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Our 2007 Road Trip, Part 6: The Universal Experience

Universal Studios!

From the mists of time, at the edge of the world, one man shall rise above the rest and go ride stuff hopefully without throwing up.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. For 2007 we changed up our strategy a bit and designed an itinerary for what would prove our most kid-friendly outing ever. Granted, my son was now twelve years old and less kid-like than he used to be, but the idea was sound in principle.

Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Florida!

Obsessive readers should note the following entry was foreshadowed at the start of our 2003 road trip, the first time my son traveled with us after I assumed full-time custody. Also previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

The custodial transfer process was perfectly, divinely timed to coincide with Spring Break in his previous school system and Spring Break in our school system, two back-to-back weeks in which he stayed with his aunt while I got things sorted on my end. For half of that, he was treated to a road trip to Orlando, where he and his cousins enjoyed the heck out of Universal Studios and Walt Disney World. They also dutifully experienced EPCOT as they were told. (As of this writing, Anne and I still haven’t been to Disney World. Someday it’ll be our turn.)

We knew for our Orlando trip we had to do a theme park, but only had money and time enough for one. We left the decision to my son, the Orlando theme park veteran in our household. He declared Universal the best of the bunch, but he thought Disneyland was just-okay. When The Simpsons took its first jab at EPCOT (Homer: “Awwww, it’s even boring to fly over!”), he responded to the TV, “They’re right.”

Thus on his say-so did we declare: the Goldens are going to Universal Studios!

For value-added fun, I’ve preserved much of the original write-up and reviews, but poked around online to see which attractions are still in active service and which ones were demolished after our visit…

* * * * *

DAY FOUR: Tuesday, June 12th.

Other than meeting internet folk, our day at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure — two separate yet equal yet conjoined yet individual yet indistinct theme parks — was the one event I’d been most eagerly anticipating. The sky was just overcast enough to ward off locals and more timid tourists, thus keeping the lines nice and thin for the first half of the day. We skipped more rides than I expected later on as the crowds surged in and clogged everything up, but in many areas we were content just to take in the sumptuous scenery.

Poseidon's Fury!

We didn’t check out Poseidon’s Fury (still there as of 2017), but we dug its Greco-riffic facade.

Enchanted Oak Restaurant!

We also didn’t eat at the Enchanted Oak Restaurant. Maybe if they’d swapped signs and renamed it the Green Dragon Inn.

Jurassic Park!

Universal, the studio that brought you Jurassic Park, would like to remind travelers that Kentucky’s Dinosaur World does not have a monopoly on that theme.

Electric Chair!

Beware random props with no discernible relevance!

The comics geek in me also loved the comic-strip statues perched all over Toon Lagoon — some beloved characters, some obscure to all except hardcore readers, still others inexplicably long-lived.

Toon Lagoon!

Marmaduke, you stop dragging my son through an optical illusion RIGHT NOW.

Rather than strict chronological narrative, here’s my breakdown by ride, best to worst IMHO as of 2007:

1. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man: a car ride through a holographic environment in which Spidey protects you from a gaggle of enemies like the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Electro, and, er, Scream (a semi-obscure female Venom offspring — the token chick villain, I guess) as their attacks rock your car, veering around streets and turning vertical to scale walls alongside Spidey. Impressive visual FX plus nonstop action, it was one of the few rides that kept you “in” the experience from start to finish. Anne considers herself too old for amusement park rides, but even she rode this one and wanted more. (Status: wisely continuing to this day.)

2. Revenge of the Mummy: An indoor roller coaster that plunges into total darkness, ample pyrotechnics, imposing statues, and lavish Egyptian set designs that put real museum exhibits to shame. I regret that the interiors were too dim for viable photography. This was my son’s favorite by far, and was a very close runner-up for me, marred only slightly by one of the longest lines in the park. (Status: the movies may have been rebooted, but the ride remains as-is.)

3. Terminator 2: 3-D: I think this is one of Universal’s oldest simulators, but it holds up surprisingly well as a self-contained post-T2 short story, combining filmed scenes with all the original actors (including even a cameo by good ol’ Earl Boen!), 3-D robot tentacle footage, live local actors, and gobs of on-set FX such as machine-gun squibs, a real motorcycle, and one ginornmous explosion of smoke and vapor thick enough to obscure everyone’s vision for several long bedazzled seconds. (Status: “I’ll be back” doesn’t apply because it has yet to go away.)

4. Jurassic Park River Adventure: Your boat cruises down a gentle stream, taking a scenic tour of InGen’s facilities…then RAPTOR ATTACK! One of the dino effects toward the end of the ride appeared to malfunction, but the decor was intricate and consistently creepy. (Status: still going today. Hail the immortal dinosaurs!)

5. Shrek 4-D: While you’re waiting, animatronic decorations emit original cast voices wielding actual jokes that remain funny until the third repetition or so. That’s three more times than most such rides. The main ride itself is a 3-D simulator of a story that takes place between the first and second films and has seen the light of day previously in a kid’s storybook, in Dark Horse Comics, on the Web, and as a DVD extra. It’s probably more fun if you’re surprised, or if you liked the first and third movies more than I did. Still not bad, though, really. (Status: still going and going and going…)

6. The Flying Unicorn: Basic steel coaster. Mostly harmless. (Status: shut down in 2008 to initiate a long-term metamorphosis into the Flight of the Hippogriff, a herald of the future Wizarding World of Harry Potter.)

Flying Unicorn!

But it’s fronted with an armored unicorn! In a better world, this would be Wonder Woman’s trusty steed.

7. Jaws: Everyone boards a boat manned by a trained overactor who guides you around the flotsam and jetsam of smashed watercraft until a mechanical shark almost as believable as Spielberg’s shaky contraption feigns an attack in your general direction. Cute in a camp sort of way. Bonus points for explosions. I wish Kings Island rides had more explosions like these. (Status: closed in early 2012, a casualty of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley expansion.)

8. Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges: Just like the Whitewater Canyon giant inner-tube ride at Kings Island, but with added spinach power. (Status: still around despite E.C. Segar’s relative obscurity among younger generations.)

Bilge-Rat Barges!

This kind of water ride used to be my favorite as a teen, but I’d never seen it done with a tropical backdrop.

9. Earthquake: You board a subway car that slides into reverse while you listen to a patient conductor drone on over the PA…then QUAKE ATTACK! I like the effect of having a tanker truck seemingly plunge down a broken street toward us. Beyond that, it was just okay in a “magic fingers” way. I only rode this one to get out of a sudden downpour while Anne and my son waited outside. Anne wasn’t in a riding mood, and my son had felt ripped off by another ride just moments before (see below) and was therefore protesting through nonviolent means. Smart move on Universal’s part: so many of the attractions are indoors, the weather doesn’t have to matter. This occasionally drenched Kings Island fan considers that absolute genius. (Status: closed five months after our visit.)

10. Twister: Begin your experience with a taped intro from the late, great Bill Paxton and Academy Award Winner Helen Hunt, who try their best to warn you of what lies ahead…then darkness falls, loudly. You’re ushered into another room where you watch farm parts shatter and split, the speakers go from loud to just-as-loud, the place where your standing rattles once, and a thin tornado takes center stage and does a little dance. I might’ve enjoyed this one a bit more if I hadn’t been ushered all the way to extreme stage left, where I missed at least a third of the FX. As an authentic Tornado Alley resident, I feel this ride is a poor representation of Indiana’s official state natural disaster. My son thought this was a complete waste of time. (Status: closed in 2015. GOOD.)

Our choices were self-limited because my son still refuses to ride upside-down rides, which disqualified the Hulk coaster (still there) from competition, though it was adrenalizing just to watch it in action. The lines for Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast (closed in 2011) and the Men in Black Alien Attack (still going strong since 2000) were both too long by the time we reached their locations. And I learned after the fact that the fabled Back to the Future ride was shut down barely two months before our arrival. I assume its spot was reallocated for their new Simpsons ride coming in 2008…naturally opening and doing well long after this family of Simpsons fans left. Hmph.

As far as non-ride experiences went, Seuss Landing offered possibly the greatest snacks known to all mankind at Snookers & Snookers Sweet Candy Cookers. Marvel Super Hero Island included a real live comic shop, though it goes without saying that it carried mostly Marvel product, but with a surprise smattering of DC and other companies here and there. In other words, it was like 85% of all other American comic shops circa 2007.

The Marvel Super-Heroes rode in on their four-wheelers with their shiny costumes and saved the world from unseen evil and deadpan expressions.

X-ATVs!

The answer to the unasked question, “What if Brett Ratner had filmed five consecutive X-Men films?”

And from the Department of Mundane New Experiences, I tried and liked my very first churro. Snicker if you will (sure, just go right ahead), but our amusement parks back home didn’t sell them at the time. Yes, our Taco Bells used to sell cinnamon twists, which are much the same thing only shorter and curlier, but this was, y’know, authentic. Yeah. ‘Cause I’m all about keepin’ it real.

Even before nighttime we’d sufficiently worn ourselves out. I considered stopping for supper at one of the restaurants along the Universal CityWalk, all of which were trying really hard to overshadow and out-accessorize their equally expensive competitors with intimidating Vegas-sized storefronts. The part of me deep down that mourns never having had an active nightlife wanted to check them all out just for the heck of it…but every one of them tried so hard to stand out that they ultimately all blended into one another. The closest thing to a temptation was the set of banners boasting about an upcoming performance by the one and only Blue Man Group. Pricey, though.

Instead we drove back toward the hotel, down the clotted International Drive again, until I settled for IHOP, which had the dual advantages of empty parking spaces and very few Indianapolis locations as of 2007, so it counted as a rarity. Here in 2017 we now have two IHOPs within a five-mile drive from home, so I’m appalled at my past self for not holding out for something else.

After we fed, the sign at the next-door dime-a-dozen souvenir shop promised a discount on your purchase if you presented them with your IHOP receipt. We normally eschew such stores on the assumption that everything they sell is overpriced and available anywhere else we go, but we’re game for discounts.

Not only were our assumptions on the money with this one, but they even went one lower and specialized in the sort of useless bawdy merchandise I’d see at Spencer’s Gifts at the mall in my childhood that would embarrass my mom to death. We left with hands empty, budget intact, and morals mildly wounded. But they couldn’t befoul the part where Universal Studios won the vacation.

The most amazing area of all Universal: Seuss Landing, a section devoted to the wild ‘n’ wacky works of the wondrous Dr. Seuss himself, a thoroughly exacting replica of the inside of the good doctor’s head, the sort of twisted and surreal surrounding you expect only to exist in a CG artist’s mainframe. He’s been a staple of my brain since childhood and it was phenomenal to walk through in person. I’m heartened to confirm tonight that Seuss’ works are still up and running and engaging the imaginations of everyone who walks among them.

Green Eggs + Ham!

Someone remind me sometime to share the story of the time I wrote a Dr. Seuss-inspired satire that placed second in a college poetry contest I didn’t enter.

McGurk's Cafe!

McGurk’s Cafe presumably didn’t have Horton on the menu.

SEUSS COPS!

SEUSS COPS! IN COLOR! COMING THIS FALL TO THE CW!

The Lorax!

Why is this duo sad? Because every time a world leader endorses environmental catastrophe, the Lorax loses a major organ.

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

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