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THE BIG ONE : Tourists Taking Fake Shaker in Stride

Times Staff Writer

A make-believe earthquake designed as Los Angeles’ newest tourist attraction seemed to deliver a bigger jolt Saturday to Southern Californians than to out-of-town visitors.

“The Big One"--a $13-million Universal Studios Tours simulation of an 8.3 Richter-scale temblor--left local residents shaking nervously. But tourists took it in stride.

“It was realistic and scary,” said Claremont resident Cathy Colvin. “It made me feel a little queasy to think that’s what it will be like when the big one really hits.”

The simulated earthquake occurs in a studio back lot building decorated to resemble a San Francisco underground subway station.

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Tour tram passengers are shaken violently as subway tracks buckle and collapse and smoke and wind whips through the station. A propane truck crashes through a falling ceiling and explodes, electrical equipment erupts into sparks and another subway car crashes and splits apart. The 2 1/2-minute show ends as a 15-foot wall of water cascades through a hole in a tunnel wall.

“We almost cried. We were screaming,” said Cindy Perison of Twentynine Palms as she comforted son Jeremy, 7, and daughter Leah, 4.

Tina McBroome of Los Angeles clutched sons Miles, 9, and Michael, 8, as passengers around her shrieked at each new calamity.

“It shows that bad things can happen in an earthquake,” McBroome said somberly. “Maybe it will make people prepare for the big one.”

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Out-of-state visitors may have wondered what all the fuss was about.

A relaxed Don Meyer of Brookfield, Wis., praised the special effects. So did Vangie Esau of Abbotsford, Canada. “It wasn’t overly scary. I was impressed most by the new technology they used on this,” she said.

Universal Studios officials watched anxiously as the first visitors entered the 25,000-square-foot sound stage built around hydraulic gear that allows the mock subway station to collapse 200 times a day.

There had been predictions that the new attraction might traumatize some young children. So studio executives were clearly relieved when the first tram emerged from the earthquake show carrying cheering and applauding passengers--children and adults alike.

“We couldn’t ask for any better reaction,” said tour president Ron Bension. “Let’s not take things too seriously. This is a fun attraction, an adventure, a thrilling thing.”

Other earthquake experts tend to agree.

“I think it’s pretty exciting. It’s Hollywood, they took some poetic license,” said Kate Hutton, staff seismologist at the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, who got an advance tour of the earthquake attraction last week. “I’ll go back and take my friends.”

Bill Rhine, a subway construction expert helping design Los Angeles’ Metro Rail, said he is confident that people will recognize the earthquake show as entertainment, not reality. Underground Metro Rail stations--including one to be built in about eight years near Universal Studios’ main gate--will easily ride out earthquakes, he said.

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Less charitable were officials of BART, the San Francisco Bay Area’s subway system. They said they plan to demand Monday that the earthquake show be plainly labeled as fiction.

“It’s total fantasy,” BART spokesman Sy Mouber said. “It’s causing a hell of a lot of confusion. We’re trying to get through to the Universal (Studios) people to tell them we’re very concerned. If an earthquake hit here, seismologists and engineers say our transbay tube would be the safest place to be.”

Clinical psychologist Stephen J. Howard, who was aboard Saturday’s first earthquake tram, said the show could have a positive effect on children 7 and older.

“Because everything comes out well in the end, the ride will give them a feeling of having mastered their fear of earthquakes,” said Howard, author of “Coping With Children’s Reaction to an Earthquake and Other Disasters.” In the last 18 years, he has counseled more than 450 children traumatized by earthquakes in his work at the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic.

He said the earthquake ride may increase the fears of children under 7, however. “When a real earthquake happens, they are going to immediately have the pictures of those things that happened in here,” Howard said.

Not all kids, however. When 3-year-old Lyndsey Kizer of Canoga Park was asked what was the most frightening thing she saw on the studio tour Saturday, she had a quick answer.

“The big, huge shark was scariest,” Lyndsey said, referring to the long-running “Jaws” show.


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