Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Universal Studios Japan's Horror Nights...

Over at my new Let's Look at Japan! Tumbr blog, I've been flood-posting photos from our trip to Universal Studios Japan where we experienced this year's Horror Nights.  Or, as their website also calls it, "Universal Surprise Halloween."  It's a blast.  They decorate the park with Halloween banners, send their costumed characters around for trick-or-treat/photo opportunities with the kids, pipe in a nonstop stream of spooky songs (well, spooky and goofy) and at 6pm, turn most of the park into a haunted attraction with zombie attacks based on the popular Biohazard film series.  USJ dubbed it Biohazard-- the Real 2.  It runs weekends and Mondays until November 9th, so if you're in the Osaka area, looking for something to do for Halloween night and money is no object (it's not outrageously expensive but this kind of fun doesn't come cheap, either) get thee to USJ.

The Biohazard event starts promptly at 6pm with a bright flash and a loud bang from somewhere either near or within the New York City zone, setting the perfect ominous tone for the cannibalistic disaster to come.  If you've downloaded USJ's smartphone app, you get a message warning you some sort of virus has escaped the park's laboratories via an explosive accident.  There are street signs scattered around with flashing lights to let you know the areas of major zombie activity.  If this is your taste, hover nearby and enjoy the performances.  Some of the character actors are incredibly skilled at miming their undead state.  The makeup and costumes will freak you out, too, along with some disorienting lighting.  You can view the antics from 2013 on YouTube.  Apparently, the park projects strange new facades onto the buildings with spooky animated effects, too.  We didn't go too deep into that area, so I can't vouch for this year's event, but it's probably the same.

To experience the "Street Zombies" to the fullest, you should buy one of the blinking light eyeball necklaces available in gift shops and sidewalk stands.  Signs at the park assure us eyeballs are a zombie's favorite snack.  Otherwise, stick to the sidewalks after 6 o'clock and you should be (fairly) safe.  If you're squeamish, the kiddie fare Wonderland area is a zombie-free zone.  You can also get into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and ride out the living dead infestation there while drinking butterbeer and enjoying the soothing serenading of the Hogwarts Frog Choir, a cheerful group of magical students and their chirruping, deep-throated frog accompaniment. 

One word of advice-- to enter the Wizard World you need a special ticket you can only get inside the park.  I believe one or both express passes allow you to get in, too, but double check to make sure.  We weren't able to get express passes because they were sold out at the park.  The Wizarding World kiosks are near Mel's Drive-In on a semi-hidden path next to the central lagoon.  Look for the park staff members and the long line that seems to be going nowhere behind some shrubs or small trees.  Your park entry ticket has a mark each member of your party scans at the kiosk and you'll receive tickets with entrance times.  English language is a kiosk option.

It's best to do this as soon as you get into the park before people snap up all the times.  We arrived around noon the first day and the next available entrance time to Wizarding World were at 6:30pm.  Not a disaster since there's more than enough to do all day.  It is an amusement park, after all.  The next day we arrived around 10am and the earliest entrance time was at 6:00.  The Wizarding World is best enjoyed after dark, so again, no problem.  We did see a number of very disappointed people turned away at the Wizarding World entrance because they didn't have tickets.  On the other hand, the staff allowed us in a little early both nights.  But get those tickets!

On my Tumblr, I call it Mel's Diner instead of Mel's Drive-In.  I guess I have Alice on the brain.  Well kiss mah grits, anyone could make that mistake.  Like the other restaurants we visited, Mel's has three lunch sets (helpfully labeled A, B and C.  Just say, for example, "B setto, kudasai.  Cola onegaishimasu!" or something similar, or simply "B setto to Cola" will do.) but we only tried the ones with the cheeseburgers.  The burgers are large (about Whopper-size) and come with a side of fries and a drink.  This was my favorite meal at USJ.  All the restaurants are expensive, as you might imagine.  The food at the Jurassic Park's Discovery and Amity Landing restaurants was edible but not especially memorable, while the Mel's cheeseburgers were delightfully delicious.  One fun thing about Amity Landing is its atmosphere recreates one of those old school fast food fish restaurants, like a 1970s Cap'n D's or Long John Silvers, although the menu features only chicken.  The cashiers cheerfully call out, "Next captain, please!"  We got a chuckle out of that. 

Ah, service.  In all the restaurants we went to, the staff enjoyed greeting me in English and shouting, "Happy Halloween!" and "Have a nice time!"  Discovery Restaurant added a little Spanish to the mix.  The cashier asked me (in English) to say, "Hola!" to the person handing my food, so I did.  I really enjoy this kind of stuff, so I laughed and played along and had a grand time.  I wish we had tried pizza in the park or the fish and chips courtesy Harry Potter's world, but I have no complaints about what we ate.  Well, the price maybe.  Still, you don't go to USJ if you're going to experience sticker shock for paying as much for a single cheeseburger set as we pay for two meals at a local MosBurger.  Plan for it instead.

More food related tips-- the Boardwalk Restaurant in Amity Village is based on a set from the movie Mystic Pizza, not Jaws.  The sign boards offer slushes, but I didn't see them on the menu.  I ended up getting a vanilla shake.  It was fine.  The different ice cream restaurants seem to be all Baskin-Robbins 31 outlets, but we didn't go into any of them because the lines were almost as long as for some of the attractions.  And yes, you can enjoy alcoholic beverages at a number of places throughout USJ.  Crazed drunks must not be too much of a problem there, but this being Japan you will find people napping on benches and even along curbs despite the noise and bustle of costumed families.  Have fun spotting them!  Expect lines for any place that sells churros because eating churros is just what you do at an amusement park in Japan.  And if you want, you can fill up on cheaper food at one of the places just outside the park in the Universal Walk shopping area before you go in, then hit them up after you finish your day and night of fun on your way out.  There's a MosBurger, a McDonald's and a TGI Fridays, among other choices.  I couldn't do that because I like to eat all day when I'm running around.

Finally, our boy, Harry Potter.  If you're a fan, this is where you want to go.  You queue up inside a circle of standing stones with Harry Potter theme music playing and you're primed for an immersive experience.  Once you get in, you pass along a lighted path through fir trees.  Music and the sounds of strange forest creatures drift through the air.  There's a large stone strangely balanced on a smaller one.  There's a staff member lugging a plastic bag of garbage for a less-than-atmospheric moment.  And then you find the entrance to the town of Hogsmeade and all at once, you're transported directly from Japan into a Potter book or movie. 

The town is as J.K. Rowling describes it in her books.  Snow-peaked rooftops, quaint little shops, the Hogwarts Express awaiting its next run.  I'm not even much of a Potter fan and it enchanted me.  For the most part.  The shops are packed and difficult to search through for that perfect Potter souvenir and the waiting times for the attractions can stretch past the 2 hour mark.  Even just to walk through Hogwarts promises a 45-minute wait that stretched into over an hour for us.  We still had a lot of fun there, though.  The Hogwarts interior lavishly recreates what you've seen in the movies so there's no disappointment once you're inside.  Especially when the paintings begin to move and speak.

The cast members dressed as Hogwarts students greet guests very cheerfully if you run into them on their way to the outdoor stage, especially the young woman playing the lead role.  I can still hear her voice, especially during the post-show guest photo opps where she tirelessly worked the crowd while consistently maintaining her character.  "3... 2... 1... GRYFFINDOR!" or "3... 2... 1... HOGSMEADE!"

Kids loved her.  How these performers keep up that energy remains a magical mystery to me.  I couldn't do it.  But imagine how fun it must be to do a stint as a performer at USJ if you're a talented young person with a hunger for experience.  Which reminds me-- the guy who played our tour boat guide on the Jaws ride was also a real trouper.  We got a massive kick out of his performance, and also out of the hard-working Harry Potter cast.

Butterbeer.  What does it taste like?  How do they get that foam on top that makes it look like real beer?  It tastes a bit like a cream soda or a mild rootbeer and the foam adds a butterscotch undertone to it.  Kind of what I expected.  We did not buy the souvenir mugs.  For one thing, they're plastic and we couldn't see much use for them around the house later.  And for another, we just didn't feel like carrying them around.  You may feel differently.  You should try butterbeer.  Be warned-- there are two beer wagons on the streets outside the shops.  The one you see just inside the Hogsmeade gates has the longer lines.  There's another past the stage closer to Hogwarts that has shorter ones.  I read on a blog somewhere you can get your butterbeer even faster inside one of the restaurants or bars or whatever it Hogsmeade has.  Wizarding halls?  We didn't go in, so I have no clue.  Do some reading online.  Wish we had first.

Oh yeah.  I almost forgot.  If you're truly tired and your feet are screaming bloody murder at your back that's whining about missing your nice, firm mattress back home plus your mind is on the verge of boiling over from crowd overstimulation and you just can't seem to find anyplace to sit with your churro and your vanilla milk shake, make your way into the fake Central Park underneath the overhead roller coaster.  There probably won't be as many people around and you're very likely to find a quiet bench to recoup your energy (and let your mind turn it down a notch or two) and have a little picnic while talking about all the fun things you've done so far.  And all the people dressed like Hogwarts students, of which there were hundreds (speaking of costumes-- you can outfit yourself Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw style inside the Wizarding World, but sometimes the prime Gryffindor and Slytherin costume goods sell out, and there was a more conventional Halloween costume shop set up in Hollywood for zombie stuff and sexy police officer dresses if those are your thing).

Central Park also makes a handy shortcut or at least crowd-avoidance route to take between NYC/San Francisco and Amity Village/Jurassic Park.

So that's Halloween at USJ.  Check my Let's Look at Japan! Tumblr for more photos and information.

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