By Danny R. Johnson – Entertainment/Travel News Editor
Universal City, CA – Since its inception as a theme park in 1964, Universal Studios Hollywood has undergone numerous of transformations, expansions and upgrades over its 54 years of existence. Without question Universal Studios Hollywood is the “Entertainment Capital of Los Angeles,” and is the only movie and television based theme park to offer guests the authenticity of a working movie studio. It was initially created to offer tours of the real Universal Studios sets and is the first of many full-fledged Universal Studios Theme Parks located across the world. But the Hollywood facility is the cream of the crop.
San Diego County News visited the theme park for a review of new projects and the opening of news rides. We were not able to go on all the rides due to time constraints, but here are some of our reviews of the major attractions and rides.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
When Universal Studios’ new Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hollywood opened April 7, 2016, the park was inundated with thousands of excited Harry Potter fans who had waited for years to see the grand opening. As visitors capture the first sight of Hogwarts Castle, which is cleverly not visible from the freeway or immediately visible from the park entrance, which makes the first sight of its magnificently gothic arches even more stunning. Hogwarts Castle, home to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is possibly the best dark ride ever, beckons from the far end of the new land and quaint butter beer carts tempt, as do the windows of the sweets shop Honeydukes and the chance to huddle, as Harry, Hermione and Ron did, over shepherd’s pie at the Three Broomsticks.
Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are now iconic aspirational destinations, like London or Yale. Indeed, any college with the slightest medieval flair will inevitably invoke the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in its promotional material, along with the promise of quidditch matches. Here it is, magic come to life, or as close as it gets, conjured into obsessively detailed, interactive splendor by many of the same designers who worked on the films. Only this time, instead of partial sets, fleshed out with camera work and green screen, they got to build real streets, actual shops and taverns, even, in the queue leading to the Forbidden Journey, the Gryffindor common room. There’s Hagrid’s hut and his famous motorbike, alongside the line for the small but zippy roller coaster, Flight of the Hippogriff.
In Hollywood, Ollivanders Wand Shop — where every few minutes a wand chooses a lucky wizard — has twice as much space as the one in Orlando. But lines to our Tuesday, June 26th visit surprisingly was not long at all, and the gift shop into which you enter was not as cramped. Like every store in the land, however, it’s something to see, with its stacks of wands for every character, many in regular and interactive varieties. Those interactive wands, which go for $50, come with a map to certain windows at which actual spells (explained via brass plates in the cobblestones) can be used to perform “magic.” Adding to the verisimilitude, but also, potentially, child/parent frustration, many are quite difficult to do. (Fortunately, helpful staff members are on hand to help.) All roads lead to Hogwarts Castle, home to possibly the most immersive, amazing and utterly convincing dark-ride/queue ever invented. Winding through all parts of the Castle, the path to the Forbidden Journey passes all manner of narrative touchstones, beginning with the Mirror of Erised. As Harry and other main characters propel you along with the promise of seeing a quidditch match, you move through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, past the enormous golden griffin into Dumbledore’s office, through the hall of moving portraits and into the defense against the dark arts classroom.
Then, having greeted the chatty Fat Lady and read the iconic animated newspapers (the ultimate example of digital media), you enter the Gryffindor common room before climbing into the ride that sends you sailing alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione as they fly through various adventures. The detail at every turn is exquisite, the revelations seemingly endless — there are the earmuffs that you need to cope with mandrakes, the pensieve, the sad stained glass window, the sword of Gryffindor, all looking exactly like they did in the films (in some cases because they are actual props from the films). While the length of the queue itself can be daunting — though we had access to express line tickets, there was no long line during our visit may be because it was a week day as opposed to a weekend, however, one to two hours is not unusual to get on this popular ride — it is so haunting and enthralling that even those not forced to should take their time.
As night falls on Hogsmeade village, the Nighttime Lights at Hogswart Castle takes over! This extravagant light show is reminiscent of the Disney Cinderella Castle light show but with a twist. The special effects lighting shines brightly with an awe-inspiring spectacle that highlights the four houses of Hogswart: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin and culminates with awesome beams of lights that fans into the night sky. This is the crown jewel of the closing act of Universal Studios Hollywood for the night and the hundreds of Harry Potter fans present were not disappointed.
Transformers: The Ride-3D
The Transformers ride at Universal Studios Hollywood is an immersive, in-your-face experience that ranks among the top theme park attractions in the world. Transformers is essentially an indoor dark ride with motion simulator vehicles that navigate past 14 movie screens separated by sets and props themed to the robots-in-disguise film franchise.
From a technological standpoint, the Transformers ride is a state-of-the-art marvel with motion simulator ride vehicles that pitch and spin, elevator lifts that transport riders from one level of the attraction to another and towering curved movie screens that reach a height of 60 feet. But all of that high-tech firepower is largely invisible as you are literally absorbed into the relentless action unfolding around every turn.
Many of the movie screens in the attraction were so massive that I couldn’t see the edges, making the up-close, large-scale 3-D effects some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. On more than one occasion, a Decepticon grabbed onto, smashed into or landed on top of our ride vehicle with a shuddering impact. I was blown away by the elevator lifts, which were virtually impossible to detect until my third ride when I consciously set out to find them. With curved movie screens lining the 60-foot-tall elevator shaft, I felt like I was flying through the film as the enveloping scene unfolded in front of me while the ride vehicle ascended in the lift. My favorite scene in the ride was when we got sucked into Devastator’s whirling gear-like mouth, with our vibrating vehicle passing through the Decepticon’s grinding vortex only to escape unscathed on the other side.
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem: Super Silly Fun Land
The visually spectacular and higgledy-piggledy thrilling Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction is the latest proof that nobody does movie-based motion simulator rides better than Universal Studios Hollywood. I found the technically spectacular 3-D attraction to be full of laugh-out-loud humor and spine-rattling action in what’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser no matter how many times you ride on it.
Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride
This ride generally has a long wait but the ride itself is quite short, it does move quickly so it doesn’t seem too bad. Before getting in line, there are lockers available for free bag storage. It’s great to not have to worry about carrying all your belongings. Queue line is dark and the decor is in sync with the Mummy theme. The ride itself is very fun. The beginning takes you toward Imhotep taking power and condemning the riders to eternal hell. Right before he gets to you, you shoot out in high speed of twist and dips with glowing mummy encounters. At the mid-point, the ride brakes and the visuals of scarabs scatters on the wall in front of you. Then it a sudden retreat, the ride goes backwards! The ride takes you back and before you know it, you are at the end of the ride. It doesn’t really have an ending nor a storyline but it is exciting. Definitely not for the faint heart and would advise that it is highly addictive and makes you want to go again. One of the best rides in Universal.
Dreamworks Theatre featuring Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest
The official home of DreamWorks Animation at Universal Studios Hollywood officially opened June 15, 2018, with the premiere of the DreamWorks Theatre featuring “Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest”! This brand new attraction replaced “Shrek 4-D”, which originally opened in Hollywood in 2003 and is still showing at Universal Studios Florida. The DreamWorks Theatre and new “Kung Fu Panda” show are in no way similar to the original “Shrek” attraction. The entire building has been gutted and redone from the inside out, creating a never-before-seen experience.
The exterior has been redone to resemble the actual DreamWorks campus in Glendale, Calif. Gone are the stone castle walls from Shrek 4-D – everything is brand new and in the old-Hollywood, art deco style. Certain buildings are even labeled like a classic Hollywood backlot. Once inside the theater, everything becomes about “Kung Fu Panda”. The new show revolves around Po retrieving a stolen hammer from Kang and engaging in an epic kung fu battle that will surround the audience with 180 degree projection mappings. Unlike Shrek 4-D, this show is not in 3D. The show will literally take place all around guests, and ride engineers didn’t want to limit the audience’s peripheral vision. However, the show is still multi-sensory. The seats move with the visuals, images fly overhead, and sound, wind, and water effects will be a huge part of the experience. Here is a little secret you should know — the best seat in the house is towards the back, where guests can take in the full scope of the 180 degree visuals.
This attraction is the first ever integration of interior projection mapping. While theme park enthusiasts have seen projection mapping for outside experiences (like the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts) this is the first ever indoor example. Guests likely won’t notice upon entering the theatre for the first time, but every detail on the walls – all the way to the curtains that cover the front of the theatre – are not really there! The projection mapping is crystal clear and gives guests an incredibly believable illusion. During the show, the theatre will even appear to explode and rebuild itself with the magic of Po’s hammer!
The entire experience, from the pre-show through the main event, will be about 15 minutes. Universal Studios does not currently have any plans to overlay the theatre with new shows, but the potential is definitely there. The projection mapping technology is so versatile, it would be easy to implement a new show inside the theater at any time. We anticipate “Kung Fu Panda” staying for a while, but Universal does plan for the theatre to be available to any DreamWorks franchise in the future. Universal worked very closely with DreamWorks animation to create an authentic “Kung Fu Panda” experience that will be enjoyable for fans of the films and visitors who have never seen the movies. We believe this experience will surprise guests who are expecting something similar to Shrek 4-D, and is a promising showcase of brand new immersive technology.
Outside the theme park, a new, all-digital facility near the Universal Studios backlot was built in an effort to merge all of NBC Universal’s West Coast operations into one area. As a result, the current home for KNBC, KVEA and NBC News with Telemundo Los Angeles Bureaus with new digital facility is on the Universal lot formerly occupied by Technicolor SA. Universal City includes hotels Universal Hilton & Towers, the Sheraton Universal Hotel, and Universal City Walk, which offers a collection of shops, restaurants, an 18-screen Universal Cinema, the “Five-Towers” state-of-the-art outdoor concert stage, and a seven-story IMAX theater. In 2017, the park hosted 9,056,000 guests, ranking it 15th in the world and 9th among North American parks.