At Orlando's Universal parks, movies come alive

Destination Florida

July 23, 2006|By TONI SALAMA | TONI SALAMA,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Second of three articles about visiting attractions in the Orlando, Fla., area for the first time.

I was waiting in line for the gates to open at Universal Studios Florida when I got my first exposure to Disney envy. The gate attendants started chatting up the crowd. They teased little kids, asked grown-ups where they were from -- you know, the sort of things that keep people from getting restless and crabby.

One of them approached the guy behind me and said, "What are you doing wearing that Mickey Mouse hat?" The guy, who actually was wearing a safari hat, was understandably baffled. The gatekeeper made a quick recovery: "Oh, it's not from Disney," and, with a nod toward the gates, "You're good to go in."

It was all said tongue-in-cheek and drew a few chuckles, but it left me with a bad feeling that struck again later at the "Universal Horror Make-Up Show." There, one member of the stand-up comedy duo, dripping fake blood, was looking for volunteers to come on stage. He singled out a little boy in the front row, but the child didn't want to participate and was peeping through his fingers at the gore, shaking his head "no, no." After several taunts the actor gave up, but not without a parting shot: "We're not at Disney, so I don't have to be nice to you."

With two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure), a club-restaurant-concert complex (CityWalk) and three upscale hotels on the property, Universal Orlando Resort has a lot of entertainment to offer. Even before you enter the theme parks, there's lots of eye candy: the lush foliage along the canal, the stranded-seaplane-turned-bar that constitutes Lone Palm Airport, the shiny paint jobs in front of NASCAR Cafe and, above all, that irresistibly enormous globe with the "Universal" name slowly revolving around it. Few visitors miss this photo op.

Although the place is spoiling for comparisons -- a chart on its Web site pits Universal's attractions against Disney's -- I, for one, am not taking the bait. Florida is big enough for both empires plus the parks of Sea World; and an Orlando vacation needn't be an either-or proposition.

Living the movies

Once you are at the globe, the music takes over as familiar movie soundtracks draw you in to Universal Studios Florida. The movie business is nothing if not a probe of the human psyche. Movies succeed in direct proportion to how well they appeal to the deepest emotions and longings of moviegoers. Universal has been fulfilling those desires for decades on screen. Universal Studios Florida simply uses what they already know about you, then takes the experience to the next level.

This is what Universal knows about you: You don't want to just watch E.T. go home; you want to join the adventure on a flying bike of your own. You want to knock bad-guy Bif for a loop and escape through time in a souped-up DeLorean, battle vengeful mummies and space aliens, and come out on top. You don't want to just see footage of earthquakes and tornadoes; you want to experience them and live to tell about it.

You want to become part of the action, part of the story. That happens best at:

E.T. Adventure -- You mount a wide-seated "bicycle" and fly above towns and forests on Earth. I won't give away the ride's climax, but by the time you dismount you will have avoided the bad guys and joined the "welcome home" party on E.T.'s planet. It's a warm-fuzzy for little kids that grown-ups can enjoy.

Twister -- Ride It Out -- I grew up in tornado country and can vouch for the rain, wind and wreckage in this special-effects showcase. Standing nearest the action, you'll get wet and feel the heat of gas-tank explosions. It wouldn't be quite right to say this funnel cloud has a silver lining, but, this being Movieland, it definitely has a sense of humor.

Earthquake -- The Big OneYou may never board the San Francisco subway system after this. Your BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train compartment is deep under San Francisco Bay when the Big One hits: pavement breaking, live wires sizzling, trucks exploding. But that's not the worst of it. The real horror is that you must suffer through several lame special-effects demonstrations before entering the ride.

Living the fantastic

It's a fine thing to be able to step into a favorite movie. At Islands of Adventure, you enter into entire fantasy worlds. Most amusement parks are about the attractions, and certainly they have some good ones here. But Islands of Adventure is equally about the architecture.

Step through the archway into Seuss Landing, and just like that you are walking on pastel pavement, completely immersed in a kingdom of topsy-turvy lampposts and shaggy-headed trees. There's nothing in sight that hasn't been Seuss-ified. Look up there! Horton is balancing precariously atop the Caro-Seuss-el. Nearby, little kids fly 'round and 'round on One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Why, you might meet the Cat in the Hat himself in a place like this.

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