I have been through the green pipe. I have punched the bricks and blocks of the Mushroom Kingdom and collected the coins inside. I’ve seen the Koopas marching across the green plains, the Piranha Plants dozing in the sun, the Thwomps crashing down upon the platforms below. I have stood among the Mario Bros., and for a brief moment felt accepted as one of them—an unknown third brother, shorter, not as round (but still very round), with a full face of hair instead of just a mustache. I’ve seen what happens when Bowser’s airship darkens the clear blue sky, plaguing a kitchen full of Toads with Bullet Bills. I have raced in a Mario Kart, and I have won. I collected 1915 coins and 28 of 128 stamps (?) and two of the three keys I needed to defeat Bowser Jr. (more on that later), and still have so much yet to prove. I’ve been to Super Nintendo World at Universal Hollywood, and although my personal experience wasn’t perfect, I was moved by the otherworldly job Universal and Nintendo did recreating this magical place in the real world. I have been through the green pipe, and I can’t wait to go through it again.
Super Nintendo World opens at Universal Studios Hollywood today, two years after originally debuting at Universal’s Japanese theme park. Despite the name and Nintendo’s killer row of beloved videogames, it’s based entirely on the Super Mario franchise and assorted spinoffs. The first thing you’ll notice when you walk through that pipe is that it captures the non-stop motion of the Mario games. Characters from the games constantly move throughout the small but extremely detailed space, with Goombas and Koopas trundling back and forth on the hills that rise above the land, and rotating coins and gliding platforms beckoning in the distance. Walking out of the green pipe that acts as the entrance leads to one of the great theme park reveals, as guests leave Universal and enter into a real-life Super Mario level.
Befitting its videogame origins, Super Nintendo World is about more than just riding a ride and meeting some characters. The entire land is one giant game. You can “collect” coins throughout the land by “punching” coin blocks like Mario and Luigi do in Super Mario games. There are even four minigames you can play in real life; you earn a key for completing each one, and after you have three keys you can face Bowser Jr. in a boss battle. Its ride, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, recreates the competitive thrill of Mario Kart through augmented reality, physical sets, audio-animatronics, and a shooting mechanic based on the Koopa shells you toss at rival racers in the videogame. Every rider’s score is tracked and displayed at the end of the ride, with the high scores for the day and the week earning their own special displays. All of this is tracked via a Power Up Band you wear on your wrist (purchased separately, natch), which communicates with the Universal app on your smartphone or a handful of monitors found throughout the land to let you see your progress. Instead of passive consumption, it’s about play and interactivity, in keeping with the spirit of Super Mario.
The real-life minigames don’t necessarily reflect anything Mario or Luigi would have to do in one of their games. They require light physical activity, like turning a crank to keep a Goomba at bay, or running up and down a walkway to hit the alarm buttons on a bunch of clocks before they wake up a sleeping Piranha Plant. When you complete three of the four minigames, you gain access to an otherwise off-limits chamber in which you battle Bowser Jr., the “boss” of the park’s interactive game. I wasn’t able to face off against the little tyrant myself—an unusually long wait for my food at Toadstool Cafe, combined with the media preview ending over an hour earlier than advertised, made my already too-brief time in the Mushroom Kingdom far shorter than expected. Others who were able to complete the challenge spoke highly of the fight against Bowser Jr., and hopefully I’ll be able to finish that off myself at some point. If you look forward to playing these games, make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes and be ready to get active—the Piranha Plant game in particular was like a physical challenge in a children’s game show, with me running back and forth as fast as I can for maybe a minute or so to keep the various alarms from going off.
Speaking of Toadstool Cafe, from what I tasted its food seems like a cut above most fast food quick service fare. It’s all Mario-themed, of course, with Mario and Luigi burgers, Fire Flower Spaghetti and Meatballs, and a tiramisu inside a question block. The burgers come with mustaches drawn on the buns and a little plastic Mario or Luigi cap; despite the name, the Luigi burger is actually a grilled chicken sandwich with pesto, and was the dish I ordered. It comes with an extra side of pesto, which I used to dip my crinkle fries in. Other dishes come with various edible embellishments styled after the dish’s namesake character, like Yoshi egg croutons and invincible star crackers. The desserts are all adorable, with a pink cupcake that resembles Princess Peach’s dress, and a layer cake with a flagpole that looks like the end of a Super Mario level.
The restaurant is as beautifully themed as the rest of the land. While you’re in line Chef Toad greets you from a bank of video screens, previewing some of the items you’ll be able to order. The tables and chairs have the oversized cartoonish look of the games, with video screen “windows” giving you a look out onto Peach’s castle and inside the cafe’s kitchen. Every so often Bowser will launch an attack; the music in the restaurant turns dramatic, the lights start to dim, and on the video screens you can see Bullet Bills chase all the Toads out of the kitchen. Maybe those regular bombardments are why it took 45 minutes for my food to arrive? Apparently the digital tracker they handed me when I ordered wasn’t working, and the wait staff couldn’t find my table; when they did find me, they said my food was coming right up, but it took another 15 minutes and the help of another waiter before it finally arrived. With the high cost of theme park tickets, and time already at a premium, hopefully this doesn’t happen that often to paying customers. Nobody goes to a theme park to spend an hour and a half in a casual dining restaurant.
Fortunately I tackled the land’s one ride before I got trapped in the negative zone of Toadstool Cafe. Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge is based on the Mario Kart spinoff series, and it’s a fun, charming, visually impressive dark ride that all ages should enjoy. It doesn’t have the speed you might expect from a Mario Kart game; it uses an augmented reality visor to overlay videogame-style graphics over the ride’s physical props and animatronics, and the combination gives a semblance of speed that the ride doesn’t actually have. It works—you’ll feel like you’re in a competitive race, while also being able to interact with it like a game in a way you wouldn’t without the augmented reality. Each rider has their own steering wheel, and arrows will occasionally flash on your visor to tell you which way to steer. As in the game, floating question balloons will give you Koopa shells that you can throw at your opponents. You do that by pressing a button on the steering wheel. The aiming and firing takes a little bit to get used to; you need to stare directly at your target upon firing a shell for it to connect. Beyond the animated racers, which include Mario’s friends and Bowser’s gaggle of henchmen and children, there are various coin blocks and other secrets you can target, and even a few boss battle-style confrontations with larger enemies. Every coin you collect is tracked, and at the end of the ride the highest scorer in each vehicle and the overall race are noted on video screens as you enter the unloading area. The Universal app will also keep track of your performance, and you’ll earn stamps there depending on how often you ride and how well you perform. Bowser’s Challenge isn’t a thrill ride, but it captures the spirit of a game of Mario Kart, while being more accessible than, say, a roller coaster would be. That makes it an ideal ride for something with such a multigenerational appeal as Nintendo.
In the weeks before Super Nintendo World’s opening, there was much consternation online about the size restrictions for this ride. When early reports indicated that Bowser’s Challenge maybe wouldn’t accommodate guests with a waistline greater than 40 inches, many feared that Universal was once again opening a fairly inaccessible ride. Universal has a track record of building rides that are unusually restrictive for certain body types. I’ve never not been able to ride anything at any of the Disney parks I’ve been to, but there are several rides at Universal Studios Orlando that I can’t fit on. And Universal Hollywood is home to The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash, a slow-moving dark ride that infamously can’t fit many adults that are even slightly bigger or taller than average.
My waistline has been greater than 40 inches since college. I’m not going to get too specific, but it’s a good bit beyond 40 inches today. Uh, I am not a small man. And I had absolutely no problem fitting onto Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, and comfortably, to boot. The seat is molded plastic with a little bit of a divider between the legs, and the safety restraint is a horizontal bar the full length of an adult-sized torso, but neither presented any problems for this body I live in—a body that can’t fit on, say, Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey, or almost every Universal roller coaster, or (to keep it at Universal Hollywood) The Secret Life of Pets. I do know one person at the preview event who wasn’t able to ride Mario Kart, so it’s still not perfect when it comes to accessibility; there’s no excuse for any body types to be excluded from a ride that peaks at about six miles per hour and has no drops of any kind. But the 40 inch limit was greatly overblown, and most guests won’t have to worry about getting turned away from Mario Kart.
Super Nintendo World is a fantastic achievement in themed entertainment, even if my own time there was limited and hampered by some unexpected occurrences. Between the extreme wait for my food and the long line to order, I ultimately spent about half of the truncated media preview at Super Nintendo World in the cafeteria. When I left Toadstool Cafe, over an hour before the preview was scheduled to end, I found that they were already closing the area and nudging everybody towards the exit. I wasn’t able to play the final two games, or earn the third key necessary to face off against Bowser Jr. in the land’s boss battle; that’s a major part of what the land has to offer, and as somebody who writes about videogames professionally, it was the part I was personally most interested in. I’ll have to make a plan to come back and finish that off, which is a great problem to have—any reason to return to this amazing place is a good one. Despite having an incomplete experience, what I did get to do and see convinced me that Super Nintendo World lives up to the hopes of Mario fans. It looks, feels, and sounds like the Mushroom Kingdom, like a place so many of us have visited regularly since childhood, some for almost 40 years now. Despite all those years spent there, we’ve never actually been able to visit the Mushroom Kingdom until now. It’s as special as you’d think it would be, and I’ll be warping back through that green pipe again as soon as I’m able.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.