November 27, 2023, 12:34 PM ·

Bob Rogers’ Legends panel always provides one of the highlights of the annual IAAPA Expo in Orlando. This year’s panel kept that tradition going with a spirited conversation about the Covid-challenged opening of Universal Studios’ new theme park in China.

“Universal Beijing Resort – The Untold Story of Triumph over Trying Times; Covid, Lockdowns, Quarantines, And More,” featured Tom Mehrmann, President, Chief Operating Officer, Universal Destinations & Experiences Pacific Rim, Mike Hightower, the recently retired President of Universal Creative, and Sylvia Hase, President of Hasbas Entertainment, who created the park’s Theme Park Insider Award-winning show, “Untrainable,” as well as “Mickey and the Wondrous Book” at Hong Kong Disneyland, The Little Mermaid show at Tokyo DisneySea, and the “Hurry Home” preshow for World of Color at Disney California Adventure, among many other works.It’s basically the story of a theme park where everything actually went terribly wrong before its team rallied to open it and welcome fans into a world of attractions where everything pretends to go terribly wrong.I’m going to lead into this recap with a trigger warning, because much of the panel recounted the early days of the Covid pandemic – a moment of global social trauma that many of us have worked hard to forget. Those of us who travel for a living remember the game of musical chairs that we were playing at the start of 2020 – wondering when the moment would come when people could travel no more, and how we would ensure we were in the right place when that happened.For the team creating Universal Studios Beijing, that game of musical chairs started – and ended – earlier than it did elsewhere. That left Universal management challenged to get the people that they needed on the ground in China for the final stages of the park’s construction.”I jokingly say this, that I was under two years of hard labor and solitary confinement in China.” Mehrmann said. “But it was completely by choice that I stayed there for that, because we knew what we had to accomplish, and we knew is only going to get that much more difficult.”It wasn’t just people that Universal struggled to get on site, either. Hase described the challenge of rehearsing a parade without any of its floats.

“A parade is only successful if it has the right pacing,” she said. “Because we had different IPs, each piece of unit had their own music. Yes, it was one overall arcing rhythm, but when you heard the Minions you heard ‘Happy,’ and when you hear Madagascar, you heard ‘Move It, Move It.’ And so the pacing was the biggest problem because we didn’t have our floats. “So we had people who pretended to be floats with, like, caution tape. So we had to learn how to have the parade pace. The audio engineers were able to tech the parade, but also the cast members were able to see how that works. So it was a really interesting rehearsal process,” she said. “It was really funny because I’ve never seen so many executives who had nothing to do with the parade memorize the delivery schedule of floats.”Universal has opened and operated parks in multiple states and countries, but its entry to China challenged the management team to learn to work with a different style of government regulation.”One of the most interesting rules is the 80-hour test,” Hightower said. “The 80-hour test says that you shall run a ride for 80 hours in a minimum of eight-hour increments per day without any faults. Well, that seems reasonable, if it’s a pretty simple ride, right? But some of you know our rides are quite complex. “I did some math once,” he said. “If you count the computer cycle time – how many milliseconds it is, and the number of I/O that we have on the Forbidden Journey ride – in the course of 80 hours, there’s over one billion opportunities for fault. And we had some, and so we told we told them that we won’t pass this 80-hour test on some of these complicated rides.””They said, ‘Well, you haven’t tried yet. We’re not going to give you a pass without trying, right?’ And so we did try. And we would have meetings every week with the head of the [Chinese Special Equipment Institute] and other people. It was interesting, because we talked about every fault, and we talked about the root cause of the fault. We talked about whether we fix the fault or not, and they said, ‘Okay, try harder. Do it again next week.'””It’s always safe. Safety was never an issue. So we kept going. We kept knocking off these faults, and the reliability kept going higher and higher and higher, because they wanted to 100%. We didn’t quite get to 100%, we got over 99%, and when we opened, it was the highest reliability operationally of our attractions at any existing park in the world. So it did pay off.”This isn’t to say that Universal always came around to what the government wanted. As in any healthy relationship, sometimes things went the other way. “‘Lights Camera Action,’ if you know, we have that show in Singapore and it includes an open flame in the building,” Hightower said. “Every time we go to a new country, the fire marshals say, ‘No, you’re not putting open flames in a building – that’s what catches buildings on fire. We’re not doing that.’ And so China was certainly no different. Maybe China was even more adamant. They said, ‘You’re not having open flame in this building.’ And we went on for a while and even started getting pressure from all kinds of people – including, honestly, some of my management – saying, ‘Just redesign the show.’ I’m not doing that. I’m not redesigning the show. We have a great show. It took us almost three years to get the government on board – through so many expert panels, demonstrations, everything – that we got the show open. We did not accept the bad news of, ‘Oh, it’s not gonna get approved.'”And sometimes, everyone just had to learn how to better communicate. Mehrmann detailed a “dust up,” if you will, over whether Universal would be allowed to operate construction cranes on the property during high winds elsewhere in the Beijing area.”I said to the individual who was overseeing the development, ‘Hey, it’s not windy here,'” Mehrmann said. “‘Yes, but,’ he said, ‘we have a wind warning,’ and I said, ‘But we got relief from the wind warning.’ He said, ‘You did get relief to operate the crane, but you can’t put the operator in there. You don’t have a permit for that.’ And I just thought, okay, we just didn’t ask the follow up question, I guess.”Ultimately, as with any major project, it takes commitment to get things done. “The overall mantra was never give up,” Hightower said. “That was the key to our success. No matter what was thrown at us, we said, ‘Okay, let’s find a way around it.'”Thank you to Bob Rogers, Christian Lachel, and the team at BRC Imagination Arts for sending me a video of the Legends panel, which I can share with you here:Be sure to keep watching until about 1:08:00 in for Mehrmann’s story about the differences between “done” and “done done,” or, “finished” and “complete.” It’s another great example of how to overcome that communication gap that he described earlier.For more information on Universal Studios Beijing, including our reader rankings, please visit Theme Park Insider’s Visitors Guide to Universal Studios Beijing, which includes a link to discounted tickets to the park.And to keep up to date with more theme park news, please sign up for Theme Park Insider’s weekly newsletter.

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