"Hey, Ken, look at this guy's shirt!"
It is more or less at this point that my park visits start to get really expensive.
We were able to get a bit of a deal by buying tickets on-line and printing them ourselves. But Universal is an expensive park. Getting there is simple enough, as it is right off of US-101, although the traffic starts to get challenging the closer we get to the park. This time I was attending the park with my Mom and Dad, and Dad was, predictably, doing the driving. My Dad is one of those traditional American Dads who will give up the steering wheel when you pry it from his cold, dead fingers. Unfortunately, he's also not the best about recognizing and following directional signs, nor does he always do as he is told when his passengers try to keep him one step ahead of the local traffic pattern. Combine that with the fact that the ramps into Universal's parking garage are not exactly clearly marked (they actually give what appear to be contradictory instructions) and there was just a little bit of drama in getting the car parked.
Universal has installed a miniature version of the CitiWalk nightclub district between their parking garage and the park entrance. So in spite of the efficient set of escalators to get people out of the parking garage, it is still a long walk to the entrance gate. Speaking of entrance gate, this is another place where Universal is a kind of an odd set-up. The park is squeezed in among the buildings of Universal Studios' working motion picture studio, a space which was never intended to be an amusement park. In fact, the last time I was here (in 1975), it wasn't an amusement park...it was a movie studio that offered a scenic tour of its back-lot. When we arrived at the entrance, I noticed that Universal has wholeheartedly adopted one of the worst programs to infest our amusement parks: for an extra fee, you can stroll to the head of the line on any attraction. There is an office between the ticket booths and the entrance gate where participants in the program receive their credenetials; it occured to me that if they truly wanted to make it a VIP experience, then those participants should enter that office, receive their credentials, and then be escorted directly into the park. But it appears that instead they were coming out of the office and then entering the park with the rest of us.
Just inside the park is a kiosk where a couple of guys were pointing out the layout of the park and giving recommendations on how to plan your day in the park. One of them spotted me and called us over. It turned out that he had noticed my Kennywood tee shirt. The reason he noticed it was that his co-worker's name happens to be Kenny. We chatted a bit about the Western Pennsylvania park, and the guys showed us some tips for enjoying our day at Universal. Then they supplied us with a couple of 'front of line' passes to use at our leisure during the day, just for interrupting us on our trip down the midway. Well, that was nice of them!
The park is divided into three basic parts. First is the upper level, which features mostly scheduled attractions and shows, second is the lower level, which features continuous attractions which are more obviously identified as "rides". The third section of the park isn't really in the park at all...rather, it is the studio complex itself, accessible to customers by way of the famous Universal Studios tram tour. Which is where we opted to go first.
The tram tour takes about forty minutes, and makes use of a rather interesting vehicle. The studio trams appear at first glance to be typical parking lot trams, but with gull-wing doors. A closer examination reveals some interesting variations. Most obvious is the elaborate audio and video system. Each of the cars is equipped with several overhead video monitors, and a deccent sound system. The lead car, where the tour guide sits, is equipped with the control system, and not just a microphone for the guide, but also a video camera so that we can all see the tour guide as well as hear him. Slightly less obvious to most riders is the system of guide wheels mounted on the sides of the cars, which allow the enormous 4-car trams to successfully navigate through some of the precision driving maneuvers required by the studio tour. Because we were seated in the last car of the tram, I didn't get to take a look at the controls for the A/V system, but by watching the course carefully and noticing how our show went, I got some insight into the kind of equipment that would be required. Universal has a little secret about the studio tour: While it sounds like a movie studio would be a neat thing to see, and while indeed there are some neat things to see, more than anything else, it is a commercial workplace, and like most commercial workplaces, it isn't really all that exciting. Movies are exciting and interesting, but the buildings where movies are made are nothing more than big ugly warehouses, and these days most of the interesting work is going on inside those buildings. So Universal has compensated for this on the tram tour by preparing video clips that show off some of the end results (=movies) of the work that goes on in the studio, frequently narrated by some of the studio's more well-known employees. These clips are intercut on the fly with the running commentary from the tour guide. The trick is that the tour changes frequently to accommodate the actual work going on in the studio, and to avoid tour equipment that is out of service (such as the collapsing bridge that we drove around). This means that the guide also has to serve as his own director and editor, selecting the proper clips for the current section of the lot, and adjusting his own commentary for the progress of the tour. Our tour took a little more than an hour...more than twenty minutes longer than advertised...and yet there was plenty of material to fill the time. I daresay the operators on the tram tour are some of the most talented ride operators in Southern California, as the drivers operate the gigantic trams with precision, and the guides deliver their polished multimedia lectures.
Of course the reason the trams have the guide wheels is that they are designed to properly navigate not only the back streets of the back lot, but also certain show elements. Several elements that are (or were) stand-alone attractions at the Orlando park are incorporated into the tram tour here, including the Earthquake subway station scene, and experiences from Jaws and King Kong (1976). Also included are a rainstorm scene, a neat trip down to lagoon water level to get a camera's eye view of miniatures built for King Kong (2006), and the only feature I actually remembered from my visit to Universal Studios in 1975, the rolling barrel now decorated to have something to do with The Mummy. That's the stuff that was staged for the tram tour; then there is also the collection of buildings, sets, and other jiggery-pokery that just happens to be laying about the Universal backlot. Universal apparently has the largest studio facility in the area, so their facilities get used by all of the major studios, all of the television networks, and a lot of independent program producers. It's also worth noting that because Universal Studios sits high on a hill, there are points in the facility that offer a commanding view of most of the competition.
After the tram tour, we passed by a very wet Nickelodeon-themed kids play area to see the Shrek 4D film. I had seen this particular show in Florida, and noted that this implementation was essentially identical once we were inside the theater. The Florida park, which has a little more space, has a more elaborate queue, but the attraction is pretty much the same, with the same gags to watch out for in the theater...motion bases, spray nozzles, lights in unusual locations, air hoses, the usual stuff. Hmmm...You might be an amusement park nut if you walk into a theater and actually expect the seat to have a seat belt [Footnote 1]. The show is well done, with more than its fair share of gratuitous 3D gimmicks, in-jokes and jabs at That Other Studio. I happened to like it, and I thought it a much better show than Back to the Future, which I had also seen in Florida, and which I deliberately skipped here.
Our next big show stop was T23D. That is another show I had seen in Orlando, though not as recently as Shrek. The show is impressive, although it suffered from a fairly serious technical glitch. When the show went to full-screen, one of the polarizers on the extreme right screen projector was clearly set wrong, as we were getting a double image for the left eye and no image for the right eye from that screen. Is there no projectionist for this show, or at least some staff member monitoring the show? Fixing the problem might certainly have been out of the question, but negating it would require only dousing the lamp or covering the offending lens on the offending projector. Anyway, as impressive as the show is, I still think it suffers from some basic flaws, notably that it starts as an immersive experience, and then just as it starts to get rolling, the film is intercut, destroying the whole notion of "place". At once we go from being in the scene to watching a movie. A movie on a gigantic wraparound screen, interacting with live actors on the stage, to be sure, but still just a movie. And I still don't understand why they bounce the seats at the end.
We went down the escalators to the lower level, where the continuous-loading attractions are, and headed for Backdraft. Universal Studios suffers from a bit of schizophrenia, in that a movie studio park is a rather limiting concept. On the one hand, movie making is interesting, but as an attraction, it isn't *that* interesting. Universal as an amusement park started as a tour of "Here's how we make the movies". That grew to include examples of, "Here is what the movies look like," and finally, they decided to throw out the movie production thing altogether and go with a far more impressive and liberating concept: that of placing you *in* the movie. The tram tour is an example of the first two concepts, and T23D is more an attempt at the third. Backdraft is an interesting blend of the concepts. It begins with a couple of preshow rooms which give a little background on the film, and demonstrate a couple of fire effects, talking about what a backdraft is. Then we're taken into a warehouse where we get to see what it looks like, and watch the whole place blow up. That they can keep that much flame under control is pretty impressive. That they can maintain safety with people that close to that much flame is amazing. That they can do all this and still drop the end of the bridge a few inches without causing anybody to panic is astonishing. The one disappointment, although it really has nothing to do with filmmaking or with Backdraft, is that we don't really get to see the show room reset before we are herded out.
Adjacent to Backdraft is an entertaining demonstration of special effects. Not especially informtive, but entertaining. It's always entertaining when they pull volunteers from the audience, and then kill them off. Pity the participants don't get to see the show. It was entertaining, but it was getting late and I was ready to ride the coaster. We crossed the busy plaza and "cashed in" our front-of-line passes at Revenge of the Mummy.
The ride turned out to be nothing at all like the one in Orlando. This one lacks the elaborate dark ride scenes from the Orlando ride, and is a bit shorter in the coaster section...but it seems that it goes backward for a longer period than the one in Florida. I can't tell you what the ride does, because it's DARK. But I can tell you what it does not do. At the end of the ride, it approaches the loading platform in reverse and waits on a turntable for the station to clear. It's only a single station. While the one in Florida has the fake ending with the cool fire effect, this one has a block brake in a room with a cheesy fire effect which doesn't even look like fire. In all, the ride is decent, but a real disappointment compared with the one in Florida.
None of us wanted to get as wet as Jurassic Park so we skipped that one. It was getting close to time for us to leave, so we started to make our way out. We went back up the escalators, and Mom wanted to walk through the Van Helsing attraction, which turned out to be essentially a haunted house, and not a very good one at that. Mostly it seemed to contain a lot of loud noises, and a whole bunch of steps and ramps, neither of which is good for three people with varying degrees of bad knees. There were some sets inside, and they were well done, but I couldn't really figure out any kind of a coherent storyline for the attraction.
Speaking of opaque or missing storylines, we finished our day at Universal by seeing the final performance of the day of Waterworld. It's a stunt show kind of loosely based on the forgettable 1985 movie. The show is kind of simplistic, but features some interesting stunts and effects. The show is kind of environmental in nature, as it doesn't really have a hard "start" to it; instead, performers start doing their thing even as the audience is filing into the ampitheater. The show involves lots of boats, gunfire, explosions, and a seaplane jumping over the back wall of the set and landing short in the lagoon. It's entertaining, and it's impressive. What more could we want?
This was the end of our day. We made the hike back to the car, and headed for home. It had been a rather short day, but tomorrow we go to Disneyland.
--Dave Althoff, Jr.
Footnote 1: Although oddly enough that was the one thing that these seats did not have, a fact which was actually the basis of the first joke of the show. [Return to text]
Back to Trip Reports 2006
Back to the Trip Report Archive
Back to Dave's Adventures
Back to Dave's page.