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Friday, June 8, 2012

Universal Studios, Hollywood - February 20, 1998

This is a re-print of an original post to the ThompsonFamilyWeb site about a trip I took to Universal Studios Hollywood in February of 1998. It is completely unaltered from my original post.

Universal Studios, Hollywood
February 20, 1998

Ah, Universal Studios Hollywood.

The very name conjures up images of cheesy movie-themed attractions, cornball shows, gaudy souvenirs and an endless backstage tour. While you could always count on Disneyland to magically transport you to another time and place, Universal Studios provided something cheaper, more touristy, but not without a charm of its own.

As I learned on my most recent trips to Universal Studios Hollywood, things change.

USH is no longer the low-rent Disneyland wannabe I remember from my youth. Whereas there were many Southern California attractions we visited a lot when I lived there, primarily Disneyland but also to a lesser degree Knott's and Magic Mountain, USH was a place you would only go to because out of town visitors wanted to go. No local in his or her right mind ever chose to go to USH. USH today, however, is a place I would gladly go back to again and again. In fact I had been to USH on visit to Southern California a little over a year ago and I was anxious to go again this trip. The main reason I wanted to go back was because my last trip was merely a few weeks before the opening of Jurassic Park, and that was a ride I wanted to go on.

And so it was on that Friday morning that my brother Todd and I braved the Hollywood Freeway and made our way into the hills to Universal Studios.

The single thing that had impressed me most about USH on my last trip was a shopping center outside the park called the City Walk. This is a really great place to shop with many cool shops and restaurants, as well as one huge movie theater. The only shopping centers I've seen that compare - not so much in size as in ambiance and theming - are Downtown Disney in Orlando and the mall in Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas.

Todd and I didn't spend any time at the City walk this morning, there would be plenty of time for that later and we were men on a mission. And that mission was - Jurassic Park: the Ride.

We did manage to take a few minutes to mingle with actors dressed up like famous characters from movies. This is one thing Universal does right. The actors they hire to play the film characters are very good.

For those of you that have never been to Universal Studios Hollywood, it is built into a hillside and is terraced. There are 2 main tourist areas accessible by the longest escalator you have ever seen. This escalator is about ¼ mile long, and I am not exaggerating. Jurassic Park is in the bottom section along with The ET ride, Backdraft a Special Effects show called the World of Cinemagic and a few other things. Todd and I headed straight for Jurassic Park and were pleased to find that the ride had essentially no line. As a result we rode JP four times that morning. Luckily they provide you with plastic poncos, because after the waterfall at the end of the ride you are very wet. On our third trip we even made it a point to pose (as best we could under the circumstances) for the camera as we dropped down the rides climactic water drop.

Being a Disney park fan I couldn't help but make comparisons between Jurassic Park and some of Disney's "headliner" attractions. I think it's especially appropriate to compare it to the two newest Disney attractions that I have personally experienced: the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney/MGM in Disney World. First, let me say that I thought JP was terrific. In terms of sheer thrills it can go head-to-head with either IJA or TZToT. In terms of attention to detail and suspension of disbelief, however, Universal still can't hold a candle to Disney.

Take the queue area as an example. The queue areas for both IJA and TZToT are attractions in themselves. The gardens and Lobby of the Hollywood Tower Hotel and the archeological dig site outside of IJA are a blast to explore. There are so many details that vie for your attentions whether it's pseudo-horticultural plant names or the almost legible hieroglyphs. IJA and TZToT dutifully carry on this tradition of queue-areas-as-attractions started by the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion and later continued with the Great Movie Ride and Star Tours. The queue area for Jurassic Park was a covered roped-off area.

The ride itself was a rush, but once again the lack of attention to detail made it pale when compared to Disney rides of similar caliber. As you enter "Jurassic Park" , as an example, you see gigantic Brachiosaurs wading in the water. While they looked fairly convincing and moved well, when I turned for a second look as the boat passed I could easily see under the shallow water where the dinosaur's body ended. (Two things of note here. First, when we went on the ride a fifth time that evening there was a mist on the water which made the effect much more convincing. Second, I made a mental note to pay attention to how well Disney keeps you from seeing underneath water. I found that Disney tends to use turbulence in the water at the base of the partially submerged figure to keep you from being able to see the part of the figure that is under water. It's little details like those that tend to make a big difference to me.) There were several other places in the attraction where it's all too easy to see the mechanisms involved in bringing the creatures to life.

After out fourth trip through JP that morning Todd and I decided to see what else USH had to offer. Since there was no line we gave the ET adventure a whirl. It was much more enjoyable than I had remembered from my last trip, due in large part no doubt to that fact that we didn't have to wait in line for an hour this time out. The next time we visit California with my kids I'll have to bring them to USH if, for no other reason, then to take them on ET. We also went to see the World of Cinemagic show (I volunteered Todd to play "Doc Brown" in the Back to the Future segment).. After that we started getting hungry so we went to the restaurant next to JP to get some lunch. I contemplated getting the roast chicken, but the truth is I don't trust anything that isn't stored frozen in places like that. I had the chicken wings instead, but Todd decided to brave the roast chicken. (Later that night, ironically, Todd got food poisoning from that chicken.) After lunch we decided to head up to the other section of the park.

A big attraction in the upper level is the Back to the Future ride. For those of you who may have visited Disney parks but not either of the Universal parks, BttF is a "flight simulator" ride along the lines of Star Tours or Body Wars. The main difference is that you are in an open-cockpit vehicle and the movie is projected on a huge, domed screen. The ride is great, but once again I prefer Star Tours. Interestingly, although BttF has been around much longer than JP, the lines for BttF were about 25 minutes compared to no line at all for JP. I think a lot of this has to do with location - JP is at the far end of the park.

We walked around the upper section for a while and I noticed several banners featuring the likeness of the man who purchased our Manhattan apartment. "Why would this guy's picture be on banners all over USH?" you may well ask. I have no idea. (Actually, he's the star of a TV show that, I assume, is a Universal property).

We also went on the Studio Tour. I remember when I was a kid the tour was USH. You did the tour, which took about 4 hours, and perhaps there was a show to see. Now the tour is only about 45 minutes long and not the most popular attraction at USH by a long shot. I assume the brevity of the tour is due in part by the fact that a lot of the outdoor sets burned down some year's back. The first time I went to USH when I was a kid the tour was strictly a studio tour with no attractions (unless you count the over-sized props at the lunch area the tour stopped at half way through). Then they added some real cheesy special effects like the runaway train (that actually went about 3 MPH), the rock slide (with rocks that looked exactly like what they were: giant balls of foam) the parting of the Red Sea (a concrete lock in one of the lakes) and the flash flood (which actually is kind of cool). Of those original attractions the only ones that remain are the flash flood (which, like I said, was the only decent effect) and the parting of the Red Sea (which I assume is still necessary to get from one end of the lake to another). The effects they added to the tour got increasingly more sophisticated, and the highlight is clearly "Kongrontation" (with the "awful banana breath!") which is still impressive more than 10 years later. Otherwise the Tour is mostly fun as a historical oddty and not much else.

At the end of the tour we noticed that there was some sort of big goings-on at one of the lot theaters (red carpet, limos, tuxedos and evening gowns - a somewhat incongruous sight at 4:00 in the afternoon). It turned out to be the "Soap Opera Awards". Sheesh - they'll give away awards for anything.

We then decided to go to the City Walk. Guests for the awards show were still arriving, many of them obviously in a hurry (I guess these were the riff-raff that didn't warrant the limo-and-red-carpet treatment). I have never seen so many women in one place looking so uncomfortable in their shoes. On their way to the awards show the guests had to walk past a group of people from PETA protesting Proctor & Gamble (who sponsored the show) for their mistreatment of laboratory animals.

I did some shopping at the City Walk although I didn't find anything for the kids that I liked. I found a really cool Hawaiian shirt for Andie but I didn't buy it because I wasn't sure if she'd like it (I ended but buying it at Knott's anyway, and she loves it BTW). I did find a very cool T-shirt with the Universal logo stitched over the breast for myself, and Todd bought a cute T-shirt with a black-and-white "photo" of a nude Betty Boop lying on a couch - a satire of the famous Kate Moss/Calvin Klein ad. The tagline on the T-shirt is "Oopsetion".

Todd and I ended up in Marvelmania, a Marvel comics-themed restaurant and bar. We weren't hungry so we didn't go to the restaurant, but we did go to the bar. This place is fantastic. Marvel comics' characters and paraphernalia are everywhere. The bar, which is supposed to look like an evil scientist's laboratory, has some of the most inventive, fun and delicious drinks I have ever experienced. The souvenir menu alone is worth the price of a drink (which are, BTW, quite reasonable). In particular I highly recommend the Marvel Triple Action. Yum.

Thus revived we decided to brave the park again for a few more trips through Jurassic Park. On the way in we got in line for another trip Back to the Future, but decided against it because we weren't in the mood for the 20-30 minute wait. So off we went to JP. The suspension of disbelief is somewhat easier at night - there's the mist I mentioned before, plus things just look a bit better under more dramatic and less glaring light. That said, I felt that the lighting for the outdoor section was a bit dark. Regardless, if you go to USH and only have time to ride JP once, I would recommend riding at night.

Two more rides on JP and that was it for us. I now feel like I've gotten USH out of my system for a while. The next time I go to So Cal with my kids I'll likely take them there to see ET and some of the other kid-oriented attractions, but I will have no burning desire to go there myself. That is, of course, until they open Terminator 2 3D…

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