Robert's Tour, Part Two -- Universal Studios Hollywood

It's Universal's 40th anniversary week. So... where's the party?

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Published: July 13, 2004 at 9:18 PM

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?

Not that the park didn't feel a little bit special. After a day at Magic Mountain, walking into Universal feels to a theme park fan like stepping from a Class AA farm squad up to the Big Leagues. Even the persistent San Fernando Valley smog can't dull the sparkle that USH gives off when compared with its, um, less well-maintained neighbor to the north. You'll spend no wait time under rusty beams, dripping pipes and trashewn queues here.

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.

A quick side-trip to Shrek 4-D reaffirmed everything I said about that show when it opened. But a Universal employee asked me to give Spider-Man Rocks!, which I panned, another chance. Fair enough.

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.

  • Read the rest of the articles from Robert Niles' Summer 2004 Theme Park Tour
  • Readers' Opinions

    From John K on July 13, 2004 at 10:12 PM
    Magic Mountain is not that bad after all. Look how many rides they have there at USH? Not too many. Look at their ticket prices...$49.75!!!!!....SFMM..$46.99..Disneyland $49.99. There's also nothing really to do at USH, excpet the 3 rides they have. So it makes Magic Mountain a lot better than what you readers think
    From Ryan Williams on July 13, 2004 at 11:38 PM
    I totally agree.. Magic Mountain is way better than USH. I dont even really consider USH to be a real theme park. The tickets price you pay to get into USH is insane too.
    From J. Dana on July 14, 2004 at 12:09 AM
    I disagree with the previous post completely...I think USH is a great theme park! Sure, it could use another thrill ride or two, but to say you don't even consider it a theme park really tells us alot about yourself. Sure, roller coasters are fun, and they need to always be included, but once you get out of junior high, dude, the all-encompassing experiences offered by Universal and Disney far surpass those "inaugural" parks. There's a reason Universal gets so many more's just plain better than the second-tier Six Flags of the world.
    From Robert Niles on July 14, 2004 at 8:04 AM
    Let's get something clear here:

    A park with roller coasters plus a few off-the-shelf flat rides = Amusement Park.

    A park with a variety of themed narrative experiences, including rides, shows and walk-through attractions = Theme Park.

    It's Magic Mountain that barely qualifies as a theme park. Universal, along with Disney, pretty much defines it.

    From Marco Sierra on July 14, 2004 at 9:34 AM
    I'm 99.9% sure that most of the locals in the L.A. area perfer Six Flags over USH. I'll even go as far as saying that USH is probably the least favorite attraction park for the locals in L.A. (Yes, proably even below California Adventure now.) The reason why USH gets more people the Magic Mountain is because of the tourists, not the locals.
    From Ryan Williams on July 14, 2004 at 12:10 PM
    Yes thank you Marco. If you go to USH theres no point in returning. Youve seen all the shows and have ridden the three rides, wow great. Pay 49.99$ bucks for a couple of shows and three rides, wow pay 25.99 for SFMM and get 16 roller coasters and a better experience. If i wanna see a show ill go to my local movie theater and see a movie. But if i want to have some fun ill go to SFMM.
    From Robert Niles on July 14, 2004 at 1:51 PM
    You know, padding your ACE stats isn't the only reason to visit an amusement/theme park. Some people like to ride dark rides, see shows and go to bathrooms that aren't reeking of urine.

    Indeed, that's why Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Legoland attract so many of those very lucrative tourists that you seem to dismiss. Trust me, any theme park company would much rather than attract 10,000 out-of-town tourists on an average day than 10,000 locals. Local teen ACE'rs coming back again and again don't contribute nearly as much to a company's bottom line as families of tourists. Maybe that's why Universal's got the money to keep its bathrooms and queues clean and Six Flags, apparently, does not.

    Universal attracted 1.5 million more visitors than Magic Mountain did last year, according to Amusement Business magazine. And, I strongly suspect, Universal visitors paid significantly more on average to get into the park than Magic Mountain visitors paid. That tells you that the public values Universal much more than it values Magic Mountain.

    From Robert Niles on July 14, 2004 at 2:02 PM
    By the way, I forgot to pay proper tribute to Universal Studios Hollywood's greatest contribution to the theme park industry...

    The parking garage.

    What a relief it was to return to my car and find, not the blast furnace I had to climb into the day before at Magic Mountain, but a cooled vehicle that'd spent the morning indoors. That alone would have helped put a smile on my face, if there hadn't been one there already.

    From Marco Sierra on July 14, 2004 at 4:51 PM
    I wasn't saying Six Flags is better than USH, I was just saying that more locals perfer Magic Mountain over USH. Like someone said before, once you've been to USH, you don't need to go back there for another 5 to 7 years, because that's how long it will take Universal to build another ride. Now disney does this to, but Disneyland has more than 3 rides. Unless Universal builds a IOA, or a IOA type of theme park in So Cal, it isn't going to get very much respect from me, or the locals.
    From Robert Niles on July 14, 2004 at 7:37 PM
    Actually, I have yet to encounter any truly nasty lines anywhere on their first three days of my tour. Even running one train, several coasters at Knott's and Magic Mountain had waits of one hour to walk-on. I didn't see a line over 20 minutes the whole time I was at Universal.

    Granted, part of that might be due to my visiting in the morning through early afternoon. But lines don't seem to be that much of a problem in SoCal this year. Certainly not when compared with previous summers.

    Somehow, though, I don't feel like I'll be able to say the same next week in Orlando....

    From marcos mintos on July 14, 2004 at 10:31 PM
    I was at USH 2 days ago and boy was i disappointed. I was thinking about going to SFMM but really wanted to ride the revenge of the Mummy ride. Come on.... You cant put all that exitment on T.V. and magazines about that ride and have it be a complete flop. The ride wasnt half as good as they make u believe it is. What is it like 30 seconds long?
    Ok 2 min. But what about the first minute that you go 3 mph. There weren't even any special effects either. I was vey disappointed.

    I also went on the Jurrasic Park ride. Beleive me... If i didnt have a Front-of-the-line-Pass i would have been pissed. I wouldnt wait more than 30 min to go on that ride. The only good part about the ride is the drop at the end because the dinsaurs look so fake.

    The next ride i went on was Back to the Future. I now its a classic ride and everything but c'mon, lets face it, the ride needs to go. It's a wast of space. Really. It was the worst ride I have ever been! Seriously I am trying to erase it from my memory. I really dont want to talk about it.

    Now the shows there were pretty cool. I especially like the Special Effects Show and Shrek 4d. The Terminator one was o.k. but like Robert said it needs to go. The fun stops when the you know the main character of the show is now the Governor of California. Doesn't work out to well. George Bush blasting away robots? Sorry.

    The only other cool thing I liked at USH was the Water Show. That was cool. But lets all face it, there is one maybe two thril rides . I wish I could go back and go to SFMM. Now I know. O ya and if you ever think about buying a front of the line pass don't bother... its not worth it.

    If you want to see a long line go to Disneyland and ride Splash Mountain while Space and Big Thunder Mountain are closed. No thank you!

    From Kevin Baxter on July 15, 2004 at 2:52 AM
    Lord, I haven't seen so much damn retardation collected in one place in my life. Most of the locals prefer SFMM? Most of the locals who are teenagers? You know, there are MILLIONS of people in the LA area who are under 10 or over 30 who prefer a fun show like Waterworld to a roller coaster. MILLIONS of people who think a themed experience is better than a bunch of coasters with single trains running. MILLIONS of people who aren't ignorant and realize that USH's Studio Tour is one of the greatest attractions in the theme park world, "thrill ride" or not.

    And the previous assertion that they only build new attractions every five to seven years shows that facts aren't necessary to some people. USH has two new attractions this year. They built Shrek 4-D last year. ONE WHOLE YEAR! Prior to that they opened Spider-Man Rocks and that Mummy walkthrough. ANOTHER WHOLE YEAR! This doesn't even include things like the constantly changing Special Effects Stages or the changing film sets to be seen on the Studio Tour. Does USH need help? Yes! Does it need more help than SFMM? Gawd no!

    From Derek Potter on July 15, 2004 at 11:35 AM
    Some people in SoCal actually prefer SFMM to Universal??? I can't say it's too strange, because inevitably many people get tired of theme park attractions. As well crafted as the theming is, most of the rides just don't get the adrenaline pumping like say, Goliath. If locals are willing to look past all the problems of Magic Mountain and go there instead of Universal, than SFMM hasn't lost all hope. As far as their attendance, I would like to see what percentage of Universal's guests were tourists/vacationers, as opposed to locals.

    What bothers me about a lot of theme park attractions is the fact that they have little repeat value to me. Do I appreciate them, yes...will I ride them over and over, no. Sure I will visit Universal and experience it, but after I've seen the Waterworld show once, I have no need to see it again. When compared with a good coaster or thrill ride, I can say for sure that the coaster will get more visits, because it heightens the senses, and the experience . The same goes for most of the attractions, because after I've seen the Mummy Coaster's effects a few times, they no longer have their effect, and the actual ride, which is tame, simply isn't enough to merit me waiting in a long line or buying a season pass.

    The only exception for me is IOA, which in my book, is a well themed amusement park. Why is Hulk so popular? Because it is a great coaster that really doesn't need the theming to be a good ride. The ride uses the theming to add to the experience, instead of the ride relying on it to carry the experience. The same goes for Dueling Dragons, Ripsaw Falls, and pretty much all other high capacity rides at IOA.

    I guess it all comes down to people's preference. Some want the theming, and some just don't need it.

    From Robert Niles on July 15, 2004 at 2:08 PM
    One of the advantages of living in Southern California (or Orlando) is that we've got seven theme parks here. So if you go to a park one day a month, that works out to just under two visits per park each year. You could spend many years cycling through these parks before you get too tired of them.
    From Derek Potter on July 15, 2004 at 4:16 PM
    Makes me wish that I lived in Fla or SoCal, but then again I have 4 parks that are within a couple of hours, so I could be worse off. What's strange to me is that they never seem to qrow old no matter how many times I visit.
    From Marco Sierra on July 15, 2004 at 5:44 PM
    Well there probably are Millions of people in the L.A. who perfer shows over rides. The thing is, those people don't really go to theme parks as much as people who get on rides do. Do people really want to buy a season pass to see Waterworld 30 times?

    If Universal didn't have a problem with attracting the locals, then why do they always have these "buy one day, go the rest of the year free", or "upgrade to a season pass for ten dollars" deals going on?

    From Marco Sierra on July 15, 2004 at 5:55 PM
    Well I should add that when I went to Universal, it was the tuesday after the 4'th of july. I got to the park around noon. Only Terminator, Backdraft, and the special effects show had a 20 minute or less wait. Jurasic Park usually had a 30 minute or less wait. Everything else had a 45 minute or more wait. Shrek had a terrible wait that day, I think it actually went to 100 minutes. Back to the Future was also pretty bad for being it's back to the Future.
    From Kevin Baxter on July 16, 2004 at 1:30 AM
    Derek, you are right that USH's main problem is repeat value. Now something like T2:3-D is something people tend to do every visit, it isn't something they do more than once a visit. Then there are shows and older attractions, like BTTF, that people will only do every other visit or so. That's why I keep insisting USH build Men in Black or a similar shooter with a different theme PRONTO.

    I love coasters as much as anyone else, and my Season Passes used to be spent only on Six Flags Marine World. But as I have gotten older, I have realized that coasters become less and less thrilling to me. I tend to spend more time taking pics with my digital camera than I do enjoying the ride. This includes new coasters too. Goliath's drop, the longest I have ever experienced, did absolutely nothing for me. If you can't get anything from the drops, you're missing out on half the thrill of a coaster.

    So maybe that is why we older farts begin to enjoy themed rides more. We've been there, done that, bought the picture.

    As for the assertion that USH can't get locals so they do the buy one, get the year APs... I suppose SFMM's constant begging for $49 for their APs has nothing to do with trying to get locals into their park. Gawd, Disneyland sells about 600,000 ridiculously cheap APs a year, so what exactly does AP sales have to do with anything?

    From John K on July 16, 2004 at 6:53 PM
    I just went to Universal Studios Hollywood today and I would say the guest service is top-notch at that park. I was VERY satisfied with the service. The employees seemed happy to be there. Prices for food, tickets, and items were very high. I loved the Revenge of the Mummy. Most attractions had around a 30 min wait. Since I was a single rider for JP river adventure, I was able to skip the whole line and get right on which was awesome, too bad my own park doesn't do that. It was the second time in my life I saw the show Waterworld and still liked it, and yes I sat in the soak zone and what happened? guessed it!!! I love the way how the employees really interact with the guest.

    I was soo satisfied that I filed a complimentary report at the Guest Relations, I was treated with respect from start to finish

    From parker reave on August 18, 2004 at 7:45 PM
    The Spider-man show is closing on Sunday, Aug.22, 2004.
    From patrick sayre on September 15, 2004 at 1:33 PM
    Just got back from my first visit to Universal Hollywood.
    I'd have to say it was a Nice experiance but thats about it. Clean, SOME nice themeing,though Disney still does it much better, and courtious staff. But I'd never pay full pop for a ticket there, or go back every year.
    The problem is there just isn't much to do, and what is there is either not up to par or as many have said showing age.

    Back to the Futures film is old, by that I mean the print they use is dim and uses old technology.

    Jurasic parks dinosaurs look worn, and the effects only worked during the afternoon, no mist, lights, sparks or anything during the morning, just rubber animatronics on all too visible tracks, and a T-rex that you can see hanging in mid air 50ft before the drop.

    Mummy, I just wrote about in it's review section so read my opinion there.

    Studio tour was just an excuse to drive through set piece effects shows, with very little studio history or story given.

    Yes Universal is nicer to visit than SFMM, which is a filthy pig pen full of rude south central gangsters and valley teens with half off coke cans. But still Universal Hollywood needs help. For a theme park built around hollywood fantasy,technology,and history it sure seems to come up short on all three.
    Not once did I ask, "how did they do that?" or "How do they make it look so believeable?"

    When the Pirates in Disney built in 69 look more believeable than computer controlled dinosaurs built in the 90's something just isn't right.

    From Adam Villani on September 19, 2004 at 8:10 PM
    USH has some very nice attractions but its repeat value is very, very low indeed. I actually went 20 years between visits, and I'm a SoCal native. Inbetween I probably went to SFMM and Knott's 10 times each and Disneyland probably 20 times. I had a very good time when I finally re-visited the place in 2000 and figured that I shouldn't wait anoher 20 years before going again. Now it's 4 years later and the Mummy ride has me itching to maybe return, but there's no way I'd pay 50 bucks for one new ride there and a few shows. I understand that the emphasis at USH is more on shows than rides, and I'm fine with that, but they need to have more smaller-level rides to fill in the space between the big guns. When my girlfriend and I visited USH in 2000 we had, with the exception of the Rugrats show, seen every single attraction in the park by 5:00. Compare with Disneyland, where there's always something new around the corner.
    From Kevin Baxter on September 21, 2004 at 2:25 AM
    WHAT????? Something new around the corner at Disneyland????? The park that has closed attraction after attraction, restaurant after restaurant, shop after shop and hasn't built CRAP???? The park that took 9 years to build a new ride after Indy??? And that ride was the lackluster Pooh!!

    Of course there were the WONDERFUL new rehabs like the Tomorrowland redo, that Tarzan's Treehouse crap AND the ever delightful Innoventions! And, of course, the now-you-see-but-usually-you-don't Fantasmic schedule. The wretched Snow White too... don't forget that!!!

    Gawd, if I ever feel like I am getting too down on USH, I just remember Pressler's Disneyland!

    From patrick sayre on September 22, 2004 at 2:11 PM
    I'd have too agree with you there Kevin. Disney for all the $$$$$$ they make invests zip into the parks anymore. Their saving grace is what was done during Walts time is perfection.
    Universal has equally deep pockets, however they do not have Walt and his imagineers genius shoulders to stand on. What Universal Hollywood has done in my opinion is marginal for a company built on movie magic and history. I think thats why people keep going back to the Disney standard and glossing over the Disney parks decline, because we expect perfection from a high dollar modern park like Universal Hollywood, and it fails to deliver the goods better than Walt and Co 30 odd year old creations, which still project that feeling of wonder and admiration.

    And BTW, your being kind to Pooh, that ride just plain Bites! Inanimate black light cut outs and maniquins, as you roll thru in a cheap looking fiberglass car has all the quailty we'd expect from a weekend fair carnival.

    From Adam Villani on October 18, 2004 at 11:50 AM
    I didn't mean that they're always putting in new attractions, which they're not (though things should get better under the new management). What I meant was that at Disneyland, there's a variety of attractions, going back to the old A-B-C-D-E ticket days. There are thrill rides, dark rides, float-thrus, themed buildings, characters, etc. At USH you've got a few stage shows and then what, 4 rides? They need more small attractions to fill in space and time between their big guns.
    From Arleem Diaz on December 25, 2004 at 10:36 PM
    I prefer Six Flags over the the other amusement parks around here. I guess i just prefer the big roller coasters. I have been to Universal plenty of times and i am pretty sick of it...I have seen the entire park and been on every ride. I have been to six flags way more times and i still have one or two rides more to get on. Eh...I'm not much of a show person. But Universal and Knotts are great when it comes to Halloween...Six Flags not very good.

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