Thundering footsteps echo from beyond a high rock cliff, beyond palm trees tall enough to blot out the skyline.
Everything is louder and larger than normal inside Jurassic Park--The Ride, opening Friday at Universal Studios Hollywood. From the towering front gate to the final 84-foot drop--the tallest ever constructed for a water ride--everything is built to dinosaur scale.
That includes the animatronic beasts that crash about the dense jungle. A stegosaurus stands as long and wide as a school bus. The tyrannosaurus rex--the supposed source of the pounding--weighs 45 tons.
“Dinosaurs were bigger than anything we can relate to,” said Steven Spielberg, who directed “Jurassic Park” the movie and consulted on the attraction. “That’s why they fill us up with a sense of awe.”
And that is why Jurassic Park’s visitors are relegated to low-slung boats that float along the jungle river.
Riders gawk from ground level, immersed in an elaborate replica of the prehistoric world. They must look up to see the dinosaurs that attack from above.
Of course, size isn’t everything. A $110-million budget allowed the designers to focus on smaller details, many borrowed from Spielberg’s 1993 film.
Inside the entrance, video screens play a greeting from Sir Richard Attenborough, reprising his film role as the entrepreneur John Hammond. Boats leave the dock to strains of John Williams’ familiar score. And much like the movie, the early moments of this 5 1/2-minute ride focus on the majesty of dinosaurs.
They feed along the banks of a mist-shrouded lagoon, moving languidly through shadows and light. The stegosaurus splashes water with its massive, horny tail while nearby two chicken-sized compys fight over a popcorn box presumably discarded by a previous rider.
The first hints of danger are as subtle as a thorny dracaena that sprouts from amid delicate ferns. Rock outcroppings crowd a little closer to the riverbanks.
“Things are getting tighter,” said Craig Doyle, the landscape architect. “Everything is getting claustrophobic.”
Then a parasaurolophus bursts from underwater, bellowing, shaking its ridged head.
Much of the ride’s budget went toward making this and other robots as realistic as museum pieces but significantly more mobile. Their plastic-based hides bear authentic markings.
They are powered by a “compliant reactivity” system that combines high-pressure hydraulics with computerization, allowing fluid motion at speeds of up to 25 feet per second.
So the parasaurolophus rises almost instantly, looming overhead, shoving the boat into a backstage area of Hammond’s park.
Things take a turn for the worse at that point, with stark concrete replacing the foliage and sirens drowning out the orchestral soundtrack. Sparking electrified wires draw attention to a cracked-open raptor pen. The next moment, the sound of gnashing teeth turns riders the opposite direction, where a dilophosaurus is devouring a boatload of tourists.
The action continues side-to-side, like a tennis match gone mad, each new event cued by sound and light. Unlike the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland, where action confronts riders from many directions simultaneously, this is a traditional, tightly directed ride.
“There’s a whole sequence of misdirections,” said Phil Hettema, who oversaw the planning and construction.
Even with such theatrics and all the technology, Hettema and his designers make good use of a trusty old trick: About halfway through the ride, boats are sucked into a drainage pipe and dragged up an inexorable slope that foreshadows the eight-story drop at the end.
Before the fall, however, riders must navigate a dark laboratory where raptors bound from hidden spots and a T. rex lurks amid hissing pipes and flashing red lights. The ride’s last stunt is its most elaborate, involving 10,000 watts of stereo sound and enough hydraulic fury to rip the building apart were it not for an eight-story framework of steel girders.
“Everyone knows there’s a drop somewhere,” Hettema said. “So we had to come up with something to fake them out.”
When planning for Jurassic Park began six years ago, Universal knew that success would depend on big production values and life-like animatronics. Spielberg was skeptical.
“When they began talking to me about a new evolution in robots, I said, ‘Seeing is believing,’ ” the director recalled.
Today he will greet a host of celebrities gathered at Jurassic Park for a Starbright Foundation benefit. He says that his doubts began to diminish with the very first dinosaur prototypes. There remains, however, one aspect of the ride that he might never appreciate.
“The drop,” he said. “I don’t like roller coasters so they can let me off just before that. I’ll be waving from the bottom when you come down.”
* Jurassic Park--The Ride opens Friday at Universal Studios Hollywood, Hollywood Freeway at Lankershim Boulevard, Universal City. Park admission: $34 general, $29 seniors 60 and older, $26 children 3-11; free for children 2 and younger. Regular hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Call (818) 508-9600.