This story was created in partnership with Universal Studios Japan
With so many worlds within reach, Universal Studios Japan theme park is a wild journey into some of your favourite blockbuster movies – no subtitles necessary.
The pteranodon arcs toward the sun at a slow, deliberate pace. When it reaches the peak of its climb, I know the drop will be sudden and severe, but I have no choice but to follow it. Its clawed talons are inches away, and I could almost reach out and touch them – but I don’t dare let go of my restraints.
For a moment, its prodigious wingspan – the likes of which haven’t been seen on this planet for 65 million years – blocks the blinding sunlight, and I can see the entirety of Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan theme park sprawled out below me like a living map.
And then suddenly, we plunge toward it.
In 1964, the Universal movie studio transformed its popular Hollywood backlot tour into a full-blown theme park. Over the years, Universal expanded its theme park portfolio and today, four Universal parks around the world showcase the studio’s impressive catalogue of movies in exciting new ways.
Some of the world’s most beloved blockbusters, including Jaws, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (depicting a story after the film), Jurassic Park, the Harry Potter films, and most recently, the Minions of Despicable Me have been transformed into state-of-the-art thrill rides.
I’m certainly thrilled (or some variation of it) as I had no idea what to expect from the Flying Dinosaur ride in the Jurassic Park region of Universal Studios Japan. The Flying Dinosaur, the world’s longest flying roller coaster, has left me thrilled as I shuffle past and hear the buzzing of excitement of those next in line.
They watched as I was strapped into the suspended seat, as the shoe straps were placed around my feet to stop my shoes from being pulled off by the G-forces as I hurtled through the air, and finally, as the seat tilted forward so I was facing the ground – in effect, ‘flying’ for the duration of the ride. And now it’s their turn. Don’t bother combing your hair before this ride – it just won’t matter.
And yet, by the time I’m looking at the goofy photo of myself taken mid-ride, my features warped by the throat-crushing speeds, I can’t wait to do it again.
Theme parks are living entities. Familiarity and boredom are risks any good theme park can’t afford to take. They need people to come back again and again, so rides and attractions, like audiences, are always changing. What worked last year may not work this year, and what works in Hollywood may not fly (so to speak) in Japan.
The Flying Dinosaur wasn’t at Universal Hollywood when I visited that park a few years ago, so nothing could prepare me for the intensity. I was familiar with the Universal style, but the Japanese take is at once the same, yet completely different.
The park opened in 2001 as the first Universal Studios site outside of the US. As I take the train from Osaka City to Universal Studio Japan’s dedicated stop, the carriage is full of excited people dressed in shirts sporting characters from the park.
The Minions in particular are a huge part of Universal Studio Japan’s gestalt. The strangely loveable yellow critters are everywhere when we enter the park, and by the time we reach Minion Park, home of the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride, they’re a fixture.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Despicable Me or any films featuring the Minions, but the genius of the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride is it doesn’t matter. The constantly-chattering Minions speak a kind of gibberish, so their appeal transcends any language barriers.
As the ride progresses, we’re ‘transformed’ into Minions within a simulated dark coaster. The entire audience is delighted by the swoops and dips, the blasts and the sprays. By the time we’re released back into the bright sunshine, the Minion Park makes a lot more sense to me (in particular the Salty Caramel banana-flavoured popcorn at the Pop-A-Nana stand) – but there’s so much of the park still to discover.
A journey into any of Universal Studio Japan’s 9 ‘areas’ is like a trip overseas. Each of the areas has its own dynamic, its own feel. Jurassic Park is a jungle full of ‘electrified’ fences and dinosaur warning signs, while Amity Village evokes the seaside feel of the town in Jaws.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a wholly immersive deep-dive into the pages of J.K. Rowling’s magical universe. You can choose a wand (or have a wand choose you), line up for the Hogwarts Express, and even drink a frothy stein of Butterbeer.
Again, I’m struck by the universal appeal of the design. It’s almost identical to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood, with few concessions for cultural differences – turns out fun is a universal language. The thrilling Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is entirely in Japanese, but it’s done so well there’s no question about what’s going on. Outside, the Waterworld live stunt show enjoys the same appeal – in fact, the breathless Japanese line delivery makes it entertaining on a whole new level.
We stop to catch our breath over a Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks Restaurant. The attention to detail is so intricate we might as well be on a Harry Potter film set. Although it’s a busy day at the park (which is good: the more people to scream on a ride, the better), we’ve got a secret weapon.
The Universal Express Pass is a vital part of anyone’s Universal Studios Japan experience, particularly if you’re not a local. Each ride has a general line, and an Express Pass line, and if you’re lucky enough to be armed with one of these babies, you can waltz through and be on the park’s top attractions in a fraction of the time. Within the space of an hour, I’m a flying dinosaur, I’m a salty sea captain, I’m a wizard-in-training, and I’m a Minion.
It’s hard to leave a world like Universal Studios Japan, but they give you plenty of reasons to come back. Next year, a new land will expand the park’s horizons like never before: Super Nintendo World will bring Mario and company into the fold. Excitement about this addition is spoken in hushed whispers about the park, but no one’s giving anything away.
The Hollywood Dream – The Ride roller coaster – not as intense as the Flying Dinosaur, but it’s close – literally screams overhead as I approach the exit at the end of the day. I feel as though I’m on the verge of waking from a Hollywood dream of my own – I’ve worn so many hats today, delved into so many worlds. How best to remember it all when I wake up? I duck into one of the many shops to get a souvenir.
At the back of the shop, among all the character merchandise, is a shirt with a clean, simple design – the Universal Studios Japan logo. Yep, that about sums it up.
Universal Studios Japan is located in Osaka. Australian passengers can fly into the city and take about a 15-minute train ride from Osaka Station. – usj.co.jp/e/travel/
Universal Studios Japan is partnered with 29 different hotels, with seven of the hotels in the vicinity of the park. – usj.co.jp/e/hotels/
Studio Passes allow park access for one or two days. The price is subject to change due to the date you visit, and it’s recommended you confirm the price on their official website. – usj.co.jp/e/ticket/
The Universal Express Passes are limited in number per day, and sometimes sell out. – usj.co.jp/e/
Images provided by Universal Studios Japan and Michael Wayne