Saturday, 30 August 2014

Universal Studios

I’m not a big fan of theme parks, so when we’d planned our holiday I‘d thought of Universal Studios as something we would do if we had time, but we’d probably miss it out. Once we were in L.A., Sarah convinced me that it was worth a look and Vincent convinced me even more by getting very excited by the whole thing the day before, so we woke up early on Wednesday morning and quickly headed over there to beat the queues.  I’m so grateful that we did, because writing this now in the airport at the end of the holiday, I can attest that Universal Studios was the best part of our entire trip, beating even Yosemite to second place, which I didn’t think would be possible. 

Spot the odd one out on the Apollo 13 mission
If you go to Universal Studios, you have to be prepared for the fact that everything is fake. There’s a fake Parisian street, a fake London street, and a fake New York street; there are fake cars, fake animals, and fake people – but then, Hollywood pretty much invented fake, at least on this scale, so it’s kind of an authentic fake, and it is done with such creativity, enthusiasm and attention to detail, that I warmed to it very quickly. I love the fact that they turn everything into a fully immersive Hollywood experience.  It begins even when you first arrive and you get to walk down a red carpet, with the Universal Studios theme tune music playing and photographers waiting to take your picture. It’s so glamorous, even the toilets are glitzy, with shiny doors and stars painted on the walls and floors. 

Once inside the park itself, we zoomed straight over to the famous Universal Studios tram tour.  At this point I still felt slightly sceptical of the whole enterprise, and I felt like a bit of a mug sitting on the tram whilst our over-enthusiastic tour guide tried to warm up the crowd by getting us all to cheer and shout about what a good time we were having. Once on the tour however, all my scepticism evaporated, and I soaked it all up. 
village before flash flood
village during flash flood
The tram takes you around the outside of various different studios where live filming is taking place and then round to the outdoor sets of films like Jaws, Psycho and The Grinch. They’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that the tour is really interesting, so they turn on the weather effects to show you not just rain, but a full on flash flood (which gave me a shock even though the tour guide warned us it was about to happen).  They also pretend to set fire to oil cans at one point and you feel intense heat from the huge, controlled bursts of flame that erupt next to the tram. 

Clearly this isn't a photo that I took myself!
Anyone who knows anything about the tour (which was a category of person that did not include myself until I went on it), knows that there is a King Kong section, where the tram goes inside a studio and you put on 3D glasses whilst a scene from King Kong is enacted all around you. It’s absolutely incredible. Not only is the 3D imagery so realistic because it is displayed literally everywhere you look, so you are fully immersed in it, but they also make the tram shudder and slide about when the dinosaurs appear to hit it, so you feel like you’re actually being thrown around by the colossal creatures. Everyone screams, and everyone has a great time. 

The giant splash at the end of the Jurassic Park ride
It is the concept of immersing the audience in a story that really makes universal studios an absolutely incredible and unmissable experience.  There are some fairly standard theme park rides, such as the Jurassic Park ride which is a twist on the classic log flume ride, introducing 50ft moving, roaring, spitting dinosaurs alongside an 80ft drop that gets everyone soaked. But quite a few of the rides don’t involve moving very far at all. In the Simpsons ride (which is incredible) your small car of about 8 people stays in one room and is tipped and turned to simulate movement, without actually going anywhere. What makes it absolutely spectacular, is that the story of the ride is played all around you in 3D, so you feel like you are actually inside a crazy episode of the Simpsons. For someone who has been watching the Simpsons for pretty much the last 20 years, this was an amazing experience. You can look above you and all around to each side and everywhere you look you see the world they have created. I absolutely loved it and I was very impressed.  Other rides do a similar thing and thanks to Vincent’s ruthless organisation in the morning and his dedication to visiting all the most popular rides before the large crowds turned up, we got to go on all of them. 

Alongside the rides there are also shows, with the top rated attraction being the Waterworld show. Ironically, the movie Waterworld was such a flop that it nearly bankrupted Universal Studios when they made it, but the live stunt show they have created using the original set is now a huge crowd pleaser at Universal Studios and is a roaring success. During the show, the cast members perform some incredible stunts, mainly involving hurling themselves off the set and plunging around 40-50ft into the water below, sometimes whilst on fire, at other times whilst appearing to be tied up. Some of them come back up again, others disappear under the water, so they must have to do the stunt and then swim underwater to somewhere beyond the set where they can’t be seen. The men and women who do it are incredibly brave and talented. It really struck me that a lot of hard work goes into creating scenes like that and I thought: fair play to Hollywood. It’s easy to be sceptical about it all and to point out that, among other things, Hollywood plotlines can sometimes be quite weak and there is lots of institutional sexism, but a trip to Universal Studios highlights the time and effort, the skill and the sheer guts that goes into making a movie. Leaving aside various criticisms for the moment, I now have newfound respect for the whole industry and (thanks to the Despicable Me ride) I also have a toy minion.

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