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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Universal Studios, Hollywood Part II: Studio Tour

The past January, my wife kids and I were back in Los Angeles for a couple days. 

Day One: enjoying the Tournament of Roses (more commonly known as the Rose Parade), and seeing Space Shuttle Endeavour. Day Two: Universal Studios, Hollywood. 

Here's a link to our first couple hours there, seeing "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" and "The Simpsons Land." Next stop was Universal Studios famous tram tour. 

The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes. It covers a lot of ground, and honestly felt very rushed. Kind of cool to see places like the Courthouse Square from Back to the Future, but - like everything else - wish we could have more time to enjoy it.  

One of one the New York City sets. The small blue bus is for the VIP tour, which costs significantly more, but allows you to walk around the sets a bit. 

When our family lived in Los Angeles, my wife and I took the much smaller, but much more interesting Warner Brothers Studio Tour. We were in a group of about 15, were able to get out and walk around, and really got an amazing behind the scenes look of how a working motion picture works. The Warner Brothers Studios Tour is $65. The cost of the Universal VIP tour is $329. That's over $1300 for a family of four for a one day experience. Yikes.

One of many New York City set buildings. Yes, these are false fronts. My kids had never seen a studio backlot, so from them, just driving through was pretty cool. I wish the tour would have stopped for a couple of minutes, just to open the door and show - yes - there's nothing behind the doors. 

A big draw is the various "special effects" during the tour. This is the entrance to the King Kong scene. Years ago, it was a massive 3-D mechanical audio animatronic - one of the largest in the world. Pretty cool. Today, it's just a film. That was a bit disappointing. 

I like the massive three (or is it four) story false front. Unlike the streets of New York, this isn't three 3-D, although it looks that way on camera. 

Cruising through the European Streets section. 

One thing I noticed was how EMPTY the streets and entire backlot felt. Probably because we were there during the Christmas/New Year Holiday season. No filming going on. 

If you're planning on going, and have flexibility in your schedule, try a weekday, especially during the Spring. You'll have a better chance of seeing some sort of actual production - or at least workers walking around getting stuff done. Universal Studios is, first and foremost, a working movie studio. 

Also part of the tour: the San Francisco Earthquake scene (really, the best of the bunch), the mechanical Jaws shark (fun, but cheesy) and the plane crash scene from War of the Worlds (morbid) were part of the tour. There was also suppose to be classic "flash flood" scene. Not sure why, but our tour skipped over it. Disappointing. 

A final view of another street in the Europe section. 

The "grand finale" of the tour was the Fast and Furious scene. Honestly, another intellectual property we could care less about. No one in our family has seen any of these movies, nor do we have any interest. Throughout the tour, there were breaks in the dialogue, as if "something was going on" with the characters from the movie. It felt really contrived. The tour tram went into a building to watch the Fast and Furious finale which was - you guessed it - yet another movie. Seriously? My wife, teenage kids, and I though it was so lame. 

Vintage Universal Studios Tour Poster

I'm old enough to remember when the tour tram was Universal. It was literally an all day tour, with a lunch break in the middle. There were many more special effects along the way, and you literally got out and walked through various sound stages to learn how movies were made. It felt so amazing. I'm not suggesting that Universal go back to that, but certainly wish it wasn't so rushed - and you learned, and perhaps even saw, how movies are made. That's the whole point of the tour, right?

More next time in Part III

© 2017


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Universal Studios, Hollywood Part I: Harry Potter and Krusty the Clown

This past January, my wife kids and I were in Los Angeles for a couple of days to see the Rose Parade, and local sights. We topped it off with a trip to Universal Studio, Hollywood.

We lived in Los Angeles for almost five years, but never took our kids to Universal. They were just too young, and we had other options that were more age appropriate - like Legoland in San Diego, as well as Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

The big draw, the HUGE draw at Universal is the new Harry Potter land, officially known at "The Wizard World of Harry Potter." Universal actually opens this section a full hour earlier, just to handle the crowds.

While this was our first time to Universal Studios, Hollywood - it was not our first time to see Harry Potter. 

Our family was actually on a work-related trip in Florida back in 2012, and visited the original Orlando Wizarding World of Harry Potter. 

While a duplicate of what's in Orlando, the Wizarding World is honestly very well done. The morning we were there it was pretty nippy - in the 40's. That's practically arctic by Southern California standards. The high for the day was only 59, our jackets weren't for show. Love how some people were walking around in shorts. 

The entire area was designed to look like Hogsmead, the mythical village just outside of Hogsworth - the massive castle from Harry Potter stories.

Shop windows to enjoy. Very well themed. I've never read the books (sorry) and only seen bits and pieces of the various films. 

Our kids, on the other hand, have enjoyed both the books and each of the eight different films. They were just 12 and 10 when we were in Orlando - to it was fun for them to be back as teenagers.

The stores look small because they are small. They really feel like something right out of the books or movies. The downside is this entire area is incredibly popular, and get very crowded, and those little stores are absolutely packed. 

The big signature attraction is "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey." We were there during the two week Christmas/New Year Holiday Season. In terms of crowds, this is honestly the absolute worst time to go. But for us, like other out of town guests, it was the only time that worked. According to a local news report, Universal Studio Hollywood had their highest attendance EVER the day before (on January 2, 2017), breaking all records and closing their gates for the first time ever. 

The next day, the day we were there, was almost as crowded. Fortunately, at 8am when we showed up, it wasn't bad and the ride was a walk on. By midday, people were waiting over three hours for this one ride.

The ride in California is the exact same as the Florida version. For us, the ride was "good, but not great" - not as amazing as the first time we went on it in Florida. In my opinion, it is no where near as repeatable as some of the classics over at Disneyland. 

photo credit: Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia: "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey uses KUKA robocoaster technology, which allows the seats to pivot while being held above the track by a robotic arm." The ride is really an advanced simulator, traveling through various scenes from the films, projected onto large screens. "The ride drops, spins around, twists and turns, but does not turn upside down, though passengers sometimes lie flat on their backs. Over-the-shoulder bars are used to secure guests in their seats." 

Unfortunately for us, the ride broke down while we were on it. Unlike, say something like Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, were were very strapped in, tipped slightly forward, and could not move. We were in front of a large screen, what - of course - went blank when the ride stopped. With a heavy jacket on, I began to feel very trapped. The air in the room was stale and I was doing my best not to panic. We had no idea if we'd be sitting there for 2 minutes or 20 minutes.

I'm in my mid 50's, I've been on hundreds of amusement park rides over the years. Sorry Universal, but this was the worst experiences I've ever had on any ride. That said, it's hard to recommend. If you do go, don't wear a jacket or sweatshirt. They have complimentary lockers. Use them, even if it means getting a little cold waiting in line - that won't be a problem in the summer months. Know that the ride could breakdown. Universal has to find a better solution. Part of the ride, you're literally sideways. That's fine for a couple of seconds - but are you trapped sideways if the ride breaks down? Yikes, what a mess.

Once we got off, I asked for front of the line passes (they weren't giving them out unless you asked). I had no interest in going on it right after we got off, but I was with my kids and figured I'd give it one more try in the afternoon (leaving my jacket in a locker, and knowing the ride might break down).

There is really only one other ride in Wizard World - a short roller coaster called "The Flight of the Hippogriff". It's really for younger kids. There was no line, but even then my teenagers weren't interested.

At 9am, the opened the rest of the park including the Simpson's Land opened. The one ride is "The Simpson's Ride" - you enter through Krusty the Clowns mouth. More on that in a bit.

For fans of the Simpsons, you'll find the Kwik-E-Mart - actually a gift shop.

With, of course, gifts.

Moe's Tavern - which is actually just a restaurant.

And assorted fake entries, featuring Simpson's regulars like Dr. Nick Riviera.

We got in line for "The Simpson's Ride". Show up first thing, and there's almost no line. We probably waited five minutes, max.

I took a photo to "Krusyland" - the fake amusement park the ride is based on. I didn't have the time to read through the list of rides and attractions while we were there. I had a look when we got home: 

Very funny if you're familiar with The Simpsons. Not sure how the jokes would go over if you're never seen the show. Much more so than other amusement parks, Universal Studios is based on the assumption that you're already familiar with movies and shows their rides on based on. 

The Simpsons itself was another motional simulator. What's with the motional simulators? I know Universal Studios is about movies - but my kids were wondering "where are the actual rides?"

I thought it was interested that the only two themed lands at Universal "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" and "The Simpson's Land" aren't based on Universal intellectual properties. The Harry Potter series is from competitor Warner Brothers, The Simpsons from Fox.

We paid over $400 for our family to get in. It was 10:00am, and we started wondering "so what else is there to do?" That's never good. 

We decided to try the Studio Tour, in many ways Universal's signature attraction. More on that next time.

© 2017

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center - and Americana at Brand

January 1st-3rd my wife kids in I were in Los Angeles to see the sights, including the Tournament of Roses (the Rose Parade) in Pasadena Monday January 2nd. Afterwards we hung out in Pasadena a bit, and then headed south to see Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center, next to USC.

Endeavour is one of four US now retired Space Shuttles. The others are the Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Enterprise in New York City, and the Discovery Washington, DC. If you're in Los Angeles, Endeavour is really worth seeing. And the cost is only $2. Perhaps the best deal in town.

The Endeavour is located in a large temporary building. Getting it there was an amazing feat. Plans call for a much larger permanent display building, allowing the Shuttle to stand upright.

Even it's temporary home, it's an incredible sight. But with the average camera, or iPhone, how do you actually get a photo of the entire shuttle?

Unless you have a camera with a wide angle lens, you'll cut off either the nose, or the tail, or both.

You could try to stand in the corner when you walk in. Fail. The poorly placed sign in the lower right at the entrance makes that impossible.

Of course, many thanks to donor Samuel Oschin for his sponsorship of this project. Everyone just wishes the sign was placed elsewhere. 

So, how do you get a photo of the entire Shuttle? If you walk over to gift shop area, try standing at the far wall and shoot over the racks of clothing and display. 

Voila. You'll have a photo of the entire Shuttle, nose, tail, and all.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour is located at the California Science Center, just southwest of downtown Los Angeles. Reservations are required on weekends and holidays. Here's a link with more information. 

While the Shuttle is great, there's more, much more, to see at the Science Center, including the undersea exhibit.

The Garibaldi is the official marine state fish of California. 

When we home schooled our kids in Los Angeles, I was hoping we could choose the Garibaldi as our school mascot. My kids wanted the pelican. So ... we ended up with no mascot. 

Love seeing Garibaldi in a recreation of it's natural habitat. If you want to see the real deal, try either Catalina Island, or La Jolla (just north of San Diego). 

When I was there, a parent kept referring to the Garibaldi as "Nemo". Sorry, Nemo was a tropical (and much smaller) Clown Fish. But I just kept my mouth shut. 

The California Science Center is fantastic. So much to see and experience. While the Space Shuttle Exhibit was a small $2 charge - the rest of the museum is FREE. 

Of course, donations are welcome at the entrance - but a museum of this calibre works hard to raise millions of dollars in private donations and corporate sponsorship to keep the California Science free to the general public. If was a holiday weekend, so - of courses - it was crowded. But it was great seeing so many families and kids out having a great time, and, yes, learning things. 

Parking is available in the adjacent lot. $12 for the day. Or, if you're only going to be there for a couple hours, you might find meters on the street. I went the discount route, and found free parking a couple blocks away.

The Science Center is also adjacent to the Expo Light Rail - which goes from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Here's a link to when my wife, kids and I took the Expo line here. 

We left around 4:30pm, driving past downtown Los Angeles, and north to Glendale. Pictured above is the Felix Chevrolet dealership just north of the Science Center. Felix Chevrolet has been around since 1921. Wow! Coming up on 100 years! . Their famous sign is sixty years old, and was declared a historic-cultural monument back in 2007. Good memories as a kid growing in Los Angeles. Whene we saw that sign, we knew were were getting close to the museum. 

Next stop: Americana at Brand in Glendale. 

Americana at Brand is a massive outdoor shopping/entertainment/residential center, located on Brand Blvd in Glendale. Here's a link to a visit when our kids were much younger. 

With a MASSIVE outdoor Christmas Tree, it was all decked out of the Holiday Season.

Christmas is a unique holiday, at least in the United States, in that it's both a religious and a secular holiday. In the US, it's also a national holiday. 

Of course, there's a time and place to refer to the entire season as "the Holidays" --- referring to Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, and everything else. I do, however, cringe when people refer to either Hanukkah or Christmas as "Holiday" (as in "have a great Holiday"). Christmas is a national holiday, and is the US's biggest and most popular holiday. No one wants to exclude or offend anyone, but I'm curious why Christmas - and to a lesser extent Hanukkah - have become "holidays that must not be named" (to paraphrase Harry Potter). 

So (belated, or perhaps now early) Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year. 

My inlaws suggested Din Tai Fung, a Twaiwanese restaurant with locations in several major cities around the world. In 1993, the New York Times referred to it as "one of the top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world."

When we got there at 6pm - it was PACKED, with a 90 minute wait. Fortunately, our kids were old enough to hold off for an hour and a half, and we just walked around Americana at Brand. When we showed up at 7:30pm, the wait was three hours. And people were putting their names on the wait list, meaning they'd be getting seated for dinner at 10:30pm. Sure, why not. 

Location of Din Tai Fung, at Americana at Brand in Glendale. 

Outstanding food - yes, worth the wait. Based on the crowds of a holiday weekend, we probably should have planned to get there before 5pm. Oh well. Not sure what the wait is on an off night. Here's a link to their website. 

We drove back to our hotel in Woodland Hills for our big big day at Universal Studios the next day. More next time

© 2017

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Parks and Rec: Pasadena City Hall

If your travels take you to Pasadena - why not stop off at the Pasadena City Hall for a photo or two?

In addition to being a beautiful building, it's also serves as the exterior shot for the NBC TV show "Parks and Rec." 

Similar to "The Office," our teenage kids have become big fans of "Parks and Rec." No trip to Pasadena was complete without the obligatory stop. Which we did when we were back in town January 1st-3rd. 

After an enjoyable time seeing Tournament of Roses (that is, the Rose Parade) in the morning we drove over to see City Hall. 

In my non professional opinion, it's one of the most beautiful public buildings in California. Looks like I'm not alone in this assessment. 

Apparently, the fountain the in interior courtyard is so popular with wedding and quinceaƱera photography that the city is considering charging a fee. There was a wedding photographer the day we were there,  Monday January 2nd. 

A few from the backside. We where there on a holiday. The second story is open to the public during normal business hours. Street parking in downtown Pasadena can be a bit tricky - it's always helpful to have plenty of quarters for the meters. 

The Pasadena City Hall was completed in 1927 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. 

And, if you're in the area, why not take time to also enjoy the nearby Bungalow Heaven neighborhood? 

The Pasadena City Hall is located at 100 Garfield Avenue in Pasadena. 

Final photo. Next stop, the California Science Center next to USC, to see Space Shuttle Endeavour. 

© 2017