The Big One--Ticket to Terror

We were standing in the tram line at Universal Studios, waiting our turn to visit the earthquake. The Big One was up and running again, somewhere on the back lot, shaking and pounding. For two days following the unpleasantness in San Francisco, Universal had discreetly shut down its No. 1 attraction. Now it was back. After all, the tectonic plates under San Francisco had produced only a 7.1. Universal had an 8.3.

The afternoon revealed a still, Santa Ana sky, warm and perfect. At the head of the line was a classic pairing: two mothers with their children. One had come visiting from Illinois and the other, a native, was squiring her through the cultural highlights of Los Angeles.

They discussed the San Francisco quake, and the Illinois mother glanced around the waiting crowd. "It seems a strange thing to do," she said. She meant taking a tram to see The Big One disassemble part of a city.

The L.A. mom nodded and then her face took on a knowing air. She leaned forward, as if sharing a secret with her friend, and said in a low voice, "The tourists love it. . . ."

When Universal Studios Tour opened The Big One last March, it received the sort of reaction that is virtually a trademark of Los Angeles. A few questioned the propriety of making money off an upcoming disaster that will kill hundreds and perhaps thousands of persons. But, in general, those concerns were ignored in favor of the issues that did, indeed, matter here. Namely, would The Big One allow Universal to grab market share from Disneyland?

The answer appears to be yes. At Universal, box office has been boffo since The Big One opened. In June the studio reported that attendance was up 30% over last year and will likely reach 5 million, an all-time high, by December.

The reasons for this success are interesting to consider. Certainly, credit can be given to what is known in Hollywood as technical wizardry. The Big One reproduces with surprising accuracy the sequence of events that likely would occur if a subway station were to collapse under the rigors of intense shaking. Someone, somewhere, took the time to learn how concrete and steel fail when they are stressed beyond their capacity.

The designers also employ a keen sense of the visceral fears produced by a disintegrating physical world. Larry Lester, The Big One's principal designer, told a reporter in March that the experience was choreographed to include "seven basic terrors."

Lester then listed the terrors. "These are," he said, "fears of an unstable earth, of electrocution, being buried alive, fire, darkness, abandonment and drowning."

Exploiting visceral fears is an old game in the fright business, of course; Universal has a King Kong who attacks a bridge while the trams are passing. But there is this difference: we know King Kong doesn't exist. We know earthquakes do.

From the first seconds of the tour there was, in fact, the sense that everyone was waiting for the earthquake moment to happen. King Kong came and went, cyborgs shot ray guns, and then the tram rolled through some doors and fastened onto the tracks of what appeared to be a BART station beneath San Francisco. Waterfront Station, the sign said.

For a moment we sat quietly. Then the sound began, a deep, rumbling roar like freight trains. Tremors built to a violent shaking and pieces of the station started falling from above. Smoke and dust was everywhere. A wave of shaking gripped the tram and it dropped downward in a lurch as the bed gave way. The station screeched from the grinding of masonry and metal.

Suddenly the ceiling overhead ripped from its supports and the whole concrete structure collapsed onto the platform. Did Universal know about the Nimitz before anyone else? Sure enough, on top of the ceiling were more vehicles from the surface street. One of these, a propane truck, rolled into the gaping hole and burst into flames. We were buried, burned, and abandoned in the dark.

This happens roughly 200 times a day at Universal. When our tram was whisked from the subway tunnel and emerged into the sunshine, the tour burst into applause and cheered. The two moms loved it, and the children babbled wildly.

San Francisco couldn't have been that bad, someone said, and laughed. It all seemed so real, said someone else.

And it did, though some distinctions might be made. Up in Oakland the Nimitz was still clamped shut. Here, unseen behind its doors, The Big One was methodically rebuilding itself. The ceiling was rising on its hydraulics, the propane truck climbing back to the street. In 30 seconds it would be perfect once again. Ready for the next tram, the next chunk of market share.

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