I think you might be… Gryfindor!
Awake at the crack of dawn, I was off, finally making my way to Hogwarts, albeit, Hogwarts enclosed at Universal Studios Japan (USJ)… It still counts!
As I got closer and closer, the train got more and more packed. Arriving at the station, and bear in mind this is more than 2 hours before gates open, the doors opened, and a frenzied dash ensured, with kids and adults alike running from the doors, up the stairs and along the brightly coloured, strip of tempting restaurants that line the road to the gates of USJ.
Spotting a shorter queue for tickets, I joined. What surprised me, but probably shouldn’t by now, was the ticket lady only talking to me in Japanese, and very quickly, explaining which rides were open and… I don’t know what else. Thankfully, my rehearsed script of one ticket, and one “Fast Track Five” ticket went without a hitch, and flashing my Visa card made it clear my preferred payment.
Thankfully, my translation app, my friend Rose, deciphered my fast track card – turned out I had Fast Track entry into Harry Potter World, and a time window to go on the main Harry Potter ride.
When the gates did finally open, I can only describe the scene as like that of a action film like Avengers or Transformers, with streams of people running down the faux-American streets of USJ, desperate to queue for their time cards to get into Harry Potter world.
With all that free time I saved by already having my Harry Potter time, I surveyed the map lined up the rides I was going to tackle. Getting to the Spiderman ride, neither the fast track, nor single person gates were open. I could hardly walk fast enough for the people behind me, and went straight onto the ride.
What had I overlooked? The ride was in Japanese of course! Apart from a “good job guys” I understood nothing! It which set the theme for the day, but was an insight for international visitors at attractions across the Anglophonic world! Still, a thoroughly enjoyable ride, making use of real world effects and robotics, coupled with 3D projectors and moving screens to give realistic falling effects!
Back to the Future
Next was my chance to visit the Institute for Future Technology, aka the Back to the Future ride. Again, all in Japanese, yet I was unable to pick up “Great Scott” in Japanese L
This ride showed its age a little more, one because I remember riding it in the late 90s in America, two it showed some wear and tear, and three, maybe it was just me, but the projected movie looked old and blurry – though since I couldn’t much follow the plot, perhaps I had more time to look at these details!
By now, the queues were growing, and when I reached Space Fantasy – The Ride (is this a thing somewhere? Is there more to this than a ride?) I thought rather than risk being late for my date with Harry, I’d finally make use of the Fast Pass!
What is there to say about this ride? A spinning, waltzer, following a rollercoaster track, in a large dark room, with fairy lights, netting and papier-mâché planets – I imagine it looks quite hilarious in the light!
All things considered, at least I got a nice photo.
Time for Harry
“The time has come”, my inner walrus said, “to see some wizarding things”
If I did excited, I should imagine this would be the most excited I’d been in a long time! Sat in the small rocky outcrop by the pathway, I awaited my time.
Turns out they weren’t that fussy and I got in early!
Which only permitted more time to grab a hot butterbeer, a chocolate frog, and greedily gorged myself upon said snacks, whilst sat next to the Hogwarts Express. At the prices they charge, I don’t think they’d ever seen someone actually eat a chocolate frog whilst still in the park!
Then it was time for the Harry Potter Forbidden Flight ride! I made way to the castle, pass the Three Broom Sticks, the Hogshead, Ollivander’s and Honeydukes to the castle.
Time for a Forbidden Journey
Hellooooo Fast Track! I barely had to time laugh at the regular punters in the queue, snaking their way through the castle! Little did I realise at the time, but these pour souls had already weaved their way through an enormous course outside of the castle!
Again, what was bizarre, was not recognising, nor understanding the voices of the paintings on the wall, or even Harry, Ron or Hermione!
The attention to detail was immaculate, though the place was ridiculously dark – perhaps to deter photography, or to do with the projected appearances of Harry and friends in various rooms. There seem plenty of small details and talking portraits to keep you entertained during your wait, and I must say the portraits are immensely well done, not all looking like TV, buts genuinely resembling aged and darken paintings, down the the cracking of the paint surface – incredible!
The ride itself is also really good! Maximising on Universal’s style of roller-coaster rides; animatronic set pieces, combined with movie screens that move seamless with the ride to create stunning effects, no greater shown off than by the quidditch and dementor scenes, done infinitely better than even the Spiderman ride.
All too soon the ride was over, and after a taste of real Hogwarts life, not even being in Hogsmeade could full that void.
By now it was time for a birthday lunch fest at The Three Broomsticks. No fast track here, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Japanese influence of all the available meals having plastic counter-parts on display to help customers negotiate the menu.
The food was tasty, though clearly cooked en batch and not to demand. Cold butterbeer was truly delightful, and absolutely delicious, leaving its warmer sibling in the dust. Even the alcoholic, ‘Hog’s Head Brew’ was tasty, and in time, being both fed and watered, I made my way out and began the hunt for my Hogwarts Scarf.
All the shops are wonderfully crafted, from Honeydukes, to Dervish and Banges to Ollivander’s.
I bought my Gryffindor scarf, saw an hour and snuck into the queue for Ollivanders. In no time at all I was whisked into the shop, though unfortunately it wasn’t my day to pick my wand. The strangest thing to have Ollivanders assistant switch between a faux, demi-posh British accent and then speaking in Japanese!
Eventually I had maxed out all the entertainment in the area, had even been sung to by two frogs and a quartet, and so I headed from my spiritual home, pass the abandoned Ford Anglia, and back into USJ.
With so much a head of me, I didn’t sit on my laurels for long!
“I’ll Be Back” – An experience
To the Terminator experience! Unfortunately, even fast pass can’t help you much with waiting for this attraction, as it turns out to be a 30 minute show experience!
Again, being in Japanese, I had very little understanding of what the woman on the balcony was saying to the audience, but the ride essentially pans out as if you’ve come to have a tour of the company, and they’re showcasing the company’s values and products, until the video gets hijacked by Sarah Connors, and rebels who say something to you… Then the company cut the show, and take you into the amphitheater, in which you are shown a movie and given a display of the robots – until the Terminator, Sarah and er… her son come crashing through the screen on a motorbike! And shit hits the fan! The robots go crazy, an we’re trying to escape, navigating our way through the destroyed streets of the city, and pass all the bodies, until we can break into Skynet HQ!
A short fight with the silvery metal guy, and it’s all good!
As I said, it’s not a ride, but a 4D experience, with video combined seamlessly with live action between the scenes… Did I say seamlessly? Whilst the video sequences were clearly made in the late 80s or early 90s, with the original cast, the park had gotten round this by having Japanese actors play the son and Sarah, and casting their faces in shadow, in dimly lit scenes, combined with sunglasses, bandannas and hats, whilst Arnie was played by some tall white guy – hilarious!
Backdraft I had no recollection of ever knowing as a film, but is apparently a De Niro classic about firemen – it was at least significant enough to have a walk around attraction, in which you walk through various studio spaces, rigged with pyros and effects as if you were really in a scene from the film, coupled with some delightfully dated talking head shots from various actors, directors and fx specialists – hilarious!
Getting towards the end of the rides open on the day of my visit, it was Jurassic Park next! Worryingly, the queues passed a number of anorak vending machines, and upon boarding the ride, I dubiously rested my precious Harry Potter cargo on my heals, in the hope that the paper bags wouldn’t get too soaked.
The ride was – hilarious – the animatronics clearly showing the signs of water damage, algae having growing upon the parts of the latex most frequently in the water, but no of this seemed to bother the screaming children on the ride! And still provided the occasional scare!
Jurassic, Jaws and Juice
Jaws next, a ride I had memories of from America in the late 90s. Thankfully I had Fast Track, and so avoided the 1.5hr queue! Had I not simply walked to the front, I may have risked being disappointed. As much as I loved the over acting of the boat guide and as much as I loved the small-town America vibe (Ol’Joe’s Gasoline, Drink Coca-Cola metal signage etc), it was surreal trying to buy into this juxtaposition of being in Japan, surrounded by Japanese people, with the guide shouting in Japanese, in faux-America!
The final entertainment I feel into by accident, passing the ‘old cinema’ building on the way out, I saw that the doors for the ‘Universal’s Monsters Live Rock and Roll show’ were open.
Fifty minutes later, I was sat in my seat, and watching a strange hybrid of an English/Japanese ‘rock show’ with Beetlejuice, Dracula, Frankenstein(‘s monster), his bride and a werewolf (and some minor character’s) singing those weird, old, spooky song… Though all I remember is “Let’s do the time warp again…”.
It was truly bizarre, with the fun feeling forced, the performances questionable, and the tension between the cast members giving the impression that, like I imagine in those holiday camps like Butlins up and down the country, they were all regularly and regrettably sleeping with each other, and pissing each other off, presumably at the state of their lives as having to dress as monsters several times a day, singing songs from films which had been released waaaaaaay before any of us were born – hilarious!
Or at least that’s how I read it – maybe I’m getting old and cynical?
So was my trip to USJ? Hilarious and laughable! Maybe my 10 year old self’s memories of theme parks are heavily rose tinted by the naivety, inexperience and excitement of youth, whilst also heavily clouded by time, and so I’m holding USJ to impossible standards.
However, the fact that their top attractions; Jaws; Back to the Future; Jurassic Park, Backdraft, Terminator, Rock and Roll Monster, Snoopy, Hello Kitty, and The Amazing Spiderman (come to think of it, their top attractions are just about all the attractions…) date back to the LAST MILLENNIUM, and half of them are older than I am, says a lot about the Studio’s successes, and the park itself, with only the Spiderman ride seeming as if it has been updated in the last 5 years.
Would I go again? Of course I bloody would – HARRY POTTER WORLD! The saving grace of the entire park! To the point where I can’t believe they could get away with charging before it was here, but boy oh boy did I love it! Every second of it, every morsel of everything I ate and drank. Over a decade on from seeing the first Harry Potter film, I finally got to live it – and that made my birthday!