Universal Orlando Summer Trip Report – Part 2

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Picking up where Universal Orlando Trip Report – Part 1 left off, I’m back with more thoughts and photos (most of the Diagon Alley night shots are at the bottom of the post, so scroll down if you don’t care about my random notes). The Wizarding World of Harry Potter areas and attractions were my main reason for making the visit to Universal Orlando since I knew so little about its other attractions and most of my old favorites were gone, but I wasn’t going to visit the parks without experiencing the rest.

From Hogsmeade, we ventured out in Islands of Adventure to hit some attractions in the other lands. My apologies for the lack of photos in the top half of this installment; my camera was often in a locker during the day…

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The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was one such attraction. I had last visited Islands of Adventure sometime after the park’s opening, and I didn’t remember the attraction from then at all. In fact, not only was I under the impression that it opened in conjunction with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man movie, but I thought it was based upon that movie.

Despite my surprise that it was based on the comic-book world of Spider-Man, and teenage me’s disappointment that Kirsten Dunst was absent, I was blown away by the attraction. I’ve heard it frequently cited as one of the best attractions anywhere, and I felt it lived up to that praise.

Even though it’s fast-paced, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man felt balanced in terms of being a fast-paced attraction and one with a coherent plot. This probably isn’t what’s mentioned up front with this attraction very often as the attraction’s technology and effects are its greatest strength, but in my view this was the weakness of several other technically-impressive Universal attractions, so it does bear mentioning.

As far as the technology utilized, I don’t even know where to start. The attraction so seamlessly blended screen-based technology with physical sets and the moving vehicles that it really wasn’t possible to tell where the former ended and the latter began. Or, perhaps it was if I were really looking, but I was so captivated by the quality of the experience that being in the world of Spiderman was the first thing on my mind, not questioning what tech was used where.

I can tell commentary on this is going to be a recurring trend in this trip report, but–at the risk of sounding redundant–I think it’s necessary. This is clearly where the theme park industry is heading with many new attractions. How well an attraction employs its effects, ride system, and blends its various components has always been make or break in terms of how well the attraction causes the guest to suspend disbelief, and it feels the stakes are raised even further with the proliferation of screens.

It’s also been something on my mind recently as several of my new favorites like Spider-Man, Mystic Manor, and the Harry Potter attractions have utilized screens so successfully. By contrast, the misfires (for me, the biggest of which would be L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy in Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Resort Paris) show how even the smallest things can significantly damper the experience. Maybe it’s just me, but more “classic” experiences don’t suffer so greatly by their issues. For example, seeing the flying ships suspended from a track in Peter Pan’s Flight has never really impacted my feelings about that attraction.

Anyway, rather than fixating on Spider-Man and how these types of ride systems are higher stakes, let’s keep moving along. Wandering further, we also did The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Cat in the Hat dark ride. Neither of these really made much of an impression. Hulk seemed like a fun coaster, but I’m not much for unthemed coasters (I forgot to mention in the last installment that we also did both tracks on Dragon Challenge in Hogsmeade; same goes for it) so while fun, it was a bit of a throw-away for me. The Cat in the Hat was fine for what it was, but being a childless guy with no nostalgia for it, it was a bit of a yawner. Basically like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, except with Cat in the Hat characters instead of Pooh characters.

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We also did a loop around the park, hitting every area except Port of Entry (which I later did visit, and is awesome). As a whole, I have to admit that I was not all that impressed with the lands. Yes, Hogsmeade is pretty awesome in terms of design, but the rest…isn’t. Mind you, there are some flashes of great theming, but there are also some places that feel decorated moreso than themed.

Part of this might be general disdain that Universal owns the rights to the greatest theme park intellectual property that will ever be known to man in Jurassic Park, and totally squanders it. Jurassic Park River Adventure is a solid attraction, but given the source material, it should be far and away the best attraction in the park, drawing 700 minute waits. As for the rest of the land, the Visitor’s Center and random huts are the best Universal Creative could do? Really?! I built way more awesome Jurassic Park lands with my LEGOs when I was 8 years old. (EDIT: I did not visit ‘Camp Jurassic’ and it has been brought to my attention that this area is really well done–perhaps all my ranting and raving is misplaced. I’ll have to check that out on the next trip…)

The dinosaur lands in Islands of Adventure and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are probably the ultimate insult to the imagination of children everywhere. It’s sort of mind-boggling how they both suck so hard given that a theme park land based upon dinosaurs should be ridiculously easy to make awesome. If someone told me there was a Florida state law against awesome dinosaur lands, I would honestly believe it, as that’s literally the only explain that makes even remote sense. Such a law might be in the public interest, too; Florida theme parks already have enough of an issue with guests suffering heat exhaustion, and I’m sure those types of problems would be exacerbated by killer dinosaur lands that blow minds too hard. (I believe the medical term for that condition is ‘Permirificus Aneurysm’.)

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The general thematic feel of the Universal Orlando Resort parks is something I’ll return to in my summary to conclude this trip report, especially as it relates to how Universal has seemingly stepped up its game in recent years with significant growth and changes in the last few years, but just the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

After wandering Islands of Adventure a bit, it was back to Universal Studios Florida. On the agenda was The Simpsons Ride, E.T. Adventure, Men in Black: Alien Attack, dinner, and photographing Diagon Alley at night. I usually use photos to help recall the order of things done on a trip for trip reports, but I had my camera in lockers for good chunks of the day, so I’ll just cover this stuff without regard to the order of the experiences.

I think we did Men in Black: Alien Attack first. This shooter game did not disappoint. From the Googie/Mid-Century Modern architecture of the 1964 New York World’s Fair exterior to the clever queue and the ride scenes themselves, this was a real sleeper hit for me. Disney fans may not like this assessment, but it’s far and away the best shooter in Orlando. Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin feels like a cheap knock-off by comparison, and I’m unimpressed by the very basic screen-based nature of Toy Story Mania, so neither of these attractions can touch Alien Attack, in my opinion.

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The Simpsons Ride was another big winner for me. I used to be a huge Simpsons fan, but I slowly lost interest in the show as I felt it became less about clever parody and more about quick (often mindless) laughs. This attraction feels like Simpsons episodes of the past, a theme park attraction that wryly skewers other theme park attractions with most jokes hitting the mark. The ride itself is fine, recycling the same system from Back to the Future: The Ride, but I felt the real highlight here was the humor. Going in, I was disappointed that an old favorite of mine in Back to the Future: The Ride had been replaced, but after experiencing Back to the Future: The Ride again after this in Universal Studios Japan, I think Universal made the right decision. Back to the Future: The Ride is still a worthy attraction, but it’s unfortunately showing its age. Sorry, BTTF fans.

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E.T. Adventure was next up…a few times. I’ve been unabashed in my praise for this attraction on social media since my visit to Universal, and given that I’m not good at sarcasm, I think a lot of people have misconstrued that praise for derision. It’s not.

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I could go on and on about the greatness of E.T. Adventure, and at some point I probably will. Suffice to say, I think this is the best Fantasyland-style dark ride in Orlando. Yes, it’s a bit kitschy and isn’t without faults, but that could be said for all of Walt Disney World’s dark rides. If you think otherwise, I suspect your opinion of the Walt Disney World rides is colored by nostalgia.

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Where E.T. Adventure succeeds is that unlike the rest, the ride portion of the attraction still feels fresh, with quality figures and vibrant scenes that feel alive as you glide past them in your bike. In terms of the bikes (somewhat akin to the ships in Peter Pan’s Flight), they actually do move fluidly, and are a great way to bring guests into the story.

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The plot in the attraction is easy to follow, but it’s odd in that it introduces a bunch of new characters (I later learned they’re from E.T. The Book of the Green Planet, which costs $.01 and should obviously be owned by everyone), most of which are equally as bizarre as E.T., but also unfamiliar to most guests. This makes it feel a bit campy, but the whole of the experience holds up well and is campy in a fun way, not a dated way. None of this should come as any surprise given that E.T. is national treasure that will be cherished by future generations of Americans for billions of years to come, much like Jurassic Park, and you’d have to consciously try to make the theme park adaptation anything less than stellar for an IP like this. Oh wait…

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E.T. Adventure is pure magic from beginning to end, with a fun(ny) pre-show video, great queue, beautiful sets, and a novel means of drawing guests into the story. As much as I like many of Universal’s new attractions, this is one of the last remnants of what made Universal Studios Florida a special park when it opened, and is now a needed foil for the rest of Universal’s attraction lineup.

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After this, it was time to refuel with dinner at Fast Food Boulevard in Springfield USA. This Simpsons area recreated the basic look of Springfield well-enough, but the overall quality seemed a bit suspect. As for the food (I had the Basket O’ Bait), it seemed like an attempt to further parody generic theme park food, which probably wasn’t an advisable move, given that people actually consume the food. I wasn’t impressed with it.

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It was then time to return to Diagon Alley for some night photography. For those of you scrolling through my rambling hoping for a payoff, this should be it!

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Like Cinderella Castle, I don’t think photographing this dragon will ever get old…

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All of the environments in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remind me of random side streets in Europe. It’s all very quaint and intimate, making for good “details” shots.

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The next two shots are tripod-mounted takes on the same scene taken about 5-30 seconds apart, with each combining two different photos for radically different results. I like each of them for different reasons.

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As I get back into the swing of things on this site, I’m trying to figure out what types of posts work, and which don’t. If a post detailing the technique behind these different shots (I actually have a few like this from Diagon Alley) is something that would interest you, please let me know in the comments.

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For the record, I had my camera set up here before these people stopped in front of me. I like the human element in this shot, but I wish the girl with the short-shorts stopped a little farther in front of me…

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Even the seating area for Butter Beer is pretty cool looking.

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Another dragon photo that feels incomplete without fire.

diagon-alley-entrance-night-harry-potterI think once you get farther back from Gringotts, and the dragon is less of a focal point in the shots, the lack of fire isn’t a big deal.

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I have no idea what this stand is…I think some sort of elixir station? I just liked the way the fireworks from Universal’s nighttime show illuminated the sky above the arcade’s glass ceiling here.

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The dragon on top of Gringotts doesn’t move or anything, so I’m assuming this is a fairly simple effect–proving that it doesn’t take something flashy and cutting edge to impress.

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The design of Diagon Alley really lends itself to shooting with an ultra wide angle lens, and leveraging those converging lines for dramatic impact…

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I don’t care who you are, fire is impressive.

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More converging lines, plus balancing warm and cool lighting.

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That was it for my first day at Universal Orlando Resort. The next part will pick up at the start of day, which features more classics at Universal Studios Florida, including ~10,000 words on why every attraction should feature Christopher Walken. I’m sure you can’t wait for that! 😉

These photos were all taken by me with my Nikon D810; I used my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens for the vast majority of the shots. I also used my MeFoto travel tripod for some of the shots, particularly the Diagon Alley nighttime ones.

To get some more Universal photo ideas, check out my Universal Orlando Resort Photo Gallery.

Share!

I’ll level with you–after not being too active with this blog for a while, I’m trying to kickstart it again and post here on a regular basis. If you enjoy this Universal Orlando Resort trip report, the photos, whatever, I would greatly appreciate it if you’d share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc., via the social media buttons on each installment to help spread the word. Reader comments with your feedback, thoughts, etc., are also greatly appreciated!

Your Thoughts…

Do you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts about Universal, screens, etc. in this installment? Are you interested in visiting Universal Orlando Resort? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

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25 replies
  1. Julie Richard
    Julie Richard says:

    Do you offer any of your pictures for sale? I would like to buy a poster of the Gringotts dragon spitting fire for my son’s room. I only had my cell phone when we went last year and the resolution is, of course, too low to allow for it to be blown up.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Marzé
    Marzé says:

    I’m planning our USA trip in detail and really enjoyed all your Disney advice and tips. We however only have two days in Universal, Orlando and I don’t seem to have a good plan on what to do to skip the time wasters and get down to the good stuff.
    Do you have a blog on Universal where you rated the rides and restaurants for me to make the decisions easier?
    Thank you in advance!

    Reply
  3. Fernando
    Fernando says:

    Wow I just stumbled upon your post about Universal and it just gave me the sad feeling of nostalgia (even though my last trip was a week ago). I am amazed at your photos! They all gave me an instant memory of how awesome the park was. Great job.

    Reply
  4. Jake P.
    Jake P. says:

    Tom, great post. Really like seeing your trip reports and photos.

    I was wondering if you could or maybe you have done a post about taking night shots, but more of the stay until closing, what happens if security asks what you are doing and any tips like that you may have.

    I’m headed down to WDW soon and was hoping to take some night shots around some of the parks.

    Thanks,
    Jake

    Reply
  5. Joseph Matt
    Joseph Matt says:

    Great post Tom. I think you’re opinion of the food at FFB would be better if you would have gone with the Krusty Burger or the Chicken & Waffle Sandwich, but I do agree everything should be good.

    Reply
  6. Laura B
    Laura B says:

    Now I have to remember everything I was thinking as I read/looked through this post. Let’s see….

    1. I think our previous visits to UO and IOA must’ve been at about the same time. I was last there in early 2000, just before MIB opened up to the public. A friend of mine worked there, and I got to ride it in testing.
    2. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – amazing! I’m glad to hear that reaction to it all those years ago still seems justifiable.
    3. Isn’t there a dinosaur committee somewhere that we can meet with? Because you are right – both Universal and Disney are really underwhelming in their handling of such an incredible subject. I don’t keep up with Universal rumors…any chance of updates or additions to Jurassic Island now that we have Jurassic World coming to screens in a few months? I still remember the chills I got as I approached the huge wooden doors to the island, and hearing the strains of the film’s score drifting from hidden speakers. Such potential!!
    4. I seriously still have the copy of E.T. The Book of the Green Planet that I got at a book fair in 1st or 2nd grade (1985-86ish). I always found it a bit weird, but just can’t bear to part with it.
    5. Does The Lost Continent still have the amazing fallen statues and other ancient stuff (maybe right outside Poseidon’s Fury?) that they used to have? That was my favorite area way back when, given my obsession with anything mythological/even remotely resembling Atlantian. And if you’re covering those in a later post, yay!!!!

    One of my nephews went to WDW with me over Christmas, and mentioned that he wants to go back to Universal. He was only 11 when we went in 2000. I’ll be sharing this report with him, and I suspect we’ll be making a visit back to O-town again soon.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      3. I don’t follow Universal rumors too closely, but I know there were Jurassic Park rumors last year. Those seem to have died down a bit, but if Jurassic World is a successful reboot, I’d expect something.
      5. Yes, it does. I didn’t spend much time there, though, so no long commentary on them.

      Reply
  7. Aly
    Aly says:

    I’m not sure I can keep reading if you’re serious about loving ET. Seriously, that ride gave me nightmares. I just….I don’t know if I can ever love this blog again after that.

    Other than that part (which I quickly scrolled past), I’m finding your report really interesting. We always went to Universal one day a vacation (two parks in one day with the fastpass thinger) so I’ve been there a number of times since IOA opened. We love thrill rides, so Hulk and Dragon Challenge we find excellent in terms of coasters (especially Hulk with that fast lift off). It’s interesting hearing what you did/didn’t like. I’m actually surprised you’re liking as much as you did, and it’s making me want to go back! We went to Universal in October for a quick trip since we hadn’t been in a few years, and it felt very rushed. Since it was so crowded, I wasn’t super interested in going back again soon….but maybe we will!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      You don’t love ET?! Consider your IP address blocked! 😉

      Hulk and Dragon Challenge *seem* like good coasters to me, but I don’t pretend to know much about what makes a good (strictly thrilling) coaster. They just aren’t my thing. I mean, I enjoy them and all, but they just aren’t my thing (at least to the degree that I give much thought to them). I pretty much ride, enjoy the coaster (or not), and then forget about it. If that makes any sense…

      Reply
  8. Christina
    Christina says:

    I’m with everyone else–pro photo technique info! Long time reader of DTB and excited to follow you over here for non-Disney related pics, trip reports, etc. Keep ’em coming!

    Reply
  9. Clara
    Clara says:

    Great report – thanks! I love to hear your impressions and amusing recollections – keep ’em coming! And yes, please, definitely do a post on how you created those two different photos of the same scene – I’m very curious. Gorgeous shots throughout, as always.

    Reply
  10. Louise
    Louise says:

    Thanks for the trip report! I would definitely appreciate posts that give details on some of the photography techniques you have used – both when shooting and post-processing!

    Reply
  11. Matt
    Matt says:

    I’m a little confused about why anyone would think that you were being sarcastic about E.T…

    Don’t they realize how important it is to get the little guy back home?

    Completely agree on E.T being great, but I do think that Universal needs to put some serious TLC into it. Last few times I’ve been its age has show a few times. Nothing that takes away enjoyment, but enough for me to say “time for some upgrades”.

    As for your points on Jurassic Park, I think it’s safe to say that if Jurassic World is a hit, we will get a serious JP update. If you want to cry at what could have been check out this.

    http://disneyandmore.blogspot.com/2011/10/islands-of-adventure-jurassic-park-jeep.html?m=1

    Your night shots of Diagonal are fantastic by the way.

    As always an excellent trip report. I’ve been itching to take a day trip over to Universal and this is only making it worse.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      When is the last time you did ET Adventure? I know Universal has been making some upgrades to it over the last few months. It could still use more, but at least this suggests they have no plans to remove the attraction.

      That Disney & More post just makes me sad…

      Reply
      • Matt
        Matt says:

        Last time I went was October. And E.T, didn’t look bad per say, I just feel it would do good to really shut it down for a few months and put some serious work into it. Although, if they shut it down for a bit, I wouldn’t be able to ride it…so I’m not sure what I really want. I honestly don’t see them ever shutting it down, because E.T is Speilberg’s baby. I get the feeling you’d lose the support he has if that were to happen.

        Yeah that Jeep Attraction would’ve been amazing. That and the Gotham Island that would have been at Marvel Super Hero Island area are the two major “What If’s” when it comes to Universal for me.

        One point I meant to make is that I think that Dragon Challenge would’ve had more of an impact on you had the queue still been the old Dueling Dragons queue. That was an insanely great queue and kind of creepy. The Dragon Challenge queue is pretty lackluster in comparison to Forbidden Journey and Gringotts. DC also isn’t as great anymore because of the lack of dueling.

        Reply
  12. Max
    Max says:

    Technique based posts would be great!!! I need all the hints I can get to try and emulate your fab photos 😀 As for your ramblings… please keep on rambling, I thoroughly enjoy your trip reports – one of the few that I’ll actually sit down in a comfy chair and take the time to read, and then reread.

    Reply
    • Renleigh
      Renleigh says:

      I’ll second the call for more technique posts! I’m a beginning student of photography (basically all I’ve done is read Understanding Exposure after reading your recommendation) and I like learning about your technique, even if I’m not ready yet to implement it.

      Reply
    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      I’ll go ahead and third the request for some technique posts. Your site(s) were a big part of my inspiration for buying a better camera and trying to further my skills. The results of your talent are clear as day, but I know some of us regular readers would appreciated some behind-the-scenes posts, especially set up and post. Maybe even some before and after images? Whatever you decide to do, will be epic no doubt!

      Reply
  13. Tim
    Tim says:

    Completely agree on Men in Black: Alien Attack. It is one of the more underrated dark rides in Orlando. I especially enjoy the scope of the attraction with its large two-story streets and numerous alien figures.

    E.T. is an absolute theme park classic. I hope it remains at the park as long as possible.

    Reply
  14. Luke
    Luke says:

    A really great read, having read almost all of your disney posts I’m very much enjoying hearing your take on universal!

    Can I ask what you disliked about Ratatouille at DLP? I’m heading there soon and was looking forward to riding.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I plan on doing a full review of the Ratatouille ride at WDSP soon, but for now, I’ll just say that it didn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together well-enough in terms of the various effects. There are some places where it’s quite obvious you’re in front of a screen, which totally pulled me out of the action. I think with a little more attention to blending the screens into the physical sets, this could have been avoided, and the attraction could have been a home run.

      It’s still really fun, and the mini-land is gorgeous, but the attraction is not on par with some of the other great mega E-Tickets that Disney (or Universal) has done.

      Reply

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