Universal Studios Hollywood (Luke)

Universal Studios was high on my to-do list ever since we decided we’d be going to the US. I’m a sucker for high-tech rides and coasters. Being a movie fan, though, I was keen to go on the studio tour, which is the reason the park opened in the first place.

We started off early by catching our hotel’s shuttle over to the bus depot, intending to get to the gates before they opened. Unfortunately the buses weren’t running when we got there, and weren’t due to start up for another half hour, so we used an Uber cab to get over there. It delayed us a little bit, but when we got there it was surprisingly quiet anyway, so we needn’t have worried.

Universal Studios Hollywood Park Map 2014

We studied the map beforehand to draw up our battle plans.

We purchased our tickets, opting not to go for the more expensive front-of-line tickets given the thin crowds. We’d read some guides on the best way to tackle all the rides and attractions, so first off we headed for the studio tour. We piled in to a four open-carriage tour bus and set off. The commentary of the tour guide is supplemented by humorous videos staring Jimmy Fallon. We were sitting in the front of the third carriage, and couldn’t really see the TV screen from where we were sitting – however it does give you a good view for everything else. The tour takes you through both the universal front and back lots. The front lots have all the production offices, and the back lots have all the stages and sets, which still get a lot of use. We even went past a crew shooting some TV commercial. I can understand why they still have their New York and European city sets still up – they seem to get a lot of use. But it’s a bit baffling as to why they still have a wild west back lot – I can’t imagine there’s much call for it anymore, and it looks extremely dated. Though it was used in a Community episode, so I guess it’s not completely useless.

Apart from current working sets, there are also some remnants of sets, including the crash scene out of War Of The Worlds, the Desperate Housewives street, and the Bates Hotel out of Psycho. I was a little disappointed that the Back To The Future clock tower no longer features on the tour.

King Kong 360 3D is an attraction coupled with the studio tour. It was designed by Peter Jackson and his WETA workshop to be a mixture of CGI, simulator and practical special effects. The tour carriages pull in to a darkened cave area with two huge IMAX screens curved around the tram displaying the lush vegetation of Skull Island, which is where King Kong was set. Before long though a few dinosaurs get interested in having a chomp on the tour guests, and Kong turns up just in time to stop them. Some prehistoric fisticuffs result, and the tour carriages are knocked around as the fight goes on. The 3D effects aren’t the most immersive, and there’s a lot of stuff going on so if you try to see everything you’ll end up taking in less than you would if you were just looking to one side, but overall it’s a great experience with some excellent effects. Check out this in-depth review for more details.

At the end of the studio tour you get a final video from Jimmy Fallon who busts out a guitar and sings a song for you, wishing for you to “Have a Tram-tastic day!“. Super catchy song which we ended up humming on our way off the tram. I’m surprised it hasn’t made more of an impact online.

Thanks Jimmy Fallon – we will!

Next up was The Simpsons ride, which is a simulated roller-coaster. As you wait to enter the ride, you watch a movie with Krusty explaining how we’re about to ride the new attraction at Krustyland, and the Simpsons are picked to be the first on the ride. However we also learn the murderous Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and is out for vengeance against both Krusty and the Simpsons. Bob manages to infiltrate Krustyland, takes control of the park and forces us to set off on the ride while he sets about destroying it, as well as everything else. What follows is a manic ride around Krustyland as our coaster cart is knocked all across the park, and then eventually through Springfield itself. Even though the simulator doesn’t actually fall, the visuals fool your brain in to feeling a strong sense of motion and vertigo as you hammer down a large drop or fly through the air. Check out the Simpson Ride Wiki page for more info.

The Simpsons ride was one of our favourites šŸ™‚

After a bite to eat (definitely have breakfast before you arrive if you get the chance, park food is expensive and you can’t bring any food in with you other than fruit and baby food) we saw the Special Effects Stage Show, where they demonstrate a number of both practical (in-camera) and computer-generated effects. This was quite an entertaining show, with members of the audience brought on stage to pretend to rappel down buildings, or to stand in front of green screens to be terrorised by giant monsters.

After that we headed down to the lower part of the park. Seriously lower – you have to go down a series of three large escalators to get down there. On the way is an apparently often unappreciated feature of the park – amazing views over the San Fernando Valley.

Longest escalator ever!

The lower part of the park features three rides – Transformers, Jurassic Park, and The Revenge of the Mummy. Transformers: The Ride-3D (4D really, as it also employs water and fire effects) is another simulator ride based on the Michael Bay movies. While waiting in line you are told that the NEST base which houses an important relic called the ‘all-spark’ is under attack by the Decepticons. You team up with the Autobot ‘Evac’ (the simulator car you’ll be in) to get the all-spark out of the base and to safety. As you move out of the base and in to the city you come under heavy attack, with Decepticons trying to stop you at every turn. The simulator actually moves through tunnels which take you past a series of screens through which you view events unfolding. It’s a really freaking awesome ride which genuinely wowed me. By far my favourite – I ended up going on it about five times throughout the day!

Amanda was too hesitant to come on the Jurassic Park ride at first, so I went on by myself and discovered the joys of the “Single Rider” line. Skipped the queue and got on and off the ride within 10 minutes. The Jurassic Park ride is a water flume ride, and it’s fairly basic. Your boat takes you in to Jurassic Park, you see some relatively unimpressive animatronic dinos, something goes wrong, you get diverted up through an escape route, dinos “chase” you (i.e. pop out from the sides of the track or the roof above you), leading to what the entire ride is really all about – a mammoth 84 foot drop (!!) down to a splash pool at the end. I was riding at the back of the cart the first time, didn’t get very wet and the drop was thrilling but fun, so I got off and convinced Amanda she should come on the ride. We ended up in the front of the cart, which offered a very different experience. We got very wet, and the final drop was buttock-clenchingly scary. Definitely the most intense ride in the park. Lesson learned, we didn’t go on that ride again!

The angle of the exit makes the drop look way more gentle than it actually is. Very deceptive. The screams really should have clued me in.

While Amanda dried out in the sun, I hit the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster. I was fully expecting this one to be a thrill ride, but ultimately came away a little bit disappointed. After setting off and going through a few ‘spooky’ rooms almost like a ghost train ride, the persistently hard-to-kill Imhotep invites you to join him in everlasting life – but first you have to die. After this bombshell, the coaster rapidly accelerates (woo! Best bit of the ride) and shoots you in to a pitch black room with quick twists and turns, and a few UV-paintedĀ glow-in-the-dark monsters overhead. You reach a dead-end, come to a sudden stop, some scarabs attack you (vision of scarabs on screens around you while small brushes swish around your feet to freak you out) and after a few moments roll backwards quickly along the track (switching tracks in the process), slowing to a stop in the dark as a ghostly mist surrounds you. When it clears, you’re at the end of the ride. It was fun, but just not as thrilling as I was expecting. I read that the ride is the crippled version of the one at Orlando, which features an introductory video with the cast of the Mummy, and more footage during the ride. More info here.

Those were the best attractions at the park. Apart from them we went to see;

  • Shrek 4D, which was a 10 minute 3D Shrek movie with some practical effects (like water sprays and moving seats) and was far too loud for my liking (Amanda thought it was fine),
  • The fairly hammy WaterWorld stunt show in which we were very lucky to sit in seats that didn’t get completely soaked in water,
  • The Blues Brothers stage show, with a couple of convincing Jake and Elroy lookalikes who sang very well but failed to get the crowd going,
  • The House of Horrors, which Amanda passed on. Walk through a spooky house while actors jump out and scare you. Also has a few sets from famous horror films to add interest.

I decided to go on the Transformers ride a few more times (so awesome!) then because I managed to get through so quickly, take one more ride on the Mummy coaster. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake – just as I was next up to get in the coaster cart, the ride broke down, and everyone had to get off so the ride could be reset. Though I was first on when it eventually came back online, the whole wait was about 15 minutes. I would have happily skipped that wait to go on either Transformers or the Simpsons rides again. For my troubles I was given a voucher for front-of-line on all but the two best rides (which I discovered only after trying to redeem it at The Simpsons ride), and a free drink from one of the stores, but which stores you could redeem it from was ambiguous. After waiting at one to be told I couldn’t use it there, I was told to go to another, and ended up waiting there in line for ages. All for a small drink. It felt like my reward for all the waiting I did was more waiting. I would’ve been better off not even trying to use the voucher at all.

Universal also has a strip of shops next to the park called CityWalk, where we ended up going for dinner. It was damn near as bright and loud as Las Vegas, with a live band performing on stage, lots of neon signs, dancers, and large crowds. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, mainly for the novelty value. As I expected, it’s really not anything special.

Not Las Vegas

Universal Studios Hollywood only sports a few attractions and though they’re fun, they’re fairly tame. If you’re a thrill-seeker looking for lots of heart-pounding rides, you’re better off looking elsewhere. That said, as a movie buff, and someone who loves flashy and expensive rides that exist solely to entertain him, I highly enjoyed Universal Studios and would certainly recommend going if you ever get the chance. Though it does sound like Orlando would be a better pick over Los Angeles.

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The Grand Canyon

We booked a day trip to the Grand Canyon with Grand Adventures, a tour company that runs small vans rather than big buses. We were lucky enough to have a very competent, informative and charming driver named Chad. Luke and I were the first ones picked up and then there was another couple from Sydney, a young woman from Singapore and a couple from Canada. We left Vegas at 7am.

On the drive Chad filled us in on the history of Vegas, we all got to know each other and then we stopped at the Hoover Dam, not far out of town.

Apparently so much concrete was used in the dam that a two lane road could be built across America with it. We learned a bunch of other facts that I recall perfectly but won’t bore you with here.

Next stop was Seligman, a little town on Route 66. I’ve already posted about that so I won’t write any more here except to say that it was where we first saw snow. In fact two of the ladies on the bus had never seen snow before – but more about that later.

The Grand Canyon (south rim) is over 4 hours from Las Vegas. It was quite a drive but Chad kept us entertained when we weren’t talking to each other. Somehow we always end up in the tour groups that know how to keep a conversation going and Chad was most impressed with our immediate rapport. I believe he might’ve said we were the best group he’d ever had. Or maybe I said it. Either way, it was undoubtedly the truth.

Finally we reached the national park. It was much more low-key than I expected. Not much of a fanfare or flashiness, which was really nice. Just some great viewpoints and a dusting of snow. We bundled out of the warm van and tried to avoid patches of ice.

Amazing views.

Spot the Colorado – it’s about the width of two olympic sized swimming pools.

When we realised two of the crew hadn’t seen snow before the next step was obvious.

I’d never actually seen anyone do this before.

Angels!

Big smiles!

We all found the view spectacular… some might even say energising.

An heroic jump!

We had such a brilliant day. I thought I’d sleep in the van on the way back but I ended up talking to Chad about American schools and government and all kinds of things. I’d definitely recommend his company to anyone thinking of going – personal service, comfort and nice small groups.

 

 

 

 

 

Las Vegas

Even the shop displays are so very Vegas.

Limo from the airport!

We spent four nights in Las Vegas, three at the Monte Carlo and one at the Signature MGM Grand. Apart from a day tour to the Grand Canyon we didn’t really think too hard about what we were going to do there. The first night we checked out which tickets were available for different show and decided to see Zumanity, the Circe Du Soleil burlesque show.

View from the Monte Carlo. Not the strip but still not bad.

I’ve seen one Circe show in the past and the costumes and acrobatics in Zumanity weren’t as stunning but it was very entertaining and had quite a bit of comedy in it too.

We spent most of our time walking around the strip, which was a lot more exercise than I expected. Half the intersections have bridges, sometimes you have to go into malls rather than walk on the street – it can be a bit maze-like. Ā And then there’s the hoards of people asking for money, trying to sell stuff, handing out cards for escorts or dressed in costume so you can have your picture taken with Elmo or a transformer or whatever.

My favourite things we did, since I’m not into gambling and I’ve had enough of drinking this year, was just watching the Bellagio fountains and the Mirage volcano – the volcano was especially good because it was so very, very cold when walking around. Even with our new hi-tech, super warm jackets.

Luke in front of the Bellagio. The fountains play to a different song every half hour or so.

Should’ve brought marshmallows.

We spent our last night wandering around the ‘real’ Las Vegas. Most people don’t realise that the new strip isn’t actually in the city of Las Vegas itself. We’d headed to the Neon Museum to see the old signs that had been retired from various casinos and businesses. The website makes it look really photogenic and interesting – unfortunately when we got there it was closed for a photoshoot – despite the website saying that it was fine to turn up to any of the tour times and buy a ticket. Rather annoying after a $30 cab ride. We walked to the nearby ‘old strip’, which was almost as shiny and bright as the new one. We took some photos and then had dinner and a couple of drinks in a bar.

The Flamingo lights are my favourite.

Christmas tree outside the Venetian.

Liberace’s diamante-encrusted car.

I can’t help thinking that Vegas would be more fun in party mode, but we’re a bit worn out in that respect and these days I like my early nights. It was certainly an interesting experience though and I loved the Grand Canyon. More on that next.

Arizona: Route 66

I’ve got lots to write about Vegas, but here’s just a picturesque half hour from our day trip to the Grand Canyon. We stopped at a tiny but significant town along Route 66 – the first highway to link the east and west of the USA and much celebrated in American history.

The town of Seligman is a couple of hours from Vegas and is home to a man named Angel, who campaigned long and hard to get Route 66 and it’s historical value recognised. Thanks to him many small towns, not just Seligman, survive thanks to tourism and an ethos of enjoying the journey – not just whizzing along the interstate from city to city.

Here’s some photos from the town that inspired the movie ‘Cars’.

Snow on the hood.

Note the background car.

The barber shop.

 

 

 

New York: HAIR! (not the musical)

I’d like to have posted about my friend Julia sooner, but I had to wait for the video to go with the post Ā because the video is awesome. I mean that in the original sense. You will be filled with awe at the majesty of our combined hair-powers. Make sure you’re sitting down and don’t mind my slightly hysteric levels of enthusiasm, I’ve been waiting to meet Julia for 12 years.

Julia caught a bus down from Boston to spend half a day with us wandering around the city. We had a drink and nachos atĀ The Olive Tree (our NYC go-to place) then dinner in China Town as Julia is partial to Thai food (as are we). I had the creamiest Tom Kah soup ever and we got to watch criminals being dragged into the jail across the road so that was like dinner and a show all in one.

We did some shopping and watched ice skating and just generally chatted. Once again it was nice to find out that someone I got along so well with online turned out to be just as great in person. At the end of the day I found myself wishing we had a lot more time to spend together – next time!

Thanks for coming quite a way to see us, Julia, next time I’ll come check out Boston :-).

It’s funny how seeing a photo of the back of one’s head is always surprising. We were both shocked by how long our hair was.

Wisconsin: Thanksgiving

We spent Thanksgiving with Josh’s family in Waukesha. His grandpa owns a huge, beautiful house by a gorgeous lake and we spent the whole day there chatting to his family and going out to play a little in the snow.

The lake looked like it had a thin layer of ice but when we tried to break it with stones they skittered around a made a weird noise. Lots of fun!

Josh was doing all the cooking and wouldn’t let us help at all so we watched from a couple of bar stools. We sat with his cousin Nick and learned a bit about American Football (I’ll be honest, it still makes no sense to me) and talked about the differences between Australia and America. I tried to convince him that Australian animals weren’t that dangerous but I’m not sure I succeeded.

Josh’s cousin Megan dropped off an apple pie and stayed to chat for a while but didn’t stay for dinner (the pie was ace, by the way!), and a few other people came and went. It all had a really nice family vibe that we haven’t experienced much of this year – except for when my mum was in the UK and when we were with Andrew’s family. I always find it fascinating to see how other people’s families interact. It was also a pleasure meeting Josh’s sister, who has three cute cats -amazingly, our allergies didn’t seem to flare up too badly, which was a relief.

So here’s some photos of the food!

A very nice looking bird – Josh soaked it in brine overnight before cooking it, leading to extremely succulent flesh. I’ll definitely be trying that at home!

The buffet. Croissants and jelly with a roast dinner! Only two people had the jello… some things are too strange, even for me ;-).

My contribution – some mead that I’d brought from the UK. Everyone seemed to like it.

Everyone at the table, right after I went back for seconds. Such tasty food!

My favourite photo of the day – Josh and his grandpa.

I wish I’d taken more pictures of Josh’s grandpa’s house. He practically rebuilt the place himself and theĀ design and craftsmanship is just beautiful. The whole place has lots of exposed wood and feels really warm and inviting. Many of the walls were painted by a couple of artists. They did each room with a different theme but in the same colours. The lounge wall has a topographical map of the lake outside the house and it’s done with such elegant detail and lettering that’s it’s a real feature. There’s also heaps of photo collages of various family members and pets throughout the place that make it feel like it’s the hub of a really close family.

We really valued the experience and enjoyed the day immensely. So thanks Josh – and all of the family members reading this! We couldn’t have had a better Thanksgiving.

USA: The Desert Eagle

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, the Desert Eagle is the train we caught from St Louis to Milwaukee.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from trains in the US. We’d been warned against buses and I’m rather partial to train travel so when Josh suggested catching the train I was keen.Ā I looked at the website and the only thing the train promised was ‘Texas’ sized seats. I think we all know what that means.

We could also check baggage and have it transferred to the Hiawatha – the train that we’d change to in Chicago that continued the journey to Milwaukee. Convenient!

We boarded the train at about 8am and the first thing we noticed was that it was two storey… there’s probably a term for that on trains… double decker? So we sat up the top. The seats were indeed large, and we had a huge amount of legroom. The seats also reclined to an impressive degree and had footrests that popped out and meant that the seats were almost as comfortable as beds. Nice!

I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the seats fully extended.

The train also had a viewing car with windows that wrapped up over the ceiling, a dining car with booths and a kiosk for when the dining car wasn’t open. The selection at both wasn’t large but it was nice to have two options. I got a veggie burger from the kiosk as I hadn’t had breakfast… it was probably the worst meal I’ve had all year and I ended up just eating the bun and a Twix.

The observation car – and as a treat, Luke’s arm!

The train ran on time, and as we got into Chicago it started to snow – the first time Luke had seen falling snow. He was very excited. We had about 90 minutes before the Hiawatha so we ate some food and I tried a bun from Cinnabon, which our friend Megan had recommended. It was a delightfully warm, gooey mess.

The Hiawatha wasn’t as fancy as the Desert Eagle but it was also only a short trip. We arrived in Milwaukee very excited to see my friend Josh and maybe get a chance to play in the snow!

It’s hard to get a photo of snow from a moving train so here’s some of the scenic beauty you can expect around Chicago.

I should add that the whole trip was $50 for each of us – not a bad deal at all for about 8 hours travel in much more comfort that you’d get on a plane.