December 28, 2009

Toe to Toe: Disney World vs. Islands of Adventure

Editor's Note: With Harry Potter soon to open at Islands of Adventure- and while I am preparing some new articles for 2010, I thought it would be great to repost my very detailed trip report to Universal Orlando. Enjoy!
It was the kind of year any theme park fan would envy. I had the summer off, and as it was to play out, it lined up perfectly with our 25th wedding anniversary trip. My wife and I had saved for a decade to celebrate with a three week journey to Europe. Our itinerary covered five countries and included a two day stop at the Disneyland Paris Resort for a visit to both parks. The whole trip was terrific. A wonderful and memorable time. Certainly the highlight of the summer.

My wife had a surprise waiting for me upon our return. Well aware I would never again have a sabbatical from work, she did a bit of saving on her own and surprised me with an end-of-summer trip to Orlando. Besides being quite the bargain, the timing was right, as she had to return to her teaching job, so I would have been sitting at home alone with a yardful of weeds waiting for me. Here was this Disney die-hard's once in a lifetime opportunity to indulge in some geekiness and check out all the detail I might miss on earlier family vacations.

Taking our kids on vacation, Disney or otherwise has always been great fun- full of memory building events they talk about to this day. Being at the top of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, viewing wild animals and glaciers in Alaska, seeing the breathtaking Butchart Gardens in Victoria, cable car rides in San Francisco, touring the White House, and many, many more. Additionally, my wife and I do a good portion of "second honeymooning". Now, I won't lie. We are not rich, but God has blessed us with the ability to do a lot of traveling in the midst of raising four kids and trying to help others less fortunate. Amazingly cheap introductory flights, generous parents, friends "in the business", special deals, etc. have all been a blessing.

This trip would be one for me to do as I pleased, allowing an opportunity to do some things I would not have done with the family. (Or wouldn't put them through!) After much thought about what I really wanted to do, I chose to enjoy two days on the beach, one at Epcot, and one at Animal Kingdom. Because of school schedules and prices, our family visits to Walt Disney World never really left us time or money to go to Universal. Plus, we had been to the Studios in California. However, once it had opened, I had to check out Islands of Adventure. That was a must do on my list, particularly to experience The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, which had become a fan favorite, even drawing comparisons to Indiana Jones Adventure. Since my departure back home was scheduled for very late in the day, I chose to spend my last morning until late afternoon at Islands of Adventure.

I won't cover my Disney or beach days here, but I'll focus on my day at my final park instead. Leaving the hotel bright and early, I arrived at the parking garage about half an hour before opening time. The crowds were fairly light, and the walk was lengthy from the garage to City Walk. At one end was my destination for the day, and at the other Universal Studios Orlando. Although I briefly considered changing parks, I realized most of the Studios attractions could be found in California, so I stuck to my plan. Besides, I couldn't miss my one chance for Spiderman! Walking up to the gates and passing the iconic lighthouse, I was dumbstruck by the detail I saw inside.

This really surprised me, and my anticipation for the rest of the park grew as I waited for the gates to open. What I felt was a good reminder of some facts from Theme Park Design 101: The entry area sets the stage for guest expectations and draws visitors in. I truly wondered how many people, pondering the choice of which park to enter, walked over to Islands and immediately made their decision based on the designer's marvelous work. Wow, totally unexpected and wonderfully crafted. (Note to the Imagineers redoing California Adventure: you've got one last chance, so make sure you do it right this time.)

My photos may be a little out of order here, but my memory of what I did next is clear. Once I could figure out exactly where to store my things, I headed right for The Hulk coaster. The line was light as the morning was young.

Time for a confession here. I like coasters, really do. But I am not an extreme thrills kind of guy, so the new ones at places like Six Flags Magic Mountain and Cedar Point are not ones you will find me riding. Yet, I had to do Hulk, just once and just for the views I knew I would get. Mission accomplished, and it was quite fun!

Still on a Hulk rush, I walked down Marvel Super Hero Island's main street, thinking "Not too bad, Universal, not too bad at all." Being so impressed with the Port of Entry, I looked for more details. Big mistake. Then I began noticing the painted flats, how easily I could see backstage, assorted areas where the large photo images were peeling off, and lots of faded paint. This was a consistent vision throughout the park. No boats were visible to bring visitors from island to island, giving the place a very unexpected stillness. When I finally reached Spiderman, I forgot all about all the disappointing pieces. I was ready to rock!

Right to the point, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about this attraction! It alone was worth the money spent to visit the park. The queue was great at setting the story, and the ride itself really lived up to its title. Won't fill this paragraph with any spoilers, but I will say I rode it three times in a row. Each trip, I discovered new things and still walked off asking myself how they pulled it all off. It is Universal's answer to Indiana Jones. An amazing adventure indeed! Is it better? That's up for you to decide.

After a few major plusses in a row, I was really ready to embrace this park as a Disney quality experience. Then I went into Toon Lagoon. Here my thoughts of equality were dashed as the poor upkeep I'd seen earlier was even worse here. Coming right off Super Hero Island, you'd think Universal would give us a change in environment, but the cutouts and cartoon characters felt too similar and created a bit of boredom. They really didn't change much, only the attractions were different. Wetter. Way wetter, and not in a good way.

Popeye and Blutos Barges was my first experience in getting 100% drenched on any theme park's attraction. I had been forwarned, so I wore a quick dry pair of shorts as if I was headed to a water park. So did many other folks, and I saw many women in bikini tops! It was a good thing I was prepared for a soaking, as Universal's designers went for minimal theming and lots of cheap shots here. It was a fun and appropriately rough course, but it felt as if theme was an afterthought.

I expected much more from the other drencher in this area- Duddley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. The folks touting Universal's superiority over Disney say this is their Splash Mountain. Definitely similar on the thrill meter, but absolutely no charm and sorely lacking on the maintenance. I have never seen any ride at any park in such poor condition! This went beyond needing new paint. Props were not only inoperable, they were left visibly broken with the mechanisms exposed for all to see. No attempt to hide anything. Very poor show. Thankfully, I knew Jurassic Park was around the bend, and I was excited to see it.

Oh, the power of the movies! Just seeing the entrance arch made my pulse race a bit!

After having just seen Dinoland U.S.A. at Disney's Animal Kingdom, it was very difficult to walk into this area at Islands of Adventure without making an immediate comparsion between the two. The verdict? In terms of atmosphere alone, Universal wins this round with a knockout. Jurassic Park is appropriately lush and gorgeous. Details abound that are true to the films. The Discovery Center sits at the center of the park, drawing in the eye. Between the entrance arch and the center, however, is a wonderfully themed children's area, Camp Jurassic.

The signature attraction here at the camp is Pteranodon Flyers, a very short flight high above the area. It is fun to watch- bringing some movement to the area- but impossible to ride without a child joining you, so I was out of luck. The camp itself is a smaller dinosaur focused version of Tom Sawyer's Island. Very well done and worth a visit just to take some terrific photos. The waterfalls and vegetation make this a relaxing spot to stop and enjoy your immersive surroundings.

The famous River Adventure was next. Although the surroundings are better than what Universal could have possibly accomplished in Los Angeles, so many effects were broken, ultimately ruining what should have been their centerpiece attraction. At one point, one of the major dinosaurs had its "skin" ripped off, clearly revealing the metal parts underneath it. This was in full view of the riders as we looked directly at them. The falling jeep effect was not working, the smaller dinosaurs were not spitting, and some were not even moving. The giant at the end worked just fine, however, sending our boat off with a roar before we went over the falls. All the wonderful effects may not be working at Disney's Countdown to Extinction, (I hate the generic Dinosaur), but at least everything is in the dark, and the carnotaurus is not exposing his insides to reveal he is, in fact, just a robot.

The Discovery Center was an additional disappointment as none of the major exhibits were working and a large section of the inside was actually just a cafe. I wandered around in a mostly empty building without an employee in sight.

Ultimately, at first glance, Jurassic Park feels much richer than its Animal Kingdom cousin, but the attractions pale in comparison. What Jurassic promises, it does not deliver. Although Disney presents a much odder storyline in Dinoland U.S.A. and Chester and Hester's Dinorama carnival in particular, it does make good on its delivery, as quirky and cheap as it feels.

Next island up as I traveled clockwise was Lost Continent. Certainly, the most visually impressive island here as well as the one with some eye-popping attractions: Dueling Dragons coaster, Eighth Voyage of Sinbad stunt show, and the incredible mutlimedia guided "funhouse" walk-through, Poseidon's Fury.

We who follow Disney park lore (too) closely are familiar with the true story of ex-Disney Imagineers heading over to Universal and designing the Dueling Dragons coaster, and in essence "stealing" the primary reason for Beastly Kingdom to exist. The designer's impact is profound- at least in the queue. It is richly detailed and successfully draws you into the castle and its story. The buildup is similar to what we experience in the Orlando version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and its lush but abandonded gardens. Unfortunately, budgets must get axed at Universal as well, as both coasters are entirely outdoors aside from the station. No theming, no continuation of story, nothing. But what fun coasters they are! Both the Fire and Ice sides are worth a spin.

Even better is the Poseidon's Fury walk through attraction. No spoilers here, but I must say it is really well done. Go see it! The awful downside is an extremely long wait time, mishandled queuing directions by the operators, and a holding area that is both dark and in some places quite "scented". I almost left several times during my near one hour wait, but I am glad I did not.

Before I continue this report with a bit about Seuss Landing and a conclusionary wrap up, let me say that I ate lunch at the Enchanted Oak Tavern in this section of the park. Definitely great theme park food- and just very good food compared to the real world. Terrific ribs, salads, and breads. Slightly on the expensive side but worth every penny. I have had many more mediocre meals at Epcot! Sitting on the adjacent outdoor patio overlooking the lake made it a relaxing and all around pleasant dining experience.

Being a big kid at heart, I saved Seuss Landing for last. It's quite a jolting visual experience going from the Mediterrean feel of Lost Continent into the rainbow world of Dr. Seuss. The one dark ride, Cat in the Hat, was a major disappointment after a 45 minute wait in line. This was supposedly the Peter Pan's Flight of Island's of Adventure, and this part of the park is certainly Universal's answer to Disney's Toontown. In reality, Cat in the Hat reminded me more of the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Pick California or Florida, either one. Nothing great. The rest of the Landing, however, is very appealing with a great carousel and very immersive, colorful  environment. I snapped these last few photos and quickly rushed out of the park to reach the airport for my flight home. Definitely a fun day. The visit quenched my curiosity, and I was glad I had taken time out of my trip to visit.

As I left the park, the comparisons between Disney and Universal spun around in my head. Feeling I had visited each company's premier Florida parks gave me a fairly objective perspective. There were winners and losers on both sides in this contest.

Islands of Adventure is extremely engaging for folks looking for thrills. If you love Six Flags style parks, this is the closest you will get to one in Orlando- with a bit of Disneyesque style and magic thrown in. You have to be able to overlook poor maintenance, seeing backstage areas, and a lot of painted plywood cutouts. You'll love the place if you can. The employees are pleasant, the food ranged from to be expected to great. Spiderman is a must see. Jurassic Park the island, but not the attractions, is what Disney's Dinoland U.S.A. should have been. No one knows at this point how well their plans for Harry Potter will turn out, but Lost Continent is a winner nonetheless.

As for me, I am hoping Universal's Potter declares war on Disney and makes each company attempt to outdo the other. The fans win. With the right mix of new attractions and a good polishing of the park, I will probably return in the future. But Universal has to win me over because Disneyland in California is still the standard they need to beat. I'm not sure if anyone can, but I'd love to see someone besides the Japanese try.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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