No one was willing to say it outright, but by day eight, most of the people in the RV were ready for the epic California road trip to be over. They were epic’ed out. Except for baby Kai, of course. He was having a great time.
We had already been to Sea World, Disneyland, Medieval Times, been waylaid with illness, unable to even get in to the San Diego Zoo, and spent an evening on the Santa Monica pier. All I had left on this list was Universal Studios. “We don’t even need to spend much time there, because there’s not a whole lot to do,” I said. It’s, uh, been a long time since I was there. Let’s just go with that.
So we left bright and early for Universal Studios, forgetting, of course, that eight million other people get on the freeways in LA bright and early on a workday. What? No one else was on vacation!?
But finally we got there. Wandered through City Walk, which is what they call their Downtown Disney.. and, in hindsight, what I think I called Downtown Disney the night we met up with my aunt Mary (could that have just been last night? Oy). Got through that hyperkinetic outdoor mall and made it to the great Universal Globe, letting us know that our favorite characters would be waiting for us right inside.
We wandered forward, past the usual kitsch that I remembered from Universal, including giant matte sets designed to inspire children to a lifetime of hard work and achievement.
It turns out that a lot if stuff actually has changed. Since the last time I’ve been to Universal Studios, the park has become two parks: one in Hollywood, and one in Florida, and from what I’ve heard, the park in Florida is actually multiple parks, joined by the Harry Potter Hogwart’s Express train. Each park in Florida has a Harry Potter land, and the two are connected by a Harry Potter train. How cool is that?
Another thing has happened to Universal since the last time I’d been there: they actually made some very nice movie and TV properties, and started theming the park to highlight them better. A huge part of the park was decked out to look like Springfield from the Simpsons. Another part was All Minion All the Time. And in one nook of the park, a huge, looming castle emerged. Could it be? Was it possible?
Harry Potter is coming to Hollywood! In fact, it’ll be here in April! I bet there’s a cool broom-flying ride, based on the track around the castle grounds I saw. That will be very impressive, and I’d love to come back to ride it.
We wandered down the main street, reveling in the Simpsons-inspired rides and stores, astonished at how cool the Harry Potter merchandise was, drooling at the chance to ride Jurassic Park, The Mummy, and Transformers. A little put-off by the 70-90 minute waits for each of them. I made the executive decision: the biggest, best part of Universal Studios has always been the studio tour. We had to see that first. We went to wait in line.
The line said “60 minutes” when we got there, but we ended up waiting nearly two hours to get on the trams. During that time, we had to carry Kai, because like the other theme parks, no one in the entertainment industry in Hollywood cares about babies, or their need to be in strollers, especially when waiting in line two hours for an attraction.
Adding to Mom’s discomfort and growing disdain for stroller-hating theme parks, Jakob decided to let his inner crazy out, and he spent the full two hours worrying if a tram not capable of going more than 5 miles an hour might make him violently sea sick. When Jimmy Fallon came on the monitors wearing a snorkel, saying “you might get wet,” he started panicking, wondering if he should just wait the whole thing out, rather than experience water in the wild. And about 45 minutes in, Arwen’s bladder switched from “I need to pee anytime I see a bathroom I don’t recognize” to “I MUST SCREAM TO THE HEAVENS MY NEED TO MARK THE WORLD IN THE PUNGENT ODOR OF MY BODY’S EXCRETIONS!”
Epic road trip, meet Southern California’s longest, most treasured time suck: the Universal Studios Tour line.
I got Arwen to the bathroom and back, and with room to spare. We got back with more than 30 minutes to spare before our turn finally came. I talked Jakob off the edge, encouraging him to just shut his eyes if he was scared, and that “well, there wasn’t any water on the tour when I was here during the Reagan administration. It can’t have changed that much.” Sucker. He bought it!
Of course, I may have forgotten about the flash flood that somehow manages to strike every tram. I didn’t know about the spitting dinosaurs at the Jurassic Park. I didn’t realize the King Kong ride had been updated for Peter Jackson’s version. So I can be forgiven, perhaps, for all of the water Jake *did* in fact experience.
This brings me to the only place in this entire road trip where I’m going to rant. Universal Studios has diminished, in a significant way, even as their park has gotten beefier, better, badder, and more technologically savvy.
The King Kong part of the ride was all CGI. They made us put on 3D glasses to experience the effects. Let me reiterate what I just said.
At a ride where you go and experience the physical sets and props used to make movies, they make you sit (IN AN ACTUAL MOVING VEHICLE) and experience two motion simulations. The original King Kong studio was an actual 100-foot-tall Gorilla head and arm that grabbed steel cables over your head and pulled, sliding the tram across the faux bridge. Yeah, it was all fake, but it was all fake RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE. No 3D glasses, because it was real! Honest-to-goodness flames and explosions (which still exist in the Earthquake set).
When a movie of Vin Diesel and the crew from Fast and Furious kind of played out around us, it was a fun and super-exciting motion simulator.. but that was all it was. Universal got rid of the collapsing bridge and the tunnel-o-twistiness for this? Very, very disappointing.
And one other point… When I was a kid, the tram got stopped by cylon centurions from the original (and still best) Battlestar Galactica, and then Starbuck and Apollo burst into the room and there was a super LASER GUNFIGHT AROUND THE TRAM. That’s entertainment! What did we get this time?
A Grinch musical piece.
The kids were honest to God on their phones texting each other at this point.
Anyway, the tram experience is still pretty amazing. There ARE some great sets (the airplane Steven Spielberg blew up and reassembled in its blown-up state for War of the Worlds is here, for instance) and props, you DO see a lot of how Hollywood used to make movies here.
Mom wasn’t happy with how long the ride’s line had been. I tried to explain to her how it’s supposed to work: people in Southern California gather their families at semi-regular times to spend time together complaining about the super long lines and reminisce about lines in the past, and how the ride used to have cylons and colonial warriors fighting each other. Then those stories would be passed down from generation to generation. But today’s kids aren’t interested in lines. Today’s movie studios aren’t interested in non-digital props and sets.
We saw a velociraptor and went home, everyone a little disappointed by how the day had gone. The theme parks just don’t have the magic they used to have. Or maybe I’m too old to feel it anymore. I felt like I’d wasted my time, my money and my energy trying to show my family the things that had thrilled me as a kid, and had utterly failed. The road beckoned. There was a long way to go to get home, and precious little time to get there.
We drove until dark, and slept at a rest stop somewhere hundreds of miles north, ironically near the site of the infamous Firebaugh traffic jam.
Probably doesn’t even matter if this post is Baby-Kai approved. No one’s reading this anyway.