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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Universal Studios Hollywood Revisited

My wife, kids, and I were in Southern California earlier this summer on a week-long family vacation. We drove down Sunday afternoon, spending our first night in Hollywood.

We stayed at the Hollywood Motel Six - which we were happy with. It's not deluxe, but did the job - especially as we were on a budget. This is the view from our room looking out over Hollywood early Monday morning.

Across the street, the historic La Leyenda (Spanish for "the legend") apartment building, built in 1927. One of the highlights (in my opinion) of Hollywood is it's historic buildings, most of which were built in the 1920's. A 580 square foot studio at La Leyenda starts at $1525.

This is looking down Whitley Avenue, looking south toward Hollywood Boulevard.

We were on the road a little after 7am. Unlike the crowds and general craziness the day before, Hollywood Boulevard was incredibly quiet.

Approaching the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. The Museum of Broken Relationships (yes, that's really a place) is immediately to the right, the tower of the Hollywood First National Bank Building.

We stopped by McDonald's for a quick (and cheap) "to go" breakfast, and then headed up Highland Avenue. This is at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard, to the left the Hollywood & Highland entertainment complex, to the right the Hollywood First National Bank Building. 

Highland Avenue becomes Cahuenga Boulevard. We passed by the Hollywood Bowl. We had a chance to go here several times when we lived in Los Angeles.

Our destination: Universal Studios Hollywood. Drops of blood from the Jurassic Park T-Rex (in the parking structure) should be a good hint that Universal is not designed for families with younger children. 

We visited Universal Studios Hollywood for the first time in January. Here's a link to a post on our experience.

If we could summarize previous visit in one word it would be disappointing.

So why go back? Well, the folks are Universal aren't stupid. Back in January we paid an extra $19 per person when we bought the tickets for "California Neighbor Pass." We figured, it wasn't that much more and we could all go at least one more time, so why not? 

That said, we decided to give Universal Studios another try. Aside from parking, we'd already paid for it, so it wasn't going to cost anything.

First stop: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both at Universal Studios Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood, they've done a good job recreating the village of Hogsmeade featured in the books and movies. 

Their signature ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It broke down last time - making for one of the worst experiences I've ever had on any amusement park ride. Fortunately, no problems this time. This section of Universal opens at 8am, with almost no lines. If you do decide to go, like any amusement park, GO EARLY. Apparently, the line to this one rides becomes 2-3 hours later in the day.

Took the studio tour - again.

Kind of the same old, same old. But it was nicer seeing in early summer.

One of one the New York City sets. The small blue bus towards the back 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.

The flash flood is a mildly entertaining part of the Studio Tour. For some reason, it wasn't working last January, so it was nice for my kids to see it.

I was never of a fan of the destroyed 747 from Steven Spielberg's 2005 film War of the Worlds. Part of the tour features stopping and viewing the wreckage of a destroyed airplane.

The tour is "just OK" ... both the King Kong and the Fast and Furious segments of the tour are very cheesy 3D film clips. My teenage kids (their supposed target audience) thought they were both awful - ESPECIALLY the Fast and Furious.

Unlike Universal Studios in Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood is a real movie studio in the middle of a major city. Meaning space is at a premium. Hence, Harry Potter is jammed up again downtown Springfield in the Simpson's section.

The Waterworld Stunt Show was closed last January - during the Christmas/New Year's vacation. What were they thinking? They closed their most popular show during the busiest time of the year? You can read my rant here. Fortunately, it was open when we were there in June.

Spoiler alert: here's a 50 second clip I took, with probably the best part of the show. Skip over it if you want to be surprised. Lots of explosions - but overall my teenagers weren't into it. 

We walked down to the "Lower Lot" section of the park and rode. the Mummy Ride, the Jurassic Park ride. We headed back to the "Upper Lot" stopped in the gift shop (above) and were ready to leave, all by 11:30am. 

We had very low expectations. We went on a total of four rides, did the studio tour, and saw the Waterworld show. After 3 1/2 hours we were done. 

So, is Universal Studios worth $110 per person, or $129 for their "California Neighbor Pass"? 

In our opinion, no.

If you're going to spend money at an amusement park, I'd recommend Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, or Six Flags Magic Mountain. Even at day at the Santa Monica Pier would be a better value.

As I said last time: Universal simply has too movies and intellectual properties we could care less about. Way too many motion simulators - way too few actual rides. Plus, I would have a hard time recommending Universal Studios to anyone with kids under age 12. Too intense. Too scary. Too inappropriate. Too "adult."

In October of 2000 four hundred painted fiberglass angels were displayed in public places throughout the city of Los Angeles. They were on display for about six months, and then auctioned off to benefit a couple of local charities. One of them was in front of the Mexican Restaurant in the CityWalk section of Universal, on the way to the parking garage. 

I LOVE this artwork. Here's a link to a previous post on the "Community of Angels" display, with some additional highlight photos. 

Ironically, my favorite part of Universal Studios was a piece of sculpture outside the studio gates. That's OK. 

Sorry, Universal - no plans on going back to visit ever again.

We were heading down to Orange County, and spending three nights at a timeshare in Newport Beach, and then finishing the week off at Disneyland. I'll post a few photos on sometime later. 

© 2017

Universal Studios Hollywood

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Experiencing Los Angeles: Griffith Observatory

Earlier this summer, my wife, teenage kids, and I were in Southern California on a week long family vacation. We spend our first afternoon and evening in Hollywood, finishing up at the Griffith Observatory. 

We took a moment to roll up Beachwood Avenue. That's the Hollywood Sign in the distance. If you want to see the Hollywood Sign up close, I'd recommend Lake Hollywood Park. Here's a previous post with more info. 

The 1936 Griffith Observatory is perched high above Hollywood, with spectacular views of the city - and the Hollywood Sign. Above, my wife taking a photo of a couple visiting from Europe ... 

... who were kind enough to take his photo of us.

If the Griffith Observatory looks familiar, it's probably because you've seen in a movie. This being Los Angeles, it's been featured in dozens of films, including Rebel Without A Cause, The Rocketeer, and - most recently - La La Land

Apparently, La La Land has actually increased attendance at the Observatory. 

Of course, it doesn't hurt that aside from parking, a visit to the Griffith Observatory is absolutely free. 

Hundreds of locals and visitors enjoying the view. 
Including my kids, who were snapchatting their friends. 

The Observatory is located on the south facing slope of Mount Hollywood. In the distance, to the left, is Downtown Los Angeles.

Inside, people enjoying the Foucault Pendulum. According the the Observatory's website: "The gently swaying pendulum in the central rotunda has long been a visitor favorite since the building opened in 1935. One of the largest such devices in the world, the fully restored pendulum is actually an elegant scientific instrument which demonstrates the Earth's rotation.

The 240-pound bronze ball, suspended by a cable 40 feet long, swings in a constant direction while the Earth turns beneath it. The pendulum is mounted to a bearing in the rotunda ceiling that does not turn with the building as it rotates with the Earth ... As the day passes, the pendulum knocks over pegs set up in the pendulum pit and indicates the progress of rotation."

My daughter and I - good memories from 2013 on a previous visit.  

Ballin Murals on the ceiling. 

Watching the Pendulum with more Ballin Murals on the walls inside the Central Rotunda. 

Back outside, plenty of people enjoying the view as the city lights became visible. Unlike the Empire State Building in New York or Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago, the view - and the Observatory itself - is free. 

City lights - the street to the left coming directly into the hill is Normandie Avenue. At over 22 miles long, Normandie is one of Los Angeles County's longest north-south streets. 

The Observatory is open every evening until 10pm. We stayed until around 9pm. Here's a final view of the city, downtown Los Angeles, and the Observatory. 

Here's a link to their website. 

© 2017

Griffith Observatory

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Experiencing Los Angeles: Hollywood Blvd (Part III)

Last June my wife and I and our two teenage kids were in Southern California on a week long family vacation. The first night were in Hollywood before heading down to Orange County. After dinner our first night, I took a few minutes to explore a bit of Hollywood Boulevard. Here's a link to Part I and Part II. Above, the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of the (1927) Outpost Building, a retail and office building. 

Last week, I highlighted some of the grittier aspects of Hollywood Boulevard, especially the stretch of east of Highland Avenue. In contrast, the area immediately west of Highland Avenue, featuring the Hollywood & Highland commercial development an adjacent Grauman's Chinese Theatre, has seen a lot of improvement over the years. Here's a link to a post highlighting the area around Grauman's Chinese. 

And there were certainly bright spots east of Highland - where I was walking. Above, Chateau Demin at 6753 Hollywood Boulevard. 

There also seemed to be an over abundance of souvenir shops. Although I will admit that "4 T-shirts for $9.99" is a great deal. 

Another souvenir shop, more T-shirts. 

More of the same. I guess 4 T-Shirts for $9.99 is the going rate. 

And more street vendors. This guy seems a whole lot more organized, and a bit more legit, that the folks I saw earlier. 

And a sidewalk food vendor. Estrada's has an "A" rating. I already had dinner. 

I passed by the Musso & Frank Grill. Musso & Frank has been proudly serving Hollywood since 1919. My wife and I enjoyed lunch here a few years back. 

Classic Chevrolet parked out front. Any guess what year this car is? Leave a comment below. 

It wouldn't be Hollywood or Hollywood Boulevard with a visit from Superman or Spiderman. Would be actors often will pose as movie celebrities or characters (including a Michael Jackson impersonator, Darth Vader, Batman, Joker, Iron Man, and really bad versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse). 

These characters WILL expect tips and apparently (especially those camped out in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre) some can get fairly aggressive. A pic with a character could be fun - just make you ask what their "standard rate" for a tip is first. 

Another view of Musso and Frank. Here's their website

I walked as far as the (1926) Baine Building, on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Whitley Avenue. The building was built by Col. Harry M. Baine, a prominent businessman and Hollywood booster who became a Los Angeles County Supervisor a few years after this building opened. I cheated a bit: the above photo was from a previous post.

What makes this building interesting (to me, at least) is that the Baine Building is the inspiration for a similar building at the Disney Studios theme park at Disney World in Orlando and the Disney California Adventure theme park in Anaheim. 

Across the street, another look at the (1928) J.J. Newberry Building on the left and the (1935) Kress Building on the right. This is just down the street from the Hollywood Motel Six, where we were staying. 

Heading up Whitley Avenue. Pictured is the (1928) Fontenoy, a historic 13 story apartment building. According to a Google review, this is where Johnny Depp lived when he first moved to Los Angeles.

And the Hollywood Motel Six - where where we were staying. 

Next stop that evening - the Griffith Observatory. More on that next time. 

© 2017

Hollywood Boulevard