Last week was the first installment of the Samland Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood (USH). I provided some basic information, what to expect when you arrive and how to buy tickets. Today, I will be strolling through the Upper Lot. For most visitors, this is where you will spend most of your time. The Upper Lot is where you entered. There are lots of shops and restaurants on the Upper Lot, none of which I will talk about. This series is focused more on the core of your Universal experience, we'll have to save the shopping for a future article.
As I asserted last week, the best way to make sure you don’t get lost and that you see everything is to think of the Upper Lot as a circle. For example, after you enter, if you stay to the left going clockwise. You will pass The House of Horrors, T2:3D, Universal Animal Actors, Special Effects Stage, The Simpsons Ride, The Adventure of Curious George, Shrek, Waterworld, and the exit.
WELCOME TO THE UPPER LOT
Universal’s House of Horrors
The Official Line: This attraction takes you into the terror-filled sets of Universal horror movies. There are dark corridors where performers jump out from around corners, loud noises, and some water effects. There are also mirrored corridors and animated monsters, high altitude bridges and enclosed areas.
Sometime ago, somebody thought it would be cool to create a haunted maze inside of the former Victoria Station restaurant and theme it to an upcoming Universal horror movie. When that got old they said, “Hey, we just spent all that money. Let’s retheme it to a different movie!” Sometime later, in a different meeting somebody else said, “We have this maze but the movie is old hat. What do we do?” Everybody chimed in, “Make it generic!” Welcome to Universal’s House of Horrors.
The walk-through attraction can, at times, be very scary. The scare-actors who perform inside are an evil bunch (it does take a special kind of person to be a zombie for a 6 to 8 hour shift). You slowly walk your way through. Sometimes not much happens. Other times…Just watch as people exit. Ah, good times.
The touring tip is the queue. If you see a line outside, remember that there is a huge queue line inside as well. Best not to visit as the first thing or the last thing of the day (since this attraction is the first one you will encounter in the morning and the last you will see at the end of the day, that's also when it is most busy).
The Blues Brothers
The Official Line: This is a live musical revue featuring the R&B groove of Jake and Elwood, the bad boys of blues.
(Disclaimer: I occasionally worked as Show Control for this production)
Jake and Elwood come back to life in this stage show based on the 1980 hit The Blues Brothers. To make sure that you know that the show is about to start, the boys jump in their former police cruiser modified with a giant speaker mounted on the top and proceed down the street toward the stage. My job was to pester you to move until I was sure you would not get run over. For those of a certain age, the songs will bring back memories and the performers are very good. For tiny tots, you get a chance to move and groove and maybe even make it up on the stage.
The temporary-looking stage has been there for many years. Be warned that there are a ridiculously low number of benches and I have seen people almost come to blows over saved seats. If you want to sit you must come very early. You can sit on the ground but not in the middle of the aisle.
The Blues Brothers is a great example of how USH relies on moving vehicles to pump up attendance for its atmosphere characters and their shows. Atmosphere characters are performers who come out to the street alongside the guests, sometimes put on a show, and then usually interact with the guests afterward. USH is trying to create the illusion that you are happening upon an actual production which is taking place right in front of you. Of course, the director and the entire crew are hidden in the trees - or something along those lines.
The Blues Brothers was the first, by driving the iconic car around to the stage. Others have followed. If you hang out in front of T2:3D
Terminator 2:3-D (T2:3D)
The Official Line: See the Terminator in the world’s first 3-D cyber-adventure. The CYBERDYNE demonstration involves loud noises, special strobe and fog effects, and sudden movements, which could aggravate certain medical conditions. Due to the intense nature of this attraction, parental guidance is advised.
(Disclaimer: I worked very briefly as a Stage Manager for this show as well.)
T2:3D has been around since 1999 in Hollywood (and even longer in Florida) and is still one of the best 4-D experience you will find anywhere. The show continues to get thunderous applause at the end of Act 3. The “shride” (show and ride together) combines 3D film, live actors with real guns, in-house animated effects, giant animatronics, and other practical effects to blur the line between what is real and what is in the film. There are dark moments, loud sounds, and a guy who looks sort of like a former Governor of California.
Okay, it is time to give away one of the secrets. Since they show this to the guests who get the Front of the Line backstage peek, I don’t think I need to fear the black Comcast helicopters abducting me. But who knows, right? When the Terminator needs to leave the screen and enter the theater, the entire movie screen lifts up in a blink of an eye and reveals two doors. The first door opens and out pops our hero (we hope). The screen goes down. When it is time for him to return, the screen rises up and the second door opens. He exits (we hope) and the show continues. This is a massive piece of equipment and, rightfully so, scares everybody who ever gets near it. Look for the awkward hug between the Terminator and John near the end. And please move at least 2/3 the way over so you don’t block the row. The seats are just as good over there. Please.
Universal’s Animal Actors
The Official Line: This show features trained animals performing routines with animal trainers.
(Disclaimer: I worked in Show Control for this venue.)
The animal show is probably the most child friendly thing in the park, next to the Curious George play area. And to answer one of the most often asked questions; no there are no snakes. Most of the animals came from shelters and are real working actors. Sometimes, in between shows, they will be practicing tricks that are unrelated to the current script. If there were one theme beyond “this is how we train animal actors” it would be child abuse. Yes, the show uses children as props. So if you have a little boy or girl that you want to scare for life, make them stand up and be excited to volunteer. Even adults get a little bit of punishment. All in good fun.
Even though the script is the same from show to show, the reality is that the main actors really are animals and you never know what to expect. Since they are in training, they will repeat a trick if the animal fails the first time. It can be an interesting peek into the process. Now I did not witness this but I heard this story from multiple people. One day, when they were doing a trick with a little bird that flies to an adult and grabs a dollar out of their hand, the trap door of the hawk cage accidentally opened prematurely. Apparently, as the little bird was flying back to return the dollar, the hawk saw supper and…well I am sure you can imagine. . .
Like a number of USH venues the entrances and exits are not always the same. Pay attention to the crowd control team members.
Special Effects Stage (SES)
The Official Line: Learn the secrets behind the making of your favorite blockbuster movies. Become an expert in Hollywood movie making as you learn about CGI, stop-motion and motion capture technology.
(Disclaimer: I worked in Show Control for this show.)
The Castle Theater is a performance space with many past lives. According to the extremely cool theStudioTour.com, this facility has hosted eleven shows since it was built in 1979. It started as an outdoor venue with the Land of a Thousand Faces Make-Up Show. Other shows include Adventures of Conan: Sword & Sorcery Spectacular, Spiderman Rocks!, The Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Musical and the annual Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure shows during Halloween Horror Nights. If you were a fan of the Creature show, he is still hanging around in a corner next to the stage near the lower exit to the left.
Changes on the Lower Lot recently forced the Entertainment department’s hands to create a new show for this venue. Because of the limited land available to the theme park, when something new comes along something old has to be moved or go away. When they decided to add The Mummy, they replaced the surreal E.T.. When time came to build a huge new attraction on the lower lot, Transformers, that meant that both Backdraft would be snuffed out as well as the three-room special effects demonstration show. USH moved the special effects demonstration upstairs to the Castle theater and rewrote the script to take advantage of the facility. The show was called the Special Effects Stage. The show has been retooled since its debut just over a year ago.
This and Waterworld is where I spent most of my time. I have seen this show hundreds of times, but doing a review is actually very difficult. The bottom line is if you have limited time, I would put this show on the back burner. The casts are generally terrific. The material is okay. You will learn something in the same way you absorb new information on those extras that come bundled with DVDs. It just takes a long time from queuing up to finishing the show, almost 1 hour in many cases. The most common question (beyond where is the bathroom – past the popcorn trailer and to the right) is, "what is the Special Effects Stage?" There is no hint of what you'll find inside when looking at the front of the theater. The show’s objective is to teach you about practical effects (those done through the camera like winds, explosions, etc.) and visual effects (those done after the scene has been shot). The hosts use audience volunteers to demonstrate the technologies. The show typically lasts 30 to 35 minutes, although I have seen one cast jam through the thing is under 25 minutes. There are some very loud sounds and lots of images of monsters. Please take that into consideration.
There is a certain point in the show where I edge toward the curtain, knowing a few parents with really little ones (who are all freaked out) will be heading my way. I use the King Kong test. If that element in the Studio Tour did them in, then stay away from this show too. Go to the animal show next door or Curious George across the way.
The best time to see the show is in the middle of a hot or rainy day. It is air-conditioned and enclosed (except the edges – where we stood). Best seats are up higher and toward the middle. If you have younger kids, the seats right next to the runway are always a hit. What about the show? Never seen it before? Go see it. It is another way that USH peels back the curtain and there is a lot of good information presented in a humorous way. When the cast is jelling and the volunteers cooperate then there are some solid laughs.
Repeatability? Let’s apply the Billy Hill and the Hillbillies test. I can see the Golden Horseshoe favorites every time and not get bored. Special Effects Stage? Although the casts do vary, the ones that have some magic don’t get to show it off anymore. And that is too bad.
The Simpsons Ride
The Official Line: Join The Simpsons on a hysterical, almost unimaginable adventure ride to a fantasy amusement park dreamed up by Krusty the Clown! The Simpsons Ride is a highly aggressive ride which involves sudden and jarring movements. 42” height limit.
I have a love/hate relationship with The Simpsons Ride.
What I like. I want a copy of the Krustyland map. Why don’t they sell it? The pre-show film both outside and inside are very funny. Considering how much time you have to stand around and watch TV, this is a very good thing. The visit to Springfield is brilliant and I enjoy the parodies for just about every theme park stereotype. It may be my favorite attraction other then the tour at USH. What's not to love?
I didn’t have gray hair in my beard when I got in line. That comes with aging at one of the slowest loading major attractions ever conceived. Even in the best of times, with no wait posted on the board outside, this ride takes forever to load. Wait outside. Wait inside. Wait inside a little box. Wait inside a little car like thing.
Plus, if you do not get seated in one of the middle cars you will be pushed off to the edge where there is a weird visual distortion. That is the downside to using the Omnimax screen. Same thing happens at Soarin’ Over California if you are on the bottom row at the edge.
The Adventures of Curious George
The Official Line: Come monkey around with Curious George. Soak up the thrills of a 500-gallon water dump and unleash thousands of flying foam balls in this wild play area just for kids.
There is a reason why the adjacent Nickelodeon store is stocked with a wide variety of beach towels. The Adventures of Curious George play area is just a swimming pool where the kids are standing up and hopefully wearing shoes. Clever, but you won’t find anything you can’t already find at a local water park. Personally, I think the Curious George walk around character is one of the cutest little guys… But I digress.
Next door is a facility designed for the little one to burn off some energy while they pelt you and other little ones with soft foam balls. It is amazing how many of those soft foam balls are under the grandstands at Universal Animal Actors and Waterworld.
The Official Line: This is a 4-D movie presented in theatre-style seating. The presentation will involve strobes and other localized effects. The seats will exhibit tilting and jarring movements coordinated with dramatic action-packed events of the movie.
Shrek 4-D bridges the gap between the first two Shrek movies. Guests grab their 3D glasses and funnel into a dark dungeon. Hanging on the wall are the three little pigs, Pinocchio, and the Magic Mirror. What comes next is a very clever, rather funny pre-show set up. One thing that is a constraint at Disney and frees the folks at Universal is their ability to do Post-Modern right. When Disney tries to be hip and clever it never seems to work out. Universal is best when tongue is firmly planted in one cheek. This pre-show is a great example.
The 3D projection is crisp and bright. The script is very funny and the action is wonderfully rendered. The moving seats are more of an annoyance than a benefit. They are there because somebody said “We have the technology!” The movement doesn’t add to the show and sometimes distracts. It is sort of like being a child and sitting on the bouncing knee of an irritating adult.
The Official Line: Experience death-defying stunts and breathtaking feats as we enter the midst of a live sea war spectacular. There are loud explosion noises, pyrotechnics, large flame effects and performers in close proximity to the audience.
(Disclaimer: I worked in Show Control for this show.)
Along with the Special Effects Stage, this is the show I saw the most. I still think it is a fantastic show and well worth seeing each time you visit. The stunt show is based on the odd bomb of a film, Waterworld, with Kevin Costner. The show picks up were the movie ends. Well, sort of. Somehow, the bad guy is reincarnated and comes back to terrorize Helen once more. By the end, just about everybody is dead - with most dying in a grizzly way. What could be more entertaining then that?!
These are real professional stunt people and this is their steady paycheck. All are very experienced and can truly hurt themselves if something were to go wrong. The pool is an amazing piece of architecture with some spots going down as deep as 30 feet. The crew is highly trained as they are carting pyrotechnics all over a hot metal set.
The best views tend to come from the upper rows. Sit in a silver seat and you will not get wet. Oh, I guess I didn’t mention that many seats are located in a splash zone. You want to get wet? You have come to the right place.
The one spot where you will get really blasted, because it is unprotected by any elements from the set, are the first couple of rows at aisle 2, grandstand 3 all the way around to the other side. You might as well have brought a towel because you will need it. The other good spots include the lower rows at the intersection of grandstands 1 and 2.
One request: please do not ask the Show Control folks if you can leave your sleeping baby inside of the stroller while you go to watch the show from the grandstands. Yes, this does happen more often then you can possibly image. With all of the explosions, your kid would not be sleeping for very long. Plus, if you are sitting in a wet zone with an infant, be prepared to have one angry baby when you get splash with water fired at you at the velocity of a jet ski.
The Stuff Between
Two hidden treasures exist between WaterWorld and Shrek 4-D. During certain times of the day a couple of people with heavy Brooklin accents hang out of the windows on the street sets above you and talk with passing guests. The actors are excellent improv artists and get in some pretty funny lines. Not easy to find a seat, but if you are able, relax and take in a bit of the show. Just beyond is an interactive Donkey animatronic (or is it a puppet?) from the Shrek movies that interacts with guest in much the same way that Crush the turtle does at Disney (only this one isn't on a screen, it's really there in front of you!).
Next week, we'll continue the Samland Guide to Universal Studios Hollywood and head down the longest elevator bank in the world for a look at the lower lot (which is currently in 'transformation'). Would also love to hear your thoughts and stories about Universal.
Continue to Part 3 HERE
Thanks for reading, Sam Gennawey
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