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Live Active Cultures

Universal's new Despicable Me ride provokes genuine joy

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An aphorism among actors (apocryphally attributed to Edmund Gwenn) posits, "Dying is easy, comedy is difficult." That goes double for theme parks attempting to inject humor into their thrills. It's simple to stoke screams with extreme speeds, or evoke awe with aerial explosions. But provoking genuine joy among attraction attendees is extraordinarily difficult. While some Disney shows (like Epcot's The American Adventure) make me teary every time, only MuppetVision 3-D still makes me smile after repeated viewings. So I'm happily surprised to say I laughed out loud at Universal Studios Florida's new Despicable Me Minion Mayhem not just during my first ride, but my second, third and fourth go-rounds as well.

I came late to the Despicable Me party, only catching the 2010 animated feature on cable after Universal announced the new ride's spring debut. Even if it doesn't compete with Pixar's CGI classics, it's easy to see how the film landed (along with Shrek and its sequel) as one of the only non-Disney flicks among the top 10 animated box-office champs. Voicing the orphan-adopting übervillain Gru, Steve Carell invested his gift for goofiness in a character completely opposite to his Office persona, with unexpectedly heartstring-plucking perfection. While preparing for next year's follow-up, Carell and all the franchise's other creative principals (including directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin) reunited to create a ride that honors both the absurdity and emotion of the original.

Guests can't miss the facade of Gru's cartoonishly creepy house, which now greets visitors as soon as they enter the gates of Universal Orlando's original theme park. The characterless soundstage that once held the Jimmy Neutron attraction has been overwhelmed by a platoon of Gru's yellow midget Minions, who cling to fake propaganda posters on the walls. Once past the (not air-conditioned) exterior queue, a pair of pre-show holding rooms indoctrinate inductees into an unglamorous new existence: We've been unwittingly recruited to join Gru's army of henchmen, who have a hard life, judging by the painfully funny experiments we witness them being subjected to in the instructional safety video. (Though it's comforting to know our 3-D glasses "are guaranteed to last five times longer than the person wearing them.")

Soon, we're welcomed into Gru's living room – lovingly appointed with hand-painted wallpaper, freaky family portraits and sly sight gags – and then into his imposing laboratory. A second warm-up sequence, shown on super-sharp screens disguised as observation windows, introduces Gru's adorable wards Margo, Agnes and Edith. The precocious prepubescents are in charge of our transformation and training to join the Minion masses; resistance is futile, lest Gru fry us with his dreaded Fart Gun.

By the time they enter the actual ride chamber, long-time Universal visitors will have realized that Despicable Me is actually a redressed revamp of the same simulator system that's been shaking riders around since The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera opened with the park in 1990. While the changes to the bucking benches guests buckle into were largely cosmetic, the screen has been enlarged and enhanced with hi-def 3-D projectors. The result is a rollicking, but not excessively rough, tween-friendly ride though Gru's subterranean lair. Even the smallest or most sensitive can enjoy the show with stationary seats in the front row, and all ages appear to enjoy grooving with costumed characters to "Boogie Fever" in the post-ride disco dance party.

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