With all of the A-list rides at Universal Studios Japan conquered and the heat of the day in full force (Osaka is pretty humid in July, or at least it was for our trip), we decided to cool off with the air conditioned pleasures of Sesame Street 4-D Movie Magic. In terms of Universal, this movie is exclusive to Japan – although an edited, English-language version ran as Sesame Street Presents Lights Camera Imagination! 4-D at some Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks in the U.S. (The theme park rights to Big Bird and friends are held by Universal in Asia, but by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment in the States).
An interesting quirk at Universal Studios Japan is that the Sesame Street and Shrek 4-D movies share the same theater, near the entrance of the park. They two movies alternate showings throughout the day, and each has a designated queue in front of the theater. The film itself was plenty of fun, in spite of (and sometimes because of) the language barrier. As a kid who grew up on the pre-Elmo incarnation of Sesame Street, I appreciated that this wasn't just the Elmo show, but allowed lots of screen time for a bunch of the Muppets, from Grover to Cookie Monster to Oscar the Grouch.
Something slightly more exciting happened a few minutes after the show when, as we were walking through the streets of New York, we chanced upon a massive Muppet meet-and-greet. The live Sesame Street – Magical Music Box show had just finished, and most of the characters were hugging and taking pictures down the way from the stage. Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby and the Count were all hanging out, and my wife and I instantly reverted back to being five-year-olds.
Our previous experiences at Tokyo Disney taught us that organized queues for character meets rarely exist in Japan. Basically, you just hover in a group, or follow the character as he/she walks around, until the character approaches you or gestures to you or whatever. Sound chaotic? Well, it is, even despite Japanese politeness, which falls a little by the wayside in this instance. But, being two of, maybe, a dozen non-Asian people in the entire park has its advantages. Time and time again, Japanese teenagers were passed over so that we could say "Konnichiwa Cookie Monster" and get a picture. In a very crowded area, we were able to get pictures with five of the characters in as many minutes. Ernie even managed to get away from his fans to photobomb our picture with Bert.
Apparently, our time with the Sesame Street gang instilled a desire to visit the kiddie area, the one-year-old Universal Wonderland, which is divided into Hello Kitty Fashion Avenue, Sesame Street Fun Zone and Snoopy Studios (yes, Universal has Japanese rights to the Peanuts gang, as opposed to Cedar Fair Entertainment Company in the U.S.) The combination of the three make for an enormous area for the youngsters, filled with scaled-down rides as well as spots for less-structured play. Plus, the Snoopy and Sesame Street lands feature large indoor spaces, so that kids can spend some time out of the elements (depending on what season it is in Osaka).
In addition, many of the more popular rides (Peppermint Patty's Stunt Slide, Elmo's Bubble Bubble water ride, Snoopy's Great Race coaster and others) feature the timed, reserved ticket entries used on some big attractions. So, kids can play in the playground-like areas instead of waiting in hour-long lines. Nicely done, Universal Japan.
If I have any criticism of the area, it's that you lose a little bit of the magic of each group of characters by packing them all together. Sure, there are different "zones," but they're all pretty close to each other. For instance, that means that the music playing in the outdoor areas isn't some of the great music from Sesame Street or the Peanuts movies (does Hello Kitty have music? I don't know because I am not, nor have I ever been a Japanese girl). Instead there's something akin to that annoying Kidz Bop stuff blasting out of the speakers – nine-year-olds singing "Shiny Happy People"… perfect. Oh, and the Flying Snoopy Ride should be Red Baron themed. How do you say "missed opportunity" in Japanese?
On our way out of Universal Wonderland, we ran into a couple of old pals – Charlie Brown and Lucy. Not only did Chuck jump at the chance to get a picture with me, he grabbed my arm, ran over to Lucy and kept poking her in the arm until she agreed to take a group picture with my wife, him and me. You'd think that the other Japanese visitors would be upset with our inadvertent character-hogging, but they were polite and even offered to take our picture for us. We apologized and thanked them (some of the few Japanese words we knew) for their patience.
Between shopping and snacking (banana-flavored popcorn = interesting), we ran into Woody Woodpecker and the Pink Panther. Apparently, Universal Studios Japan is looking to corner the market on all somewhat outdated animated characters – watch out Heckyl and Jeckyl! I have a suspicion that the esteemed Mr. Panther is kept around merely because he is, yes, pink and Japanese females seem to love anything pink and cutesy. Or maybe they're all big Peter Sellers fans and I'm just taking a shot in the dark. Look it up on Wikipedia, kids.
Before and after our reserved slot for Biohazard – The Real (again, you can read my full story on that attraction here), we skipped some attractions that we had experienced plenty at previous visits to Universal parks: Backdraft, Terminator 2: 3-D, Shrek's 4-D Adventure, the Waterworld stunt show and the Universal Monsters Live Rock and Roll Show – because I have a childhood fondness for the Wolfman and I just can't take seeing him perform a Flo Rida song ever again. We also missed out on Animation Celebration, a Woody Woodpecker movie that never seemed to be starting when we were in the vicinity. Instead, we took a second ride on some of our favorite attractions that didn't have forbidding wait times (Space Fantasy, Jurassic Park and Jaws). Exiting through the Jaws gift shop, we purchased what has to be one of my favorite theme park souvenirs – a Jaws oven mitt, complete with a victim inside the mouth. Pretty great.
Seeing as we were waiting to eat dinner until we were outside the park (thinking that we'd get a better deal and a better meal in Osaka), there was only one thing left to do: take in the Magical Starlight Parade, which kicked off exactly at park closing time (8:30 p.m.). Now, because Universal Studios Japan has the rights to Snoopy and Sesame Street and Shrek and Woody Woodpecker and Hello Kitty and the Pink Panther and plenty more, I figured that their nighttime parade would be loaded with these characters. I was waaay off.
Although the Magical Starlight Parade began with three representatives from Wonderland (Kitty, Snoopy, Elmo), the rest of this spectacle was filled with Disney knock-offs. Universal Japan runs a C-minus take on the Main Street Electrical Parade, complete with floats dedicated to Cinderella, Aladdin and Alice in Wonderland, works that are all in the public domain. It was strange enough to see slightly different versions of the Queen of Hearts and the Genie in a Universal park, but the parade floats also weren't very good. Many strands of lights were burned out, the music was repetitive in a bad way and the whole thing seemed to go on a bit long. Mostly it was just weird.
And it was a strange note to end a great day at a great park filled with (for the most part) first-class attractions. When Universal Studios Japan opens its Wizarding World of Harry Potter land in 2014, I may have to return. I can't imagine how much fun the Forbidden Journey will be with a couple of excited-out-of-their-minds Japanese fans sitting next to me.
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