Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Universal Studios, Griffith Park and Horror Nights. LA 3 ...The Sarky Traveller

And so, as promised The Sarky Traveller returns with another day in LA. Sticking true to my speed tourism roots, the past two LA blogs were actually one day out of the three we were able to spend there. So moving on swiftly, we slide into Day 2.

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Now in some ways a large portion of Day 2 was slightly unnecessary but it's one of those, who knows when we might be there again type scenarios and also, we're not getting any younger scenarios. And also, I never got to do these things and travel when I was young so I'm making up for it now, type scenarios. So anyway, it was necessary for us but other people might think with only 3 days in such a massive city it wasn't worth it.
Well, those people are wrong! And I'm here to show you why.

But first: An absolute must if you're visiting Los Angeles is the wonderfully wild Griffith Park. Overlooking what feels like the entire World but is in fact just the monstrously far reaching and beautifully sprawling city of Los Angeles, Griffith Park winds up and up to bring you face to face with The Griffith Observatory and pretty much as close as you're going to get to The Hollywood Sign.

Again, Alias fans will go wild as they remember Sydney and Vaughn meeting for secret mission ops and a little gentle flirting.

But really it is such a beautiful building with its white walls and huge green domes and fantastical views. Inside is a Planetarium and heaps of exhibits to keep you gazing upwards, as well as a cafe, shop and plenty of viewing platforms. It is free to get in with the planetarium shows at an additional cost. And besides, from up there you feel like a giant looking down on the tiny buildings and even smaller people, which is always fun.

As for the rest of the park - the largest Urban park in the US - there is tonnes to do, especially if you're into hikes and horseback trails. There's even the Los Angeles Zoo, the outdoor Greek Theatre and the Travel Town Museum, complete with miniature railway for the kids. If you have more than the meagre 45 minutes we had to look around, then attempt to find the nicely hidden away Bronson Caves where iconic scenes from many TV and films have been shot, in the former quarry and subsequent caves.

But this is speed tourism, so after some nice photos and admiration for the view and the Observatory, it was time to take the short drive to Universal Studios. Giddiness expected!

Before you arrive at the entrance to the studios, you walk through the City Walk, a strip of shops, restaurants, cinemas and venues. This is accessible to anyone, without having to pay admission to the Studios, though you do have to pay parking. And at night there is a hell of a lot of neons, think Seattle Pike Place Market or a teeny Vegas, which gives it a great atmosphere and pulse. There is a huge 19 screen AMC cinema there, which seems right being so close to one of the largest movie and TV studios in the World. And as a lover of the US store Hot Topic, there is also one of those there too.

Once through the City Walk you are greeted by the iconic spinning globe of Universal. Queue for a photo if desired and then it's a hop skip and jump through the gates for a day of Movie magic. Now I am going to try not to add too many spoilers for those who haven't been yet, but I will say that there is a lot to do, so aim to arrive when it opens at 10, because it closes at 5.30/6.00. And also if you go in peak times. i.e summer holidays then you are likely to be queuing for rides and attractions much longer than we did. Hint hint: Go in October, close to Halloween. The weather is still incredible but the most you have to queue is 10 minutes and you can take advantage of the Halloween Horror Nights as well.

So of course one of the most amazing things about Universal, is that it's a working studio. As you enter there's a board telling you what is being filmed that day and in which studio. (Giddiness). And you can take the Studio Tour which is something that I used to see on the adverts as a kid and think it would be the scariest thing ever, especially with the old shark leaping out of the water. (Sorry, Spoiler, but if you didn't know that then you must have had your head in a bag for the last thirty years.)

So you take your tram, as they call them, not like a tram in Blackpool, for those Brits who are reading this. It's more of a low riding bus with no sides and you have your tour guide/tram driver who appears on a screen and talks his/her socks off about all things Universal. It takes around 45 minutes but feels longer. You wind past old film posters charting the iconic films made here and down past the studios. We passed Studio 22 where CSI was filming. It was actually hard to believe that behind those walls familiar faces were acting their socks off, whilst we sauntered by enjoying the sun.

Driving through the back lot is incredible. There are full scale or almost full scale representations of various streets that can be adapted to be any US City. Probably the most impressive thing here is the Back to the Future set. Also they told us they had used the sets for some episodes of NCIS. Sweet! Some of the buildings are facades - meaning only a front - whereas some are the full building and can even be used for internal shots. Most of all it's just really interesting to hear about the inner workings of a movie set. And when you imagine your favourite actors there, it really is magical.

Along the way are a few interesting detours: King Kong 3D Return to Skull Island; A demonstration from The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift and The Mummy special effects ride, which all take place from the comfort of your tram. You get to see some cars and vehicles from TV and film and without spoiling too much, The DeLorean from Back to the Future is a pretty cool sight.

You go through back lot sets for Europe. They call it Little Europe as they feel it can be adapted for any European Town/City. Awww bless the US. They really don't have a clue do they? You pass by Amity Island, famous for it's use in Jaws and also Murder She Wrote; Little Mexico and some scale model stuff from King King, before heading through more specific sets. There's a plane crash wreck; a particularly sinister Motel and a huge green screen and lake. Anyhoo, to cut a long story short. It's incredible. It's a must see and you just have to do it!

Once back from the tour there is a hell of a lot to fit in not least of all the Lower Lot rides: Transformers 3D; Revenge of The Mummy and Jurassic Park. To get to the lower lot will take you at least 10 minutes on four massive and rather slow moving escalators. Still, it gives you time to catch your breath and soak up the views as you head down, deep down.

I don't want to reveal too much about the rides, except that Jurassic Park is a water ride and you will get wet no matter where you sit. And also if you have to queue for hours for these rides, which I hope you don't, there is a lot going on to attempt to entertain you. Even if there is no queue it takes about ten minutes to walk through to the actual ride, but watch out for a glimpse of the All Spark. Amazing!

Food is fast and exactly what you would expect: burgers, sandwiches, fries, hotdogs, churros, cookies and other naughty treats. But they also have these lovely frozen daiquiris (if of course you are old enough to drink - remember 21 over there guys) and they are just fabulous in the Californian sunshine, whilst taking a breather. Plus they are also a great accompaniment to the ten minute journey back to the Upper lot, where The Simpsons Ride awaits. The best bits of the Simpsons ride is all the additional clips and videos. Watch out for your favourite cast members doing their thing!

But Universal is not just about rides, it's about real life attractions and shows. At the Special effects show you can see old school effects versus the most technologically advanced effects used in TV and film. Expect really obvious humour and cheese cheese cheese, but still great effects. At the Terminator 3D experience, the combination of live action and 3D effects is particularly entertaining, though the opening bull shit gets old and quick. Wear ear plugs until you actually go into the auditorium and you'll be fine. The Animal Actors stage is fabulous, with perky animal trainers and super cute dogs, pigs, birds and other animals. Water World only has two showings a day but it is well worth it if you can fit it in. Oh and warning again, you will get wet, if not by what's happening in the performance then by the people going round with supersoakers and buckets of water. Fun fun fun. If in doubt, pack a poncho, but really just enjoy it. Think hi-jinks, fire, lots of stunts and of course, water! Then finally there is the wonderful Shrek 4D which adds that extra element of touch to it's already heightened senses. I think the only thing we missed but we actually heard in passing was a Blues Brothers Live show, which conflicted with our tight schedule, but all in all we managed it before kick out time.

Now earlier I mentioned how you should visit near Halloween because of the Halloween Horror Nights. Well guess what we were up to an hour later, after a massive pizza in City Walk? Yes, yes yes! It was time to scream and laugh more than I ever have in my entire life. Let the scare fest begin.

Warning: If you don't like scary movies, don't even think about it because this isn't a scary person running around on screen that you can hide from, this is really scary people running at you and chasing you, with chainsaws. Oh hell yeah! It's freakin' awesome!

What a difference an hour makes. The lights are off, the sun has gone to bed and it's time for the night creatures to come and play. The crowds are huge, the atmosphere is incredible and there's not a child in sight. You might however find a mass of Clowns with chainsaws; Witches; Zombies or Crazy Toyz (their Z not mine). It was extremely well done and scary as hell. The Studio Tour trams became the Terror Tram: Invaded by the Walking Dead and you had the joy of being dumped in the back lot and chased around many of the most iconic sets and a creepy forest by lots of zombies. Amazeballs!

The rides were still open, so you could do Jurassic Park in the dark. (If only for the rhyme.) There was a live show: Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure. And there were 6 walk through mazes to scare the bejeezers out of you. Expect people to jump out at every moment, but you still won't be able to stop screaming and laughing. Expect your face to ache from all the screaming and laughing and most of all expect massive queues. But saying that, it all added to the experience. Everyone penned in, in the dark awaiting their fate. Kind of eerily poetic.

When we went they were bigging up the Third Season of The Walking Dead, which meant there was not only the Terror Tram invaded by The Walking Dead, with actual sets and props used for Season 3, but there was also a maze. We were also treated to such gems as: Silent Hill, working up to the release of Silent Hill Revelation film; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a 3D Alice Cooper maze which was awesome. You had no idea what was real and what wasn't. Mind fuck!

Again, long story short, this is amazing for Halloween lovers and fright fest people everywhere. You can of course go just for the night time shenanigans, especially if you've been to the studios before, but if you're there in late October, check it out because it really is fantastic. You know they are just actors and they can't touch you, but when they're running towards you with a chainsaw, you sort of forget that and run and scream, like a little girl with a Pheobe run. 

So that was day 2 of the 3 day speed tour of LA. And you may be thinking; what about Hollywood and Beverley Hills and Rodeo Drive and.......Well calm down. You've seen what we can do in short spaces of time and we still had one day left. When I next get my Sarky Travelling pants on, I'll be taking you on a speed tour of the best of the rest of LA.

Until then, keep travelling!
The Sarky Traveller

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