Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Visit to Universal Studios Hollywood

Click here to see the full photo gallery of my April 2017 visit to Universal Studios Hollywood.

While Universal Studios Hollywood in many ways competes in Southern California with the likes of Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Legoland for families and thrill seekers, it has the distinction of also being a working film and television studio. So in addition to the rides and attractions, Universal also appeals to fans of television and movies, and those interested in seeing the industry behind the scenes.

Though not as often as Disneyland, I’ve visited Universal several times over the years. One of the first times was when I vacationed in California with my family in the mid-1970s while we still lived on the east coast; again in the late ‘70s on a road trip with my brother and east coast friend after we moved to Northern California; then, after I re-located to Southern California for college and work, at least once during the ‘80s, and more recently, several times over the last decade when I’ve visited with my own young family.

At first glance, the studio still feels quite familiar, particularly the tram tour. I always get a kick out of being on studio lots—I’ve walked around the Warner Brothers lot thanks to a friend, and have been on the Culver Studios, Paramount Studio and Fox Studio lots on business or for screenings. (Ironically, I've never been to Sony Studios—formerly MGM—though I live right down the street from the lot!)

In fact, the Universal backlot remains so recognizable to me that, in just the past few months, I've spotted its locations in shows like Netflix's "Love" and TBS's "Angie Tribeca."

On the tram tour, it's comforting to see some of the same “greatest hits” after all these years still entertaining visitors, such as the Jaws shark “attack” and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho house, as well as the famous “flash flood” attraction. And I’m glad they still take the time to show off the studio’s history, pointing out landmarks like Hitchcock’s office bungalow and the places where Universal’s early monster films and westerns were filmed. But make no mistake, portions of the tour have also been upgraded and re-imagined. For example, a memorable part of the tram tour back in the day was a wooden bridge that broke apart and shook as you crossed it to simulate an earthquake, complete with (styrofoam) boulders that came barreling down the hill. This was later transformed into some ice tunnel attraction that I vaguely recall; today, it is the impressive King Kong 360 degree 3-D attraction where guests are transported to Skull Island to watch Kong do battle with a dinosaur with the tram riders in the middle of the action. They’ve also added a similar 3D Fast and the Furious attraction, which impressively features several of the film’s stars.

Live attractions and shows related to the magic of movie-making have also always been part of the experience. Again, this has evolved much over the years—I recall a live show that selected audience members to participate in filming sequences from Airport (complete with a water tank). There used to be an Old West stunt show that is now a Waterworld stunt show. Today, the park offers entertaining special effects and animal shows in small arenas.

However, while the tram tour and live shows related to the magic of movie-making used to be the core of the Universal Studios experience, over the last decade or more, Universal has worked to expand its appeal by adding more traditional amusement park rides and theme areas, based of course on a Universal (or other) popular entertainment franchise. So in addition to thrill rides like Jurassic Park (a water ride), the Mummy, Transformers, and Shrek, we now have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area and a Simpson’s Springfield area that expands on a smaller, previously existing Simpson’s Krustyland. (They’ve also added a "Walking Dead" attraction, building on the very popular Halloween scare nights during the Halloween season.)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened to great fanfare and anticipation in 2016. It’s an immersive environment that features a snow-covered village from the Harry Potter series dominated by Hogwarts Castle. (Construction of the themed area required the destruction of the Universal Amphitheatre, a concert venue I visited several times over the years.) Rides in the themed area includes a magic motion Forbidden Journey ride and a Flight of the Hippogriff kiddie rollercoaster.

Also relatively new is the Simpson’s Springfield land, which expands on a smaller footprint that included a Simpson’s ride and Kwik-e-Mart. The area has been expanded and features Moe’s Tavern, a Krusty Burgers fast food restaurant (where the food was a lot better than I expected), a Lard Lad Donut Shop, and tons of details that bring the Simpsons’ city of Springfield to life.

Unlike Disneyland, which can easily keep you entertained for a full day and more (especially with its sister park, California Adventures), I usually was ready to leave Universal after about three-quarters of a day. The expansion and new additions now makes it a fuller day. And don’t forget to visit the Universal City Walk right outside the main entrance, with plenty of fun shops, restaurants, and a movie theater complex.

For the full photo gallery of my visit, click here.

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