Last Tuesday (January 31, 2023) I visited Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood! I thought it was really interesting and special and exciting but also…flawed.
It doesn’t officially open until February 17th; this was a passholders-only technical rehearsal. So some stuff wasn’t working yet, and it was probably an unusually excited and respectful crowd. I don’t plan to visit again for a few months, because I expect the general crowds will be unbearable. I was really lucky that even after the chaos of distribution of preview reservations, I got in at the very end of the day and the land was pretty empty. It gave me a nice chance to really observe what’s been built.
As I explained ten years ago (!), a land in the context of a theme park refers to a coherent built environment that organizes and presents a series of attractions—bigger than a ride, smaller than a park. Super Nintento World is a Mario-themed land with a ride, a restauarant, a gift shop, and a few interactive areas.
There’s a bottlenecked entrance to the land, into a warp pipe and out of Princess Peach’s castle à la Super Mario 64. This sort of covered entrance to a land isn’t something I’ve seen before, apart maybe for the arches beneath the train station at the entrance to Disneyland. You absolutely can’t get any sense of the place until you get inside1. Once inside, there’s one big central area surround by very tall walls on all sides, and those walls are crawling with koopas and goombas and thwomps. It feels like a giant wedding cake, but upside down, and inverted, so what was cake is all air, and the air that was around the cake is Mario stuff. Does that make sense? In my head that’s a perfect description.
I honestly don’t like this design at all! It’s really cool to see such tall stuff—usually stuff isn’t this tall in a theme park, save for standalone structures—but it feels like it’s all closing in, in a bad way. You can stand pretty much anywhere and see pretty much everything.
Before I got inside, I was hoping that they’d feature the different recurring biomes in Mario games: white snow, yellow sand dunes, green hills. There’s some representation of each, but they feel mashed together, like a collage instead of a world. In the Nintendo-specific area of the Universal app, there’s a really cute map that is designed to look like the overworld in an SNES-era Mario game. It roughly correlates with what’s in the land, but in this depiction the biomes I was hoping for are very clearly delineated. It’s clear that this is what they wanted to achieve in the physical incarnation.
In the middle of the flat open area there are a couple structures. There’s like a stack of blocks that serve as the location for a character meet-and-greet, and there’s a patch of big mushrooms where people can sit. (I love that there’s a nice themed area to just sit.) If this central zone was built up more to obstruct sightlines across the land, I think they could have ended up with something more immersive. As it is, the fiberglass structures kind of evoke the Minions splash play area in the upper lot, which is to say they feel a little cheap and generic.
Around the outer ring of the land are lots of alcoves and staircases that lead to smaller rooms and corridors where guests can play little minigames or find blocks to hit. There’s no signage on most of these, inviting a little mystery—at one point I was walking up an empty staircase and really wasn’t sure if I was heading into some employee-only backstage area, but it lead to a quiet overlook that was very much part of the land. This is a great concept, even if most of these side areas were underwhelmingly spare.
It’s hard not to consider this place alongside The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal’s second-newest land, which opened in Hollywood in 2016. Potter is bigger, with a lot more stores and an extra ride, but it still feels absolutely immense by comparison. It’s longer and more narrow, and the path splits at least once to provide some more obscure spots, but it’s all one level (the ground). Nintendo opts for a smaller, more vertical footprint. I guess what I’m saying is I want it both ways.
I rode Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge twice! It was a perfect bit of luck: the first time the wait was about half an hour, a nice amount of time to take in the queue, and just crowded enough that the preshow was full of excited people and had a great energy. The second time I walked straight on, which meant I got to linger where I wanted to in the queue and then moved on as soon as I was ready.
The queue is fantastic. All the stuff from the games has been rendered in real life so nicely. It all feels a bit larger in scale than I would have anticipated, but I like that—I feel kid-sized peeking at Bowser’s giant desk. There’s a ton of wonderful detail in things like book covers and inspirational posters. At like a dozen points along the way, there is a video screen with a lenticular surface that makes the content of the screen look like it’s in 3D. It’s the Nintendo 3DS technology, but television-sized, and it honestly works pretty well!
The ride itself is…fine, I’m sad to say. The sets are nice, but they were almost impossible to take in on my first ride. Everybody wears an augmented reality headset, and most of my field of vision was obscured by characters and shells and bananas and blinking arrows.
I was pretty impressed by the AR in general—it synced really well and felt extremely real, save for that fact that it’s impossible to project an opaque image onto a transparent plastic visor, meaning all the other racers had a ghostly quality to them. There were multiple moments where there’d be somebody coming toward me on a physical screen in the set, and then at the same precise moment the image of that character would disappear from the screen and reappear on my visor, creating the illusion that they were popping off the walls and into the space. This was awesome.
That being said, I’d really love a B mode where all the media on the screens stays on the screens, and I can get something close to the full experience without the AR visor. I also really didn’t get anything out of the steering. It didn’t seem to have any affect on the ride; turning the wheel in the correct direction when an arrow flashed on the visor would award me a coin, which I could sync to my account with a Power Band. I don’t care about that at all. Show me the sets.
There’s an upsell thing where you can buy a bracelet that interacts with the land. In all the promotional materials, they show guests running around and hitting bricks like Mario does with their Power Bands, and each time they do that they get a coin, which gets saved to their account, and there are leaderboards for who has the most coins each day. There were a couple other minigames around the land that used the band, but they all basically amount to hitting a coin block and hearing the coin sound. I didn’t buy the band but I was ready to be convinced that I should. I was not convinced.
A lot of those little alcoves I mentioned seem to only exist to house a coin block. But the thing about a coin block is it’s not that visually interesting, and every one is the same. There’s no reason to, say, collect all the different kinds of coins, like a scavenger hunt. They’re just coins. It seems like you can hit the same block as many times as you want to get more coins. And the coins don’t matter.
Compare this to the wands in Harry Potter land. These are also interactive—they use infrared LEDs to enable guests to cast spells at different areas around the land. When I first visited Universal Orlando, I bought a wand. Each wand comes with a big paper map describing where each of the special spell-casting areas is. Most of them are set in the window of a shop, and casting the right spell triggers a little effect—a small animated figure moves around, there’s a puff of smoke, a sound plays, that sort of thing. They’re kind of hard to spot and it’s kind of hard to predict what will happen when you get one right, and they’re all really cute, and there’s nothing to “collect” other than your own personal experiences and knowledge, and they’re still really popular all these years later. The Mario Bands are a new take on the Harry Wands, and I just don’t think it’s a good take.
There was a big wall of video screens right in the center of the land that were all turned off when I visited. After inspecting them for a while, I realized they’re vending machines for the Power Bands. I believe Power Bands are also for sale in the gift shop in the land, as well as a couple Nintendo-themed gift shops outside the land, on the upper and lower lots. They’re obviously predicting a steady stream of sales of Power Bands, both because of the investesment in these kiosks and in all the interactive things throughout. I cannot imagine what those kiosks will look like in ten or twenty years, when nobody cares about the bands anymore. They seem hard to replace or even cover up!
Compare this to Ollivander’s, the shop where you buy the wands. There’s a whole optional preshow to enter the shop where one guest is picked to try out a few, and it roughly follows the beats of the kids getting their wands at Ollivander’s in the movies. I gave away the wand I bought years ago, but I still go through the Ollivander’s show sometimes, because it’s fun. Is there some way they could have done something more experiential with the Mario bands? Maybe a take on Mario growing when he gets a mushroom? Maybe this is something they can enhance down the line. I hope so.
I’m bummed at how negative this essay turned out. I really wanted to love this thing, and there’s a lot about it that I do love. It’s a really unusual adaptation, trying to turn something so unrealistic into a place that humans can comfortably exist. I found myself comparing it to Mickey’s Toon Town at Disneyland a lot—there are many similarities, even down to the land entrance. For the record, I like Nintendo World a lot more than Toon Town. I hope the average Universal guest loves it, and I hope Universal continues to build weird and ambitious new stuff in the park. I’ll be back, probably on like a Tuesday in May before schools close for the Summer, when the whole park is almost empty, and I hope it feels good to visit my friend Mario again.
Well, other than the fact that you can see the whole thing all at once as you’re coming down the escalator from the upper lot. But there was nothing they could do about that short of putting the whole thing inside a sound stage, which I think would have been bad, so I’ll pretend this funny sightline doesn’t exist. ↩