The theme park media world seems to relish rushing to judgment based on little to no actual information, a bad habit on full display when Universal’s Mario Kart attraction first opened in Japan in 2020.
With COVID-19 still restricting any U.S. visits at the time, pundits relied on YouTube footage to judge the attraction somewhat negatively. This gave rise to a narrative that the ride was already a disappointment before its 2023 debut at Universal Studios Hollywood’s version of Super Nintendo World.
No YouTube video can be a substitute for the actual ride. That goes double for Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, which combines an augmented reality headset and physical sets into an experience that borders on sensory overload — and I mean that as a compliment.
Having actually ridden Mario Kart, I can say the uninformed pundits were off the mark. Unless you expected to be zooming along a life-size Rainbow Road or Twisted Mansion at 60 miles per hour, Bowser’s Challenge is a stellar translation of the chaotic Mario Kart game experience into the real world while cleverly covering up its limitations.
There’s a whole lot of queue here, and much of it is well-themed and packed with Easter eggs — which is good, considering you’re likely to spend hours in line for Mario Kart for the foreseeable future.
You enter on the lower level of Super Nintendo World into a whimsical section themed around “Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island,” including a section that seems like a homage to the cave levels of that Super Nintendo classic.
Eventually, you’ll wind your way up to the entrance of Bowser’s Castle. The decor here is top notch and highly detailed, from the Instagram-worthy Bowser statue to rows of funny fake book titles to a room where Bob-ombs are being built.
The ride’s preshow takes place in a room filled with racing outfits for Mario, Luigi, Peach and others.
You’ll hear about how your goal is to beat Team Bowser, but this is more of an instructional video than a storytelling moment, so be sure to pay attention here, as missing these details can negatively affect your ride experience. I may not have intuitively understood how to lock the AR visor into my headgear or that I would “aim” my shells at enemies by turning my head.
You’ll get your headgear in the next room after the preshow before proceeding downstairs again to the loading station.
There have been complaints about Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge being “fatphobic.” I’m a bigger guy with a 38-inch waist and it was a snug fit, but acceptable fit. I don’t understand why a slow-moving dark ride’s restraints are this restrictive anyway. Universal Studios Hollywood’s last ride, Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash, had the same issue.
With that loading issue out of the way, you’ll have a hectic few seconds before the race begins. The AR visor magnetically snaps into place easily, and you’ll also have to tap your Power-Up Band (a must-have accessory for Super Nintendo World) on the Mario emblem. Then you’re at the starting line and racing through sets that evoke Mario Kart favorites like Grumble Volcano, Cloudtop Cruise and Dolphin Shoals.
In reality, you’re not really racing all that fast. Your vehicle won’t skid around turns in the same way your wildest Mario Kart dreams may have envisioned. But the ride successfully hides those shortcoming thanks to its augmented reality tech.
What is actually a slow-moving, on-rail dark ride feels like so much more thanks to AR headset providing a constant stream of action. You’ll feel like you’re moving much faster and turning more sharply, all while frantically tossing shells at enemies and delighting in the same kind of beautiful chaos that the Mario Kart games provide.
That hyperactive AR brings along a downside: distracting from the physical sets. I was so immersed in chucking shells at enemies that I missed details of the real environments around me. The AR is clearly the star of the show here and the physical sets are meant to be background, but the AR is so overwhelming at times that you can’t possibly take in everything in the space as a cohesive whole.
While a POV video isn’t a substitute for the real experience, it can demonstrate just how much is happening before your eyes on the AR headset and how distracting it can be:
That may encourage re-rides, as any interactive attraction has that strength. I’ve just never had a ride that demanded I split my focus to such a degree. Maybe that’s because AR has so rarely been enjoyable in a theme park setting.
It’s a small flaw to be sure, but I feel like the balance between the AR and physical elements is off just enough to affect your experience. If there was maybe 10 to 15 percent less activity on the AR headset — to whatever degree such a thing is measurable — a single ride may feel more complete. For once, I’m actually OK with a dark ride being light on any animatronics; they’d only be missed in this setting.
It all comes together at the end, though, for the beautiful Rainbow Road finale. The screen effects on both the walls and the track elicited audible gasps from the people in our vehicle, myself included. For even a casual Mario Kart fan, the scene will give you goosebumps.
My lowered expectations aside, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge is the best infusion of augmented or virtual reality into a theme park attraction that I’ve ever experienced. It also feels like the best Mario Kart attraction Universal could have delivered without demanding an impossibly large ride that truly moved at the same speed as the game, rather than using tricks to make a slow vehicle feel faster. My only qualms are about the balance between the AR elements and the physical sets, and those are admittedly minor quibbles.
Above all else, your takeaway from this review should be that a YouTube video of this attraction cannot be used to judge the actual ride. Go experience it for yourself. I think you’ll love it.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on my own opinion and perspective. I paid for my own park ticket. Universal Studios Hollywood did not grant me any special access to ride Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge.