The Lower Lot is where all the real action in the park is. The best rides in the park are down here, tucked away so close to the heart of the studio, and nestled away from the Upper Lot. There’s something special about descending the StarWay and watching the Lower Lot unfold before your eyes. But when you make that descent at night, after it’s dark and the crowds have lifted? It’s an almost magical experience.
At night, there’s a radical change from the daytime hours, when the colors are flat and dull, when any old paint shows its age and dustiness, and when flaws in design are easy to pick out. It’s easy to take for granted the familiar things you see down there in the day, such as the Jurassic Park archway or the statues of Anubis marking the entrance to Revenge of the Mummy. Colors pop in subtle lighting, a sense of mystery and adventure settles over the quieting area, and new details emerge.
If there’s one advantage to being part of a working movie studio, it’s the lighting and sound that you have access to. From the moment you start going down the StarWay and catch sight of those lights, you know you’re in for a treat. The way that the various sources of light are positioned, and the different colors and intensities of light highlight the attractions.
The blue and green soft lighting aiming upwards at the palm trees in front of Jurassic Park, for example – the dramatic shadows cast by the trees from that blue lighting gives it a sense of mystery, but also a slight feeling of dread. The blue gives the area and unnatural glow, giving a little bit of unease – and when you consider the story of the ride, unease is a perfect feeling to evoke.
That same uneasy lighting and use of shadow is apparent in the signage of the ride as well. The way the shadows cast over the River Adventure sign and the Steven Spielberg opening day plaque add to the mysterious feeling. It makes the ride feel grand and frightening all at once as you walk into a darkened pathway.
The differing colors and lighting used in the entryway to Jurassic Park: The Ride also have a clever way of making it seem inviting from afar, and offsetting from up close. The warm orange glow of the fire in the sconces balancing off the red and yellow from the sign lettering gives a welcoming vibe, but the closer you get, the more shadow the fire casts, and the more ominous it seems.
During the day, it looks like a normal theme park ride. But at night, something about the lights and the colors with the music pumping in just makes it seem so real. That kind of immersion is only possible at night, when it’s calm and dark in the Lower Lot.
Jurassic Park isn’t the only ride to make use of lighting to change its mood from day to night. During the day, Revenge of the Mummy looks downright boring. Even the gold and black signage and the statues of Anubis don’t do much to help with the minimal attempt to theme the ride to an Egyptian style.
Take away a good deal of light, draw focus away from the overly fake Egyptian theme, and you have an actually enticing looking entryway. The lighting makes the faux gold plating glimmer, and draws out the smooth, dark onyx paint finish on the statues. The “M” in the ride name glows almost white, and the swept sand look over the logo is easier to see. It looks almost screen accurate to the logo in the beginning of the first Mummy film. The effect looks very good in person, and makes the ride look that much more appealing.
The use of light and shadow is very key to this attraction as well. There are long, deep shadows cast into the queue of the ride, and even the lights from the locker area are dimmed to keep the appearance up!
Similar to Jurassic Park, the Mummy is brighter when viewed from afar, to give it a welcoming feeling, but much darker the closer you get. It seems like Universal is still using its movie-making strengths to foreshadow the turns the events ahead will take ahead as you progress through the plot of the ride.
Last but not least, there’s Transformers. Now, while I love the ride, and I love the lit ride logo at the front of the attraction, I’m not particularly fond of the cardboard cutout battle scene of Megatron and Optimus Prime up top. As well as Universal did with the lighting on the other Lower Lot attraction fronts, I feel like they just plain fell short on this one.
Despite that, the Transformers: The Ride logo itself looks great, and the pulse point of light that runs under the sign accentuates the futuristic and techie feel of the entire ride – it is a ride about giant robotic aliens after all.
The theming of the Transformers Vault gift shop is probably my favorite part of the Transformers exterior. It’s the brightest point of focus there, and the Autobot and Decepticon symbols outside of the vault are a nice touch.
Though it’s kind of hard to get up there at night now, the second level of the Jurassic Café is one of my favorite places to sit and just look out over the Lower Lot. The view of the three rides is wonderful, and the lights and music come together to really make it stand out. There’s color, there’s a feeling of both excitement and mystery, there’s music, and a promise of adventure and a good time.
As you’re leaving, you’re greeted with the same scene you entered on – pinpricks of light from the upper windows of the show buildings, the glow from torches, the spotlights that pierce the skyline, the soft blue glows from around the lot, and the thrum and whir of various ride elements and soundtracks.
This view from the Starway? That’s Los Angeles to me. A rush of color and light and sound, be it from cars zooming by on the 101, from various nightspots on Sunset Blvd, from people at home in Downtown LA, their windows lighting up the night. For an LA native, it’s familiar – comforting even.
The Lower Lot encapsulates the feeling of Los Angeles – light, sounds, the illusory feeling of Hollywood, of manufactured dreams from the movies, mixed with reality from the hard and delicate work it takes to make it happen.
So the next time you’re on your way up from or maybe even down to the Lower Lot at night, take a moment to take it in. Hopefully, you see what I mean.
Adriana Morgan – also known by her internet handle Miss Betty Juice – is a contributing editor for Inside Universal.
Adriana made her first trip to Universal in 1995 during Nickelodeon’s Big Help-A-Thon, and was hooked from day one. Since that first trip, her passion for films and for Universal Studios has grown, and she continues to enjoy the park and its history today as an annual passholder and a reporter for Inside Universal. Her areas of Universal expertise include Jurassic Park, the Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue, and the Studio Tour.
Adriana currently resides in Los Angeles. You can reach her at her blog on Tumblr at MyUniversalExperience.tumblr.com.