Lego Ninjago The Ride officially opens January 12. Instead of using gun-like zappers or some other targeting devices, the unique attraction interprets passengers' hand movements and transforms them into 3D projectiles that can blast evil skeletons, ghosts, and other computer-animated baddies into smithereens.(Photo: LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Chip Litherland)
On the theme park beat, I often find myself engaged in unusual behavior. Case in point: The other day at Legoland Florida, I flailed my hands and arms wildly apropos of seemingly nothing. For many minutes.
But my strange actions had a very real purpose. My gestures were used to lob virtual weapons at villains and rack up points. The faster I karate-chopped the air like a rage-filled Miss Piggy gone ballistic, the more targets I could hit and the higher my score. And there was no way I was going to lose to the eleven-year-old boy sitting next to me.
We got a sneak peek to try out Lego Ninjago The Ride, which officially opens January 12. Instead of using gun-like zappers or some other targeting devices, the unique attraction interprets passengers' hand movements and transforms them into 3D projectiles that can blast evil skeletons, ghosts, and other computer-animated baddies into smithereens. The final scene features a humongous serpent known as The Great Devourer.
The ride is the highlight of Lego Ninjago World, a new land at the Florida park. It is based on Lego's popular Ninjago line of toys and its Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu television series. Before making their way to the attraction, ninjas-in-training can engage in a number of challenges. For example, their eye-hand coordination gets a workout on the Whac-A-Mole-like Jay's Lightning Drill. They'll need balance and agility to tackle a horizontal climbing wall. And they can add blocks to a monastery model at Zane's Temple Build.
The air-conditioned queue for the ride includes more interactive experiences. In a nice touch, children can play in a central brick building area while their parents move through part of the line. In another section, water appears to move around guests as they interact with a tricked-out mural. The queue also introduces riders to the scoundrels they will need to defeat and the Ninja characters who will help them such as Master Wu and sibling heroes Kai and Nya.
Wu teaches five martial arts moves that passengers can use aboard the ride. These include alternating, quick slices known as "Chops of Fury" and the single-hand, snake-like gesture, "The Cobra." The hand movements are what distinguish Ninjago from other interactive dark rides.
Currently only available at Legoland parks, parent company Merlin Entertainments developed the interactive hand gesture technology with Montreal-based attraction developer Triotech (Ninjago rides recently opened or will be opening soon at Legoland locations in California and elsewhere outside the USA). Triotech calls its interactive, device-free ride concept, "Maestro."
"It would have been a lot easier to put in a point-and-click technology that's tried and true than something that's brand new to the industry," said Keith Carr, Merlin's North American project director of resorts. "But it's fun to take a risk."
While the gesture-based interactivity is novel, it's well suited to the ride's theme. "Ninjas use their hands and their bodies," noted Audrey Padgett, head of marketing for Legoland Florida. "It enables kids to become the ninja characters. There isn't anything between them and the action."
There are sensors built into the ride vehicles' lapbars that can detect the hand movements. Air flows above each sensor to provide feedback and help orient riders. Four passengers sit in a row in each vehicle, and two vehicles travel through the attraction in tandem. The eight riders have distinctly colored orbs to hurl as they blast away and compete against one another.
Padgett said that compared to using a point-and-shoot device, the learning curve is lower with hand gestures. That's an important consideration for the park's target age range of two to twelve (although Legoland's other interactive dark ride, Lost Kingdom Adventure, uses targeting devices).
The learning curve may be lower, but as one who graduated from middle school a long, long time ago, I found it tough to get the hang of the game play. I got up and running quickly enough, but could only manage a measly score on my first pass. It was initially hard to distinguish my colored spheres from other players. And I had placed my karate-chopping hands too low to the sensor. Carr says the sweet spot is about eight inches above the lapbar.
At first, I was trying for precision by using The Cobra move. Eventually, however, I found success by randomly thrashing with Chops of Fury. It didn't look pretty, but I did manage to score a respectable 190,00 points on my fourth go-around. According to a sign by the leaderboard at the ride's exit, that placed me within striking distance of the coveted "Master of Spinjitzu" level. The competitive nature of the attraction makes it re-rideable.
Unlike Disney's interactive Buzz Lightyear rides, which feature real, practical sets and targets, Ninjago uses huge screens and media. Most of the screens are flat, but a few include contoured shapes onto which media is projection mapped. That gives them a sense of dimension beyond the simulated 3D.
Although it uses vehicles and large media screens, Ninjago is not a motion simulator ride like the Harry Potter and Transformer attractions at Universal's parks. The vehicles do not move in sync with the projected action. Onboard subwoofers make them rumble, and they do spin (Spinjitzu?) between scenes. Other "4D" sensory effects include fog, wind, and faux lightning bolts.
The new ride is the latest example of the five-year-old park's rapid expansion. It is part of Merlin's gambit to make Legoland Florida a multi-day destination resort. To that end, it will be opening its second hotel, Legoland Beach Retreat, in April.
To be located on a 22-acre lakeside property across the street from the park, the hotel will feature 83 one-level "bungalows," each of which will include two separate rooms. The rooms will sleep five and have a curtained kids' area. Groups of three to nine bungalows will be arranged in a semicircle in what Legoland is referring to as "coves." Each of the coves will include its own play structure and lake view. Like the existing Legoland Hotel, a buffet breakfast will be included in the room rates. Prices will start at $135 per night.
I got to tour the under-construction Beach Resort. As with the rest of Legoland Florida, it includes whimsical, kid-centric touches such as scaled replicas of Surfer Girl and Fisherman Lego pieces adorning the bungalows and a 45-foot-tall lighthouse that overlooks the property. The hotel could be particularly compelling for family reunions or other large groups, since they could book an entire cove and have their own semi-private area.