Friday, February 10, 2017

Universal acclaim

  By now, readers of this blog are convinced that all I do with my life is go to amusement parks. Not true. I assure you that I also sleep, eat, and spend a great deal of time in endless traffic gridlock. Oh, and sometimes I go to work.

  Once again, this week, though, we took a day to go play. This time, we jaunted around the world of Universal Studios. I hadn't been there since the late 90's, and the wife had only skirted through on her way into the ACTUAL studios. In addition to being amazed at how different the park was these days, we were totally blown away by some of the craftsmanship on display.
  Firstly and absolutely formostly (is that a word?), all praise goes to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Good grief was this an elaborate affair. I had seen pictures, and I had seen commercials on tv, but nothing prepares you for standing in the middle of Hogsmeade. It's so much bigger than you think it's going to be, and the level of detail and clear love for the property is nothing short of amazing. It's like you're right in the middle of the movies.

*Click images to embiggen

  Now, I wasn't one of the bajillion people who read the books, so my only knowledge of places, things, and characters, comes solely from the movies. Even then, my memory is a bit rusty. Nevertheless, it was such a wonderful, and yes, magical, place to explore.
  The first thing we did was get in line to be fitted for a wand at Olivander's Wand Shop. During our long wait, some online research (there's free Wi-Fi all throughout the park) turned up some helpful hints. We read that in the wand shop, only one person per party can be fitted for a wand, likely due to time constraints. The page informed us that our time would be better spent at many other places around Hogsmeade, most especially at Hogwarts Castle, where the big "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride was.
  We jumped out of line, and headed for the castle.

  As I said, I had seen this on TV in commercials for Universal. I though "Oh, that's cute," because clearly they weren't going to build a whole giant castle. Even though it IS a scaled down version, it's still VERY impressive, and manages to fool you into thinking it's bigger than it really is. The effect, is, to repeatedly use the word- magical.
  The queue on any normal day is probably horrendously long, as evidenced by how deep you have to go into the castle/mountain before boarding the ride. WHAT a queue, though! The passage through room after room and corridor after corridor into the bowels of Hogwarts was amazing! The level of care and detail on display blew my mind. Everything from the talking paintings, to well-known artifacts from the stories, to libraries and rooms to tapestries. I almost wanted there to be more of a wait so I could spend time looking at it all in depth. We purposefully picked a Thursday, though, so lines would be short. So, we sort of rushed right along, snapping a few phone pics:

Hall of portraits

Dumbledore's office

Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom

Sorting hat

  "Yeah, yeah," you might be saying, "the queue, the queue. What about the RIDE?!?" I believe my thoughts on that were something like "Holy shit!"
  They do warn you outside that if you are susceptible to motion sickness or dizziness, you shouldn't ride. Well, we had heard about that, so we took some Dramamine just in case. Neither of us are terribly susceptible, but it wouldn't hurt. I'm glad we took it.
  It's not a roller coaster, or anything conventional. It's also not one of those Star Tours type rides where you sit in front of a screen and the room moves, making you think you're flying. It's... it's hard to describe. I'd say it's sort of a hybrid between the two. You're strapped into a seat, and it does come off the floor. It does move. It sways, dips, turns, and dives. When you combine this with several different screens, and some animatronics, you get one hell of a ride. You genuinely feel like you're flying. It was exhilarating. We did, however, feel the effects when we stepped off. Shook the old equilibrium up a bit.
  So, we decided to grab lunch at the much recommended Three Broomsticks restaurant there in Hogsmeade. There was quite a line out the door, and I thought we'd be there forever. Amazingly, after a fairly short wait, they had moved enough people through that we were able to put in our order. 

  There were plenty of choices, and they were even able to accommodate our allergy issues with a plate of spare ribs, potatoes, and corn. It was delicious, and the price was surprisingly decent. I would have expected "park food" to be much more costly. Good on you, Universal.

  After we ate, we decided to leave Hogsmeade and go into the rest of the park. We checked out Springfield, the hometown of The Simpsons. It was hilarious and ridiculously accurate to the cartoon.

  Homer harassed me terribly while I tried to pose for pictures with he and Marge. He stood in front of me, walked away from me, made fun of me. It was great. We also saw Sideshow Bob. No sign of Bart or Lisa.
  Next up was an attraction that I had REALLY wanted to go into, The Walking Dead. I'm a big fan of the show, but the wife... not so much. She wanted me to go in by myself, but I gently coaxed her into coming in with me.

  Naturally, there were no pictures allowed inside. It's a walk through attraction, and it's brilliantly modeled after different parts of the show. The whole queue takes place in a hospital, which has clearly seen better days. Lights flicker, trash and equipment sit in piles in the corners, and blood stains the floor and walls in several places. 
  You're let into the attraction in groups of about fifteen or so, and you make your way through dimly lit corridors that guide you through woods, warehouse rooms, and other confined spaces. Along the way, walkers, played by real actors, lunge out and try to grab you. It was terrifying and so much fun. It really got the blood pumping!

  To calm ourselves, we went on the famous Backlot Tram Tour next. I used to love this as a kid, because I really wanted to be a filmmaker one day. Getting to see behind the scenes of a real studio backlot was a huge treat. Nowadays, though, having been an actor, and being currently married to one, that special thrill is substantially lessened. Still, it was pretty cool to see locations and vehicles from a few popular shows and movies. Seeing as how I hadn't been back there in almost two decades, though, there were a few surprises.

A fake Ferrari "stunt car" from Magnum PI

Happy to see "flash flood" was still on the tour

A rather gruesome plane crash set from War of the Worlds

The famous Psycho house

  Two things I remembered from my childhood, the "collapsing" bridge and the famous Jaws tank, had both been removed from the tour. They were still there, off to the side, but they weren't mentioned.

  We finished off the day with some coffee and a few photo ops with characters we encountered along the way:


Big Frank


  And, of course, we couldn't come home without a few trinkets, which all came from Hogsmeade.


Olivander's Wand Shop

Death Eater wand

  The park was closing as we were walking out, and a large crowd had gathered around Spongebob Squarepants, who was break dancing. I should probably have grabbed a shot of that, but we were too busy trying to get ahead of the exiting masses.

  Outside the turnstyles, we breezed through CityWalk, which was going to be open a couple more hours, stopping only at Sparky's, a candy shop, where I grabbed a big bag of delicious salt water taffy. Sweet way to end an amazing day.


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