The SAMLAND Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood Part Three
by, 11-16-2011 at 07:52 PM
For the last two weeks, we've been taking a look at Universal Studios Hollywood (USH), and my guide to making the most of your visit. If you are catching us at the end of the series, please start with Part One of the Universal Studios Tour HERE. This week, we'll wrap things up by heading down to the attractions on the Lower Lot as well as the world famous Studio Tram Tour.
Now, let’s go down one of the longest escalator systems in the world to Universal's Lower Lot. Enjoy the amazing view (most of the time) of the San Fernando Valley. Off in the distance is Warner Brothers studio as well as the Disney Studio. The planes you see are flying in and out of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. The golf course below is the very exclusive Lakeside Golf Club. And, of course, you'll see some of Universal's massive backlot below you as well. This view is one of the most underrated features of the park. You could literally stop on any of the terraces and enjoy the view for quite some time . . . if . . . it weren't for the draw of those major attractions at the bottom of the escalators, dragging you mentally into a world of dinosaurs and mummies.
Jurassic Park – The Ride
The Official Line: This ride is a water journey on a touring raft. The raft will suddenly and dramatically accelerate, turn and drop. Riders will get wet. 42” height limit.
A common storyline used at theme park attractions from Disney and Universal goes something like this. You step into an exotic vehicle and you plan on taking a leisurely trip from Point A to Point B. All of sudden, something goes horribly wrong and then you are plunged into an adventure that will surely result in nothing less then certain death.
This is a ride that makes a great first impression. For me, the best part is the opening sequence - when your boat flows through the iconic gates and you enter the first dinosaur enclosure. We see dinos munching away peacefully and then, say it with me, "something goes horribly wrong". Somehow we are pushed backstage were all of the bad dinos live. Not good. The tour boat before us did not fare well. Look closely for the floating Mickey Mouse ear hat in the debris.
Every turn brings about another horror, and it just keeps getting more tense.
You are pulled up a long and steep hill and then… a massive T-Rex lunges out of a waterfall toward you. But that's just to distract you from what happens immeadiately after . . . you weren't going up that steep hill for nothing and you are about to see why for yourself. The drop sounds ferocious and you can get quite wet. But during the cooler months, you will be surprised how dry you can stay as long as you avoid the first row and the side seats. During the past couple of summers, water cannons were added to enhance the soak factor. Let's just say they wanted to make sure you'd be drenched.
This ride also exists on the east coast at Islands of Adventure. Most bi-coastal park goers prefer the Hollywood version, but just slightly.
Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
The Official Line: Plunge into the immortal horror of the The Mummy on the world’s first psychological thrill ride. It will hurtle you screaming through the darkness, forwards and backwards, with special effects at every turn! 48” height limit.
If you have experienced The Mummy ride in Florida, prepare to be extremely disappointed. The east coast version is an amazing coaster with a solid, believable backstory. In Orlando, you are going to be used as an extra in an upcoming sequel to the Mummy series. However, something goes horribly wrong (where have I heard that before?). You are trapped in your mine car and the Mummy is trying to suck out your soul. That version contains a false ending and some amazing effects that combine to create a great hybrid coaster/dark ride experience. The west coast version…not so much. In Hollywood, they had to shoehorn the ride into a much smaller building (it took over for E.T.) and the editing was brutal. The pre-show is abrupt and just a room with a video screen yelling at you. You step out of the coaster and walk right into a non-theme hallway toward the exit. Over!
Get ready to board the mine cars. The seats are cramped and the lap and knee restraints are incredibly uncomfortable and I am not a big person. The train leaves the station and you crawl through some very detailed creep scenes. A cool audio-animatronic character tries to make you an offer you can’t refuse . . . but you do. The coaster is launched into the blackness while swordsman fall out of the ceiling to cut your head off. Blacklight demons haunt you as you spin about in the dark. You come to a very sudden (and for many a painful) stop and get attacked by scarab beetles. Oh joy. Then you go backward. Luckily the return trip is mercifully smooth and short. the biggest disappoint comes at the end. The ride’s climax has been hacked to nothing over the years. There was once some attempt to wrap up the ride in a circular chamber which slowly rotated your car before heading back into the station. Now, you arrive in the turntable room and they don't even try to explain what just happened. You then head through a tunnel where nothing happens and into the unload station.
There is sometimes a single rider line that is open, it is worth asking about before getting into the regular queue. If ever there was a ride with potential, this is it. They could still fix many of the problems with this attraction relatively easily.
The NBCUniversal Experience
The Official Line: Go behind the scenes of Universal’s film legacy in this interactive exhibit featuring authentic props, wardrobe and artifacts from past, present and upcoming Universal productions.
The NBCUniversal Experience is well worth a brief visit. This little museum is often overlooked, especially since nothing is at that end of the Lower Lot right now due to the construction of the Transformers ride. Props from movies past and present are behind glass. Each artifact is well documented. A small area is dedicated to the theme park and tour.
Over the past summer, I noticed that the air conditioning was set so low that you could store meat in the museum. This space will no doubt become the prime waiting area for those not riding Transformers. The area is scheduled for some changes to accommodate the large crowds expected for Transformers once it starts running early next year.
The Studio Tour
The Official Line: This tour passes through several attractions, which contains loud explosions, large flame effects, fog effects and tidal wave effects. The vehicle rocks aggressively from side to side and up and down during certain attractions. Certain effects may be too intense for children. The Tram Tour brings the rides to you!
The world famous Studio Tour is the whole reason why USH exists in the first place. In 1961, in order to gin up business in the Studio Commissary, legendary movie mogul Lew Wasserman decided to let tour buses drive through the back lot if the drivers agreed to drop people off for something to eat. It worked.
It worked so well that in 1964 Wasserman decided to take over the tours himself and hired Disney Legend, Harper Goff, to design the iconic GlamorTrams and Edith Head to design the tour guide costumes.
The Studio Tour experience has changed a lot over the years. The current version lasts about 45 minutes and features guest host Jimmy Fallon along with a, highly trained, live tour guide. Because the tour has to traverse a real working studio, there is a high level of randomness and repeatability. Every tour is different depending on what is being filmed on the backlot, what show element is working that day, or even the experience and shtick of the tour guide. The Studio Tour is great and THE must-do attraction within the park.
The custom built trams consist of 4 cars each. Each car is huge and comes complete with hi-def video monitors. My preferred seat is toward the back of car 2 and anywhere in car 3. As we shall see, this will afford you the best view for most of the little adventures you are about to experience. If you have Gate A privileges (Universal's line skipping up-charge access), they will guide you toward the first car, but it is worth asking to sit farther back.
Concept art for the old Battlestar Galactica attraction
Our tour begins with the tram descending a steep hill behind The Simpsons Ride. Once upon a time, this is where you would have been caught in the middle of Battlestar Galatica or a rubber rock landslide in the years before that. As you continue down the hill, you will see the backstage side of Jurassic Park. On both sides of the tram are movie posters reflecting the history of the studio. Once you are on the Lower Lot, the tram will drive past the haunted Stage 28, home of the set from Lon Cheney’s Phantom of the Opera (there are many stories of real life ghosts and strange happenings in this soundstage).
The entrance to KING KONG 360 3D
Over the years, USH realized that just driving by some movie sets would not make for a very interesting tour, since the filming of movies is a slow process and the trams would rarely see exciting action taking place in front of them. So, they started to add little sideshows that represent a particular film or demonstrated movie making technologies. This is the peeling back of the tinsel I spoke about at the beginning of this series.
One of the most immersive experiences currently on the tour is also the newest addition - King Kong 360 3D. I have encountered many guests who think this is a stand-alone attraction and they are surprised to learn that it is actually part of the Studio Tour. You grab a pair of 3D glasses at the beginning of the tour and awkwardly hang on to them for the rest of your ride. However, once you have experienced King Kong you'll likely agree that it was worth it.
Your tram grinds its way up a hill just below the old Collapsing Bridge and waits (and waits, and waits, and…). Once your driver gets the green light, you'll enter a portal protected by skulls. A video of Peter Jackson guides us into the tunnel and then tells us we can finally put on our glasses. The room goes black and then we find ourselves rolling along Skull Island. You sense that you are moving and you get caught in the action but that is all just movie magic consisting of giant fans and a tram that is mounted on a gimbal (a moving platform).
The screens on both sides of the tram surround the vehicle and create a very convincing illusion. This is why sitting toward the back is better then toward the front. More screen in front of you, therefore more action to see! The battle between dinosaurs and King Kong is very intense and may freak out the little ones. Kong has a habit of crossing over the roof of the tram and you will get used to being splattered with dino blood. At least that is what I think that was. Even the last car of the tram gets caught up in the action in a grizzly way (sort of). Once you escape, you need to find a place to stow those glasses because you won’t be needing them again on the tour. You can make a fun game of spotting glasses which have fallen from the tram and even how many 3D glasses are orphaned on trashcans or in corners of the upper and lower lots as well. Amazing.
I especially enjoy driving through the very large sets of New York Street and Courthouse Square. The ever-changing facades are a reminder that real movies, TV shows and commercials are made here. Due to production schedules, sometimes much of the area is blocked off, which is all part of the fun. You never know what route you'll take or what you might see. Good luck. One tip, a majority of the filming occurs Monday through Friday during regular business hours. So, you'll have more of a chance of being rerouted or not seeing some of the set . . . but you'll also have more of a chance of spotting a star or seeing some real filming action.
We continue along, encountering more immersive experiences. An old favorite, the Mexican village, is still being ravaged by flash floods every few minutes. The shark from Jaws still lunges at you and then does the backstroke.
A couple of the shows need a bit of TLC including the San Francisco BART station that suffers from an earthquake as well as the Mummy’s rotating tomb tunnel.
Yes, it's as bad as it looks
My hope is that at some point, the Fast and Furious dancing cars and the fossils left over from Jurassic Park will be retired and something more worthy will take their place. According to a proposed master plan of the entire property, this is an area slated for eventual theme park expansion.
Placing The Grinch Who Stole Christmas set next to the classic Bates Motel from Psycho was rather inspired. And driving through the War of the World crash scene is a powerful moment and reminds you why the neighbors (some of whose homes you can see in the hills) may hate living next to this theme park. (Roy Disney, who lived very close to Universal, was famous for trying to block Universal's plans at every turn).
Jimmy Fallon replaced Whoopi Goldberg as the video host of the tram tour and it is a refreshing change of pace. His bits are quite funny and I wish there were more of them. Not sure if the “have a tramtastic day” message has reached deep into the popular culture yet, but USH is trying.
Universal is not just a theme park, it is a real life working movie studio - one of the most famous in the world. The park developed organically over the years due to the success of the Studio Tram Tour. If you were to do nothing more than visit the Tram, your trip would be worth it. The other attractions and shows in this park are like icing on the cake. If you are looking for extreme thrills and coasters, go to an amusement park. But if you want to learn more about the movies, some movie history, and experience a whole different kind of themed entertainment, give Universal Studios Hollywood a try.
I'd like to offer a touring tip. Start your day with the Studio Tour, head down to the Lower Lot for the thrill rides (The Mummy and Jurassic Park), then spend the rest of the day taking in all of the shows and atmosphere on the Upper Lot. If you delay your trip until this Summer, after the new Transformers ride opens, we'll change this strategy a bit and have you go straight to the Lower Lot and get in line for the new ride the moment the park opens.
If you are taking a once in a lifetime trip to the park, pay for the Gate A front of line passes. And if you want a lot of personal attention and don't want to miss anything, pop for the expensive VIP Tour which takes you on a guided studio tour in a small group and even off the tram to walk the sets and see the prop house, PLUS, it includes front of line access on the rides.
Cut! That's our tour of Universal Studios Hollywood as it is today. Do you have fond memories of Universal? Stories or tips you'd like to share? Photos of you or your family members in long gone sections of the park? Please share below. This series may be at an end but the discussion doesn't need to be. It's a wrap!
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