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The Theme Park Insider's tour of Universal Studios Singapore

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Published: February 26, 2010 at 6:25 AM

SINGAPORE - I told you that I had a surprise for you.

Greetings from Singapore, where I just completed a "sneak peek" tour of the soon-to-open Universal Studios Singapore.

Robert Niles at Universal Studios Singapore

At just 49 acres (20 hectacres), Universal Studios Singapore will be the smallest of Universal's theme parks (less than half the size of either of the Universal Orlando theme parks), but it is loaded. Though the park is not open yet, I was invited to take a 45-minute walk around the park while I was in Singapore for a few days.

(For those who might be asking, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a World Association of Newspapers conference on journalism here in Singapore, since media criticism is one of my other gigs.)

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos inside the theme park, as painting crews were still set up throughout. Not that it ultimately mattered much, as it poured rain for about 30 minutes of my visit, and I wouldn't have been able to get any decent shots anyway. However, the representative who guided me around the park has promised some additional hand-out photos, which I will post when I get them in a couple of days.

Universal Studios Singapore is part of the new Resorts World Sentosa development on Sentosa Island, south of the main Singapore Island. Despite its island location, Universal Studios Singapore might be the most easily accessible theme park I've ever visited. I took Singapore's MRT subway to the Harbourfront station, from where I took a short S$2 (a little more than US$1.50) bus ride to Resorts World Sentosa.

Don't want to ride the bus? You could also reach the island via monorail or gondola, and soon you'll be able to walk across on the now-under-construction boardwalk. Oh yeah, you could drive over, too, but with parking for just 3,500 vehicles in its parking garage, I'd stick with the public transport options.

That might sound like a lot of parking spaces, but the Universal Studios theme park shares those spaces with the Resorts World Sentosa's new, wildly popular casino, as well as its FestiveWalk shopping and dining area (think CityWalk, for those of you familiar with the U.S. Universal theme parks.)

Once inside the park, I started with a walk down its Hollywood main street, which looks a bit like the Hollywood section of Universal Studios Florida, except covered with a huge, translucent canopy, to keep tropical rainstorms at bay. (We hid underneath during today's downpour.)

At the end of the Holllywood "zone" lies the park's lagoon, from which you can see each of the other park zones surrounding it. I noticed what looked to me like pyro equipment mounted in the lagoon, but my guide didn't know of plans for a night-time fireworks show. The signs at the front of the park announced operating hours of 9 am - 6 pm, which would be too early a close for fireworks.

She did say, however, that the park would be open in the evenings, for diners and shoppers, who could enter without charge, though the attractions would no longer be operating for the day. That's a first I've heard of in the industry, and I'm interested to see if that helps build visitor loyalty to the park.

From Hollywood, we worked our way counter-clockise around the park, through New York, to Sci-Fi City, then to Ancient Egypt (you can see the impressive Revenge of the Mummy facade directly opposite Hollywood). To the left of Mummy stands The Lost World, then continuing counter-clockwise, we saw Far, Far Away, which is dominated by the castle from Shrek 2. Finally, we ended in Madgascar, which stands just to the left of Hollywood.

Map of Universal Studios Singapore
Image courtesy Universal Studios Singapore

I didn't get to see much in the New York zone, which featured detailed city street scene facades, just like the Orlando park. But I stopped to watch for several minutes as test trains cycled on the Battlestar Galactica twin coaster.

Battlestar Galactica at Universal Studios Singapore
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Singapore

This Vekoma coaster features two, intertwined tracks. On the Blue "Cylon" coaster, you're riding on an Inverted train, but on the Red "Human" track, you're on a sideless sit-down train. Water dummies occupied the seat on the red train as I watched it run (in the rain!) through several continuous cycles. This coaster looks ready to run.

The sign up front had posted a 5-minute wait time, prompting me to say only somewhat facetiously to the waiting greeter, "Hey, I'll take that!" No go, of course.

I noticed greeters in front of almost all the attractions, and heard ride attendant practicing spiels as vehicles cycled all over the park. I also noticed Universal Express entrances on most attractions. That queue-skipping service will be offered as a paid option to park visitors, I was told.

What drew my eye first after walking through Hollywood was the massive, richly detailed facade for Revenge of the Mummy. Now this is what a mummy's tomb is supposed to look like. No faux New York museum set, as in Orlando, or a couple of statues outside a studio sound stage, as in Hollywood.

Two massive Anubis stand guard in front of the tomb building, with others kneeling along the pathway that approaches.

Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Singapore
Photo courtesy Universal Studios Singapore

The entire land, like the other zones in Universal Studios Singapore, is richly detailed. There's no pretense of being a movie studio in this park, freeing Universal Creative's designers from having to dilute thematic environments by exposing them as mere movie or TV sets.

Other notable sites: I saw two side-by-side flumes in the "Hydroelectric Plant" drop at the climax of Singapore's Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure, unlike the two Jurassic Park rides in the United States, which features single flumes throughout. The two flumes merged at the end of the drop in Singapore, making me wonder how that will work within the ride. (The flumes were dry, by the way, making Jurassic Park the only outdoor attraction I saw that was not cycling in test operation.)

Also, the theater hosting the WaterWorld stunt show offers color-coded bench seating. Sit on the upper brown benches, and you'll stay dry. Sit on the middle green benches, and you might get wet. Sit on the blue benches up front, however, and expect to be soaked.

As we walked into Far, Far Away, I ended up explaining some of the visual gags to my guide, who, like many folks not from Southern California, hadn't gotten all the references. Such as the "Welcome to Far, Far Away" sign, which is a take-off of the famous Beverly Hills welcome sign. Or the "Friar's" restaurant, which features the same signage type as Bob's Big Boy. The USS restaurant even has a Friar statue out front, posed in the same stance and with the same expression as the Big Boy statues.

We walked through a richly detailed Shrek merchandise shop in Far, Far Away, which includes a "Magic Potion Spin" ferris-wheel-like ride at one end. All the shelves were stocked and merchandise staff were on hand, training. I saw folks working some of the restaurants, too.

We finished the tour with a quick walk through Madagascar, which offers two new rides for fans of the Dreamworks animated films. King Julien's Beach-Party-Go-Round is a carousel that will offer fans the chance to ride many of the characters from the movies, including Alex and Marty. But the highlight will be Madagascar: A Crate Adventure, a boat ride that takes place within, ironically, a giant boat - the cargo ship from the first film, which towers over the park.

Based what I saw today, with painting touch-ups, testing and training, if this were a U.S. theme park, I'd say that the park would be good to go for a fully operational soft opening next week. But this is Singapore, a nation that I've now seen to well deserve its reputation for strict perfectionism. My guide said that park management will not open until it's convinced that everyone is completely ready to go. So I have no idea when the park will open.

But when it does, I'd love to see it again.

I'll post a bit more about my Singapore trip, including those additional photos and my advice to potential visitors, on Monday. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend! (Due to my travel back to LA, the Vote of the Week will appear Saturday, instead of today. Or maybe Sunday, depending on how the whole jet lag thing goes...)

Update: Yep, there's gonna be a fireworks show. Here's a rehearsal:

Update 2: Universal Studios Singapore will open to the public on March 18, 2010.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on February 26, 2010 at 6:37 AM
Very cool Robert!

The other theme park area which is connected to excellent public transporation is Disneyland Paris Resort which has a subway (or is it called the Metro?) stop on one of its lines. However, thats it. It sounds like the Singapore entertainment area with the casino, dining, and the theme park sound great!

I am also very interested in the attractions at this new Universal Park. Some of them look almost too good to be true and poses the question: Why aren't they in the American Park.

Dueling Inverted/Sitdown (looked Hyper to me) seems to be an interesting mix!

From Brian Emery on February 26, 2010 at 6:52 AM
Looks great – Thanks for this…..

Have a nice Work\Vacation..

From Corbin Barker on February 26, 2010 at 7:33 AM
I'm really looking forward to see how this park thrives. For such a small park that packs a punch and has so much around it, it looks like it could be the theme park design of the future.

But greater twist: End of Shutter Island or learning Robert was in Singapore?

From Phil Beska on February 26, 2010 at 7:56 AM
For having such a small footprint, this park is EXTREMLY impressive with what they have packed into it. The themeing is incredible, especially the Mummy area of the park. This park is exactly the way Disney should have went about designing California Adventure. Seeing this really shines a giant light on how much Disney dropped the ball when designing a second gate at there California resort. Just goes to show you....you get out, what you put in. Job well done Universal, Bravo!
From 204.155.16.114 on February 26, 2010 at 8:04 AM
Battlestar Galactica themed coaster?!?! Man alive I would love to check that out.
From Joshua Counsil on February 26, 2010 at 12:16 PM
Great report, Robert.

I wonder if any of the rides themselves, besides minor tweaking (e.g. dual JP tracks), provide different experiences. For example, have they finally figured out how to sustain the JP dinos for an outdoor environment?

From James Rao on February 26, 2010 at 2:11 PM
Awesome stuff. I hate you for being there in person, but understand, I hate you in the nicest possible way!

The idea of opening the park at night for visitors (no rides in operation), is a good one. Just being around the sites and sounds of a good theme park is somewhat appealing to most of us geeks!

Again, gratz on the opportunity to visit the park, and thanks for sharing your visit with us!

BTW, how did your speaking engagement go?

From Manny Barron on February 26, 2010 at 3:52 PM
I would like to know if they can shed some light on the new Transformers ride for this park and most importantly for the one in Hollywood. Transformers will not be running on opening day but I heard it will supposedly open late 2010 but probably 2011 in the Sci/Fi City area next to Battlestar Galactica. The Hollywood version is far off as Backdraft and the Special Effects Stages haven't even closed. This is the attraction I am most anticipating for the future but the amount on info being released in the past 12-15 months since it was announced is dissapointing.
From Manny Barron on February 26, 2010 at 3:55 PM
As for the park it looks wonderful. The crate escape ride from Madagascar sounds really good. Definitely beats the opening day line up Disney had for its (somewhat)nearby Hong Kong Disneyland park. Anyway I hope that in the near future I get the opportunity of visiting South East Asia and both of these two parks.
From James Rao on February 26, 2010 at 5:57 PM
I just keep looking at these (and other) photos of Universal Studios Singapore. What a beautiful park. First DisneySea and now Universal Singapore, why are the prettiest parks overseas!?
From Pyra Dong on February 27, 2010 at 12:04 AM
Robert-- I am SOOOO JEALOUS OF YOU! (and if the word "jealous" could be made plural-- that's the amount of times I'm jealous of you)

Put those pics of the park up asap. Forget jet lag.

From Amanda Jenkins on February 27, 2010 at 9:52 AM
Congrats Robert on your speaking engagement and visit to USS. I bet it was amazing looking at a brand new theme park witout tourists blocking your view. I am anxious to read more about this park. I think it is a wonderful idea to let guests in after operating hours to be able to eat and such. Get plenty of rest so that you can tell us more!
From Robert Niles on February 27, 2010 at 3:04 PM
Hey, I'm back. I'll get more to this on Monday, but Singapore Airlines totally rocks. (Loooong flight, though. Watched four movies on the way back, and then slept for almost four hours.)

As for Transformers, my guide said that's slated to open in Singapore for 2011, and in Hollywood in 2012. (My guess is that the new Kong took Transformers off the plate in Hollywood for this year, so Singapore gets it first now in 2011, and Hollywood had to queue behind that.)

I saw the building Transformers will be going into, and it was the only clearly unfinished building in the park. Granted, the building shell is physically complete, but you can tell that it's a temporary skin, covering where the entrance ultimately will be.

From Manny Barron on February 27, 2010 at 11:00 PM
Thanks so much for the update on Transformers, Robert. 2012 is gonna be a great year for the SoCal parks with DCA finishing up its new attractions and USH opening up Transformers.
From Daniel Smith on February 28, 2010 at 3:06 AM
Wow! That was certainly a big surprise! I get to stop in Singapore many times each year travelling from Australia to Europe and can't wait until it opens! Mr Niles, can I ask if you travelled to Singapore from Los Angeles or San Francisco? I agree about Singapore Airlines! Why I say this, is from San Francisco you get the new economy class which I guarantee is the best I've ever flown with wide-screen personal televisions and inbuilt computer in every seat. From Sydney, I'm lucky enough to have the A380 to Singapore and Europe. But for those flying from the states, you can't beat them! As for Universal, I hope to go soon and will try to put up some great photos when I can for you all :)

All my best!

Daniel.
Sydney, Australia

From 32.179.63.154 on February 28, 2010 at 11:09 AM
I think this park may illustrate that having the acres does not mean as much as it could. If I could only visit one park of the Universal Line-up it and had to choose, it would be this one. And the small space for me would mean less walking between attractions!
I'm really looking forward to seeing ride footage of this place and hopefully eventually seeing similar ride experiences in the US parks or even another park similar to this closer to home. Maybe Islands of Adventure will go more this direction now that Marvel is a Disney asset.

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