The Best Ride In The Best Theme Park
Updated: Sep 8
The very first time I went to see Universal Studios Japan, it wasn’t by choice. I couldn’t understand how Sanrio, Dreamworks and classic Hollywood Characters could fit into the same theme park, so I didn’t want to go. But I went since a friend of a friend needed me for market research. I wasn’t much of a theme park person, so once I was there I wasn’t really sure what to do. Nothing particularly piqued my interest. I hesitantly took the Terminator 2:3D ride, expecting it to be terribly lame and dated. But I was so wrong!
There is a very good reason that few websites if any describe the Terminator 2:3D experience. That is partly because there are few words that could adequately describe it. So much of it depends on being in the moment. So much of it relies upon the masterful way Universal Studios constructs virtual experiences; where the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred.
So, in this report, I will do my best to describe my own personal experience of the ride without giving away too many of its secrets. I’ll also attempt to give you advice on how to make the most of your own visit.
(Me at the entrance of the Cyberdyne building, 2019.)
Yes, I loved the Movie
When I was a child, Terminator 2 was probably one of the most formative pieces of media I had encountered. I likely watched it 10 times throughout my childhood, and when given the chance I will watch it again now, even if I feel the digitally remastered version removed too many of the colours that made the original visually engaging.
In its time, Terminator 2 was completely ground breaking in terms of visual effects, cinematography, story, characters and use of pop-cultural archetypes. Prior sci-fi action thrillers existed, some with strong female protagonists, but mostly with butch, musclebound heroes, usually played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. So, a film with both strong male and female role models was and still remains highly unusual. The combination of car chases, unconventional fight scenes and explosions guaranteed a dramatic thrill ride at every viewing.
So, how was this film going to translate into a theme-park ride?
The Ride Is Misnamed.
To call the ride, “Terminator 2:3D” creates the wrongful impression that the ride will simply be a re-tread of the film in ride form. I imagine some people would have even thought that the ride was simply a screening of the film in 3D format. But in truth, it’s so much more. Rather than a ride, I would prefer to describe it as a 6D cinema experience. The storyline of the ride serves as a sequel to the film, in that it builds on the essential themes and concepts, taking them to whole new places. John Conner (played by Edward Furlong) is much older and the ride shows us that he and his mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) have been on the run and have continued to try to interfere with Cyberdyne since the end of the film. A Terminator T-800 returns in time to rescue John and Sarah from another T-1000 who is attempting to kill them both.
But soon after this, the ride deviates significantly from the movie, in that the T-800 actually takes John into the distant future to see what has become of humanity, and how powerful Cyberdyne has become. As a result, these scenes include forms of technology the film doesn’t and fight scenes that really play up the 3D quality of the ride. You also get the sense that while John Connor is still a young rogue, he has matured and become somewhat more practical and responsible, if a little defeated.
But the thing that makes the ride truly worth visiting is the simple fact that it includes an array of effects and aspects that would be impossible to create in a conventional theatre. The Terminator 2:3D hall has been specially fitted with practical, 3D, panoramic, robotic and cinematic effects. These are all combined in ways that make the ride almost completely inexplicable, never mind reproducible.
Will it make You Queasy?
3D attractions used to make me nervous. I had attempted to watch 3D at Imax in Melbourne back when it was a new concept and it gave me the worst headache I had ever experienced. So, I was expecting the 3D attractions at Universal Studios Japan to have a similar effect on me. But that isn’t what happened! Technology has progressed a lot since the 90’s, and so the odds of becoming sickly in this experience are low. And even if you do start to feel unwell, you can always close your eyes or take off the 3D glasses.
However, I do not recommend sitting closer to the front than the fifth row, and I would recommend sitting in the twelfth to fifteenth for multiple reasons I am about to explain.
So Close, Yet So Far
One of the things that makes the Terminator attraction remarkable is the use of live actors to create the illusion that you are in the room with the real characters. But this illusion hinges entirely on your inability to see the faces of the actors.
The 3D technology is highly sophisticated and realistic, but I found that if I sat too close to the front it too would start to function poorly for my eyes. I find that my eyes aren’t as strong as they used to be and so not everyone might find this to be a problem. But it’s something worth considering, particularly if you wear glasses.
My recommendation is to sit on the far left of the theater, at least behind the aisle that divides the front and back portions of the theater. But you have to choose your position before you actually go in. The staff will discourage you from choosing your aisle once you’re in the theater, wanting you to simply file in to the seats closest to you. So your best chance of sitting behind the partition is to pick one of the doors towards the back of the room when the staff start to file you from the pre-show lobby into the theatre hall.
The first time I ever took the Termintor 3D experience, I was very lucky. I got to sit right behind the partition, beside my boyfriend of the time. Edward Furlong would have been around twenty during the filming of the ride footage, so he was incredibly young and handsome. Since I was sitting right behind the partition, I got to see the actor playing John Connor up close. At the time, the actors all wore special masks that hid their faces in synthetic shadow. But more importantly, this actor had the young Edward Furlong’s gestures and idiosyncrasies down to an art; that same vibe of mischief, irony and danger that made the original actor so enthralling for teenage girls in the 90’s. So, it felt very much as if, somehow, I had traveled back in time to 1998 and the young Edward Furlong was within arm’s reach of me. I even felt some of the wind of him rushing past me. It might have been the combination of the way the ride head-trips you alongside the hormones coursing through my body due to the company of my previous amour. But I was hypnotized by how cool, how exciting, how nostalgic it was to see young Edward Furlong in action. As soon as I left the ride, I wanted to buy some Terminator Merchandise and take the ride again, but it was too late in the day to do either. Within the two years that followed my attendance, I collected half of Edward Furlong’s films on DVD or Google Play. And I was compelled to return to USJ and take the ride as many times as I could. However, when I returned I found that sessions where I sat closer to the front were significantly less enjoyable. It was easier to see that the actors weren’t really the characters they were playing, especially since not all the actors wore the special masks this time. So, the illusion was broken for me. If I were to return again, I would sit much further to the back, and just let my eyes follow “John Connor” around the room.
The One in Osaka is the Last One Left? At one point, it was possible to take this ride in Universal Studio locations in Orlando, Florida and Osaka. But over time, the Orlando and Florida locations closed, much to the dismay of ardent fans of the ride. People blamed a lack of attendance or the changing times.
But when I watch footage from the Florida and Orlando locations, I notice that they made a fatal error the Osaka location doesn’t. (Only click that link or view other footage of the ride if you want to ruin it for yourself through spoilers. The ride is so much better if you go in without having any idea what is going on.)
The US locations both attempted to adapt and adjust the ride as new Terminator films were released. 90’s footage was replaced with 00’s footage. The staff are dressed more like theme park staff, in a shirt and matching pants, and they behave something like staff from Sea World, casually encouraging you to look at the attractions, hair wild and untamed, bodies slightly overweight. Overall, the retro charms of the film were replaced by attempts to keep the ride “fresh” and “relevant” in ways that break the illusion that you’ve entered the Terminator Universe. It seems similar to the logic that created the relatively flavorless Digitally remastered version of the film.
What USJ Osaka Management seems to better understand is that people don’t revisit Terminator 2 in order to visit the future. They are attempting to revisit the specific vision of the future that people had in the 90’s. They are attempting to relive the excitement they felt when they watched Terminator 2 for the first time. They want to see it through those same un-jaded eyes, rather than to be constantly reminded of how cliched and hackneyed many of the films features later become through constant, incessant imitation and reference.
(A full size Terminator statue stands just outside the ride exit. Great place to catch a momento photo! Selfie by me, 2019.)
So, the hostess who greets you when you enter the ride is dressed fairly anachronistically. She would almost pass as an extra from the set of “Working Girl” with her power suit, perfectly groomed hair and highly stylized mannerisms. The introduction she gives is fun and humorous, partly because she is intentionally satirizing the overly-ridged office culture of the early 90’s. So, upon entering the ride, you are actively encouraged to let yourself detach from your own life, and re-enter the 90’s. And consequently, the ride seems to be much more enjoyable and engaging. The one drawback is that the ride is only in Japanese. But then, exhilaration knows no language.
When is the best time to see it? In the multiple times I’ve visited the ride, I’ve found that the largest crowds occur during the the first two sessions of the day and the afternoon sessions, while the sessions in between these seem to be noticeably quieter. I suggest seeing it with a larger crowd, simply because it makes things feel more real and atmospheric. But then, you get less seating options and lower odds of getting the seat you want.
I recommend visiting the ride when you have a lot of energy. If you’re too tired to focus your mind or eyes on the moment, you’re not going to get the most out of it.
Sessions are frequent, meaning that if you want to, it’s possible for you to attend the ride over and over in a loop till you are exhausted. But for the sake of your eyes and bladder I recommend taking breaks and only going every second session at most.
When the ride opens, the hostess is typically asking people about where they came from. If you’re feeling particularly bold, you can shout where you came from. And then, if she tries to talk to you, you can shout, “Nihongo dekimasen!” which means, “I can’t speak Japanese!”
When the experience finishes, the audience will be ushered through doors to the right of the theatre. If you look down at the ground, you’ll notice small paper flakes left over from the “shooting” part of the ride. (You'll know what I mean when you see it.) Pick one of these up and keep it as a souvenir of your visit. The staff will have to clean these up anyway, and it makes an excellent record of that moment in time. I suggest bringing a roll of sticky tape and a copy of Terminator 2 on DVD so that you can immediately tape the flake to the cover, ensuring that you don’t loose it. That way, whenever you do watch your DVD, you can be reminded of a moment where you went from being just a spectator to being part of that world.
Last time I looked, there were Terminator keyrings in the gift shop just outside the ride exit. I think I also saw Terminator pens, but they came in multi-packs with pens representing other rides.
(The main street in Universal Studios Japan. See the Cyberdine Building behind me. Taken March 2019.)