels that Islands of Adventure demands was such a compelling challenge to me,” Shelby says. “Jurassic World’s involvement was the spark for me to really know that this was going to be so much more than ‘just a coaster.’”
She’s got that “more than just a coaster” right. The entire project has entailed a whole slew of moving elements (including an updated Raptor Encounter experience) that the team developed from their own love of the franchise and watching all the movies. This became how the team decided what their core tenants would be and how they would move forward with the design.
“We always knew it was going to be a coaster, so adrenaline was very important to us,” Shelby says. “We also wanted to pull in the unique environment of Jurassic wherever we could through horticulture. There’s the dinosaurs and the teeth element; I mean it couldn’t possibly be Jurassic World unless you’re eye-to-eye with a dinosaur. There’s the paddock and the rockwork, but there’s also little precious things throughout the attraction that I think really make even a deeper layer of discovery that honors the entire history of this brand and land.”
As fans themselves, Greg and Shelby have put an obvious emphasis on representing the mix of science, story, and placing the ride in its proper place within the canon of the films. The team has also done an insanely good job at creating a ridiculously thrilling roller coaster. It has four inversions, two launches, something called an “inverted zero-gravity stall,” a 155-foot tall “top hat” with a 140-foot drop at eight degrees, and all this with only lap-bar restraints on the vehicles.
And, of course, there are dinosaurs. Greg and Shelby and the rest of their team have been working directly with the filmmakers to ensure the Raptors throughout the attraction are true to the films. Also, the term “filmmakers” here does in fact include the likes of Colin Trevorrow and Steven Spielberg, both of whom Greg and Shelby have met with over the course of this project.
“We were nervous, of course,” Greg says. “But then the doors open and Steven Spielberg says, ‘Hello, old friends’ and there is literally a light behind him that looks like an aura. You can’t make that up. I’ve been working with his intellectual properties for a while (TRANSFORMERS), but this was my first time really talking and sitting down with him.”
Of course at this point Greg and Shelby believe the project they’ve been working on will honor the franchise, but it’s an entirely different thing to sit down with the creator of it all and get his blessing. They knew that Spielberg, like them, would not want to do anything that might disappoint the fans of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World.
“There was this moment when we were going through everything,” Greg starts. “And he says, ‘Stop; is that really what the ride vehicle is going to look like?’ And so we pause and I look at Shelby, back at him and say ‘Yes, that’s what it looks like.’ And then he goes, ‘I absolutely love it! It looks so modern.’ Shelby and I both took a big sigh.”
Elephant in the Room & Ospreys on the Top Hat
Like so many things (all things, more accurately), VelociCoaster has had its impacts from COVID-19.
“It’s a different world now than the one we started this project in,” Shelby says. “I keep coming back to that when this is all over we’re all going to need to scream a bit, so. Luckily we’re building a roller coaster. I think it’ll be a form of therapy for us all.”
The closure of Universal Orlando at the beginning of 2020 also created an interesting timeline for the ride. The construction was able to, once new safety guidelines were in place, keep moving during the closure, while the company held off on an official announcement.
“It created this whole phenomenon,” Greg says. “We were obviously building something and during that period it was so fun seeing fans just speculating, tweeting, writing blogs, making art — just every little thing. We hadn’t even announced and it had all this hype. I just keep imagining once the world is ready to move on from how hard everything has been… And there’s this brand new attraction that’s futuristic and completely different than anything else.”
Greg anticipates just wanting to sit and observe guest’s reactions on the opening day of the attraction. Which will replace his once-consistent habit of observing the family of ospreys that notoriously took up residence in the attraction’s highest point on and off for six months or so in 2020, before the vehicles started running on the track.
“The birds kept watch and did several days of ‘what’s going on here?’” Shelby says. “They started sort of testing out what would happen if they stood there for a few days.”
“I mean it’s one of the most amazing things — nothing better than a real dinosaur descendent sitting above the dinosaur flag on your dinosaur roller coaster,” Greg says.
With just a few months between now and the opening of the coaster (announcement coming soon!), Greg and Shelby are gearing up for the final stages, looking forward to guest reactions, and looking back on how far they’ve come so far with this project.
“It’s been exciting being a part of bringing this — just — straightforward, unforgiving thrill ride to Universal,” Greg says. “Universal can do this, Jurassic can do this, this is who we are. It was like I was saying, Universal builds that thing that you want to grow up to and brave someday. It’ll be a conquer-your-fears-ride. The I’m-finally-tall-enough ride.”
“There’s something aspirational about a coaster,” Shelby says. “I really do believe there’s a kid, who loves dinosaurs and Jurassic World, and who’s eating their vegetables right now to make sure they’re 51 inches tall by the time this ride opens.”
Get ready for Jurassic World VelociCoaster by eating your vegetables and staying up-to-date on all the news and details.