Terminator 2:3D at Universal Studios Hollywood

The first time I saw T2:3D – Battle Across Time was not in Los Angeles, but rather, in Florida at Universal Studios there. The impact and impression it left on me was deep, and as a theme park fan, it was one of those plateau moments when your jaw hits the floor and you know that you’ve just witnessed a true step forward in “E” Ticket experiences.

My journey with T2:3D began many months earlier, however. Theme Park Adventure was still in its toddler years, having launched in September of 1994. Almost right away, we began receiving press material from Universal Orlando; in those days, everything came by mail – big envelopes with brand new glossy 8×10 prints of artwork or behind the scenes images of attractions in development. I’d then pour over the press release attached and then work that into an article for the next issue of TPA’s newsletter, The Brake Zone. I’d head down to the local print shop and make color copies reduced to whatever size they needed to be in order to be pasted onto a printed page template with a messy glue stick. Once everything was laid out, the issue would go back to the printer and tons of black and white copies would be produced. I’d pick them up days later in small rectangular boxes and then take them home, where stacks of printed address labels waited on even more stacks of manila envelopes waited to be mailed off literally to locations around the world, into the hands of fans anxious to know what was happening in the theme park industry.

Hard to imagine that now, in the age of social media and smartphone technology, isn’t it? Now, if someone wants a theme park news update, it can be searched on Twitter, Googled or even watched as a video podcast on YouTube at the touch of a button or swipe of a screen. Information is instant and global.

Sounds like Cyberdyne Systems technology now!

For months, Universal Orlando fed TPA new information and pictures of a new major attraction called T2:3D. It was in fact, one of the first major attractions that we covered the making of as it was happening. Getting new mail from Florida was exciting for me as a fan; even more exciting was the knowledge that through The Brake Zone, I was putting these images and this information in the hands of fans everywhere that shared my enthusiasm and excitement. The mid-’90s were really amazing years for fans and the industry as a whole, with mega-attractions coming online from both Universal and Disney on both coasts of the United States.

I had the opportunity shortly after T2:3D had opened at Universal Studios Florida to visit Orlando for my first time; to say that I was beside myself with nervous excitement is an understatement. That was a milestone trip for me – and an awakening in that I’ll never forget; not only was it jarring to visit the major Florida parks for the first time and ride attractions I’d always heard of, I had the pleasure of wrapping my head around two world-class experiences I’d touted for months in The Brake Zone in person: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and T2:3D. It was honestly, almost too much; I was on theme park geek overload!

Specifically, I remember seeing T2:3D at Universal Florida and as soon as the show was over and I’d picked my jaw up off the floor, we went back and saw it again right away. Possibly another time after that. It was a show unlike I’d ever seen – incredible 3D effects, wowing in-theater action and live actors all based on an IP that I actually liked and was excited about! As I entered the attraction that first time, the press releases and images spun through my head from pasting them into the templates – Terminators coming out of the screen, Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing his trademark shades, and a grinning James Cameron sitting in a director’s chair on the set of the film as it was being made.

And finally, my time had come to see the attraction that I’d shared with fellow fans everywhere for months! The experience was nothing shy of magnificent, and I hold that memory very close to my heart all these years later. I returned from the faraway land of Orlando only to gush to anyone who’d listen about this insane attraction that featured the Terminator, and special effects that wasn’t a ride, but wasn’t a boring theater show, either – it was an anomaly. That’s precisely what T2:3D was, and remained for all these years: a larger-than-life, outrageous, over-the-top anomaly.

An attraction the likes of which I can’t see ever happening again, if for any reason, the sheer costs involved.

Terminator 2:3D at Universal Studios HollywoodT2:3D opened on April 27, 1996 at Universal Studios Florida to rave reviews, not only from fans, but industry-wide; designers, operators and studios bosses. It was a stunning success and so, the Terminators moved out to new battlefields. The attraction opened on May 6, 1999 in the Upper Lot area of Universal Studios Hollywood, followed two years later on March 31, 2001 at Universal Studios Japan. Regardless of region, the results were the same – thrilled guests, awed audiences and thunderous applause at the end of each show.

Landmark Entertainment, along with Universal Creative (then, known as MCA Recreation Services) and multiple high-end Iwerks projectors worked together with James Cameron and Stan Winston to bring the cast of Terminator 2: Judgment Day together once again for a multimedia spectacle unlike anyone had seen before. This massive collaborative effort was groundbreaking (and no doubt, frustrating with so many creative folks involved), signaling a new type of immersive theater experience and a massive step forward in themed entertainment technology. In short, they succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

All these years later, the show draws huge crowds and while it shows its age via effects that haven’t been properly maintained by the parks, and an IP that is not as new and shiny as it once was, T2:3D still holds its own, and I’d even say is better than many of the new attractions of today at any theme park, not just Universal properties. In my opinion, if we want to keep it to sibling rivalry, I feel that T2:3D is just as strong experience-wise, if not stronger, than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. With effects working as they once did and were intended to, T2:3D is a rock-solid, gripping experience that stands alone in the industry, of course, learning some things and taking some creative direction from Muppet*Vision 3D, which opened in May of 1991 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) in Florida, as well as Captain EO, which opened in 1986 at Disneyland.

T2:3D went on to become the undisputed granddaddy of all “4D” theater shows, without doubt, taking the medium well beyond anything that’s ever going to be done like it again. I don’t know of anyone – fan or industry player – that doesn’t give T2:3D total respect and admiration. How could they not?

It took an army of very talented, creative people – from model makers and special effects wizards, to brilliant show writers to film and sound editors – to create this glorious attraction. It is a testament to those individuals – some of them, I have the honor of now working with professionally – that T2:3D has withstood technological advances in theme park entertainment and the true test of time. Many audience members have only seen the Terminator films on disc at home; this attraction is the only version they have seen in large screen format. Yet, T2:3D was never labeled “old” or “boring” by younger fans. Indeed, T2:3D remains a cornerstone gem industry-wide, not just at Universal.

Terminator 2:3D at Universal Studios HollywoodJust days ago, during the busy Christmas season, I made my way to Universal Studios Hollywood to see T2:3D one last time before its final fade to black on New Year’s Eve. The park was seasonably busy, and the attraction’s queue was filled, overflowing to the point of employees suggesting guests return at a later show once the crowds had subsided a bit. This experience for me, is one that I never enjoy; saying goodbye to an attraction that I connect with on a personal level. The walk through the queue is slow, but we don’t complain; if anything, the constant shuffling forward is too quick, and there’s panic in trying to snap as many good shots as we can one final time, trying not to miss any detail and all the while, keeping cool and emotions in check.

Then, we walked up the ramp into the Miles Bennet Dyson Memorial Auditorium once again, and into the pre-show, where we were met one last time by Kimberly Duncan, Cyberdyne Systems Director of Community Relations and Media Control; of course, her delivery to the packed pre-show area was (say it with me now)…


The lights dimmed and we watched the pre-show video for the last time, and once it had concluded, we made our way into the big theater. The rush of humanity has always been a major turn-off for me when it comes to theater shows; without soap boxing, it’s always a nightmare, T2:3D being no exception. In the past, I always went into this without the urge to have “perfect seats”, knowing that I’d return and see the show again and again long after the tourists went home. However, on this day, I felt that deep tugging in my gut of anxiety; suddenly, it was important to have really good seats. This was the last show. Miraculously (because the crowd certainly didn’t cooperate), I ended up with the perfect seat not too far from the front, and dead center! I was shocked and thrilled!

Terminator 2:3D at Universal Studios Hollywood 2012

As the final stragglers searched for seats and Kimberly Duncan berated them mercilessly, I popped a few more images with my iPhone, and then put it away. It was time to enjoy the show as a fan, not as Theme Park Adventure. When it comes down to saying goodbye, it’s always personal; I am and always will be a fan first.

The show went off without any hitch (in-theater effects have been out of whack for a long time now, unfortunately, but I didn’t care at this point), and the actors were great, as usual. I couldn’t help but think it’s got to be hard for them too; the end of an era, and more importantly for them, their day jobs! I wish them all the best and hope they have bigger and better things lined up.

As the “cataclysmic fog” engulfed the audience at the end, I took that moment in as deeply as I could, imprinting it in my memory as best I could in almost “bullet time” slow motion; this was it. As the theater seats dropped and the finale of the show played out, I’m not at all ashamed or embarrassed to say that I had teary eyes behind my black 3D glasses. After the show ended, it was hard getting up; I wanted to sit there, and take in the applause and theater surrounding us one last time. Unfortunately for nostalgia, the masses were on their feet and another pre-show maxed to capacity was about to enter. The Battle Across Time was finally over for me.

I exited the theater as slowly as the crowd would allow, and made my way into the retail space at the exit and bought different T2:3D souvenirs. Just outside the exit, I stopped to take photos of the T2:3D photo location.

And that was it. I walked away and left Universal Studios Hollywood and T2:3D behind. I imagine the next time I go, after the turn of the new year, the marquee will have been removed, making way for Universal Creative to begin the process of gutting the building and preparing it for a new attraction.

On the flip side of the coin, the good news is, fans can still experience T2:3D at its original home in Florida, as well as in Japan. I hope to see it in Orlando the next time I head out that way; it will be like a homecoming, to see an old friend. That will be wonderful, as long as it remains open in Florida. Japan is so far away and not on my radar personally, that I doubt I’ll ever get to see it there. Here in Los Angeles, I’m going to miss “driving up the hill” to see T2:3D here; however, I am excited for our friends at Universal Studios Hollywood as the next massive evolution of that park begins and new attractions are brought in to accomplish that task. The brutal truth is, theme parks cannot be left to become stagnant, and as we grow up and older, more and more of these magnificent attractions will slowly fade into the sunset.

The outpouring of love from fans and industry folks alike online has been really nice this past week. T2:3D served as one of the greatest attractions ever in the history of Universal Studios Hollywood for over a decade. Its impact on the fan community has been widespread and undeniable. Perhaps even more important, the impression it left on the industry is long-lasting and critical; as designers, none of us will ever forget and cannot ignore the stunning brilliance with which this attraction was created over 15 years ago. As designers, we strive for this exact type of perfection and creative genius in all that we do. For me personally, T2:3D will always be spoken of with the same respect as I do other groundbreaking and industry-redefining experiences such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Men in Black and Spider-Man. It is an epic achievement that will live on in the hearts of fans far and near for the rest of our lives.

In that sense, T2:3D’s battle across time has already been won. To the cast, crew and everyone involved in its success: Thank you.

– Rick West / December 30, 2012

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