Saturday, May 14, 2016

Wizarding World of Harry Potter (HOLLYWOOD) Critique part 1 - visited April 2016

     First post. Welcome, dear readers.

     So, apparently the URL "themeparkreviews.blogspot" is taken by some schmuck who's done nothing with it, ...and I've settled with this name, "Theme Park Critique".

     I recently visited the new "Harry Potter land", and have a lot of opinions about it, so I've broken this up into several parts. This is my in-depth review of the Universal Studios Hollywood one -- not having gone to the Florida or Japan parks.

     Overall, I'd grade the Wizarding World a solid B. The craft and artistry are very good, but I was disappointed in the theme park as an experience and the way they run the place. I end up comparing every little thing to Disneyland, because Dland is, frankly, the top of the game. Universal has to compete with such standards, and it's a valiant effort. But if Universal wants repeat business, it just has to be smarter about things.

     We first headed straight to:

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride

     This is one pretty impressive massive showroom, incorporating highlights of the Hogwarts grounds into the castle and it's rocky foundations. If it was impossible to actually build the full entire Hogwarts, featuring highlights was a good idea. Sadly, from the back and side views of the castle, like from the view from the Universal Backlot tour tram, you can see how plain other angles of it is, that it's a big soundstage looking building, but perhaps it could be justified that it's all about the "behind-the-scenes" feeling at Universal Studios. Anyway, the castle architecture, scaled-down size, and paint job are pretty good when it's backlit. There's a few things that might sell the scale of it a little more -- like putting smaller detailing/more arches on that bridge in the middle because the movie version does, and put a few scaled down trees near the base of the castle. I would've liked to see if it was lit up at night, but we left as soon as we had enough, and the park closes earlier than sunset anyway.

     I heard somebody say, "What is this? A ride?" because the entrance sign wasn't that clear. I only realized the "Forbidden Journey" gets scrawled magically on the stone columns with the two boars when I checked my photos later and also saw a youtube video of it. But with the bright sun blasting it in the day, it was not noticeable to me. With, say, the Haunted Mansion, there are brick columns at the entrance gate, but the sign is a plaque of different color and material, so the sign stands out from the contrast. There shouldn't be a need for a barker or costumed workers ( I guess they're called team members at Universal, not cast members like Dland ) telling you where to go.

     And then there's the second set of team members forcing you to get a locker if you have bags. First, what if you're a foreigner and don't speak English? There'd be major confusion. Nothing on the website or map warns you how strict they are about bags; they frickin yell at people who try to bypass the lockerroom. Second, that you have to get lockers by FINGERPRINT at a kiosk is bullsh-- ridiculous and uncalled for. Your FINGERPRINT, are you serious?!  And there's nothing informing you about the privacy policy for what they do with the fingerprint (how long they store it, do they delete it eventually?). You are forced to make a decision then and there-- fun or privacy. I'm surprised the interwebs doesn't have anybody else complaining about this. Universal's website says that other locker systems, like at Florida, translate your fingerprint into a number combination, I guess to pacify critics, but doesn't say if Hollywood's system is like that, but regardless, a jpg image could be described as a number combination, really. Instead of fingerprint, why not a fastpass-type of card printout as a locker access pass? Or a barcode on your ticket? I mean, the ride had, jumping ahead of myself, maybe one lurch backwards at the Whomping Willow that might've made you lose your bag, but the lurch itself was unnecessary and could've been nixed to begin with. Most of the ride was no more jiggly than any Dland rides, and none of the Dland rides force you to put bags in lockers at the beginning of the ride. Even if you don't have a problem with privacy and Universal stealing/selling/whoknowswhat with your fingerprint, that lockerroom was a clusterf--- mess, a bottleneck. Traffic-wise, you have incoming people using it to put bags in, you have outgoing people coming off the ride using it to retrieve their bags, and also people in the adjacent giftshop could go thru the lockerroom, effectively cutting the line -- bypassing anybody waiting OUTSIDE in line. Bad design. I totally could've held onto my bag tightly, wrapping it around my arm, or the seats could've had nets under the seats like Dland's StarTours, Soarin', etc. I've always held my backpack in Indy Jones because it never fits in the net. I even could've worn my backpack on my back and sat down with it, as there wasn't much it it. It shouldn't be as much a problem as Universal makes it. This is a major letdown in fun, and hinderence in traffic flow.

     Moving along, it was a great decision to have the queue line contain details and statues recognizable from the movies to entertain while waiting in line. On our day, the crowds were light, and the line width was big enough for people to pass those who wanted to go slower. I liked seeing the Gunhilda statue and the Mirror of Erised, though these things are in odd arbitrary places. There was a gated hole in the wall that was a missed opportunity to have a basilisk pop out once in a while, or maybe a shadow of it.

     Professor Sprout's greenhouse area was a nice change of pace from the dark halls.The worn stone ground texture and aged dark iron railing were nice. But not sure the lighter metal greenhouse structure was in the same style of design as the movie (see pic on the left), and the rust looked like dripped paint, wasn't as good as Dland. Also, not sure the dragon statues were on the roof, when they were in the movies.  There was a water fountain that looked nice and ornate, but not sure it fit this castle's style. The mandrakes could've been in more rows spread throughout the queue area, as I didn't get a good look at them in the cage on the side. They could've been moving and squirming a little with muffled screams once in a while. Elsewhere, the hanging fake plants were fine, but I did see some dead plants within the line and some garbage. Dland is usually better about the upkeep of their plants, and cleanliness is definitely better at Dland.

     Back inside, other statues were fine (the architect, the first headmaster), but odd that they were all on one side. The griffin statue would've made more sense in front of Dumbledore's room. The room with a whole bunch of moving portraits could've been that much better if you went up a few steps first, to suggest that this is the staircase area, and it should've had the ceiling appear to go on and on (by a projection screen across the ceiling or something). The moving portraits were extremely well done; the characters moved while having a textured finish, a surface like of brush strokes and cracks of an old oil painting. I'm glad they weren't simply TV screens, didn't stand out like overlit LED screens. They were dark and subtle, and fit in nicely with the paintings that didn't move, if there were any.

    Dumbledore's room was amazing. The pensieve was a nice touch to include, but I didn't see Fawkes, which could've been a cool animatronic thing. Many people liked to watch Dumbledore talk, so maybe the line could've been tiered in levels or maybe just an open room for people to wander. Not sure if too big a crowd would form, so maybe there's no better solution.

    The attention to detail in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom was awesome. Once you glimpse that distinctive dragon skeleton, you know where you are. Harry, Ron, and Hermione's were neat to see and set up the ride, and a great idea to reveal them from under the invisibility cloak as a way to get them from the door to their screen area, but really... enough with all the screens! Put physical animatronics! This would be a reoccurring gripe -- we don't want to watch a screen at a theme park, we can go watch movies at home. Watching a screen takes you out of the immersion of being there in the flesh. In a theme park, we want to go to a physical place and see physical objects and physical people. Dland has animatronic Jack Sparrow, R2D2 and Threepio. They fit the place they are in. Continuing on, back in the Defense of the Dark Arts room, the snow seemed real, because it seemed to fall on the table and ground and things, leaving a wet spot, but I could hear the snow machine whirling or something. It was a good staging idea to backlight the snow using that projector.

     The Gryffindor's common room was ok. The furniture was red, so I guess it was Gryffindor's, but maybe the tapestries could've be redder and thicker. Maybe Sirius' head could be in the fireplace, in which a projection effect would've been appropiate. The Sorting Hat was neat, but it was so echoey, I couldn't understand it.

     But in general, seeing other classrooms would've been nice, instead of hallways, or perhaps the other parks could have other classrooms to vary the experiences.

    Finally, the loading area. I guess the candles suggested it was The Great Hall? I don't know what to think of the child switch area because I don't have a child, but it was only after reading the map brochure that you'd understand it's a place to put kids who are too little for the ride and switch parents so they can each take turns to ride it. Anyway, walking from the stable ground to the moving walkway was a little dangerous, as the transition was not clearly marked with some sort of caution markings. I mean, if they don't have to be modern yellow slashes, it could be swirls or runes underlit with recessed lighting or something. After sitting in, and getting handed 3D glasses from a team member,  the team member dropped a set of glasses, and quickly back-kicked it to the wall -- that looked bad, not professional, not sanitary considering his underside of his foot. I hope they sanitize the glasses, but highly doubt it. Why not have a self-serving bin of glasses beforehand, like Dland rides, like under the Sorting Hat? You could cut the amount of workers and cut the stress of rushing to hand out glasses and picking them up after the ride while on the moving conveyor belt.

     I hate 3D. The Florida version of the ride, I found out later, doesn't have the 3D aspect -- I would've preferred that. That being said, everything else about the ride was well done, a great length, a great sampling of the creatures and experiences you'd have flying around Hogwarts. Total fan-boy/girl stuff. Sadly, the ride's motion made me nauseous, but I held it in. I don't know if it's the ride or that I'm getting old. I certainly did not enjoy getting sprayed with water, and in my mouth, I don't know where this water has been and what diseases it carries. For some reason, they are many things spraying you on Universal Studios rides. I lifted my 3D glasses off during a few sections, because they were dirty with waterspots and clouded my vision, so I loved seeing the real physical creatures, like the dementors, the Whomping Willow, and the huge ass dragon -- they were physical, moving around, seeing with my own eyes. Again, I feel these physical things are what you go for at theme parks, not watching screens.

     After the ride, a team member collecting the glasses just gruffly said, "glasses, glasses, glasses" -- this guy totally did not enjoy working there. What a party pooper. And there were many like him throughout Hogsmeade. This would never happen at Dland. Just let us put them a bin somewhere, fire that guy. C'mon.

     Exiting through the gift shop is the genius of Dland capitalism. After you experience the world, you want to buy things of that world. I don't think I bought anything in Filch's Emporium, but I enjoyed browsing. I actually would've liked to buy some of the props that decorate the place, though. Maybe it could've been called the Room of Requirement -- Filch doesn't seem like a rich entrepreneur, but I guess it's funny that he's selling off confiscated goods. The aged wood on the shelves and cashier desks were awesome. It was a bit stuffy with everyone in there, but if it looked like the Room of Requirement, the ceilings could've been higher to get more air in there.

                                             TO BE CONTINUED...HOGSMEADE