Inside Super Nintendo World: A Holiday Mario Kart Tour Of Universal’s Theme Park Land

With both "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" and Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood on the way in early 2023, the mood for Mario Kart is in the air like never before. Anyone who's ever told you video games create a sedentary lifestyle obviously hasn't taken into account that they could be played in a theme park setting, where a person might spend all day walking around when they're not behind the go-kart wheel. Forget those real-life go-karts themed to Mario that once zipped around Tokyo's streets; they've given way to augmented reality and four-person karts.

As someone who used to spend countless hours playing "Mario Kart 64" in battle mode with his roommate, I was curious to venture inside the first Super Nintendo World, which opened at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) last year. Japan itself just reopened its borders this October for the first time since 2020, so most foreign tourists are only now getting the chance to go beyond YouTube ride videos and live their Nintendo dreams in person at USJ. Having visited the place recently during its inaugural Christmas event, I can confirm that you'll sooner hear exclamations in Japanese there than a weak "Woo-hoo!" in Chris Pratt's much-maligned Mario voice.

In 2025, Super Nintendo World is also coming to Universal Studios Singapore and Universal's Epic Universe, the latter of which is under construction as the third theme park and fourth park overall at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida. If you can't make it to one of these parks, or you just want a foretaste of what to expect for your own future trip, then don a pair of plumber's overalls and follow me through the warp pipe to explore Super Nintendo World, from the pit of the Mushroom Kingdom to the peak of Mount Beanpole.

Timed Entry, Location, And Sightlines

Due to its ongoing popularity, Super Nintendo World uses a timed entry system to regulate crowd flow. Our entry time ended up being at night, so we spent the afternoon riding the last surviving "Jaws" attraction at any Universal theme park and then riding both pairs of Express Pass attractions in Jurassic Park and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Joshua Meyer

Our day was filled with a lot of John Williams music. It was only after the sun went down over Hogwarts Castle that we finally hoofed it back to Super Nintendo World. I had never been to USJ before, but my wife and I had a room overlooking the park from the 26th floor of the Park Front Hotel. From there, you can see how Super Nintendo World is set back from the rest of the park behind the snowy Hogsmeade Village (left of Hogwarts Castle, below).

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

To reach Super Nintendo World, you have to go through the "Jaws"-themed Amity Village and then pass by the gates of Jurassic Park and Waterworld (currently closed, to everyone but Kevin Costner, perhaps). After that, you follow a twisting, tree-lined path to the entrance, similar to how you'd access The Wizarding World.

USJ is located in the city of Osaka, and one thing that surprised me is how industrial the surrounding area is. When you're down on the ground, you can see the cable-stayed Tempozan Bridge looming over the park from outside it like a de facto central landmark. It takes away from the immersion a bit, but thanks to its unique layout — the brainchild of game designer and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and the Nintendo and Universal creative teams — intrusive sights from outside are not so much an issue in Super Nintendo World itself.

Mushroom Kingdom

The entrance to Super Nintendo World is a warp pipe, as shown above. There's a photo op next to it with the multi-colored entrance sign and some smaller pipes people can pose in. Because it was Christmas, they also had things literally gift-wrapped, with Mario and Luigi snowmen out in front. Mario and Luigi's trademark red and green lend themselves naturally to the holiday season, and even before we entered Super Nintendo World, we saw a lot of winter wear and other merchandise themed to them in the Universal Studios Store.

The green warp pipe tunnel becomes Princess Peach's Castle before it feeds you into Super Nintendo World. It's a definite "wow" moment when you emerge from the tunnel into this open vista, where Piranha Plants are snapping all around you and people are dinging the underside of yellow Question Blocks, as Mount Beanpole towers in tiers over the central valley.

Joshua Meyer

Super Nintendo World has two levels, with stairs and elevators leading down to the ground level. The stairs offer a great view of the mountain, which holds Yoshi's ride, and Bowser's Castle, which houses the flagship Mario attraction.

From the same vantage point, you can see Kinopio's Cafe. Kinopio is the original Japanese name of the Toad character. His cafe — similar to the umbrellas in rest areas — is shaped like a toadstool, and it serves Super Mushroom Pizza Bowls with mushroom tomato sauce.

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

When you're looking up at it from a low angle, everything is larger than life in Super Nintendo World. They had a Christmas tree up with the other holiday decorations, but one thing we completely missed exploring was the 1UP Factory store. This gift shop, too, has a warp pipe entrance—a rather unassuming storefront that belies how cavernous it is inside.

Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge Queue And Pre-Shows

The main attraction in Super Nintendo World is Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge. Koopa is the Japanese name for Bowser, so when it comes to the U.S., this ride will be called Mario Kart: Bowser's Challenge.

As we were winding our way through the queue for Koopa's Challenge, I naively commented to my wife that I had no idea what this ride was going to be. I hadn't studied up on it or watched any ride videos beforehand, and as I would soon find out, that wasn't necessarily the best way to go into this attraction.

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

Before you get to the ride, you have to make your way through Bowser's Castle. The queue is quite long and impressively detailed. Even with an empty Express Pass lane in front of us, it took us 17 minutes to get through the line (keeping in mind that some of that time was spent snapping pictures). The standby line has even more rooms with things you can't see on the Express Pass route, like an MKTV (Mario Kart Television) van.

First, you walk up a grand staircase, past the huge stone Bowser sculpture above.

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

Then, you pass a portrait of him and some trophies before moving through a giant unchained door into his library. There's a factory part and two pre-shows with racing outfits for Mario characters on the wall.

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

You get an adjustable red Mario visor and eventually attach your AR goggles to it. The pre-shows explain visually how the ride works. However, they only throw up an occasional word onscreen, like, "Collect, Aim, Throw, Steer." When it's your first time there, and you're still taking everything in, it's very easy for an instructional video with no voiceover to fade to the background.

Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge Ride

If I had to describe USJ's Mario Kart ride in a single word, it would be: disorienting. It's like being forced to play a video game while riding a dark ride in a Disney park. Think of that scene in "A Clockwork Orange" where they pry Alex DeLarge's eyes open and make him watch random imagery. Add a bunch of AR (augmented reality) to the mix, and you've got a recipe for sensory overload.

I didn't fully understand the rules of Koopa's Challenge (like, what I was supposed to do) before the ride started. It seemed like the object of the game was to just collect coins and throw shells at other racers, racking up points like you would in Toy Story Mania at Disney. There are two "shoot" buttons on the steering wheel, so I just started indiscriminately shooting everything and everyone in my path. Woo-hoo!

Joshua Meyer

We were at the front of our four-person kart, with two strangers in our back seat. I didn't even realize until after the ride ended and I was reading about it on my phone (while my wife browsed the Mario Motors gift shop) that our score was connected to those people's. We were all Team Mario, competing against Team Koopa, so I may have unleashed some friendly fire on my teammates.

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

Others may enjoy the chaotic, fast-paced nature of Koopa/Bowser's Challenge and find it true to the spirit of Mario Kart. Much of the time, I found myself wishing I could just take off the AR goggles and enjoy the elaborate background environments. They built these nifty sets, like in a regular dark ride (you can see them without AR here and here), but they're unfortunately somewhat wasted when you have AR superimposed over them.

Yoshi's Adventure

The other ride in Super Nintendo World is Yoshi's Adventure. This kid-friendly attraction takes you on a short omnimover ride out across Mount Beanpole, where you get a reverse view of the Mushroom Kingdom from the one you had coming in.

The entrance to Yoshi's Adventure is a yellow warp pipe on the ground level at the back. In the ride's playroom-esque queue, which is less detailed than that of Mario Kart: Koopa's Challenge, you'll see Yoshi's dotted dinosaur eggs.

Joshua Meyer

A screen-based Toadette appears at the door to her house as you pass through a mock forest and up to the loading area. The ride vehicles are all different colored Yoshis, and there's a panel of buttons you can hit when you spot three hidden eggs: one blue, one green, one red. 

This is tied to Super Nintendo World's whole interactive element, which allows you, here and elsewhere, to collect coins and digital stamps through a Power-Up Band on your wrist. The Power-Up Band is an optional purchase, and if you don't want the $30 Up-charge or the hassle of being in constant game mode when you're vacationing, then you can just sit back and relax on Yoshi's Adventure as you cruise past Piranha Plants and palm trees and through a tunnel where Baby Mario can be seen riding Yoshi himself.

Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

This ride left me slightly disappointed, too, though my wife enjoyed it as a way to unwind after a long day of theme park walking. For other childless millennials who aren't big on long waits for short rides or cutesy stuff, Yoshi's Adventure might be a one-and-done. The ride isn't coming to the Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood two months from now when it opens, and honestly, California? You aren't missing much.

Ripe For Revenge

You'll have to forgive me if I've lapsed into trash-talking Yoshi's kiddie ride a little. With our "Mario Kart 64" battle mode marathons, my roommate would always play as Yoshi and I'd always be Donkey Kong, so I tend to regard Yoshi as a target.

In Super Nintendo World, Yoshi's Snack Island serves exotic Green Shell Calzones, filled with yakisoba and cheese. Yet my old pal Donkey Kong may have the last chest-thumping laugh, as he's got an entire area dedicated to him coming in 2024. The new Donkey Kong area will expand Super Nintendo World by 70% and include a roller coaster, along with more interactive experiences, merchandise, and food. This same Donkey Kong thrill ride is reportedly coming to Universal in Florida as a track-hopping, runaway mine car coaster in 2025.

Universal Studios Japan
Joshua Meyer
Joshua Meyer

As we exited Super Nintendo World through Peach's Castle at USJ, I came away feeling that I'd like to make a revenge trip even before the expansion. This time, we mostly just wanted to try the two rides and get the lay of the land. During the daytime, though, they have character meet-and-greets with Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad, and there's enough additional stuff to do with Kinopio's Cafe, the 1UP Factory gift shop, and the various Power-Up Band challenges that a person could probably spend several more hours in Super Nintendo World without getting bored. 

The rides may be a mixed bag, but Universal Studios has done a good job with the overall theming and design of Super Nintendo World. As they say around the theme park water cooler, you should probably just "do your research" into how the Mario Kart attraction works before riding it. When all else fails, there's always Nintendo Switch.

Super Nintendo World opens at Universal Studios Hollywood on February 17, 2023.

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The post Inside Super Nintendo World: A Holiday Mario Kart Tour of Universal's Theme Park Land appeared first on /Film.


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