A visit to Universal Studios Japan: Part One
Written by Bryan Wawzenek
Preparing for a visit to Universal Studios Japan was a daunting task. There's not a ton of English language information about Universal's first overseas venture out there (at least compared to the Tokyo Disney parks, which have wonderful coverage from TPI's Robert Niles and a couple of somewhat helpful guidebooks). Although my wife and I had been to Universal's other three locations – Hollywood, Orlando, Singapore – I wanted specific information about line lengths and crowds. The best info that I got was to expect to wait a very long time… for just about any attraction.Tweet
Seeing as we were visiting in the high summer season (mid-July through August), we gave ourselves the best shot at manageable crowds by going to Universal Japan on a Wednesday. Despite a small bit of train confusion – we went the wrong way on Osaka's Loop Line – we arrived at the park gates about 45 minutes before the park's posted opening time of 9 a.m. It helps that the elevated rail station is right at the start of CityWalk, and it's about a 10-minute stroll to the park from there.
We entered a short line to buy one-day passes (6,600 yen, about $68.50 at this time), and then a much longer line stretching from the gates to the ticket kiosks. We waited patiently with the hordes of almost completely Japanese visitors until 9 a.m. when… well, nothing seemed to happen. As opposed to the Tokyo Disney parks, where each line had a designated turnstile, the Universal Japan lines were more like amorphous blobs that moved at the speed of smell. We shuffled our way to the gates, comforted by the fact that every other "line" was crawling along at the same rate.
By 9:10 we were in the park's entrance land, or Hollywood, which is similar to the Hollywoods at the other Universal Studios parks (art deco, Brown Derby, etc.), but reminded me most of Universal Singapore because of the glass roof that covers the area. Hollywood was also home to our first attraction of the day, Hollywood Dream – The Ride.
This Bolliger & Mabillard Mega Coaster, exclusive to Universal Japan, has been operating both the traditional forwards and backwards trains since March. Knowing that the limited time only "Backdrop" option would likely prove more popular, we opted to get in that queue. While we thought we were getting in line to ride, what we were actually doing was getting in line for a Fastpass-like ticket that would allow us to ride the Backdrop version between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. (I'm sure multiple, friendly park employees were informing us of this fact in Japanese as we walked through the line.)
But, not to worry, after exiting the line in the Sesame Street Fun Zone, we looped back around to join the forwards queue for Hollywood Dream, which posted an accurate five-minute wait time. While in line, my wife was handed two large, purple rubber bands to strap her flip-flops to her feet. A small touch, but one that helps you keep your belongings while saving valuable loading time (i.e. – no riders walking through the train, taking their footwear off, finding a place for their sandals and then returning to get strapped in).
Hollywood Dream provides a thrilling, though far from terrifying, ride. For this former Chicagoan, it was like a tamer version of Raging Bull at Six Flags Great America. Hollywood Dream features a shorter drop (141 feet) and slower max speed (56 mph), but boasts a nice upward helix near the end. I preferred the Backdrop experience just a little bit more – but then, I get a kick out of descending backwards into the Haunted Mansion's graveyard, so I might be easily impressed.
There's no real theming to Hollywood Dream, either at the station or on the tracks. The hook, of course, is that you get to choose your on-board soundtrack from five options. For our visit, those included "Celebration" by Madonna (and not "Holiday," much to my wife's disappointment) and "Numb" by Usher. In contrast to the Universal Orlando coaster that it inspired (Hollywood Rip, Ride & Rockit), Hollywood Dream's soundtrack choice matched the ride's movements nicely. At night, the trains look pretty cool with their moving LED lights zooming through the sky. The all-around experience on Hollywood Dream was better than HRR&R, but so was the subway ride to Universal Osaka.
Next up was another Japan exclusive, and another coaster: Space Fantasy – The Ride. (Yes, and before you ask, every ride at this park was subtitled "The Ride." I suppose this makes it easier for new guests to differentiate between shows and moving attractions.) I had no idea what to expect from Space Fantasy, apart from knowing that it was a wild mouse coaster in a building that used to house the E.T. ride. So, after storing our stuff in a locker – mandatory for this one – we joined the 15-minute line.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this whimsical little coaster. Space Fantasy is themed to the hilt, with a couple of pre-shows that feature some sort of space princess, little star-sprites and a robot that's like a giant Neopet. Because everything but the safety instructions was in Japanese, I don't quite know why we visitors were being sent into space – it's possible that we were meant to sprinkle pixie dust all over the cosmos. Or maybe we were supposed to land on Endor and something went horribly wrong.
Doesn't matter. This charming ride takes you through asteroid fields, around planets and past space stations. The spinning cars make the pretty docile track more exciting – it's a less exhilarating, but more detailed Space Mountain. One last note: there is a little button on the front of your car and we had no idea when to press it. We tapped it occasionally throughout the ride, to no result. Until, that is, the final scene, when it seemed to send us out of a space cave with an explosion. Maybe the ride does this every time anyway. I don't know, but it was awesome.
Next, it was off to the park's San Francisco area (shouldn't it be Hill Valley?) for the last remaining version of Back to the Future – The Ride. Mr. Sparkle aside, The Simpsons aren't big stars in Japan, so Doc Brown's Institute of Future Technology is still standing in Osaka. It was an hour past park opening and we listened to Huey Lewis and ZZ Top while waiting 20 minutes for our spin in the DeLorean.
Well, "spin" is generous. More like a shake. This ramshackle motion simulator with its fuzzy film projection is showing its age (even if it was only installed in 2001). After bumping my head on the side of the DeLorean twice, I was more appreciative of advancements made with The Simpsons Ride and other more recent attractions. It's hard to imagine that Back to the Future is long for this park – for obvious reasons, but also because the ride vehicles display the current date at the beginning. So, in 2013, we went a whole two years into the distant future to see the strange place Hill Valley has become. What happens in 2015, when we all have hoverboards?
Next up was another attraction that's extinct in the U.S., Jaws – The Ride. In 2012, Universal Orlando shot a scuba tank in the shark's mouth to make way for Harry Potter's London, but Japanese tour guides are still taking visitors on a harrowing journey around Amity Harbor. The ride remains quite popular at this park, and we waited about 45 minutes in the late morning. Lucky for us, the queue was quite detailed, with the tourism videos that used to show in Orlando as well as some museum-like displays on the history of Amity. I don't remember such an interesting queue for the U.S. Jaws ride, but maybe that's because I never waited more than a few minutes.
The attraction itself is a carbon copy of the departed Orlando version, with one big difference: the skippers. In the U.S. version, I often got stuck with a blasé guide, but this was not the case at Universal Studios Japan, where the guides on both of our trips played their frantic fear to the hilt. In particular, the jumpy female skipper who led our nighttime excursion was the best Jaws guide I've ever had. And I didn't understand a word she said.
Narrowly escaping from a giant shark builds an appetite, so we headed back to Hollywood to get a burger at Mel's Drive-In. I can't vouch for most of the food at Universal Japan, except to say that, on average, it was more expensive and less-appetizing than the good grub at Tokyo Disney. The bacon burger we split at Mel's was satisfactory – and maybe it tasted better just because it was different from the amazing Japanese cuisine we had been immersed in for the past few weeks. I will say that the folks working the counter at Mel's were among the friendliest I've encountered at a Universal park anywhere, laughing and dancing to the oldies as they handed trays to customers.
Not wanting to get caught in the crossfire between the Water Surprise Party parade and the hundreds of 10-year-old boys with squirt guns (sold at the park), we ambled over to Jurassic Park – because, of course, you never get wet on anything there. As we entered the area, a baby Brontosaurus was lurching around the main drag, posing with guests/absolutely horrifying one little girl.
The posted wait time for Jurassic Park – The Ride was 30 minutes, and we entered near a giant statue of John Hammond with a precious baby dinosaur.
While in line for the water ride, my Jurassic Park shirt drew lots of attention from park workers. In broken English, one worker asked where I had gotten it and when I answered Universal Orlando, she said, "Orlando! Oh! Very jealous!" She was quite sweet and friendly, just like all of the employees we encountered. A cleaning lady even went out of her way to hand me an Elmo sticker because of my JP shirt (and maybe because I said "Konnichiwa" at the correct time of day).
Back to Jurassic Park – The Ride. It's pretty much the same as the Orlando edition (one T-Rex attack, Raptor cage almost falls on the boat) and just as fun. All of the animatronic dinosaurs were in action and appeared to be in wonderful shape. We got less wet on this version (certainly in comparison to Singapore's JP, which is given the cool twist of being a river rapids ride), but I don't know if that was by design or sheer luck.
Next, it was on to the New York section of the park because I had read about a brand-new attraction called Biohazard – The Real, in which guests got to enter a zombie-infested haunted house while toting a gun (yes, a fake one). It turned out we needed to get reservation tickets (like the ones we had earlier in the day for the Backdrop version of Hollywood Dream), made our way to the ticket disbursement area and received a pair of these not-quite-but-sorta-Fastpasses for 6:30 p.m. (If you want detailed information about this unique attraction, you can read my write-up of that experience. If you don't, suffice it say that it was very cool. I mean, you get to shoot zombies. Come on.)
Our Biohazard tickets in hand, we stayed in New York to check out The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – The Ride, which had completed the 4KHD refurbishment in early July. We waited a little less than an hour, winding through the Daily Bugle – very similar to the queue found in Orlando.
This being our first time experiencing the enhanced ride, it was worth every minute of wait time. An attraction that I already count as one of my favorites was now sharper, smoother and even more fun. It didn't hurt that we rode with a group of Japanese girls that couldn't have been more excited to hang with Spidey. They say that a great comedy movie is even better when you laugh along with a packed theater crowd. The same goes for a great dark ride when you enjoy it with people who are having the time of their lives.
Tomorrow: We continue our visit to Universal Studios Japan with Part Two.
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