Friday, April 1, 2011

A Day in the Park

Wednesday, March 31, 2011 – Universal Studios

We woke early, excited about finally seeing the theme park to which we’d devoted nearly three years of our lives.

We’d been told that our passes would be ready at Guest Services after 8:30, but we wanted to be at the park entrance at 8:00 to watch the guests arrive. Seeing families pouring through the gates, kids hyper with anticipation, reminded us of our dream when we arrived. We wanted to create a place where families could come and where they could have fun. Our hopes were more than fulfilled.

One surprise was seeing fathers with their children. The guests were predominantly mothers and children, but fathers with their kids and entire families were not uncommon.

As we approached Guest Services, Tomoko Ohara who coordinated the notification and responses from the Japanese, arrived with her daughter. She recognized us instantly. As we would hear throughout the next two days, we were told that we hadn’t changed. The hugs from her were only the first of the many we would enjoy during the next forty-eight hours.

The young lady at Guest Services called the USJ offices, and soon Yataka Izutsu arrived with all the information and tickets. She was the major organizer of the events for the team reunion, and she is a darling young lady. This special day could not have happened without her and her crew!

While waiting to enter, we got to see the opening show inside the gates prior to park opening. Then the announcement was made and the gates opened. We joined the other guests and entered.

It looked as though every cast member in the park had lined the entrance and Hollywood Boulevard to welcome guests. I’m sure they do the greeting every day since this is a requisite Japanese formality.  However, we ran into Vernon McGugin who told us there were more than 300 cast members on the street!

Wearing our USJ team clothing, we were easily recognized and treated as minor celebrities. Kae and Toshi enjoyed the attention we got so much so that Kae began telling everyone that we had a part in creating the park. Seeing so many enthusiastic young Japanese representing the park helped to start our celebration on the right note.

As we entered, we also ran into Randy Barnett and Matt Jones, both of whom played a role in bringing this event to fruition. They were also taking part in the ‘meet and greet’ on the street.

Our first stop was the new Spiderman attraction. Well, actually it’s not that new since it was built a year or two after we left.  We’d heard all about the attraction when it opened in Florida, and it was very well done.

After the ride, we walked around the lagoon to check out our windows. They are still there. We’d wanted to see Raouf’s plaque, but it is currently hidden by a temporary stage on which the big anniversary show is being performed.

Leaving the San Francisco Wharf area, we proceeded towards Area 3. On the way, we checked to see that Cathy Pechstedt’s classic cars were still outside Mel’s Drive-In. She will be happy to know that they are being well-maintained. Groups of guests posed for pictures near their favorites.

Next we went on JAWS. Mark Kuskowski will be happy to know that his plants are all thriving in the queue area. It is cool and green and should provide some relief from the summer heat. It also hides much of the garishness of the adjacent water slide.

We joined the other guests to take the trip around Amity Island. All effects worked as designed, and our ‘pilot’ displayed the proper level of fear at the attacking sharks. Seeing all the beautiful work on the buildings of the island carefully preserved gave us a great deal of satisfaction. Larry amused the kids by telling them about walking barefoot on the ‘sand’ of the island’s shore – in the dead of winter in the wet cement – to create the appearance of footprints. They enjoyed hearing this and many other ‘behind-the-scenes stories throughout the day.

On to Jurassic Park. All torches were lit. The Lost World Restaurant was closed and it appeared to be permanent. We wondered if it’s used for special events. (Some of the other eateries – like Boardwalk Snacks and Amity Ice Cream - were also closed, but they are seasonal and only open during the summer.)

Time for lunch at Discovery Center. Gene Nollman’s beautiful art direction remains to set the atmosphere. The food was more than adequate and not outrageously expensive – by Japanese standards. We ate on the patio behind the restraint fronting the lagoon where we had met Berj and Aida Behsnalian on the photo op day in December 2000. We remember remarking how amazing it was that we’d actually finished the park on schedule. We are happy to report that it looks even better today!

Then on to JP, The Ride. Again, Mark’s foliage has matured and provides the jungle ambiance we had originally intended. Apparently the maintenance crews finally understand the look required.

The ride effects worked perfectly. But we were in for a surprise since many of the dinosaurs now sport brightly colored skin. Perhaps the intention was to make them less threatening. Or maybe they want to sell more of the Paint-Your-Own Dinosaur souvenirs.

The T-Rex, however, remains intimidating.

Splashdown was fast and nearly dry. However, the spitters had already soaked several of us. Overall, the ride is exciting and gorgeous.

We observed the other guests as they emerged, and they obviously thoroughly enjoyed their experience.

Next, we had to see the WaterWorld show. First, however, we photographed Larry’s benches, shaped like surfboards. We still have the model for the one without the back. We originally had both models in Japan, but the other one was larger, and we only had room to bring one home.

We especially wanted to see the Infinity stickers – and they’re still in place. Larry rides Infinity boards, and Steve Boehne provided lots of logo stickers. So did quite a few other shops and manufacturers (Stewart, Harbor, Robert August, and others). The benches look appropriately worn, but sturdy.

Larry’s bicycle wave maker is long gone, but his standpipe still creates small waves in the entry pool.

The show remains a special effects masterpiece. Still my personal favorite attraction in the park. Even without understanding the Japanese language, the story and physical humor are accessible and easy to follow.

The seaplane splashed down with the usual audience reaction. And the fire-fall went as planned. (Of course, Casey Yadon took the first jump from the platform on the day he left Japan!)

We strolled back down Rodeo Drive and were somewhat taken aback by all the pink. The Outfitter is now the Pink Panther store painted bright pink. Across the street is the Hello Kitty store – also in the same bright cotton candy hues. And the trim on the Brown Derby matches, as well. I was sure the art directors would be appalled, given their meticulous attention to authenticity. But it does appeal to the Japanese asthetic sensibilities.

On to Boulangerie for sweets and coffee. The beautiful deco statue still guards the doors, and my favorite pink and green tile still punctuates the walls.

Then it was time to ride the Hollywood Dreams coaster. This is a huge ride that starts near Monsterfest, travels across Hollywood Boulevard, loops at the park entrance, then its path, diving and climbing in a quick series of undulations and high-banked twists at the main lagoon before returning to its starting point.

We’d seen this in operation on our arrival and it is beautiful at night. All that is visible are the sparkling lights, making the vehicle appear to be a comet, streaking across the dark sky.

We were very impressed with how well this ride was incorporated into the landscape without compromising the overall effect of the areas through which it passes.

Kae was reluctant to go on this attraction, but finally decided to join us. The vehicles are the most comfortable and the ride is the smoothest we have ever experienced. I’m not a huge coaster fan, but this one is especially appealing. It didn’t seem as intimidating as some, despite the height and drops it takes.

Unfortunately, Kae was not as happy at the end of the ride. She’d been truly frightened and was in tears. None of us stopped to think about the effect the g-forces might have had on her following her aneurism a couple of years ago. I’m still a little concerned, but Toshi said he’ll have her checked out now that they’re back in Yokohama.

We decided to walk back along Hollywood Boulevard to check out the shops. Our timing was perfect since the Tenth Anniversary Show was about to begin. What a great source of entertainment, featuring lots of dancers, singers, and athletes! Special music was written for this production, and it was a fitting tribute to ten years of park operation.

After looking everywhere unsuccessfully for a keepsake with the gorgeous tenth anniversary logo, we headed back to the hotel to grab our equipment and get ready for the evening’s celebration.

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