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One monster of a ride

"Control, you are clear to take down audio," Neil Engel says to his walkie-talkie.

Engel sits in a boat that has just careened down a terrifying 84-foot vertical drop that ends "Jurassic Park _ the Ride," Universal Studios Hollywood's high-tech, dinosaur thrill-ride that opened June 21.

On six acres of lush tropical landscape that rises above Engel's boat, swarms of computer techies, engineers, botanists, security dudes and designers tinker with the $100-million-plus ride, which Universal hopes will lure adrenaline junkies from the competition at Disneyland and Magic Mountain.

Only days before a big media opening, the ride was still in so-called "technical rehearsal". Technicians fiddled with headless dinosaurs. Thundering footsteps of the Tyrannosaurus rex switched on, then off.

Engel is the top designer of "Jurassic Park _ The Ride." In wire-rim glasses, cap and beard, he looks a bit like Steven Spielberg, who directed the $1-billion-grossing film that inspired this ride. Engels worked closely with Spielberg and hundreds of designers and artisans to bring Jurassic Park to life on the Universal lot.

"It feels like we are about to give birth to something," Engels said shortly before the opening.

Some "birth" this was to be: An 18-ton, animatronic T. rex, a plant-munching ultrasaurus five stories tall and a dozen other hydraulics-pumped dinosaurs. Not to mention a real rain forest of 7,441 shrubs and 1,279 trees and a 13-story "genetics lab," a house of horror where mayhem is visited on the ride's boat-bound "guests."

Attendance figures have soared more than 40 percent since the ride opened, setting an all-time daily attendance of more than 43,000 on July 5 _ a whopping 22 percent increase over the previous record of 35,200.

Universal says the new attraction can move 3,000 visitors per hour on its 25-passenger tour boats. In less than six minutes, it attempts to mirror Spielberg's movie, blending the dappled ambiance of a primordial landscape with terror. The big-money effects are a series of frightening encounters with T. rex and company, and the heart-stopping plunge that Universal is calling the fastest drop of any waterborne amusement ride.

Work on "Jurassic Park _ The Ride" began six years ago, when Universal executives realized, well before Spielberg's movie, that Michael Crichton's book was a natural for their theme park.

Engels says that Spielberg wanted the dinosaurs to be realistic to the naked eye. And he also wanted the ride to tell a story.

"What we wanted is for people to go, "There was this, there was that, then there was this, and then that,"' Engels says.

"We wanted it to be a seamless involvement in the story of the movie. We didn't want people to say, "That was a great drop. Let's ride it again."'

Like the movie, the Jurassic Park ride relies on technical wizardry to sell the idea of realism. The movements of the velociraptors, dilophosauruses and ultrasauruses are produced by the latest in computer-driven hydraulics technology.

Some of the dinosaurs cost more than $1-million each. The realism has to be high, Universal executives say, because these dinosaurs come within inches of the public.

In one of the more sedate, early scenes of the ride, a long-necked ultrasaurus reaches over the boat to take a drink of water. Later, in a darker moment, T. rex gets up close and personal. Very up close and personal.

The ride parallels the plot of Spielberg's film: A peaceful boat ride through lagoons and rivers is interrupted by a disturbance in the dreaded Carnivore Canyon, where the dangerous velociraptors are penned behind an electrified fence.

The boat is thrown off-course when a submerged 'raptor suddenly jars the craft, sending it through a giant water duct into the darkness of the labyrinthine genetics lab, where the most dangerous dinosaurs _ you got it, T. rex _ are kept for experiments.