May 22, 2024

Walt Disney World vs. Universal Orlando Resort- Day Two: Universal Studios Florida

Day Two of Our Trip to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort should be titled, "Why I May Never Go back to Universal Studios Florida or Why Can't Diagon Alley Be Placed in a Better Park?" This may very well be my least favorite theme park of the bunch. It is definitely the lesser of the two, but Walt Disney World has a park that may be the very bottom of the barrel.

Now, Islands of Adventure is one of the best theme parks in Florida. No qualifiers in that statement. Our first day on the Universal property was everything we expected it to be and more. Their second park has a couple of my favorite attractions and some pretty incredible design work behind it. It has its flaws- as I pointed out in Day One of my trip report- but it is definitely worth your hard earned money. 

Since I wrapped up all the Islands attractions into one report, I'll do the same with the Studios.

We took the Hogwart's Express over to the Universal Studios Florida park because early entry hours was only for Islands of Adventure. Our plan was to make sure we took in a variety of attractions we missed last trip even if it meant missing some things we enjoyed last time. 

Such an incredibly well themed area!

For a few years now, I've maintained that Diagon Alley is the best themed land ever designed around a single Intellectual Property. You may not agree, but I make a pretty convincing case here. Collectively, we have taken hundreds of photos of this second Harry Potter land, and it is so rich and full of design detail, that we have spent hours there with only going on a single ride. Escape from Gringotts is a family favorite. The story is solid, from beginning to end the effects and sets are wonderful, and the use of the ride vehicle is thrill without inducing nausea. You walk off with a smile on your face. This is something I cannot say for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The shopping in Diagon Alley is unique, the food is decent, and then there's Butterbeer- a definite reason alone to visit.

So why would I even dare write I may never visit Universal Studios Florida again? The problem begins when you step outside of Harry's world.

Use the single rider line here.
We were in and out in less than 10 minutes.

We were there prior to the recent opening of the revised kids area with Shrek, Trolls, and Kung Fu Panda areas. DreamWorks Land was still behind walls. This meant the entire Studios park was a full cityscape of streets even if the theme varied. Harry Potter 2.0 aside, this gives the first Universal Florida park a redundant landscape and very cold feel. 

Playful atmosphere with two good family friendly attractions.

Minion Land is really cute, colorful, and contains a couple of family friendly attractions that we really enjoyed: The brand new Villain-Con Minion Blast shooter game, and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem simulator. How can you not love minions and more minions? You just can't! But again, it's still a street just like all the other areas. The other themed areas San Francisco, New York, Hollywood, Springfield U.S.A., are all just streets. More streets everywhere. Concrete and more concrete. When you add in that the buildings are full sized and not scaled down, walking them can become a bit overwhelming too.

The reputation is well earned.

Other attractions to see on our list included the less than impressive Transformers The Ride 3D, a huge rip off of the still excellent Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man next door in that other theme park.  It's loud, and action packed but with 2/3 less the fun.

Even less successful was Fast and Furious Supercharged. It has rightly earned the reputation of being the worst ride on the Orlando property by far. Universal Creative blew it.  Big time. The closest comparison is the much better Skull Island, again at the other park. See a pattern here?

In contrast to what was poor, we found The Bourne Stuntacular an excellent show. Creatively designed, staged and executed, it was one of the highlights of our time in the Studios. This is the show not to miss. No spoilers here but I will say it is very different than what you expect, and these differences make it a winner.

Sorry, Universal, but I don't think anyone
associates Julie Andrews with your company.

The star of the equally lovely Olivia Newton-John.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame was unexpected as was the Brown Derby. The Old Hollywood settings were a nice change of pace. I'm sure I missed several other stars on the walk. I just got tired of looking down. 

Where the streets work is when the doors of the shops and restaurant open up to real places to explore. I found most of the time, it seems the proprietors' locations are just false fronts for a show building. There's no life here. It feels empty and even deserted in spots. Something's got to give. 

Springfield, the Home of the Simpsons Ride holds one of the cleverest attractions in the park. Destroy an entire amusement park? Who do you think we are, Disney Imagineers working on plans for California Adventure? Speaking of all that, we absolutely love the satire of the Disney attractions in the queue. It's both sincere and snarky at the same time. The main ride is a little much on the stomach toward the end as it is pretty lengthy for yet another simulator, but you've got to do it at least once. The vibe is appropriately different than Back to the Future which was there prior. But I'd say it's even more fun. I'll hate to see it all go away. 

The Haunted Condo ad in the queue.

Downing a Flaming Moe is a must.

World Expo's sole ride, Men in Black Alien Attack may be my favorite shooter ride in Orlando. But I could see it on the chopping block. Will Smith has probably moved this to the delete list. It's too bad. The ride is clever and competitive- even if all the effects were not working compared to our previous trip.

At the risk of being repetitive, let me summarize here. Have you ever gone to Disney California Adventure and regretted it after an hour and a half in the park? Have you ever thought, "I should have gone to Disneyland?" If so, this is the best comparison I can give you between going to the Studios instead of Islands of Adventure. The park is quite enjoyable for one visit. However, while it lasts, if you have never been to the parks at Universal Orlando Resort, buy a one day-two park ticket. You can see the best of both in one full day if you plan it right. 

Unless big plans and a major redesign happen, I won't come back unless I'm visiting with first timers- or our son who is a huge Potter fan and will insist on seeing all three lands, soon one in each park when Epic Universe opens. BUT Diagon Alley is just so good...

While Islands of Adventure has layers of subtle beauty, the Studios is loud and in your face. In one more Disney comparison, it's like the difference between Disney Springs and Universal's City Walk. Two totally different experiences. 

The evolution of Universal Orlando Resort can be seen here: The big box, simulator heavy Studios was first. They learned from there, and the more creative and beautiful Islands of Adventure was next. It was a huge leap in themed entertainment. This all makes me even more excited for Epic Universe in 2025. If the increase in quality is equally huge, Disney had better watch out because it will be fantastic!

I'll pop in some City Walk restaurant Dine or Ditch reviews in future articles, but we will move onto Disney World next. Lots to share. Great stories, first visits to new attractions, and some surprises both good and bad. 

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

May 20, 2024

Dinner in Paris

A bottle of wine, good food, and great friends in one of my favorite vacation places: Paris, France. What could make for a better night? Nothing! The Lord has blessed us with all these things, and we are thankful for the trip together. No, I haven't forgotten about the trip reports. 

There's much more of Italy to share including a stop at the world's most beautiful restaurant. Then, afterwards, there's the City of Light. Without a single glance at Disneyland Paris, we still had an amazing time. 

I'm just so swamped with work that I cannot think straight. They will come, so I hope you'll be patient with me.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

May 18, 2024

Karen on My Radio

A very rare photo of Karen Carpenter. From the 1981 photo sessions for her last album while she was alive, Made in America. She and brother Richard made some amazing albums, and they play a large part of the soundtrack of my years growing up in Southern California. 

I long wanted to be a Disney Imagineer, designing g those world famous attractions for Disneyland. And it was the music of Carpenters more than any other artist that kept me glued to Top 40 radio like L.A.'s famous KHJ. 

The duo's popularity waned in the late 70s, and mine took a brief dip as I got busy becoming an adult. But I never forgot Karen's incredible voice and listened to the duo almost daily.

Driving along Pacific Coast Highway or on the way to Disneyland, hits by she and Richard proudly came out of my speakers along with Earth, Wind & Fire, old Motown, and much, much more. Check out the series below, and you'll understand why.

Below is a continuing series on the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter. There are so many stand alone posts highlighting different aspects of their career, recordings, rare photographs, and life that I've lost count. 

Below is the list of my "Revisited /Fresh Look" reviews, and then a List of reviews done a decade earlier. Each with different and rare photos, album charts, and a perspective on their lives and their career.

My Initial Reviews of the albums:

May 12, 2024

Here's to Mothers Day... and Butterbeer!

A nice little shot from our recent trip to Universal Orlando Resort and of course, Walt Disney World. As I was looking for a photo of all four of our kids with their mother, I realized I only had old ones from years ago. That's ok- I have a recent one of our youngest son- the Harry Potter fan- sitting in Hog's Head enjoying a butter beer with his Mom, I mean Mum. 

Islands of Adventure is quickly becoming one of my favorite parks in Florida due to the great Jurassic Park thrill Velocicoaster and my love for Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure

More of our trip report to come. Next up? Universal Studios Florida park.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

May 11, 2024

Jesus Says Judgment is Coming

Jesus himself says it's Heaven or Hell for each of us as we must give an account for how we've lived our lives. Let me say this clearly- I love writing about Disney and Universal parks, music- especially that of Carpenters- Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard, travel, and many other things. But this is important stuff. Jesus himself speaks of both Heaven and Hell in terms of judgment and His impending return more often than you'd first think when you read the Bible:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.  Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me." (John 5:24-30)

The great Apostle John, in his revelation of the future and the final judgement says this:

"Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. 

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 20:11- 21:8)

Thankfully, this King Jesus also provides a way for sinful broken people- that's me and you- to escape an eternity in Hell without Him. Two very famous verses- but sometimes the second half is forgotten!

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

Yes, me and you are guilty as charged- With the smallest lie to the evilest of actions, we deserve our punishment- and yet we're all given the same opportunity to turn to Jesus, change our focus in life, and start fresh in a way that pleases Him. No one is turned away. The Great Apostle Paul writes to the Romans who were part of the earliest believers:

"But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."  (Romans 10:8-13)

It's stunningly straightforward. It's simple. It's life-changing one way or the other, for now and for all eternity. The choice is yours. Choose your own "final destination" (in the words of the classic Haunted Mansion spiel). The greatest part for the here and now is the joy, freedom, and sense of a fresh start you get the moment you give Jesus your life. He's not afraid of your past, worried about your present, or without a plan for your future. He has it under control once you give it to Him.

Let me say it again- I love writing about Disney and Universal parks, music, my family, lots of things- but nothing you will read on this blog is as important as what you just read right now. Nothing. And nothing you do will be as important as the decision you must make now that you know the truth.

May 8, 2024

Three Absolutely STUNNING Nighttime Photos from Tokyo Disneyseas' Fantasy Springs

Aren't these beautiful? Why is it that Japan continues to get incredibly gorgeous and fully immersive themed lands while we in the States and elsewhere get truncated versions of attractions for Disney's epic Frozen films? At this new expansion of Tokyo Disneysea, those artists at Disney Imagineering has just hit it out of the park from any way you look at it!

But it's just not Frozen this time. Peter Pan's Neverland Adventure is housed in a beautifully designed land! Running close is Disneyland Paris' great Adventure Isle, but that doesn't have an E Ticket attraction based on the classic animated film. 

After seeing these shots of Frozen Kingdom and Peter Pan’s Never Land, I might be the most jealous of Rapunzel's Forest and the main attraction: Rapunzel’s Lantern Festival. Tangled is a wonderful film- one of my favorites- and the lantern scene the most beautiful piece of animation ever. 

Could these come to the Disneyland Resort as part of the long term plans  for DisneylandForward? We can only dream.

(Photographs copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

May 7, 2024

Walt Disney World vs. Universal Orlando- Day One: Islands of Adventure- Breaking Theme Park Design Rules, But Is It The Best Family Park for Thrillseekers?

The Disney vs. Universal Conundrum. If you have smaller kids and are visiting Orlando, you might think that Walt Disney World has to be your headquarters and Universal Orlando Resort must wait for several more years. The answer is "It depends".

Our first full day meant an early start as we had a one hour in park advantage over guests not staying on the Universal property. The busses come so often to the hotels and to the main station at the City Walk and park entrances, that it is very, very, fast and easy to go back and forth between even the least expensive hotels. 

Once off the bus, security is also fast and efficient. Then, it's a short scenic walk through the main thoroughfare of City Walk to the Islands of Adventure entrance. We arrived at the gates half an hour before opening and were within 15 or so people to the front of the line. 

This tower lets you know Islands of Adventure is straight ahead.

For better or worse, Universal Creative has broken some design rules or created their own, depending on how you view it. First case in point: the park icons are outside the park.

At Universal Orlando, you'll quickly understand why the newer Islands of Adventure was designed by ex-Disney Imagineers, and why the older portion of Universal Studios Park (meaning everything but Diagon Alley) feels redundant and cheaply built in comparison. 

From my first visit in 2007, I instantly loved Port of Entry, the park's opening act, a Main Street of sorts but with an Adventureland meets very whimsical feel. There's not a single attraction here, but the variety of architecture, lush vegetation, and vibrant colors create a funky, carefree vibe,  a place you want to explore. But not right now.

The most direct route to reach the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade is right through Seuss Landing and through the Lost Continent

Seuss Landing is a charming and quite colorful area without much to do unless you have smaller kids. This is unfortunate as it is a pretty big chunk of great theming to just pass through. Then, the lineup of attractions is quite extensive. 

There's the dark ride Cat in the Hat. It's not Disney worthy, but then again, the source material doesn't give you much to work with in terms of atmosphere. But as a chance to ride inside for a story, it gets the job done.

Oh, the places you will go!

Outside, the Caro-Seuss-el allows guests of all ages to ride a classic merry-go-round on animals straight from the imagination of the book author.  
The high flying One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish lets you soar in the air above the crowds, but the best attraction in this elaborately themed area is People Mover like The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride. The views are great, and it's more fun for adults than you'd imagine.

The Character Zone and a stage show complete the offerings along with some very creative places to shop and eat- including the famous Green Eggs and Ham. 

Seuss Landing is Kid Central in this thrill-focused park, but it is not the only area where you'll find family friendly attractions for the younger set. 

The Lost Continent's truly incredible theming is mostly missing (pun intended) on park visitors in 2024. Why? Compared to the park opening and through the area now has no attractions left and remains as a place to eat and shop and pass through on the way to Harry's world. 

It's so sad there's no longer any attraction in this wonderfully themed area!

It's unfortunate as the theme is unique and it's rich in detail. The shops and eateries are well themed, but the attractions were just elegantly executed in terms of style and appeal. There was once the Dueling Dragons coaster, the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad stunt show, and a terrific walk through adventure, the incredible Poseidon's Fury. Toss in Mythos for table service dining, and the land was multi-faceted with something for the entire family. (I go into detail with photos on this trip report from 2007.)

All said, for an adult without any children- or without any desire to do kids' rides- that's two immediate lands that are strictly a walk through on the way to the stellar attractions. That's a lot of wasted potential, making for a less lengthy park visit.

Back to day one of our trip.

Early park entry meant quick access and very short queues to the park's headliners: Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Jurassic Park's breath-stealing Velocicoaster- each with substantial height requirements. 

Just beyond the arch is the meadow into the Forbidden Forest.
Which way do the bikes travel? 
You'll have to ride it to find out!

Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure may be my favorite roller coaster in Orlando. Or it's a close tie- but I'll get back to that in a future post. (I've also got a future article on ranking the best coasters, but I'll publish that sometime after the trip reports.)

I love this part of the queue when the motor bikes take off overhead!

I'm a fan of theme and story, and Hagrid's has hit all the right notes. From the archway entrance to the highly detailed queue and the ride itself, this is the must- do attraction in Islands of Adventure. This may be due to J.K. Rowling's insistence, but this coaster is as rich in design detail as any of the Harry Potter dark rides. Audio-Animatronics join visual effects, incredible landscapes, and a rather funny on-board audio narration in perfect execution. Universal Creative has hit a grand slam home run with this. As with Rise of the Resistance at Disney Studios, the crowds know this is the first attraction you've got to line up for or risk paying the price with hours long waits. One day, I will ride this at night- and I just can't wait.

My wife endured the attraction, while we loved every minute. She's not a fan of launched coasters, and Hagrids- being a motorbike themed one- befittingly has seven of them, hitting top speeds of 50 MPH. Plus a surprise or two. It's as good as ride in the sidecar as it is on the bikes, making it quite repeatable. From start to finish, there's a smile on my face! I'd ride this all day- all day long if I could.

First view of the beast.

As much as we were tempted to get right back in line for another journey- and I wish we would have- my son and I were determined to hit Jurassic Park's menacing Velocicoaster before the massive crowds descended. Last trip, the dinosaur themed attraction scared the scat out of me. I wasn't sure I'd ride it again even though I wanted my son to have some company. 

Here's another place where new theme park design rules apply: It's ok- if not preferable- for roller coaster track to be exposed. This may be considered sacrilege among hardcore Disney fans, but not here. In fact, you kind of expect it. This is part of what makes this park thrilling- the joy (terror?) of anticipation.

The detailed queue and strong backstory for this extreme coaster are impressive. Chris Pratt reprises his role as do others. The animated raptors are amazingly lifelike and quite freaky as they stare you down while you wait just inches away from them. They twitch, their nostrils move, and their eyes glare in the darker setting. But the best is yet to come.

What could possibly go wrong?
Look at these stats!

No lie- this ride is intimidating. Four raptors waiting to devour you as you run the course through their enclosure are the very least of your worries. What you can see as you approach this beast- even from the first view across the lagoon- will give you pause to think twice about getting in line. But what you can't see is just as scary, if not more so.  

With only the tiniest of lap bars and no overhead restraints, the fear builds quickly. Just when you might think it's come to an end, the ride's second launch kicks into gear. Taking you over a 155' "Top Hat" (with a great view of the park) and eventually into a inverted stall- riders are parallel to the ground and fully upside down for 2 solidly terrifying seconds- the ride ends with a barrel roll just a few feet over the lagoon. The coaster never slows down all the way through. All this action happens in a mere 1.5 minutes- but it feels like a lifetime!

As a second time rider, it was much less scary than my maiden voyage. But still terrifying. I will admit, I watched the official POV video more than a handful of times in preparation. I walked off relieved and happy, with the adrenaline rush still pumping. It was not Velocicoaster that did me in. That was our next ride.

My smile did not last long.

Even with a good dose of dramamine in me, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey makes me very sick to my stomach. Not a single other ride in Orlando has that same strong effect on me.  It's too bad. 

I don't know what this is, but I like the photograph.

Where forced perspective on Beast's castle in the Magic Kingdom is woefully executed, here in Hogsmeade, Hogwart's is a masterpiece of thoughtful design and elaborate detail. Like the rest of the land, you are in the world of the movies. Fans of the crew too short to ride can walk through the queue, and it is definitely worth the time to do so. Each room offers it own charms and chills as you approach the enchanted benches that take you on your journey. 

In another Disney vs. Universal comparison, Forbidden Journey is this park's much darker version of the Haunted Mansion. Where there's humor in the Disney ghost ride, there's not a shred of it here, and the villains are right in your face instead of at a safe distance. Parents take note of this.

I was hoping my ride this time would be different, and I would walk off it feeling fine. But no. I think it is the large swooping arches during the Quidditch match that get to me.  It's really a shame as the story, setting, and overall experience rival Escape from Gringotts next door.

It's next to impossible to get photos of these lands with few people in them.
You have to be a superstar blogger and influencer in order to do so.

Last trip, I openly declared Diagon Alley to be the best themed land ever created. (See "Why Every Disney Park Fan Must Visit Universal Orlando's Diagon Alley".) I was much harder on Hogsmeade. The much more narrow walkways and fewer shops to explore made it all seem less than complete. Perhaps because I live in a state that has snowy Winters and Springs, the setting didn't seem as magical. But in Florida's humid April heat vs. our previous Fall visit, I was much more impressed by the placemaking this time. 

After a stomach-churning ride on the original Harry Potter attraction, it was more than necessary to stop, slow down, and explore the rest of the park. We wandered through the village. Taking in all the details, I was struck by how alive the area feels. It was still just under the hour before park gates were open to all, so it took me a moment to place it: There was movie music playing. It made all the difference adding a subtle but important backdrop to every detail around us. 

There's no arguing whether or not the land is wildly successful. How can it not be with such stunning environments, incredible attractions, and great entertainment and shopping? Truth be told, there's only two areas in which there could be improvement. One is obvious. The other is not.

The first is food. Other than the must eat and drink in any form iconic Butterbeer, the food (in both Universal parks actually) is mediocre at best. I'm not talking sweets and treats. I'm talking breakfast, lunch, and dinner selections.  It even seemed the food quality was a bit worse than it was previously, and it was expensive for what it was. This must be fixed if Universal wants to match Disney. 

Secondly, Hogswart's Express aside, there isn't a single Harry Potter attraction without a significant height restriction. Exploring the land and making use of the wand experience can take up a large chunk of time, but there is nothing for kids to ride. That is a major misstep in my opinion. Until they can come up with something, adding a small Magical Creature interactive meet and greet would show some special consideration for families with littler ones. 

However, all said, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter- Hogsmeade wins hands down compared to its younger sister, Diagon Alley in the Studios, on the strength of its incredible attraction lineup. It may even be equal in atmosphere. Yes, a guy can change his mind.

In actuality, we took the Hogwart's Express over to the Universal Studios Florida park and exited at Kings Cross Station, destination Diagon Alley. But for the sake of a more consistent look at each park, I'll lump together my observations into an individual post for each one.

Moving counter-clockwise, we left Hogsmeade and entered through the massive gates of Jurassic Park

We are all food- not friends- in the areas thrilling attractions!

It took this visit to make me see something very clear: Jurassic Park is an excellently themed, fully immersive area with attractions for the whole family, not just the thrill seekers.  The design detail here is truly astonishing, second only to the two Harry Potter worlds. 

This truth was easy to miss this because Central Florida's weather and landscapes make it seem like a fairly easy accomplishment for those at Universal Creative to come up with an area that resembles the famous movies' location of Isla Nublar. But make no mistake- this is a very well thought out land! Unexpectedly, it is also one that has plenty of things to do for kids.

The first obvious go to place is Camp Jurassic. Think of a dinosaur themed, land locked version of Tom Sawyer Island over at the Magic Kingdom. It's got multi-level places to climb and explore, dark caves filled with amber - and a surprise or two- and more. High above it all is Pteranodon Flyers, providing a bird's (reptile's?) eye view of a large portion of Jurassic Park. You have to be with a kid to ride. It's turnabout fair play for the times the kids are too little for the more intense attractions in this park. But I'd still like to see it one day.

Switch in restrictions- 
Adults need a kid in order to ride this!

There's nothing here to see. Or is there?

I was in Camp Jurassic and setting up this shot, waiting for a duo of flyers to pass by. I couldn't time it right. But as I waited, I caught one incredible design detail. Do you see it? I did not at first.

If you look closely at the middle of the photo, just below the track, you'll see a small mountain backdrop. What you're seeing is a piece of the Skull Island building that could have been left exposed (like many are in the Studios park next door). 

Not only did the clever designers camouflage the building of that huge attraction, they did it in such a way that it enhances the feel of the camp far away from it. It's a subtle but intended attention to guest's perspective that makes the whole of Jurassic Park seem real. You can just envision being on Isla Nubar, exploring on your own. 

Are those claws I see holding up the lighting?

On the way to the Discovery Center, the theming continues on. Inside, there are hands on exhibits and a hatching nursery for little creatures, plush recreations of more gentle creatures, and more. 

Speaking of purchasing plush, the shops have a large assortment of very clever merchandise that makes you want to whip out your wallet. All very humorous. There's even a new assortment of Jurassic World attraction posters up for sale.

I can't speak to the eateries in this section of the park. Usually, it is too early in the day for a meal break. This could change when the less popular islands are retimed to something different. If there's good food here, that would be a first.

The nearby Raptor Encounter provides some close up thrills, and the famous River Adventure caps off a great land that the whole family can enjoy together. The river ride is not quite as intense as the soon to be extinct Dinosaur at Disney's Animal Kingdom, even if the element of suspense is equally built. But then again, Jurassic World is not being demolished either. After my first visit, I gave Disney the win in the dinosaur competition. Not this time. Now, Disney bias put aside, I saw it for what it was.

Lurking in the shadows and the daylight.

It's really too bad that Disney gave up on Dinoland U.S.A., isn't it? But in the primeval world, it is survival of the fittest.  The hard truth is no matter how hard they tried, Imagineering couldn't kill the beast that is the Jurassic Park/World franchise. And the roar of Velocicoaster just killed off the Carnotaurus and the rest of Disney's efforts. It's a clear countdown to extinction once the changes are announced at D23 in August. Goodbye Grant Seeker, hello Indiana Jones.

It really is a lost world!

Jurassic World might be penned in, but if it is not, the thrilling jeep adventure in China's park would be an amazing addition. Better yet, a kid friendly jungle jeep safari with gentler creatures for them to see. You could put a smaller sized predator way in the back of it all to build a mild thrill element. This may be the only thing truly missing from a great land. Regardless, there's more than enough here for the entire family.

Next door, King Kong's Skull Island plays like an extension of sorts to Jurassic Park, adding yet another thrill ride but it's one that can be enjoyed by the youngest kids. We had our longest wait of our two days at Universal for this attraction as it kept breaking down. But at least we were indoors, sheltered from the sun. Like Forbidden Journey, no 3D this go around. Not much different, though. 

Walking into Toon Lagoon after the previously excellently themed lands, you can see where the place needs a refresh. There's two great water rides here and a cleverly designed kids water play area, but the painted flats and the sections themed to old comics of decreasing popularity didn't cut it. 

Be forewarned: both the flume ride Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and the rotating rafts of Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges will get you soaking wet. It does not matter where you sit in either attraction. The splashdown does the trick for the flume, while going under a waterfall on the raft ride finishes off any dry riders. I was a very bad husband and delighted father. I did not let my wife or son know what was coming. But I was just as soaked as they were once we got off with huge smiles on our faces.

Painted flats and more painted flats. 
The theme's unique but the execution falls...flat.

Butting Toon Lagoon right next to Super Hero Island made it seem like more painted flats one after another, even if the attraction line up in both areas is pretty solid. My bet is, this comic strip themed area is set to be on the chopping block in the nearby future.

Much better than the copycat attraction
found in the Studios.

We'll wrap up our 2024 look at Islands of Adventure by taking in Marvel Super Hero Island and two of its strongest attractions: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk Coaster

While the human king of the arachnids may no longer sit on the throne of must-see attractions in this park, it is still an excellent and thrilling adventure. Now, I prefer fully realized sets over 3D, but this one is just plain fun. Fun enough to make me overlook my preferences.

In comparison to its flashier neighbor, The Incredible Hulk Coaster is not as complete an experience. There's less theme and the ride is much rougher. It's not Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rock-It rough (so I'm told), but there's more rattle and rumble. For a younger family member finally tall enough to try an adult coaster with inversions, this is a good first step before moving on to the much scarier ride in a raptor paddock.

For families with smaller kids, the character meet and greets may be this area's saving grace. Storm Force Accelatron is one ride they can go on, a flat ride with an unrestricted all-you-can-spin feature. But right next door is Doctor Doom's Fearfall, a drop tower attraction that is not available to them.

Walking out of the park through the Port of Entry, I thought of how much fun I had. I also thought of how much potential this place has to overtake one or two of the Disney parks down the road. What does it need? First, add in some attractions at the Lost Continent and replace all the flats in Toon Lagoon. Then, throw in some great dark rides with no height restrictions, add back live entertainment, and then some great food in an atmospheric,  compelling environment. 

Universal Creative's new design rules work, and they work very well with few exceptions. You can see the evolution of what they are all about by looking first at the Studios, then here at Islands of Adventure, and next at what they are creating for Epic Universe

So, to answer the initial question: Is Islands of Adventure the family park for thrill seekers?  It depends on the make-up of your group.

If you have elementary aged kids, it's just about perfect with its mix of attractions, shows, and character experiences. For the toddler set, and if you are touring with grandparents, however, it is not yet the place to go if everyone wants to ride together. That realm still belongs to Disney's Magic Kingdom

Next up on this trip report- a look at the Universal Studios park. What I love... and why I may not go back next trip.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)