DAY-TRIP  TO  HOLLYWOOD  UNIVERSAL  STUDIOS
(from Australia)

Ever done something really insane... insane enough that you had trouble convincing even yourself to do it, right up until you actually ended up doing it?

Well, how's this for crazy - spending 26 hours flying around the world, for a total of 17 hours in Los Angeles.
That's right... flying to another country for the day.

But that's just half of the "crazy".  What if I said that I was going to the other side of the world, just for a theme park ride.
Yes, you heard it right... a theme park ride in another country, 13 hours away by plane.

And what theme park ride could be that great to prompt this sort of craziness?
Transformers of course......

(This review of mine gets a bit long-winded... but that's more for my own archives, like a journal.  If you are just here for details on the ride itself, jump to here.)

For those new to Transformers, or aren't fans at all, the franchise is in its 29th year now, with its peak of popularity occurring in recent years, thanks to the big-budget movies by Michael Bay.  With a fourth movie on the way (for 2014), Universal Studios developed a theme park ride to cash in on the success of the brand.
The first Transformers Ride opened at the Singapore Universal Studios theme park in December 2011.  The second one opened at the Hollywood Universal Studios in May 2012, with a third one being proposed for the Florida Universal Studios for sometime next year.  There is a fourth Universal Studios in Japan, which is where Transformers came from before they were even called "Transformers", so you'd think it would make sense that they should have one there as well eventually.


(click on the logo to go the the Universal Studios homepage)

As you know, Singapore is closer to Australia, so you'd think that if I wanted to experience this Ride, it would be cheaper and easier to go to that one.
Cheaper, yes.  But not easier, as I have been to Los Angeles several times, but never to Singapore.  Ultimately I wanted to go to both eventually, so if that were to occur, it would be strategically better to go first to the one located in an environment I was familiar with.

So when coverage of the American Transformers Ride grand opening in May reached the fansites, and all the merchandise available, I knew I had to go... and go soon.  Since this year's BotCon (annual Transformers convention) was only a month before the opening, I didn't want to wait until next year's convention (which could have been 12-15 months away) to go to Universal Studios, especially if there was exclusive toys that could have been limited and sold out by then (for all I knew).

My mind started wandering almost immediately for options.  I have traveled to America so many times, I knew instinctively that QANTAS flights from Brisbane arrive in the early morning of Los Angeles, and flights back leave LA around midnight... making it possible to do a "day trip" to California.
But so many questions surfaced, and so many doubts.
Would it really be enough time?
What would be the best day to go?
Could I get time off work if I had to go on a weekday?
Would the cost be too great for just 17 hours in a country on the other side of the world?
Could I do enough things in that short time to make it more "worth it"?
Would there be a problem with getting into the country if I wasn't staying a single night?
What would others think about it?
What about carrying around luggage?

I started planning out the costs and proposed itinerary, and started realising that the first question was answered easily with a "yes".  17 hours was more than enough time to get to the Theme park and back to the airport, even with cheap public transport.
Next I had to look at the best day to go.  The weekend would have been best for not needing to get time off work, because I work in the evenings, a day-trip would have me return home Monday morning, giving me enough time to go to work that evening.  However, if I wanted to have an enjoyable theme park experience, that didn't involve hours of queuing up for rides or crushed by crowds, I'd have to avoid the weekend and go on a midweek day instead.  That would then mean having to apply for two days leave from work.
But that would be the balancing act - I couldn't book a flight until I got approval to have the time off, but I could only apply for specific days that had flights available.  So I would have to look up what days within the next couple months had flights with cheap seats, apply for the days off, and then buy those seats before they sell out.... otherwise I'd have to go through the whole process again.

Tuesday or Wednesday were assessed as being the best days, for smaller crowds, and also quieter days at work (which should have made it easier to get time off, but didn't in the end), however I didn't act on this idea for about a month, as I had too much doubt about its value/cost, making it difficult to convince myself and others that it would be worth doing.

It wasn't until early August that I really started to plan out a possible itinerary and look up potential flight costs.
There were some flights available at the middle to end of August, but was too soon for me to organise (I still wasn't comfortable about it yet), or even get time off work at such short notice.

Another week of running it all through my head still didn't sway me either way... I was still on the fence.  My desire to do this was being balanced out by my rational side saying that it was the craziest thing I could ever do.
So then it hit me... why not make it something crazy, making it part of the story to tell.  By embracing the craziness when telling other people about it, I would eliminate one element that was holding me back - being worried about what others would think. I no longer needed to justify it's value or cost to others, because the sheer absurdity of it was now the focus point... deflecting any criticism of it being a total waste of money.
By introducing a shock value, and enjoying their reaction to it, I only had to worry about the value/cost of it to myself now.

I weighed up the costs and benefits.

Costs - airfare, public transport there, entry to the theme park, and the purchase of food, toys and other theme park Merchandise.
Benefits - the Transformers Ride, the rest of Universal Studios (been there before though in 2009, but is worth going again), taking photos of the Theme park (my 2009 BotCon report had to use other people's photos because my camera died within 10 minutes of arriving, so it would be good to replace as many as I can with my own photos - something that has always bugged me), buying exclusive merchandise items that I thought looked good, buying the exclusive toy for a lot less than buying one on ebay, looking for toys at retail stores (half the price of toys here, and we are about 6 months behind here too), and eating American foods that aren't here.

One of the priority things with this trip, aside from the ride, was buying the exclusive toy for the Theme park.  It is a unique Transformers toy called "Evac", which is meant to represent the blue "car" you ride in on the Transformers Ride. It is a pretty ordinary looking Autobot though, with a blockish Cybertronian vehicle mode.

The larger Evac toy was not intended to be released anywhere in the world outside of the four Universal Theme parks. This meant that people from Australia would need to pay scalper prices PLUS postage, to get one.  I figured that if I could get one for me, it'd feel like I had saved money, despite how much I spent on the trip itself.  Plus, I would try to bring back as many as I could, to help out fellow fans here who would otherwise pay a fair bit for it, or just skip trying to get the toy entirely.
With about 5 merchandise stores in Universal, and each selling heaps of TFs stuff at the moment, ultimately I didn't have any trouble buying up several of them.  I ended up with 11 (one for me, 10 to bring back for friends), which was about what I was originally hoping to do.

There are actually a second Evac toy - a smaller one... and I didn't realise it until I got there that both were being sold as exclusives, not just the big one in the photo below.
So even though the larger "Deluxe" toy was only available at the theme park... the smaller "Legion" toy was released at retail stores, but in white packaging (it was in red Universal packaging at Universal Studios).
For the long time fans out there, Evac is kinda like the Aveo Swerve toy from 2008 - it isn't too spectacular, but has an odd appeal to it, for it's uniqueness and obscurity.

The one good thing about this day trip was that I wouldn't need to worry about accommodation costs.
I did think about staying a night, to give me more time if I needed it (like for toy shopping), but I couldn't incorporate it logistically into the itinerary.  You see, hotels usually have a check-out time of 10am to midday... so for about 10 hours, I would have to be carting around luggage and toys, until check-in time late in the evening.
Without a rental car (more expense), I couldn't easily go shop-hopping with bags/boxes of luggage/toys.
I was planning to do toy shopping on the single-day trip, but it was only going to be for a couple hours, which would likely mean less stuff to carry around.
And staying a night would require another day off work - it was difficult enough getting just two days off.

Tuesday September 11th ended up being the day with the cheapest, available direct flights, so with just three weeks to go, I took the giant leap and went to the travel agent with all the day and flight details.  With insurance, the cost was about $1700, which was difficult to part with... the travel agent almost had to yank the credit card out of my hand.

It was a long three weeks, dreaming over and over about all the things I wanted to do, and juggling/prioritising things during that short 17 hours.
The biggest hassle was travel time between locations.  Even though I had found the Metro bus/train website to work out times, locations and prices, there was always the element of the unexpected and unknown to get in the way.  Unexpected could be bad traffic, or missing a bus or train, which could mean an extra half hour until the next one.  While the unknown elements were how much stuff I would be buying at Universal and at the various stores I "needed" to go to. Because if I end up buying a lot of stuff, it wouldn't be practical to use crowded busses or trains... nor would it be safe, especially as most of the shopping would be done after sunset (or else I'd end up wasting 4 hours until check-in cut-off.
The fallback element would be using a taxi at the end of the day, and hope I get one that is willing to wait outside a store while I dash in for 10-15 minutes, grabbing toys.  It was also a risk, but less of a risk (and quicker) than relying on busses and trains after dark.

Another hassle was needing to buy a new "Visa Waiver" for entering America.  About 3 years ago, the paper forms you filled out on the plane were replaced with an online form that you had to complete at least 3 days before traveling.  Initially it was free, because the paper version was free, but then in 2010, the current president had a $14 fee added to it, as a tax-raising measure to help out the budget.  It gives you 2 years of access to America (from Australia), before you then have to buy another one.  I left this until a week before I flew out, so was kinda getting close to cut-off.

Right up until the morning of my flight, I was juggling my itinerary and printing out maps and timetables. Because I knew that I had to be able to change my plans easily, no matter what happened on the day (due to so many variables).

So I was home from work Monday night (10th September) at 11pm, did up the maps and checked bus & train timetables, plus put out anything I needed to take (pack).  I didn't need to take much, and would have just taken my backpack if my bigger back was able to fold up enough to fit inside it.  Since it was just a little too big, I put the backpack inside the big bag (which would be used for toys and stuff on the way home), and it was still able to be squished up small enough to be carried onto the plane. Not having check-in luggage made the process quicker, and prevented anything getting lost on the way there.

I got to sleep at about 2am, with two alarms set for 5am. Yes, two alarms... because I didn't want to risk sleeping through one, or have it not work and miss the flight.  Even if I had a flexible ticket, this was a daily flight, so missing it would mean missing the whole trip.
I could leave home as late as 8am, but I wasn't too keen about having more than 3 hours sleep, because I knew that with my cursed existence, I'd need more time than necessary to get ready and get to the airport in time.
My life is a shining example of "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong", or at the very least, nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan.  Something always happens to prevent that perfect moment, or to just stall me long enough to be left panicking as time runs out.
And Sure enough, the printer decided that today would be a good day to not work.  For some reason, the computer had suddenly lost the printer, as a location to send documents to be printed.  After a fair bit of stuffing around, I finally figured it out, resulting in going through the process of re-adding the printer to the printer folder.
But the "fun" didn't end there.... of course.
Like most entertainment venues, you can purchase tickets online and print them out, so it was something I had on my list to do to save a bit of time when I get there (in case there was a big crowd).  I just kept putting it off, until the last minute, because it wasn't meant to take long to do. So on the morning of my flight, I go to the Universal Website and proceed to buy a ticket.
No problems with the purchasing, as it only took about 2 minutes to do (I already knew which ticket to buy)... but then it told me that the ticket was being emailed to me, instead of just flashing it up on the screen for me to print off straight away.
What?
Why the extra step to print it off?  Sure, have a copy emailed to you, but most people are buying the ticket to print it up at the same time, so have it on the screen as well.

The reason why I was annoyed by this is... I still haven't set up my email program on my new computer. I'm still using the old computer for email, which doesn't have the new printer installed.  So if I wanted to print off a copy of the ticket, I would need to access my email on the new computer through a web-browser, or save a copy of the ticket on a USB stick and download it onto the new computer. I went with the first option, thinking it would be quicker than waiting for the old computer to start up (it takes a couple minutes these days).
So I go to the server host and try to log into my mailbox, only to be told that the password isn't correct.
What the hell...
I then have to go to my host's control panel to change the password, then try logging in again... all for one email to print off.  Which I eventually did.

By the time everything was printed (maps, transport times, planned itinerary, toy checklist, theme park ticket), it was almost 8am. I was aiming for 7am so that I'd have an hour buffer... and I obviously needed it.
A quick shower and change of clothes, I packed my backpack (only needed my camera, spare battery, wallet, notebook, pen, keys, passport and some comics in case I was stuck waiting somewhere) and called a taxi to pick me up.
I was originally planning to drive to the airport and park, as it would only be two days parking, which would be cheaper than the two taxi rides I would need to take.... but the day before, I realised that I was going to the International terminal, which I was unfamiliar with for parking, so if I didn't end up leaving home early enough to park and walk across to the Terminal, I was just going to get a taxi instead (which would drop me off at the front door).
It would also make it easier to get home when I returned, if I had a lot of luggage, or was too tired to drive safely.

The taxi picked me up at 8.20am Tuesday morning, and I was off on my adventure.
There was a fair bit of traffic at this time, which had me worried about how long it would take (I can never be too sure if the check-in cut-off is 60mins or 90mins).
It was okay though, as the traffic was isolated to just the start of the trip, and still managed to make it to the airport in 30 minutes.

I was checked in at about 9am, so if it was a 90 minute cut-off, I just made it (departure was 10.35am).
Being so close to closing, I was one of the last to check-in, and since it was a completely full flight, I wasn't able to get an aisle seat.  This wasn't a good start, as I didn't like the prospect of being stuck between two people for 13 hours, with my long legs and wide frame.
Ah well, serves me right for being so late.

It was probably lucky that I didn't arrive any later, if it was indeed a 60 minute cut-off... because it took 45 minutes to get through security and customs. It was the busiest I'd ever seen it.
While waiting in line I saw an amusing t-shirt on another passenger.  It had "Napoleon World Tour" at the top, with a list of locations and 19th century dates. But the last two (after Waterloo was listed) were stamped as "canceled".  Okay, it was cerebral humour... but since I got it, I thought it was very clever.

At one of the shops in the airport, I saw some Transformers Movie figurine capsules (grey capsules with a figurine, jellybeans, sticker).  They had about 20 of them, for about $3 each.  I was tempted to buy some, as I'm still missing two from the set, but didn't want to carry them with me to America.  I didn't end up buying any when I came back either, as I had too much luggage to cart back up to the departure level, just to buy capsules that may not end up having the figurines I want.  This is what they look like though...

So with just 10 minutes before boarding commenced (9.55am), I grabbed a chicken sub from Subway, but didn't end up eating it before I got on the plane because I had to check with my friend Ian (by text messages) what size t-shirt he wanted.  He was one of the few who knew that I was going, because he tried talking me out of my crazy idea (or just wanted me to wait until he could go too).  When we were talking about all the merchandise I wanted, he noted that he liked one of the t-shirts they had available.  (at the top of the photo below)

I told him that I could get him one, as I was wanting one as well, and was intending to bring back as many of the exclusive Evac toys as possible anyway.
I just didn't tell too many people about the trip beforehand, in case I was flooded with requests for items, and was unable to bring back anything... or failed to get there in the first place.
If I do end up getting there, and am able to bring back extra stuff for others, then I would offer it to close friends first, before selling any remaining items to the general members of our Transformers community forum.

Onto the plane at about 10.15, we took off on time twenty minutes later. But by then I had already turned on the entertainment system and was noting all the movies & TV shows I was interested in watching. No Transformers cartoons this time though... bummer.
Even though I only had 3 hours sleep that night, I was just too excited, and nervous, to expect to get much sleep on the flight.  Being cramped up in a small space didn't help much either.

We had a couple announcements, to tell us how long the flight would be (12 hours, 40 minutes), the current time in LA for us to change our watches/phones (5.45pm Monday - we were at 10.45am Tuesday), and a warning from the US government... saying that on flights into the US, passengers were not allowed to loiter or congregate in any area of the plane, especially the toilets.  Now that's just over-kill.  It means that if you need to go to the toilet, you aren't allowed to wait near them if they are all occupied.  You'd be required to stay in your seat, and then run to a vacated toilet, before anyone else can get to it.
Fortunately, no one got into trouble, as it was too impractical to implement or enforce.

I started playing the first of four movies I had on my list, and ate my Subway sub, before the first meal was served about 2 hours later.

The meal wasn't too bad (I chose the beef with artichokes, potatoes and greens) as it sounded tastier than the chicken salad or vegetarian pasta options.
It came with a cookies & cream mouse desert, which is my favourite flavour for just about anything sweet.

It's bizarre to be getting on a plane mid-morning, after most people have only just had breakfast, to be served with Dinner within 2-3 hours (lunchtime), and then be expected to sleep because it is dark a couple hours later (due to flying towards where the sun rises).  Then you are served breakfast while your watch is telling you that it would be bed time (11pm) if you were still at home in Brisbane.

The lady in the window seat next to me was one of two people in my close the two shutters next to her, and then went to sleep with them open, making it difficult for a number of people to see their TV screens, or get to sleep themselves (until it finally went dark halfway into the flight).

Looking at the menu they handed out before we took off, it noted that there would be refreshments offered throughout the flight, suggesting that once again, there would be no snack-bag on the outgoing flight. And sure enough, there wasn't... but for some reason, the flight back has it.  So maybe there is a cost issue with this, as this has only been occurring since the Aussie Dollar went above parity, allowing QANTAS to only afford it from American suppliers now.  But at least we still get one on one of the flights, which other airlines I've been on don't do at all. (they have you chase up refreshments, or make you wait until they are doing a lap around the plane... if you are even awake at that time)

Movies I watched on the flight over...
Men in Black 3 - not too bad, but didn't seem to be as funny as the first two.
Prometheus - very strange.  I was told that this movie could be seen as a prequel to the Aliens franchise, and right until the last scene I thought it was just speculation. And the last scene just felt like it was tacked on to force this movie into the franchise, to make it more marketable/collectable to Aliens fans. Without that last scene, it would have been a worthy movie on its own. With it, it just cheapens the rest of the movie.
The Dictator - what can I say.  If you were offended by Borat, this will do the same.  However, if you have a perverted sense of humour, this movie will get a few laughs.
Hunger Games - so glad I didn't waste money watching this at the theatres.  A story that deals with the brutal killing of children by children, for the entertainment of others.  The book was probably even more graphic, but is this the sort of reading material/inspiration for kids who are already dangerous in the playgrounds at school, or are looking for guidance to fight back against bullies. And the name of the Games makes no sense, nor was it explained.  It is a game of kill or be killed, not a game of starvation.

There were three other movies I had on my list that I wanted to watch, but ran out of time, so would try to watch them on the return flight (if I was awake during much of it).

To fill in the last hour or so, I watched a documentary called "The People Vs George Lucas".  It was done in 2010 (to give context of its content), dealing with the backlash by fans of the Special Editions, which changed certain plot elements (who shot first in the Cantana Bar?) and replaced special effects. Plus there was (often amusing) nerd-rage over the prequels, because they were aimed at a younger demographic, like the original 3 movies were, instead of aiming to appease those grown up fans who were in that younger demographic 30 years ago.  The doco looked at this fan side of Star Wars (which was easy to relate to Transformers), with adult fans feeling betrayed and "raped" (like Transformers fans accused Michael Bay of doing).  It was all very informative too, and well worth watching if you can find it.

Breakfast was served about 90 minutes before we arrived at Los Angeles. Naturally I chose the hot breakfast over cereal.  (airlines must waste so much food, if they try to accommodate as many people as possible)

Arrival was pretty much on time.  They expected us to get in early, but in the end, we landed right on the 6.40am scheduled arrival time.
Queuing up at the Customs processing counters, I was surprised to not only finally see a white person at one of the counters (after 13 years of traveling to America), but I even got served by him. I have no idea why, and have never risked asking, but EVERY time I'm processed at LAX, all the Customs counters were staffed by Latin-Americans. I know there is a large proportion of them in California, but to have 100% of the Customs counter staff being from that one ethnic group (no whites, no blacks, no asians), it makes you feel like you landed in the wrong country by mistake, because there is none of the "random diversity" you'd statistically expect from a large group (sample) of people in a multicultural environment.
Then I saw a couple other white guys walking around in customs uniforms, and an Asian lady as well, suggesting a change in employment strategy or just a change to who is now assigned to the Arrivals floor.  (It's difficult to comment on how amazing those unbelievable odds are without some close-minded individuals intentionally assuming it is just a racist comment)
 

This was my planned itinerary...
6.40 arrive LA
7.00 free bus to LAX bus station
7.38 bus to Crenshaw plaza (Walmart)
8.08 arrive
8.42 bus to Red Line train
9.31 arrive
9.41 train to Universal Studios
9.48 arrive
-
16.00 leave Universal Studios
train/bus or taxi to Culver City (TRU & Target)
17.30 estimated, if taking train/bus option
by 19.00 Westfield Target
by 20.00 taxi to airport
by 21.00 check-in & Burger King
23.00 boarding
23.45 depart LA
(the later it was in the day, the less certain I was with times, so just had to go with estimates)
 

But this is what really happened...

6.40 arrive LA (on time)
7.00 queue up at customs
7.35 exit customs (too late for the bus to Crenshaw Plaza)
8.15 arrive at LAX Train station (info desk told me the wrong free bus to get on, but it was now too late to go back to the bus station)
okay, time for Plan B, C, D and the rest of the darn alphabet
8.20 green train
8.40 blue train
9.15 red train
9.40 arrive at Universal Studios train station
10.00 free bus to park entrance
-
17.20 leave Universal Studios (80 minutes late, so take a taxi)
18.00 arrive at Crenshaw Plaza (had to go here now, since I wasn't able to get there in the morning)
18.30 leave (taxi)
19.00 Culver City ToysRUs
19.10 leave for LAX (taxi) (had to skip 2 of the 5 stores I had planned for toy-hunting)
19.30 airport (pack luggage into bags and big box)
20.00 check in & then Burger King
23.00 boarding
23.45 depart

The map below shows the path I took.
Starting from the airport, I headed east towards Willowbrook (first train), then north to the city (second train), then up to the north west to Universal Studios (third train). From there it was south (Walmart), west (TRU), then south to the airport.  All in 17 hours.

So out of the 17 hours I was in America, it took one hour to get out of the airport, 2 hours to get to the Theme park, 7 hours at the Theme park, 3 hours toy-hunting and 4 hours back at the airport in the evening.  Plus 26 hours of flying.  Usually my annual BotCon trips are pretty exhausting, but those are usually spread over 5-7 days of activities. This was like cramming in about three days worth of stuff into one day... it was intense.

As noted above, it took almost an hour to get out of the airport at LA, which was too late to catch the 7.38 bus to Crenshaw Plaza.  The next one would be about 20-30 minutes, so I headed upstairs first to the Departure level, and checked out the toystore for Transformers toys.  Sometimes it has a few hard to find figures, at about what we'd pay here in Australia (twice US Retail), but this time it had only two TF3 Legends Bumblebee toys.
Heading back out to catch the free bus to the bus station, I saw an information desk near the exit, so asked which of the three busses goes to the bus station (I thought there was just the one, until I got there to see three different ones driving around).  One bus goes to the car parks, another goes to the bus station, while the third goes to the train station, but are only labeled by colour, not by where they go.  She handed me a map and told me that it was the green bus.  I didn't think to question it, but should have had a better look at the map to notice that it was a train network map she gave me, not a bus map. And sure enough, within 15 minutes I was at a train station.
Note to self for future reference - Bus C (blue?) goes to the bus station, Bus G (green) goes to the train station.

I figured that since I'd already used up the spare 90 minutes (I had 3 hours to get to Universal, but the bus & train would only take 90 minutes, giving me 90 minutes to go to Walmart first), I decided that it wouldn't be any point going all the way back to start again.  Being a weekday, the 3 trains I would now need to take from where I currently was, would likely take less time anyway.
I would just have to abandon the planned Walmart stop, and maybe try to fit it in afterwards, in the evening.
It just meant not getting any sunscreen either... as I burn easily, and this was a warm sunny day today.

Actually, despite it being fairly cloudless all day, there was enough LA Smog blanketing the city, that I didn't get burnt at all.
This was a photo I took on the second train, which was as close as I got to Downtown LA. (one of my first plans was to go into Downtown during that extra 90 minutes, but changed it to go to Walmart instead).
It includes the iconic cylindrical US Bank Tower building, which is currently the largest building in LA (and the entire west coast), and the 10th tallest building in America. Apparently it is the tallest building in America with a helipad on the roof.

Three trains later, I was standing with about 30 people at the foot of the driveway to the Theme Park, waiting for the free shuttle bus to the front gate.  The sign didn't say how often the bus would be there, but did say that it was "only" 9 minutes walk to the gate.  Something I would have done if it wasn't already getting rather warm (and I only had the one set of clothes, so didn't want to get too sweaty, and stink out any passengers sitting near me on the 13 hour flight home).

It was a few minutes past 10 when I set foot on the premises, and started taking photos of anything I could. (since my 2009 review of the park required other people's photos to complete, thanks to my camera dying, I want to swap out as many as I can later, if they are still applicable for the difference in 3 years)
This included the "Citywalk Precinct" outside of the Theme Park, which has restaurants, shops and a theatre for people to use without having to pay entry to the park itself.
I took a few photos of the half closest to the Park entrance, and figured that I'd venture into the distant half at the end of the day, before I leave.  Didn't happen of course.... as I was so bogged down with toys and merchandise, I couldn't walk that far.

This was the City Walk Precinct... or at least, half of it.

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The merchandise store outside the park (for people to buy souvenirs without needing to pay to get into the park for it).

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Inside, about a third of the store was Transformers stuff.

The most important item for (most) Transformers fans, the exclusive toy... Evac.  Not knowing how limited it was, or how many I would be able to buy, I was just glad to see at least one on the shelf, and bought it. So no matter what happened later in the day, or if by chance they all sold out, I was able to go home with one for my collection.

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Mugs and girl's t-shirts.

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T-shirts, underwear/boxers & caps.

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T-shirts, caps, cushions (with Optimus & Megatron on each side).

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Optimus head mugs (they were huge... the size of a monkey's head - nicely detailed, but not very practical to use), and the only two t-shirts with the exclusive character Evac on them.
The white one was a bit boring, but the black one was only available in kid's sizes. It was really colourful, and eye-catching, but none were big enough for me to wear.

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This was a closer shot of the t-shirt I wanted, but couldn't have...

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Film cells and a watch.

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Bumblebee stuff. A lot of stuff at the theme park stores were Bumblebee-themed, as it is the main marketed character at the moment.
A roleplay gun (has three modes and lights & sounds), caps, t-shirts, and mugs (just as impractical as the Optimus ones, but a lot more creepy looking)

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Metal drink bottles, more t-shirts, and a toy bazooka (pretty lame, with just a simple light & sound effect).

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Personalised keyrings.  Solid metal with a rotating center with the two allegiances on each side.

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Transparent drink bottles and t-shirts.  The one on the left (Decepticon symbol) is another girls shirt with sparkly material on the front. The grey Autobot ones have a soft rubber/foamy front to them.  They feel nice, but can't imagine them lasting long in the wash.

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Heaps more Bumblebee stuff, including another type of Mug, underwear/boxers, and cushions in the shape of the original series Bumblebee head.

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They didn't have many toys at this time, as I'd seen more in other people's photos from the opening 4 months ago.
Most of the stuff they did have was the first series of Kreo (Lego-type construction), which is over a year old, and not very popular anymore.  They had some TFPrime toys and BotShots, but were so over-priced, they were more expensive than here (and we have double the price here).  Which was a shame, because there were a couple that I wanted, but couldn't justify spending more than Australian pricing.  $13 for a single Botshot or Legion figure was 3-4 times the price of American retail. I was also hoping that I would find them later at the stores I was going to visit after the theme park.. unfortunately I didn't find them later, so am a bit torn up about skipping a US$13 (plus tax... making it about $14) Legion Breakdown I saw.
The thing that surprise me with the toy prices though was how the smaller toys were almost 4 times above US retail, but the larger toys weren't even double... so I guess they are expecting more small "souvenir" type purchases from kids & parents, and want to mark-up (or price-gouge) those items as much as they can.

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Autobot shot glasses. There were Decepticon ones as well, but on another shelf.

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A really odd "costume" item.  Of all the things kids would want to dress up like in Transformers, a security vest from the organisation that wanted to hunt down and capture Transformers.  It isn't even that impressive, and was about $20.

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Keyrings, pins and stickers galore.

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A really awesome item - a chocolate Allspark cube, fully sculpted with the movie cube's detailing... and coated in silver food colouring, not foil. Below them are chocolate bars and packs of cards.

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My first toy purchase of the day, and having the Evac toy now could leave me with one less thing to worry about now.

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It was about 10.50am by the time I was finished looking through the store and took all those photos (plus went to an ATM to get some cash out for the day), so I headed over to the entrance to start the real fun of the day.

Over at the entrance, the spinning Universal globe, as Australia was passing by.

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The archway entrance, with a red carpet and velvet ropes done up to make you feel like you are a star.

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After I had my printed ticket scanned to get in, I grabbed a couple maps - one to use (and destroy in the process), and one to take home undamaged.  For some reason, the American/English maps had Optimus on the front, while the maps done in other languages (about 6 different ones) all had Megatron on the cover.  Something subtle about which country/language is good and how everyone else is evil perhaps?
I grabbed a Japanese map, so that I had the two different ones to keep.
The park is divided into three parts - Upper Lot (mostly rides and shows), Lower Lot (all rides), and Backlot (for the tour, and where actual TV shows and Movies are filmed).
The main rides & shows are...
Backlot tour - a 45 minute bus tour of the sets and studios (a must if you go)
Waterworld - a huge stadium show based on the Movie, with areas of the stadium that guarantee you will get wet (a must if you go)
Shrek 3D - a theatre with a 3D screen and seats that move and spray water at you.
Terminator 2 - a theatre with a 3D screen and seats that move.
Animal Actors - stadium show with animals (I didn't see it, so just guessing)
The Mummy - a 20-ish seat indoor "roller coaster".
Jurassic Park - a 20-ish seat water ride.
Simpsons - a 12 seat car sitting up on a hydraulic arm in front of a massive spherical screen that covers your entire vision
Transformers - a 12 seat car that drives through a circuit, with several 3D screens along the way.
Special Effects - a walk through, multi-part presentation of movie special effects (this was moved since I went to it in 2009, so could be different now)
House of Horrors - walk through a dark maze to find your way to the exit, with people and props jumping out at you.
Blues Brothers - a show out in the open with some guys in suits and their car with a big speaker on it.


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Just inside the gates, with a merchandise store on the left, and another one just up on the right (within meters of the one outside the front gate).
Off to the right were the lockers, which was something I planned to utilise, as it would allow me to do this trip without the hassle of luggage holding me back. It was $10 for a full day, and was big enough for me to keep coming back with the odd toy or merchandise item I bought around the park.

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So my plan was to buy an Evac toy (done), then go straight to the Transformers Ride, and then fill in time around going to the Waterworld show, and the Studios Tour.  In the end, the only other ride I got time for was the Simpsons ride, which was a bit disappointing, but couldn't be helped.  The Waterworld show and the Studio Tour used up about 2 hours between them, when you include time standing in the queues, so the remaining 3 hours was spent taking photos of the entire park, going on the Transformers Ride SEVEN TIMES, and scouring the merchandise stores for anything Transformers-related that wasn't in the other stores.

Basically, this was my day (to show how quickly the time flies by)...
10.30 - enter park, get locker, maps, head straight to Transformers Ride, taking photos of some of the Upper Lot along the way.
10.50 - go on ride 5 times, then look over the Transformers Merchandise store next to it, buying a couple of things.
12.10 - head back to locker to drop off merchandise, taking more photos of the rest of the Upper Lot. Stopped at the Simpsons "Kwik-E-Mart" store to buy a giant donut and "Duff Beer" energy drink.
12.50 - queue up at the Waterworld show, which started at 1.10pm
13.35 - end of show. Walk straight to where the Studios Tour departs
14.15 - after queuing for 35 minutes, I was on a bus for the Tour.
15.05 - back from the Tour.  Head straight to the locker to change my camera battery.
15.25 - queue up at the Simpsons Ride.
15.50 - on the ride (about 5 minutes).
15.55 - back at the Transformers Ride for 2 more goes at it.
16.15 - had "lunch" at the Flintstones BBQ Pit
16.55 - back to locker to grab my things and leave the park. Went into the Merchandise store outside the front gate and bought up a heap of things (mostly for other people).
17.20 - hopped in a taxi and left.

This was a couple hundred meters inside the entrance, showing just how quiet it was on a Tuesday (outside of school holidays).  On a warm muggy day like this, it was good not to be pressing up against a lot of other people in a crowd.  Some of the photos below are actually empty of people, it was that quiet.

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Signs around the park let you know when next shows were going to start, or the estimated waiting times on various rides.  It would be handy on a busy, crowded day, but on this particular day, some of those rides didn't even have any wait time at all.  It was a good reminder of upcoming show times though, if you didn't carry around a program guide.

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The House of Horrors was closed... which was fine, because I had no intention of going in anyway.

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Some people in costumes for the kiddies (and those of us who are just over-sized kiddies). Scooby, Woody and his girl, Curious George, and the mouse from one of those animated movies I can't think of right now.

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The Flintstones BBQ pit. Has a big open BBQ grill at the front so you can see things being cooked (and can help spread the smells to make people want something). The menu was great 3 years ago, which I regretted not trying out (ran out of time), but must have changed since then, as there was nothing on the menu that inspired me this time. That was one thing on my list, and I was really disappointed.

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The Animal show.

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And the new location of the Special Effects Stage. It used to be in the Lower Lot, where the Transformers Ride now is, but had to be moved up to the Upper Lot.  Same cant be said for the Backdraft "ride", as it had to make way for the Transformers Ride too, but wasn't relocated or kept.

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To get down to the Lower Lot, you need to go down 4 long escalators, which looks out over the valley below.  In the middle of the photo here, is the Warner Brothers Studios, with its iconic water tower in front of the big buildings on the left.  In the foreground to the right is the Universal Backlot, where they film movies & TV shows, and where the Tour drives through.

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After the first escalator there is an Apollo 13 prop capsule and three stand-ins for people to have their photos taken with.

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On the second escalator, looking down over the Lower Lot and some of the Studios Universal uses for filming.  On the left is the Jurassic Park ride. In the center at the bottom is the Mummy ride, and over to the right with the colourful big image on the wall is the Transformers Ride.

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Jurassic Park Ride, eatery and giftshop.

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The end of the ride that seems to guarantee a wet ending.  When I was on it 3 years ago, only a couple people would get wet (I was one of them), but it seemed that everyone was getting wet now, judging by the people walking out, soaked from top to bottom.

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The Mummy Ride.  Being a roller coaster type of ride, they have free lockers to hold anything loose while you were on the ride, because even things in your pockets would fly out.

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And the main event... the reason I was there...
The Transformers Ride.

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Out the front was a person in a Bumblebee costume (on small stilts to make them bigger) for people to take photos with... like other characters around the park.  This one had set times, so people could come back at a certain time for a photo.

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And of course, Optimus Prime as well.  No Megatron... which I think would have been an interesting compliment to the other two, to see how popular it would be to the kiddies.

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Entering the ride, I saw that there were two doorways. One for groups and one for singles (to fill spare seats in each car).  Since I was on my own, I went into the Singles doorway, headed down a winding tunnel, and ended up being handed 3D glasses while being ushered straight onto an Evac car as soon as I arrived at the marshaling point. (I was the only one in the Singles line)  Five minutes later I was hopping back out of the Car, out the exit, and straight back to the entrance 10 meters away for a second, third, fourth and fifth ride.
I probably should have tried the group line at least once, because it appears that there were some props and displays along the way to give the waiting crowd something to look at. Something I didn't know until I was writing up this review. Judging by some video clips, there was a Scorponok tail and Allspark shard in a containment vessel on display, plus assorted video clips from the movies.  Hmmm... I feel a bit cheated now.

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It was awesome.  I couldn't stop grinning from excitement the whole time, even later in the day on my 7th go.
Probably not too great for those who weren't fans of these movies though, especially since all the sounds and voices were authentic from the movies.
The ride was almost exactly 5 minutes long, and aside from one optical glitch on one of the screens during one go, it was an almost flawless/seamless integration of 3D animation and physical sets.  One screen was flawed though, as Optimus was fighting Megatron while your Car was turning away at 90 degrees, the pair just seemed to disappear too much on one side as if you were looking through a window.
Aside from that, the ability to move through a circuit to change your setting, while being in a Car that was able to move independently of the track, really helped get you immersed into the action.  Throw in the sound effects, lighting effects, 3D vision and a bit of water spray or heat & fans at the right times, and it was sensory overload.
So much so, that on a couple times, there were people cheering at the end.

It starts off a bit slow, and I thought that the final "debrief" from Optimus was too anti-climactic after so much intense action, but the "story" was pretty good at being able to introduce so many characters from the (first) three Michael Bay movies.
Unfortunately for dedicated fans, this particular adventure can't occur within the timeline of the Movies, because it has a character that died in the second one (Sideways), along side one who only had this particular form in the third movie (Megatron's truck mode).  With Sideways in there, you can't even have Megatron as his TF2 Tank mode, because it was before he was resurrected... and there wasn't enough time in the first movie for him to be using his Jet mode during this adventure.

I only realised when I got back (someone pointed it out to me), that there are videos on youtube of this ride, by people who have snuck on a camera/phone.  Obviously it doesn't look very good without the 3D glasses, but if you aren't wanting to be spoiled by what happens on the ride, don't go looking on youtube... and skip over this next bit.
For those who aren't likely to ever get to one of the Transformers rides, or don't care about being spoiled by the details (part of the fun is not knowing what is about to happen when you are on the rid), then keep reading.

The car drives off down the tunnel and enters a NEST hanger while Ravage is attacking. Ravage grabs the Allspark fragment, jumps on Evac (the car we are riding) and then jumps away with us chasing after him.
At the second screen we are at another hanger with Bumblebee catching Ravage and tearing him in two. Sideways then attacks Bumblebee, forcing the Allspark fragment to fly off and Evac (in car mode) reaches out with his hand to grab it and drive off to protect it.
The third screen is when we have escaped out onto the street and Optimus shows up to tell Evac to follow him. As we start speeding down the city streets, Megatron and Blackout/Grindor Attacks.  Just as Blackout's spinning rotors are about to cut us/Evac to shreds (while we were driving in reverse), a train speeds past, severing Blackout's arm.
Driving off into another tunnel, the next screen has Megatron bursting through from underground, grabbing Evac. While trying to break free by reversing real hard, Evac causes Megatron to bang into some water pipes, spraying us with a little bit of water.
Through to another tunnel, we drive out into a construction site, with Megatron bashing through to face us again.  Just as he does, Optimus jumps in and tackles Megatron.  Before we can get away, Megatron fires a missile at us, which comes right at us (the 3D effect) in slow-mo (Bay-style). Just as it reaches us, a blast of heat hits us, as if its exhaust or explosion nearby is felt.
We drive off down another street (another screen), to have fans blowing on us from behind, and everything in front of us appearing to be sucked through a gap in the buildings.  We are sucked through, to be faced with Devastator.  We fly through the air and land on some train tracks as Skids (and possibly Mudflap somewhere, but I can't tell for sure) is shooting at Devastator.  We crash through the train tracks and drive off to one side.
The next screen has us speeding down a city street following Sideswipe, as Bonecrusher appears and tries to grab at us with his claw. (we drive past a cement mixer with Mixmaster's colours, but it doesn't do anything) Sideswipe fights Bonecrusher, slicing off his claw, allowing Evac (still in car mode obviously) to extend an arm and shoot Bonecrusher (in slow-mo Bay-style again).
We try to drive off but are sucked back again by Devastator (on a separate 3D screen behind us - we are flung around as if we were really being sucked back). So Evac decides to drive straight into Devastator's mouth and somehow survives by flying out the other side. As we do, Starscream flies in and grabs us with a grappling hook, towing us through the air... between buildings and even through some.
We land in a building that is currently under construction and try to drive around a bit to find a way out. We turn (to another 3D screen) to see Megatron throwing Optimus towards us from another building. Megatron then jumps at us and grabs Evac again. Optimus fights him off and tells Evac to get the Allspark to safety.
Evac drives off again, to another part of the construction site (we appear to be several storeys high) and on this 3D screen we have Starscream back at us again, but before he can get at us, NEST helicopters come in with their guns to chase him off.
We swing around to the next 3D screen to see Optimus and Megatron still trading punches out on a roof-top nearby. Evac decides to drive over, with both arms now sticking out the front of his car mode, and bashes into Megatron. He then jams the Allspark into Megatron's chest like Sam did in the first movie, which causes Megatron to fall off the building and pull us over with him.
So we appear to be falling down off a 50 storey building, only to be caught at the last minute by Bumblebee. (the sense of falling wasn't done well enough - the Car needed to tip further forward to get that feeling)
Optimus than calls for Evac to report in, so we drive over to the final 3D screen with Optimus telling us what a great job we did.
The car then proceeds through a tunnel that has a dead Megatron lining the ceiling, and a yellow VW car sticking out of the left wall (I didn't see this until the 3rd or 4th time I was on the ride).
This then brings you to the exit.

At the exit there was a kids play room/waiting room, which had some TFPrime toys on display and cartoons playing.

If you go on this ride, try to go on it at least twice - once at the back and once at the front.
The reason why is, at the back you miss a lot of the bottom of the screen/action, as the Car (and people) blocks a significant part of the 3D screens... but at the front everything is too close, so you miss stuff that is coming at you from all sides.

After the fifth go I decided that I'd better do some other things and come back to it later, or else I might desensitise myself too much to not want to go on it again. (especially if I want to go to the Singapore version in a few months time)

To one side of the ride was a refreshment stand with this sign on the side...

Not sure what it was, because the refreshment stand never opened. It was a bit disappointing, but that was the downside of being there on a quiet day - they don't open up everything in the park to save costs.

On the other side though was a merchandise store that was only stocked with Transformers stuff.

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I spent a bit of time looking through it all, taking photos and looking for things I was interested in.

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This appeared to be the only giftshop of the five I found that had an exclusive packaged Legion-sized Evac toy.  The toy was released in retail stores over the last 5 months, but in different packaging.
I don't even have it yet, so it was difficult to buy this one to keep sealed, as I would eventually get the Retail version to open up.
At the same time as buying one of the small versions of Evac, I also bought another couple of the Exclusive Deluxe Evacs, to start building up a number to bring back to Australia.
I also bought one each of the Deluxe Optimus (bottom right of photo) and Bumblebee figures as well, to keep sealed like the small Evac toy, as souvenirs. They are supposed to be identical to the Retail versions, which I already have, so there is no need to remove these ones from packaging.

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I was thinking about buying the exclusively packaged Voyager Optimus & Megatron toys as well (photo below), to also keep sealed (as they too are suppose to be identical to the Retail versions), but wanted to prioritise the Evac toys for now, and wasn't too confident about getting these ones back home without being crushed.  Besides, if the Singapore Universal Studios has them, I can get them from there, so that I come back from that Park with exclusive souvenirs as well.

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Military themed NEST clothing and bags/satchels.

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TFPrime toys, but only the first Wave (wave 5 has been released in America recently). Some t-shirts, but only the one at the bottom left was any good.  It was one I and others wanted, so I bought 2 for now, and would buy a couple more at the end of the day.  This would give me something clean (and stink-free) to wear home on the plane.

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A sun-reactive t-shirt.  It is black & white in the shade, but then turns red & blue in direct sunlight (which you can see it starting to on this one).

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And of course, they can't miss having Bumblebee too...

If it were Original series characters, I'd have bought them, but not Movie Optimus & Bumblebee.
I wonder how many washes they can endure before the reactive dye washes out.
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The Racing corner.  Autobot Racing (in Bumblebee colours) and Decepticon Racing. In the middle are jackets, hoodies, and a racing shirt.

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On the sides...
Car magnets and caps.

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License plates and plate holders. (in America they only have a Number plate on the back, so I think it is legal to have anything you want on the front)

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The Autobot versions.

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More magnets and caps.

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Double-sided cushions - Autobot on one side, Decepticon on the other.  Plus winter headgear. (can't remember what they are called)

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Fridge magnets, keyrings and pins galore.

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Pins, pins and more pins.  Some even have flashing LEDs on them.

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Clothing, cushions and some TFPrime toys.  One was a Flamewar toy, but due to being US$14 (with tax), I passed on it.

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Belt buckles (looks like it just slides down over your belt buckle). And some really solid looking rings.  Get one on each knuckle and you could do some damage to someone's face.

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Beach towel.

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Allspark shard necklace, which can either be worn or kept on display in the container like an alien specimen.
Really disappointed by this one. It was just cheap plastic, when it should have been pewter or diecaste.  It might have been weighty around the neck, but would have made it look and feel like a chunk of metal cube.
Also, the plastic doesn't mould as cleanly as metal, so it ended up looking like (cheap) plastic.

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And the replica Allspark cube. Supposedly a wood cube with metal sheet coating (the wood is to make it light enough to carry, and cheaper). I was tempted to get one, but decided to leave it for another time, when I could more easily get it home. I already have one that is about a tenth of the size (a merchandise item from Hong Kong a few years back), so don't "need" this one in a hurry.

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Other items in the store included some ceramic busts, IDW comic TPBs and hardcover books (most were damaged though from people constantly flicking through them), photo frames and some stationary items.  Plus a few other toys that I didn't see in any of the other giftshops - the Trilogy Optimus & trailer, TF3 Movie Voyagers and a couple TF3 Deluxes.

It was about 10 past midday by this point and I was aiming to be at the 10 past one Waterworld show.  I would need to be there 10-15 minutes before it started, to make sure I didn't miss out, and try to get a good seat at least... so I had about 40 minutes. I headed back to the locker, but stopped off at the Simpsons "Kwik-E-Mart" giftshop first to see if they were still selling the Giant Donuts I had last time.
They were, so I bought one, as well as a "Duff Beer" Energy drink.
I suddenly realised that I had been in America for about 6 hours, and was yet to eat anything.  One of the things I had on my list to do, was to eat as much as I could, the things we don't have in Australia.  Things like Pretzels and Wendys burgers and 101 candy bars and confectionery.  I was just so busy getting to the park and running around the park, I hadn't stopped long enough to actually eat anything.
Even now, I wasn't able to stop to eat these two snack items, because I had to put some things in the Locker and get over to the Waterworld show before it started... while walking through the rest of the Upper Lot to photograph what I didn't capture on the way down to the Transformers Ride.

Things like....
The end of a Blues Brothers show, with someone in a Beetlejuice costume.

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The London set. Something they must have build a long time ago, but never wanted to remove it... as it takes up a fairly big chunk of the Upper Lot (almost a quarter), but most of it is just fake buildings.  No rides, no shows, and only two food outlets. As such, it is a fairly lifeless area of the Park... and could do with being replace with something entertaining, like another ride.

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The second street on the London "set", but done up in some strange zombie theme... maybe for Halloween already, which is still 6 weeks away.

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The Terminator show. Has an interesting story to it, but I didn't have time to see it again this time.

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More for the advertising (and money for Universal), than for any practical purpose.  There is a dedicated water play area for kids on the other side of the Park, so this skimpy little one isn't that impressive. But it might give parents a few minutes to sit down and rest at the refreshment stand, while their kids are getting a bit wet from the various fountains that randomly shoot up and out of things.

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Spongebob running over to grab someone randomly for a hug.

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The dedicated kids water play area.

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Something from the world of Dr Seuss... The Lorax.  A walking moustache.

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The Shrek show.  Also a lot of fun. Didn't go in there this time though.

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Next to it was where you could meet Shrek throughout the day.

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As well as an animatronic Donkey (with someone in the back), which would interact with people.

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Near the Lockers were two Merchandise stores. One that had a range of items....

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...with Transformers stuff taking up a fair amount of space.

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And directly opposite was another store that only sold Transformers stuff.

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I went inside to see if there was anything unique in this store that interested me.
There was a Legion Breakdown (which I really really wanted), but couldn't justify spending US$14 (with tax) on it, when they sell for US$5 in retail stores, and AU$7-10 in Australia.
I just really hoped that I found one at a store on the way back to the airport (sadly though, I didn't).

Some new items in this store included silky kids t-shirts, backpack and lunch bags.  It was also interesting to finally see some TFPrime merchandise, among all the Movie-related stuff seen so far.

I dropped off my purchases in the locker and headed over to the Waterworld show.

Since this review is now longer than I had was expecting, and has about 180 photos, I've split it up, and the other half is on the next page here.
 



To contact me --> griffin @ otca.com.au