How Super Nintendo World Will Transform Universal Studios Hollywood

TheWrap got an early preview of the expansive new land, which aims to bring a new level of interactivity to the theme park experience

Bowser's Castle - SNW at USH
Bowser's Castle – SUPER NINTENDO WORLD at Universal Studios Hollywood, opening February 17, 2023

2023 is looking to be the year of Mario.

In addition to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” produced by the studio behind “Despicable Me” and “Sing,” opening this April, there will be a chance to physically visit the Mushroom Kingdom when Super Nintendo World opens at Universal Studios Hollywood on Feb. 17.

TheWrap was given a walking tour of the new land (still very much under construction) with Jon Corfino, vice president at Universal Creative (Universal’s version of Disney’s elite Imagineering division) and we ultimately came away very impressed – Super Nintendo World will not just be a new land but it will be a transformational element that is key to the park’s continued evolution.

Step Inside a Video Game

Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

Super Nintendo World is located on Universal Studios Hollywood’s lower lot, meaning that you have to ride the iconic, seemingly never-ending escalators to get down there. It’s wedged in between the Jurassic Park area, where the recently (and impressively) refurbished Jurassic World: The Ride and an adjacent little Tiki bar are located and Transformers: The Ride, the motion-simulator attraction that feels like you’re being jostled around inside Michael Bay’s brain.

To enter the land, you walk through a classic Mario warp pipe – lining the inside walls of the pipe, there’s animation playing on two large screens that set up the story that you are about to experience inside the land. “There is a bit of a narrative around the whole land,” Corfino said. “Bowser Jr. has stolen Princess Peach’s Golden Mushroom. He’s absconded with that.”

And here’s the first thing that sets Super Nintendo World apart from every other experience at Universal Studios Hollywood – it’s about a video game. Other attractions at the park focus on TV shows (like “The Simpsons”) or movies (like “Jurassic World,” “The Mummy,” Illumination’s “The Secret Life of Pets” or the “Harry Potter” films). The park’s marquee attraction, the Back Lot Studio Tour, actually takes you through working sets and real soundstages that have been utilized for your favorite project (and might be in action right now), with brief flights of fancy where you enter “King Kong” or the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

Super Nintendo World is wholly different. Even something like the immersive Wizarding World of Harry Potter was based on real sets; it’s an actualization of a fantasy world but the land was created with the help of the films’ production designer and original author J.K. Rowling. At some point in recorded history, you could walk through an approximation of Hogwarts Castle. Super Nintendo World is a completely imagined realm.

“Obviously the special part about this whole project is as opposed to putting you behind-the-scenes or inside a movie experience we’re putting you inside a game experience,” Corfino said. “If you’re familiar with Nintendo or Super Mario and having seen the film itself, we’re pretty close.”

Corfino said that Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary game designer behind “Super Mario Bros.,” was recently at the park to work on the programming of various figures, interactive elements and the marquee attraction, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge (more on that in a minute).

“It’s a little bit different than in Osaka but very immersive. We’re getting close,” Corfino said, referring to Universal Studios Japan’s version of the land that opened in early 2021.

And stepping through the warp pipe, the land really does open up and it is extremely impressive – in the distance is Mount Beanpole, one of the icons of the land (which is also extremely practical; the queue for the Mario Kart ride is located within) and next to it the imposing Bowser’s Castle (which obscures the Mario Kart show building and where the final interactive challenge is housed). There are animated figures all over the land – turtle shells zip back and forth, a Koopa trooper marches on patrol and a giant piranha plant snoozes. These are giant, minimally animated animatronic figures that look cartoon-y (or video game-y) and perfectly in-world.

If you’ve ever played a Super Mario Bros. game (the first game was released in 1985) or even have a cursory knowledge about the property, you will be instantly dazzled. But now that you’re here, in this glittery, brightly colored realm, what do you actually do in the land?

Power-Up Bands Allow You to Play Games Throughout the Land

Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

The first thing you can do, which might not be as outwardly apparent, is a series of four “challenges” scattered around the land. To explain: you have the option of purchasing what Nintendo and Universal are calling Power-Up Bands. They are not unlike Disney’s MagicBand technology (or Universal’s own TapuTapu at their waterpark Volcano Bay) in the sense that they are a rubbery wearable that interacts with elements inside the land. They also function, Corfino explained, as an Amiibo, meaning that you can take the band home, have your Nintendo Switch read your Power-Up Band, unlocking secrets and prizes. (Bringing your Switch into the park won’t do any good, though. And it’ll probably hold up the security line.)

We previewed a few of these experiences. They can be as simple as noticing a sensor reader inside a building and touching the reader to see an 8-bit Mario or Luigi appearing on the wall. They can also involve the physical animatronics, like attempting to get a prize without waking that sleeping piranha plant or, simply, hitting a brick for a coin (every sound is video game-perfect, so that satisfying chime lets you know you’ve made it happen). You can do some of these things without the band (it was repeatedly stressed that you don’t have to buy the band, which go on sale at Universal Studios this week) but it certainly helps.

“We have a Power-Up Band that is not required but it deepens you to the game experience and connects you to everything all the time,” Corfino said. “It enables you to fully connect with everything to the point where you speak with our meet-and-greet characters, because you’re in a game environment, they will know what your score is. Everything is interconnected.”

And this is the other thing that sets Super Nintendo World apart from other Universal Studios attractions and pretty much every theme park land so far (yes, including Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge). Universal has introduced an interactive element to the parks before; you can purchase wands in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and activate things in store windows and elsewhere in the land. But that experience, compared to Super Nintendo World, is extremely passive. And the experience is over the second you step away from the shop window or outcropping; the experience doesn’t stay with you. Harry Potter doesn’t acknowledge your spell-casting abilities on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction. If you run into the train conductor, he won’t know either.

What is being promised at Super Nintendo World has been promised before but it looks like this will actually deliver (Galaxy’s Edge was hyped up, in part, by promising a “reputation” that will follow you around; a modified version of this idea has just been introduced in the past few weeks). What makes it even more user-friendly is your progress is also charted on the Universal app. You don’t have to download anything else or modify what you already have. And in the Universal app you can see how many coins you’ve accumulated and how close you are to getting to that Golden Mushroom.

“There is no order to how you do things,” Corfino said. “It’s just like the game, you explore.” All of that exploration culminates in a final game called Boss Battle Jr., set against a lava flow. (Corfino says that, at least initially, anybody can wander up and do the final challenge.) Your body is actually projected against a screen – depending on how high you jump in real life, your character will also jump on the screen.

Additionally (beyond the meet-and-greets), there is the Toadstool Café, an in-universe eatery that looks adorable but was sadly not open. And the 1-Up Factory, when you can purchase exclusive merchandise (and, of course, a Power-Up Band when you see other people using them and are feeling very left out). It should also be noted that there looks to be plenty of seating. This cannot be overstated. You will get tired. And you will need to rest. Universal understands this. And they’ve got you covered.

A New Kind of Ride

Mario Kart Bower's Challenge ride queue (5) - SNW at USH
Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

Of course, the big draw of Super Nintendo World is Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge. Based on the popular “Mario Kart” video game franchise, the marquee attraction ingeniously combines a fairly standard ride-through mechanism with guests wearing AR goggles. The final experience combines the physical motion, screens, AR items and physical effects into an experience unlike any other. (If you’re expecting something like Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney California Adventure, this is a whole other level.)

While we didn’t get to ride the attraction on our walkthrough, we did get to wind through the elaborately themed queue space, which includes screen elements and props with tons of Nintendo Easter eggs. All the while you are learning about the rules of the “game” and what is expected of you, while letting you know just how seriously Bowser takes Mario Kart. Right before you board, you’re handed a helmet of sorts, which your AR goggles snap into (magnetically).

This isn’t a fast game but it certainly is a fascinating one, as the degree of interactivity in theme park attractions has steadily increased over the past 10 years or so, with things like the aforementioned Toy Story Midway Mania and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Corfino described the attraction as “very unique, very dimensional, with incredibly detailed sets.”

Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, more than those other attractions, truly feels like the melding of a theme park ride and a video game. How you perform on this attraction really does matter, in a way that feels wholly new. Corfino said the ride is “very repeatable.” “You’re going to want to go on it multiple times,” Corfino warned.

And don’t expect the same experience twice, either. “Every game is going to be unique and you don’t always win and you might never win. If we’re in a car together, we’re looking in opposite directions,” Corfino explained. “We’re in a race and there are a bunch of characters all over the place. I don’t think I’ve gotten the same score twice. When you’re tied into the app, the more you succeed, the difficulty elevates the next time you do it.” That kind of bespoke experience is what sets this ride apart from other attractions that have attempted a similarly game-ified approach.

The other thing that sets it apart is the way that all of those show elements are blended together into a single experience (one that, it goes without saying, we are dying to do ourselves). “One of the things we’ve been able to do very well in this ride is yes, you’re wearing AR glasses so you’re seeing images and how you move around but you’ve also got physical effects, steam effects, video mapping,” Corfino said. “But the magic comes together with the blending of lighting and the seamlessness of which it all comes together. We’ve been able to refine that, which is really fun.”

The Princess Is in Another Castle

Hamilton Pytluk/Universal Studios Hollywood

If you’ve looked at Universal Studios Japan’s version of Super Nintendo World, you know that there’s an experience missing in Hollywood: Yoshi’s Adventure, a more kid-friendly attraction built around Mario’s dinosaur pal. And while Hollywood doesn’t have this attraction, the spirit of Yoshi’s Adventure is here.

“Our geography is different. We have boundaries and limitations that are different than Osaka or Orlando,” Corfino said, referring to Universal’s plans for Super Nintendo World to be one of the lands at the forthcoming Epic Universe park in Florida. “We had to be mindful of the limitations of that but deliver the same basic experience. It’s essentially the same without the Yoshi kids’ ride.”

But fear not – we’ve been hearing that Universal Studios Hollywood is already looking at an expansion for Super Nintendo World and a spot has already been carved out for a Donkey Kong-themed area that will include dining and retail opportunities plus a brand-new coaster. (The land will open in Japan in 2024.)

From what we understand, the Donkey Kong coaster could open alongside its East Coast counterpart when Epic Universe is finally unveiled in 2025. (It’d be nice to have more Kong in California.) Corfino was tight-lipped about the possible expansion.

“I can say there are some very exciting things that are on the way,” Corfino said.

All you have to do is find the right warp pipe.