It's Universal - This is Great!

13th December, Los Angeles, Universal Studios

Ian writes:

It's hard to believe (perhaps) but even when I first got to the US this time, I didn't know about Universal Studios - or at least not the visitors' attractions there. In my mind, all those things are in Florida or Miami way. Ignorant fool that I am ...

Ouch, it got me!

Universal Studios is only one of the world's most famous 'theme parks', if that is the correct name for it, and rightly so. We left our hotel early to get there, so much so that we were almost the only people in our carriage on the metro and once on site at Universal we were among the first through the gates, walking down the deserted streets past the not-yet-opened shops that line them.

Manda posing in front of Hollywood sign (not the real one, mind)

Almost immediately we found ourselves an attraction to visit - Shrek 4D. The first performance of the day, and we were loving it. For me, it was just like I imagined these things to be - polished production, excellent big-screen action (and all in very realistic 3D vision) and all wrapped up in the humour of Shrek. How could you top this? Easily - Terminator 2 : 3D.

The Terminator ride/feature has been about for a while now - I'd seen a piece about it on the T2 DVD, and so I knew that a lot of work went into it, all overseen by T2 director James Cameron. It all starts on the premise of visiting Cyberdyne Systems on a PR exercise when suddenly the corporate video is hijacked by Sarah and John Connor (the same actors that were in T2) warning us about Cyberdyne. Then, everyone is taken into an auditorium, and shortly after this all hell breaks loose. Using a combination of live actors, original film of the real T2 actors and 3D film (brought to life with the specs provided) it really helps you to feel part of the action. Real actors walk through doors on the set to appear on screen in a real piece of film or a virtual world. Very clever stuff and highly recommended!

This pretty much set the scene for the rest of the day, hopping from one big set piece to another, checking the starting time for the next scheduled must-see item as we went. So, here's what we did, folks:

Shrek 4D
Big ugly ogre rescues princess Fiona from the evil - but dead and ghostly-looking - Lord Farquhard. Great humour, excellent animation.?
The Mummy
While waiting for the next showing of T2 3D I suggested to Manda that we fill ten minutes by walking around The Mummy 'set'. It can't be that scary, right? I mean, there were a bunch of ten-year-olds in front and behind us. Cue lots of mechanical things jumping out at you in the dark passageways and live actors posing as statues who would lunge out and try to grab you, throw in the aforementioned ten-year-olds and their high-pitched (and incessant) screams, and you have a very perturbed Manda. I did wonder about my wisdom of suggesting this one, and halfway through the passageways wondered what the staff would do if someone had a panic attack!
Terminator 2 3D
Excellent. See above. And go see it for yourself if you can.
The Universal Studios Tour
You know the little trolly buses the moment you see them. You probably know about the Jaws part of the tour, when the big ole fish comes out of the water right beside you? What I didn't know was that this was not just an amusement thing, that it actually did involve a tour around actual working sets, many of which I'd seen in films such as Bruce Almighty, Back to the Future and Psycho. The square in Back to the Future is a good example of a false-front building (or a series of them) that are re-fitted many times over for different films, and you'd be hard-pushed to recognise the same set in two different films. Well, unless you were a real film buff. Among the other fun parts of this tour was the ever-destructable underground set (the guide said they were 'filming there on Monday' and moments later the floor was caving in, then the roof, then a truck fell in to the set, then gallons of water cascaded through the gates). Amazing, and more so when you realise that this set gets re-set every half hour or so for the next bunch of visitors coming through.
The 12 Days of Christmas Parade
All very Disney. Take a bunch of cartoon characters in oversized colourful suits, place them on flash cars or fun floats and garnish with a load of extremely enthusiastic humans to hand out free beads and candy. Throw in some suitably jolly music et voila! The 12 Days of Christmas Parade - available three times a day at Universal. We saw it twice!
The film sucked. Well, it was mindless entertainment, and it cost an absolutely insane amount of money to make (Universal eventually made a profit, but only after sales of video and DVD). Like the parade, the Waterworld show took place three times a day. And like the film, it looked like a lot of money went into this production.
Plenty of explosions, tom-foolery with the water (the crowd would often get soaked by the people on jetskis - all completely by accident, of course!) and stunts from TV and film actors. This was a great show. Not one you can watch over and over though, because of the time required for re-sets.
Jurassic Park - River Ride
Another one that needs a raincoat! You're ambling along on the boat, admiring the views of Site B of Jurassic Park when ... quel surprise ... things go pear-shaped. Dinosaurs are on the loose! Well, if you count scary 10-foot monsters attached by cables and mechanical arms as on the loose. The highlight of this one is right at the end. After climbing a steep incline, you know there's only one way to go - back down - into the water! Big splashdown guarantees a fun end to the ride. Unless you happen to be holding a camcorder at that last moment, in which case you would be thinking about how you're going to fill out the claim form ("I was momentarily distracted by the large velociraptor").
Special Effects Stage
With the advent of DVD 'making-of' programs as obligatory special features, there is little mystery to how effects are created these days. Nonetheless, the special effects stage is a fun escape from the pre-determined routes of the other rides. Set over three stages, the energetic host walks you through the tricks used in creating scary creatures, applying sound effects to films and other movie tricks like false perspective. Volunteers take part in this one, but we didn't.
After the preamble about the film - how they wanted to make a film that firefighters could belive in (personally, I think the dialogue was among the worst and cheesiest in any film!) - we were moved into a wharehouse set that was about to go up in flames. And then some even bigger flames. Then there were the explosions. This was one massive gas oven that we were in!
Back to the Future (twice)
We went to this one earlier in the day and re-visited it after Backdraft. Even though it's not one of Universal's newest rides, it's still one of the best. You sit in an 8-seater Delorean car (yeah, they don't exist in real life - it's just a ride!) and the premise is that you have to chase after Biff who's stolen Doc Brown's original Delorean car. All you gotta do is bump it. Trouble is, you keep jumping through time zones, from 'present-day' to ice age (watch out for falling ice) to prehistoric times (watch out for dinosaurs with big pointy teeth!). It's very convincing - the hydraulics perfectly match the movements on the giant screen ahead of you.

Universal Studios logo

All-in-all, Universal makes an excellent day out. It cost us $47 dollars (although you can get discount cards from shops in LA/Hollywood), but that was money very well spent. Note that you can get Superpasses for $79 that allow you to jump queues. We were very lucky though - arriving so early meant that we never had to wait long. We only noticed that the park was getting busy after the lunchtime showing of Waterworld (no doubt many people bus in and are there between 11am-3pm). I made one touristy purchase - a Spongebob Squarepants T-shirt!

We left Universal at around 5:30 and joined the queues for the shuttle bus which took us back to the Metro, which was just one stop away from our excellently-placed hotel in Hollywood. On the corner of Hollwood and Highland, protestors had gathered to, erm, protest about the continued occupation by US forces of Iraq. People were handing out 'Stop Bush' placards, which I helped myself to, posed for a photo then sheepishly handed back. I'm just a big old fake, eh?

Holding a placard - just for the photo ... I didn't really join in the protest!