Sharon Bradley and her fellow movie lovers go straight to the front of the queue on their VIP tour of Universal Studios Hollywood.
Bobbette, a white-haired grandmother from Ohio, is cosying up to Megatron, all three metres of striding, snarling, terrifying Decepticon Transformer. Small children peer wide-eyed from behind their parents' legs as she looks up adoringly, hands cupped beneath her chin, into the metal mask of the monster that's now hovering just a few inches above her delighted face. Megatron, temporarily silenced by her audacious lack of fear, has paused in his hectoring to place a gargantuan metal claw on each of his colossal metal thighs, the better to study this small, impish human with the twinkling eyes.
To celebrate her 75th birthday, Bobbette's granddaughter, 32-year-old Janice from Southern California, has bought them tickets to a VIP tour of Universal Studios Hollywood (USH). For cinephiles, this is hallowed ground, a place where, for minutes at a time, the thin veil between reality and dreams dissolves as they are granted access to imaginary worlds and invited to take part in the plotlines of their favourite movie fantasies.
First opened as a film studio in March 1915, USH began to function as a theme park in July 1964, just as Steven Spielberg, a young, unpaid intern, was showing executives a short film he'd made. They were so impressed with his raw talent they offered him a multi-picture deal making him the youngest filmmaker to be signed to a long-term contract by a major studio. He went on to make box-office gold for Universal with the likes of Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List and his influence can be seen and felt everywhere here.
There are 10 of us on the VIP Tour today. Joining Bobbette and Janice are a loved-up couple from Mexico and five employees of Disneyland in nearby Anaheim, here to "check out the competition". Two of the women, who are in their early 20s, are clearly professional thrillsters: they execute little jumps and clap their hands with glee as the day's scheduled events are outlined for us by our fiercely cheerful guide, Stephanie. Newly imported from New York, she tells us that she's an actor: "They try to hire actors," she adds in an aside. "We memorise very well."
Most of the group is united in a single ambition: to buckle themselves into a ride so chockful of dizzying special effects that it threatens to expel their bodily fluids. To that end, we make our way expectantly to USH's newest and most-hyped 3D, ultra-high-definition adventure, Transformers - The Ride, now widely considered to be the most gripping theme park attraction in the country.
Opened in May 2012, Transformers offers visitors, wearing 3D glasses, full-scale immersion in a battle that features all of the main protagonists from the movie franchise. Travelling in an EVAC, an Autobot that doubles as a vehicle, we're charged with ferrying to safety the all-important Allspark shard while in the midst of a Decepticon-led attack. Surrounded by 18-metre-high screens onto which have been projected 3D images of Optimus Prime, Megatron, Grindor, Bumblebee and Co while experiencing the best in flight-simulator technology, we bounce and rattle along in the EVAC as it seems to dramatically accelerate, spin, climb and - horribly - drop. Four-and-a-half rather intense minutes later, the group emerges, breathless and flushed, into the winter sunshine.
"Wow! That was amaazing," gasps Janice, exploiting the full potential of the vowel as only an enthusiastic American can. "It's soooo realistic." Bobbette gives a thumbs-up.
Next up, The Simpsons ride. Stephanie warns that this one is "very immersive" and probably not a good idea for anyone of an, er, delicate constitution. After some interior wrestling, the older members of the Disney contingent elect to sit this one out, while the rest of the company - including the intrepid Bobbette - strides purposefully into the maw of Krusty the Clown that marks the entrance, small-town-carnival-style, to Krustyland.
Here, a "thrilltacular" carnival ride goes horribly pear-shaped as Sideshow Bob succeeds in derailing a family day out. Highlights include Maggie crawling into a nuclear reactor, which causes her to become massive, Alice in Wonderland-style. When Bob steals her dummy, she picks up the car in which we're "travelling", puts it in her mouth and sucks on it furiously before spitting it out. We're simultaneously enveloped in sweet-smelling puffs of baby powder and sprayed with jets of water. USH, you begin to realise, might not be the best environment for a fresh blow-dry.
This is a partial-motion, virtual-reality experience. The car in which we're sitting doesn't actually go anywhere: it just lifts off the ground, dips, swerves and jerks through a calamitous journey while a 25-metre dome screen projects the visual effects. Four-and-a-half minutes later, the prettier half of the Mexican duo is looking decidedly green about the gills and heads to a nearby bench for a brief time-out. Bobbette, on the other hand, looks as if she's just taken a nap. Some nationalities, Stephanie confides, are definitely more daring, more thrill-thirsty than others. "The Aussies and the Russians," she supplies unprompted. "There's something in the national character: they're just more prone to wanting to have a good time."
The second half of the VIP Tour, which takes in the front and back lots of USH, is, for the most part, a gentler affair but, ultimately perhaps, a more satisfying experience for movie-lovers whose memory extends further back in time than the Noughties. Taking place far below the top of the hill where the main gate is located, it covers so much ground that Stephanie invites us to climb aboard an open-sided tram.
We drive through the front lot, past picturesque production offices that were once cottages used by the likes of Doris Day, Rock Hudson and James Stewart, to reach the sound stages - massive, numbered, hangar-style buildings inside which the physical habitats of household-name TV shows have been painstakingly recreated. Today, we're visiting the sound stage of Parenthood, the hit NBC show starring Lauren Graham, Peter Krause and Monica Potter, now in its fifth season. For fans of the show, walking around inside their Berkeley, California, "home", where many famous episodes over the past half-decade or so have been filmed, feels slightly surreal.
Sound Stage 44 is just like a real home, fascinating in its everyday authenticity, but there is one key omission: the house has no ceiling. Where it should be is an intestinal-like maze of wires, electrical leads, lights and lagging. Outside the front door, a cyclorama, like the mother of all shower curtains on which the house's external surrounds have been projected, completes the elaborate illusion.
The back lot at Universal comprises the large, permanent, exterior sets that, in some cases, have been here for many decades and are simply adapted for each new project. Our first stop, Courthouse Square, is best known for its outing in 1985's Robert Zemeckis-directed Back to the Future, and would be instantly recognisable were it not for the fact the clock tower has been removed while The Ghost Whisperer is filmed here. But 23 years before it ever appeared in Back to the Future, Stephanie tells us, it was the courthouse in Robert Mulligan's 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
For whole minutes at a time, you can stand in the same Midwestern town square where Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) and Dr Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd) harnessed the energy of a lightning bolt to power Marty's journey back to the future, and where Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) launched his proud and lonely defence of a wrongly accused black man in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama ("Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'.") This is the very stuff of cinematic legend. These edifices might appear to be constructed using bricks and mortar, but get up close enough to touch them and you'll see that they're just facades, made of foam rubber and fibreglass.
Even here, on the slightly more cerebral backlot, Universal can't resist lobbing in another adrenalin grenade. Stephanie switches on a short video address from Peter Jackson, director of the 2005 award-winning blockbuster remake of King Kong, as our tram drives into a sound stage comprising two 60-metre-wide screens recreating Skull Island. At the end of his introduction, Jackson, looking rather pleased with himself, invites us to put on a pair of 3D glasses.
Suddenly, we're in the middle of an outsize jungle skirmish as a couple of irascible venatosaurus rex lock horns with Kong himself. The tram rocks, shudders, lurches and jerks as the gargantuan scrap, the world's largest 3D experience, unfolds all around us. Not for the first time today, I screw my eyes shut in an attempt to map out an internal horizon to help keep nausea at bay.
Spielberg apparently asked if he could be allowed to disembark from his raft before the climax of Jurassic Park - The Ride when he opened it here back in 1996. I remember this later as we move through what feels, at first, like a relatively sedate water-borne adventure. Two compsognathus fighting over a popcorn box? Big deal. But then we learn that a boat crew of park employees and a group of visitors have been killed by some dilophosaurus up ahead. As our raft starts to climb a long lift hill, alarms can be heard as a massive tyrannosaurus emerges from a waterfall above our raft and lunges down to grab us. We're so distracted by its hideous maw grazing our heads that we haven't noticed the 25-metre near-vertical drop in front. Suddenly, we're in freefall, plummeting with inexorable, stomach-churning momentum, towards a lagoon below. The splashdown, when it comes, is dramatic.
Afterwards, as we file out of the ride, giggling with relief, we stop by a photograph of our raft taken just seconds before impact. There are nine faces frozen in a collective rictus of horror - and then Bobbette's. In the picture, she is clasping her hands together, eyes wide and mouth open in anticipation of a moment of perfect pleasure.
The writer was a guest of My USA.
RETURN OF GRU
Opening at Universal Studios Hollywood this April is a second 3D, ultra high-definition movie motion-simulator ride inspired by the studio's 2010 animation hit, Despicable Me. This, too, will be a fully immersive experience featuring the cast of characters that children - and their parents - know only too well: the super-bad, superdad Gru, his adopted girls, Margo, Edith and Agnes, and his lovable crew of Minion helpers. The ride's plot will unfold around Gru's scheming to create more Minions from human recruits.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is forecast to open in 2016.
The VIP Tour costs from $349 per person. Children must be five or older (minimum 100 centimetres in height). It includes a five to six-hour tour, continental breakfast and lunch and unlimited priority access to all rides. Phone 24 hours daily, 818 6221 142; see universalstudioshollywood.com.
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See and do
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