Florida 2012 – day 2 – US and IoA

The plan for the first full day in Florida was to go to Aquatica, for a nice and peaceful start to the holiday. It would be great – get there in mid-morning, go on the slides and Roa’s Rapids, then leave early afternoon and do a few bits on International Drive before heading to Friendly’s.

However, this didn’t work out. Probably for the better really.

It’s the start of October and the weather’s not “brilliant”. Not brilliant, in Florida, means that you’ll get the odd shower or two, and the temperature is about 25 degrees celsius. Pretty good compared to our not brilliant weather in October, which involves flooding, large coats and completely overcast skies.

But even so, we decide we’d rather not risk being out of the sun and opt for a day at the Universal parks – Universal Studios, and Islands Of Adventure.

After breakfast we get in the car and head towards International Drive, which has a whole load of theme parks on it. In the main tourist section you’ll find SeaWorld, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, Universal Studios, Islands Of Adventure and Wet ‘n’ Wild, all reasonably close to each other.

For the Universal parks, we park up in the giant car park structure, remember where we’ve parked (it’s like Disney but, instead of parking in Donald, you park in Jaws) and head towards the parks.

It’s a LONG trip. Well, not that long. You leave the car park (there are two) and get to a central area, before getting on moving walkways heading to Citywalk.

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Citywalk is a shopping district just outside the parks, containing lots of shops, restaurants and a cinema. It’s nice enough, and I keep meaning to explore it some more. But we have parks to visit!

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At the top of Citywalk you can choose which of the two parks to visit – Islands Of Adventure to the left, and Universal Studios to the right. We opt for Islands.

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Islands Of Adventure is quite a recent park and Steven Spielberg apparently helped in it’s design. Having opened in 1999, it’s most recent events have involved adding a whole new land, the recent “Wizarding World Of Harry Potter”, hereafter known as Harry Potter Land.

Arriving in the park, it’s hard not to be impressed at the sheer immersiveness of the theming. The opening area, Port Of Entry, is like a street bazaar from a fantasy movie with high buildings, balconies, windmills and an “olde world” exploration style. It’s very colourful and seems quite different from what you’d find in most parks.

At the end of this is what is apparently called the “Great Inland Sea” or something like that. Basically it’s a small lake, which does indeed look nice. The various “lands” are meant to be islands, separated by this inland sea, and you can see over the sea to the other lands.

Unfortunately, it’s a pain up the arse.

You see, there’s only one path around the park – going through all the lands. To go from Marvel island to Harry Potter island, you’ve got to either go through Port Of Entry, Seuss Landing and Lost Continent, or Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park. Basically, you’ve got to do a circuit of half the park. In most other parks we can find shortcuts quite easily, but none exist in Islands Of Adventure.

Ho-hum. In any case, we turn left here and head towards Marvel Superhero Island, and the first ride of the holiday.

The Hulk.

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From the outside, the Hulk is imposing. Not really surprising. There’s a bridge which passes under the lift hill which, as anyone who’s been anywhere near the ride, is actually a launch tunnel. It’s not that high a ride – 110ft. The cars howl out at a fair old lick – accelerating up to 40mph in 2 seconds, before immediately pulling a number of inversions. At the time of opening in 1999 it had the highest cobra roll in the world at 110ft.

There’s a story involved in this ride. Because, for some reason, all rides in Universal Studios and Islands Of Adventure need stories. In any case, Bruce Banner, who turns in the uncontrollable green Hulk when he’s angry, is trying to rid himself of his destructive alter-ego. Over the years he’s tried everything – potions, radiation, probably goat sacrifices. None of which has worked. So his latest attempt in this extremely dangerous experiment of trial-and-error is to strap himself into a roller coaster and see what happens.

Yep, you read that right. He’s not the most intelligent of people.

Of course this doesn’t work, and we’re shot out of the launch tunnel and straight into a fair few loops, including one that goes under the bridge that we crossed over to get onto the ride in the first place. It takes it’s time but the Hulk peeters out a fair bit about two thirds of the way through. Those reading too much into the story and design would probably say this is the Hulk reverting to Banner, with another inversion or so, the camera and then getting back into the station.

Despite the mediocre last part, it’s a great coaster. Bloody great. One of our favourite coasters ever in fact, and we have managed to ride it 19 times in a day before.

There are three other rides in the Marvel Superhero Island – Spiderman, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, and Storm Force Accelatron. We do them all, but later (so I’ll cover them later) apart from Storm Force Acceletron, which we’ve done before. It’s a teacups ride, but with an X-men twist. How, you ask? Well, in giving each ride a story, Magneto is menacing the X-men. You have to help Storm power up her accelatron thingy to vanquish him. Using teacups. Oh well. At the end there’s lots of enthusiastic clapping and “yay, you beat Magneto”-ing from the ride ops. I throw up a little just thinking about it.

As for theming, the Marvel Superhero Island is a strange one for me. It’s got great buildings which look colourful and like they’ve just come out of a comic book. It’s got great-looking shops and genuinely does look great. The only thing that DOESN’T make it look great is the huge 2D images of Wolverine, Captain America et al around the place, looking like oversized cardboard cut-outs. Imagine if Harry Potter Land had huge statues of Harry in iconic poses all over the place – facing off against Voldemort here, riding a broomstick there – it breaks the immersion, the feeling that you’re in this universe, because you then feel as if you’re looking at a homage to that universe instead.

Our next ride is a bit away, so we go through Toon Lagoon. Toon Lagoon has two excellent water rides – Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge Rats, and Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls. Both get you drenched. We bypass them, but a brief description.

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Bilge Rats is a river rafting ride which lasts bloody ages. You get drenched, there’s a bit where you do seem to get launched at a fair old lick, and there’s a huge octopus thing to menace you. People who are chickens (that’s us) can watch from the relative safety of Popeye’s ship, Me Ship, the Olive, which contains a playpark for youngsters (and also a fair bit to climb around for us older people to get a good view) and water guns to squirt riders (as if they’re not wet enough already).

Ripsaw Falls, on the other hand, is a log flume / water coaster where the riders attempt to save Dudley’s love interest, Nell, from the clutches of the evil Snidely. Various cartoon bits are passed, and the ride does have a fair number of huge drops. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at describing most water rides apart from the “you get wet” bit, but there’s a homage to Pirates Of The Caribbean where Snidely, imprisoned, attempts to convince a beaver holding the keys to give them to him.

The theming for Toon Lagoon is probably more impressive than Marvel Superhero Island, but again misses the cohesive mark. Upon entering from the Marvel Superhero Island exit, there is a sort of square area, or a hub, with several shops, some dining and lots of big, plastic cartoon props. It does look great, but not quite “it should exist” due to cartoon characters with speech bubbles (to be fair though, it’s what they have) and the walls being plastered with oversize cartoon strips. It is a strange mix of homage to the cartoon strips and inhabiting their universe.

A bit further is Toon Lagoon section 2, which looks better. This is the area devoted to Popeye and Dudley, with their respective rides. Popeye’s area looks fantastic, where the cartoon world mixes with the natural area. His boat also looks great, and is good to climb up and get photos from. Underneath it, adventurous walkers can discover a path which meanders down to the edge of the Inland Sea, and even see some shark fins swirling around a hole in the boat. Dudley’s area in front of Ripsaw Falls is full of bold colours and straight lines, straight from an old cartoon, and the ride itself has an impressive facade and bridge that just about everyone gets a picture of.

The next area we come to, just further up from Ripsaw Falls, takes the biscuit.

Jurassic Park.

Why oh why do I not have photos… I don’t even have any from the old holiday. Needless to say, there’s a big Jurassic Park entrance at least.

I’m going to break tradition of describing rides first, then the area, and describe the area first. Of course you’ve seen Jurassic Park. Don’t know what you thought about it. Me – I quite enjoyed it. Good film. Then read the book, which is even better. Read the second book, which carries on successfully, and then watched the second movie, which was mostly a bit rubbish (hint for everyone who liked the first movie and wants more, but the subsequent movies are a bit crap – READ THE BOOKS – they’re much better and don’t feature a kid taking our a raptor with gymnastics). Watched the third movie and zoned out when Sam Neill fought a pterodactyl with kung-fu. The fourth movie though was a great return to the premise of the first film and was pretty good fun.

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But, back to the park, and as I’m sure you know, Jurassic Park is about a theme park, with dinosaurs. And they’ve recreated that here. Apart from the bit where the dinosaurs get loose and eat the guests. That’s saved up for the main ride.

No, here it’s all very nice and tropical, with an authentic Jurassic Park visitors centre that looks identical to the film one, even with big skeletons and everything. The jeeps from the film are around, as well as dinosaurs lunging out of the bushes for photo opportunities. It does look identical to the film, even with the giant “Jurassic Park” gate that you walk through with the music playing. It does get a bit meta if you ponder how an area of a theme park is made to look like an area of a theme park from a film about a theme park, but hey-ho.

Jurassic Park has a few low-key attractions – a play area for kids, a rock wall (which I’ve climbed) and a pterodactyl flying thing which is, again, for kids, but the main attraction is the Jurassic Park River Adventure (which is, just about always, known as Jurassic Park).

I don’t know how much you know about the story of Jurassic Park – basically, a billionaire makes a zoo containing dinosaurs. Dinosaurs get loose, menace guests, guests escape. Fine and dandy. What has happened with this ride is they’ve basically taken that narrative and turned it into a sort of Jurassic Park side-story, running parallel with the events of the main story.

Here, guests are going on a river tour of Jurassic Park. You board your boat, everything goes swimmingly (sorry!) and you even get your own boat-friendly Jurassic Park gate to go through. John Williams’ theme plays as you enter the lagoon with playful dinosaurs munching leaves and so on, before one of them bumps you off course and into the “bad” side of the park, the behind-the-scenes areas where the dinosaurs are moved around, facilities are monitored and so on. And, of course, they’re now free and park staff are unable to help you.

You carry on into the belly of one of the facilities, now over-run with raptors and other evil dinosaurs which try and menace you from behind cage doors, and go up. Then, at the top, you come to what appears to be a dead end. Lights start up and a T-rex looms out of the darkness ahead, trying to snatch the boat which then plummets through a previously-unseen gap and down into the landing pool below.

It’s not a fantastic ride. There are definitely better. But, y’know, it’s probably the ride at Islands Of Adventure which set itself a vision, and achieved it the best. It’s consistent with the franchise (near enough). It has a good narrative. There are no compromises on how it looks.

Shortly after this, we leave and head for the area of the park that has seen the most press in recent years – Harry Potter Land (!!!).

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With the success of the books and films and, well, basically anything Harry Potter related, Universal Studios wanted to build a Harry Potter themed section of it’s very own. I believe there was a bit of a bidding war with other companies, but Universal won out – on the proviso that series author JK Rowling be given quite a lot of control in decisions – one of them being that it has to be as authentic as possible. As such, you won’t find any Coke products, big-name brands or anything of that ilk in Harry Potter Land – it’s all exclusive to the area.

The area itself works – and it doesn’t. It looks very nice. The village of Hogsmeade has basically been recreated, to scale, with all sorts of shops that you can go in (Zonko’s Joke Emporium, I think was one, as well as a sweet shop), the wand shop (with a huge queue so people can get their wand chosen), and the train to Hogwarts (which wasn’t quite here in the films but has been relocated, just for the hell of it). And it looks great. There’s snow on all the rooftops, snowmen and so on.

And that’s where things go wrong. It looks great, but you KNOW it’s not real. It can’t be real. The Florida sun is blazing down. The temperature is about 30 degrees celsius. People are walking around wearing shorts and T-shirts. It would be like adding a tropical island beach area to Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Nevertheless, it’s here and, as mentioned, it looks nice and authentic. And there, looming behind some trees and the Jurassic Park bridge, is Hogwarts. And, to steal from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…

“… Hogwarts…”

“… Hogwarts!”

“… it’s only a model…”

(here it is again)

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Yep, a very nice, big and detailed model it is. Look at it, crane your neck and the forced perspective is good. However, move just a tad and you see that it is just a very nice, big model sitting on top of an artificial rock. There is also a giant, sky-coloured warehouse behind it that houses the ride itself, Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey (!!!).

Which, with it being hyped up to be the bestest thing to hit theme parks since Everest (though we didn’t think that was particularly good to be honest, and not a patch on Mummy), we have to go on. Queues for this ride can regularly be quite long, and in fact when Harry Potter Land opened it filled the park to capacity. Not so in this case, and we get on in the relatively lengthy (well, relatively lengthy for this holiday) time of 30 minutes.

But first the queue, where we are introduced to some sort of plot. You may have heard of Harry Potter & The Lengthy Queue before. It goes through Hogwarts and definitely looks the part. All of you who love the films will see the potting shed, various statues of the Hogwarts founders and all sorts of things. Indeed, it does look more or less identical to the films. Apart from the emergency exits and the tourists, of course. Dumbledore appears (in quite a freaky projection – freaky as in good, not freaky as in he’s sprouted a tentacle or something) and apparently tells us it’s Muggle Open Day or something, before we see another hologram of Harry, Ron and Hermione from a distance. I gather this is probably at a distance to stop the perverted Hermione fanboys from rushing up to her and attempting to examine the fabric of her skirt. In any case, rather than sit through a lecture by Dumbledore (which would probably be quite interesting), Harry has the idea of luring you into a trip on Harry Potter & The Freaky-Deaky Bench Of Extravagent Special Effects. So, stupidly, we follow. Well, we’re not really given the option. There are a few portraits on the way, with various ghosts (including Dawn French) repeating the same conversation between each other on how fantastic Harry Potter is. It’s quite nauseating really.

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But then the wait is over, we arrive in the loading station (which has a nice floating candle ceiling), get onto our magical benches (with magical mechanical restraints) and take a spin on Harry Potter & The Nonsensical Plot.

And no sense it makes either! And I honestly have no idea how to describe this damn ride to any good degree, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Basically, this is the King of all dark rides. Know that for a start. Any technology or scenes or moments you can imagine any dark ride having, this has them.

To describe this, I first have to spoil a bit about how the ride works. You must know that the “magical bench” you’re occupying is hanging at the end of a robotic arm, practically identical to the robotic arms they have in car factories. It pivots, turns and can throw you around the place quite easily. The arm travels along a track, which means you move through different scenes and so on whilst the arm moves you around, thrusting you up to various pieces of scenery and whatnot. It works very well.

Then there’s the scenery. The standard, static (and not quite so static when giant spiders, centaurs and a dragon join in) look as good as you want, with lots of forests and caves and such to go through.

There’s also the not-static scenes, when the plot calls for some travelling, flying around the place or a game of Quidditch. In which case, we’re treated to a GIANT VIDEO SCREEN showing the scene we’re supposed to be in, taking up our entire field of view. Which, coupled with how much the ride throws us about, does make me feel a tad ill.

The plot, as near as I can make out, involves Hagrid losing a dragon (which appears to menace us with a refreshing mist), a Quidditch match invaded by the infamous Dementors, and journeying into the evil forest where mysteriously Magneto comes along and turns it into night instantly (if you’ve seen X-Men 3 you’ll understand that one). At the end, somehow Harry saves the day and everyone throws another Harry Potter Day party (which they must have, by law, at least once a week in order to stroke his ego).

It’s fair to say that, part-way through, I give up on this ride and craned my neck round to the side to see the ride working. You can *just* see the track and the various other cars being hurled in front of pieces of scenery and giant video screens. The plot makes no sense and I’ve had my fill of being thrust up against various scenery and video screens. Quite honestly, I feel as if I’ve been Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey’d out.

Now don’t get me wrong, the ride is good, the mechanics astounding and it really does feel like you’re in the middle of the Harry Potter movies. Trouble is, just like the movies, it goes on FAR too long and has rather a lot happening all at once. I feel grateful to be back on solid ground, more than a tad queasy (and believe me, I’ve ridden the Hulk 19 times in the same day and don’t feel this bad) and even get a bit dubious when the prospect of re-riding it comes up.

So, Harry Potter And The Forbidden Journey over with then, and we’re out into a gift shop. It’s a nice enough gift shop – so much so that we wonder out of that gift shop and into ANOTHER gift shop. No, it’s not Ollivander’s Wand Shop, where there’s a HUGE queue to get in (yep, a gift shop with a queue) to pick up wands, but another gift shop that sells other things. There’s a lot of shops around here, including the gift shop for the main ride, Ollivander’s Wand Shop, some other gift shop we go in and the joke and sweet shop (which are two halves of the same shop).

Oh, and by the way, I had the (mis)fortune of going into the Harry Potter shop at London Kings Cross recently. £4 for a chocolate frog barely bigger than a Freddo? Shame on you, Harry Potter. Surely you’re not that hard up.

Whilst we’re in one of the gift shops, two Australian guys ask me if I know who won the cup (as they lack wifi). They assume I’m Australian from my hat (with an Australian flag on, which I got a few years back from Oz). I tell them that I’m British but, by chance, I happen to know who won *a* cup from my dad (who lives in Australia) telling me a few days before we set out, that being Sydney. Ho-hum. True story.

Right then. Quick description of the shops, because they do look fantastic. Well, the ones we saw. There are two main ones (that I know of) that we didn’t see, those being Ollivander’s Wand Shop (and yes, there is a queue) because… well, there was a queue. And I don’t particularly want to hang around to see a piece of wood magically select it’s new owner, and then the charge of the thing. The other was the Three Broomsticks – not a gift shop but a place to eat (I’m not sure whether to class any theme park eatery as a “restaurant”, as I don’t class McDonalds as restaurants – more like glorified cafeterias). Three Broomsticks, apparently, looks very nice inside and was done by the same people who did the movies, with the movies in mind.

The other shops all contain various Harry Potter merchandise BUT – and this is a big but, as you can tell by it being in caps and all – all the stuff has to be Harry Potter. You won’t find any Coca Cola or Pepsi here. No Doritos. It’s all Harry Potter products based around the Harry Potter universe. This is fair enough with the Butter Beer, which we don’t actually try, but we do get a bottle of Pumpkin Juice and, upon getting back to the villa later and deciding to try it, decide it tastes of canary vomit and pour it down the sink. Still, we’ve got the bottle (and the box for the saltwater taffee) as a souvenir.

Still, the shops do actually LOOK authentic, or as authentic as they can be made, as do the products.

Our next ride is an oldie, but a goody, in the form of the Dragon Challenge. Based, again, within the Harry Potter Land, Dragon Challenge is a redressed Dueling Dragons – unfortunately not for the better.

Upon entering the ride, you walk into a tent where the dragon duelers must get ready, having passed the car from the second movie. From there it’s inexplicably down into the old castle dungeons from Dueling Dragons, where the main queue is. I say queue loosely as I’ve never encountered any sort of queue in there, as the castle dungeons provide a HUGE amount of passages to wind through. They do however still look pretty good, though they’ve lost a lot of their props from the Dueling Dragons days.

At the end you get to choose which actual coaster to ride – previously Fire or Ice, now Chinese Fireball or Hungarian Horntail. We’ll always think of them as red or blue. And yes, I did say “actual coaster” and not side – either red or blue is actually it’s own coaster. In this case they are both suspended looping coasters (SLCs) that wind around each other in a pretty unique design. Neither, in my opinion, is that intense, though a lot of people do have one preference over the other. They don’t feature a huge amount of inversions or anything, instead concentrating on space to stretch their legs at a decent pace before a handful of near-miss moments.

Unfortunately, now the near-miss moments are a bit pants. Previously both coasters would run at the same time and there would be moments where it would look like both red and blue were about to collide, before deftly just avoiding each other in a smooth bank or inversion against each other. For some reason though, they’re not allowed to do that any more, and all we’re left with are two SLCs which go around each other’s track. Apparently this was because people were getting hit from things that were flying off the ride. To be honest, I’m not sure how stopping the two coasters from dueling accomplishes this, but according to the Universal bods it does.

One thing that does grate on me though is the overly-enthusiastic ride attendants, shouting “GOOD LUCK CHAMPIONS” (capitals intended for sheer enthusiastic cheesiness) and clapping as we arrive back. Though this does tend to be true of a lot of the bigger rides in Universal parks. Seriously, stop it.

Following this, it’s nearing lunch time. We didn’t arrive at opening and have spent a good while queueing for Harry Potter & The World’s Most Expensive Ego-Trip. Well, 20-30 minutes. Which isn’t bad, considering that waits for it can be quite a while. This is the first time we’ve been to IoA whilst it’s been open though, and it does draw large crowds. In any case, food is to be had!

Whilst we’re in the area we poke our heads through the door of the Three Broomsticks – apparently a very nice place to eat, and yet very crowded. So off we trot back towards Toon Lagoon (one thing I will mention is that the toilets in Harry Potter Land seem to be haunted by Moaning Mertyl) and have a quick, bog-standard lunch in the cafe there – bog-standard lunch in Florida parks being a choice of a few *safe* meals based on Chinese (sweet & sour chicken, some form of beef), Italian (pizza), or American (burgers of course). So, a quick Chinese meal later and we’re off again.

Now then, Spiderman, Spiderman, who can apparently do anything a spider can. Including a merry jig.

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Before Harry Potter & The Budget So Big You Can Beat Whales To Death With It, Spiderman was the best thing going. It’s not a roller coaster, but it was the epitome of dark ride technology. And you know what? Whilst Harry Potter may have beaten it technically, I still feel Spiderman is the better ride. Which obviously a lot of people will think is me sneering at the boy wizard and his brand new attraction, and being all “I liked Spiderman all along so I’m hip and retro and stuff”, but I do genuinely think it is the better ride. Again, not technically, but you’re not bombarded with as much stuff as in Harry Potter.

To start off, you enter the ride through the Daily Bugle offices (or whatever paper Peter Parker works for), which have an old comic tint about them. The story is explained that Doc Oc and a few other of his villainous cohorts have stolen a gravity gun, and we riders are being used as reporters and bundled into a vehicle called the Scoop, in order to go and find them and get pictures.

Fine and dandy. The ride vehicle sits four to a row and has high walls that direct your attention forward.

Now we get to the technical stuff. This ride is basically an extravagant ghost train. As said, your attention is directed forward so you can see all the stuff happening on GIANT screens (you also have 3D glasses) and the props moving, flames being set off, vehicles nearly crashing and so on. It does have all the stuff from the Harry Potter ride (except for being suspended on an arm – instead the car tilts and spins in relation to the action), just on a smaller scale – and with breathing room! This really does make a HUGE difference.

Just to give you an example of the action – the screens in front (with us obviously using 3D glasses) show Spiderman jump onto the front of the vehicle we’re in. It’s an optical illusion, but it looks pretty good. The vehicle tilts forward, reacting to his weight. It really does work well together. Another one has a giant screen in front of us, with the illusion that we’re falling towards the ground. The car is tilted forwards, and must be going down an incline as well, just not at that great a speed, which really does give us the illusion of falling forwards.

Following this, we head back towards the Dragon Challenge and go on the other side. I honestly don’t know which side is which – it does seem to a lot of people that “red” is more extreme than “blue”. Head for another trip on Hulk, and we’re done with IoA for the time being.

Islands Of Adventure is definitely a weird park – probably made all the more weird by the amount of times we’ve been to it. It doesn’t really have a whole lot of rides that we’re interested in. Whilst everything is BIG and SPECTACULAR, there’s not a whole lot of it and the only stand-out ride, in our opinion, is the Hulk – one of our favourite roller coasters. And this is something that’s carried over for a lot of the Florida parks (not all, and of course I’ll be addressing this as we go round each park). I do wonder if these parks have a balance, where about 45% of it is about theming, 45% about family rides and 10% about rides than fans will enjoy and do repeat-visits. Also, you do have to think about the fact that these parks are for people on holiday for a few weeks, and not for locals who will come along a good few times – those on holiday, like us, may go to a single park twice, maybe, during the year-long break. The parks know they don’t have to have lots of rides, just a few very-well done ones. Compare it to the Six Flags parks and Cedar Point that we visited in 2011 and a lot of the Florida parks are distinctly lacking by comparison, at least in terms of rides.

Last quick photos:

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However, back to the day. It’s early afternoon, and Universal Studios is next door, so there we head!

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Universal Studios is one of the older Florida parks, and doesn’t really seem as themed as others. It’s all about the Universal properties, and is split into sections, but not as distinctly as Islands Of Adventure, or Magic Kingdom, or even Busch Gardens. You see, it is made to look like a working studio.

We start out entering the park and coming across three attractions on the way in, two of which are recent and reasonably good.

The first is the newly-opened Despicable Me, based on the 2010 movie and only opened in 2012. The facade is based on the villain/hero Gru’s house and as you enter you see various bits from the film. 3D glasses are again the order of the day (I sense that a lot of places are jumping on the 3D fad for a cheap attraction and gimmick to wow the crowds) and you’re presented with a large cinema simulator (the seats move in time to the action, rather than the entire cinema or simulator) and a decent 10-minute-ish adventure is played out. It’s a pleasant ride – one that will probably be the favourite of many, many kids out there. Very family-friendly.
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Next up is another new ride, one that deserves a lot more discussion – the 2009 roller coaster Rip Ride Rockit.

Now this isn’t our first time on RRR. We went on it back in 2009, a few months after opening, and didn’t really enjoy it. In my case, the car I was in felt pretty ricketty and the sound system – the ride’s main selling point – kept cutting out. I had to hold my head forward as putting it back against the headrest led to it being buffetted about the place.

It did seem everything had changed.

Okay, so onto the ride itself. The ride’s main USP is that, upon being seated, you have a few moments to pick a track to listen to as you go round. Due to the shape of the seats you *should* only be able to hear your soundtrack – again, in 2009 this wasn’t the case. The trains are boarded by a moving walkway, in order to keep the ride moving. You get in, pull the HUGE lapbar down, select your track and you’re ready. If you don’t manage it in time, they pick for you.

The track list isn’t actually bad, though I have very little knowledge of music whatsoever. My wife attends lots of gigs and has an interest in a wide variety of music – me, I just pick up a few bits on the way. So I know that Mottley Crue is a good lot and pick them.

Then we’re up to the lift hill, which is a new one at least at the time – it’s vertical! Yep, a vertical lift hill, and then a good drop and plenty of sweeping banks and turns. This coaster does feel like it should invert at points, but in actuality never does. It’s been designed that way, which is weird.

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And all during this time, compared to the 2009 outing we’re finally enjoying this coaster as it should. The beats and parts of the music are actually timed in order to provide a soundtrack to the coaster, and as the coaster enters a new element so does the music. It works really well. And the cars provide a smooth ride. It’s actually very good and, as we’re entering Hulk-fatigue over at IoA, we’re actually wondering whether this makes RRR the best ride of the day. Whilst Hulk is still superior, this is new and hence more interesting, at least at the time. If only they could get rid of the ride attendants clapping and hollering at the end.

With RRR over and now a new favourite, we head over to another Florida favourite, The Mummy.

Based in the New York area (though to be honest, you can’t really tell with the theming in US), The Mummy at the time was probably our favourite dark ride. This has probably changed since, but it’s still very good. There’s a lot of meta-tweaking in this ride and it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, as you enter what is apparently a film stage for an upcoming Mummy movie – only to be informed that the producers accidentally unearthed an ancient Egyptian tomb underneath it (in New York – go figure) and everyone thinks the set is cursed.

Story over and we’re into our cars, beginning nice and slow as a mummified cameraman informs us that the ride is a trap and Imhotep, the evil mummy from the films, is actually taking us to our deaths. He emerges, and the car travels between all sorts of ancient Egyptian relics that Imhotep tries to tempt us with, before coming to a stop against a wall. The walls are actually giant screens upon which lots of scarabs emerge and the car reverses, then turns around onto a new piece of track and then has a mini-Hulk moment as it shoots off up a lift hill. There’s quite a fair number of dips and bankings in this dark coaster until we come back into the station.

Only it’s not the station we’re thinking of. You see, whilst the coaster does come to a stop and we’re thanked for riding The Mummy. Then the ride attendant is eaten by Imhotep, the exit starts closing and the ceiling sets on fire. None of this actually surprises us by this point. The car sets off again for another merry jaunt, before encountering the real exit and a special message by Brendan Fraser, as he asks for his coffee to be delivered by the ancient Egyptian villain (cue lots of terrified girlish screaming as the video ends).

A very good ride, and one that knows it’s audience. It knows it’s a ride, and even has the interlude-nod to it. It doesn’t take itself seriously (unlike Harry Potter, where everyone is congratulated and so on at the end) and is actually genuinely funny. I recommend you forget that entire review of it if you intend to go on it, so you can experience it with no knowledge of what happens.

So, after Mummy, what was next? Well, we head along where the Jaws shark still is, but the ride is no longer. Jaws is being demolished in order to build Harry Potter Eats Florida Part 2, whereupon a Harry Potter Land (but a different part of the HP universe, with a different ride) is built in US. And this is a pity because we quite enjoyed Jaws. A slow jaunt around the Amityville harbour being menaced by a few sharks (look too closely and you can see them lined up underwater, ready to be launched into the fray) with the ride attendant who must shoot each one and pretend we’re escaping, sometimes very sarcastically. One time we went we were the last ones there on the day, and the attendant was cracking jokes and being very non-commital about actually being pursued by the shark. Still following the script, he’d say “oh look, a shark. Whatever will we do?” in the most monotone voice he could manage.

I guess progress must be made though. A good portion of the park is also being transformed into… Transformers! Did you see what I did there? A Transformers ride, which by now is open, was being constructed and is based on the same tech that Spiderman uses. Should be interesting next time we go.

So our next ride is Men In Black (or MiB for short), and again the setup for this attraction can’t be faulted. Taking place inside a recruitment facility, guests are ordered into a non-descript circular room. The floor moves slightly and lights give the illusion of descending in an elevator, before we access the facility itself. After winding through the corridors and seeing a few aliens, we board a ghost train with laser guns that we can use to shoot as if on a shooting range, before the shooting exercise becomes “real” as an alien craft crashes outside the facility and we’re employed to clean up the mess. After totting up our points we exit through the gift shop.

Whilst that does sound like a very brief run-through of the ride, it is a pretty good one. Again, much like Jurassic Park, The Mummy and Harry Potter the theming is excellent and the whole experience is well crafted.

Following this, I can’t quite remember the correct order in which we do the final attractions. There are two shows – an animal one, which has various dogs and birds and so on performing tricks, and a Beetlejuice musical which was actually moderately fun. There is also a magic shop which demonstrates it’s products, and quite entertaining it is too – one of the ones which isn’t really advertised but deserves a trip.

There are a few major and minor attractions left in the park, and I’ll briefly go through the three we didn’t do on this trip (because we couldn’t be bothered) now.

The first is Terminator 3D. Or is it 4D now? Who knows? Nevertheless, following on from T2, the Terminator and Sarah Connor (and possibly John as well, my memory eludes me) engage in Terminator: The Stage Show. In a specially-crafted story, the team interrupt a demonstration of new Killer Skynet Robots and take the audience to the future, where the action goes from stage-show to cinema, including various scene and camera changes, then back to stage-show as the heroes take on Skynet itself and the stage expands to encompass a giant, audience-menacing robot, before ending with an important message that the Terminator will forever battle Skynet. Or something. In any case, as far as theme park shows go it’s pretty good, but it’s still a show.

Next is Earthquake. I don’t remember this at all for some reason, even from past visits. Sorry.

Finally we’ve got Twister, a ride that deserves so many shades of death. Basically, during the filming of Twister (the movie), the cast were apparently very affected by the devastation that Twisters can wreak. As an outpouring of their affection and concern, the cast chose to show us the complete havoc and carnage that a Twister can bring about… by making it into a limp theme park attraction. So we’re ushered into a fake porch where a tiny Twister develops, things take off a little bit (including a cow) and there’s a few sparks… and it’s over. On a farewell video, the cast tell us again that “Twisters are bad, m’kay?”.

So now it’s onto the final attractions that we do visit, and let’s start off with… Shrek! Following on from the original movie, Lord What’s-His-Name (the bloke from Third Rock From The Sun) comes back as a ghost and menaces people. Hence why we’ve got a short movie to watch, along with chairs that annoying jump up and down as a horse gallops along. This thing is regularly packed and, let’s face it, it’s a 10 minute “extra” – in fact, I believe recent Shrek DVDs actually include this as an extra anyway, minus the galloping chairs (which is a plus mark to the DVD).

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The Simpsons is next, being a more proper simulator than Despicable Me. This takes over from Back To The Future, and is split into two parts – the queue and the ride itself. The queue gets us into the story, as the Simpsons visit Krustyland where the evil Sideshow Bob is determined to get his revenge on the family, and baby Maggie is mutated. Then we board the simulator itself, which is oddly like the Spiderman ride – your eyes are directed forward at a giant screen – but the cars do not move on a track and instead just pivot like a simulator. I guess this gives you a much wider field of vision than a regular simulator, which is good. But the ride itself IS a good one, has a good setup and the story is actually important. It is just like being in an episode of the show, set in a theme park.

Our final attraction of the day is one of the ones which, I feel, deserves a lot of space – not necessarily for good reasons. That ride being ET.

Steven Speilberg often said he didn’t want to make a sequel of ET, as he thought the first one was perfect and didn’t want to tarnish it’s image. Perfect isn’t the word I’d use, but lots of people love it. Nevertheless, Speilberg here presents the ride as a continuation of ET – which it is to an extent – and as we enter, we must give our names in order to get an “Intergalactic Passport”. Then queue up through a darkened woodland, with various ETs hidden about the place, before we board our bike carriages – complete with ET in the basket at the front.

The bikes pass through various bits from the movie, which is fair enough. It’s a dark ride dedicated to ET. These things abound in Florida, especially in Disney, where the plot of a movie is condensed to a 5-minute dark ride. Ho-hum, fine and dandy.

Then we get to the infamous bit where the bikes take off. Everyone who’s seen the movie know this is coming, but I don’t think anyone expects what happens next.

Yep, the bikes take off. We see the tiny town beneath us, cars flitting from street to street.

I will just say now that US shutting down Jaws makes some more sense, if only because they can get one of the sharks from it, stick it in this ride and have us all LITERALLY “jump the shark”.

You see, rather than go back down to the ground and send ET on his merry way, the ride decides that the ending to the movie sucked, and it’s off to space we go! Jumping to light speed, Star Wars-style, we suddenly end up on ET’s home planet, where the other ETs implore us to save them.

Now, there’s two problems with that. The other ETs are saying “Save us, ET!”. Now, firstly – where did they learn English? ET had to be taught and he still couldn’t manage more than a few words. Secondly, why are they calling him ET? Surely they’re all ETs! Or at least we’re ETs to them. What are their names? Do they understand the concept of names? Do they have names that they call each other?

In any case, the ET in the front of our bike basket lights his finger up and the ETs all go and do a happy dance. And believe me, these ETs are much better looking than the ET from the film – which isn’t hard, considering the ET from the film is basically a poo. After a bit more of flying round ET’s planet we mysteriously come back down to Earth, and the Intergalactic Passport thing is used as ET thanks us all by name. I do recall when I went on this with my parents years ago and my dad’s name couldn’t be found as it’s a very uncommon one. In any case, next time I’ll try and get all of our car registered as “Brian”, in order to do a Life Of Brian homage.

Back on terra firma, and I must admit that after that I do wonder if someone slipped something in a drink I had. Suddenly I feel the need to get a kebab.

The day is practically over, but we do know there is a firework display later, so we plan on sticking round until it comes on, which is at about closing time. We have a look in a few gift shops (lots of Marvel t-shirts) until it starts. It’s also raining and we go on RRR again, which is quite interesting in the rain – especially the vertical lift hill. Rain in Florida normally doesn’t last long, but is heavy. This lot doesn’t seem heavy but is lasting a while.

Then the fireworks start, which celebrate Universal and the films they’ve produced, with various clips projected onto water features. I spot some I recognise, including some from To Kill A Mockingbird (a favourite book, and a pretty good movie adaptation) and Dune (a favourite book, and an atrocious movie adaptation). A few fireworks come along, and that’s that. When I say a few it isn’t really a lot, not even as many as you can see if you look out of your back garden on New Years.

So with our day over we head back to the car. We do need dinner and, thankfully, we’ve planned this.

We came to Florida in 2006 and stayed in a hotel on International Drive – a large road of tourist attractions which is a stone’s throw from the Universal complex. Just outside the hotel was a restaurant called Friendly’s. This is a chain of restaurants, primarily along the eastern states, which serve very nice main meals, and VERY nice ice creams, along with excellent service.

Needless to say the chain has become a favourite of ours, and we have to go there again.

Driving up, we head inside and are seated quickly. We’ve never encountered these places full, or even half-full. Honestly don’t know why, as they’re so good! Probably all the tourists want to go to the McDonalds just down the road, with the world’s largest McDonalds Play Area. Well, whatever floats your boat.

At Friendly’s however, you can order a decent meal and ice cream (3 scoops, with toppings and sauces) for $10, or select from a larger menu and a 5-scoop ice cream with more toppings and sauces for a few dollars more. The actual amount of things you can choose from is HUGE, including burgers, salads, pastas and loads more. Among the things we chose were fish & chips, shrimp, salads, and a great BBQ chicken grilled sandwich, and for desserts I mostly had a “chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate” concoction of my own design (even the waitresses were amused by how much chocolate it consisted of), involving a lava cake, five scoops of differing chocolate-related ice cream (including fudge, cookies n cream, cookie dough, double chocolate etc – believe me, they have everything), crushed Kitkat bars and Hershey kisses, and hot fudge and caramel sauces.

As for drinks – just order one and, as soon as they see it getting low, they’ll come along and fill it up for you!

Needless to say, I’ve just counted how many times we visit this one restaurant during this two week holiday – SIX times! And yes, they do start to recognise us.

Nice and full, and it’s late-ish, we head back to the villa, ready for our next day.

Previous – day 1 (travelling)

Next – day 3 (Aquatica)

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