Under-rated Orlando: E.T. Adventure
Among the many great rides and attractions in Orlando, E.T. Adventure is not well-regarded. Rumor has it that the only thing preventing E.T. from being replaced is the direct intervention of Steven Spielberg himself. The movie the ride is based on was very personal to him and he has been involved in the development and evolution of the E.T. Adventure. Putting that aside, Spielberg is right to protect this attraction because contrary to popular opinion it’s actually an important part of Universal’s line-up.
Obviously, E.T. Adventure is based on Steven Spielberg’s “boy and his alien” movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which is currently celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary. If you weren’t around when E.T. was in theaters, you can’t even begin to imagine what a big deal it was. For starters, E.T. surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing movie of all times. Currently, E.T. remains the 15th biggest-earner, but adjusted for inflation it moves up to fourth place behind Gone With the Wind, Star Wars and The Sound of Music.
The box office figures only tell a part of the story. E.T. wasn’t just a box office hit. It was one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. It was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture which it lost to Richard Attenborough’s biopic, Ghandi. The future founder of Jurassic Park was surprised when his movie won. “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.”
Bigger still was E.T.’s pop culture footprint. Following the movie’s release E.T. merchandise was everywhere. You could buy practically anything you could imagine with E.T.’s wrinkly face on it. E.T. was such a good salesman that Hershey’s profits rose by 65% based on increased sales of Reese’s Pieces, the candy featured in the movie when Mars passed on an offer to use M&Ms.
At the time, most of us thought E.T. would be a timeless classic revisited for generations to come like The Wizard of Oz. But it didn’t work out that way. The movie is still fondly remembered by many, but its pop culture relevance is nowhere near what it once was.
E.T. Adventure was one of the original attractions in the park when Universal Studios Orlando opened in 1990. Following the closure of the Jaws Ride in 2012, E.T. is the last of the park’s major original attractions still in operation. When it debuted, E.T. was at least as fresh a property as other Universal offerings like Jaws and King Kong. But three decades later, E.T. looks musty compared to the Simpsons, Harry Potter and Despicable Me.
Sure, Disney has attractions based on movies that are much older than E.T. The latest addition to the Magic Kingdom was a roller coaster based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which was released in 1937. But animated movies – especially Disney animated movies – are timeless in a way that most other movies aren’t. And Snow White in particular benefits from being part of Disney’s popular princess brand.
The basic point that I am making here is that there isn’t as much demand today for an E.T. experience as there once was. If the ride didn’t already exist, I doubt Universal would want to spend money building it today. But luckily for us, they already built E.T. and Steven Spielberg won’t let them get rid of it. Because despite its reputation, E.T. Adventure is a very nice dark ride in a park that could use more of this sort of thing.
Attractions that retell the story of the movie they are based on are sometimes referred to as “book report” rides. E.T. is not a book report. In a preshow, Spielberg explains the ride’s premise. E.T. is back on Earth, but he is needed on his home world. Only his healing touch can save his friends. Guests are tasked with taking the extra terrestrial home via intergalactic bicycle. Sure, why not?
The queue winds through a forest setting the scene before the ride begins. The vehicles are bicycles, but peddling is optional. The bike in the front has a basket for E.T. From the start, the ride recreates the most memorable scene from the movie as guests evade law enforcement by flying into the air and looking down at the town below. Yes, you will fly past the moon on your way to E.T.’s planet.
From there, things get weird. Our trip takes us through a flashing portal to an alien planet populated by creatures who resemble E.T. but are definitely unique. The Green Planet is quickly restored and guests are surrounded by celebrating extra terrestrials of all shapes and sizes. The ride ends with E.T. saying goodbye to each guest by name, but keep your expectations in check. He can be hard to understand.
What don’t people like about E.T. Adventure? It’s dated, sure. But the effects are top-notch compared to most of Disney’s Fantasyland attractions. From a technical standpoint, E.T. stands head and shoulders above Peter Pan’s Flight. The ride is on the short side at approximately three minutes long, but it is possible to experience the attraction as a walk-on. I wouldn’t recommend waiting in a long line to visit E.T.’s planet. It’s not worth all that.
I mentioned Peter Pan’s Flight because the two attractions have a lot in common. Both rides involve a simulated flight over a cityscape into a fantastical world. If the effects on E.T. are superior to those on Peter Pan – and they objectively are – why is Peter Pan vastly more popular?
For one thing, guests are familiar with Neverland whereas we have only speculated about what E.T.’s home world might have looked like. The movie left that to our imaginations for a good reason. Speaking only for myself, I never would have guess that the Green Planet was such a silly place as depicted in this ride. Also, despite a lack of political correctness, Peter Pan remains a perennial favorite whereas kids are less likely to be familiar with E.T. these days.
Nostalgia is a big part of the appeal of both attractions. If you loved E.T. as a kid, there’s an undeniable thrill to riding a bike through the sky just like Elliot did in the movie. But Peter Pan’s Flight benefits from a more direct form of nostalgia. People remember riding the attraction when they were kids. Peter Pan also benefits from the warm glow of people’s love of all things Disney. E.T. can’t compete on that front.
Frankly, I suspect that a lot of people who are dismissive of E.T. Adventure would be singing the ride’s praises if the attraction resided in the Magic Kingdom rather than Universal. Longtime Disney fans will extol the virtues of classic attractions like the Carousel of Progress or the People Mover based primarily on their past experience with the rides. If these people had spent the last thirty years soaring through the night sky with E.T., you can bet they would have formed a similar emotional attachment to the ride.
As it stands, E.T. Adventure serves a purpose at Universal. If you are getting sick of simulators, E.T. offers a change of pace. And if you are a fan of Disney-style dark rides featuring animatronics and physical sets, E.T. is the only one you’re going to find. It’s far from a must-do, but if the line isn’t overly long, don’t let the detractors dissuade you. You will find a lot to like on this strange little ride.