Returning to Universal Studios

Rock the Universe (1999)
Rock the Universe (1999)

The last time I went to Universal Studios Orlando was nearly 20 years ago for Rock the Universe 1999. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done – enjoying the park by day with all my close friends and then a series of concerts at night. Despite getting soaked by the night-time storms we had a blast.

End of the Night at Rock the Universe (1999)
End of the Night at Rock the Universe (1999)

Since then I’d been to Islands of Adventure a few times, but I never saw the point of going to Universal Studios because they had so few rides and I’d been on them all a few times already. However, the last time I went to Florida my mom gave Danielle and I tickets to Universal Studios so we could have a day by ourselves without the baby. Theme Parks have a delicate balance to maintain between renovation and keeping the classics. For example, the ET ride is still there. But many others are gone. Jaws is gone, although I think I saw that the shark was still there for photos.

Gene eaten by Jaws
Gene eaten by Jaws – even if the shark is still there, will it have any context for the younger kids?

You want rides to be there so that people can come back to enjoy rides they enjoyed before. Additionally, designing the rides and entertaining line areas is expensive; as is the actual construction of new rides. At the same time, if you keep it stale, people stop coming back – as evidenced by my lack of desire to revisit the non-Islands of Adventure section of Universal Orlando. The mix of old and new was weird for Danielle and I given recent technological developments as you’ll see momentarily.

 

Twister Ride at Universal Studios
Twister Ride at Universal Studios

Because of the long lines on the new rides near the beginning of the park (we also got there relatively late as we were getting some last minute Scarlett stuff settled), we went on Twister first. The “ride” is basically just a series of videos explaining how awesome tornadoes are (in the original sense of the word) and then a scene from the movie in which they blow wind and water at you and then a fire explodes. Disney has (or had? not sure) a better version of this that combined the special effects and explosions with an example of how miniatures are used to make realistic movie scenes. The most jarring thing about this attraction is that the video is VERY visibly not HD. It’s pretty funny how far we’ve come since the 1990s so that in the same way that I wonder why everyone is the wrong color in video from the 70s and 80s (more orange or red, usually), it’s now pretty clear when video isn’t HD. It looks horrible to me now. Danielle and I both turned to each other and said at the same time – “WOW, it’s not HD.” We also noticed how incredibly young Bill Paxton looks in this video – then again, it is 20 years old.

We next went on The Mummy ride which Danielle did not know was a roller coaster. (She doesn’t like them – to be fair I didn’t know it was a roller coaster either) It is pretty much Universal’s equivalent to Space Mountain, an indoor roller coaster in which you constantly feel like you’re going to hit something. After that we went on Disaster Movie, located on the side of the ride that used to be Earthquake! Because that’s based on a movie that no one remembers, they retooled it while keeping the essence of the ride. It combines the Earthquake ride with what used to be the Murder She Wrote attraction to become a lesson in green screening and making movies. It was also the first ride we went on in which human acting was key to enjoying the ride/attraction. Generally speaking, Disney doesn’t have any of these (or didn’t last time I went there). Disney depends on creating atmosphere throughout the line with its props, music, and, to a lesser extent, video. Universal seems to have embraced the actor role and it works very well when you get a good actor. In this case, the actor plays the role of assistant to The Auteur Director played by Christopher Walken. The assistant sets up how crazy The Director is as well as making fun of the audience as he gathers volunteers for the green screen. His crowd work was great and enjoyable, if a bit corny. I also like how they designed the middle part of the attraction so that it seems he’s interacting with Walken, although he’s just a movie. The only bad thing is that the parts before you go into the ride go on too long. First he picks the audience members, then interacts with Walken, then films the green screen, and finally arrives at the ride. The ride itself seems mostly unchanged from when it was Earthquake! The biggest difference is a video screen that’s supposed to show you the movie that was made. Unfortunately, there were technical difficulties when we went and it just showed blank parts for the green screen parts. It made the whole thing seem like a waste of time.

After that we went on the MIB ride. Again, we got a GREAT actor to run the first section of the ride. It’s unfortunate I didn’t take any photos of them so they could get shoutouts. The ride was a lot of fun and very similar to the Buzz Lightyear ride at Future World in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. You shoot at targets with a laser tag gun mounted on your car. This ride was the second one, after The Mummy, in which I was actually the slightest bit sad that the line wasn’t that long. There was a TON of stuff to see in the line area that adds to the setting/story of the ride and has some fun inside jokes from the movies. It’s a critical part of ride design because for the first few years after a ride opens, your customers will spend a LOT of time in line. So you want them to enjoy their time in line and Universal has been really good about using this time to set the stage for the ride.

Krustyland at Universal Studios
Krustyland at Universal Studios

After that we went to Krustyland, the ride that replaced the Back to the Future ride. Back to the Future was a ride that a lot of people express love for whenever it comes up, but it was definitely starting to fade into obscurity with time. I don’t know if it’s age or if the screen was a blurry as it seemed to be, but the ride made me way more sick than any roller coaster. That said, the jokes were fun and it’s a ride worth riding. Having finished with the Krustyland ride we went to lunch and then decided to see the one new area that had opened up at Islands of Adventure since the last time we came – Harry Potter.

Harry Potter area at Universal Studios
Harry Potter area at Universal Studios

Luckily for us, the ride was indoors and nearly all of the line was covered because a typical summer Florida Thunderstorm graced us at that time and not only was it torrential, but the amount of lightning caused all of the outdoor rides to be closed. The ride went on was the main ride that takes place at Hogwarts. It was the first ride we went to that had a line long enough to go through each room’s videos to set the stage for the ride. They did a great job – it was all quite entertaining. The ride itself is like the Spider-Man ride (and quite a few other rides at both Islands of Adventure and Universal) you’re in a car that rotates on nearly every axis while also following along on a track. Your car goes from room to room in which a video is playing in front of you. Overall, the ride is over a little too quickly, especially given the hours long wait, but it didn’t matter to us because of the rain. Afterward we wanted to go on the Jurassic Park ride, but it was closed due to the lightning. We walked back to Universal.

Rockit Roller Coaster at Universal Studios
Rockit Roller Coaster at Universal Studios

When we got there, the Rockit Roller Coaster was in operation and the line wasn’t too long so I got in line for that. I LOVE big, scary roller coasters and this one is long enough that it goes along one whole length of Universal – even cutting into a building near Twister. The ride has a fun aesthetic and a neat gimmick. When you get into your seat you get to use a screen on your seat bar to select a song from a musical genre. You then get to listen to that song while you ride the roller coaster. I chose No Doubt’s “Hella Good” – giving that song a new association in my mind with the endorphin rush of the coaster.

 

Art Style of the Rockit Roller Coaster at Universal Studios
Art Style of the Rockit Roller Coaster at Universal Studios

I spent most of my time in line trying to make sure I’d put my cell, wallet, and other key valuables securely in my cargo shorts because Danielle had gone off to check out the Transformers line and I couldn’t give my stuff to her. I also got to hear the family in front of me spend the entire time in line to convince their mom to ride the ride with them – she did.

Transformers Ride at Universal Studios
Transformers Ride at Universal Studios

I then went on the Transformers ride. We chose to go in the single riders line so we could get in within 15 minutes instead of 90 minutes. And that was a good thing because it wasn’t awesome enough to wait 90 minutes for. It was another ride like Harry Potter and Spider-Man. It was entertaining enough, but it was around this point that I began to question the entire concept of theme parks in my head. Pay tons of money to stand in line to ride rides that take 3 minutes to finish. And with few exceptions, Universal doesn’t even have the characters around to take photos with.

We then found our way to the Terminator 2 ride which I’d never been on before. I think I enjoyed this ride a LOT more as an adult than I would have as a kid. The actress who was the PR person during the intro video room and inside the attraction itself was AWESOME. Her schtick was basically a play on the super chipper PR person; she ended every sentence with a too-chipper “SUPER!”. I would never have gotten that humor as a kid the way I do after having been in the cubicle-farm work force as I have been for the past decade. The intro video during the waiting area was full of GREAT Mega-Corporation humor. It reminded me SO much of the Cave Johnson section of Portal 2 with its double-entendre corporate speak. Although, in this case the double-entendre is not about sexual jokes it’s about corporate phrases that sound ominous when you stop to think about them. “When you’re watching TV, we’ll be watching you” after a clip about choosing the right channels for you based on your mood. This was another ride, like Twister, that was dated – but for different reasons. Lots of the futuristic technologies that Cyberdyne was touting have already come to fruition. They talk about video conferencing as some new thing for the future, but we have that with Skype. And the list goes on and on. Other things seemed to echo Xbox One and some of the patents Microsoft has filed to have it always watching you. Additionally, because this was before the 3-D resurgence of the 2010s, many of the 3D effects are cheesy blow stuff up at the camera effects. The attraction was pretty neat, though, in the way it blended live action and movies to make it as though Arnold and the original actors were in there day in and day out acting for us.

We finished up the day with Shrek 4D and Despicable Me. Shrek was fun, but nothing to write home about. The ride fits in between Shrek 1 and 2. Despicable Me did a great job in that part of the reason for having licensed characters in rides is to get people interested in the characters. After watching the clips while waiting in line (which, unfortunately looped WAY too many times) I had a strong desire to watch the movie. I did watch it at my parents’ house and I’d definitely consider buying it for Scarlett. (And I want to see the sequel).

Overall, it was interesting to see a part that was 75% unrecognizable from the last time I’d been there, but with just enough things that were still there to provide a nice contrast between the old and the new. And a new ride was also being built, but I didn’t pay attention to what it was. An interesting development is that they took Disney’s Fast Pass idea (skipping people in line by arriving at a predetermined time) and did something economists would love – you have to BUY your fast passes. So you only get to skip in line if it’s economically worth it to you. I didn’t buy any of them, but I’m unsure what I think of the idea. I’m sure this is just in line with human psychology, but ever since I came across it at Disney I’ve hated it. You see a bunch of people streaming past you while you wait forever in line and it just makes me hate theme parks even more.

At the end of the night we had some delicious Latin food while live Flamenco guitar was played.

Author: Eric Mesa

To find out a little more about me, see About Me

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