To continue from last week, the last few days of my vacation were spent at theme parks.
It was information overload in trying to figure out the difference between Universal and Disney. I was very curious about the lay-out of these parks, and I had a hard time picturing how they’d be set up and their proximity and accessibility to each other. Here is what I came to find.
Both Universal Orlando and Disney are gigantic resorts that are quite literally towns in themselves, about 20 minutes apart. There are several individual parks within each entertainment complex, along with hotels and restaurants and transit systems. So when you go to “Disney,” that’s not just one place, it could mean any number of parks, like Animal Kingdom or Epcot, and going to “Universal” is the same idea.
Using on-line research and advice from experienced vacationers we know, we decided that a 13-year-old boy and two adults would be better suited to Universal than Disney, so we ended up buying passes that allowed us to visit two different Universal parks over the course of a few days.
Universal Orlando is a huge resort – about the same size (in square kilometers) as River Bourgeois’ entire South Side, for scale. There is a main off-loading area at the entrance of the property where shuttle busses and cabs drop people off, and from there you have to walk for what seems like a hundred miles, up stairs and escalators and through pedways, to get to what is known as Universal CityWalk. You don’t need any kind of passes to access this area – it’s like the resort’s landing pad, with kiosks of every kind, shops and restaurants, music, fountains, and a beautiful view of all the Universal parks. (You could easily spend hours enjoying the CityWalk for free, and I wish I had budgeted more time to spend there.) From the CityWalk area you can either go east to Universal Studios or west to Universal Islands of Adventure, which are two completely different, massive theme parks.
I’ve been to Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto many times and I expected Florida theme parks to be much the same, if on a larger scale, but nothing could have prepared me for entering these theme parks. We were all simply in awe of the whole place, of the views and attractions, the attention to detail, the amazing colours everywhere. This wasn’t a bunch of haphazard roller coasters, this was a masterpiece, a spot-on recreation of so many iconic movies and sets. It was very impressive, and pictures could never properly convey the scale of the imagery and the entire spectacle.
Our first day was spent at Universal Studios. We brought our passes to the admission gate, where we collected our “Express Passes.” This was an expense I was reluctant to take on because of the outrageous cost, but based on advice from our friends, who know that none of the MacDonalds makes a very good wait-in-liner, it was suggested we spring for Express Passes to make the most of our time at the parks, instead of spending the whole day in lineups. This turned out to be one of the best investments of our whole trip, one I’d suggest to anyone going. Our longest wait time was about five minutes, while those without the passes waited more than an hour, sometimes two.
The Universal Studios park is mostly 3-D and 4-D simulator rides, as opposed to actual roller coasters. Dozens of people would be given special glasses and ushered together into a theatre-style auditorium, or perhaps a bus-looking vessel with bucket seats and a lap bar, depending on the theme of the ride. TV screens, surround sound audio, movement from the anchored seats, and special effects like wind or a spray of water on the back of your neck, all contributed to an experience so realistic you’d swear you were actually flying through New York City like it showed on the screens, instead of sitting safely on a padded chair in a room with 120 other people.
If I’m being honest, the simulator rides bothered me more than I anticipated. The first one, Despicable Me, was okay; the second one, Shrek 4-D, made me a little woozy; our third stop, the Tonight Show ride, was the one that really did me in, and my career as simulator ride enthusiast was officially over for the day. I braved The Mummy roller coaster a little later on, against my better judgement, but even with the trauma of being jostled around in midair at 70 kilometres per hour, I was in better shape exiting that ride than the far milder simulator rides.
I thought I’d be able to make this a trilogy, but I’ll have to finish up next week.