Last week, we went to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland to celebrate my 44th birthday. It was my third trip to Disneyland this year and no, you’re the one with the problem. I’d never been to Universal in Hollywood, although I’ve been to the Orlando version a few times.
Join me for a magical journey of memories and unsolicited opinions, won’t you?
- Universal Hollywood is surprisingly fun. “Surprising” because I’ve always been an obnoxious Disney snob and thought of the Universal parks in Orlando as pale imitations. (Except for the Spider-Man ride, which is awesome). I still think it’s fair to judge the Orlando parks on that basis, since I think they’re clearly trying to compete with Walt Disney World. But Hollywood is its own thing, built up around a deservedly famous tram tour and functioning studio, and committed to making its own type of attraction.
- The studio tour was the best part. I’ve been seeing ads for the tram tour for as long as I can remember — the queue area cleverly shows scenes from ads, promos, and movies that have featured the tour, establishing it as something “historic” in itself — and it didn’t disappoint. The fact that it’s a random assortment of highlights over the past few decades was a feature, not a bug, because it added to its charm. I’d just wanted to see the Bates Motel and Psycho house, so everything else was a bonus. The best aspect of it was that they got the “charmingly cheesy” tone exactly right: they don’t take anything too seriously or oversell it as a fantastic spectacle, but they don’t let it devolve into the Jungle Cruise, either.
- The Kong 3D section of the tour was amazing. Easily my favorite part of the entire park, and, like the Spider-Man ride in Orlando, one of my favorite attractions at any theme park. The synchronization of the effects and the motion simulator was perfect, and more important than that: the show itself was designed to immerse the guests (and the tram) into the experience completely, with real pacing and an actual climax instead of just a sequence of effects.
- The Rock gets it. This year’s highlight (and honestly, the main reason we went) was the Fast and the Furious “ride,” which turns out to be not so much a ride as the finale of the tram tour. It was fine, and fun, and appropriately campy, but it seemed a little too enamored of its “story” and effects and special guest stars to really work. The beginning was way too talky to setup what was just “batshit crazy race through LA;” they would’ve been better off going the “King Kong fights monsters, the end” approach. Plus Dwayne Johnson was the only person who seemed to realize it was supposed to be goofy and fun instead of wry and extreme; he was clearly having a blast with it.
- Universal is still lousy at crowd control. We were warned to get to the park obscenely early because of the Fast & Furious crowds. Being the third group of people waiting in line before the park opened seemed like a waste… until we tried to leave later, and were hit with an unstoppable wave of people just showing up and headed for the studio tour. Going early not only meant we got to avoid the crowds, but we rode everything we wanted to and were done before noon. It gave room for the Despicable Me and Simpsons rides to be charming and fun without having to be Big Event showstoppers. And there’s no way in hell I’m going near the Harry Potter land when it opens in Hollywood. Even in Florida, where they have plenty of space, it still feels overcrowded and claustrophobic; in Hollywood it’s going to be bonkers.
- Universal should make an effort to take bigger guests into account. It was a lot more jarring and infuriating in Orlando, after being immersed in Disney’s obsession with making rides accessible to absolutely everyone possible, to be confronted with an attraction that took millions of dollars to create but won’t let you ride if you’re too big. But even after going into the Hollywood expecting it, it was still a drag to be jammed into small seats with uncomfortably tight restraining bars. We didn’t even ride the Mummy coaster because the test seats ended up being too tight to be worth it.
- Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary is more about the shows than the rides. The Matterhorn and Haunted Mansion got some new effects, and the newly-refurbished Peter Pan ride was doing a soft open for annual passholders (that we skipped because the lines were too long). But the highlights are the new World of Color show at DCA, and the fireworks and “Paint the Night” parade at Disneyland.
- The Hatbox Ghost is excellently done. Granted, it’s something that’s aimed exclusively at Disney nerds, so it’s barely enough to be a draw on its own. But it fits so perfectly that it seems like it’s been there since the ride opened. And it actually kind of hurts the scene with the bride in the attic, which is something I never had any problem with before. But seeing a modern effect done in the art style of the original mansion makes it jarring to see the real photographs and live action video of the previous scene.
- The fireworks aren’t what I expected, but are still cool. The 50th anniversary fireworks show is still the best fireworks show that Disney’s ever done (even better than Illuminations at Epcot). I’d been hoping that they’d do the same thing for the 60th, focusing on the parks and attractions themselves instead of being a treacly pastiche of songs from the movies. They kept it a collection of songs, but downplayed the usual dreams & wishes of magic and imagination and chose some songs that haven’t yet been overplayed to death, and also “Let it Go.” The architectural projection down Main Street is fantastic; chimney sweeps dance on the roofs in “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins, and the buildings wobble and shrink during “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh. The effects are so well done that they threaten to overpower the fireworks themselves — which is really only a problem if you’re only seeing it once instead of over and over again.
- “Let it Go” has crossed the line to unsettling. As tired as I am of seeing Frozen stuff — the movie was completely charming, but Disney’s over-marketed it past the point of annoyance — including it in a show at the theme park was simultaneously cool and creepy. Being surrounded by dozens of little girls (and young women) (and older women) (and guys too) all singing in unison makes you realize that Disney could totally start a cult army if they wanted.
- “Paint the Night” is the best nighttime parade they’ve done since the first. You’ve got to feel a little sympathetic to Disney, since they want to keep making new stuff, but the Main Street Electrical Parade (or “The Electric Light Parade” to those of us from the east coast) was so incredible that everybody just wants to keep seeing that. Previous attempts to come up with a replacement have been disappointing at best, but the new show is the first one that didn’t have me missing the old one. The floats and costumes all seem to be shooting for something between SpectroMagic and the Electrical Parade, and they all hit the sweet spot of weird enough to be imaginative but not so weird that they’re creepy. And having the characters ride around on modified versions of the old ladybug cars was a great callback.
- I’d buy a copy of the “Paint the Night” song. I’m not a fan of the vapid One Direction-ification of Disney music, but if that’s a mandate now, they did as good a job as they possibly can. What impressed me the most is that it’s got enough “Baroque Hoedown” in it to satisfy old farts like myself, but not so much that it just feels like a rehash. And it’s catchy as hell. Asking “When can we do it again?” over and over seems like a slightly less subtle version of the Mount Splashmore song.
BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Dave Cobb informs me that the song is already available on the Wreck-it Ralph soundtrack as “When Can I See You Again?” by Owl City. I don’t remember it from the movie (or any of the music from the movie, actually), and I’d assumed it was written specifically for the parade. I’d still like to get a version that’s used in the parade, mixed in with a lot of Baroque Hoedown and other songs.
- World of Color is what I’d expected the anniversary fireworks to be. It’s more of a history of Disney and Disneyland, and it’s really well done. It does veer a little too far into preaching to the choir and comes off as a marketing push reminding us all how great Disney is. But for people like me who are more fans of the parks than of the studio, it has a section devoted to celebrating the classic attractions, with some new 3D animations projected onto Mickey’s Horror Wheel.
- If Disney pays 4 billion dollars for something, they’re going to get their money’s worth. The section of the World of Color devoted to Star Tours starts out innocently enough, with the familiar chime and some audio from the ride. Then it inexplicably goes nuts and turns into a full-on ad for the new movie, with TIE Fighters swooping in and BB-8 rolling all over the place and the Millennium Falcon flying across the fountains and lasers and for some reason, a giant fireball. It was completely gratuitous and I loved every single second of it. At the theater in Downtown Disney, they had a teaser poster for The Force Awakens and I felt my heart rate increase along with a sinking feeling in my stomach that oh crap I’m a fan of Star Wars again.
- It wasn’t that crowded, surprisingly. I’d been planning to wait until after the summer to go to Disneyland again, since I expected the turnout for the 60th Anniversary to be so huge that it’d completely ruin the fun. But seeing all the pictures and videos coming in from the park were just too much for me to wait. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that bad — in line with a busy day at Disneyland, but not obscenely crowded. There was a lot of stuff we didn’t bother riding, since we’d been so recently, but nothing that felt like I was missing out. Still, I wish they’d get moving on the third park that’s been rumored for decades: if the parks are so busy even on weekdays that they’re considering charging extra for peak times, that’s a clear sign that they’re at capacity and it’d be a good investment to expand. (Note to Disney executive staff: I’m available any time to tell you how to run your business. Glad to help).