Thursday, January 18, 2018

Universal Studios - How much fun can you squeeze into one day?

OK, the Bone Museum was fun and all, but nobody goes to Orlando, Florida to learn about natural selection. Including us. Our true mission was to spend one epic day playing at Universal Studios. The fact that the weather was unseasonably cold wasn't going to stop us. After taking a luxurious dip in the hot tub the night before, we were ready to go at 7:00am.

After a short water taxi ride, followed by a short walk, we found ourselves 3rd in line to get into the park. At 8am, we burst in and quickly headed to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™, a 3D simulator ride that's supposed to be the best in the park. J. loved it. Shira got mildly nauseous. I waited in the gift-shop with the bags. This would pretty much be the theme for the day. Shira and J. tackled ride after ride while I stood back and ruminated about how amusement parks so aren't my thing.

I tried, really I did. I took J. on Poseidon's Fury, a tough sounding ride with absolutely no motion. But he got freaked out by the story line and pyrotechnics, so we bailed. I also took him on the Men In Black Ride, where you attempt to rack up the highest score possible. And I did pretty well, with a score of over 35,000. J. racked up over 55,000, trouncing me, which was perhaps the greatest gift I could have offered him.

But this is truly Shira and J.'s thing. For one day, they're not hearing me go on and on about history or logging more miles on the trail. Instead, it's just fun. Shira's not the biggest fan of the 3D simulator rides that Universal is known for. Give her a good o'l fashion roller coaster. But J. sure enjoyed being part of a Transformers and Spiderman story, among others.

We opted to get express passes, which while pricey, were totally worth it. All of the lines moved fairly quickly.

We all enjoyed the Horror Make Up Show, which is more comedy schtick than anything else. It was fun to grab a laugh, and unlike some stunt-shows I've seen in the past, it was fresh material (for me, anyway). As a bonus, J.'s the perfect age to get schooled in the topic of horror effects, which teach him that what looks real, isn't always so.

While I can't speak to the rides, I can say that Universal does go all out with their characters and surroundings. The Simpsons town was packed with jokes, from the obvious ones like being able to get a drink at Moe's, to more obscure references, like getting a fish sandwich from the Flying Dutchman. J. enjoyed meeting Spiderman, Green Goblin and other characters from that universe. And I was left amazed and baffled by the Megatron character. Is it a remote controlled robot? A guy in a suit? An actual Decepticon? Who knows. I'm sure if you were a die hard Harry Potter fan you would have loved that land as it was packed full of interesting storefronts and things to see. Even the parade was fun to watch, being just the right length to keep it interesting.

We didn't opt to get sit down food service in the park, instead picking up sandwiches and pizza on the go. The service was surprisingly slow, but the food was OK and the fruit tart fresh. We had a dinner at the end of the day at Antojito's a Mexican place on City Walk and it was tasty.

The only let down of the day has to be the wand experience over at Harry Potter land. The concept is a good one: park attendees use a 'magic wand' to cast spells in storefront windows which trigger animatronic effects. My beef? The wands cost $50.00, the sensors in front of the windows are finicky, and the weather was too cold to stand outside and enjoy the experience.

Seriously, a 'magic wand' is little more than a stick with passive sensor in it. I get that it makes sense to offer $50.00 wands so Harry Potter fans can indulge in a high quality replica; heck offer $500 and $1000 wands while you're at it. But given the (insane) price of admission, would it kill Universal to offer a $10 or $15 version? And they really need to up their game with respect to the technology. I watched multiple kids try their best to cast spells, only to walk away from storefronts disappointed. As for the weather being too cold, I'll grant that's not on Universal.

J. obviously wanted a wand and was disappointed we didn't get him one. He even looked at the map and found the money exchange and Grigott's bank, explaining to us that we could pick up cash if we needed it. Such a helpful little guy! If I had this to do again, I suppose we could have planned this better and made the wand his birthday and Christmas gift or something. But even then, I'm not sure if the hassle of not being able to get the spells to work would have been worth it.

One of the highlights of our Disney Trip from a few years ago was participating in the Pirates of the Caribbean treasure hunt challenges. The idea is that you get a free map, unravel clues, and use your NFC based wristband to unlock animatronic treasures. There was no extra fee, an interesting puzzle to solve and the tech worked reliably. In my mind, Universal could learn a thing or two from Disney on this one.

Wand frustrations aside, Universal really did deliver one very fun and memorable day. If pressed, I think Shira would still rank Disney higher given their emphasis on old school rides as well as not having to carry around and worry about losing paper tickets as your Express passes. And I sure did love the Lego component of Lego Land. But if you've got a Transformers, Harry Potter, Spiderman or other theme obsessed kid, it's hard to argue with what Universal delivers.

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