Florida 2012 – day 10 – Universal Studios and Islands Of Adventure (again)

(some photos repeated)

We’ve now reached that point in our Florida holiday when we return to the parks to resample everything. Of course, for those of you reading it would be pretty boring if we didn’t do anything new. So, instead of doing a day plan of what we did, I will instead review the parks themselves in more detail – which I realise I’ve already mostly done (I think) in the case of Magic Kingdom (as we visited it just once), but now we’ll move on to the other parks.

On this day we went to Islands Of Adventure and Universal Studios, so here we go – both of those parks, in full.

Islands Of Adventure used to be my favourite park in the world, or so I thought at the time. We first went there in 2004 and fell in love with the Hulk, though somehow Dueling Dragons was my favourite coaster of the two at the time (yes, I know Dueling Dragons, or Dragon Challenge, is technically two coasters, but I’m counting it as one as they’re broadly the same experience to someone who’s not paying much attention, like me). We went again in 2006 and the Hulk emerged as my favourite, but the park had a “been there, done that” feel. Mainly because I had been there and done that. 2009 came and went, and the park was okay. We had gone with two other people who’d never been there and I feel this did contribute to the park and the holiday overall.

So now, in 2012, what do I think of the park?

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Firstly, it’s easy to see what Universal were trying to do with IoA, and that is to out-do Disney and the Magic Kingdom, but make it more current and marketable for teenagers. Which, in many cases, they’ve done. IoA looks largely fantastic, the rides are modern and the franchises a good choice.

But that leads me to my first gripe, which I guess is a case of IoA trying to out-do Disney – everything is themed.

IOA Toon Lagoon 03

Of course everything is themed in Magic Kingdom and the requisite Disney parks too (though not necessarily on Disney cartoons, though a film of Jungle Cruise is apparently coming up) but the lands themselves are NOT themed to a single property. Adventure Land, for instance, has Pirates Of The Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Swiss Family Treehouse and some Aladdin ride. Tomorrow Land has Monsters Inc, Stitch, Toy Story, People Mover, Space Mountain and various others I’ve forgotten.

However, in the case of IoA, the lands themselves are themed to a single property or group of properties. We’ve got Marvel Land, Comic Strip / Old Cartoon Land, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter Land, and Seuss Landing. The only areas of the park that allow for some more flexible properties are the vanishing remnants of the Lost Continent (which may as well be put out of it’s misery, and is fantasy-themed anyway) and the Port Of Entry, which is a ride-less entryway and giftshop area. In the meantime, any new attraction going in will have to be themed to a specific property. How can a teacup ride be themed to the Marvel properties, with story? Well, they did it and it sucks.

And that’s a problem – the rides become more about the properties than making cool rides. They’ve got to tell stories. In the Six Flags parks we visited in 2011 there are still properties and theming, but this is more or less assigned to the coasters only and no story is required. The coaster is simply given a paint job and a name, and then left to do it’s own thing. Similarly, this doesn’t seem to affect the choice of rides.

One may think that, in IoA, what is built is more about the properties that are chosen than the rides themselves. Which, I guess, is true – Universal wants to immerse you in it’s universe. They’ve got the money. They can’t have just a Jurassic Park ride, they’ve got to have a Jurassic Park area to put the Jurassic Park ride in, along with other Jurassic Park attractions, so you can honestly feel as if you’re in Jurassic Park.

This does work, though it is limiting on the rides that can be put down (or the ridiculous theming to justify them in that part of the park). Marvel Land does look like a Marvel cartoon/comic (though I dislike the giant cardboard cut-outs – what would people think if there were giant Harry Potter statues in his area?). Cartoon/comic strip land looks like a good tribute to them, as well as the Popeye area. Jurassic Park looks like Jurassic Park. Harry Potter land looks like the films, apart from everyone walking round in shorts. Lost Continent’s remains look suitably lost and fantasy-esque. Seuss Landing is a mass halucination. Port Of Entry looks great.

IOA Harry Potter Land 07 IOA Harry Potter Land 06

Okay, I realise I’ve gotten a bit in-depth on theming, so I figure I’ll go even more in-depth starting with Port Of Entry. A great entryway, it is a tad claustraphobic compared to Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA but it’s a hard landscape to pull off, the whole Asian, African and general Oceania feel. I always think I want to explore it more, as well as stop off at the Confisco Grill for a meal – however, we’re normally elsewhere when it comes to mealtimes.

Marvel Superhero Island – could have been great. Truly could have. The cityscape does look like something out of comics. However, the huge cut-outs of the characters in action poses pulls you out of the universe. If it hadn’t have had these it would have been a reasonably convincing comic facsimile, but instead it’s a weird mix of comic universe and comic tribute. The fact that Wolverine himself (well, a guy in costume) will trundle up from time to time, with a huge cardboard Wolverine cut-out in the background, really jars me out of it. Take out the giant cut-outs and it would be great.

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Toon Lagoon is split into three – one part a comic strip tribute area (lots of giant comic strips and such), the Popeye area of Sweethaven, and the small portion outside Ripsaw Falls – none of which I have any issue with. In fact, it looks quite distinctive and bright, and the Sweethaven area looks great.

Jurassic Park looks like Jurassic Park, with huge fronds, the visitors centre, giant gate with John Williams music, and so on. There are dinosaur replicas around for photo opportunities (a T-rex lunging from the trees, for instance) but, unlike the Marvel Superhero Island cut-outs, these work. They don’t stand out. And chances are, a real life Jurassic Park would probably have the same. It really does look fantastic, just like the film.

Also like the film, nearly, is Harry Potter Land. Objectively, it looks great with the wooden and brick buildings from the film, and it’s a good size – actually the right size for a small British village. Nice snow covered areas and train too. As mentioned, apparently the Three Broomsticks has been designed by the guys from the film and does look the same as the film version. Two problems though – Hogwarts does look impressive, but as soon as you look at it for more than a moment you realise that it is a model, with a suspicious warehouse behind it. Second problem – the weather. Yep, it’s all nice and snow covered and all, but it’s in the middle of the Florida sun blazing overhead and people walking around in shorts. To me, the buildings and surroundings look nice, but it just shouldn’t be there.

Seuss Landing, again, looks the part. It’s wacky, zany and with plenty of bright, bold colours. There are a few smaller attractions here to help keep kids occupied.

Which reminds me – I forgot to mention the Lost Continent. Previously a lot larger (until Harry Potter came along and ate most of it), what was a small village area reminiscent of something out of the Lord Of The Rings, as well as more of an African / Asian bazaar area, is now just the African / Asian bazaar area. There is a talking fountain (operators must have cameras and talk through it, as well as operating different water cannons to entertain kids – on our first day we did see this happening and it was great fun), a Sindbad stunt show (passable) and the weird walk-through thing, Poseidon’s Fury.

In the case of rides, Islands Of Adventure does have a lot of “big” rides. However, this means that they’ve got to be themed well and, naturally, take up a lot of space and emphasis. Other parks would have a fair amount of flat rides in order to take the emphasis away from other rides, but that isn’t the case in IoA. Everything has to be BIG, with very few exceptions – Storm Force Accelatron and the odd ride in Seuss Landing are the only ones that could be classed as flat rides, but even they’re designed around various intellectual properties.

But what about the rides we like? We like coasters most of all, and IoA does have the Hulk, one of our favourites out of all the parks we’ve been to. It’s up there with El Toro, our favourites from Blackpool Pleasure Beach and all the others. It’s brilliant – a nice, meaty and smooth coaster that, even from the outside, as you watch it soar over and under the bridge and into the looping layout, cannot fail to impress. Some people don’t like it, but that isn’t us – we can easily ride it a fair number of times in a day (19 is our record). Dragon Challenge is now sadly mediocre – arguably the most impressive feature about it is the queue line, as it winds through a pretty authentic-looking castle (thank God there are barely any queues for this). But each one is pretty much a standard SLC and, with the inability to duel (apparently if the coasters duelled more things would fly off and hit bystanders – no idea how that one works but I saw a story about it in, to my eternal shame, the Daily Mail), there is nothing special about this whatsoever. The previous version, where it appeared you were heading straight for the other coaster, only to peel out and nearly touch feet, was fun. This isn’t. And whoever made the “no dueling” decision should get their heads checked.

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Unfortunately that’s it for roller coasters, so onto other stand-out rides – of which IoA has a few.

Spiderman astounded me when I first went on it and, even now, is still fun and impressive. The immersion that this ride manages to pull off is excellent and, even though we know what happens and when, and it’s not a roller coaster or anything that gets the adrenalin pumping, it’s still a ride we go on at least once when we visit. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, however, is a ride that I guess I’d feel more duty-bound to go on – the effects are excellent, I’ll give it that, and the theming around the ride cannot be beat, but I can’t understand what’s going on or keep up with it half the time. I’m being thrown about too much, plonked in front of huge screens and dragons and spiders and dementors and who-knows-what. And yes, it did make me feel sick.

Water rides then, and IoA genuinely has three of my four favourite water rides – the only other being Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Valhalla. Jurassic Park River Adventure translates the Jurassic Park story amazingly well (man creates dinosaurs, dinosaurs escape, dinosaurs menace man) and, even though it’s only got one drop, looks and feels the part. The raptors aren’t as good as those on LWV’s Raptor Attack, but if you want a decent water ride without getting too wet (a “mid-level” water ride compared to the other two), this one’s for you. Ripsaw Falls is just plain lunacy, a water ride taken as far as any water ride can conceivably go using today’s technology, only outclassed by the sheer dark moodiness of Valhalla. Bilge Rats, again, is a rafting ride taken as far as they can go, lasting absolutely ages.

But that’s it. Seven rides that we’re interested in, and out of those only four that we’ll reliably go on (Hulk, Dragon Challenge, Spiderman, Jurassic Park). We haven’t yet formed a proper opinion of Harry Potter, and normally avoid the other two water rides because, as fantastic as they are as water rides, we generally don’t like getting wet a lot of the time. The other rides are average – Fearfall is simply a shot tower, Storm Force Accelatron a teacup ride (though teacups can be pretty good, disposable fun), and that’s practically it. There are other kids-centric attractions, though many of these are ones we adults can’t go on or are pretty standard. I will also mention that there is another coaster, but it’s a kids one.

There is one more thing that I must say about the park, and that is this:

I hate it’s design.

It contains a few lands that enclose a central part, like Magic Kingdom. However, in Magic Kingdom, you can go through the central hub. Want to go from Frontierland to Space Mountain? Just walk through the middle. You don’t have to go through Adventureland and Main Street USA, or Liberty Square and Fantasy Land. Which is sadly what happens in IoA. There is literally ONE route around the park – one path that goes around the entire lot. No shortcuts, thanks to that pesky “great inland sea” or whatever it is. Here’s an idea – create an “Atlantis” island in the centre. Not really an island, just, say, a spire poking out of the water which is literally about 20 or 30 feet either way. Have a bridge from each island going here. This way, people can cross easily from one place to another. Okay, it’s a bit of a crude idea, but the present situation is just strange and a pain.

So what to think of IoA as a whole? It has some excellent rides, and a lot of stuff you won’t find anywhere else. This isn’t just down to the properties being used (ie – nobody else but Universal parks being allowed to build a Harry Potter ride), but a lot of the ride experiences you just won’t find anywhere else. Though some parks are doing Spiderman-esque rides (though the two I’ve been on, DarKastle at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Speed of Magic at Ferrariworld are pants by comparison), and Universal themselves are following it up by doing similar rides based on the Transformers films, Spiderman is still the benchmark. Likewise, the water rides are excellent as far as water rides go, and Hulk is pretty spectacular and I’ve yet to come across another similar coaster. Shame about Dragon Challenge really. But the park as a whole is let down by some bad design, and probably the fact that I’ve visited it so often that I could go through and say in what order you encounter the rides probably colours me a tad against it. But that’s not something the average visitor (families with kids) will do. They’ll visit everything, experience everything and come out happy. As a coaster enthusiast who can easily flit from one ride to another, it’s possible that I’ve been there too many times. As such, I must admit that I’m no longer IoA’s “target audience” but instead a mere customer. Yet it is a good park and we’ll always go back for the Hulk and Friends, which is, to me, what the park is about – go on the Hulk, anything else that takes our fancy, and back to the Hulk.

Universal Studios, located next door, is a similar story. Admittedly this is a much older park. Actually, it’s not THAT much older, having opened in 1990 (IoA was 1999). Yet it feels older, or more rather, it feels decidedly different. And I don’t actually think I can review this park with the same amount of detail that I just put into IoA, but I’ll try my best (and more likely than not, it will be a lot shorter).

US is a strange one when it comes to theming. Why? Because it seems like there are no separate “lands”. Everything is, at least currently, themed into different towns. There is a New York section, apparently, which blends into San Francisco. There used to be an Amityville area (based on the town from the Jaws films) which looked quite nice, like a small harbour town. Apparently there’s a Hollywood section.

I don’t believe a word of it.

Basically, the entire park resembles streets with shops, most of which are closed but made to look authentic. It’s made so you feel like you’re wandering around the sets of various films and TV shows, or famous streets. But regardless, they are simply shops, or buildings or whatnot. I’ll quite happily walk from the Mummy ride, which is supposed to be in New York, through to the area around the Disaster ride in supposedly San Francisco, and not notice any change in theming. If I was asked to at the time I’d probably look around and think “oh yes, the buildings have changed and it does look like I’m in San Francisco now, rather than New York”, but right now I can’t honestly recall any changes.

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In actuality, it does appear that there are a few main sections to the park. The entrance area (apparently Production Central) more resembles film studios than anything else, containing Rip Ride Rockit, Shrek 4D and Despicable Me (and now, apparently, Transformers). There is the afore-mentioned New York / San Francisco area. Basically, shops, buildings and streets. There is the World Expo area, containing MiB (and the Simpsons is in the same general area, though apparently it’s in it’s own Springfield section). The Woody Woodpecker Kidzone section has a great little kids playpark, as well as ET. There is also a Hollywood section, which again has more shops, buildings and streets – the only reason I don’t class this in the New York / San Francisco area is because the areas are split with other areas in between, and the area generally looks nicer.

Of course, things may well change when Harry Potter comes along in 2014 to open ANOTHER branch of the Wizarding World Of Harry Potter, this time a replica of Diagon Alley (and London) and a new roller coaster, as well as a train to link the two Harry Potter Lands. To be honest I’m not keen on this monopolisation by the boy wizard, as I do wonder if, now that the Harry Potter licence won’t be generating any more books or films, if his popularity will wane. People still love him, but for how much longer? And, to be frank, is it really worth having not one but TWO lands, right next door to each other, in more or less the same park? I know they’re two different parks but, for people like me who manage both parks in the same day, do I really want the same thing twice?

In any case, onto the rides themselves.

In terms of coasters, again the park only has two (a third, a Harry Potter coaster, is due to open next year). And you know what? They’re both decent. The Mummy is the easiest one to like, 8 parts roller coaster to 2 parts ghost train, and has a great sense of humour. It doesn’t take itself seriously, in stark contrast to most other “big” rides, and this helps make it one of my favourites in Florida. Rip Ride Rockit, when we first went on, was weird and rough and we did have one time in 2012 when the car didn’t really feel “right” and my sound system kept cutting out. However, it’s mostly smooth and a pretty good experience – one of our 2012 favourites.

For other rides, I want to quickly mention Jaws, long may it rest in peace. A great little ride (can’t honestly describe it as a water ride), it was always one to go on and, again, bring your sense of humour. Much like Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise, it provided a good, restful little experience.

Simulators then – quick nod to Back To The Future. I always liked the franchise (I still remember the cartoons) and, thankfully, the Delorean and train are still around for photo ops – at least the train I’m certain of – but the ride was never that good. The Simpsons is definitely better (though you can still break the illusion by looking around and spotting other cars). It lasts a good while and will genuinely provoke a good few laughs. Despicable Me, by comparison, is more of a kids simulator. It’s still good, don’t get me wrong, but of course nowhere near as immersive (thanks to it being a 3D simulator cinema, rather than a dedicated simulator) and it just seems shorter, and with a worse storyline.

Other rides – MiB is a pretty decent ghost train with a shooting element. Nice theming and the entire thing really does immerse you in the MiB universe. Always one to go on. ET is just plain weird – a throwback of all those “trundle through a movie in 5 minutes” dark rides that Disney used to love (and probably still does), it goes beyond the film into a realm of it’s own as we jump the shark (again, now that Jaws is closed we may as well get the shark from that in here so we can literally jump the shark) and fly off to ET’s home world. May as well go on it whilst it’s open (surprised they haven’t closed it and opened something else), less for the nostalgia and more for the “oh my God this sucks so much I can’t stop laughing”.

US does have a few other attractions. Terminator is probably as good a show as you can think of, but it’s still just a show. Live actors, special effects, changing the scope of the stage, some film and so on. Just sit back and enjoy. But we didn’t go on it this time, simply because we couldn’t be bothered. Shrek 4D is simply a short film (which I believe can be found as a bonus feature on some Shrek DVDs now anyway), with the seats juddering and other “special” audience effects. We went to see it (I would say “went on it” but that doesn’t quite work) because we hadn’t before. I’m glad we did, only because it stops me wondering if I’d missed something. Queues were lengthy, probably because lots of kids like Shrek. Nothing special. Twister, then, isn’t even a show. Stand with your mouth agape as you see some special effects conjure up a tiny twister, which sets a truck on fire and makes a cow fly. Handful of pyrotechnics and that’s it.

Again, much like IoA, that’s your lot. There is more – I gather a kids coaster, and there’s also the Disaster thing which I think we did a while back, and a few other shows (Beetlejuice and the pets show), but that’s it. If you’re a family, again, like IoA you’ll want to do a lot. You’ll quite happily spend hours wandering around, getting all the photos and seeing all the shows and so on and so forth. But for us, arguably the more discerning theme park visitor, this is why we can do both IoA and US in a single day. Obviously we know what we’re doing and where we’re going.

Yep, a much shorter review than IoA, but the only rides that US has which make a decent impression with us are Rip Ride Rockit and the Mummy. Actually, Simpsons and Despicable Me are both decent too – other than that, US does make a good “sister park” to IoA, complementing it well with other rides, but both parks can be done in a day if you know what you’re doing.

So what happened on this day that was different to the other day? As mentioned, Rip Ride Rockit seemed rougher on one of the rides – basically the same as when we went on it back in 2009, which confused me a little. Basically, the car felt off, and the sound system kept cutting out. We also bought some Harry Potter-branded Pumpkin Juice and Saltwater Taffy. As I’ve said previously, everything in the Harry Potter Land is Harry Potter merchandise that can ONLY be found there. You can’t get Coke there, or Mars products and so on. Everything is Harry Potter stuff and wouldn’t be out of place in the movies. As such, we got some Honeydukes’ Saltwater Taffy (good, though it didn’t last the flight well without going a bit oozy) and Pumpkin Juice (came in a bottle with a big pumpkin on the top, tried it in the villa, tasted like canary vomit and promptly got poured away, though we kept the bottle).

Most importantly though were that the queues had grown quite a lot. Seems that there were plenty of school trips, which according to some are from schools from “south of the border”. Wish we had trips like that when I was at school – we got a few museums and a single trip to Camelot theme park, but only for the pupils with the highest marks. In any case, yep, there are quite a lot of kids going round all wearing matching school T-shirts (makes them stand out), doing what kids do and having fun. Some people on TripAdvisor have complained about this and about these kids causing trouble but, other than long queues (which I understand – these kids are here to go on rides after all) I didn’t notice any. Heck, they’re better behaved than our UK school kids.

At the end of the day we go to Friendly’s again (how I wish that place came to the UK). We were thinking of going on Forbidden Journey again but decided against it because of the queues. We do go on Doctor Doom’s Fearfall – an alright ride, but only alright. We also have to use single rider lanes to get on the Mummy in a decent amount of time. IoA and US are definitely good parks, and very very impressive. A first-timer would be blown away by IoA alone and would more than likely spend an entire day there, and be quite active, going on all the rides a few times each and exploring the park. US is older (though again, not by much) and does seem more limited, or conservative, in what it does, but is still worthy of a look.

Previous – day 9 (Siesta Key, Sarasota)

Next – day 11 (Busch Gardens and gig)

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