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A Magical Universal Disney World: There and Back Again (Part I)



A Magical Universal Disney World: There and Back Again (Part I)




This is a travel report of my recent spring break refuge in Orlando, Florida, together with my partner Robert, with the main objective to colonise both the Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. It will be a fairly long piece of writing and you may skip parts – I will try and label every excursion as clearly as I can.



The Booking



There are really only two options when it comes to Orlando’s hotel scenery: You can stay on the grounds of Walt Disney World, or not. I book off campus because I am sure I cannot stand theme park food for eight days and cannot afford Disney upper-class character dining for that period of time, either. We dat 99%. Additionally, I am afraid there are no shuttles from Disney World to Universal, since for some unknown reason both institutions indulge in theme park rivalry.
 

I book us into a hostel-hotel by the promising name of Quality Inn Universal Studios. The (hostel-therefore-relatively) low price of our accommodation and flight with Southwest cousin Air Tran is doubled by the admission tickets to both parks (Disney World being infinitely more expensive than Universal). But hey, why sit on money if it only loses value every single day anyway. We pretend for a moment that we dat 1%


The weeks inch towards spring break and I putter away to finish my screenplay – I know I will not sit in my hostel-hotel room typing Final Draft drafts. I manage, barely, but here they are: 124 pages of sad sad storyline. Finally, I can concentrate on packing for our magical trip away from reality.



The Packing



There’s really not that much to say. The weather forecast says it will be getting colder during the week and there’s a wee thunderstorm land-falling in Orlando on Sunday. Who cares, I’m on vacation and I shall not bring an umbrella. Who’s made of sugar? Not me, I assure you. I bring my bikini instead. And in a moment of exemplary hubris I pack my workout sporty outfit, heels and a dress. As if.



The Journey There



It‘s Saturday morning, March 23, 2013. Wise me, I charged my camera over night and return the battery back into its slot. I am sure I pack the charger. 


My carry-on backpack is full of cereal/granola/muesli bars and Haribo. The odd sugar rush is guaranteed.


My partner’s parents are kind enough to bring us to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Our flight is one and a half hours delayed, which I take as a sign to slow down my heartbeat and enter spring break saunteringly.


After a short and event-less flight we take a Mears shuttle to our Quality Inn hostel-hotel. Upon arrival there is no sign of either quality or inn but we have a shower and a bed in the room, breakfast of some sort in the morning and shuttle service to all the various parks in the area.


Because we arrive much later than expected we decide to head to Universal Studios first: they are much closer to our hotel and have longer opening hours.


We ask the lady at the reception if she thinks we could walk to Universal, to which the lady shakes her head vehemently. Five steps closer to the exit doors of the hotel we meet another helpful man who tells us we could indeed walk there and the taxi is 12 American Dollars which we would love to save for something more useful such as food and booze.


Girt with a can-do attitude we embark on the tedious walk to Universal. The surrounding landscape is most boring: hotels of all shapes and sizes hem the skyline, every now and then there is a strip of pavement, it’s hot, windy and humid. But we make it in about 30 minutes. The walkability of the distance is proven but deadly dull.



Universal Orlando



Although it’s fairly late in the day we have to do our first queue in a theme-park characteristically roped queuing maze where the longest line of people is diffused into an innocuous coil. It never looks as bad as it really is.


Universal is the younger of the two big theme park resorts in greater Orlando: it was founded in 1990 and is fully owned by NBCUniversal. It consists of several parks and we intend to visit two of those: Universal Studios and Island of Adventure.


It stuns me that together with the ticket you have to leave your biometric data at the entrance: they take your fingerprints and match them with you ticket. Against all of my beliefs, I close my eyes and press my index on the scanner. In my head, I see how my cyber-file opens and a line pops up at the bottom of my list of felonies: Saturday, 3/23/2013, 1700: Entrance Universal Studios. I comply.


We enter into the Universal Studios, leaving behind us whining kids and grumpy mums. Coming right out of Nola’s Mardi Gras we have successfully managed to catch Mardi Gras at Universal. There’s alcohol available in the streets of the fake town build around a fake lagoon and souvenir cups that light up in the colours of Mardi Gras: gold, green and purple. There’s people with beads, people selling beads, people that think their beads are cool (have they no idea, or what?).



The first “ride” we do, for only one reason really (namely Robert’s inexplicable fascination with Arnold Schwarzenegger), is Terminator 2: 3D, a part live-action, part special FX, part 3D show. It’s dated but I like the oversized terminators that pop out of the stage and fire wildly into the audience.


Before each ride, the lovely and I presume underpaid staff gives you an introduction so, just in case you have no clue which film the ride is based on, you can still somehow find enjoyment in the craziness.  


After the ok-Shrek 4D (mygodwhat’snext5D?!) thing, we wait alongside the artificial promenade to witness what Universal thinks is a Mardi Gras parade. American Family #1, four out of its six members in 4W driving or pushing vehicles lines up in front of us, stealing what has been ours. I have my Voodoo Juice in a blinking plastic cup so I don’t care. Robert and I laugh at the cliché.

 

The parade turns out to be so-so. The floats are meticulous: well crafted, colourful, blinking, smoke effects. The costumes are lovely too. Since American Family #1 catches all the beads (people on wheels are preferred by the bead-throwing crew), we end up with two fairly shitty beads. We don’t even bother bringing them home.


We head to the little and highly underappreciated Twister... Ride it Out theatre. It’s lovely: they create a twister inside the theatre, light the ground on fire, break the stage into pieces; it’s just great. And the best part: there is literally no waiting time because nobody wants to see it. 


We have dinner at Finnegan’s; I know the lyrics to every second song they play.


We end the evening watching Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories. It’s an odd concept with pretty cool effects: scenes from Universal blockbusting movies are projected onto a water screen accompanied by Morgan Freeman’s heart-chilling voice and music from the Gladiator. There is not much that can go wrong with those components.






Universal’s Island of Adventure



It’s Sunday and today we plan to ride the Island of Adventure to death. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is my main reason to undergo such stressful travelling and stand in line with people who I genuinely hate. Because it’s busy and spring break and weekend we decide to get one of those expensive express-pass tamagotchis. I’ll spare you the details: it’s a little egg with which you can arrange times to do a ride without having to wait in time. It’s expensive and I don’t know if it’s worth it but it saves us from queuing in lines for sure – until the thunderstorm hits and the queues vanish like Dobby (I'm still bawling.).


Adventure Island has six little kingdoms in itself: Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon (no idea what that was about), Jurassic Park, Harry Potter World, the Lost Continent (yeah, I mean really lost), and Seuss Landing. 


The Marvel thing is high-adrenalin stuff: the Hulk roller coaster, Storm Force Accelatron (Storm from X-Men, that is), doctor Doom’s Fearfall, and the Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man.


We do the Spiderman thingy and I realise for the first time that motion-cinema actually makes me sick. Not to worry, though, it’s only the beginning of the trip and there are many more motion-theatre-rides to come. All in all, it’s really cool though. I just have to close my eyes when it gets bad and they force us to swing with Spiderman through New York. The machinations behind this ride must be enormous.


The Storm force twirling tea-cups remind me why I don’t like spinning.


We walk past the Toon Lagoon into Jurassic Park. Who does not like Dinosaurs, right? I love JP and I am close to tears when I am told the Pteranodon Flyers ride is only for children. The most popular ride is Jurassic Park River Adventure; it’s lovely, you get wet and hey, there is a T-Rex... is what they say. It starts out lovely, we slowly chuff along a tired fake river and well then you see the T-Rex and right after that there is a drop that nearly makes my heart stop. And we are drenched. DRENCHED. (dudschnoss)


It is here at our weakest that Alejandro, or Alex as his friends call him, chats us up to take part in one of THESE sessions. I know from my family vacation on Tenerife that this will most probably be a timesharing session where poor sales people try their hardest to, well, sell you anything really. Alejandro is a sly fox and manages to put our names down. I sigh. But life’s an adventure, isn’t it?


Back to a dry clothing state we stride into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’m home. The reconstructive aspects of this particular pseudo-world leave me speechless. There is everything AND Slytherin badges AND butter beer. There is no beer in the butter beer. It’s still delicious.



Shortly after, we sort of have to do the Dragon Challenge. Now is the time to confess that I am shit-scared of roller coasters and heights. And especially drops from high heights. Forthcomingly, Universal has lockers to stash away all your belongings that could fall on somebody’s head during your loop-de-loop. The Dragon Challenge is in fact two coasters: a red and a blue dragon. We pick the blue and because we have this tamagotchi-egg I don’t have enough time to think about what I’m getting myself into. Well strapped in (the Dragon Challenge is a top-coaster – meaning you are hang underneath the tracks and don’t sit on the tracks as usual), I close my eyes and hope for the best. And then halfway through the coaster I guess I realise I have a wee bit of fun and squint through my lids. I also realise that hanging under the tracks and being pulled up rather than pulled down makes my life so much more enjoyable. There is no “moment of falling” – my absolute nightmare – so I’m all smiley when we return to base.
 
Next on our list is the big one: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The best part, for me, is the walk through Hogwarts, the eagle that leads up to Dumbledore’s office, the galleries of moving paintings. I have a close look and reveal the secret: the paintings are screens that have been covered with glue which, during its drying process, cracks to give the surface an aged look. It’s just magical. The ride itself is amazingly fun but has Quidditch motion-cinema elements in it that make me feel sick, again. I don’t want to swing with Spiderman and I also don’t want to fly on a broomstick. We end up doing both rides twice. They are undoubtedly cool. Just. I have time to close my eyes a little and get headache on a side note.


Then finally, the thunderstorm hits and it rains drops as big as quarter coins. Everybody flees into the shops that are unable to accommodate the rush and make both the deals (us honest folk) and losses (the other ones) of their week. We ponder over the purchase of rain ponchos, but 8$ is just too much for a piece of garbage bag. Who’s made of sugar? Not me, I assure you.


All the scary outdoor rides and roller coasters are cancelled, because they don’t want people to die by slipping out of their wet seats. I’m, like, so sad about this.


We hobble to the Lost Continent, a strange little outpost. We have lunch-dinner/linner/dunch at a restaurant called “Mythos”. You get the idea. The food is all right but I wish I could steal Robert’s meat loaf. 


Poseidon’s Fury (how suitable for the day) is our next stop and it’s one of those dated but charming things. You have to walk (with your own feet!) and listen to this regrettable actor acting his little heart out trying to convey fear, thrill, action and coolness. It’s lovely though and we only get a little wet.


The last little world is Seuss Landing. If you’re like me (not American) you perhaps don’t know who that’s supposed to be. Dr. Seuss was an American writer and illustrator of children’s books, such as The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You recognise his style. Look it up if you want: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Seuss




My eyes are as big as the kids’ while we chug through those calm children’s rides. It’s delightful. And because I’ve been a good girl I get another butter beer on the way out. Shiny!



We spend the next day taking it easy and doing all those wonderful things in the Studios that we couldn’t do on the first day: We hear the Blues Brothers sing; we shoot Aliens in the Men in Black Alien Attack; I close my eyes in the unnecessarily boring Simpsons (motion) Ride; we fly with E.T. across the moon; we queue forever for the unworthy Despicable Me Minion Mayhem

The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster is of the shit-scary kind. It pulls you up straight and drops you all the way down before going into all sorts of loops and banks invented by the devil. On the upside, you can choose the music you want to have this near-death experience with: every seat has its own set of speakers in the head rest. I decide I want to share my last moments with ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’. I know, right? Robert does the Beastie Boys, I think. But then, he also has his eyes open. When I went to wikipedia for this travel journal, their article states that there are “hidden” songs that you can access when you push something on the screen for 10 seconds. I’m ever so sad. I would have loved to dive into my doom to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. If I ever go again... nah, that will probably not happen.
 
An indoor coaster that put a large smile on my face was the Revenge of the Mummy ride. We plunge into the dark, there’s scarab beetles, there’s a ceiling that’s set on fire and I have to hold my belly because I have to laugh so hard. So much fun, we did it twice.


 And then right after Robert finishes his turkey leg, he loses his wallet. Or I lose his wallet. I don’t know. Ask both of us and you will hear different stories. Anyhow, his wallet is gone. I remain relatively calm since I have lost approx. 10 wallets throughout my life and know the routine. But Robert is a first- or second-timer, guessing from his angry despair, so everything is very dramatic. I say we should go to the Lost and Found office. Curmudgeon Robert growls something unidentifiable and struts off. I make my way to the Lost and Found office, slowly, there are so so many people. At the office, the lovely ladies tell me Robert’s wallet has already been retrieved. A boy and his mum found the wallet and brought it to Lost and Found. I praise that we are in a fakely idyllic world in which pedagogies still count and the honesty of people are exceptional.



I even find Robert again in the crowd and the evening has a happy ending, partially thanks to a Bumble Bee Transformers character in a really cool outfit and partially thanks to a crazy and charming bus driver in our shuttle back to the hotel. The wheels on the bus go round and round!
 



Disney, Walt and his World

So there. It’s Tuesday and our first day in Disney World. The term world fits on many a level. The grounds are vast: An unlimited number of resorts and four theme parks are scattered within some 30,000 acres of grass- and woodland. A little history for the trivia fans (mainly stolen from wiki): 

The resort was developed by Walt Disney in the 1960s to supplement Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. In addition to hotels and a theme park similar to Disneyland, Walt's original plans also included an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" (acronymed into EPCOT), a planned city that would serve as a test bed for new innovations for city living. Walt died in 1966 before his original plans were fully realized. The resort opened on October 1, 1971 with the Magic Kingdom as its only theme park, and has since added Epcot (1982), Disney's Hollywood Studios (1989, the former MGM Studios), and Disney's Animal Kingdom (1998). Additionally, there are two water parks, a shopping area, ESPN’s head quarters and the BoardWalk, a walking area (?) for who knows who.
Here’s an overview:


So there.

The shuttle from out hostel-hotel drops us off at Epcot every day and we have to find our own way from park to park. Thanks to magnificent planning on my part, we have a park-hopper ticket for the next 5 days. We don’t like the drivers that go to Disney World; the Universal drivers were much cooler and funner. The shuttles are also stuffed with people we don’t like: annoying children and parents that both need parental guidance. 

The in-Disney transportation system is fairly well organised: you can take the ferry, the monorail, or a bus. The busses are infinitely faster and more efficient than any of the other vehicles. 



THE MAGIC KINGDOM


Out first stop is, how can it be, the Magic Kingdom. It’s built around Disney nostalgia, it’s got a castle, it’s got the most toddlers and strollers. That’s about what I can say about it. And it’s actually cold. The wind blows right through us.
 
Free-hand HDR, Cinderella's Castle

The Magic Kingdom is divided into five parts: Adventure Land, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.

First things first: The Hall of Presidents is a wonderful little show with animatronic versions of all American presidents. You can brush up on your American history, breathe in some patriotic propaganda, and even Obama speaks in the end. It’s impressive and cool if you like animatronics. And you better do. The Haunted Mansion gives you a micro-glimpse of how Disney World is different from Universal on the macro-level: Many more people, even longer waiting times, VERY VERY child-friendly, and just a little less exciting. It’s cute though because it is one of the older rides – therefore: it’s the nostalgia that reigns Disney, first and foremost.

Our path leads us right into Fantasyland: THE place for little princesses and Robert. Here’s where Ariel resides, where Peter Pan has his ride, and Gaston has his tavern. And THE ride to do there is It’s a Small World. It’s the oldest of all attractions (opened 1971) and it’s a musical boat ride through (nearly) all the countries of the world, including dancing dolls and recorded children singing this one bloody song in an endless loop. Yes, you end up humming it the rest of your day (life?). I think it’s very cute and it reminds me of the Grottenbahn back home in Austria. The ride gets stuck though, and we get an extra portion of “it’s a small... small... world!”.
The Horrors of Disney 1 (It's a Small World)

I like Mickey’s PhilharMagic, which is a 3-D movie with diverse Disney characters. It’s simply nice. 


All the rides in the Magic Kingdom are really directed towards a child audience, though. Some of them are interesting enough for us big kids but mostly, they are just boring. Twirling tea cups, are you kidding me? The waiting times are ridiculous for boring rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight. Thank Walt, there are FastPasses with which you can come back at a certain point in time and skip (most of the) the long, long lines.
 
Because Robert sings Gaston from Beauty and the Beast in a (catholic) Highschool production we hit Gaston’s Tavern and drown our sorrows in LeFou’s Brew. Well, it’s not butter beer. It’s also too cold to have iced apple juice in my opinion. But Robert gets a chance to meet his alter ego... or is it the other way round? I get confused. I sneak in the picture too and Gaston asks me how many eggs I eat each day. How dare he?



In Tomorrowland, some sort of Sci-Fi enclave, I fall asleep during Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. It’s actually pretty nice, with animatronics and historic tech-stuff, but our ride gets stuck because of some idiot stumbling out to go to the toilet, so after a while of waiting, we have to see the same thing over again.
 
The former Aliens ride has been transformed into Stitch’s Great Escape, an absolutely skippable boring 30 minutes. The Monster, Inc. Laugh Floor is lovely, with audience participation and some surprising laughs. There are actual stand-up comedians sitting somewhere behind the stage. 
I also try some coffee at a Sci-Fi themed café. It’s coloured water at best, without taste but enough Florida dirt squirt to make you sick. I’m terribly disappointed because uncaffeinated and now have the mission to find the best coffee in (Disney) town. It’s on.



 

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