February 12, 2016

Universal vs. Disney: Round One

Editor's note: As promised, here is a Universal Orlando trip report from my good friend and great photographer Len Yokoyama. It's just the beginning as Len compares Disney to Universal- and comes up with some surprising and very astute findings. Read and enjoy this article from my bro!
Aloha from Hawaii! Before I start my trip report to Universal Studios Orlando this past Christmas, I wanted to give you a bit of a background on me (this is the tedious part so hang in there). I’ve been an avid follower of Mark’s blog for the last few years. His combination of “insightful” writing, Disney park info, and a strong love for Christ quickly made his postings must read material (even Mr. Taft's occasional musings on The Carpenters gave me a better appreciation of their music). Over time, I began commenting on Mark’s various columns, and we slowly struck up a conversation via email. This communication turned into a solid friendship which led up to Mark asking if I would like to do a guess report about my Orlando vacation.  Yes, if this Universal report doesn’t raise pitchforks and force Mark to shut down his blog, I will be back with a painfully longer article on my Walt Disney World experiences. So without further adieu, here we go….

Portoftino Bay.

Surviving 2 stopovers and a day’s worth of flying, we immediately headed to Universal after dropping our luggage off at Portofino. With my trusty Nikon D810 and a bag of heavy lenses in tow, we headed straight for Diagon Alley. Now, I’ve always had an appreciation of Universal parks even though my passion (and wallet) belongs to Disney. I adjust my expectation levels when going there and just enjoy their mish-mash collection of movie / entertainment properties. Make no mistake, the two areas that Disney absolutely blows away Universal (to me anyway) are in the areas of licenses and immersive theming. While I’ll always have soft spots for ET, Jaws, and Jurassic Park, these properties are no match for Disney’s stable of characters and movies (and with the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars over the years…let’s face it…Universal is Curious George trying to go toe to toe with King Kong). Disney does a stellar job of keeping their licenses fresh and at the center of pop culture heat. And with Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, you wonder how much incentive Universal has to keep investing big bucks into that super-hero license. 

 JK Rowling’s characters are literally the answer to their prayers. With a hefty fan base and new movies on the horizon, the Potterverse remains relevant and in demand. The crowds at both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade supports this theory. The stores were packed to the gill and lines at the ride attractions and restaurants were ghastly. A huge part of it is due to Universal sparing no expense in building these additions to the theme park. Hogsmeade holds its own against any section at the Disney parks, and Diagon Alley quite easily surpasses a good number of them. The attention to theming and detail is outstanding, and like the best of Disney, the Potter areas are extremely photogenic (especially at night). You can’t take a bad photo there!  One of the negative aspects at Universal’s parks (for me) is the heavy reliance on  motion simulator rides. I had my first taste via Star Tours and left the ride with a headache. Back to the Future confirmed my inability to enjoy these type of attractions. Fortunately Harry Potter and Escape from Gringotts is more of a traditional attraction with some actual forward motion. It does use some of the motion simulation technology, but the mix was enough for me to make it through, and enjoy the overall experience. The 3D is cutting edge, reminding me of the classic Terminator 3D show (I still remember being blown away by the visuals on that Cameron classic). I took a pass on Forbidden Journey since my wife said I would surely get queasy.

 Lions and tigers and dragons, oh my!

We made sure to sample the Butter Beer after reading rave reviews. They are two versions, the regular and frosty. Go with the frosty…it’s cold and slushy texture reminds me of a margarita sans the alcohol (it also doesn’t seem as sweet as the regular version). Beware when ordering, as counter help will  default you to the souvenir mug which adds $7.00 to the drink price. I almost choked when my wife told me our two drinks were nearly $30.00!!!  We had lunch at Three Broomsticks which was another major showpiece for Universal. The place is large and easily accommodates the crowds waiting to eat. Both the food and service there were top notch, but again, it’s that immersive environment that is the big pay off.  I was particulary impressed with the way Universal runs the dining area. Workers will appoint you a seating area which helps to alleviate the stress of finding someplace to sit. I later found the same method applied at Be Our Guest restaurant, so maybe this is something all the parks are moving towards adapting.  Stage shows are run throughout the day, the three being the Frog Choir, Triwizard Sprit Rally, and Celestina Warbeck and the Singing Banshees. The first two shows are midly entertaining, although I think children will enjoy it the most (especially if they are fans of JK Rowling’s works). Celestina, for me anyway, was a cut above the others due to its song productions, which are both catchy and fun. The crowds rarely tapered off, even during the later part of the evening.  I wanted to hang out long enough for the crowds to exit so I could do some long exposure photography.  My main goal was photographing the dragon above Gringott’s bank. The beast will exhale fire every 10 minutes or so, but getting a shot of it (without being severly overexposed) proved challenging. I probably should have used a neutral density filter or bracketed my shots, but a security guard put a quick end to my picture taking.  She approached me and told me my type of camera was not allowed in the parks. I told her I was not a professional , but she told me it didn’t matter. But since the park was almost closing, she would let me off with a warning.  I found it strange that no one else, security or the gate attendees, made a single peep about my gear. I was shooting like a madman throughout the day and night, but no one even gave me a second look. I think because I was on a tripod, I stood out and attracted the crosshairs of this particular guard.  I have this notion that photos whether bad, good, or great, provide invaluable publicity for amusement parks, or any vacation destination for that matter. I can see if I was selling said pictures and making money off of Universal’s properties, but clearly (as my checkbook will attest to) I’m not.  

Captain, my captain.

Other than the Potter areas, we did get to spend a few hours checking out other areas of Islands of Adventure. I’m a long time comic book fan, so the Marvel portions are fun, if not mind blowing. How much more Universal will want to invest in the Marvel properties is a key question. While I don’t doubt the value of the license, it seems like Universal is also helping to promote their biggest competitor’s wares. It’s a tricky situation with no easy answer, I suspect. The Hulk ride was down for refurbishment, so I assume the Marvel stuff will be around for a while longer.  The Dr. Seuss land is charming, but of little interest to me. I admit that the place is well executed, and it really shines at night. With how much less today’s children are reading, I wonder if many of them know the legacy of the man, let alone his  written works.  The area leading to the Lost Continent area is a mystery to me. While I really love the look and theming (a big part of it having grown up with Ray Harryhausen movies. This places looks like a set from one of his animated classics), it lacks a strong narrative focal point. I recalled the Eight Voyage of Sinbad Stunt show as pretty lackluster back in 2004 so we didn’t even bother this time around. I had thought this area had been closed to provide room for the next Potter attraction, so I was surprised to see it still here.

 Beautiful setting!

It was noontime and lunch was on our minds (or rather stomachs) so we headed to the Mythos Restaurant. One of our friends had heard great reviews about the place, so we decided to give it a shot. The place was booked solid for the next few hours, but we managed to book reservations for dinner.  After a few hours roaming the park (and grabbing a light snack), we headed back and got seated at a big table towards the corner of the restaurant. The theming in Mythos was also a sight to behold. I truly hope they don’t tear down this area in favor of more Potter attractions/lands (although the lack of a big commercial attraction in this area worries me). The menu was interesting, but the one thing that really caught my attention was a Pad Thai Noodle dish. Now being from Hawaii, thai restaurants are as common as McDonald’s or the local 7-11. Asian foods are a major staple of island eating, so we have no shortage of authentic ethnic cuisines. I decided to take a chance and order the dish, even though I had already half expected a disappointing fare. To my total surprise, the thai noodles were incredibly delicious…maybe the best I have ever eaten! If anyone told me I would find the best preparation of Pad Thai noodles in Orlando, I would have called them a buffoon (not really, but it make it sound more dramatic)! Come to think of it, this dinner was one of the highlights of my vacation, and we hadn’t even hit Disney World yet!

Len in the middle (in case you thought otherwise!)

All in all, is Universal Studios Orlando worth shaving off a couple of days from a WDW trip (which was the main focus of our journey)? My answer is an absolute YES! In fact, I wished we had stayed another day or two as we totally missed all the other attractions and area that we enjoyed in the past.  While Disney is still king in the world of theme parks, I give Universal props for the levels of commitment and quality they’ve shown with their latest additions featuring a boy wizard! 

 Thanks, Len, for a great report and a solid beginning to a series we will all look forward to reading!
Your photographs are amazing, too. (Maybe my captions not so much!)
(Photographs copyright Len Yokoyama.)


Len said...

Thanks again Mark for allowing me to share my ramblings with your audience! Great selection of photos, and I love the captions (especially the one of the Marvel bad guys and I)! Working on part 2 of my trip report even as I type this... which isn't physically possible...hmmmmm...

Mark Taft said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Taft said...

Len, thanks for the article. Can't wait for more! Bring 'em on bro!