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Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, Orlando

It’s not a case of all work and no play here in Florida, and after a busy couple of months working towards my private pilot’s licence, what better way to celebrate than to visit one of Florida’s many attractions? On Saturday 11 April, three of us took a trip to Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure theme park. My last visit to these parks was back in September 2008 when I was visiting the country to look at flying schools. Despite being in Florida for only four days, I still managed to set aside two days for fun, visiting both of them over two days. Prior to that visit, Islands of Adventure didn’t exist and Universal Studios was pretty much the same as it is now. That was back in August 1998.

Unlike with Thorpe Park, Alton Towers and other attractions back in the UK, getting hold of cheaper tickets for Florida theme parks is an impossible task. The last time I visited, I was told that I could attend a presentation about timeshare deals, and, in return for my time, I would get entry to either of the parks for a mere $20. When you’re only visiting for four days, you really don’t want to be wasting time sitting around whilst some saleperson tries to sell you something that you don’t need. The list of ticket options at all Florida theme parks is endless. It’s not just a case of turn up, pay the entrance fee and then go off and enjoy the rides. Of course, you can do that if you want, but at $75 for entry to one park for one day, it is worth considering the others on offer. Since I am here for some time to come, I bought their ‘Preferred 2-Park Annual Pass’ at a cost of $229.99 (plus tax in the region of 7%). The price was steep but just three visits over the course of a year means that this pass will have almost paid for itself and it has some fairly attractive perks to it as well, in particular, free car parking (normally $12), 10% discount on Universal merchandise, 10% off at restaurants both in the parks and at Universal Citywalk etc.

The week that we visited was supposedly the busiest of the year, thanks mainly to the fact that it was the Easter break, and that means one thing – an influx of British tourists descending on Orlando. Wearing traditional English attire – football shirts, socks and sandals – they hit the parks in their thousands and the various distinctive accents from back home could be heard all over the place!

We started at Islands of Adventure, which was pretty busy, and after seeing that queuing time for Duelling Dragons was a mere 10 minutes, we headed there first. The two trains (or ‘dragons’) leave at the same time and they climb a steep slope at the same time as well, but then they go off in different directions at speeds of 55-60mph. There are three times during the ride that the dragons come within just 12 inches of each other and it is crazy to see your feet so narrowly missing the feet of the riders on the other dragon.

We visited Thunder Falls Terrace in Jurassic Park for our lunch, which was moderately priced. A basket of chicken with chips, honey mustard and barbecue sauce with a coke set me back almost $10 (that was after my discount). You order and collect your food in the same way that you would at McDonalds or Burger King and then proceed to a salad bar to choose your own greens to accompany your meal. Overall, the food was not too bad, though much the same (in every way possible) as similar meals available at popular fast food restaurants. The only real difference was the hike in price!

Before heading next door to Universal Studios, we took rides on Jurassic Park’s River Adventure, which was good fun, and identical to the River Adventure Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. The little boats are filled with 25 people and you set off on your adventure, taking in the scenery and the slightly less intimidating dinosaurs. Before long, you are knocked off of your intended course (so says Wikipedia) and you are pushed into a danger zone, where the dinosaurs have caused havoc and destroyed everything in their paths. Various announcements are made, telling riders to stay in the boats and to let them know that they are being evacuated. After a few squirts of water from hidden creatures, a falling car, a falling crate and more, the boat climbs a steep hill in the dark and dinosaurs are again seen causing explosions and more. As the top of the climb is reached, the boat makes a couple of turns to the left, just as T-Rex appears from above. It leans in towards the boat, makes the sort of noise that a T-Rex would make, and then the boat plummets down another slope, resulting in a big splash at the bottom. And that’s it, the ride is over, and everybody applauds. Despite surviving the adventure, I decided not to purchase a ‘I Survived Jurassic Park’ t-shirt at the shop.

The last ride at Islands of Adventure was on the Incredible Hulk Coaster, which is also lots of fun, even if we queued for almost an hour to get on the thing. The ride starts by entering a long tube and climbing a slope. Before reaching the top, the coaster is shot at 40mph out of the tube, inverting as it reaches the top. After six more inversions and a top speed of 70mph, the ride is over. Having waited so long to get on the Hulk, I was a little disappointed that it was over so quickly. In September 2008, I was able to ride this five times consecutively, thanks mainly to the fact that it was a rather quiet day in the park!

With Universal’s penultimate Mardi Gras event only a couple of hours away, we made our way next door. Before finding a spot for the evening’s entertainment, we watched the ‘Animal Actors On Location’ show, which was terrible. A show time of approximately 15 minutes and the most disappointing selection of acting animals that I have ever seen. I recall a handful of pigeons, some doves, a few dogs, a cat, a monkey of some sort and a parrot, doing some not very spectacular things. The impressive stage featured a pool of water, so I was expecting to see animals doing crazy things in it, yet it was not once used.

Men In Black was next on the agenda and we queued outside for a little while before being allowed inside. As we entered the building, we seemed not to move for a while and were then told that the ride had developed a fault. That was a little disappointing because exactly the same thing happened last year! On our way to Mardi Gras event, we passed the E.T. Adventure,ride. This is one of the park’s rides that is so far beyond it’s sell-by date, it’s unbelievable, especially when you consider that the film dates back to 1982! With a queue time of 35 minutes and me being the only person sad enough to want to ride it, we gave it a miss!

The evening’s entertainment started at 9.00pm with the Mardi Gras parade. Various carnival-like floats passed through the streets and performers threw coloured beads into the crowds. It was fun to begin with but then it got a little competitive and I found myself wrestling others (sometimes even children) to beat them to the beads. I wasn’t too pleased to have lost my sunglasses in one of the scrums though! So, I lost my sunglasses but I came away with 19 sets of beads! Before heading home, we watched Trace Adkins perform on stage. He’s not somebody I have heard of before but some of his music was enjoyable, so enjoyable that I even started tapping my feet to the beat at one point.

So yes, it was a great day, and I must admit, it wasn’t half as busy as I was expecting it to be. In terms of value for money, it’s not fantastic, but a good time was had by all.

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