A theme park gift under $10? Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
In case you all haven't noticed (or cared), the final park on my Trip Report has taken me a long time to post. There is a reason: I have just had a hard time putting my feelings into words over what is now going on in USH.
Why, you ask? (Did you ask?) Well, let me give you a little backstory first. Back in my day, if you were a kid growing up in Southern California, you were a Disney brat. When relatives came to town, that's where you headed. When you hit the teenage years, you became obsessed with Magic Mountain. When you hit adulthood, you went right back to Disney.
But between the Disney years and the Mountain years, usually a little before the start of middle school, you became a Universal fan. Disney was for babies and Magic Mountain was a little scary and a little too far away. If you were a movie fanatic, it was even worse during these years. The Tram Tour was like a trip through Mecca.
Well, our family moved north when I was 10, so my theme park growth stopped at Universal. Every trip back we went to the Studios. I didn't hit Disney again until I was an adult and I had only done Magic Mountain a few times before adulthood.
So having returned after a long hiatus (well, not from Universal Studios FLORIDA, as anyone on this site knows) I was looking forward to all the thrills I had been missing for years and years.
Here is what I found:
I immediately noticed this was no longer the Backlot Tram Tour. I guess the name wasn't exciting enough. Funny, but that boring name usually kept people in line for more than an hour regardless of the time or day of the week. There was no line on our visit, which meant people didn't really know what the Studio Tour was, or they had already done it and didn't much care for it. I refused to believe the latter reason.
I should have! The Studio Tour has been RUINED! There, I said it. But it took me a while to admit it to myself. Mainly because I know the history of the ride.
Although the Tram Tour did not start until 1964, Universal started allowing people onto the lot in 1915 - for a fee, of course - to view movies being made and to tour the lot.
When the "talkies" started, the heavy crowds that were showing up needed to disappear, so backlot adventures were ended in 1930. Still, other studios carried on the open backlot tradition.
Which leads us to Walt Disney. In early ideas for what would turn into Disneyland, Walt envisioned a theme park with a working studio. Obviously the studio portion was nixed early in development, but the idea came from a seed that Universal had long cultivated.
So although many theme parks owe their existence to Disneyland, there are many out there that owe their existence to Universal also. USF is an obvious example. But Disney/MGM was actually more like USH when it opened than USF has EVER been. The Walt Disney Studios in Paris is also an imitation, albeit a pale one. To bring things full circle, while Disney has been moviefying many of its parks, Universal went and Disneyfied itself in the creation of Islands of Adventure.
Anyhow, all this is being mentioned because to many people, especially movie lovers, the Tram Tour was more than just a ride, more than just a tour. It was a ride THROUGH history that made history itself.
So it pained me to see how badly they have destroyed this ride. While the addition of video monitors seems like a good idea, their execution is HORRENDOUS. Instead of using the clips to set up the areas we are visiting, they are used as babysitters. Heaven forbid we receive any information! No! Watch this footage of John Wayne doing a whole bunch of similar things!
The idiocy doesn't end there. There are clips of actors (no female actors are featured, by the way!) and the Universal movies they have made. Problem is, most only made a handful of films for the studio so we are forced to sit through what amounts to an overlong three-film retrospective. How thrilling!
And don't get me started on the filler material! The guide constantly "checks in" on the people in the fourth car, and something allegedly funny is always happening to them. NONE OF THIS IS FUNNY! Which could explain why no one laughed. Or why everyone just looked away and groaned the third time those people showed up. Sigh!
The Tram Tour was always the centerpiece of USH, but that has all gone away. I don't understand why they would want to tart up something that was their hallmark attraction, but they did and now we are all stuck with it. (I will be starting another thread soon on the topic of what needs to be done to fix USH. I will have a THOROUGH explanation of how this can be fixed on there. Please tune in!)
I had heard horrendous things about this show, but I have to say it wasn't that bad. It may have changed somewhat since the early reviews came in. In fact, up until the point where Mary Jane gets attacked, it is a very good show. But trying to enjoy some guys singing "She Bangs" when you know they are going to assault her after is kind of creepy. Then the Green Goblin shows up and the show falls apart. The fight scenes are simply lame. Having people sing about these two fighting makes it seem lamer. Universal decided it would create a stage musical, yet went out and created a movie. So instead of having characters sing songs about their feelings or motivation, background characters sing some pop song that has an oblique relation to the proceedings.
Still, the performers are all remarkably good (except for fighting). Unfortunately the script lets them all down halfway through.
This is allegedly the "big" show at USH, since it gets the biggest theater. Yet the action seems far too small. Jet skis are fine, especially when they are drenching the bleachers, but it isn't like they do a whole lot otherwise. There isn't a whole lot of plot either. But things blow up and there is a whole bunch of unexpected humor. And the crashing plane is unexpected. I think this needs to be BIGGER and LONGER.
ANIMAL PLANET LIVE
Cute. Animals usually are. This one is different from USF's, which is a good thing, and is actually a little better than its sister show. Unless both have transformed into this incarnation.
We didn't get to see much of this, as we were on our way to WaterWorld, but this may actually be their best show. It doesn't advertise itself as some spectacle it isn't. It's singing. And having it in an outdoor theater for all the passersby is the best part about it.
SPECIAL EFFECTS STAGES
Except for the movies used, this is eerily similar to the stages they had as part of the Tram Tour way back when. But those used mostly Hitchcock movies, which wouldn't be a bad idea here. The "Mummy" stuff was more than a bit lame and there was probably too much reliance on the hosts acting out funny bits that sure weren't working with our audience. Like so much else at USH, it was okay.
This is Twister's older cousin, even to the point of a twister appearing in one of the pre-show areas. It is better than Twister in those areas since people aren't all shoved into small rooms, like they are in Florida. But the final room here can't compare to Twister's final room. Fire gets a little monotonous without a flying cow here or there.
I have heard so much about this JP being better than Florida's, but I didn't see that. Both have their good points. The entrance gate in Orlando is far more majestic, but the way the ultrasaurs reveal themselves is more dramatic here. The stegosaurs are maybe a little better here, but the little jerks fighting over a popcorn box doesn't compare to them fighting over a ripped shirt remnant in IOA. The dino in the "previous boat" is better here, though.
Then we head into the "biggies." Immediately I see the much-talked-about Jeep effect and I have to say it is an extremely sorry effect. You can see both the track it slides down and the wire that keeps it from falling on you. The timing wasn't even right for it to be scary. The caged raptor back east is much more effective. The lift hill belongs to USH all the way, though. Two dinos, one overhead! Having that one behind the cage in IOA never worked for me. The cool slashing effect is absent here, but it did look like there was an area they were working on and I heard a sound like that.
Then we head to the drop. The fog effects were cool, but I kept wondering where the T-rex was. Well, he comes OUT of the fog here right before you drop. Very cool! Much better than the way he is always visible in Florida. I have no clue as to why they left that little trick out. Maybe it just never works.
All in all, I think I would have to give the edge to IOA's version. But not by much. I just think the best park of IOA's is the raptor cage and watching the virgins squeal when it drops.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
This building is GARGANTUAN! And it is down here all by its lonesome. Seems like a waste for a ride that is getting so out of date. Still, we all agreed that this version is better than USF's. I don't know why. Maybe it felt less jerky. Or maybe it was synchronized a bit better. Maybe we were just desperate for something to really really like in the park.
TERMINATOR 2: 3-D
Just like the USF version, but this one may be showing its age. We all agreed the 3-D was not as spectacular on the center screen. The side screens both worked perfectly, so it must be the center print wearing out. Sadly, this now may be the best attraction in the park.
And that may be USH's biggest problem. The park went in the right direction with BTTF and JP, but it needs more attractions that require multiple visits. Will Shrek do it? Doubtful. It will probably be a good show, but it will still be a show, which don't usually pack in people for more than one visit.
We skipped the Mummy's Tomb walkthrough, though, so I can't judge that. We just wanted to save something for when we return next year. I'm sure it isn't a blockbuster attraction though.
So there you have it. USH: the world's most OKAY theme park. Sigh. Make sure to read my suggested fix-its in another thread.
Earlier this year, I complained that the Studio Tour had gotten moldy, and a certain someone jumped all over me for that.
Nice to see you've come around, Kevin....
Now, if Universal would just come around, and redo the Tram Tour for the DVD generation. Yes, USH needs some rides to lure back repeat visitors (hello, Men in Black!) But the Tram Tour is the heart of this park, and never should have deteriorated to its current sad condition.
The videos could actually be an integral part of the tour, if done correctly. I am still working on the thread which explains how this can be done. (I'm even doing maps!)
I must say that I have the same feeling about USH. I went last summer and was very surprised by what i saw. I almost did not realise i was on a movie studio property. Gosh it is hollywood after all.
Here are my thoughts on USH and their strategy
USH misses 3 key elements
#1 - Intimacy : You have to walk, take stairs, rides are at different levels. No sense of intimacy, wholesomeness, closeness,......
#2 - Real movie production experience : You go to a studio to experience the studio life, not just to be thrilled and entertain. This is USH core aset and unfortunately poorly utilised.
I recently watch the Big fat liar movie where 2 kids actually experience to sleep in the props room at USH, play in the costume department (wearing different costumes), meet funny people on the sets,... When i saw that, I said what a fabulous experience that i would love to live. Who wouldn't dream of becoming a master of disguise for an afternoon, act on a set, shooting psycho, participate in a remake of a movie a be actually taped, etc...
3- Classic rides : They are building rides on the bases of a movie hit that has a very short life cycle. Once the circle is over, the ride is no longer fun. Back to the future is no longer fun because the movie is no longer fun, because the idea and the technology of the movie is getting too old. THEY HAVE THE SAME PROBLEM AS DISNEY WITH TOMORROWLAND. IT IS NEVER ENOUGH FUTURISTIC. THE CUSTOMERS ARE QUICKLY BORED AND CONSTANTLY WANT NEW STUFF. YOU CAN'T INVEST 50 MILLIONS A YEAR JUST TO MAINTAIN THIS APETITE. YOU NEED MORE CLASSICAL RIDES EX: PIRATES WILL BE GREAT IN 20 YEARS. IT IS A CLASSIC. WHY NOT USE CLASSIC MOVIES....
The Universal problem is a problem of identity. They are not Six Flag (not enough thrill) and not Disney (not enough magic) but are trying to meet both concept. They are making a big mistake by not aligning themselves with their core business.
But what is the core business? Movie studios
What should they do then?
"Utilize their expertise to create a unforgetable movie experience for their guest"
Note: I did not say show experience but a movie experience. They are not in show business....
Exemples of activities to make it an unforgetable movie experience
Favorite movie scenes reenactment with visitors as guest participants
Make your own movie. A team of visitors get the chance to do a movie and bring it home (if you are lucky why not with a star)
Learn the secret of production : spend an hour with pros that show you and give you the chance to look, touch feel,....
Participate to a mexican party that is transform in a movie, where you get to play a part, and bring the tape back home (with an extra $)
Spend a day with the best writers of the business and create a unique Hollywood scenario. Get a chance to be chosen one day....
They are so many activities to be build around this theme that could give USH a strong differenciation and a unique taste. They are not structure to meet Disney or Six flags guest expectations. But they are able to meet the movie fans expectations. This is the market they should pursue and market their business that way.
Exemple : Spend a week in USH and get a chance to script, shoot and direct a movie.
They could build a package called the total movie experience that would last a week. People would stay, eat, live on the set like real actors..... Let's think big here....
To bad they don't understand that millions of people want to be in the movie business (actors, producers, writers, technicians,.....) and that they have the power to make their dreams come true.
Orlando doesn't have that problem. When people are going there, they go for the parks ALONE. So the parks have to maintain a much higher standard than the SoCal parks do. Which is unfortunate since Disneyland used to be the end-all and be-all of theme parks. And USH had itself a lofty position also. Sad.
I don't think it's just the different markets, however. Like I said, SoCal offered better parks in the early '90s. It's a question of leadership, in my opinion.
Under Jack Lindquist, Disneyland set the world's standard for theme park quality, and everyone else in Southern California had to keep up. Universal built CityWalk and expanded into the lower lot. Knott's and Six Flags added new rides and shows.
Then Disney got lost with its California Misadventure. Paul Pressler stressed cost cutting over attraction development and customer service. And Disney quit pushing the market forward.
The competition could have taken this opportunity to attack Disney while it rested, as Universal Orlando did in Florida. Instead, in SoCal, the competition decided to take a breather, too.
Universal's done little but tweak shows over the past five years. Knott's has added a coaster, but let the quality throghout the rest of the park slide. Magic Mountain tried to mount a thrill park challenge with Deja Vu and X, but failed when those rides couldn't hold up to the demand.
Only an oft-overlooked SeaWorld park kept its quality up to a high level.
And that's a topic for another thread. Why do the Busch parks, consistently of top quality and deservedly rated high on this site, inspire so little discussion and so little passion from theme park fans?
SoCal's parks suck right now. And as a Los Angeles native, it's killing me.
But I do think that everything slid in California because visitors allowed it to. Upkeep was ignored long ago and people kept coming, so why bother. That could never happen with the Orlando parks. They don't have enough locals.
But those past five years or so tell a HUGE tale about what can happen in a short amount of time. Disney/MGM was seriously lame until the very late 90s. USF was STILL having problems. Discovery Cove, AK and IOA didn't exist until a few years ago. So in those years, not only has Orlando about doubled its attraction count, but they have added attractions that simply were unfathomable in the early to mid 90s. Like Tower of Terror, Test Track, Spider-Man and Men in Black. Add to that list all the inventive coasters built in BGT, IOA and SW. Then wrap it up with A-level attractions like Popeye, Dudley, It's Tough to Be a Bug, the Kilimanjaro Safaris and the AK animal walkthroughs, to name a few.
Now what has SoCal done? A few good coasters, sure. Then what? Disneyland hasn't created an amazing new attraction since Indy more than a decade ago. This includes EVERYTHING in DCA (though a couple are very good and the Animation Building approaches amazing). USH hasn't since Jurassic Park opened (it did get T2, but clones don't count here). It's sad when SFMM and Knotts are the only SoCal parks innovating (this includes SeaWorld), but they are continuing to drive away families with their coaster fixations. And we won't get into their total lack of upkeep (on my trip to Knotts' Halloween Haunt, I noticed how much nightfall and smoke helped improve the look of their park!)
It is quite sad that the place that started all this theme park stuff is now such a lackluster example of the medium. Orlando vacations look more and more like a bargain every day!
As a Studio Guide, I can tell you why this is, sadly, impossible.
First, you must be aware of the division between theme park and the studio. Though Backdraft is only ten feet away from Stage 2, and though the tram takes you through the actual front lot and back lot, there is a distinct separation between the two entities. The studio needs to make movies, on time and on budget, and has little to do with the tour aside from requesting the tram to be re-routed, and the guides to turn off the microphone, when driving near a film shoot.
Ergo, the studio doesn't care about the quality of the tour. It has millions of dollars in production and rentals, and cannot worry about the experience of tourists. This is not to say that the theme park, or Universal Creative, neglect the tour. But the studio has no jurisdiction, and doesn't want any.
Secondly, there was a time when celebrities would stop and wave to the tram as it passed by. This was before the era of superstars, when actors had less power. Remember "Battle of the Network Stars?" You will never see major performers stoop to something like that anymore. Witness the low-grade celebs tapped for "The Surreal Life." Actors can demand that trams stay away, and these days, the studio will listen.
We are also living in an era of increased awareness of filmmaking. Paparazzi know no limits, and will gladly write off a $47 theme park ticket to get a candid photo of a star or director. Anyone can put a digital photo on the web, making a secret set into public in a matter of minutes. Worse, celebrities from Calista Flockhart to Steven Spielberg have had stalkers, forcing them to request that guides don't mention their names when they are working on the lot.
And, perhaps most sadly, there are people who truly believe that if they jump off the tram and get their headshot or script to Spielberg or Ron Howard, they will be instant stars. People visit the park with the sole intention of wandering off and entering "Hollywood."
Thus, there is no way to get 175 people (a full tram) too close to any real filming, or indeed any real movie experience. Monsiuer Routhier's idea of letting guests work with "the best writers in the business" cannot work because the best writers do not want to spend time with tourists at a them park; they want to write motion pictures, make money, and win awards. Playing with guests does none of these things.
The tour can be (and I believe, is) many things -- informative, entertaining, even thrilling in parts. But everyone thinks it doesn't get close enough to the true craft of cinema.
What no one realizes is, this is as close as you're going to get.
Whatever is shot at USF (remember, I'm a USH tour guide), is most likely taped in front of an audience, and taped daily. Ergo, an audience is already there, so the tour is simply adding more audience. Also, guests can see it every day, or at least 5 days a week.
However, nothing at USH is taped daily. Also, the few sitcoms that are there (if "Coupling" gets picked up) tape in front of an audience once a week, in the afternoon and into the evening. So not only would guests not see anything 5 or 6 days a week, but the taping could go into the evening, after the theme park is closed. The tours stop early precisely to prevent this from happening -- stranding guests on the backlot after the theme park gates have closed.
Third, filmmakers and stars often do not want to be watched while they work. Universal did not want anyone to see Jim Carrey as the Grinch or Mike Myers as the Cat in the Hat until a planned date in their publicity campaigns. Right now, as "Cat" films, trailers are curtained off so no one gets even a glimpse of Myers in his make-up.
Actors do need some measure of quiet or solitude to prepare themselves for emotional scenes. Though they may be theatre-trained, or able to cry on-cue, stars would be very distracted by 175 not-always-respectful tourists watching them as they prepare for a big performance. And again, if one star wants to banish the tram, the studio will see to it.
Lastly, as someone who has been on a set both as observer and performer, I can tell you: watching filming is incredibly boring. Most activity is dressing the set, prepping, lighting, rehearsing, and then striking the set, while actual shooting and acting make up only a small middle phase. The stars and director often aren't even visible during much of this period. Moreover, guests DO see these non-filming activities, because often if there's no shoot, trams will not be re-routed. On the tram, I have seen extras in costume, on horseback, dressed sets, and all kinds of old cars parked on the backlot, awaiting filming.
Believe me, Universal Creative would LOVE to bring a more movie experience to the tour -- when re-designing the tour for the DVD's in 2000, they kept talking about adding a "celebrity presence." There is simply no way due to time, cost, noise, respect for production, and the actual shooting schedule.
I'm sorry. That's just the way it is.
To use a football analogy, I wonder if the best option isn't to punt. Forget about watching live filming of a real production. It ain't gonna happen. You're better off driving over to Sony and watching Jeopardy.
But why not reconfigure the lot and shoot a fake production? "Alan Smithee Presents," or something like that. (And go ahead and explain who Alan Smithee is, too. People dig that kinda stuff.)
Bring some of the elements from Special Effects Stages into the tour and make the whole thing about tracking a production from beginning to end. With the tour guests as the participants.
Pick a few people out of the crowd to be stand-ins and foley assistants -- that sort of thing. But take us thorough scouting, casting, make-up, shooting, editing and post-production. Then show the group their "movie" at the end. (Which they can then purchase as they exit, natch.) Most of the "movie" would be canned stuff, but there'd be enough cut in of what the guests did to make it interesting. And to provide a compelling lesson on how much better the pros do things.
Maybe a few props and sets could be from historic productions, not currently in use. But, esstentially, this would be a multi-stage, walk through theme park show. (Though the tram could be used to shuttle people between sets, if necessary.) And this would be far more educational, and more evocative of the original spirit of the tour, than the current one.
Using this idea, the DVDs could be put to far better use than they currently are.
Back to the Future the ride is losing its touch. Jurassic Park the Ride had to close due to technical difficulties. E.T. the Ride was a favourite - now it isn't there. Spiderman Rocks...SUCKS! I enjoyed Terminator 3D, but it's also getting old. But, I'm wondering, do they still have the Wild Wild West show?
It's very hard for production folk to work when guests are coming through. Yes, it adds to the glamour, but, the tour can detract from production, and who is making the money here? Production.
The original intent of the tour, on both coasts, is to show production. When they can, they do.
One of the few, the proud, the tired, tour guides
The original intent of the studio tour (in the days of the bleachers and not trams) was to get people even more excited about Universal movies. And seeing the process sure did that. Part of the reason DVDs are selling so well is due to the behind-the-scenes extras they add on. The tram tour used to do a good job with the behind-the-scenes stuff. Not so much anymore.
Do you or anyone who has been to both the places have a comparison of what attractions are missing in LA that are available in Orlando.
I know that Orlando does not have water world so that will be new for me.
Do they still have ET or not ?
USH also has Spider-Man Rocks (a forgettable stage show), a Curse of the Mummy walk-thorough, a Nickelodeon-themed play area that's similar to the Curious George play area in Orlando and Special Effects Stages, which is similar to the old Murder, She Wrote/Xena effects show at USF.
Next year, will have Mummy, JP, BTTF, and the Backlot Tram Ride will the only rides here.
I think they can add for 2 more rides. I hope they close down backdraft and put in a new ride, but not another new show.
I know, we shouldn't get anymore clones, but I would like to see either MIB or Spiderman in the park.
And Shrek 4-D seems to almost qualify as a ride. But rides aren't that important to me. I would much rather have something to the caliber of T2:3-D than BTTF. Put in a scaryass Alien Encounter type attraction and I would be all over it!
Your right though. They should not be like Disney and do cloning thing. I think they should use the same Spiderman ride technology (moving simunlator, mixed with 3D, and dark ride elements) and theme to Matrix. Image bullet time in 3-D. Image the agents chasing you.
If they can not use the Matrix, then an X-men ride will do fine with me. Should the X-men ride be based the comics or on the movies?
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