Walt Disney World opened in 1971, and for nearly twenty years it was the only destination theme park resort in Florida. While predated by Busch Gardens Tampa, that wasn't a park that visitors made a special trip to Florida to see. On the other hand, particularly once the second and third gate opened, Walt Disney World was a vacation itself, with tourists traveling to the sunshine state just to immerse themselves in the magic.
In 1990, Universal Studios Florida opened their gates. Poised as a competitor to Disney, the park initially was a failure. However, they got back on their feet and began a process of rapid expansion. Within 10 years, the two park Universal Orlando Resort was no longer just somewhere to go for a day, but a viable add-on to a Disney vacation. It was almost always looked at as a secondary option, somewhere to spend a couple days at a lower rate to dodge some of the rising costs of Disney. However, in 2010, the Florida theme park market was forever changed by the arrival of a certain boy wizard. With the massive success of a single attraction, the entire industry has changed course. But is it for the better?
Part 8: The World of Universal
Universal Orlando Resort...to many, the most dynamic place in the themed entertainment industry. To some, it has beaten Disney at their own game, with the most innovative and cutting edge attractions ever seen. To others, it is simply a place to go experience a slice of their favorite worlds of fantasy and sci-fi. To me, it was a little of both, but more than that it was home to the attractions that essentially got me into the theme park fandom. While I didn't become particularly active in the community until some time later, it was right around the turn of the millennium that I started to become interested in theme parks, and back then a little park called Islands of Adventure dominated much of the TV coverage (back then, the internet was much, much smaller).
Due to the schedule for this trip, I ended up visiting the Universal Orlando Resort for the better part of four days (two full days, and two half days) scattered throughout. As a result, I opted to purchase an annual pass to the resort for this trip, as it was just $30 more than a two-day park-to-park ticket. Additionally, the group changed with each visit...Andrew, Brittney, Dan, Evan, and Sean all joined me for at least one day, and there was no day where I was completely alone (though I did go solo for a few hours of one). Thanks to this flexibility, there was almost no strategy associated with these parks...we just rode what we felt like, revisiting favorites, trying things we hadn't done yet, and consulting friends about what they'd like to do. As a result, this particular report is going to largely follow my first day at the resort (on which I was accompanied by Andrew and Brittney), but I'll throw in attractions we didn't do later where they make sense.
While we generally didn't start our Universal days at opening, for my first day at the resort I insisted on it. Therefore, after a breakfast at IHOP we got to the resort a little before nine. I got my pass processed, then it was time to begin. So, which park to start at? Obviously, the first.
Universal Studios Florida
While I only live about an hour from Universal Studios Hollywood, it is not a park I visit regularly. I do enjoy the park, but the revisit value is lower than anywhere else in So Cal except perhaps Legoland sans kids. With only about a dozen attractions, it is difficult to enjoy a full day there without running out of stuff to do. Harry Potter helped, but in my opinion USH is better termed an "8 hour park" than a "full day park." More than once, I've found myself simply re-riding the Lower Lot attractions to fill time until rush hour is somewhat clear.
At Universal Studios Florida, this is not the case in any way, shape or form. The park itself has about twice as many attractions as the Hollywood park, and is easily a full day adventure for a first time visitor. Here, guests can ride through Gringotts with Harry Potter, aid Evac in protecting the Allspark from Megatron, tackle aliens in a job interview for the Men in Black, and escape from Imhotep on a runaway mine cart, among other highly themed immersive experiences.
So, naturally, I went to the least "Universal" attraction first. Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit, a Maurer X-Car coaster, dominates the front of the park. The ride looks quite impressive, with a vertical chain lift hill, non-inverting loop, and a number of twists, turns, and hops above Production Central. Plus, the entire ride is set to a song of your choice. It looks like it should be a great coaster...but it isn't. Unfortunately, due largely to the train design, the ride is quite uncomfortable, with a lot of shaking and rattling as it rolls along the track. It isn't painful in the same way some older looping coasters can be, and it isn't bad per-se, but it should be far better than it is. Over four days, I only did three rides, despite never seeing a line longer than 20 minutes for it...that should say something about the quality of the coaster.
After our ride, we headed down the street to Revenge of the Mummy. This attraction is one of a handful duplicated in California, but the two attractions are alike in name and ride system only. Florida's installation of the coaster not only features a much more elaborate queue and about twice as many dark ride elements as California's, but it is also a longer ride (though still a tad short) with a false ending featuring a really neat fire effect. My only negative about Florida's ride is that I prefer the storyline in California...there you're visiting an actual Egyptian tomb, not a movie set meant to replicate one. Other than that, Florida's ride is superior in every way, and actually wound up being my favorite in the studios park.
Once we got off Mummy, we had about 20 minutes before our return time for Jimmy Fallon, so we did a ride on Transformers The Ride 3D (identical to California's...a very good ride, but not quite top tier IMO), then it was time for a Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. When this attraction was announced, I wasn't a fan of the idea, and nothing I saw changed my opinion. However, I did go in with an open mind. The "queue," if you can call it that, is an attraction in itself, with lots of displays, interactive elements, and even a live show to keep guests entertained. The ride itself, unfortunately, is quite a disappointment. Perhaps it's because I don't watch Jimmy Fallon that much or because I'm not a huge fan of 3D attractions in the first place, but the ride seemed like little more than an advertisement for Fallon's show, with nothing but a stream of references that make no sense to non-viewers. I can see how some might enjoy that, but for me the concept is just too weak to make this a worthwhile attraction. Excluding the Woody Woodpecker kiddie coaster (which I did ride), this one ended up as my least favorite attraction in the studios park.
With the front of the park completed, we began to make our way around the lagoon. Opting to travel counter-clockwise, this made our first destination E.T. Adventure. On paper, this ride sounds like a knockoff of Peter Pan's Flight: Guests board flying bicycles and join E.T. on a trip to his home planet. The ride is extremely dated and cheesy, but for whatever reason I found it way more enjoyable than I expected. In addition to being one of the few attractions at the park with practical effects rather than screens, it is also the only remaining attraction from USF's opening year. For those reasons, I really hope it remains for some time to come, and I'm very glad Nintendo will be added without disturbing this attraction.
Beyond the outdated Woody Woodpecker Kidzone, we next passed through Springfield, home of the Simpsons. The main attraction here is the Simpsons Ride, a familiar attraction from California that I gave a token ride on a later day of the trip.
This day, however, my sights were set on a ride at the far end of the lagoon: Men in Black Alien Attack. When this ride opened, it was met with rave reviews, and even today many still consider it the best interactive attraction ever built. The ride starts with a preshow clearly meant to make fun of Disney's attractions, then guests step aboard a secret elevator to try out for the Men in Black. A long, highly detailed queue (that was never full enough to fully appreciate) leads to the station. Here, the uniqueness of this ride is first revealed...unlike every other shooting dark ride I know of, on this one you are competing against not just your seatmates, but riders on a vehicle running parallel to yours. The ride begins as expected, but then things take a turn when you're thrust into a battle with actual aliens, rendered on full sets with plenty of animatronics. From here, the ride gets more and more intense until it's time to "push the red button" and find out if you got the job or not. Is it the best shooting dark ride ever? As much as I love the new Justice League attraction at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I have to say yes. Men in Black is the most re-rideable attraction at the studios park, and is probably the most purely fun ride at Universal Orlando. I did this one a half dozen times, with at least one ride on each day of my visit. It's just that good.
Beyond the World Expo, the waterfront transitions to the settings of San Francisco. Before going that far, however, a small slice of London interrupts your travels. While this facade seems fairly pedestrian, behind it lays the most immersive theme park environment ever built. Welcome...to Diagon Alley!
As a rule of thumb, I consider a themed area to be only as good as the attractions it holds. In my opinion, elaborate theming and immersion are very pleasant to look at, but if the area is not anchored by a top notch attraction it isn't somewhere I'm going to spend much time. Part of that may be due to being a ride person, but for the most part I think it's largely that no land can completely erase the feel that you're inside a theme park. Try as they might to provide a truly immersive experience, Cars Land feels off when populated by humans, Pandora feels a bit too manufactured to be an alien planet, and snowy Hogsmede isn't convincing in sunny Southern California. Diagon Alley, however, is an exception to the rule.
Walking into this land, I felt as if I had left behind Universal Studios and instead entered a film set open to visitors. Everything on the streets is absolutely perfect, with details replicated to exactly portray the world first seen in 2001. Here, the themed area was an attraction itself, and it was so perfect that on one of my days I spent over an hour wandering the area and checking everything out. If it weren't for the crowds, I could probably have spent several hours looking at everything, but this is by far the most popular section of the entire resort.
Of course, Diagon Alley is not without a ride of its own. Here, the signature attraction is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Part roller coaster, part dark ride, this attraction draws inspiration from the first act of the final film. It begins with the best queue I've ever seen on a theme park attraction, taking guests through the lobby of Gringotts, into the back offices for a visit with Bill Weasley, and then down an elevator to board a mine cart for a tour. No expense was spared here, with everything detailed to the nth degree. Sadly, the quality didn't carry over to the actual ride, which largely consists of stopping in front of a screen to watch events play out before guests proceed to the next one. Don't get me wrong, it's still a very good ride, but it really could have been so much more. With a bit more to the coaster portions, a few animatronics, and a story that didn't violate established canon (at least not explicitly), this may have been the best ride ever built. As it stands, it is at the lower end of the top tier for me...one I'd absolutely consider a must ride, but not one I crave another spin on (in fact, I didn't even manage one ride per day...it's just not worth the wait times).
Beyond London lies the previously mentioned San Francisco area. At the moment, this area is just a couple shops and restaurants. Next year, however, it will be home to the brand new Fast and Furious: Supercharged attraction, a 4D dark ride similar to Skull Island over at the other park. It should be a pretty good ride, though probably not one worth a special trip if you've done Skull Island and/or aren't a fan of the franchise.
And...we're now back where we started. While USF is definitely larger than USH, it is by no means a large park. Including all of the backstage area, I'd estimate the park is probably about 80 acres...slightly smaller than the original Disneyland, and smaller than three of WDW's parks by a significant margin. Given that the park only has 18 rides, the size feels appropriate, and it also makes it easy to explore.
Universal parks aren't just about the rides, however. USF is full of shows, ranging from small streetmosphere performances to full blown theater productions. Partly due to schedules and partly due to interest, I only took in two of these attractions, both on the last of my four days at the resort.
First up, Terminator 2: 3-D Battle Across Time. My trip coincidentally worked out to allow me to catch one final performance of this excellent show in the week prior to its closure. Put bluntly, this is my favorite movie-based theme park show by a significant margin. Not only is the movie itself a great extension of the franchise, but the inclusion of live actors and clever use of in-theater effects adds another dimension to the performance that a standard 3D/4D theater can't quite capture. It feels like the action is truly taking place around the audience, not like you're just watching a movie. I may be slightly biased as Terminator 2 is one of my all-time favorite movies (fun fact...seeing this show at USH is what prompted me to watch the Terminator films), but even without that it's an excellent show that will be missed.
The other show I watched was the Universal Horror Make-Up Show. An expansion of the old special effects stages in California, this show is 30 minutes of watching a horror movie artist do his thing. The show is a bit heavier on the film examples and lighter on actual demonstrations than I'd like, but it is still a highly entertaining show thanks to the antics of the hosts. It's not something worth repeat viewings, but it's well worth one watch, particularly for anyone who has ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in order to make everything work on camera.
With that, it's now time to head back to London and board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade. I'll give an overall summary of the park at the end, but for now I'll say this...Universal Studios Florida is undoubtedly better than Universal Studios Hollywood. Unlike the latter, it feels like a complete full-day park. That said, it is not a top tier park on its own.
Before I get into the other park, I just want to take a moment to talk about the Hogwarts Express. I know some people who absolutely love this attraction, and I know others who view it as nothing more than a fancy way to travel between parks. I look at it like this...the Hogwarts Express is a full themed attraction the first time you ride it, and everyone should try it at least once. After that, however, it loses its appeal as an attraction and is only really useful if you're trying to get from one park to the other. The effect isn't quite convincing enough to be fully believable, and with the same show playing on each ride (there's a different show for each direction), it's not that repeatable as a ride. So, is it worth buying a park-to-park ticket just for this ride? Absolutely not. However, if you buy a park-to-park ticket, should you ride this? Absolutely. Should you buy a park-to-park ticket? That depends on a few factors, and I'll discuss that later.
Now, onward to adventure...
Universal Studios Islands of Adventure
As mentioned, Islands of Adventure was the hot topic when I was just discovering the theme park fan community, and when it opened in 1999 it featured some of the most amazing rides the world had ever seen. Here, guests could step into familiar worlds and explore them not as viewers, but as occupants. Originally, the park hosted islands themed to Marvel comics, classic cartoons, Jurassic Park, mythology, and Dr. Seuss. Today, Harry Potter and King Kong have joined the circle, each with their own exclusive areas. Unlike the studios park, Islands of Adventure dispenses with the idea that guests are "riding the movies" and instead goes with the idea that the movies are real. There's no studio set show here...it's all portrayed as a real location.
On my first visit to this park, I arrived via Hogsmeade around 1 P.M. Despite the fact that this area exists in California, I still took the time to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (still one of the best dark rides out there, and much better than Gringotts IMO) and Flight of the Hippogriff (it's a credit...what can I say). But my main target in this area was a legendary beast that had resided here since opening day...or, to be more accurate, a pair of them. Some may call it Dragon Challenge, but to many it goes by a different name.
If you've been following along with this trip report, you'll recall that my trip occurred on September 24th to October 4th. If you've been following what goes on in Florida, you'll also recall that Dragon Challenge closed for good on September 4th. So, how is this possible? Did I find a way to travel back in time? Is that a fake photo, or one I didn't take? No, the answer is must simpler than that.
It is at this point that I must confess I have not been entirely truthful. While the dates of my trip are accurate, my first visit to Universal Orlando actually occurred over a month before on Friday, August 11th. You see, I'd been hearing rumors for a year or two that Dragon Challenge likely did not have long to live, and I wanted to make sure to get to Florida before it went away forever. When the rumors intensified in early 2017, I decided that no matter what it would be the year I'd finally do a Florida trip. Originally, I was planning to go in the spring, but for a variety of reasons a fall trip made more sense. My hunch was that Dragon Challenge would close following the conclusion of the Halloween season, so I planned my trip around that. Unfortunately, once planning was about 80% complete, the announcement dropped...I'd be missing the ride by just a few weeks. That night, I started searching for a way to get to Universal before the ride closed, and as luck would have it a solution presented itself. Andrew happens to work for Frontier Airlines, and he generously offered to fly me out to Florida on a buddy pass and show me around for a day. Therefore, I did what many would consider crazy...fly overnight from California to Florida, spend a day at Universal Orlando, sleep, and then fly home the next morning. But why do this for a single attraction, especially one that is just a B&M Inverted coaster? I've ridden over a dozen of those. Well...Dueling Dragons is very likely the reason I joined the enthusiast community, as it was the first attraction I saw that made me want to travel to theme parks beyond California.
Sadly, I was unable to get any good photos of the ride due to Universal's locker policy, so here's a link to RCDB's photo album:Dragon Challenge.
So, was the ride worth the trip? I'm going to be brutally honest...yes and no. It was so meaningful to me that I got a chance to ride that coaster, as it is one I'd wanted to try for 18 years. However, without the dueling aspect that the ride was designed to have, it was little more than a pair of fairly average inverted coasters. By anyone's definition, the coaster was a good ride, but among the B&Ms of Florida it was probably my least favorite, and among the major attractions at Universal Orlando it was probably the least unique. Now, in the ride's original incarnation, I fully believe it was one of the best coaster experiences ever built. With the original highly themed queue and a course that sent two trains of riders within a foot or so of each other at full speed, it was definitely one of a kind. Sadly, the lack of common sense among theme park guests killed the dueling aspect, and Harry Potter killed the theme, leaving the coaster as a pair of inverts slightly better than a Batman clone. On that day, I rode each track twice...for me, that was enough. Unlike some coaster enthusiasts, I do not hate Universal for removing the ride...by the day it closed, it was a diminished experience that didn't fit well within the park. However, it's sad that many of the more unique rides are giving way for rides differentiated largely by the featured IP than by what they are capable of. This applies across the board, not just to roller coasters, and is as much a problem at Disney and Universal as it is at Six Flags or Cedar Fair. While I'm not holding my breath, perhaps there will be a day in the future where a new form of the Dragons will rise. Only time will tell.
By the time we finished exploring Hogsmeade, it was approaching 2 P.M. and we were ready for lunch. Naturally, the Three Broomsticks came up as a suggestion, but I've been there several times in California. Therefore, we opted to venture a short distance into the Lost Continent, where we found a former winner of Theme Park Insider's "Best Theme Park Restaurant" award.
Unlike Disney, I did not do much research on dining prior to visiting Universal Orlando. However, Mythos was one restaurant I knew was a must visit. From the outside, the architecture is excellent, fitting in with the ancient Mediterranean look of the Lost Continent. Inside, a maze of passageways and caverns leads to a large dining area with impeccable detail on every surface. While it lacks the story aspect found in Disney's restaurants, Mythos may be the best themed restaurant as far as atmosphere is concerned. While I don't know that I'd say the food itself is the best ever, it is definitely in the upper tier of theme park dining, and given the very reasonable prices I absolutely recommend a meal here. I actually wound up visiting again on my last Universal day as Evan had never been here before (despite several Florida trips in recent years), and while I got similar things both visits (both burgers/sandwiches...I forget exactly which), I really enjoyed each.
Full from lunch, it was time to take in the rest of the Islands. Picking a direction semi-randomly, we headed clockwise and found ourselves in Seuss Landing.
Despite the general ridiculousness of the worlds within Dr. Seuss books, Universal rendered the area in three dimensional reality with perfection. Hardly anything is straight here, from buildings that look like they shouldn't stand up to palm trees imported from areas damaged by Hurricane Andrew.
Like its source material, Seuss Landing is geared toward the younger set, but the rides are accessible to all. We took a ride on the the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride for a nice aerial tour of this section of the park, then headed over to the most bizarre dark ride on Universal property.
Of Dr. Seuss's works, The Cat in the Hat is likely one of the most well known. At Islands of Adventure, this classic children's book is adapted as a dark ride through the story. Rendered with full animatronic scenes, virtually everything from the original story is included here. It is, more or less, Universal's take on a Fantasyland dark ride. The attraction itself is entertaining, bizarre, quirky, and a bit dated all at once, but it absolutely something that needs to be seen in person.
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