On Universal Studios
I last visited LA a whole 24 years ago, and I hardly need tell you that west coast America in the mid-80s made quite an impression. Notwithstanding our family was met at LAX by a white stretch limo (our aunt was at the time working in Hollywood so threw on quite a show for Wide-Eyed of Mairangi Bay), my memory of that holiday was of early starts and drive-thru McDonalds’ breakfasts en route to the theme parks. We still have the photos of us kids lifting the A-Team van up onto two wheels, and riding through the night sky with ET in our bicycle basket. Those were the days. Hair was boofy, t-shirts were fluoro, and there was good, clean fun to be had at Universal Studios.
More than two decades on, I was looking forward to getting another pic with ET and nursing the smug foreknowledge that on the studio tour, when the bus suddenly dips precariously off its tracks, the Jaws shark lunges out of the water and frightens you to death. Not this time, Universal.
Well, it turns out the park has moved with the times, and I clearly have not. Today’s movie rides are all about Shrek, The Mummy and Terminator 2. A recent addition is the brand new Transformers ride, not even open to the public until 25th May, but it was running technical rehearsals so I made a beeline to the park’s lower lot right away. Had I been with my engineer father on this trip, he may have questioned the wisdom of riding something that is still being checked, but I went anyway. No queues to speak of (how glad I was not to have upgraded to the front-of-line pass for a “meagre” $129 USD) and I have to say it was pretty good. Of course nowadays it’s all about 3D glasses and jolting seats that give you the full physical sensation that you are inside a parallel world. I forgot that rollercoasters render me completely speechless, though at one point someone sounding like me uttered a weak “Oh sh*t” as we plummetted over the edge of a skyscraper down to the streets below. I won’t spoil whether we survived or not.
By comparison, the abovementioned rides and shows felt a little lacklustre, though I admire the efforts gone to to create a 4D experience – lots of water sprayed out of the darkness to evoke a dragon’s spit and dry ice enveloping the audience in the aftermath of an on-screen explosion.
The studio tour is still the highlight. Again, things have moved on in a quarter of a century – now we cruise Wisteria Lane and see stunt cars in action for the latest Fast and Furious flick. Jaws is there, as is the Psycho house, but not like last time. The truly impressive moment (and how proud I was) is when Peter Jackson appears on our in-cart TV and introduces his new ride, King Kong 3D in 360. It is brief but fantastic, and a worthy collaboration by one of our greatest exports and the studio he seems to be contracted to for the rest of his life.
To be fair, Universal Studios is really for the kids, and though it’s the parents who will pay for the undercooked, overpriced hotdogs and sweet popcorn and slushy lemonade, adults don’t even get the pleasure of a laugh at the mature in-jokes that are routinely written into kids’ movies nowadays. Universal is strictly G admission. If your child wants a photo with Spongebob, and won’t be petrified by the plastic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, it is as great a day out as it was in the 80s. Only the hairdos have changed.