Memorial Day weekend last week was my second time to Disney and Universal Studios Since December of 1990. On one side you had Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, The Simpsons, Fear Factor, Men In Black, Dr. Seuss, and so much more. While on the other side, you had Disney, Pixar, Jack Sparrow, American Idol, Indiana Jones, and the rest of their Disney cast.
It came down to Marvel & The Simpsons vs. Star Wars Weekend in my eyes and as it turned out, the Force won. It took their Star Wars Weekend to replace my last experience at Disney and replace it with one that left me a little emotional. It took Star Wars for me to enjoy Disney.
I will get into that in a little bit. The idea is to have you stay for a bit. Not to give you the good stuff immediately so you can leave to play on Facebook and Twitter. That is unless you are visiting my pages. I know, cheap plug. Who else is going to do it? Anyway, some good attractions are coming to Universal and it was a very fun time with some participation from yours truly.
We left Newark from Gate 94, a good omen. The Millennium Falcon was parked in Docking Bay 94 in Mos Eisley Spaceport on Tatooine in Star Wars. Most of you Star Wars geeks like myself knew that. When we arrived in Orlando on Wednesday, we unpacked and walked right over to Universal Studios. The Hyatt Place we stayed at was about a half mile walk from both Universal parks. It was a convenient location to spend as much time at Universal as we needed. Plus, the Universal City Walk had shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and more.
Theme parks seem to morph and change over time to reflect the changes in pop culture and the target demographics that they set out to lure to their park away from their competition. considering Universal Studios is planning on having an entire town of Springfield to showcase The Simpsons, consider me a return guest once it is completed. From the Kwik E Mart to Krusty Burger to Moe’s Tavern, it will all be at Universal.
My first time at Universal in 1990 I went on the E.T. Experience, The Jaws ride where he pops out of the water, Earthquake, a Ghostbusters show, ate at the Hard Rock Restaurant, and met legendary DJ Wolfgang Jack. Wolfgang was spinning records in Mel’s Diner, from the movie American Graffiti. The countdown clock for the Back To The Future ride was still counting down. I have pictures somewhere.
It was a fun visit the first time, and the second was no exception. A day after the tornado in Oklahoma we decide to go on the Twister movie experience. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt talk about their experience working on the movie and the devastation of what an F5 tornado can do. No jokes here. Not something to joke about but the ride was cool. They had a staged scene from the movie where the tornado comes into the drive-in movie.
From there it was off to Disaster Pictures featuring the Earthquake ride. The idea here is the guests are “extras” and chosen for parts in a DIsaster Pictures movie. The head of Disaster Films is played by a personal favorite, Christopher Walken. Yours truly was picked to be one of the three villains. A natural role. So with a lab coast, goggles, and a hard hat we had foam rocks film on us. That was the role, two seconds of film. Next everyone went on the Earthquake ride to finish the film. It was funny and made everyone laugh.
Up next was Fear Factor Live. Yes, they have Fear factor shows running in the park. As soon as they said they were casting for the next show I was first to line up. The girls casting had us play Simon Sez to see if everyone can follow directions. I was not fooled as I learned and watched the master of the game at my Bar Mitzvah. Give a three-second promo of why we are there, and other minor items. I was picked for the last show of the day. My enthusiasm was at a level I had not felt in a long time.
We get into Under Armour tops, wet suit pants, and aqua shoes before getting into our safety harnesses. Six of us had to prepare for the first stunt. Thirty five feet high above the set we were individually placed on platforms about 16 inches wide where we had to stand at the end. Above us hung an inverted “V” metal bar. On command, the platforms would drop out and we had to hang onto the bar, dangling high above. The first two to drop take the walk of shame.
I was sweating from the moment we started walking to Universal. It was humid and this Jew had not gotten used to Florida yet. It is not my time. So standing up there my hands were just sweaty still. I was wiping them off on the harness, but once on the bar for a bit the sweat came back. Yeah, nerves played into it a little bit being that high up on a short platform. I just looked straight out, not down. Nerve racking, but fun and exhilarating at the same time.
So we are told to hold on to the bars. The command is said and the floors drop. The girl to the right of me drops and I’m slipping. I try to maintain but the sweat is proving it wants to win out more. I am praying to see one person drop very soon so I can then release right after. But, time was not on my side as I lost my grip and took the plunge, safely I may add. So after giving my explanation I took the walk of shame.
It was fun even though I did not make it to the next two rounds. No eating would have been involved in the next two rounds. I was relieved to hear that. They saved that for the park gusts to do in between rounds. It was a great experience. It made the first day in Orlando memorable.
Last up was this great Simpsons Ride. They put you in the story as Sideshow bob attempts to destroy Springfield. You accompany Homer, Bart and the rest of the family as you fight off Sideshow Bob and his dastardly weapons of animated destruction. By next summer, the town of Springfield should be in full swing. That is a trip worth taking. Destination: Springfield!
Out second day we ventured over to Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Great action themed park. STarting off in the Marvel area I had to take in the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Had to have been one of the best coasters I have been on. Great lops, corkscrews, turns, and a start that shoots you right off. Was a highlight of the week. Rode it three times.
The park is a giants loop. From Marvel you walk to a classic newspaper comics section. All the classics are there. Flash Gordon, Beetle Bailey, Kathy, Boris and Natasha, Marmaduke, The Family Circus, Popeye & Bluto, Dagwood and Blondie, a Dudley Do Right log flume and more. Then welcome, to Jurassic Park. From the prehistoric era we enter the magical world of Harry Potter & the spectacle that lies within. Speaking of magic, after Potterland you are suddenly in a bazaar of Sinbad and his voyages. The only themed park left was the amazing kid wonderment of Dr. Seuss’ Seuss Landing.
The detail put into both Jurassic Park’s Visitor Center and Harry Potter world was created with such amazing detail. One could grasp the scope of the size of the dinosaurs standing next to the fossilized T-Rex. It is staggering to see the detail put into the Visitors Center. Walking though Harry Potter world was fun. My wife LOVED the butterbeer. There were long lines for this amazing beverage. To see this world of imagination come to life was fun in itself. All the little nuances made to a fun world top walk through constantly.
The Dragon Coasters and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey were the highlights of that section of the park. The Forbidden Journey ride is worth the wait. Great interactive experience everyone should ride. With the Dragon coaster, you have a choice of either the Chinese Fireball which offers a faster ride, or the Hungarian Horntail which offers more loops and corkscrews. I enjoyed the Hungarian Horntail more as I prefer the loops, twists, and 90 degree drops.
Universal creates great interactive rides and shows. They seem to have a grasp on making each ride experience unique and entertaining. Their attention to detail, background history of their respective story, and characters don’tt go unnoticed. Both Universal parks offer great interactive rides and 4D movies. I find myself wanting to go on these rides more than once. Depending on the attraction, one can feel immersed in the world of your choosing along with Harry Potter or The Simpsons.
Face it, once Springfield is completed everyone will want a Krusty Burger or a Clogger. A chance to step up to the bar at Moe’s & see Homer passed out drunk. Buy comics from Comic Book Guy while the uses sarcasm to insult us all. The chance to interface with a town of characters that have come into our lives for close to a quarter of a century. Springfield will truly be a destination and a reality. We’ve watched them for so long and bought the merchandise, the only thing left is to visit.
So after two great days or a three-day pass enjoying what Universal has to offer, we decided to head to Disney Hollywood and Epcot on Friday. We had to wait until Friday as Disney is running Star Wars Weekends throughout the summer. We did not know until a few weeks ago that it would be a weekend filled with Star Wars characters, merchandise, and more. It made my second experience at a Disney park more memorable than my first visit.
As soon as we get inside Disney Hollywood we headed straight for the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith. After our wait in line though a recording studio, we find ourselves in the studio with Aerosmith. Not the real band but a great CGI interface they recorded. Still fun and a great way to enhance the interactive experience. We receive “backstage passes” from the band and their manager has to get us transportation. So our coaster was a nice stretch limo.
We sit in the coaster, waiting, expecting. After Steven Tyler counts down we are shot off like a cannon. One can faintly hear the screech of wheels as we pull away. Next thing you feel is being twisted, turned, and looped around though street signs, drive thru’s, highway markers and other road side items zoom[ast in neon. All the time listening to Aerosmith music. It was the kind of ride Hunter S. Thompson would have felt right at home on. Gina and I loved it.
Right off the ride was Darth’s Mall. A take on the Star Wars Sith Lord, Darth Maul combined with a mall filled with Star Wars and Disney merchandise.
Seriously, good play on words. The Disney characters were captured in everything from action figures and Legos to shirts, bags, hats, paintings, and Sith Lord knows what else. Plus, they had standard George Lucas inspired Star Wars memorabilia and artwork. Some really great pieces can be found on the Disney website. One could even build their own lightsaber (toy version). They even had the Muppet characters for sale in their Star Wars costumes. Wanted your Star Wars Angry Birds merch, it was there as well. They had everyone covered.
One piece that caught my eye were the characters from Disney Pixar’s Cars as Characters from the Star Wars Universe. It was a great mix of the two worlds. It just so happened two of the men responsible for this were on hand to autograph the Hot Wheels sized Cars people purchased for $10.95.
With no one up there, I had a great chance to talk to Ron Cohee and Quynh Kimball. Both Disney Animators and have worked on numerous animated films for Disney like Mulan, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, Lilo & Stitch, and other feature-length films as well as other Disney animation projects.
Behind them hung concept art they put together for a presentation they prepared for the decision makers. The artwork depicted the Cars characters in a full Star Wars environment. Each was shown in a Star Wars scene based on their character, but in a Cars world. An example would be the IT-O interrogator droid on the Death Star. Instead of it having needles, it has wrenches and screwdrivers. Great depictions and the subtleties are great.
Talking with them felt like I was conducting an interview for the extras section on a Blu Ray Directors Edition. They were forthcoming with when they were presented the idea to the point of detail in the prototypes. You can sense it was a labor of love.
There were ideas of combining the two worlds as far back as 2008. The idea was to merge both Star Wars and Cars characters without diminishing either sides character depth. They wanted to merge them at an even level. So when you look at Mater as Darth Vader, Sally as Princess Leia, Lightning McQueen as Luke Skywalker, Fillmore as Yoda, the Tractor as a Stormtrooper, and Luigi and Guido as C-3PO & R2-D2 you see the Star Wars character they portray but still themselves.
In 2011, they were finally asked to develop the characters for toy production. In 2012, they had the prototypes and finished the project that they had casually been working on for years. Once Disney purchased Star Wars, it was only a matter of time before this project became reality to the animators. They even said to not be surprised by a Cars/Star Wars animated movie in the future.
So far talking with them was a highlight. They had some printed copies of the concept art that hung behind them. I asked if I could get one autographed, but was informed by Quynh Kimball he printed them out to show people the characters up close who wanted to buy the toy cars and have the cars autographed. I had no issue with that. I understood it was all about selling the merchandise.
But, Quynh Kimball said they were only there until noon, about 45 minutes from that point. He said if I came back a few minutes before they left, he might be able to sneak one over to me. He also said he would deny that I had a copy or one autographed for that manner. We had a laugh and I understood. They wanted to adhere to policy and not give out freebies. I said not to worry as my lips would be shut.
I wait patiently. Not really, I kept looking at the time so we could move on with our day and not just stand in a Dath Mall. As I walk over to their counter Quynh slides a copy in front of him and Ron and I get my autographed copy of their concept art. Once again, he said he would deny any part of this signed artwork. Once again, we all laugh. I said no one will see this outside a close friend and my brother. So I rolled the sucker up and headed out quietly. But inside, the fireworks were going off rapidly.
Here I hold this concept art combining the characters from both Cars and Star Wars autographed by the men who designed them. I hold a piece of Star Wars memorabilia, autographed by its creators, that no one else has. It may not be a George Lucas Star Wars based item, but it is a piece of Star Wars based memorabilia I know no one else has or will ever have. I own a one of a kind item that will not be found on anyone else’s wall.
I was elated for the rest of the day. That moment alone made my first visit at Disney nonexistent. Clutching my signed art made me feel like an 9-year-old. I coddled that item to the best of my ability. SInce I could not ask anyone working in the mall for something to put it in, we carried it around as best as we could amongst our other souvenirs for the day. Aside from minor pressing on it, it came home in great condition.
To keep the Star Wars momentum going we headed next to Star Tours. The original Star Wars ride in a Disney park. When we arrived at the attraction, the wait time posted was 30 minutes. Considering that a small wait time we got right on line. Little did we know the true wait we were in for. DIsney offers a Fast Pass option per attraction or ride. For an extra $20, one can purchase a Fast Pass to come back at another time and bypass the standard line to immediately move past everyone to get on that ride. I am not sure of other Fast Pass pricing options.
The momentum as we were moving in line was diminishing. As we stood waiting, the Fast Pass entrance was picking up steam. We started to move more infrequently and stood more as the Fast Pass line was filling up and moving rapidly. Our wait got longer and longer. You could count the 150 plus Fast Pass holders moving by. As they all paid to get right up to the front of the line so the rest of us could wait longer.
It took about an hour and a half just to reach the front to find out what tour ship we would be seated in. Disney gets enough for the tickets to their parks it is amazing to see the vast numbers who will lay out the extra cash just to get to the front of a line. I understand it is a hassle to wait on line. Majority will wait. Others want to maximize time to get as much in and will pay extra to not wait. Others will use means to hire handicapped guides to get them to the front of the line.
I did not even enjoy Star Tours. It was too short of a ride and it focused on Episode I. As a Star Wars fanatic, I would have preferred a ride regarding the original trilogy. The wait from the Fast Pass made me not want to ride that ride ever again.
Universal Studios offers an Express Pass on most rides and attractions, not all. They offer a one price Express Pass to cover one park or both. Certain Universal rides they let you out in the front of the line, but the other waiting lines still move faster than Disney. Other rides, like the roller coasters, they let the Express Pass people merge into the regular waiting line about 85% of the way through. Then they have to wait with everyone. It appeared Universal was more organized and the wait times on lines moved faster than DIsney. The lines always kept moving.
We never waited over an hour for any ride at Universal. Even with the Express Pass people one never noticed how a line had to stop completely for those who purchased an Express Pass. SO after Star Tours we had enough with Disney Hollywood and spent the rest of the day at Epcot Center.
We took a brisk walk around the countries that make up Epcot as well as Tomorrow Land. I got a good idea of Epcot but not too much to write about. More time is needed at Epcot to truly visit each respective country and grasp what they have to offer. But from my overview, I would like to have at least two days there to take it all in. My wife has been to Epcot before and did the International bar crawl. A drink in every country. Sign me up when I return!
Our last day in Orlando was spent between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. A couple rides remained to be experienced. First stop, back to Universal Studios. Up first was the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. With a top speed of 65 miles an hour and a record breaking loop, it made for an awesome thrill ride. The wait was only fifteen minute at 10:30 AM on Saturday. Didn’t take longer than that.
The one extra that made the ride go to 11 was the opportunity to pick YOUR OWN MUSIC for the ride! You pick the music you want to hear from their list of genres to make your ride that push over the cliff you need. Gina and I both chose Kickstart My Heart by Motly Crue. Even now I can remember the ride because of the music I listened to. In my opinion, hard rock and metal make any coaster ride that much more heart pumping and head banging. I held up “the horns” the entire ride. It is a perfect combination of music and mayhem. Rock on!!
Another ride on The Simpsonss was due but we figured we would try the Men In Black Alien Attack ride. Not a bad wait, twenty minutes. Unfortunately, the ride broke down. They ushered us to the exit as others were still helpless on the ride. Stuck they sat, waiting in whatever part of the ride they were halted in. Not a fun day for those people. Off to The Simpsons for another great ride.
The last exhibit was looked at was Lucy – A tribute. A great tribute to Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy. Displaying the shows Emmys, several scripts, costumes, Set floor plans, and so much more. One could watch an episode of their choosing or an eight plus minute highlight reel of the show. Gina even sat on the floor as the show tribute video played. It had every classic moment over the shows long run. A great way to end the day at one Universal park.
Back to Islands of Adventure for another showdown with the Incredible Hulk coaster. This time, Gina was with me. Even for a second time, being shot off the like a cannon will always make me howl with energy. As soon as we got off the coaster Gina was tearing up from the excitement she just endured. Expressive signs of elation and even jumping like a kid who just rode the first coaster of their life.
We ventured onto one of the Jurassic Park rides. It’s a large flume ride while going through Jurassic Park. It was fun to see the dinosaurs in their “natural habitat”. At the end, the raptors had broken loose. As we hard through a facility there is a big one staring us all down. Just when you think he is on top of you, down the boat goes for a major splash. It was fun and worth the wait.
Disney may not be the number one theme park in Orlando for me, but Star Wars makes it a destination none the less. Disney has something for the kid in all of us. Some of those items were purchased by Disney over time. Their theme parks are the best places to view these valued non Disney memories. Face it, however you formulate it, Disney has you in one form or another.
I had a better time at Disney this time. Obtaining a collectable is better than losing your wallet. But the winner goes to Universal Studios for the better theme park experience. My Fear factor experience, The Simpsons, and their roller coasters outweighed Disney and their roller coaster. The highlight was the Star Wars collectable, no influence on park decision there. Universal spoke to the adult in me as well as my nostalgia. Disney just felt watered down.
I am willing to go back, give it its due and spend more time exploring what Disney has on its property. The wife and I have discussed details about going back, even to Universal. There is always something new to discover each time you visit, that is what makes the Orlando theme park area a destination to explore often. I enjoy the variety from both brands.
If you would like me to go over the food choices at both parks as well as close to Universal Studios, let me know!! The NASCAR Cafe and Margaritaville at Universal City Walk offer great light fare for some midday energy.
Universal will be the first choice to me, DIsney has some work to do to fully grasp my attention to captivate me in the way they would like. It is time to move on to the next trip. The one that will leave an ever lasting memory. The one that involves a lonfer than usual plane ride.
That trip also begins today. More on this very soon.