Monday, March 19, 2018

What I Did for Spring Break - Universal Orlando Part 1

By Dave

Thirteen years ago Mrs. Troublemaker and I spent enough time in Orlando to visit Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and a few of the random lower profile attractions.

I can’t even imagine having enough time to do that nowadays.

We had a great time and learned a lot about our individual tolerances for theme parks, walking, and large groups of people. I’ll leave it to you to determine whose limits were what.
We both enjoyed what Universal had to offer, but were definitely underwhelmed. Remember – this is prior to any of the park’s recent expansions. The Jurassic Park area had just opened (though we didn’t ride it because some of us can’t handle a little water in our britches). The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the new Kong ride, and Volcano Bay were still years away. A hearty enthusiast could experience Universal Studios and the sister park, Islands of Adventure, in a day.

Mrs. Troublemaker liked it more than I did and has always wanted to return, but I’m a die-hard Disney enthusiast and couldn’t even fathom a trip to Orlando that didn’t include Walt Disney World. Until recently.

Now that Universal has upped their game and Disney is in a transitional period – and we’ve been there several times since – the time seemed right to return. Plus, Phantom, Jr. had never been to Universal and is a big Harry Potter fan. Those books really got him.

This won’t be a massive recap like I used to do – those things were onerous reads and even in the short time Needless Things has existed attention spans have shrunk. Other sites will repost a Tweet and call it an article. Instead, I’ll be running down some of the highs and lows of our visit.

Hard Rock Café Orlando

Our trip started with a low, so the post might as well, too.

I don’t eat at Hard Rock Cafés often enough to remember how lousy they are. So when the time comes to visit one I’m usually excited about it. Not because of the food, but because of the incredible history that you’re surrounded with as you eat that food.

You guys should know by now how much respect I have for creators. I stand in awe of those that write, perform, act, or provide (almost) any form of entertainment. So to visit a museum containing pieces of personal history from the greatest entertainers that have ever lived is a powerful experience for me. Yeah, it’s just a random-ass purple shirt Prince wore on a Tuesday in 1986, but all of those crazy items behind the glass of the Hard Rock are powerful totems that each tell a small part of a larger, magical story. From Paul Stanley’s spandex to John Fogarty’s vest and even Fred Durst’s stupid baseball cap, there’s an awesome pop culture narrative to be experienced in those places.

Which was part of my problem.

For whatever reason, I got really, really annoyed that all of these fat, stupid tourists were sitting in the middle of this rich history stuffing their stupid, fat touristy faces full of mediocre cheeseburgers and flat soda, likely not even acknowledging the specialness of their surroundings.

As I walked around the restaurant taking pictures and just generally being in awe, I noticed that nobody else was doing what I was doing and I started to develop a feeling that I hadn’t experienced in years – this ridiculous elitist disdain. I felt like the other diners didn’t deserve to be there if they weren’t going to take a moment to reflect on the majesty of the environment in which they were gobbling up their dry, flavorless chicken fingers.

This was all very silly and I clamped down on it pretty well, but I also don’t think I’m wrong.
As for the restaurant experience, well, here’s my review:

And Hard Rock’s response:

The E.T. Ride

Quick Recap:

I saw E.T. in the theater when I was six and no movie has ever scared me more than it did at the time. I’ve spoken about this at length many times.

Now, at the ripe old age of 41, I mostly play the E.T. thing up for comedic effect. I haven’t watched the movie again since 1982 and I truly find that little brown sack unnerving, but I’m not afraid he’s going to come and get me at night or anything.

That fear is reserved for actual Greys.

Most folks that know me know about my dislike of E.T. and that obviously includes my family. So my wife and son had a fun time telling me I was going on the E.T. ride whether I wanted to or not. I played along and acted horrified, but truth be told I wouldn’t have missed out on that ride for anything because it’s one of the few rides left in Universal that still has animatronics and, for lack of a better term, practical effects.

Little by little all of the old-school rides that were so much fun in the 80s are being replaced by digitally-assisted 3D rides that, while admittedly visually superior, lack the tactile, kinetic experience of the ones I grew up with.

Jaws is gone, you guys. It bummed me out every single day we were in those parks. So no way was I going to pass up what might be my last opportunity to experience one of the last vestiges of 80s theme park greatness.

My family was, of course, delighted that I was “facing my greatest fear”.

One thing Universal does well almost without exception is design queues. Guests waiting for their trip to the Green Planet *shudder* make their way through a slightly spooky but completely charming forest filled with the sounds of agents searching for the stranded alien. I loved it.

The ride itself is fantastic. You sit in a theme park approximation of a bicycle with “E.T.” in a basket in front of you guiding the action. He is mercifully covered by a blanket. After evading the authorities on Earth, E.T. takes you to his home planet – the Green Planet – which is horrifying in the same way that the 1986 movie Troll is horrifying. There’s a very specific type of fantasy creature creation that leans more towards flora than fauna that really creeps me out and the Green Planet is full of it. All of E.T.’s friends are far more terrifying than he is, especially Botanicus.

The action of the ride is fairly mild, but the whole thing is completely delightful. As far as dark rides go, it’s one of the best I’ve been on. It was refurbished last year, but not in a way that detracts from its period charm.

Note: Skim the Wikipedia article for the sort of wonderful story of why E.T. Adventure has managed to remain while other rides have been replaced. It makes me like Spielberg more to know that he cares about such things, unlike other filmmakers who might not even be aware of what’s being done with their past creations.

Revenge of the Mummy

The Troublemakers are huge fans of Stephen Sommers Mummy movies. If I had to choose between yet another remake or the first two films and The Scorpion King getting a sort of “Special Edition” treatment to make the effects look not-shitty, I’d choose the latter. I still love those movies, but that early CGI is rough to look at in spots.

I’d also support digitally replacing Tom Cruise with Brendan Frasier in the latest one.
Las time around me and the missus both loved this ride. It’s basically Space Mountain in Egypt, but with fire and magical projections, and that’s great.

On this trip it worked out that the first short wait time happened when Phantom, Jr. and I were on our own, so I got to take him on it for the first time. Once again the queue was remarkable, moving through the supposed set of the movie. At the beginning it’s a traditional sound stage, but as you move through the line you enter a more proper set that resembles a tomb. There’s a story that goes along with the ride – the production was supposedly cursed by Imhotep himself and indeed, once the ride starts the titular Mummy appears to wreak havoc.

It’s all great fun and is supported by nice animatronics and some cool pyro and projection work.

As is the case with many things I’ve loved over the years it wasn’t quite like I remembered. I would’ve sworn it was more enclosed and that there were some tight tunnels the coaster ran through. But whatever the case it’s still an awesome ride and Phantom, Jr. loved it. We ended up riding again with Mrs. Troublemaker before our trip was over and we all had a blast.

Those were the first three things that popped in my head today, but there’s so much more to discuss with these awesome parks. Stay tuned to Needless Things for future installments of my 2018 Spring Break story!

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