For those of you who (like me before I moved to Japan) don't know anything about the Universal Studios theme park line, here's a bit of history. The first Universal Studios theme park wasn't actually a park--it was just Universal Studios, the movie production company, and people could wander around touring the LA sets and seeing movie magic in the making. Nowadays, there are Universal Studios theme parks in LA, Japan, Singapore, and Florida, and the idea seems to be a nostalgic trip to the past, filled with exciting performances and fun rides, overpriced food and souvenirs.
Universal Studios Japan is a pretty big outfit, so it's in the middle of nowhere. It even has its own train station, Universal City Station, because there's no other reason why anyone would need to take the train out there. The avenue that leads to the park entrance is lined with restaurants and shops, all distinctly Western and distinctly expensive. As you walk, you're hit with the smell of fresh popcorn and hamburgers, and it already feels like you've left Japan. In fact, it slowly starts to feel like you've left 2014 altogether.
USJ is rather cleverly designed to make you feel like you've stepped onto a vintage movie set. It's realistic enough that sometimes you get sucked in entirely and forget where you really are until you notice something that doesn't quite fit. It's amazing, really, how much effort they put into making the entire park look old. Not old like the rest of Japan--crumbling, rusty and neglected--but valuable. It triggers an incredible sense of nostalgia.
Walking through the streets, I couldn't help but wonder if the park details (all 100% written in English) were as endearing to the Japanese visitors as they were to us. There were so many clever signs and references that must be completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the park visitors. It's not the first time I've felt like the popularity of English in Japan has the unfortunate side-effect of inhibiting understanding.
More interested in street food than a sit-down restaurant? No problem. Grab a hot-dog from one of the themed food carts and listen to a live performance from the R&B Boyz Crew--a USJ exclusive!
Aside from the snacks and souvenirs, the rides are probably supposed to be the most exciting part of the park. Unfortunately, USJ is a wildly popular theme park (even moreso now that Hogsmeade has opened its gates), and it's not realistically big enough to accommodate everyone. It's only slightly smaller than Tokyo Disneyland (108 acres to Disneyland's 115), but it still felt like I was a sardine packed in a tin with ten thousand other sardines, all vying for the last 40 pack Spiderman souvenir candy tin. The lines for the more popular rides were easily over an hour long. Even if you choose to stay at the park all day, it seems a shame to waste most of your time waiting around in line.
Unless you're a fan of Kurt Russel, Ron Howard, or early nineties action films, you've probably never heard of Backdraft. I certainly hadn't--we picked the ride because the wait time was fifteen minutes. Backdraft is a movie about firefighters forced into battle with an evil serial arsonist in Chicago, and why they chose this particular movie as the inspiration for a USJ attraction, I'm not sure, but it was interesting. It was essentially a pyrotechnics show combined with a brief documentary on how fire can be safely used during movies. If Ron Howard's rather hilarious dubbing wasn't enough to make it worth the fifteen minute wait, the final pyrotechnics show was exciting enough to make it worth it.
After Backdraft, we headed next door to Back to the Future to take a ride on the Dolorian before heading to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Back to the Future ride was a 3-d adventure ride that took you back to prehistory thanks to Biff screwing things up. Along the way, you ride along some lava, do your best to avoid toppling boulders and narrowly avoid getting eaten by a dinosaur. I'm not sure what it says about me that this stupid prehistoric dinosaur ride was so exciting, but it sure was. I'm not sure what it had to do with Back to the Future (other than the obvious time-travel element) but I thought it was great. After I got over the fleeting urge to vomit, of course. The Spiderman ride we did in the afternoon was a similar 3-d adventure, but a bit more involved.
A lot of people credit J.K. Rowling with teaching an entire generation of children to love books, and I think there's a lot of truth in that. By the time I discovered Harry Potter, I was already deeply entrenched in the literary world, but J.K. Rowling opened my eyes to a new type of story--both richly fantastic and imaginative and yet still anchored to the real world by things like love and loyalty and friendship. I was eleven when Harry got his acceptance letter to Hogwarts. I was fourteen when he was unexpectedly and mysteriously forced to participate in the Triwizard Tournament. I was graduating high school when many of his friends and supporters were dying and he was defeating Voldemort for the final time. The arrival of a new Harry Potter book excited me in a way that nothing else ever has.
Did the Universal Studios Wizarding World of Harry Potter add to my love for the franchise? No. I don't think there's anything in the world that could do that. Was it impressive? Absolutely. Someone clearly spent a lot of time making sure that everything in USJ was as authentic as possible, and they pulled out all the stops for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The buildings were absolutely beautiful, the shops were spellbinding, and the merchandise was (although prohibitively expensive in a lot of cases) fantastic.
I suppose at the end of the day, the only question that matters is whether or not it was worth it, and I suppose the answer is yes. It really was magical. They even went so far as to treat the glass in the shop windows to look old and warped. Honeydukes was absolutely beautiful, as was the Hogwarts castle itself. Given how intensely crowded it was, I don't think I'll be going back, but I'm glad I went at least once. It was a beautifully rendered homage to the stories that had such a huge hand in shaping who I am today.
I'd be happy to go back for a private viewing.