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We All Become Puppies In Universal Studios' New 'Secret Life Of Pets' Ride

A still from the Secret Life of Pets movies. (Courtesy Illumination Entertainment)
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The Secret Life of Pets movies have made more than a billion dollars at the box office, so it's unsurprising that the movie's getting the Universal Studios Hollywood ride treatment. Opening Mar. 27, the new attraction is called The Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash.

Its secret sauce: turning you adorable. It makes visitors into one of 15 different kinds of puppies, using facial recognition and gesture tracking to follow you throughout the ride and present your puppy self to you. (They experimented with morphing your face into a puppy, Universal creative senior director and executive producer Jon Corfino said, but we can all be thankful the uncanny valley results aren't going to be seen at this time.)

We went on a hard-hat tour of the new attraction with Corfino, who detailed the ride's secrets as work was still being completed. The ride's story puts you in the place of a lost puppy, with your rabbit friend Snowball helping you to make your way to Adoption Day at the pet store.

A still from the Secret Life of Pets movies. (Courtesy Illumination Entertainment)
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It's meant for the whole family, Corfino said, adding that rides for younger kids are something that Universal has lacked over the years. They're also closing down a somewhat frightening, more adult attraction as they redesign the neighborhood -- the outside will be Pets Place, and the Walking Dead attraction that's been there since 2016 returns to the grave. So, you won't have to worry about running your kids past that to get to the puppies.

That appeal to kids also includes an exit through the gift shop -- which Corfino heavily hinted may feature the opportunity to purchase a stuffed copy of the puppy you were during the ride. Parents, hide your wallets.

Along with the family-friendly nature of the attraction, another way that it differs from many of the park's other rides -- including Illumination's Despicable Me -- is that it's all physical environments. There are no 3D glasses required for this ride, unlike more than a half-dozen other Universal Studios attractions.

One of the ride's challenges, according to Corfino, was working within a relatively small space. They were replacing the Globe Theatre, which had previously been used for corporate events; the downstairs is utilized for the queue, with the main apartment and the ride itself located on the second floor. To help give a sense of scale, the ride uses high ceilings throughout, giving the creators some vertical room to play with.

A director from Illumination was working during our tour to help get the articulation of the line's animatronics just right. The film's director, writer, and Illumination's CEO were among those involved in the ride's development over the past two-and-a-half years, Corfino said, with the ride team working with Illumination between three and four days a week.

Working with a branded property like this also means getting the tone just right -- they had to be careful not to go too dark and scary, while also not having it be too light, Corfino said.

The main apartment from the Secret Life of Pets, whose design is used for the exterior of the ride. (Courtesy Illumination Entertainment)

Your experience starts in the surrounding neighborhood, with storefronts designed to fit into the movies' world, complete with a live character interacting with passers-by. The area is being built around Universal's Illumination studio, joining attractions themed around Despicable Me and the Minions. Universal Studios hasn't historically been themed around lands, but this one joins the park's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Off The Leash will be using a virtual line system to keep queues under control, letting you get a spot by using the Universal Studios app or grabbing one from a kiosk outside. When you get notified to head toward the ride, you'll make your way through a line that winds through the apartments of various characters from the movies. They expect the line to take about 20 to 30 minutes, according to Corfino.

The film's cast returned to voice characters on both the ride and throughout the line. Corfino noted that they had numerous takes to work with -- including a ton of material from Kevin Hart, who plays Snowball, riffing.

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The line has no rails, using in-storyline objects like couches to help steer you in the right direction. There are Easter eggs along the way, like mail slots you can peek through to see what your pet pals are up to.

Norman from the Secret Life of Pets movies. (Courtesy Illumination Entertainment)

Guinea pig Norman is one of the variety of characters who you see as you make your way through the line. They each come with a variety of things to say, so that you won't be stuck listening to the same jokes over and over again while you wait.

You load into the ride in a room designed to look like the apartment building's mailroom. The ride's vehicles are designed to look like cardboard boxes, carrying around you and one human/puppy friend.

Once the ride launches, Snowball's idea to get you to the adoption fair takes you on a journey through New York City, utilizing projection mapping to create a more immersive experience. Snowball even leads you through a fireworks factory. It ends with an adoption and a big party sequence. The ride itself is just four minutes -- short enough to keep a little one's attention.

The experience combines live, physical, and animated characters. There are 64 different animatronic characters throughout the experience, with moments where you get to interact with the characters directly. Corfino emphasized how important it was to get the movement of the animated figures balanced correctly.

There are hidden details throughout the ride, including names on the signs that all have a deeper meaning, Corfino said. We didn't get to see the full ride on our tour, but Corfino promised some big visual surprises -- including seeing yourself as a pet getting cleaned up at the pet store, as well as being introduced to the family who's adopting you. AWWWWW.

The ride itself was still being fine-tuned during our tour, with some of the detailed lighting and shadow work still to be done. They'll run the ride over and over as they continue to polish it.

The Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash opens March 27 at Universal Studios Hollywood.

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