Thursday, February 29, 2024

Universal Orlando

Day four of our April 2023 orchestra trip brought us to the Universal Orlando Resort and its two theme parks. We only had a half day to see everything, so though we missed several major attractions, I got to ride all my old favorites from our 2018 trip as well as some of the rides that have been added since then. By this point in the trip, many people were tired, but I was still full of energy of course.
Though you have to go through CityWalk to get to the Universal theme parks, they are still closer together than the WDW parks, with the Hogwarts Express serving as transportation between them.
We were all supposed to meet for a group photo in front of the Hard Rock Cafe before going into the park, but I told my sister that we weren't dealing with that, so we blew it off and went straight into the park. No regrets. :)
Though we didn't visit Universal Studios Hollywood when we visited California, I imagine that Universal Studios Florida's New York-themed area is similar to the real Hollywood backlot's New York set. This area has a Blues Brothers show, "Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon" (I have never ridden that), and the Revenge of the Mummy coaster. Thanks to something that I'll explain later, we were able to skip the Mummy line with a single-use Universal Express ticket. It's a short coaster, but the special effects--especially the fire-filled ceiling--make it one of the best attractions at the park.
One ride that I wouldn't miss for anything is E.T. Adventure (photo from 2018)! This suspended dark ride is the Peter's Pan Flight of Universal Studios Florida, and I'm glad they recognize its value and old-school charm. The rest of this area of the park is currently behind walls for reconstruction, but they're leaving E.T. alone. You have to walk down a long corridor lined with construction walls to get to the ride, but I was happy to see it was open. It's a really charming ride, and thanks to our "E.T. Adventure Passport," E.T. even knew all our names at the end. Amazing.
The Jaws attraction has been gone for a decade now, but I believe this part of the park's San Francisco section is a remnant of the old area. It borders Diagon Alley, which replaced Jaws. 
Diagon Alley, part of the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter," was the most crowded area of anywhere in the two parks, and its intimate scale is not conducive to crowds. We missed the Escape from Gringotts coaster, but we did see the dragon breathe fire. Everyone in the image is staring up at the dragon, eagerly anticipating the fire. 
People get really excited about this, stopping in the middle of the walkway with their phones in the air.
The Hollywood section of the park is reminiscent of the entrance to Hollywood Studios at WDW, but it features some unique architecture like Mel's Drive-In. I love all the facades in this area.
You can see the Mystery Machine parked on the left. I wish we could have stayed at the park after dark to see this area's neon lighting.
LA landmark Ciro's still lives on here in Florida. There's a Brown Derby too like at Hollywood Studios, but here it's a hat shop that's a reproduction of the restaurant's hat-shaped building.
The only two attractions we rode at Universal Studios Florida were Revenge of the Mummy and E.T. Adventure. We spent most of our time at the other park, Universal Islands of Adventure. The park recently introduced a new logo, but it wasn't on any signage yet.
While Universal Studios Florida falls a little short with regards to theming in its studio-themed "backlot" areas, Islands of Adventure excels in most areas. The Port of Entry is a unique take on the Main Street "corridor" entrance, bringing you to the park's large central lagoon.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster is probably the most intense coaster in Orlando in terms of positive g-forces. The entrance marquee features a great Hulk statue grabbing a train on some mangled track, which was actually removed from the ride when its track was completely replaced in 2015.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man might still be the number one don't-miss attraction in the whole park. Even though it's now almost 25 years old, it is still one of the best dark rides I have ridden, and it does not feel dated in the slightest. The physical sets, screens, fire, and water combine with the motion of the vehicle to create a still-amazing experience.
The Marvel Superhero Island area that surrounds the Spider-Man attraction feels a little out of date with its comic book-inspired look, but Toon Lagoon is probably the area of the park in need of the most attention. I believe that Islands of Adventure was initially conceived with a theme largely based on cartoons, and Toon Lagoon was part of the park plan from the beginning. I don't want them to get rid of this area because it almost feels vintage at this point, but I don't think most guests are familiar with all the characters represented on the land's buildings.
I'm part of the generation who unfortunately was not exposed to all of these cartoons as a kid, so while I know some of them from the comics, other characters like Dudley Do-Right (whom the log flume is themed after) sadly don't resonate with me.
The ride that I was most looking forward to experiencing was Velocicoaster, the new roller coaster in the Jurassic Park area. It features two launches and a top speed of 70 mph with a 155-foot max height. Some people think that it is an eyesore on the park's lagoon, but others don't mind it. I guess it depends on whether you appreciate roller coasters or sightlines more.
This stretch of track is one of the best parts of the ride. You come straight down from the 155-foot drop and fly into this "Zero-G Stall" where the ride track hangs you upside down for a couple seconds. The whole ride is really a whirlwind, especially the high-speed finale, a barrel roll just feet above the lagoon's surface.
Using the single rider line (and the time saved by skipping the group photo), I was able to ride Velocicoaster twice in the short time we were at the park.
Islands of Adventure contains the original Harry Potter area that gave Universal its huge increase in popularity. The dark ride inside Hogwarts--Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey--sits right alongside Spider-Man as one of the best dark rides created in my opinion.
Another new attraction that I was looking forward to trying out was Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a roller coaster with a long-winded name. It features seven launches and is fascinating to watch in operation. The trains combine in the station to form a continuous train of vehicles like an Omnimover ride system and then are spaced out following dispatch. The ride itself is a great family coaster with some fun surprises, but what impresses me most is the engineering required to keep all 11 trains running on the course at once.
We didn't ride the Hogwarts Express between the two parks, but this display in Hogsmeade provides a photo-op with a static engine.
One of my friends may have spent (wasted?) $35 on candy from the Honeydukes shop.
We missed Poseidon's Fury, which was a bummer since it closed permanently on May 9th, a month after our trip. However, I did get to see the show during our 2018 visit, and it was a cheesy special effects show that was saved by a few wow moments, mainly the stunning water vortex tunnel.
The final area of Islands Adventure is Suess Landing, home to the whimsical architecture and characters of Dr. Suess.
We wandered onto the Cat in the Hat ride, which had no line. It's a simple dark ride, but I still enjoy it! Near the end of the ride, our car came to an unexpected stop.
A few minutes later, the lights came on, and then an attendant came over the PA system to say that "Thing One and Thing Two have interrupted your journey" and that "cat helpers" would be around to assist us.
We got to walk off the ride and received a single-use Express ticket! I was very happy to be evacuated from a ride for the first time.
That's all for our April 2023 orchestra trip, but I hope you enjoyed this look at the Orlando theme parks. Three years after it was originally planned to happen, I'm glad that we had such a great trip and opportunities to ride so many recently-opened attractions. We flew back the same day as when we visited Universal and got home shortly before midnight. Then the very next day, we were back in the classroom for even more fun and excitement!