The new knock 'em, sock 'em Transformers ride at Universal Studios Hollywood is an immersive, in-your-face experience that ranks among the top theme park attractions in the world.
The Transformers 3-D ride is now in technical rehearsal mode at the movie theme park, meaning the ride can open or close at any time in advance of the May 25 grand opening.
I got my first ride on the new attraction over the weekend and found myself only slightly let down from my astronomically high expectations.
Transformers is essentially an indoor dark ride with motion simulator vehicles that navigate past 14 movie screens separated by sets and props themed to the robots-in-disguise film franchise.
You don't go to a summer blockbuster movie looking for a plot and you shouldn't expect much of a story from the Transformers ride. The seemingly never-ending ride queue offers a backstory for the uninitiated, which essentially amounts to another chapter in the never-ending war between the good-guy Autobots and the bad-guy Decepticons.
But just like a wham-bam-crash-boom popcorn movie, the loud and chaotic Transformers ride delivers so much fast-paced, nonstop action that there's no time to think. You're completely absorbed as you careen from scene to scene in a five-minute journey that never takes its foot off the nitro-powered gas pedal.
Indeed, the ride is so intense that I saw several kids that met the 48-inch height requirement but not the movie's PG-13 rating bail out in pure terror just as they reached the front of the line. Fortunately, Universal has a child switch room where one parent can wait with the kids before swapping places, letting everybody who wants to ride do so.
In a theme park twist on movie pitch parlance, Transformers is Indiana Jones Adventure meets Star Tours. In fact, some are already describing Transformers as "Indy on steroids," which is a fairly accurate description.
But where Disneyland's Indy takes riders through a three-dimensional environment, Transformers settles for a series of 3-D movie scenes. And while both Transformers and Star Tours could be described as a 3-D movie with a motion simulator, the new Universal ride is far more immersive and engaging than the rebooted Disneyland attraction.
For those who have traveled to Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park, Transformers compares favorably to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, widely considered the top two theme park rides in the world.
For me, the Forbidden Journey is still the best theme park ride I've ever experienced. And personally, I prefer the three-dimensional environment of Disneyland's Indy to the 3-D movies of Universal's Transformers. But those would be my top three, with Transformers inching ahead of Spidey for the bronze medal.
From a technological standpoint, the Transformers ride is a state-of-the-art marvel with motion simulator ride vehicles that pitch and spin, elevator lifts that transport riders from one level of the attraction to another and towering curved movie screens that reach a height of 60 feet. But all of that high-tech firepower is largely invisible as you are literally absorbed into the relentless action unfolding around every turn.
Many of the movie screens in the attraction were so massive that I couldn't see the edges, making the up-close, large-scale 3-D effects some of the most impressive I've ever seen. On more than one occasion, a Decepticon grabbed onto, smashed into or landed on top of our ride vehicle with a shuddering impact.
I was blown away by the elevator lifts, which were virtually impossible to detect until my third ride when I consciously set out to find them. With curved movie screens lining the 60-foot-tall elevator shaft, I felt like I was flying through the film as the enveloping scene unfolded in front of me while the ride vehicle ascended in the lift.
My favorite scene in the ride was when we got sucked into Devastator's whirling gear-like mouth, with our vibrating vehicle passing through the Decepticon's grinding vortex only to escape unscathed on the other side (I told you not to try to make any sense out of the story).
During a behind-the-scenes preview about a week ago, I walked through the Transformers attraction with the lights on and the ride vehicles off. At the time, I was impressed by the thematic layers of set dressing and props I found throughout the ride. But much of that military bunker motif was lost when I climbed aboard the ride for the first time and seemingly raced through the attraction in the dark. Like an ornate proscenium framing a theater's stage, much of the detail disappeared when the lights went down and my eyes zoomed in on the movie screens.
If I have one knock about Universal Studios Hollywood in general, it's that the movie theme park relies too heavily on movies for its attractions, no matter how oxymoronic that sounds. Every time I leave the park I feel like I just spent the day at a movie theater rather being transported to a magical world.
But, for a theme park whose motto is "ride the movies," Transformers is the latest and greatest ride platform for watching a movie, following in the footsteps of the Simpsons and King Kong attractions.
For now though, the Transformers ride will serve as the marquee tent-pole attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood for next few years until a certain boy wizard swoops into town.