Universal Studios in Florida comprises two independent theme parks next door to each other; Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure. Our tickets allowed us to move between the two as often as we wished during the day. Careful consideration the night before had led to the decision to visit Islands of Adventure first.
The first major ride you encounter on entering the park is only launched coaster ever built by Bolliger & Mabillard. Incredible Hulk (#430) uses a tire drive system to accelerate the train up a 45° incline from zero to 40 MPH in two seconds, and straight into a barrel roll at the top. Apparently B&M refused to build a launch system; rather, they provided specifications to Universal for the speed the train must be travelling at the top of the hill and left it up to their other supplier to sort out the detail. George was of the opinion that the ride had degenerated somewhat since his previous visit a number of years ago, and while I have no reference point it did seem oddly rough for a B&M. In an odd rule reminiscent of Six Flags, the ride operator would not allow George to leave his water bottle by the station wall and insisted on throwing it away instead. The park does offer free lockers, which is a nice touch, though neither of us spotted this until disembarking.
Pteranodon Flyers (#431) is a rare example of a Caripro Batflyer coaster. These rides have horrendously low capacity, though the one here was better than most, seating two to a train. A dispatch about once every twenty seconds means at most about one hundred and eighty passengers per hour. For this reason, the park has a rule stating that a child is required to ride, preventing adults from clogging up the queue. However, this rule is not enforced early in the morning so those who really want to ride can try it. There was still almost no wait when we arrived back in the station, and as such the operators allowed us to rejoin the queue for a second go.
Next on the agenda was the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a truly spectacular dark ride. The official web site describes it as being located in an area where "the world's greatest Super Heroes pit themselves against the world's most diabolical Super Villains in the ultimate battle of good versus evil". This statement is of dubious accuracy, given the regrettable absence of the current American president as an evil genius person. But I digress. Passengers wearing 3-D glasses board vehicles which take them through some extremely impressive projected scenes, with some surprising special effects.
I had previously arranged to meet Ian in front of Duelling Dragons (#432) at 10:00am, and making this deadline involved a somewhat undignified power walk across the park while George went off for a bit to make a phone call. In the end I was about five minutes late, but Ian was very understanding, and the two of us went straight into the ride queue. There was no wait to speak of, and moments later we were in the seats for the Ice track.
Duelling Dragons is, at the time of writing, the only dual tracked inverted coaster on the planet. Rather than go for two identical layouts, the designers have built completely independent rides that nevertheless feature three near miss points where there is only one foot of clearance between the two trains. The two trains are weighed as they pull out of the station and the speeds of the two chain lifts are adjusted to get the three near misses to be as close as possible. This provides some spectacular visuals both for the spectators on the ground and for the riders, particularly those in the front seat who see another coaster train racing towards them at high speed.
As we were coming out of the exit George arrived, and we all went back to ride the Fire track. Both tracks would have made good inverted coasters on their own, but the duelling aspect adds a huge amount to the ride, so much so that I cannot help but wonder why a similar design hasn't cropped up somewhere else. Might Universal have had an exclusivity clause in their contract?
With the three interesting coasters in the park out of the way, we switched back into credit mode and rode the Flying Unicorn (#433), our second encounter in three days with the larger model junior coaster from Vekoma.
The Jurassic Park attraction turned out to be a heavily themed giant splash ride with a number of novelties, chief among which was the almost complete enclosure of the drop section. All spectators can see is the bottom thirty feet or so from which the boat escapes at speed. The experience opens with a gentle cruise through a forest with a few animatronic dinosaurs. This is followed by what is apparently a failure in the control system, which leads the boat directly into the raptor containment area. The only way out is... well, you get the idea. The theming on the ride, which apparently is also a Vekoma design, worked really well, and as a result the ride was very enjoyable.
We would have liked to have taken more time to explore the other attractions, but the decision to cram all of the resort into one day necessitated a certain amount of selectivity. It seemed wise to make a start on the other park, leaving the option of returning to this one later in the day if time permitted.
Universal Studios Florida
10th May 2005
As card carrying coaster enthusiasts we had little choice but to make Revenge of the Mummy (#434) our first ride in the Studios. It is the brother of another coaster that opened in California in 2004, which I was able to ride on its first operational day. It is fair to say that I found the California installation to be distinctly unimpressive. However, reviews on the Internet had suggested that the Florida model was a vastly superior ride. I am delighted to say that those comments are completely and utterly correct. It was so good, in fact, that we ended up trying it a second time right away. It had just three things in common with the other version; the manufacturer, the entrance theming, and the name.
This version opens with a slow dark ride section to set the stage. The words the curse is real are followed by a low power but still impressive backwards launch into about ten seconds of coaster track. This is followed by a brake, a turntable, and a forward uphill launch into some a very exciting coaster section reminiscent of the Disneyland Paris Space Mountain though without inversions. It goes on for quite a while but eventually ends in a fake ride station. The train stops, but then the ceiling overhead comes alive with flame and the train launches outwards again. The remaining section is quite short, but the effect is nevertheless quite a surprise for those who do not know the ride.
We followed this with the Earthquake attraction, a simulation of what it might feel like to be in a subway station during a natural disaster. The obligatory heavy shaking is supplemented with fires, collapsing ceilings, and burst water pipes. It goes without saying that most (all?) visitors have absolutely no reference point as to the authenticity of such an experience, but it certainly felt real enough to me!
Next up was the Back to the Future simulator ride. The three BTTF movies rank among my favourite of all time, largely due to the part of Dr Emmet Brown and his off-the-wall remarks. Unfortunately, the ride units are based on what is now obsolete simulator technology. As such, the motion is very uncomfortable and reminiscent of a bad roller coaster. The mediocre graphics didn't help either. The net result was an attraction that I found simply impossible to enjoy. No doubt this attraction was impressive when it opened, but it now looks distinctly dated, and at very least could use a major upgrade.
Men in Black is a shooting dark ride in the mold of the various other attractions from Sally Corp. An empty seat beside me resulted in me being able to operate two light guns simultaneously. Much to my consternation, the gun I was firing in random directions ended up with a higher score than the one I was taking aim with. Part of me kept expecting scenes out of the movie, such as the twelve year old with quantum physics books, but they did not appear. Oh well.
It is an established fact that, given the choice of different types of cuisine I will almost invariably go for Asian. This turned out to be one of the options in the international food court we chose for lunch. It seems only fair to point out, however, that those with me chose to go the same way even though two other options were available.
Ian decided to go home shortly after eating. We bid him goodbye and went over to Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster (#435). This was, once again, our second encounter in three days with a production junior coaster. This one, however, has an added sound effect at the top of the lift hill which was both wholly unnecessary and highly irritating; "ha-ha-ha-haaaa-haa!" repeated ad nauseum.
The Shrek 4D attraction had a particularly enthusiastic ride host who seemed to have an obsession with flogging! She repeated assorted rules, each of which was followed with the threat of a flogging! Putting your 4D glasses on early would result in a flogging! Use of flash photography would result in a flogging! And so on. Neither of us remember the fine details of the plot as this narrative is being written, though it did have something to do with Lord Farquad, now in ghostly form, and a torture chamber. Whatever it was, it was very entertaining, if forgettable. It should be noted that I am an unapologetic fan of the two feature movies. I saw the first one on a transatlantic flight, and my younger brother took me to see the second one as a birthday present a few years ago.
Time was getting along, and a careful inspection of the park map showed nothing else major that we had any particular desire to try. As such, we made the decision to cross back into Islands of Adventure, though not before sneaking a third and final ride on Revenge of the Mummy.
Universal Studios Islands of Adventure
10th May 2005
We had a little under two hours that we might have spent in the park, but both of us were getting tired. To that end, we took one ride on each track of Duelling Dragons before the last attraction of the day, Poseidon's Fury. This is a show in the general mould of Templo del Fuego, although in this case the main effects involve water rather than fire. There were a number of interesting elements to the show, such as a water tunnel effect we all walked through. The highlight, though, was in the final scene where the lights went out for about a second and came back on to reveal that the room we were in had suddenly become much larger. I have no idea at all how the effect was achieved.
We left the park just before closing time and returned to our hotel to relax.
10th May 2005
After getting into bed last night, I lay awake for a long time dealing with a fierce internal debate about the Skycoaster ride. For several years now my nervous inner self has forced me to opt out of every skycoaster I have seen on the grounds that it was, to be blunt, simply too scary for me. Logic would suggest that my fears were unfounded; there are, after all, a large number of skycoasters around the world, and all of them are run many times each day. Nevertheless, as those who have struggled with courage will know, logic rarely has any place in these mental arguments.
Unfortunately, I am fond of preaching to others about this sort of thing, namely that the only way to beat your fears is to tackle them head on. Now I was facing what could potentially be my only opportunity ever to tackle the tallest such ride on the planet, as who could say when or if I would be back in Florida again. There was only one issue really. Somehow it would be necessary to find the determination to climb into the harness and allow the operators to strap me in. After that was completed, there would be no turning back. The actual ride experience didn't concern me in the slightest, as it surely could not be that different to the Gauntlet, which I had certainly enjoyed. The idea of being winched backwards to the heights certainly did cause some trepidation, but this was a relatively minor issue compared to the thought of trusting my life to the thin steel rope I would be swinging from.
In the end, I asked George to drive me back to Old Town again so I could take a look at the ride and make a decision. We ended up taking a somewhat scenic route, but after about three quarters of an hour we had completed the five mile distance from the hotel.
I stood beside the ticket office for a while, staring up at the structure above. One of the operators asked me if I had any questions. I suppressed the immediate questions that popped into my head, such as why the hell would anyone want to do this? and what sort of twisted mind came up with this thing anyway?. Instead, I asked about whether I could wear my glasses. The response, at your own risk, seemed to snap something in my brain. I took a deep breath, uttered a somewhat impolite turn of phrase, and handed over the $40 admission fee.
It takes a special kind of determination to spend quite so much money on something that you positively dread. I knew that I would be glad of the bragging rights afterwards, assuming of course that I survived the experience, but it was still hard to stop concentrating on the fact that the next few minutes would be, without question, the most frightening experience of my life to date. In the end, I utilised a skill picked up from working in technical support and switched into zombie mode, thereby deactivating all emotions. It seemed the best plan!
Though outwardly my hands were shaking my mind was totally elsewhere as the operator helped me get into my harness. He used a walkie talkie to summon another operator using some rather direct colloquial Spanish. The verbiage in question was permanently engraved in my mind in my first weeks of language lessons, as I in common with the rest of my class looked up the colourful metaphors in the dictionary. The two operators seemed amused at the fact that this was my first flight, and assured me that I would love it. It was hard to remain entirely convinced of that as I leant forward and began to hang from the huge tower above.
Once the tow rope started pulling back, however, the adrenalin kick began to take effect, and all my concerns seemed to fade away. This would be fun after all, and the ground didn't seem that far below. Such thoughts lasted until around the one hundred and fifty feet mark, when I looked upwards and suddenly realised there was a long way further to go. Zombie mode abruptly failed, and the suppressed emotions came charging back with a vengeance. I bravely attempted to mentally erase the previous few seconds, using the tried and tested it's too late now thought, but they would not go away. At the same time the ride continued to tow me higher and higher, with the harness wobbling back and forth in a very disconcerting fashion. It seemed to take an eternity for the winch to finally reach the top, but it did eventually, providing what in other circumstances might have been a spectacular view. Moments later, the PA system blared out the words "3, 2, 1, Fly!".
Rather than prolong the torture any longer, I took a deep breath, and pulled the rip cord.
The first fraction of a second provided exactly the oh... (insert expletive of choice here) sensation that anyone who has ever ridden a skycoaster will attest to. It was in that same period that, despite all reason, my brain suddenly declared that this was actually fun! It seemed that my earlier comparison with the Gauntlet had been incorrect. Rather than swinging down like I expected, this was pure freefall of a far greater intensity that anything ever seen on a drop tower. It took more than a second before the rope caught and I began swinging forward, and that time seemed to last an absolute eternity. Much to my surprise, however, I was sorry when that period ended and I began to swing forward.
It seemed to be only moments later when the operator was passing me the stopping brake and I was drawing to a stop. I began to contemplate whether the exhilaration of flying was worth the hell on earth I had put myself through over the previous few minutes. As I conclude this narrative, a few days after the event, my conclusion is in the affirmative. It may have required a bottle of what Americans consider to be beer (it isn't) to help me relax, but the adrenalin kick was still with me the next morning, making me feel great.
It seems highly probable at this point that I will ride another skycoaster in the future, as anything else will be easy compared to the big one here.