Ali Flores arrived for a preview tour of Universal Orlando's new Simpsons-themed Springfield attraction wearing a "Pin Pals" bowling shirt — the same style worn by Homer, Moe, Apu and Mr. Burns in the Season 7 episode "Team Homer."
He bought the shirt a decade ago, and it's one of his most treasured Simpsons possessions, along with an original Simpsons script that he keeps locked in a vault at home. What better place to wear it than Springfield?
"Growing up watching The Simpsons, all I wanted to do was get a Duff beer and one of the big doughnuts," said Flores, who was there to cover the park's official opening for Orlando Attractions magazine. "Do they have Krusty Burgers here?"
Of course they do — Krusty Burgers, Flaming Moes, Lard Lad doughnuts and much, much more.
Opened this summer, Universal's immersive re-creation of the Simpsons' hometown is something of a Shangri-la for Simpsons obsessives like Flores. Places and products that existed only on the show, which launches its 25th season on Sept. 29, are now a living, pulsing reality. You can taste them, touch them, hug them and leave with a souvenir T-shirt.
Springfield is more than an expansion of the park's $30 million Simpsons Ride — it's an attempt to bring one of the most beloved, acclaimed shows of all time to life.
"We are absolutely fanatical about being what we call 'authentic to the fiction,' " said Ric Florell, the park's senior vice president and general manager of resort revenue operations. "At one point in time, it almost became overwhelming: What should we choose, and how do we present what this great, iconic series is to the guests?"
And make no mistake, those guests will be critical of even the slightest canonical slipup. Much like the show's Comic Book Guy, Simpsons fans tend to get a little obsessive.
I would know. I'm one of them.
Millions of American 20- and 30-somethings had their senses of humor permanently warped by The Simpsons' sabre-sharp satire, including me. During the pre-DVD '90s, I taped the show obsessively, creating my own Simpsons archive to watch and rewatch time and time again. I've seen most of its 530 episodes at least twice (yes, even the new ones). I keep an emergency can of Buzz Cola on my desk at work. I am quoted by name in the Wikipedia entry for the Simpsons Ride, and have no shame in admitting it's one of my proudest accomplishments.
Knowing they'd have to please geeks like me, Universal executives were meticulous in plotting how to bring Springfield to life. They combed through more than 20 seasons' worth of episode guides for ideas, and flew to California several times to make sure Simpsons writers and producers approved of all foods and products they created. (They had "oh, about 500 or 600" suggestions, Florell said.)
As with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal's neighboring Islands of Adventure, Springfield can and will appeal to a mass audience — but it's the show's obsessive fans who will linger, sampling every food, perusing every detail and drooling over every item in the gift shop. In the end, Florell thinks those fans will approve of the job they've done.
"It's popular for a reason — it's popular because fans love it," he said. "Whether it's Harry Potter or The Simpsons, you don't want to be untrue to what made it popular to them."
Well said. But hey, I'm the nerd here. I'll be the judge of how well Universal kept its pledge. Here are 15 of Springfield's top highlights, along with my geek's-eye-view rating.
This is the No. 1 thing most Simpsons fans will want to experience at Universal Orlando: a tall, frosty mug of Springfield's finest. There are three varieties — Duff, Duff Light and a stoutlike Duff Dry — all available at Moe's and in the Duff Brewery (which is just an open-air cantina, not a brewery; the beer itself is reportedly brewed by Florida Beer Company in Melbourne). An array of Duff merch, from beer buckets to golf balls to iPhone cases, is sold at a shop next to the brewery. The only thing missing? Duff you can take home. Don't be fooled by the cans in the gift shops — it's just an energy drink — but the park is working on aluminum Duff bottles, which, once emptied, would make sweet souvenirs.
Geek factor: Off the charts, even if, frankly, the beer isn't that great (the Dry was our favorite).
But the middling quality is part of the appeal. Duff is a working man's brew, so it stands to reason it should taste like Miller Lite or Budweiser. The lure of Duff is undeniable. To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!
Aside from perhaps Springfield Elementary, I'd bet more Simpsons scenes have been set in Moe's Tavern than anywhere else in town. So a faithful re-creation of Moe Szyslak's dive bar — polished up for mass consumption, of course — was a must for Springfield.
Geek factor: 10
It's hard to express the awe that comes over a Simpsons fan's face upon entering Moe's Tavern for the first time. There's Barney! There's the Love Tester machine! There's the big pink TV above the bar! It's not an exact copy, but it's close enough, right down to the photos and pennants on the wall (which, judging by the show's later, high-def seasons, are fairly accurate in terms of both content and placement). Look closely for the mock alcohol bottles behind the bar, including Sea Captain's Rum and Alkie's Choice Whiskey. And at one end of the bar, you'll notice a red and yellow telephone. Every now and again it rings; pick it up and you may hear a familiar caller on the other end.
In Season 3, Homer concocts a cocktail made from various liquors and a dash of cough syrup, then lights it on fire. Moe steals the recipe and christens the drink the Flaming Moe. There's no alcohol, medicine or fire in Universal Orlando's Flaming Moe, which tastes sort of like carbonated citrus Gatorade, but it does bubble, fizz and smoke, thanks to a chunk of dry ice at the bottom. Plus, you get to keep the cup.
Geek factor: 7
It passed the first test: I didn't go blind. The fact that it's non-alcoholic is regrettable, but understandable. But why'd they make it orange when the show's Flaming Moe is purple?
Topping the list of soda options is Buzz Cola, a "zero-calorie cherry-flavored cola." And there are three sweet, fruity, non-alcoholic drink options: Mt. Swartzwelder Apple Drink, an apple-lemonade tea; Groovy Grove Juice, an orange-based drink; and the Mr. Teeny, a blue, tropical concoction named for Krusty's trained chimp.
GEEK FACTOR: 6
Buzz Cola is one of the most famous Simpsons products, but it was previously available in 2007, as a promotion for The Simpsons Movie, and cans are readily available on eBay. As for the rest, only Groovy Grove Juice actually appears in the show, in the Season 10 episode "D'oh-in' in the Wind" — but it's supposed to be organic. Not the case here. I'll give them bonus points for the apple drink, whose namesake is legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder — but the drink is green, which doesn't square with Ned Flanders' apple-drink-swilling advice in Season 8: "If it's clear and yellow, you've got juice there, fella; if it's tangy and brown, you're in cider town!" Maybe this is one of the exceptions.
The big draw of Springfield's food court is Krusty the Clown's namesake restaurant, and the Krusty Burger itself is the most hyped food item in the park. It doesn't contain spider eggs, it doesn't contain the hantavirus and, to the best of our knowledge, the animal it's made from is not extinct. And hey, I don't mind the taste!
Geek factor: 7
The Krusty Burger is pretty much a plain ol' burger, but the rest of the menu is impressively canonical. The Mother Nature Burger is from Season 20; the Clogger, which adds another patty and bacon, is from The Simpsons Movie. Best of all? They sell a Ribwich, which appears in Season 14 as a seasonal item so beloved fans follow it from city to city like the Grateful Dead. Here, it's available ALL. YEAR. ROUND.
LARD LAD DONUTS
An iconic part of Springfield's skyline, the Lard Lad stands taller than Universal's Optimus Prime statue. Inside, you can buy an array of doughnuts ($2.99 apiece, or a four-pack for $6.99), plus cupcakes, apple fritters, sundaes and ice cream.
Geek factor: 9
Along with the front of Moe's Tavern, the Lard Lad is the most desirable photo-op backdrop in the park. And it's home to the park's ultimate dessert, the "Big Pink" — an oversized doughnut with pink frosting and sprinkles, just like Homer likes. It would take a whole team of helper monkeys to steal one Big Pink ($4.99); each one is big enough for a family to share.
The food court features a handful of eateries both from the show (The Frying Dutchman, Luigi's Pizza) and exclusive to the park (Cletus' Chicken Shack, Lisa's Teahouse of Horror). Out on the boardwalk sits Bumblebee Man's Taco Truck, serving four styles of taco (fish, chicken, carne asada and Korean beef).
GEEK FACTOR: 4
The Frying Dutchman (fried seafood) and Luigi's Pizza (yep, you guessed it) are two of the show's most identifiable restaurants, but considering The Simpsons has featured dozens of fake restaurants over the years, building new ones around one-note characters Cletus and Bumblebee Man feels a little disappointing. Most of the food is standard theme-park fare, with one notable exception: Cletus' Chicken & Waffle Sandwich, a crispy chicken breast between two waffles, served with maple syrup mayo and tater tots. Like Cletus himself, it's a little repulsive, but ultimately enjoyable. I can't, however, condone Lisa's Teahouse of Horror, a pre-made fruit, sandwich and salad nook that serves as Springfield's half-hearted attempt at a healthy dining option. It's a fair change of pace, but the lack of a really ripping lentil soup is an unforgivable oversight. Besides, you don't win friends with salad.
Before The Simpsons Movie opened in 2007, a handful of 7-Elevens across the country transformed into "Kwik-E-Mart" stores, complete with Krusty-O's and cans of Buzz Cola. This Kwik-E-Mart is Springfield's official gift shop, and it's stacked to the gills with an endless array of Simpsons memorabilia, especially theme park staples like T-shirts, hats and plush toys.
Geek factor: Combined with the Duff store, it's a 10 — the "Bort" gear alone guarantees that.
From Slurpee cups to Duff skateboards, from Simpsons comic books to personalized Kwik-E-Mart name tags (you can even order your own, though the steps you have to go through to get it are somewhat daunting), the gear here will have Simpsons nerds drooling.
JEBEDIAH SPRINGFIELD STATUE
Once beheaded by Bart, and featured in the show's opening credits, the statue of town founder Jebediah Springfield astride a slain bear stands near the entrance to Duff Gardens.
GEEK FACTOR: 8
It's a perfectly cromulent family photo op, even if some historians believe Jebediah Springfield was actually Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate. However, in the show, the town's slogan — "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man" — is engraved on the front of the statue. Here, it's on the back. D'oh!
It's easy to identify the most devoted Simpsons nerds at Universal Orlando. They're the ones taking countless photos of themselves in front of the "Welcome to Springfield" sign, the entrance to Moe's Tavern, Duff Gardens' "Seven Duffs" topiaries, the statues of Duffman or Milhouse, or any of the other countless photo ops around Springfield. And let's not forget the costumed characters — Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob. There's often a line to meet them.
Geek factor: 9
If you're a Simpsons fan, there is zero chance you'll leave here with fewer than 10 selfies. The Lard Lad, Chief Wiggum and Barney (inside Moe's) are among the best photo-op spots, but for our money, the best backdrop is the big pink corner TV above Moe's bar. It'll make a great avatar on alt.nerd.obsessive.
THE SIMPSONS RIDE
If you're visiting Springfield for the first time, you'll also want to check out the park's first big Simpsons attraction. The Simpsons Ride, an indoor motion simulator, opened in 2008 and is surrounded by Simpsons-themed midway games. The immersive ride still holds up, especially since it was developed alongside Simpsons writers and producers. There are more jokes packed into the queue alone than in most of the show's modern-day episodes.
Geek factor: 8
Here's a secret, uncomfortable truth about Springfield: Park designers were so hellbent on slavishly re-creating places and products from The Simpsons that, by and large, they missed out on the satirical streak that originally made the show so great. That's not the case here. The Simpsons Ride, which is set on a rickety runaway coaster at Krustyland, mocks the very theme park thrills it offers, while the midway games feature brutally, hilariously honest slogans ("No finer way to waste 3 minutes!" "Be made a fool by a stack of cans!"). Springfield deserves plenty of kudos for serving real-life Duff Beer and Krusty Burgers, but the Simpsons Ride makes you remember why you loved The Simpsons in the first place.
CLIPS AND MUSIC
Let's be honest: The best thing Springfield has going for it is The Simpsons itself. So it stands to reason the park would screen a loop of Simpsons clips on TVs in the food court and Moe's. And if you listen carefully, you'll hear Simpsons songs playing overhead, everything from Do the Bartman to Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?.
GEEK FACTOR: 7
Even though you've seen these clips dozens of times before, they're a nice touch, and they're divvied up appropriately — Moe's clips on the Moe's TV, restaurant-based clips in the food court. As for the music? It's surprising how deep they went. More than once, I actually heard the three-second cue for Gracie Films — that's James L. Brooks' production studio, the logo to which appears at the end of every episode. Talk about a deep cut.
KANG & KODOS' TWIRL 'N' HURL
Springfield's only new ride is a simple spinning whirlamajig that's suitable for kids. The "plot" of the ride is loosely built around the show's resident aliens' plot to enslave humanity. You're supposed to be able to activate some character voices by operating a light-sensor "laser" with a joystick, but I could never get it. Oh, well. At least the ride offers an overhead view of Springfield.
Geek factor: 2
If you're trying to get your kids into The Simpsons, you might as well try it out. Beyond that, you can impress your friends by informing them the alien at the center of the ride is Kodos, not Kang.
The Simpsons is known for its "freeze-frame" jokes, so named because they're almost impossible to catch without pausing your DVD. While park officials say they didn't plant any obvious Easter egg gags in Springfield, there are a few unexplained details and references that only serious geeks might catch.
Geek factor: 7, but only because you wish they'd gone further.
The Lard Lad's menu offers soft-serve "Ice Cream Conans" — an easy-to-overlook nod to former Simpsons writer Conan O'Brien. The Kwik-E-Mart has a "do not accept checks from" sign near the register that, as in the show, lists Chief Wiggum, the Rev. Lovejoy and Homer's various aliases, including Homer J. Fong. Elsewhere in the park, you'll see deep-cut references like Ham Ahoy!, Puma Pride and Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con. But by far, the park's best in-joke is the availability of a personalized "Bort" name tag and shot glass in the Kwik-E-Mart gift shop. In Season 6, the family travels to the Disney-esque Itchy & Scratchy Land, where Bart can't find a single souvenir featuring his name … but sees plenty with the name "Bort." It's later revealed that "Bort" products are a hot commodity in Itchy & Scratchy Land — and I bet bet they will be at Universal, too.
Universal executives aren't ready to talk about what's yet to come in Springfield (no doubt to keep fans from dreaming of a future they can't possibly provide). But if you think of what's already been done as a proof of concept, the sky's the limit — they now have the green light to create any Simpsons product they like.
GEEK FACTOR: Unlimited.
The depth and breadth of the Simpsons universe is unrivaled in television history, and every fan has a product they'd like to see brought to life. Ever wanted to taste a Gummi Venus de Milo? Khlav Kalash with crab juice? The merciless peppers of Quetzalacatenango? Nothing's to stop Universal from pulling the trigger. Of course, they'd need to run it by a cabal of geeks like me to make sure each new product lives up to the show's lofty standards. (But that's a problem for Future Homer. Man, I don't envy that guy.)