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Expanding Universal: Los Angeles


© St. Petersburg Times

LOS ANGELES -- The invitation came more than 30 years ago, possibly at the end of some frothy Tony Curtis comedy after everyone kissed and made up.

Not exactly a personal request, except for viewers who stuck around until the last frame passed through a projector.

"When in Southern California, visit Universal Studios," the closing message read, while cartoon tourists looked quite happy doing just that.

There was only one Universal Studios theme park when the Los Angeles site opened in 1964. Orlando's version was years away from being even a blueprint, so the "Hollywood" designation wasn't necessary.

Universal's offer seemed as seductive as peeking behind Oz's curtain. The magic of movies was still intact, the technology still a mystery.

Flash forward to present day. Movies have turned into amusement rides, and amusement rides are often based on reliving movie experiences.

Nowhere is the latter situation more evident than Universal Studios Florida, where visitors can take a bumpy ride Back to the Future, ride a bike with E.T. or dodge aliens at Terminator 2: 3D. You can go nose-to-snout with Jaws and King Kong or be jostled by a fake Earthquake.

"Ride the movies" is the slogan of the Orlando theme park, and that's chiefly what the admission price provides.

Something is missing, however. Orlando has blossomed as a film and television production site in the past decade, but still doesn't have a vivid sense of history.

For that serious film fans need to accept that mass invitation from long ago; When in Southern California, you can't afford to skip Universal Studios.

Just as happens with the great screen teams -- Tracy and Hepburn, Martin and Lewis, etc. -- Universal's parks in Los Angeles and Orlando compliment each other's strengths and weaknesses. Orlando's location is steeped in mechanics and Los Angeles in memories. It's a rare case of an original and its sequel combining for something to be celebrated.

We'll take for granted that most Times readers know what to expect at Universal Studios Florida. That attraction has been trumpeted continually since it opened in 1990.

But, what does Universal Studios Hollywood have that Orlando visitors are missing?

A recent tour revealed enough differences to include Universal Studios in your Southern California travel plans.

Topography is the first way the locations differ, with the Los Angeles park built on two levels in the north Hollywood hills instead of the flatland spread of Orlando's site. A space-age escalator called Starway can carry up to 12,000 people per hour between the upper and lower lots. Landings along the way allow a close look at a space capsule used in Apollo 13 or the Warner Bros. studio in the hazy distance.

Don't enter Universal Studios expecting to have your senses stirred by fresh amusement-ride experiences. Most of the rides are duplicates or scaled-down versions of those found at the Florida park.

The Hollywood park includes Back to the Future and E.T. Adventure joyrides. Neither has any significant difference from its Orlando counterpart. Shorter versions of Orlando's King Kong, Earthquake and Jaws attractions are part of the famed 45-minute tram excursion through the studio lots.

An interactive exhibit called Totally Nickelodeon allows children to play along with characters from that youth-oriented television network. It's an abbreviated version of the Nickelodeon attraction in Orlando, without that site's production capabilities. The World of Cinemagic is an equally compressed version of Orlando's lessons in sound effects, special effects and Alfred Hitchcock's career.

Other diversions in both parks are duplicates. Celebrity look-alikes also roam Universal Studios Hollywood, and Mel's Drive In from American Graffiti is still a good place for a burger and doo-wop singers.

Universal Studios Hollywood does include one ride still unavailable in Florida. Jurassic Park River Adventure opened in 1996 with all the hoopla Steven Spielberg's box office behemoth deserved.

But despite its claim to be "the most spectacular water adventure of all time," the ride is a tame sail through faux tropics with a handful of animatronic dinosaurs along the way.

Tension is minimal until the finale, when the head of a toothy T-rex lunges through a waterfall, distracting riders from the start of an 84-foot plunge to the finish line. It's a good stomach-sinking moment, more ingenious than the rest of the ride.

Any dinosaur fans who can't make the trip to Los Angeles can cheer up. Universal Studios Florida will include a similar Jurassic Park section as part of its $900-million Islands of Adventure expansion, opening in June 1999.

There is no awe-inspiring Terminator 2: 3D theater attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, which may be Orlando's greatest advantage in comparing the two parks. Instead, the California location includes two attractions inspired by action movies that tourists won't find in Central Florida.

Backdraft is based on Ron Howard's 1991 film about Chicago firefighters. It begins in standard fashion, with a cheery host introducing a video presentation about fiery (and familiar) special effects. Howard and actors Kurt Russell and Scott Glenn appear in the crash-course video, cannily sponsored by First Alert home alarm systems. The intricate decor, re-creating a fire department locker room, is more interesting.

Once you get past those basic video lessons, prepare to be amazed. The final stop on Backdraft's walk-through tour is a recreation of the chemical factory torched by an arsonist in Howard's film.

For two gripping minutes, visitors are standing only a few steps from an inferno, a manufactured chain reaction of exploding barrels, propane flames, explosions and structural collapses. A sign outside warns people with sensitive skin about the heat factor, which is jarring.

Just when you start feeling somewhat safe, a climactic shock sends you outside relieved and laughing.

On the opposite end of the park is the live-action excitement of Waterworld, based on the mega-budget Kevin Costner movie that tanked two summers ago. It's housed in an eyesore amphitheater patched together with rusty corrugated metal scraps and junk. The kind of place that looks like tetanus shots should be handed out at the entrance.

Inside the ugly shell is an expansive water tank converted into a sea fort where actors leap, dive and zoom around on water scooters. Majestic music is punctuated by pyrotechnics as heroic Mariner saves the good guys from the evil Smokers gang. Every bleacher seat has a good view, but the best spots are stage left, where an airplane is rigged to crash into the amphitheater during the finale.

One interesting note: Pre-recorded Waterworld dialogue lip-synched by the actors is presented entirely in Spanish at 5 p.m. on Sundays. Explosions and fistfights don't need subtitles, of course, but it's a sign of the park's commitment to L.A.'s Hispanic community. Sunday performances of Animal Actors' Stage (1:15 p.m.) and the Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show (3 p.m.) also are Spanish-language performances.

Size and amusement glitz appear to give Orlando a slight edge in comparisons between the Universal parks, until L.A.'s trump card -- the original studio tram tour -- is considered.

Orlando has a tram tour, without the unique Hollywood posterity. Viewing locations in Central Florida that spawned syndicated TV series such as Swamp Thing and The Adventures of Superboy simply isn't thrilling. Riding a tram past a replica of Norman Bates' home from Psycho isn't as impressive as seeing the real house in California where Alfred Hitchcock devised terror.

Orlando visitors "ride the movies;" Hollywood visitors ride through them.

A trip on the Universal Studios Hollywood tour begins with 90 acres of soundstages on the front lot. Tour guides tell you that Jim Carrey made Liar, Liar in this building or the Crook and Chase talk show is videotaped in that one. Those tan warehouses aren't much to look at, no matter who worked in them hours or years before. Driving past a warehouse where nearly 1-million props are categorized and stored is a tease to anyone who likes to browse flea markets.

So, it's the little touches of Hollywood reality that make this portion of the tour a treat; a sign reserving a parking space for director Penny Marshall, or rows of bungalows where studio players are pitching their next projects.

Universal's back lot of exterior facades is impressive and historic, with dozens of famous names dropped by the well-rehearsed tour guides. The tram creeps through bogus New York City streets where Paul Newman and Robert Redford pulled off The Sting, where Abbott and Costello filmed their television show 40 years ago.

Turn a corner and you're in front of the Mill Valley courthouse where Marty McFly went Back to the Future. Minutes later, tram riders are craning to see a set used in The Lost World, just a few steps away from the Psycho sets. Another section looks like any other housing subdivision until you spot the sorority home where John Belushi played Peeping Bluto in Animal House.

The Munsters live just down the street from Harvey the invisible rabbit in this neighborhood.

Another turn, other movie worlds. Spartacus Square is a familiar place to anyone who watched Kirk Douglas do battle in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic. Areas dubbed Old Mexico and Six Points Texas featured western stars such as John Wayne and Alan Ladd saving the frontier. Some of those grand heroes were short in stature, so Universal also created Denver Street where everything is built to 7/8 scale to make people appear taller.

Some sights along the route are worthy of ridicule because the movies don't rate as classics: a large model of PT-103 from this year's McHale's Navy movie flop, dilapidated boats that survived Waterworld, a tank from Sgt. Bilko and various Bedrock artifacts. Others rekindle affection for a particular character, like an overview of the San Fernando Valley that was E.T.'s first view of civilization.

That cute alien's eyes bugged out at the view in Spielberg's film, occasionally blinking as if he couldn't believe what he saw. Moviegoers who take the tram trip through Universal Studios Hollywood's storied past know exactly how the little guy feels. If you go

Universal Studios Hollywood is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $36 for adults, $26 for ages 3-11 and $29 for ages 60 and older. Children ages 2 and under are free. Park hours are seasonal, so travelers are encouraged to call ahead for time schedules. Call (818) 622-3801 for information and directions from anywhere in the Los Angeles area.

Originally published July 13, 1997

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