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June 06, 2012

Review: Universal’s ‘Transformers’ ride sophisticated, satisfying

Posted in: Fans,Movies

Autobot BumbleBee welcomes guests at Universal Studios Hollywood. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Guests enter Universal Studios Hollywood theme park's new thrill ride, Transformers: The Ride - 3D. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Autobot EVAC transforms to become the transportation vehicle for the ride. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Guests, dubbed "freedom fighters," wear 3-D glasses aboard Transformers: The Ride - 3D. Park attendants dress in military fatigues. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen, greets guests as they enter the ride's "battlegrounds." (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Megatron, the evil leader of the Decepticons, lunges at "freedom fighters" in promotional artwork for Transformers: The Ride - 3D. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Autobot Bumblebee is a character in Transformers: The Ride - 3D. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

How’s the new ride at Universal? Los Angeles Times television editor Martin Miller is our guest reviewer. 

There is only one measure of a marquee amusement park ride if you have children, and that is whether the parents hear “Can we go again?” before you hit the ride’s gift shop.

Moments after stepping off Transformers: The Ride – 3D, which opened Memorial Day weekend at Universal Studios Hollywood, both of my sons – ages 12 and 10 – fired off the question. No hesitation, no cold feet, no concern for their safety (or their parents’) as I remember a couple summers ago from my older son after tangling with Knotts Berry Farm’s GhostRider.

The Transformers reaction was immediate, utterly certain and completely enthusiastic. After declaring their interest in at least a repeat, if not three-peat, of the experience,  other family comments included:

“It’s my new favorite ride.”

“It seemed real.”

And perhaps, most surprisingly, “I really liked it.” The last from my wife, who previously had about as much affection for the Transformers franchise as I did.

Until last summer our lives were mercifully free of Transformers. Then we foolishly took our son and his gang of 12-year-old friends to the IMAX All Turbo 3-D to Infinity and Beyond premiere of 2011’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which we narrowly survived. To borrow from “This Is Spinal Tap,” the film distinguished itself, at least to me, as one of America’s loudest movies. It was like someone putting  a metal bucket over your head, banging on it for two hours with a plastic mallet, occasionally lifting the bucket to throw in bits of popcorn and Buncha Crunch.

So, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to take on another Transformers experience. But very quickly it became clear that this is one of Universal’s most sophisticated, satisfying rides.

The Transformers ride builds on the success of the park’s King Kong attraction, making good use of 3-D and flight simulator technologies that rapidly immerse passengers into a compelling and easy-to-understand story line. Just after boarding the 12-seat passenger car, we’re told to protect the AllSpark, a bright and sparkly substance that is apparently very important to gigantic robots. Naturally, the chief bad robot, Megatron, wants it and makes clear he’s willing to kill all humans to get it.

And off we go. As it turns, spins, bucks and dives through the streets and skyscrapers of Chicago, the ride conveys a thrilling sense of movement and travel that is superior to other attractions in its class – namely, Universal’s The Simpsons and Disney’s Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure. The ride is intense – in-your-face objects, dramatic falls, robot-on-robot violence and being sucked into a grinding vortex; it’s like being in a video game (or being a parent).

You feel the wind, heat and water and smell the smoke. So, if your kid isn’t comfortable with the previously mentioned attractions, this one is probably not for them yet.

It’s a great ride and like all great rides – especially new ones – it comes with a great wait. When we were there over Memorial Day weekend, the line was between 60 minutes and 90 minutes for most of the day.

But it must be noted that Universal is beginning to master the art of queuing – that is, the science of managing lines both physically and psychologically. The Transformers ride was smartly designed to speed passengers through the line as quickly as possible. Park workers are dressed in military fatigues and exhort passengers to get on – and get off – the ride quickly, which in keeping with the theme of the ride, everyone seemed to do quite happily.

Meanwhile, in the cool shaded hallways that lead to the ride itself, there are plenty of bells and whistles and back story to distract riders – at least for a while – from the realization that they are in fact standing in a long line.

But don’t worry, it’s worth the wait.

– Martin Miller

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