As I wrote in one of my “25 Years In LA” pieces, I was a tour guide at Universal Studios. Technically, we were “studio guides,” and in my time at the park, I did many different jobs. I was Leatherface for a full run of Halloween Horror Nights, and I managed to win a nod for “Best Scare” at the end of the event. That doesn't really mean anything, but it felt great at the end of a really tough eleven or twelve straight days. I worked “Backdraft” when it was an attraction that took up a full soundstage, and I made up my own slightly insane tweaks to the script that entertained me, if no one else. My friend and I figured out where we could stand in the “E.T.” ride so we could say names to it at the beginning of the ride, since the end of the ride featured E.T. saying your name back to you and telling you goodbye. Nothing made us laugh more than when E.T. would call someone a “blank-blanking blankblanker” while wishing them farewell. And sometimes, I was a VIP tour guide.
Like many of the jobs I've worked in LA, this job gave me a human-scale glimpse at celebrities. I got screamed once on the phone at dispatch by a musician whose wife happened to be a big movie star at the time and who didn't appreciate me referring to him as “Mr. Julia Roberts” when driving by the artist's entrance of the theater. I worked special events like the Country Music Awards where we'd pick up the celebrities in vans so the driver could bring them to the back entrance of the Universal Amphitheater. As we'd go, we'd do a miniature version of the tram ride for them. I did that for the Judds one night, and it was before Ashley Judd had really made any movies. All I remember is thinking, “Dear god, look at her skin” the entire van ride because she appeared to be lit from inside. I've written before about my encounters with Michael Jackson when I worked at Dave's Video, but he was just as omnipresent at Universal. In particular, he had a real fondness for the “Back To The Future” ride, and he would show up with guests to go on that specific ride. We'd put him and his guests into the VIP vans, then drive him over to a special employees only entrance at the base of the attraction. No one would ever know he was there. We had it down to an art.
I say all of this as preamble so you understand that there was a point in time where I knew that lot and all of the attractions there intimately. And last week, when I had a chance to attend the opening of their new “Fast & Furious Supercharged” exhibit, part of the studio tour, I was struck by just how much the entire lot has transformed, and by the way that reflects on theme parks in general.
When I visited Universal Studios as a kid, I was 10 years old. It was 1980. It was about as low-tech as you can imagine. The biggest moment in the tram ride then was either the Cylon attack for “Battlestar Galactica,” or the Jaws moment during the ride. Those things look positively quaint now, or they are long gone. The Red Sea is delicious cheese, but cheese nonetheless. When modern tourists come for the studio tour, they are expecting something more than just a chance at seeing some extras eating lunch, and Universal has used their theme park in Orlando as a way of really defining what it is that they need to do to kept the California park in the conversation as a major tourist attraction.
After all, if you're at Universal, you're only an hour from Disneyland or Legoland, and that is a hard competition for the family tourism dollar. Universal has a pretty remarkable admission deal where if you buy one adult ticket, you then get free admission for your entire extended family for life. I may have those details slightly wrong, but it's something insane like that. As a result, my ex-wife has taken the boys repeatedly, able to justify that free admission makes the drive over worthwhile even if they only end up riding two or three things in an afternoon.
As a result, my kids have been more aware of the changing face of Universal than I have. When I was invited to attend the “Fast & Furious Supercharged” event, I was just as curious about the overall park right now as I was about the specific attraction. The actual “Fast & Furious Supercharged” is part of the studio tour. You're on your tram, just past the “Psycho” house and the “Grinch” sets, and an FBI agent breaks into the monitor system on the tram to warn you of a suspicious car in the area. He's interrupted by another break into the signal, this time by Hobbes, played by The Rock with his tongue so firmly in cheek that he leaves a bruise. We're told there is a witness to an important case on our tram, and that Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) is trying to kill him. We're directed into a warehouse to hide, and once in there, the truly high-tech end of things kicks in. Using the same sort of 3D 360-degree screen they used for the Peter Jackson's “King Kong” thing, you end up in a crazy chase sequence, surrounded by fast cars, low-flying helicopters, and lots of explosions. They use holograms to particularly canny effect, and overall, everyone's winking so hard you're afraid they're going to cramp. It is goofy and it looks like everyone must have cackled while making it, and it really was fun. There is a persuasive sense of motion that left me feeling a little off-balance for a few minutes, my own inner-ear issues being affected more than I expected.
Afterwards, though, Universal was kind enough to provide us with passes to the rest of the park and three front-of-the-line badges so we could walk around and try some of the other big-ticket things they'e put in recently. “Minions Mayhem” is a giant-scale motion-controlled 3D theater ride, and it is fast and clever and silly and loud, and like the “Despicable Me” movies, its heart is in the right place. What I found fascinating was “The Simpsons Ride,” which is now occupying the building that was the “Back To The Future” ride, something they acknowledge directly in the pre-show animations you see as you make your way towards the ride. It is a surreal experience, having ridden “Back To The Future” as many times as I did, to see something that almost feels like they reskinned the old ride with new paint. On both of these rides, and on the “Transformers” ride as well, there is a persuasive sense of motion. Of the three, “Transformers” is the least successful, for the exact same reasons the films give many people headaches. It's too busy, and you're moving and the images are moving and you're wearing 3D glasses, and on our particular ride through, things were a little dim, and I just plain couldn't process what I was looking at. Both “The Simpsons” and “Minions Mayhem” benefit from being completely animated. They're super-bright, super-colorful, and you're always aware of where you are and what's happening.
Construction is underway right now on the LA version of the “Wizarding World Of Harry Potter,” which I visited in Orlando a few years ago, and I'm curious to see how they use the space. The Orlando version is one of the canniest uses of land I've ever seen at a theme park, and there are places where it's possible to stand and feel like you have stepped into JK Rowling's world completely. This is a major addition to the park, but every single square foot of Universal's property is something they have to carefully consider at this point. They don't have unlimited room to expand, and things get built over all the time. I would be shocked if “Jurassic Park” doesn't come down in the next few years, replaced either by a much higher-tech “Jurassic World” attraction or by something entirely different that also relies on water. “The Mummy Returns” supplanted “E.T.”, and “Transformers” is where “Backdraft” and the movie magic show used to be, and “Minions” kicked “Terminator” out. It's a constant turnover, and I suspect that they'll keep that up as long as they're serious about keeping those tourist dollars flowing.
My thanks to Universal for the invite. It was a great afternoon.