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Friday, August 13, 2010

Universal Studios Singapore -- fun, imaginative... too American

"Hollywood" sign at entrance
About half a year after it opened, I finally had the chance to step through the gates of Universal Studios Singapore and experience this internationally acclaimed theme park first hand. My expectations were set both by the hype around this local version of the Universal theme park franchise, and also my previous experience at the Los Angeles one.

Having arrived after the rest of the group, I met up with the others at the "Shrek 4D" attraction. This was where we would join Shrek and Donkey in rescuing Fiona. We donned our glasses to watch the 3D effects and got sprayed with water and bounced around in the seats to get the "4D" effect. (Technically, the fourth dimension is time, but who am I to argue with creative licensing in the name of fun?) Like any motion simulator ride, the "4D" effects were simple and predictable, especially the water spray... though it did feel rather gross to get wet when Shrek sneezed on screen!

Outside the "Revenge of the Mummy" ride
We wanted to go for the Jurassic Park water ride, but there was a one-hour wait for it, so we went to the "Revenge of the Mummy" ride instead. It had a reportedly shorter wait of 45 minutes, but we were in-and-out within half an hour! This was an indoor roller-coaster where we were supposed to find the Book of... something. Anyway, the story wasn't important, we were there to scream! And as luck would have it, I got into the first row.

We got a slow build-up for about a minute and then it was a full-on roller coaster ride! Unfortunately, the whole thing ended in a few minutes. We expected some kind of big climactic final drop, so we were disappointed when we found ourselves heading for the alighting point.

This indoor roller-coaster ride felt... safe.

Outside the "Battlestar Galactica" ride
We walked a bit further and found ourselves in the "Sci-fi" section. The highlight was the "Battlestar Galactica" twin roller-coaster. This was, of course, closed, and has been closed almost since the park opened. A few of us went to the "Accelerator", which is really like Disneyworld's Mad Hatter's tea cup ride, except that we're supposed to imagine that we're in some kind of high-tech spinning accelerator. It didn't help that the in-car wheel was so stiff to turn! Actually, the speed of our spinning felt to be controlled more by the external system rather than our own turning efforts.

"New York""New York"
We walked through the "New York" section and had a break at "Mel's Diner". I had a chocolate milkshake while some of the others bought burger meals. While sitting and chatting, we saw a performance going on outdoors. It was supposed to be for the filming of a beach song-and-dance for a 1960s/1970s movie.

Personally, I thought the story was lost on the Singaporean/Asian spectators. And that performance summed up my thoughts about Universal Studios Singapore. What the planners seemed to have done was to transfer the American model into Singapore, lock, stock and barrel. There was very little "localization" done. That meant American food, American performances, American attractions. Granted, there's little localization that could be done for the attractions, but songs and dances could have been better adapted for the local taste. Perhaps Universal needs to partner with a few Asian filmmakers to inject that local flavour into its Singapore theme park.

After our break, we went to watch a Steven Spielberg-hosted attraction about special effects. We were to imagine that we were in old New York City and a hurricane was coming down on us. Again, it felt... safe. We were supposed to feel a hurricane, but I thought our own local monsoon thunderstorms were more dreadful. When a metal beam fell from the roof, it dropped mechanically. When a boat burst into the dock that we spectators were supposed to be in, it just floated in undramatically.

Our final attraction was "Monster Rock". I thought it would be something like the "Rocky Horror" show. Instead, it was about a song-and-dance show featuring non-scary monsters. And -- again -- it was very Western. I could understand the "scientist's" fast-spoken opening monologue. The monsters project on-screen were their classic horror versions, but the performers who came out were instead prim and proper and, for the females, sexy.

At least this show featured some localization. There was a routine when Dracula serenaded his Bride in a Chinese song. (While I recognize the song, I don't know its title.) The audience loved that! They were screaming and whooping at the start and applauding loudly at the end. If I were a Universal Studios planner, I'd start working on more localization for other acts to make them more enjoyable by a predominantly Asian audience.

"Hollywood" street at dusk
Finally, the day ended with some shopping back at the "Hollywood" street at the entrance. Amazingly, we had completed almost all of the key attractions in half a day. (The only one that I wanted to go to but didn't have the chance was the Jurassic Park water ride.) That showed just how small the theme park is. As a friend remarked, we could have walked the park completely in an hour. Of course, Universal Studios Singapore (also called "USS" in acronym-mad Singapore) is limited by land area, so I think it's quite admirable with what it has achieved with its constraints.

What was most ironic for me was that, of all the attractions that I went to, I had never watched the movies nor television shows that they were based on! But that didn't mar my time, since I was there to have fun, fun, fun!

In spite of its flaws, I'd go back to Universal Studios Singapore again... once the "Battlestar Galactica" ride opens!

Final comment: I was surprised to hear the theme song of "Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock" playing over the intercom. "Star Trek" is a Paramount movie. Then again, so are the Dreamworks-produced "Shrek" and "Madagascar". Maybe this is a Universal-Paramount partnership.