This is the final installment of my Universal Orlando Resort trip report. You should read Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 before reading this installment. Since I think I’ve mostly covered all of the attractions worth covering in detail in previous installments, I’m going to make this installment solely my big picture recap and overall impressions following my first visit to Universal in over a decade. Photos from that late afternoon and evening of shooting will be mixed into this post randomly and without explanation…
Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to Universal Orlando Resort. Enough that I’ve been back twice since, and also took the time to visit Universal Studios Japan in the fall. I’m also planning more trips there, and am really anxious to stay at Cabana Bay Beach Resort, especially after wandering the hotel earlier this month for a couple of hours. Suffice to say, although it’s a totally different park than what I enjoyed as a child, I really love what Universal has done, and the direction in which it’s heading. With that said, I don’t think Universal is doing everything right.
In an earlier installment, I said I’d return to the topic of thematic design in my conclusion to this report, and that’s probably the main thing to discuss. The recent additions in the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands are the high water mark for recent Orlando theme park additions, and possibly the high water marks, overall. I said before that Diagon Alley is Tokyo DisneySea caliber, and I think that says it all.
I think a big part of the success of these lands from the guest perspective, is that they allow people to enter stories with which they have an established history. Unlike a land based upon abstract concepts of adventure or the American frontier, which need to hook you once you arrive (and can still do so quite successfully), a big segment of the audience is instantly hooked, so long as execution and faithfulness to the source material is there (I mention these things in passing as if they are some easy achievement, which is definitely not true; Universal Creative deserves high praise for bringing these lands to life).
As much as fans against “synergy” may not want to hear this, I think this is the future of theme parks. The huge success of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure is also demonstrative of this, and outside of the ‘small boys’ demographic, it is not the cultural (not even just ‘cult’) sensation of Harry Potter. I definitely don’t want to see the pendulum swing too far in this direction and have every new addition be the kind that allows guests to step inside an IP, but as this is a relatively new occurrence, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.
Disney & Universal, just make sure they are IPs that will stand the test of time, like Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar. Kidding on that last one…the good thing is that a quality land or attraction can transcend an IP, so it doesn’t really matter. A land with an IP that resonates and killer attractions in that land would be nice, though.
Then there’s the rest of the Universal Orlando Resort lands. Some of these, like Port of Entry, are incredibly well done (if you don’t recognize the areas depicted in the photos scattered through this installment, they are probably Port of Entry). It’s a quirky introduction to the adventures that await in the rest of the park, and an opening act that features inviting architecture and a certain exoticness that can’t really be placed to a time or place. This area is rife with details and things that make it feel lived in and real, and it’s an exciting place to visit despite the lack of a substantive attraction. For an “adventure” park, it’s the perfect opening act, and sets a great tone for what’s to come.
After that, and before Hogsmeade, the results are mixed. The Lost Continent is a small land that packs a fair amount of punch, and I think it pretty well gets the job done. Upon subsequent visits, I’ve grown to appreciate Jurassic Park more, but I think my initial criticisms from Part 2 of this report are still mostly apt. It’s based on a popular IP and has the potential to be one of the most imaginative and stunning lands anywhere, but this potential is mostly squandered.
Still, Jurassic Park is better than other examples. Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, and Seuss Landing all use similar cartoonish styles for what I’d call “faux theming.” There are cartoonish cut-outs and cheap props here masquerading as thematic touches, but really, they all feel under-funded to me in terms of their core design. In fairness, they all feature characters and ideas from disparate properties, but rather than trying for an ambitious way to thematically tie them together, the park’s designers took the easy way out. I wouldn’t mind one land in this vein (probably Toon Lagoon), but three that all feel somewhat similarly cheap is a bit much. Marvel Super Hero Island would probably be the easiest to improve, probably by having it be one distinct area (such as the unbuilt Gotham City), although that would require a clever way to integrate the other super heroes.
Over in Universal Studios Florida, some truly poor placement in terms of Transformers and Rip, Ride, Rock-It, has really hurt the cohesiveness of the park. The rest of the park isn’t that bad, but a big part of my thinking on that probably stems from the fact that I’m willing to give ‘studios’ parks a bit of a pass as a collection of stuff. Still, Universal Studios Florida mostly does a good job, and the ‘city’ lands there mostly work. It isn’t the most ambitious concept ever, but it is what it is.
Despite their construction dates, I’d actually view Islands of Adventure as the first gate and Universal Studios Florida as the second gate since the former contains the more ambitious park concept (albeit a less impressive attraction roster at this time). There’s nothing outside of Diagon Alley that wows me in terms of theming in USF, but aside from Transformers and the coaster, it’s all passable with some real highlights.
I think this is probably my greatest criticism of Universal’s thematic execution. Arguably, each of the various lands has flashes of thematic brilliance and there are some great details throughout Universal Orlando, but they usually stop short before that can be achieved. For instance, I think the Men in Black building and area around it is visually stunning and reminiscent of the ’64 World’s Fair, making it perfectly befitting of a World Expo area in terms of architecture…but that’s it. There’s nothing else there.
The adjacent Springfield has cool nods to The Simpsons, but at no point does it attempt to actually draw guests into the world of Springfield. It feels like a stop gap to quickly fix an unpopular area. Given the longevity and popularity of The Simpsons, the decision to not go all-in, creating a true Springfield feels like a big missed opportunity.
When it comes to attractions, Universal Orlando packs a lot of punch. Several of my favorite attractions in Orlando are in the Universal parks. Spider-Man, Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black, Disaster, ET Adventure, Transformers, Forbidden Journey, and Escape from Gringotts are all very good to excellent. There are also some very solid shows.
Universal is often lambasted for its over-reliance on screens and 3D, and I think there is some validity in this. To be sure, the parks still have variety, but many of the best attractions at Universal Orlando Resort have a lot in common. I suppose it could be said that Disney overuses slow-moving dark rides, but I think if you looked at the “best” attractions in Walt Disney World, most lists would have more in terms of variety.
In its best attractions, like Spider-Man, I don’t think the screens are even all that noticeable because the attraction is just so awesome. Much like an awesome attraction transcends IP, so too does it transcend the ride system. I’m really not even all that concerned with ride system, I’m just looking for awesome experiences, and I find myself a little fatigued by the commonalities in some of Universal’s attractions at the end of the day.
I do think many Disney fans overemphasize this “problem” as it gives them a card to play in some concocted “war”, but I do believe it is an issue to some degree, and I hope Universal Creative builds its future attractions with fully dimensional sets and animated figures.
Then there’s Universal fans. I think fandom is an interesting thing, and Disney certainly has fans of its theme parks who are so deeply entrenched in nostalgia that they fail to view the parks with any sense of objectivity, with some unwavering negative and positive beliefs arising out of that. I’d like to think I’m not one of those types of Disney fans, but who knows, maybe I am.
In the last few years, it seems like Universal has had its own group of devotees crop up. Rather than this group being grounded in nostalgia, largely it seems that (some of) their attitudes are a direct or indirect response of Disney fans who are dismissive of everything Universal does. This response by Universal fans is understandable to a degree, as many Walt Disney World fans have largely blown off Universal or arbitrarily deemed it lacking in “magic” and refused to give it any further consideration without any real objective analysis, despite many spectacularly well-done attractions opening at Universal.
This view by Disney fans certainly lacks rationality, especially in a time when Disney is almost as much a collection of randomly assorted intellectual properties as Universal is, and far less about the creations of one man and his inner circle. I openly point a finger at myself for unwittingly contributing to this, as I didn’t visit Universal for countless trips to Orlando despite knowledge that they had opened new attractions widely viewed as excellent. Burying my head in the sand with regard to those new additions makes me guilty of the very things I’m critiquing here.
However, it seems to me that many of these Universal fans over-compensate for the dismissiveness of Disney fans, and want to offer praise to Universal that isn’t quite yet apt. Without a doubt, if you view the last half-decade or so in a vacuum, Universal is trouncing Disney in terms of envelope-pushing additions, and the pace at which these additions are occurring. The problem with this is that it’s just as arbitrary as saying Universal lacks “magic.”
When you visit a theme park, you’re partaking in the entire experience, and any comparison should, I think, necessarily include the whole package. In that regard, Universal is still playing catch-up to Disney. Part of this is understandable, as Disney had an almost two-decade head start in building its parks. Part of it is not so understandable, as Universal had its own period of stagnation for several years after the construction of Islands of Adventure.
Obviously, quality judgments are in the eye of the beholder, but when I hear statements like “Universal is now better than Disney” or something of that nature, and it’s then backed up with construction during the last 5 years, I wonder if the comment is a bit…overly eager. I have no doubt that Universal is on a better trajectory than Disney with management more invested in creating spectacular theme parks, but better? That’s a tough sell to me given what Walt Disney World did during that two-decade head start and the time leading up to the late 1990s. Frankly, I don’t think it’s even fair to Universal, as it creates some unreasonable expectations.
I do have to say that I agree with the idea of some of this sentiment, that it’s time for Walt Disney World to wake up and start innovating on the substance of its theme parks (something I optimistically hope is happening in Animal Kingdom and about to happen in Disney’s Hollywood Studios) as Universal is really pushing the envelope right now, but to call their two parks–with their own thematic and attraction lineup weaknesses–better sounds like the words of an extremely jaded Disney fan, or someone who really likes thrill rides but doesn’t care for much else. Disney fans, please don’t conflate what I’m saying here for you being “right” about Universal not being a contender. You aren’t.
I’m saying that I don’t think either side wins with this unnecessary adversarial undertone to fandom. A healthy sense of competition between Walt Disney World and Universal would make all of us winners in terms of theme parks we can enjoy, but the “competing” sects of theme park fandom does little positive, and really just creates a rift among fans. This is not to say that passionate fans are a bad thing, but there’s a fine line (more like a gaping chasm) between passion and entrenched zealousness for one “side” or the other.
Sorry, just some random food for thought that’s been on my mind for a while. I’m sure anyone reading a “trip report” doesn’t care, but if I don’t write those kind of things here, where else will I?
I’ve you’ve read every installment of this report, commented, or shared these posts, I want to extend a huge thanks. The response to this trip report has been very positive and I have plenty more post ideas for Universal Orlando that I plan on covering in the future, from restaurant reviews to a photo tour of Cabana Bay Beach Resort, and more. If there’s any particular post you’d like to see, please let me know! To catch up if you haven’t read the previous installments, visit my Universal Orlando Summer Trip Report index page.
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.
Do you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts about Universal’s thematic design? What about the nature of its attractions? The issues with theme park fandom? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!