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I rode the new Mario Kart ride at Universal Studios Hollywood — here’s what it’s like

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The wizards at Universal Creative have built a theme park marvel with Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge at Universal Studios Hollywood that seamlessly combines old and new.

I rode the augmented reality dark ride several times on Thursday, Jan. 12 on the first day of technical rehearsals at the movie theme park and found the new attraction in the Super Nintendo World video game-inspired land to be delightfully fun and creative.

The soft opening will continue at random times on select days until the land officially opens on Feb. 17 with passholder previews starting on Jan. 29.

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I was most impressed by how Universal blended physical sets and massive video screens with gameplay and augmented reality on the cutting-edge new Mario Kart ride.

If you’ve never played around with AR, you’re in for a treat. Digital race cars and video game bounty magically appear on the track in front of you thanks to the AR glasses every rider wears.

Take off the AR glasses mid-ride and the digital cars and bounty disappear. I did that on my second trip to admire the practical sets and mega video screens without the distracting video game action.

Unlike Disney’s Toy Story Midway Mania that turns the entire ride over to video screens, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge would be an amazing ride without all the AR and video game bells and whistles. The sets are richly detailed and built at a scale that makes it feel like you are racing through a video game.

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I’m not a video game junkie, but I love a challenge and never miss a chance to play — especially when someone’s keeping score. I scored under 100 points on each of my rides — OK for a novice, but pretty poor for anyone that has a well-worn game console at home.

Universal Creative Vice President Jon Corfino has ridden the new Mario Kart attraction more than 200 times and knows all the high-scoring secrets. His best score: 199.

The top score of all time — at least on the first day of officially keeping track at Universal Studios Hollywood — was 299. Expect that to go up as serious players get in repeat rides.

And that’s the point of Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge — to get you to come back again and again. And bring your gamer friends along for a showdown.

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What will surprise most riders is the glacially slow pace of Bowser’s Challenge. It is a dark ride after all that moves at a leisurely Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters pace.

I appreciated the slower speed, which lets you take in all the scenery and gives you time to rack up more points. There’s a lot going on in Bowser’s Challenge and any faster pace would make it hard to absorb it all.

The race car ride also lacks a traditional head-to-head race against other riders. You are competing against a virtual Bowser — and a winner is crowned at the end. If you’re expecting a high-speed Radiator Springs Racers finale you will be disappointed.

Even without the maximum RPMs, I thought the finale was the best part of Bowser’s Challenge. The Rainbow Road finale makes it feel like you’re suddenly going twice as fast — even though you haven’t stepped on the gas at all.

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Traditionalists who prefer old school dark rides versus the video game-style shoot-’em-up attractions that dominate the marketplace can enjoy Bowser’s Challenge too — by simply taking off the AR glasses. The elaborate and creative physical sets are drop-dead beautiful – and Universal was modest in its use of the ubiquitous giant curving video screens that are seemingly now part of every modern dark ride.

I took my AR glasses off for a bit during one ride — just to check out the scenery — but likely won’t do it again. You miss out on half the fun by sitting out the gameplay. By and large, most riders will be getting in the Mario Kart line for the AR wizardry — which is cleverly done, easy to learn and doesn’t disappoint.

The goal of the game is to collect as many gold coins as possible by tossing shells at AR targets throughout the ride. The novel innovation: You use the visor on your head to aim and buttons on the steering wheel to fire.

Easy to learn doesn’t mean easy to master, though, which makes the ride irresistibly repeatable. Like any good game, Bowser’s Challenge is littered with Easter eggs worth plenty of bonus points.

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