Friday, 22 June 2012


2002 saw my first ever major club trip with the European Coaster Club to the American West Coast. With just 3 days notice that someone had dropped out and an invitation to attend I found myself with little time to prepare and I just showed up and went along for the ride, or 70 of them.

10 years later and the club had decided to repeat the trip, visiting the majority of the parks visited a decade ago. There were some new ones and a decision to end the trip in Utah rather than Vegas as we did previously. Whilst I had ridden a lot of the rides, there were still plenty of reasons to revisit. Aside from the parks and rollercoasters I also planned to do some sight-seeing and to feed my other OCD, take some photos of Banksy pieces following his graffiti tour of the US to promote his "Exit Through the Giftshop" film.

and here's the report of that trip, including parks, coasters, elephants, graffiti and random, and sometimes completely made-up ramblings of a madman.

As ever, please take the report in the spirit in which it was written. No offence is ever intended. As Bill Hicks stated, just enjoy the ride.

Let's begin shall we?

Santa Monica Pier

After a fairly lengthy multiple stop flight that took us to LA via Detroit and a fairly bumpy landing into LAX we got to the hotel, collected our bags and headed straight to the first park on Santa Monica Pier. At this point a 24-hour day had become a 36 so we were all fairly tired.

This was the hotel, a stones throw from the pier as long as you've built up your arms on the nearby muscle beach before attempting the throw that is. The hotel, being in heart of Santa Monica was perfectly located for checking out the area, but at night-time meant you had the ambient sounds of club music, fighting and on our visit a man trying his best to throw up for 20 minutes at 5 in the morning.

There's the pier, which has been around for around 100 years and as well as being a popular movie/TV landmark is also a popular attraction for the locals who enjoy it's amusement park, food establishments and, for those who wish to get away from their wives, fishing opportunities off the back of the pier.

The pier is also one end of route-66, the famous road that is frequented by bikers who are interested in finding the quickest way of getting here from Chicago. Apparently Route-66 is the name of the road that leads to here. If you go the other way around you're on Route-69

The park is actually called Pacific Park on account of it being over the Pacific Ocean, albeit by a few hundred metres. We were here to ride it's West Coaster whilst trying to stay awake.

A tired group preparing to ride a rollercoaster. That's not it in the background, although if there was one shaped like that it would be much better than the one they have.

and there it is. It's a mid-sized coaster with one hill, and one big helix, and as such was the perfect park and coaster for people who just wanted to go to bed. It was popular with the locals and at least one other coaster group who were also there, albeit at the end of their trip rather than the beginning as we were on our's.

Around the helix section I recall there being a rather cool Flic-Flac ride there last time. This time there was some other kids ride and one of those 2-seater TopSpin rides that I first saw in Russia and never thought would come to the West. Times have changed indeed.

The coaster was actually alright, big roomy trains that are usually found on much bigger rides and a fairly pleasant-at-most ride. Done with that and not wishing to ride it again, completely blowing the financial decision of getting a wristband, I chose to have a quick walk around the pier before heading somewhere else.

A trapeze workshop had been set up on the pier. Quite cool, but as it was almost their closing, there was no opportunity to have a go.

Like terrorists at Guantanamo the pink monkey immigrants had been rounded up and kept in crammed conditions.

There's the helix, and this is as high as the coaster goes, not that thrilling at all, but if you're a 3ft tall kid, it's immense, or is the phrase "awesome"?

The big wheel is actually pretty impressive and has an excellent light arrangement on it, running all sorts of crazy patterns all night long. I was quite happy to hang back on the end of the pier and watch the light show, not Jean Michel Jarre admittedly but still cool.

The pier was the perfect introduction to a jet-lagged and tired group, and whilst some decided to remain at the park, others headed off elsewhere. In 2008 I introduced a friend Jeppe to Hooters and we both fell victim to the tomato salmonella outbreak that hit Texas that year. In an attempt to undo that bad experience we decided to give the one in Santa Monica a go and am pleased to say it went much better with no side-effects...its also worth mentioning that neither of us actually ordered anything that contained tomato. Clearly neither of us were prepared to risk a repeat at the start of this trip.

Universal Studios Hollywood

After a fairly well rested night, in as much as I could with the noise outside, it was time to head off for the first of the big parks: Universal Studios.

The obligatory spinning globe as exists at every park, however this one looks a little more historic with it's metallic effect. Prepare to have to jump in in front of other visitors to get the shot.

The main entrance into the park has you walking the red carpet, a nice touch although it would be cool if they had used the park photographers as paparazzi here, rather than have them swarm on you inside the park like those charity muggers that you find ways to avoid back home.

Inside the park there's a nice statue to the art of good boom mike control, although I do like the odd occasion where it appears in shot. It's a sign of the bad movie making that I enjoy.

Another photo opportunity but you have to be quick with this one as countless crowds of people also want their photo taken here. Quick tip, offer to take someone else's photo and they'll then return the favour ensuring you get to go immediately after them.

Is this supposed to be Jay Leno? It reminds me of somebody else.

A rather weak photo opportunity but it breaks up the fairly lengthy journey to get from the top of the hill down to the bottom where Transformers, Mum the Ride and Jurassic Park reside.

The Transformers attraction is the newest attraction in the park and a superb ride it is too. It's an updated version of the Spiderman attraction where 3D screens are mixed with live effects and you ride in a 6-axis hydraulic car. In January I was fortunate enough to ride the first of these in Singapore, and loved that so I knew I was going to enjoy this a lot too. There aren't many folk out there who have been fortunate enough to do both!

The story has you working with other transformers to escape from a compound with the all-spark, a transformer energy source. Standing between you and freedom are an army of Decepticons, doing their best to stop you. The ride has a single-rider queue which if can't early can give you a 5-minute wait time compared to the 50 minute in the main queue. However later in the afternoon it got too busy and they closed it temporarily.

Like Singapore to complement the ride the park has some highly detailed Optimus Prime and Bumblebee character actors. It must be hot in those suits as well as difficulty to walk in the stilts they have to tower over the people.

Near the Transformers attraction there's a small museum to cinema, full of back-story, props and other stuff, that to be honest looks a lot better on the map than it actually is. There is a real Oscar for you to see though, which is perhaps the best thing here. 

I also liked the Coraline set that they had alongside an overview of how stop motion animation happens.

First coaster of the day was "Mum the Ride", an enclosed ride themed loosely around the Mummy films with you exploring an Egyptian tomb and having a run in with the sand flinging monster of the films. This was the last of the Mummy rides for me to do having ridden the others in Florida, Singapore and Osaka, and it seemed to be a different ride to the others with a heavy use of UV lit monsters (which worked really well). There's a room full of bugs that works better here than elsewhere as there's a trick in the car that makes you think they're in the car. They also appeared to have the best themed trick exit of all the rides I'd ridden until I was asked to leave the car and exit the station. Huh? The other rides have a whole section where you come into a fake exit and the bad guy takes it over and screams at you more before you're launched off for some more riding, but it was missing here....and that's why I called it Mum the Ride, and not Mummy the Ride. It's not the full experience :)

Jurassic Park is the same as the other parks and although it was a beautiful day, as it always seems to be out here, I didn't fancy getting wet so chose not to ride it. When they finally fix that issue that causes the boats to complete the tour properly so I remain dry I'll probably reconsider revisiting. However every time I go on it it seems to break down and send me through to a bit of the park where I get wet, and that needs to change. 

Looking down towards the studio valley and there's one of the trams making their way down towards it. I'm glad we don't have to do the course on foot.

This is the main square from the Back to the Future film. That in the background was the clock tower, but it has a slightly different facade now.

Another couple of street scenes, if you recognise where they've been used do let me know. I've no idea and am unable recall what the guide said.

The new attraction in the tour is Kong, which replaces the large animatronic one that burnt down in the studio lot fire a few years ago. This one relies on a huge 3D screen on which is projected a massive fight between Kong and some T-Rex's. The tram is on a pneumatic platform that bounces as the monsters roll over the tram. It's a very clever production, especially given the length of the tram and the fact everyone in the tram has to have something to watch. My tip to you is to sit on the outside of the tram for the best view, and if you don't have a head for heights sit on the right, the left has a huge canyon drop for most of the second half of the film.

Because it's 3D youtube clips do not do it justice but you can get an idea of what it does from this.

I remember the flooded Mexican town section of the tour, and am pleased to say it's still works as well as it ever did. To get the best view of this you need to be on the left.

A small collection of cars then comes next. That's the one from Animal House. 

The most famous of all the cars has to be the Delorean from Back to the Future.

The Need for Speed attraction is rather rubbish featuring 2 nice looking cars that explode using hidden robot arms and then they end up doing some sort of bizarre dance. Good to know that Universal found a better use for the robot arms as they're also the ride system used on the Harry Potter rides.

This is work in progress for the new version of The Addams Family, which is due to come out next year. Yes, they really do use the sets to make stuff and not just to drive naive tourists around. Right hand side for this one.

Entering Wisteria Lane where supposedly there were some desperate housewives or such like. I'll take their word for it but would suggest that they reconsider pimping women in such a manner. 

The rubber jaws is still there, you have to be on the right-hand side to see this. I was on the left so saw very little. It's no big deal, as I don't think it's all that anway.

A rather stupid shot of the largest green screen backdrop in the world. The lake in front of it can be emptied or filled as appropriate. In the Truman Show film it was here where Jim Carrey bumped his boat into the wall of the studio, and exits the set.

It's not really a sky painted wall after all!

The earthquake attraction still impresses but its starting to age a little bit. Kong was such a step-change that it's left a lot of the other enclosed set pieces behind. Still the people in the tram enjoyed it.

Towards the end of the tour, there's another closed set attraction, and this one is themed around The Mummy film. It's just a long rolling tunnel effect that you've seen in countless walkthroughs and ghost train rides, and as such is totally out-of-date here, especially given the Kong attraction.

The Bates Motel, setting for the film Psycho. Last time we just drove past this, this time you have a near-run-in with Norman as he spots the tram drive past and he walks up menacingly towards it with a knife in hand. I have no idea how security allowed this guy into the park with a weapon and the security ought to be urgently reviewed.

The finale to the tour is the rather excellent looking plane crash scene from War of the Worlds. Our guide told us that the studios bought a real plane and ripped it apart to make it look like a crash. If you've bought the super-rich VIP ticket you're allowed to walk amongst the wreckage. Normal people are asked to remain in the tram.

Shrek 4D is the same attraction as the other Universal Parks, for those not familiar with it, it's a 3D cinema screen with moving seats (that's the fourth dimension folks!). Having seen this countless times I decided on this occasion not to bother.

Fiona looks ok, can't say the same for that ogre!

Near the entrance is a haunted walkthrough, a strange attraction to be doing in the Summer at such a major chain. However at Halloween most of these parks do something haunted and Universal runs a number of them. I guess they've just decided to keep this one open, and very good it is too. The measure of these attractions is how many times I jump, and in here I was made to do so twice. The mummy in here is a more memorable attraction than the one down at the bottom of the hill for sure.

Waterworld, the Kevin Costner themed, plane flinging water based stunt show is always worth seeing and was very entertaining. It's always good to get there early as the pirates have a little water based fun before the show starts properly. It's also an excellent opportunity to get out of the sun and hide in the shade.

Oh, there's always a fine looking blond stunt woman on show too!

The pirates doing their thing. Don't sit in the front and don't be late or else you're fair game to these guys.

When he's not playing with time there's nothing more that Doc Brown likes than running a chicken franchise. I guess avoiding the need to pay for a Colonel Sanders licence, this is the nearest character they could get to it.

If you want popcorn then you're catered for too with this rather cool looking catering van.

The Simpson's Ride is the same as the one in Florida, but perhaps not a surprise given they've both replaced the former Back to the Future rides. It's the same style of ride with a large immersive 180-degree screen and a number of hydraulic cars within it. The film however is much more crazier than the old Delorean number as you find yourself flying around the Krustyland theme park. Definitely a fun ride although be prepared for lengthy queues on this one.

Throughout the park there are plenty of entertainers to break up the monotony of walk back and forth between the various transactions, including Marilyn Monroe and her rather pretty looking backing singers and 2 park cleaners who step up to become street dancers complete with sound system in the wheelie bin.

They even had the Simpsons family although you'd often only see 2 at a time. If you're really lucky you'll see Bob and Ray (the two guys on the left). Oddly enough we kept bumping into them all through the day, although we didn't want our photo taken with them.

These two acted a little creepy, playing with the kids too much compared to everyone else. Perhaps this is a way of keeping paedophiles happy?

To tie in with this Summer's Lorax movie the park have a new meet-and-greet with one. I know nothing about The Lorax other than it being a Dr Seuss thing. 

Terminator 2 3D is still good but for someone who's seen this countless times it is getting a little tiring, especially the pre-show. However the 3D effects in the finale are still some of the best out there and way better than the Arnie film scene the precludes it. That alone is reason to ensure that "I'll be back" visiting this the next time I return.

A new show was one that showed how visual effects are done including camera tricks, blue screen and motion capture. There's a very clever mis-direction towards the end that caught me off guard, which I enjoyed, and I'm not going to spoil it here. 

To offer a break from the park there's a shopping, dining and entertainment area next door to the park called CityWalk

If you're holidaying on a budget and have young kids just bring them here and let them get soaked for free. Cheaper than paying to ride Jurassic Park.

At the end of it there's a pretty cool indoor sky diving area, this one is cooler than most as it has a huge window where the public can watch, making a rather clever advertisement for their big screen. Having tried a similar attraction a few years ago and realising how bad I was at it, I wasn't prepared to try it today.

Overall, I had a really good day at Universal and whilst it doesn't have any stellar rollercoasters, it does have plenty to keep the enthusiasts busy. Transformers is easily the best attraction in the park, but the backlot tour is also superb. I had expected to be tight on time here with everything on offer but we managed to get around pretty much everything with time to spare.