LOS ANGELES - Disneyland remains the most popular Southern California theme-park attraction, drawing 16.1 million guests in 2011, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. But visitors to the Southland have several non-Disney options.
In May, Universal Studios Hollywood opened a new Transformers ride, and Knott's Berry Farm continues to blend a mix of old and new attractions.
Transformers at Universal
It's tough to describe Universal's entertaining new Transformers: The Ride 3-D attraction because it is a motion simulator that also moves. Imagine the 3-D projection of a Star Tours-like flight simulator but in a vehicle on a track like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland (or the Dinosaur ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida).
Vehicles follow a 2,000-foot track to 14 different scenes that blend practical props in the foreground with a 3-D movie on 60-foot-tall screens. Basically, this ride puts you in a "Transformers" movie, which was the goal of ride designers, including show producer Chick Russell.
"Most other rides feel like you're riding while looking at other things happening," he said. "With this you feel as if you're in the action itself and being affected by it."
After snaking through a queue, visitors encounter ride attendants dressed in military garb who hand out 3-D glasses (aka "protective battle eyewear") while barking orders: "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" they shout as they hustle guests into ride vehicles.
There's all sorts of backstory during the wait to ride, but it basically boils down to this: Riders travel in a Transformer named EVAC -- a 12-person combat vehicle -- and have to keep the All-Spark device away from evil Decepticon leader Megatron.
During the ride there are encounters with popular Autobot Bumblebee and revered leader Optimus Prime, voiced by actor Peter Cullen, who also supplied the voice for the character in the 1980s cartoons and the more recent Michael Bay movies.
Mercifully, Transformers: The Ride 3-D does not suffer from the same acute visual blur featured in the "Transformers" films, so it's easier to follow what's going on, including a battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron and a wild ride through an empty office building. Along the way there are water, wind, heat and smoke effects.
"It's a flight simulator on wheels that enables you to be completely enveloped in the 'Transformers' world, and by adding visual special effects you're not only inside this world but you can actually feel when a warhead comes at your head and you feel the heat above you," Russell said. "The real magic of this attraction is we were able to blend dimensional sets with media onscreen so you cannot tell the difference. There's a helicopter set piece that matches a similar piece in the media. It's done in such a way with lighting you cannot tell the difference. When guests get on this ride they feel truly enveloped in the 'Transformers' world; like you're physically interacting with them."
Details: www.universalstudioshollywood.com or 1-800-UNIVERSAL.
Back in time at Knott's
If you plan to visit Knott's Berry Farm, a 20-minute drive from Disneyland, by all means, go there before visiting the Disney parks. Otherwise, Knott's looks like a sad ugly stepsister of a park by comparison.
But Knott's is the place to go if teenagers complain they've outgrown Disney. While Disney's rides appeal to a large swath of family members (from Junior to Grandma), Knott's thrill rides are more extreme.
Owned by Cedar Fair Parks, Knott's boasts nine coasters and five additional thrill rides.
WindSeeker, added last year, is similar to carnival swing rides of old, only on a much grander scale. Instead of swinging riders 30 feet off the ground, WindSeeker suspends them from a 301-foot tower. (The same ride was installed at Cedar Fair's Kings Island, northeast of Cincinnati, and Canada's Wonderland, northwest of Toronto.)
What distinguishes Knott's from other Cedar Fair properties is its attempt to adhere to its roots -- portions of the park first opened in 1940, 15 years before Disneyland -- while also catering to today's youth with bigger, faster, wilder rides. An Old West town exists alongside a Pony Express roller coaster; a stagecoach ride winds through the park beneath multiple coasters.
Visitors can pan for gold or circle the park on a historic steam engine, built in 1881, that's celebrating its 60th anniversary at the park this year. During a trip on the Calico Railroad in June, costumed "robbers" staged a holdup on the train.
"Who's got some money?" one cowboy robber said while holding a gun to a child's stuffed toy. (The child did not seem to be enjoying the experience.) One can't imagine cast members engaging in this kind of a lapse in judgment at Disneyland.
A one-man stage show called "Mystery Lodge" features a performer wearing a sad, ill-fitting mask to appear like an elderly Native American storyteller.
"No running please," said a Mystery Lodge attendant. "This is not a Walmart."
But Knott's does feel like the Walmart of theme parks, a run-of-the-mill place with lots of teenagers and without the Disney niceties -- not much shade and no signs at ride entrances offering an estimated wait time.
To complete the Walmart vibe, the park greets visitors with a sad marketplace selling Knott's Berry Farm preserves and lots of cheap tchotchkes, the type you'd find at Aunt Sally's Roadside Truck Stop gift shop. Most telling, one Knott's store sells Disney trinkets; you'd never find Knott's paraphernalia in a Disney gift shop.
Details: www.knotts.com or 1-714-220-5200.