T2 3D: Battle Across Time – The Story Behind the Theme Park Extravaganza at Universal Studios

david j. moore chats with Gary Goddard about the design and creation of the Universal Studios theme park extravaganza T2 3-D: Battle Across Time…

Imagineer Gary Goddard has devoted his entire career to creating, designing, and conceptualizing theme park attractions around the world including Jurassic Park: The Ride and The Adventures of Conan at Universal Studios, and when he was asked to come up with the design and creation of T2 3D: Battle Across Time (1996), a spin-off attraction of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he was faced with an incredible challenge. A 64 million dollar venture, T2 3D is a one-of-a-kind experience, which puts the audience in the middle of a post-apocalyptic adventure and the experience is unlike anything that had ever been attempted before. Goddard collaborated with James Cameron, who directed the film portion of the attraction, and the film featured the original stars of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, and Edward Furlong. T2 3D: Battle Across Time has been a mainstay at Universal Studios locations in Hollywood, Florida, and Osaka, but Universal Studios Hollywood will be permanently closing the attraction come December 31st of this year.

david j. moore: Are you a fan of James Cameron’s films?

Gary Goddard: I’m a huge fan. When T2 opened in theaters, I took my whole team with me to see at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. We sat in the third row. It was great.

djm: How did the enormously ambitious live stunt show and film project of T2 3D: Battle Across Time get started?

GG: I had done the Conan show at Universal, and the people at Universal called me and wanted to speak to me about doing a Terminator stunt show in the Dracula theater where Conan was running. Okay, so then I knew that Conan was ending. Everyone who saw that show loved it, including Bryan Singer, who made the first two X-Men movies. They wanted to do a stunt show built around The Terminator, so I went and watched the laser discs of The Terminator movies.  It couldn’t be called The Terminator. It had to be Terminator 2 because the first one had a difficult past in terms of ownership. The stunt show had to be based on Terminator 2. So I watched Terminator 2 and thought, “Oh, my God, how am I going to turn this into a live stage show?” It’s all chases. On trucks, on motorcycles, through hospitals and buildings, and then you’ve got this silver guy. Were we going to have a ten foot guy in a big metal suit and a look-alike Arnold actor? That would have been awful. My team and I were having a real hard time coming up with ideas. Someone in my team told me that we should just call them back and tell them that this wasn’t going to work, and I told him that you never call them back to tell them that because they’ll go find someone who can do the job. We had to figure it out.

djm: What was the turning point where you knew it could actually work?

GG: “If” was the magic word. I tried to imagine what if that T-1000 character was on a screen and began transforming and stepped out into the audience? I didn’t worry about how we would do that. I only thought that that would be cool. Then I thought, “Well, what if we used 3D?” We could make it work somehow. Then I thought, “Well, we’ve got the 3D glasses on, what else could we use?” If there was a motorcycle on the screen, we could have a real motorcycle come out onto the stage right out of the side of the screen. I knew that whatever I came up with that James Cameron would have to approve before any of it could actually happen. So after thinking of the 3D element, I thought, “What if we have the 3D surround the audience?” We would put people in the middle of this idea. My idea wasn’t really a stunt show. We would start the show as a demonstration at Cyberdyne, a demonstration of their new robot technology, and suddenly things go haywire. The Terminator would save the audience by coming from the future, and all kinds of stuff would be going on to keep everyone engaged. It was like a magic trick. We would have people going in and out of the screen and the big challenge was getting the motorcycle to do that. It became a story that put the audience in the middle of the action.

djm: At what point did you involve James Cameron?

GG: We started storyboarding sequences to show to James Cameron. We did sketches and what we had we thought was doable. We didn’t even have the rights to Terminator 2 yet. Universal wanted this to happen and they wanted us to bring to the table as complete a treatment as possible so that we could go to Corolco and pitch this. So we wanted to get to the point where we could do that, but I said, “Well, they’re only going to ask us what James Cameron would think about it.” That’s exactly what happened. We went to Corolco and they approved it, but they wondered if Jim would approve it. Gale Anne Hurd, who had the rights to The Terminator (it was part of her divorce settlement with James Cameron) loved the idea, but she said the same thing: “What does Jim think of it?” We’d gone to Coroclo and Gale, and by the time we went to James Cameron we had three walls of storyboard. I wasn’t nervous at all because I knew that he would like it. We had this cool technology and by that time the story was pretty tight. What you see in the show is pretty much what we had up there storyboarded. He comes in the room, and I had met him once before at an awards show. We blah blah blahed for a minute and up until then I was supremely confident because I was ready, but when he started looking at the storyboards I began to realize that this was his mythology. I guess in the rush of it all I wasn’t worried, but as I’m sitting there, I’m going, “Oh, God.” He’s standing there looking at the boards and the drawings, and he’s silent for awhile. I try to say something, “Well, we couldn’t get …” and he stops me. After a few minutes, I try again, but he stops me again. He’s looking at the drawings, and he goes, “These are pretty good. Who did these?” We tell him. “Yeah, this is pretty good,” he says. He turns around and says, “Well, I can tell you while I was driving over here, and it suddenly occurred to me, who the fuck are these guys who are going to tell me what this attraction is going to be? I was fully prepared to not like what I see. But. This is actually pretty good. You got the mythology right. You got the story down. I’m impressed. This is really good.” And then he said, “Not that I can’t make it a little bit better.”

djm: Once you had Cameron, was it an obvious choice to get Arnold Schwarzenegger aboard?

GG: Well, after Jim saw the boards in that meeting, he asked us if we’d talked to Arnold. He told us that we had to get Arnold. I agreed. Then he told us that if we could get Arnold, that we should get the rest of the cast involved too, and that meant Robert Patrick, Linda Hamilton, and Edward Furlong. We decided to call it T2: 3D Battle Across Time because we’re picking it up right after the film, but before whatever happens in Terminator 3.

djm: What are the rules in creating a theme park attraction based around an existing film or franchise? You’ve done this a number of times. What’s your process with doing that?

GG: My whole philosophy in creating a theme park ride based on a movie is to not recreate the movie because you can’t. What you try to do is find emotional resonances and find the elements that tie you to that mythology and you present it in your own way – in a different way that works. That’s what we did with the Terminator attraction. Everything is intact, but we did it in such a way that it is its own story, yet you feel completely at home in it because it makes complete sense because that world and those characters are all correct. We give you something new. That’s the key to these things.

djm: At what point did Cameron decide that he wanted to direct the filmed portions of the attraction?

GG: He liked it so much that he got involved, and he signed on to direct the film. That was my greatest hope. He was the one who jumped in and said that it was fantastic. When it had been green-lit and his effects company Digital Domain was already in production developing effects, the big film shoot has been scheduled and everything is going forward, there was a complimentary meeting for a bunch of executives. Jim was there and I was there and so we get done with the meeting and one of the executives goes, “But why is this here and blah blah blah?” I answer him, “Because this and this and this.” And he goes, “But couldn’t we…” And I go, “Well, because if we change that, we’d have to change this and we’d have to change that.” I was trying to say, “This is how it is. We’re done, everything’s in production.” I was trying not to be rude. Then he goes, “Well, I really think…” And then suddenly a voice goes, “Who the fuck are you?!” It’s James Cameron’s voice. The guy goes, “Well, I’m vice president so-and-so.” Cameron goes, “Well, okay: The train has left the station, that’s what we’re doing, we’re here as a courtesy to show you what we’re doing. We’re not here to look at your notes. End of subject.” He’s a two thousand pound gorilla. There’s no way that guy or anyone else could say anything.

djm: What do you want people to feel when they experience your attractions or watch your films?

GG: I want them to feel immersed in it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 3D or a 4D attraction or an aquarium or an outdoor shopping mall that I helped design, I think my background of theme parks, film, and live theater compels me to create these worlds. Whatever that world is, I want you to be immersed in it.

djm: When you were told that Universal was planning to shut T2: 3D down in Hollywood, what was your initial reaction?

GG: Well, of course, disappointment, but you know, Cameron has moved on, and I’ve moved on, and this is – after all – the nature of the theme park industry. I am more fortunate than many in having created a great number of attractions that have really stood the test of time: The Hoop Dee Show at Walt Disney World has been operating for over 35 years now, the Monster Mansion at Six Flags Atlanta for 30 years, Jurassic Park: The Ride and T2: 3D for fifteen years, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man for over a decade now, The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, over twenty years, Sanrio Puroland and Sanrio Harmonyland, over twenty years. So it’s a great history of creating viable, living attractions. But I have to say that T2: 3D and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man hold a special place in my heart because we were really pushing the envelope with regard to existing technologies. We were reinventing the way of telling stories in theme parks – creating truly “in your face” immersive attractions. And, of course, T2: 3D brought along the chance to collaborate with Jim Cameron, which in and of itself, was a very rewarding experience. The entire experience, while having so many challenges, including trying to keep the project alive when Universal at several key points wanted to shut it down, was one I would not trade for anything else. So, yes, I’m sorry to hear the show is closing in Los Angeles, but I’m pleased that it’s been seen and experienced and loved by so many millions of people in L.A., Orlando, and Osaka. And I guess it helps to know that – at least for now – it is only the L.A. version that is closing at this point in time.

djm: What are your final thoughts on the attraction’s incredible run?

GG: Well, the good news is, at least the last I heard, T2: 3D will remain in Florida and Osaka for at least a few more years. But the bad news is, that yes, they are closing it in L.A. As far as how I feel about it, of course I think it’s an error as the attraction remains highly popular. But, I understand the nature of theme parks is change. Creating an attraction that has been up and operating – and popular – for some fifteen years is a major accomplishment. It’s been running for fifteen years in Florida and thirteen years in L.A., I believe. The experience of making T2: 3D was great, from the moment I created the idea of merging 3D with live performers, through the development and production, through the staging on site. Credit should go to Chip Largeman, the Project Manager for Universal when we did the installation, casting, programming and production in Orlando. And, of course, Jay Stein, who supported and backed the project, often against the advice of his own internal design team. And then, without James Cameron’s total support and involvement, the project might have been cancelled several times by Universal. The opportunity to work closely with Cameron was an incredible experience as well, and I found the working relationship productive, informed, and quite rewarding. The fact that the attraction has done so well, and for so long, is a great statement about the value of doing attractions that are intelligent and that don’t speak down to the audience. We pioneered new forms of entertainment with this project, and we achieved in creating an attraction true to the mythology of Cameron’s Terminator saga, while adding some new elements to it. It was a great experience, a great attraction, and something that has stood the test of time. Clearly, it’s an attraction I am very proud of.

djm: Have you been told what will be taking its place?

GG: Yes, I believe it will be dedicated to the new Despicable Me 4D show.

djm: Are there plans to properly send the attraction off on December 31st or anytime before then in L.A.?

GG: I have not heard of any such plans, but it’s a great idea. Maybe I’ll see if Jim and other key people involved in the first show want to head over – assuming anyone is in town the last week of December.

Thanks to Gary Goddard for taking the time for this interview.

david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES will be published in late 2013.

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  • yup

    very good job on the interview. i enjoyed it being a big universal studios hollywood and terminator fan

  • Despicable Me 4 D ? Really? Against one of the classic Sci Fi franchises of all time. Some one please get your head out of your ass.

  • Bob

    This has been a great show to be a part of during its run at Universal Studio&#39;s, Hollywood. It&#39;s a masterpiece of action and a lot of fun to perform. I have had the opportunity to work along side some amazing talent, many of whom are full/part-time in the entertainment/movie industry.<br /><br /><br />I&#39;ve been fortunate to be able to perform the second most shows as the Terminator

  • Steve, from myself and the other folks at Inside Universal, we&#39;re all going to miss you guys so much and hope to still see you in other things around the park.

  • bob

    They&#39;ll be lots of our folks everywhere in the park, on the big screen and small. Even at the Mouse-House.