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Monday, September 26, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 11

I got up early Monday morning to catch the shuttle to Universal Studios, which is essentially a movie-based theme park but also includes a tour of the actual studios and various outdoor movie sets. As always in Los Angeles it took a while to get there. We took the highway that was shut down for a day a couple of months ago in what was dubbed Carmageddon, which sadly had nothing to do with the computer game by that name. On the bus I met another Australian guy, whose name I've forgotten, and we got talking about LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas and other stuff.

Universal Studios is really huge. In fact it's located in what they call Universal City, and as we drove in I could see why. The bus parked and we got out, taking a few photos of the giant Universal globe sculpture outside the park, then went through the turnstiles into the park.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Most of the rides in the park are of the simulated rollercoaster variety, with moving chairs and often 3D screens. They are also remarkably fond of water effects; nearly all the rides will lightly spray you with water a couple of times when something wet happens on the screen. This is pretty fun, especially the first time when you're not expecting it.

The first thing I did was go through the house of horrors, which unlike every other house of horrors I've been in, is genuinely fucking terrifying. It's quite long, very dark most of the way, and and sets have extremely high production values which make it feel just like a horror film. At many points someone in a horrific costume will suddenly jump out at you, often accompanied by a flash of lightning and/or loud noise, which probably makes a lot of people shit their pants. Often I got an advance warning when they jumped at someone ahead of me, but the other Aussie, who had a front-of-the-line pass, was ahead of everybody so he got every single scare with no warning.

The front-of-the-line pass is an interesting thing. It costs an extra fifty dollars or so, and every ride has two lines: a tiny one for people with passes and a long one for us plebs. In the end though, I didn't spend much more time queueing up for rides than the other guy, so I'm not sure it's worth it, at least during the week as the park wasn't too crowded. On weekends when there's a million people, the front-of-the-line pass is probably worth every penny.

After the house of horrors I went to the Terminator 2 3D show. This was really awesome. It's a mix of live-action and on-screen 3D stuff, and they blend the two with amazing expertise. The live actors used what I'm pretty sure were real guns firing blanks, which was really cool. At the end there was an on-screen explosion, augmented with real smoke machines, a thump of the seats and water spray. Pretty much the closest you can get to a real explosion without needing a pyrotechnics license.

Next was Shrek 3D which was OK, but didn't really compare to the Terminator. Then there was the Simpsons ride, which was good fun. They also had a Simpsons gift shop with facades on each side resembling the Quick-E-Mart, the Android's Dungeon and Moe's Tavern. I bought a Duff Beer stubby holder. After that I grabbed an overpriced hotdog for lunch and set off to the lower half of the park for the Jurassic Park and The Mummy rides.

The Jurassic Park ride was definitely my favourite ride of the park. The line-up was really short and it was brilliant fun. It's a bit like the old Snowy River Rampage ride at Wonderland back home. You get in a boat which runs through a little river surrounded by various animatronic dinosaurs which spray you with water. Then you veer off into a "behind the scenes" bit of Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs have escaped and are smashing everything up. There's crashed boats and radio static, broken electric fences with actual arcs of electricity, a jeep which falls off a ledge into the water and various other carnage. Then you get pulled up through a tunnel which looks really long due to some clever forced perspective. You go through another tunnel which has two fantastic huge T-rexes which snap at you through the ceiling. Then finally you blast down an incredibly steep drop, crashing into the water. I got soaked. It was amazing.

After drying off a bit using a nearby bathroom hand-dryer, next up was The Mummy. This is a pretty fast indoor rollercoaster surrounded by various supernatural imagery. It was fun and intense but sadly pretty short.

After those, I went to do the studio tour. The line up was really long but eventually we got on the tram and set off towards the front lot of the studios. We went past various soundstages surrounded by dozens of golf carts, trucks and trailers. The tour guide pointed out a cabin that Alfred Hitchcock stayed in, and then we went through a huge outdoor set built to resemble New York, in which they shoot all sorts of movies. The facades are all made of painted styrofoam and stuff, but they look incredibly realistic.

While we were doing that I was taking photos, and at this point the most annoying thing possible happened: my camera crapped out. It kept giving me memory card errors and freezing up. I had to switch to taking photos with my lacklustre phone camera. Even worse, when I checked the camera later, all the photos I took that morning were gone.

After the New York set we went into a tunnel, which turned out to be part of a 3D King Kong show. The tram shook violently while simulated dinosaurs attacked us from a giant 360 degree 3D screen, and were fought off by King Kong. Next we drove into what looked like an ordinary soundstage, made up to look like a BART station in San Francisco. Then an earthquake hit! The tram shook around, the fake ceiling fell in and a giant fake semi-trailer fell towards us and burst into real flame. The doors of a substation burst open and arcs of electricity shot out from it. A flood of real water came gushing down a staircase. Finally a train came shooting out of a tunnel, crashing into the fallen truck. Movie magic!

Next we went to another outdoor set made to look like a European village. They could make it look like different European countries by changing the language of the various signs. Then there was a wild west set that they called Eight Points, Texas, because they could film in eight different parts of it at the same time.

Various other sets included Whoville, Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives, War of the Worlds, Jaws (with moving shark and fire effects), the original Norman Bates house and two different lakes where they can film water scenes. One of the lakes had an enormous bluescreen behind it that must have been four stories tall, and four times as wide.

I really wanted to see the Waterworld show, which is apparently really great, but by the time I finished the tour I'd missed the last show. Instead I went on the Jurassic Park ride again, then caught most of the live-action Blues Brothers show. Once that finished, it was time to get back on the shuttle bus and leave.

Overall it was an awesome day. I rate it five out of five robotic dinosaurs.

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