Universal’s New Dark Ride Rivals Disney’s Best

When I stepped off Universal’s newest attraction to officially open, I was blown away. I wouldn’t say that the ride made my jaw drop, but that’s only because I had a dumb grin plastered on my face for the entirety the experience. I was laughing and having such a good time that I knew I had missed a lot, and wanted to do it again immediately.

As much as I try to avoid the needless and contrived faux fan rivalry between Disney and Universal, that’s exactly where my mind kept going. I couldn’t help it. For lack of a better term, this is a Disney dark ride, something straight out of Fantasyland or Toontown with the types of old school gags, whimsy, and charm you’d expect from Imagineering.

Except this is better than any Fantasyland-style dark ride in recent memory at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. It puts Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure), and Under the Sea ~ Journey of The Little Mermaid all to shame.

The attraction in question is the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash. It’s a new family-friendly dark ride at Universal Studios Hollywood, located in the Upper Lot across from Despicable Me Minion Mayhem in a newly-redesigned area called Pets Place, which is essentially a New York City area.

Often derided by Disney fans for leaning too heavily into screens, simulators, and 3D, Universal Creative has flipped the script here. The Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash is a slow-moving dark ride that tastefully uses screens to complement physical sets. It’s almost entirely animatronics, dimensional environments, and practical effects. In fact, the balance of Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash rivals the best modern masterpieces of Walt Disney Imagineering. But more on the comparisons in a bit.

NOTE: This review contains photo and plot spoilers for the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash. While there are no big ‘wow moments’ that can be spoiled–the joy here is in the totality of the experience–the ride is still best enjoyed for the first time in person. You’ve been warned…

The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash begins outside a Manhattan apartment building. The attraction uses Universal’s Virtual Line, with return times offered via the official app or at ticket kiosks around the corner from the entrance.

The attraction facade is relatively nondescript, although the vibrance and crisp quality feels like a vaguely romanticized caricature of New York City. It’s a delightfully detailed and inviting area that fits well with the residential streets of the Upper Lot.

The attraction queue weaves through apartments that would presumably be familiar to fans of the Secret Life of Pets films.

We’ve seen neither, but appreciated the lived-in quality of the homes, which had a ton of Easter Eggs ranging from posters to a Nintendo GameCube.

As dachshund owners, we were sold on the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash almost from the get-go. I’m going to go ahead and ignore all the cues from the attraction and assume this character is the franchise’s hero, known for his bravery and quick wits. However, I do question the accuracy of a dachshund that simply goes about his business when strangers enter his home.

Sadly, this is not even remotely consistent with our personal experiences, which tend to occur at a much higher decibel level. Setting aside that delightfully pleasant inaccuracy, the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash queue and pre-show are exceptional. Among the best of any theme park attraction anywhere.

In the living room, we learn the attraction’s premise, that we are stray puppies in need of adoption, from Patton Oswalt: The Dog and Cam from Modern Family: The Dog (sorry, don’t know their names in the film or Cam’s real name, so we’ll roll with typical Universal naming convention).

There’s an adoption event at the pet store…yadda yadda yadda…Kevin Hart has a harebrained plan to get us there.

Despite this being a Virtual Line, Universal isn’t really “blurring the lines” of a traditional theme park pre-show versus ride here, but it’s an incredibly effective set-up with great animatronics and furniture leveraged exquisitely to create a more organic queue.

From there, we head to the load area and board the two-person cardboard box vehicles. The ride system also isn’t groundbreaking–it’s an omnimover rather than something trackless, but it’s a good fit for the attraction.

From there, our boxes depart for the pet store, we see our alternative reality dog selves in a window, and head for a scenic drive (?) through the alleyway behind Pets Place. This area, along with every other environment in Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash, is jam-packed with visuals. The ride is leisurely at this point, but it’s still impossible to see it all.

In short order, the attraction switches gears and hits its “something has gone terribly wrong” bump in the road. Unlike every other pet ever, Snowball likes fireworks and decides to put those to good use. That goes exactly how you’d expect. No matter, as the journey and the ensuing hijinks are the stars of the show here. The narrative and destination matter, but they’re overshadowed by the fun you’ll have along the way.

The ensuing scenes are frenetic and madcap, in the best way possible. I don’t want to spoil everything (several scenes are not described or pictured here), but you can tell the Universal Creative team behind Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash had fun with it, and wasn’t afraid to think outside the box and get a little weird.

It’s never too outlandish or unconventional, and it’s always hilarious. I know Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on charming dark rides, but there’s something about this that just has an early 1990s Imagineering sensibility to it. I can’t quite articulate what or why, but it’s there.

The attraction succeeds largely on the hilarity of dogs and cats doing dog and cat things. One of the questions we asked ourselves upon exiting is “why aren’t there more attractions based on pets?!” That now seems like as glaring of a theme park oversight as the underrepresentation of dinosaurs. (Thankfully, Universal is remedying both this summer!)

The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash also contains an emotionally poignant note with the fulfillment of its premise. This extends its depth even further, making it a really satisfying experience from start to finish.

Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is also a masterclass in pragmatic design. Nowhere does it try to overachieve–the appropriate ride system, figures, props, and other technology is always utilized.

When something impressive is called for, it’s there. When it isn’t, it’s not. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it absolutely is not. The restraint allows the attraction to have a formidable number of animatronics–over 60! I can’t remember the last time a Disney attraction had this many (maybe Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage, and you probably already know what we think of that).

All too often, the tail wags the dog when it comes to bleeding edge technology in theme park attractions. This results in one of two things: attractions that don’t age well and ones that are terribly imbalanced because half their budget was clearly blown on 5 seconds of a 5 minute ride. There are around a half-dozen examples of this from the last two decades at Walt Disney World.

Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash avoids those pitfalls, and presents a perfectly-balanced marriage of animatronics, practical effects, props, screens, and other tech. It’s engrossing from start to finish, with eye-catching visuals, gags, and tons of pets. There’s truly never a dull moment; it’s non-stop fun.

That brings us to the Disney comparisons, which really hammer home this point. Most fans will want to know how Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash compares to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. Quite simply, it’s better than both–a little better than the former and a lot better than the latter.

Both of those Disney attractions fail in seamlessly blending technology, leaning too heavily on screens. Those are intended to be big, high-energy rides (with budgets to match!) but they don’t have the emotional resonance or heart of Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash. It’s a ride that simply works, and everything clicks better.

Aiming a bit higher, the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash reminds me most of Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek at Tokyo Disneyland. There are a ton of similarities, from ride vehicles to set staging and more. Secret Life of Pets is smoother, newer, and has dogs & cats, so I prefer it by a slight margin, but it’s a close call/personal preference.

There are also some passing similarities between this and Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin and Mystic Manor, but that more comes down to pacing, energy, and the tone of some gags. Those comparisons otherwise fall apart–it’s great, but not Mystic Manor level great. In terms of Universal comparisons, it reminds me of Men in Black: Alien Attack, minus interactivity–plus pets.

Beyond all that, the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash really reinforced that Universal is having a moment. Post-reopening, we’ve lavished praise on Universal Orlando, noting how much more aggressive they’ve been than Walt Disney World at courting guests with promotions and special offerings. Universal has also gone above and beyond to ensure entertainment, attractions, and seasonal festivities offered commensurate value for money even in these temporarily abnormal times.

Then there has been the brisk construction pace on Jurassic World VelociCoaster and the quicker-than-expected resumption of work on Epic Universe, the third gate at Universal Orlando. On the other side of the globe, Universal Studios Japan opened Super Nintendo World; while I’ve avoided all spoilers of that, the limited tidbits I’ve seen and heard sure sound and look awesome.

Universal Studios Hollywood’s “moment” has arguably been happening for the better part of the last decade. We first became Annual Passholders in late 2014, after the announcement of Universal’s “Unprecedented Investment in Epic Theme Park Transformation” that April.

At that point, construction was already in full swing. In addition to significant projects like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, place-making was happening around the Upper Lot that made it more inviting and richly-themed. There have been some missteps along the way (looking at you, Fast & Furious Supercharged), but the vast majority have been resounding successes. Universal Studios Hollywood is a dramatically different–and better–park than the one we first visited in 2014. The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash extends that winning streak and further diversifies an ever-improving attraction lineup.

Ultimately, the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is a home run. Not a booming solo shot, long gone the moment it makes contact with the batter flipping the bat and slowly trotting out of the box. One that has a gritty utility player rushing out of the batter’s box, slowing down only when the ball clears the right field wall. The kind of home run that looks better with each subsequent replay.

Perhaps the baseball analogy is a tad tortured, but the point is that the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is both a home run and a ride that surprises you, getting better with each subsequent ride-through. It’s an old school dark ride that is not particularly flashy, but features an impressive number of animatronics, nails the fundamentals, and fires on all cylinders so incredibly well that it’s more memorable than most blockbuster attractions. And as much as I dislike the manufactured rivalry, it’s really remarkable that Universal is essentially eating Disney’s lunch in the year that the latter’s flagship resort turns 50. Who knew that dinosaurs, dogs, cats, and iconic video game characters could so handily beat (*checks notes*) a rat in a kitchen. Everyone, that’s who.

Planning a Southern California vacation? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles or Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Pasadena, Santa Monica, Laguna Beach, and tons of other places! For comprehensive theme park advice, consult our Universal Studios Hollywood Planning Guide and/or our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide.

Your Thoughts

Have you experienced the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Is this an attraction you’d like to ride? Would you take a side trip to Universal Studios Hollywood while visiting Disneyland for this? Wish Imagineering would build another “old school” attraction like this? Any questions? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

31 Responses to “Universal’s New Dark Ride Rivals Disney’s Best”
  1. Joey March 4, 2022
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