Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Florida Trip: Universal Studios

Last week, after we spent two days at Disney World, we moved on to the Universal Studios parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

Universal Studios

It has been a long time since I was at Universal Studios, probably close to 12 years. The Universal Studios section of the park seemed very similar to what I remembered, other then the entrance was completely reworked to include a massive four level parking ramp and "City Walk" area that is a lot like Downtown Disney (shops, restaurants and nightclubs). The core rides were still present, but they have added or replaced a surprising number of the rides. One nice thing about Universal is the near ubiquitous Express Pass, which makes getting on most of the rides a cinch. Especially because they don't have the crowds of a Disney park.

We rode basically everything at Universal Studios, including: The Mummy, Earthquake, Twister, Men in Black, Back to the Future, Jaws, as well as watching the Terminator 2 movie.

The Mummy is the newest ride, and was my favorite of the day. The building and lead-up to the ride was elaborate, and the ride itself was pretty decent. It was a strange sort of combination simulation ride with a hint of a rollercoaster, with some 'scare you' stuff thrown in for good measure. The brochure calls it the world's first psychological thrill ride. That's marketing for you, I guess.

The Back to the Future ride, which was my favorite ride the last time I was there is dangerously close to showing its age. The massive screen technique for a simulator ride was OK, but not nearly as impressive as it was 12 years ago when there wasn't anything else like it. Now it seemed to be eclipsed by even more elaborate rides like Mission to Mars at Disney, or even the Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure. It was still fun, but it probably won't be the next time I go to Universal.

The worst ride in my opinion was probably a tie between Twister and Earthquake. I've been on Earthquake before, so I knew full well what to expect. The bigger disappointment was the Twister ride, which isn't much a ride, more of a 'stand there and watch a staged fake tornado' thing. The various warning signs built it up to be this intense action sequence, but it really didn't do much for me. It was just too detatched to be standing there watching something happen on a sound stage in front of me. On the other hand, my Mom really liked it, so your mileage might vary.

One disappointment was that the Shrek 4D movie didn't have Express Pass, and sported stupidly long 90 minute waits pretty much all day long when we were there. I would have liked to see it, but wasn't willing to wait that long. We were even planning to go back early one morning and wait if the line was closer to 45 minutes, but were dissuaded by huge crowds stampeding into Islands of Adventure, making us nervous about missing out on rides there.

Islands of Adventure

Islands of Adventure is a more traditional amusement park, along the lines of a Six Flags/Great America, featuring mostly roller coasters, flume rides, power towers and the like. The walking area of IoA is about the size of walking area at Six Flags in Chicago, but the park doesn't feature quite as many rides as Six Flags over Chicago. It has two or three roller coasters depending on how you count (The Dueling Dragons coaster has two separate and distinct tracks). IoA also has two flume rides, a power tower (Dr. Doom's Fear Fall), a river raft ride, a simulator ride (Spiderman), and a host of miscellaneous rides.

We rode The Hulk coaster, the 'Fire' side of the Dueling Dragons, the Spiderman ride, the Fear Fall, the Jurrasic Park flume ride, and went on Poseidon's Fury.

The Fear Fall ride was a bit of a disappointment, as it wasn't as tall as the power tower ride at the local Valleyfair amusement park, and other then the initial launch didn't even get you moving very fast.

The Spiderman ride was a long wait to get on, but was very well done. It uses a giant screen and open-top car technique like Back to the Future, but is much more smoothly done. Plus the car actually moves through the ride from screen to screen, and they use 3D movie effects, so it is very convincing.

The two coasters we went on were very cool. The Hulk coaster was one of the best above-the-track coasters I have been on, with a lot of exciting twists, turns and loops. The 'Fire' coaster was an under-the-track variety which are probably my favorite type. There is just something about having your feet flying out into the clear blue sky on a loop that I think is cool.

Poseidon's Fury win the dubious honor of being the worst attraction I have ever seen at any major amusement park. It was mind bogglingly bad, and completely unexpected because the building and surrounding architecture was extremely elaborate and impressive looking. Once we got inside, Poseidon's Fury turned out not to be any sort of ride, but an acted play that made the Great Movie ride look like an oscar winner. After the first couple rooms, and a walk through a kind of cool water tunnel I kept expecting that now we would get into a car and go on the actual ride. Instead, they just kept throwing more and more terrible acting and silly movie clips at us. The absolute worst moment was the climactic 'battle' between Poseidon and Darkanon, which turned out to be two blurry guys in terrible costumes projected onto big movie screens.

Overall, the Universal parks are clearly second-tier theme parks, at least as the ones in Orlando go. They just can't compete with the seamless experience provided by Disney World. As an example, at Universal they make you rent lockers outside of each ride to store any backpacks you might have with. They don't charge for the lockers, but they make you go through a clumsy fingerprint reader interface to reserve a locker. When you get out of the ride, then you have remember your four digit locker code and go through another set of screens to unlock it again. The catch is that one screen controls about 25 lockers, and no others. So when it is crowded those screens get long lines of people trying to figure out how to scan their finger twice, how to get their locker unlocked, trying to remember which one they used, etc. The end result is that you spend a significant amount of time in line just to store and retrieve your stuff. Disney just builds storage areas into each car and saves all the hassle. Obviously that isn't possible for the rollercoasters, but there was no excuse for it on the simulator rides.

Another example is the pricing at Universal. While their tickets are a bit cheaper then Disney World (~$50 a day versus ~$60), everything else is gouged to make up the difference. For example, parking is a dollar more, and food is a lot more. While they have more food choices, it was around 5-7 dollars more per lunch meal for 2 people. Similarly a 20oz bottle of pop that was $2 a Disney was $2.66 at Universal because they price it 49 cents more plus charge tax.

All in all it just combined to give me the impression of a tourist trap, that tries to lure you in with their lower prices only to stick it to you once you are in the door.

That is not to say that we didn't have fun there, we certainly did. I particularly liked the newer rides at Islands of Adventure, and the latest ride at Universal Studios. Both parks could probably be done in a single long day, if the crowds were just a little lighter then when we were there. The day we were at Universal Studios, we had ridden basically everything by about 2pm, and were done with Islands of Adventure by 3:30pm. A little lighter crowds, and better knowledge of which rides could have been skipped and we easily could have seen both parks.

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