Robert's Tour, Part Two -- Universal Studios Hollywood
It's Universal's 40th anniversary week. So... where's the party?
Written by Robert Niles
Los Angeles, California -- Universal Studios Hollywood celebrates its 40th anniversary on Thursday, July 15. As if anyone visiting the park this week would notice. Walking into Universal Studios Hollywood Tuesday morning I saw not a sign of the park's impending birthday. You think Disney would let an event like that go unnoticed by its guests?Tweet
Universal does share one trait with Magic Mountain, however – many of its attractions don't start operating at the park's official opening time. Unlike at Magic Mountain, however, Universal does tell you when what will open in a detailed printed park guide. So points there for a touch of honesty. And Universal does open up three attractions at 9 a.m. for the early-arriving crowd.
Having seen each of those plenty of times before, I dropped Natalie at summer camp before arriving at USH for the 9:30 rope drop opening the Lower Lot – home of the new Revenge of the Mummy. Universal's staff demonstrated its professionalism in communicating with the crowd, keeping it under control, then walking everyone down the steps and escalators to the Lower Lot, so no one could sprint ahead of the crowd. A park opening demands good crowd control, and Universal's crew handles it splendidly.
Not carrying any packs and bags, which aren't allowed on Mummy, I skipped the lockers and made it on to the first train on the day. After a few readers complained that I'd given this ride too glowing a review, I decided to give it another look. Well, I haven't changed my mind.
As TPI reader Jeremy Pryer responded last week, the two drop mummies before the coaster launch are now gone. But bringing back those mummies really wouldn't add any oomph to the ride unless they dropped over riders' heads, and not along the wall as they did opening night. The scarab effect at the turnaround needs some animatronic bugs and in-seat binaural effects to be anywhere close to terrifying. And we could use a lot more flame in the finale. But let's be clear. These are changes that would elevate this ride toward perfection. As it stands, Mummy delivers two darned fine minutes of theme park entertainment. And I'm not backing off that.
With Mummy providing the big draw at USH this year, my game plan for this park would be to hit everything in the Lower Lot when it opens in the morning. If you've not been to Universal Studios Hollywood before, don't make the mistake of thinking of these two sections of the park as simply a couple of themed lands. The two stand farther apart from each other than Disneyland and California Adventure. Plus, one stands several hundred feet below the other, connected by a series of steps and elevators.
In other words, don't plan on hopping back and forth between the two lots during the day. Do one, then the other. And if you've got kids in strollers, wait 'til they are older before dragging them to USH. Moving between the lots is a hassle (you can't take a kid in a stroller on the escalators) and there's simply not much to engage a toddler at this park.
But I wasn't able to follow a plan yesterday, so why should today be any different? The Jurassic Park River Adventure suffered a delayed opening, and with Special Effects Stages not running its first show until 10:30, I waited it out with a growing line of fans. (I suppose I could have done Backdraft in the meantime, but to be honest, I forgot about it. Really, why is that show still there?)
Someone took pity upon us and opened the queue at 10:15, allowing us to cool our heels in the shade and mist. Sure, other parks have installed misters in an attempt to cool their queues on hot days, but Jurassic's misters look like they were ordered from Spinal Tap. At times, I couldn't see more than one body in front of me. But after yesterday's broiling, I welcomed the enveloping fog.
Thanks to the downtime, I went two-for-two, scoring the first boat on Jurassic Park after the first train on Mummy. We left the dock to scattered cheers from the crowd, climbed up the lift...
And stopped. To quote Jeff Goldblum, I've got a funny feeling about this. And not in the whimsical “...and then something goes *terribly wrong*!” way the ride's designers intended. After three minutes of Magic Mountain-level broiling under the sun, our boat eventually got on its way through the River Adventure.
I'd forgotten how much better the Hollywood version of this ride soaks you than the Florida installation. Spitting and squirting dinos managed to nail me several times before the inevitable “something goes terribly wrong” moment when our boat ventures “off course” and past the busted Raptor pens.
A quick dash past the Raptors and up the lift brought us to the main building, where the kid next to me kept telling his mom, “This is it!” Chill, kid, you've got a couple turns to go.
Of course, there was no mistaking the upcoming final drop, because several maintenance lights illuminated the T Rex body in its alcove, as well as the top of the flume. Oops. Guess I know the reason for the delayed opening now. Well, the T Rex should be emerging any second....
Double oops. No T Rex.
Seriously, if you're not gonna deliver the money shot, leave the attraction closed. Sure, we all got wet on the drop. And the mother and son next to me had no idea there was supposed to be any even bigger climax to the ride. But a theme park of Universal's caliber ought to be about show as well as thrill, and if a ride's condition is such that it can't deliver it's show, leave it down.
End of sermon. For today, at least.
Now it's 10:45. I've been on two rides, one of which shouldn't have been open, and I'm beginning to entertain the though that maybe Magic Mountain isn't run all that bad after all. Not a good sign.
So I head back up the escalators in time for the next show of Terminator 2:3D.
Ah, yes. Terminator illustrates what a great theme park can do to advance entertainment by blending live performances, special effects, a little “gotcha” thrill, and wrapping it all in a delicious coating of snarkiness.
Other fans dismiss filmed attractions in theme parks. I've no problem with movies, so long as they stand up as such, with top-quality talent involved. Terminator takes several steps beyond that, offering a worthy sequel to the theatrical films and involving the audience with a variety of special effects.
That said, it's time for Universal to revisit this attraction. The preshow clip featuring a cyborg Shaq draining free throws elicited hisses on the day the Lakers were to send their All-Star center packing to Miami. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is the freakin' governor now! No longer a viable symbol of rebellion against corporate and government authority, Arnold's instead become The Man. Quick, Universal, turn this building into a Men in Black-style shoot-'em-up before Terminator 2:3D descends completely into self-parody. This show deserves a better legacy than that.
Yes, the show's better than it was. I've never seen a cast work harder to sell a show to its audience. Not in a theme park. Not on any Equity stage. You can't help but be impressed, and entertained, by a cast giving its all like Spider-Man Rocks'. Their voices soar, crisp punches and kicks animate the fight scenes and no one allows the energy to lag for even a moment.
But no performance, however valiant, can save a failed concept. “I Need a Hero” works at the end of Shrek 2 because the movie's making fun of the song. Here, the script demand it be played straight. And no one who was even near the age of puberty when that song came out can soberly accept that. And who believes that real comic book fans listen to Ricky Martin?
Sure, go see this show if you're in the park. Universal's small enough that you can see everything in a full day, anyway. Applaud loud and long for the dynamite cast. But, please, Universal, come up with a better concept for a musical show than this. And give this actors a script that fully honors and showcases their talents and effort.
I wrapped up my early day by catching the 1:10 show of WaterWorld. No complaints here, as the show continues to deliver what might be the most impressive outdoor stunt show I've seen in a theme park. (I'm looking forward to see if Disney-MGM's upcoming motor stunt show can wrest this title.) Any show that sends a flying airplane through a fireball to crash into water less than 20 feet from the audience earns my undying respect.
And, finally, I hope Universal wrote a fat bonus check to whomever had the idea of ID'ing the cast members of its shows to the audience during the curtain calls. For all their hard work, we deserve to know their names, and to acknowledge them personally. I smacked Disney for shortchanging the deserving cast of its new Snow White show with a wimpy curtain call, so I need to laud Universal for getting this right.
If I weren't trying an insane tour, I'd have gladly spent the whole day here, continuing on with the Studio Tour, a trip on Back to the Future, then a return to the Lower Lot to catch Special Effects Stages and, heck, even Backdraft before grabbing dinner at CityWalk.
But, hey, gotta pick up the kids.
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