Off to Universal City (38406)
Off to Universal City (38405)

Growing up in L.A., the glitch and the glamour really don’t faze you. You’ve been to the movie and sound stages, lived next door to stars, knew celebs before they became celebs and so on.

I left over 20 years ago for a variety of reasons, and it had been 10 years since my last visit. So when my 30-year high school reunion rolled around, I decided that instead of staying with family or friends, I would check out a place that, although it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, I had never visited it: Universal City and Universal Studios Hollywood.

I guess, looking back now, I had low expectations about visiting such a huge tourist attraction, but I decided that I was going to look at it like a “science experiment,” i.e., what a visitor here would want to know and see. I have to say, once I stepped off the hotel shuttle bus, I was instantly swept into the excitement of the place.

The Magic of Hollywood

Everything here is as big as life–vibrant, energizing, way over-the-top and undeniably befitting the lofty worldwide reputation L.A. has as the entertainment capital of the world.

In the 10 or so minutes I took to amble down to the park entrance, I was as excited as a little kid in a candy store at Halloween–completely enthralled with all the television theme songs blaring via loudspeakers, punch drunk on bold, eye-catching, multihued signs on the various shops, stands and eateries and immersed amidst throngs of folks from all over the world and every walk of life.

The longer I was there, the more I got it. For those who did not grow up in Southern California, or in the United States for that matter, it was a huge deal to come here, to the land of (television and movie) opportunity, the place where one could dream big and “be discovered.” The sky was the limit. All day long I was surrounded by scores of dialects such as Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Hebrew, British, Australian, African, French and German, among many others.

I was truly immersed in the global melting pot that is L.A.

The Park

Divided into Upper and Lower Lots, Universal Studios Hollywood encompasses acres of real estate chock full of restaurants, boutiques and, of course, exhilarating theme park rides and shows, each one featuring a unique aspect or theme.

As far as the rides go, “Jurassic Park: The Ride” was very cool. An al fresco meandering ride, “explorers” navigate in 25-seat rafts that delve into an Amazon-like environment teeming with pterodactyls, allosaurus, stegosaurus, t-rexes and, of course, velociraptors lurking around every corner.

In addition to the soggy mists, stream-squirting mammals and intermittent waterfalls, the ride encompasses an 84-foot vertical plunge that takes you completely by surprise. Despite the potentially heart-stopping finish and our semi-soaked clothing, we couldn’t wait to get back on!

“Revenge of the Mummy” is another heart-pounding thriller, and–unbeknownst to me or I might have chickened out–it takes place in virtual darkness. True to the movie, your senses are assaulted with a plethora of special effects, cryptic warnings, mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics and unexpected twists at speeds somewhere around 45 mph–did I mention that this was completely in the dark? “Heart-stopping horror” indeed.

If a virtual roller coaster is more your speed–but still with a few jarring moves–try the animated world of “The Simpsons.” From the Kwik-E Mart souvenir shop out front to the humongous caricatures of Bart, Lisa, Homer, Marge, Maggie, Krusty the Clown and others, episode reruns, tons of “Simpsons” memorabilia and “Bart-isms” flanking all areas of the ride queue area, to the flying and crashing scenes in the ride itself, this section of the park is really its own astonishing attraction.

Depending on the show, audience members experience a range of special effects including gyrating seats, surround sound action and intermittent and very unexpected spurts of air and streams of water from above, below and in front of you–together bringing the action to life.

I think my favorite attraction was “Shrek 4-D,” a hilarious adventure taking off from the end of the first movie after Shrek and Fiona get married and embark upon their honeymoon. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, Lord Farquhar is still wreaking havoc on the happy couple, Donkey and other characters from Far Far Away.

“Terminator 2:3D” is also highly entertaining, as it incorporates state-of-the-art technology with live actors–who really look like the characters from the “Terminator” movies!–into what really is more like a state production. Whether you’ve seen the movies or not, this show is one not to be missed.

Other worthwhile shows and attractions include the “Special Effects Stage,” “Universal’s Animal Actors” (held in an outdoor amphitheater), the walk-through “House of Horrors,” “The Blues Brothers,” “The Adventures of Curious George,” “Transformers The Ride: 3D” and “Waterworld,” among others.

Next up, we embark upon the Universal Studios Tour.

Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website.