Built to surround and enhance the Simpsons Ride, which opened in 2008, the fully-immersive environment includes over a hogshead's worth of living references. Some of them as huge and obvious as the Duff Brewery, Moe’s Tavern and Krusty Burger. Others are smaller and subtler, the kind of nerdy nuggets that give us geeks an extra special spring in our steps (Smilin' Joe Fission!? Stools around Moe's pool table in a nod to Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag!? Yes.)
The whole place opened with a literal bang as a coterie of Universal execs lit up the Springfield nuclear power plant with fireworks, smoke and a blast of fluttery paper fallout. Giant character costumes pranced around the cartoon world through strains of Danny Elfman's Simpsons theme song. They nodded to the voice actors in attendance — Yeardly Smith (Lisa Simpson), Nancy Cartwright (Bart, Nelson, et al.) and Joe Mantegna (Fat Tony) — but oddly, not to the geniuses behind their words and images who were standing off to the side, people like Mike Price, David Silverman, Mike Reiss and Tom Gammill, among others.
Simpsons executive producer Al Jean begged the crowd in his allotted remarks, “Don't look at Harry Potter…it's not finished,” perhaps worrying that the upcoming but unfinished wizarding world would already begin overshadowing this little slice of his fantasyland. He then set the surreal tone for the rest of the evening: “What an electric thrill it is to see stray thoughts you had 25 years ago come to life and sell for nine dollars.” We're delighted by the bizarre ouroboros of references (it's so much like our dreams, it's scary) but we can't imagine Jean's state of mind.
Things just went full bizarro from there. We walked into a perfectly recreated Moe's Tavern behind producer/animator/director David Silverman and the theme-park bartender asked him if he wanted a Duff…and he had one. All we could think was, “It's the local lug who fills your mug with the drug you chug! And the guy who conceived it….drinking it….in it…b-b-but what about the dank? If Uncle Moe threatens ya, do you get a free steak?” Words can't describe the feeling of self-referential meltdown that happened in that moment — so we won't even try.
Universal's food folks took their best shot at the artery-clogging victuals of Springfield (“The World's Fattest Town”) with Krusty Burgers, Ribwiches, donuts and even Cletus' Chicken Shack. Cletus' employees didn't know if they had anything that could flash-fry a buffalo in forty seconds, and that's ok. All the food was awesomely outrageous (and full of secret hobo spices). Just don't get on that gut-buggering jumble of a ride right afterward, you'll probably regret it.
Besides the food, the gallons of Duff and the non-alcoholic (and presumably cough syrup-free) Flaming Moe's, they packed the place with all sorts of crazy crap, a further immersive Krustyland, a Kwik-e-Mart and, yes, even a Disco Stu's Disco (facade only, sadly). For the folks who might not get everything, or for those folks who need the reassurance, screens throughout the are played carefully curated snippets of Simpsons episodes. Satire piled upon satire, surrounded by hints and attribution…wrapped in riddles…wrapped in unexplained bacon.
Even with the almost pitch-perfect world of allusions and associations, they were missing a few things. Where was Unnecessary Surgery Land, the Frying Dutchman, TGI McScratchy's Goodtime Fooddrinkery? What about the Texas Cheesecake Depository, Uncle Moe's Million Dollar Birthday fries, the Philly Fudgesteak or the Whatchamachicken? If all of that got left out, we'd hate to think what's happening in Euro Springfield. We're kidding. Mostly. We feel that most folks who grew up in the 80s will have the best vacation ever, or they should agree to split up and join other families. Come on — who doesn't want to spend a few hours in a world of unending Simpsons references (which, come to think of it, also describes the real world)?
On our way out, we were invited to take one of the larger-than-life-but-actually-real giant iconic pink donuts. To keep us in the spirit, and as if on cue, some slack-jawed yokel asked if these donuts, branded as Lard Lad, came in a “gluten free form.” No. No they do not. Where's a good satirist when you need one?