Early drafts of my trip plan for this year had two nights in an on-property Universal hotel separated by a whole day of park hopping. Sadly the prices for on-site accommodation on the nights I wanted were well beyond what I was willing to pay, coming in at roughly seven times what was required for the Holiday Inn Express half a mile away. It’s quite normal to pay a supplement for convenience and indeed comfort, even if all rooms look the same when you're asleep, but the figures quoted were well beyond silly for what was already one of the most expensive days of my trip.
It's important for readers to remember that Universal pricing is designed to encourage longer stays. A single-day park hopper cost a whopping $174.66 for my weekday visit, but a five-day equivalent would have been scarcely more than double that. At one point it was possible to buy Orlando park tickets without expiry dates, facilitating those of us who return every few years, but that time has long since passed. There's very little leeway these days; as of this writing Universal's five day tickets must be used in full over an eight day period. The headline price also excludes parking, which requires an additional $26 per day, though those staying nearby can generally avoid the tax with a cheap Uber ride.
I considered supplementing my admission with a Universal Express pass in order to get more rides in, but baulked when I saw the $266.24 price tag and the list of excluded rides, which featured two of the three coasters on my shopping list. Management at Universal are to be commended for excluding the most popular attractions in their parks from paid line jumping, as doing so results in a better experience for the average visitor, but having said that something feels off when a guest paying almost five hundred dollars for a single day is left to stand in line with the multitudes.
Entry to the Universal facility requires clearing a security check, and I decided to arrive half an hour before opening so as to avoid getting stuck in the queue. This was definitely a good call; I overtook at least a hundred slow walkers on my journey from the car park, and another five minutes would have doubled or tripled my wait time. As it was I made it to the entrance of Universal Studios Florida ten minutes before the appointed time, and was chuffed to discover that the gate had opened early.
Universal Studios Florida
25th August 2021
I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter books since I read the first one as a teenager, and as such my first task today was to locate Diagon Alley, a substantial area devoted to the franchise that opened in July 2014. There were no printed maps available but I decided to follow my nose, and in due course wound up in front of a full scale replica of the Knight Bus and a facade for Leicester Square Station. Despite the lack of explicit signage numerous guests were walking into an unmarked passageway, and sure enough this proved to be exactly what I was looking for. Moments later I emerged beside Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes with the leaning columns of Gringotts Bank visible in the distance.
The new area took the place of Jaws, a much-loved boat ride through the fictional Amity Island that was a staple of the park from June 1990 through to January 2012. Though not a thrilling attraction (or indeed a particularly good one) there was something oddly endearing about being attacked by an animatronic great white shark. I never got to do the American version of the ride, though I did enjoy the near-clone at Universal Studios Japan in 2005 and again in 2017, and I hold out some hope that I’ll be able to do it at some stage if and when the pandemic comes to an end.
After a few minutes of wandering I made my way to Escape from Gringotts (#2942), currently the only mechanical ride in the new area. The entrance leads directly into a visually accurate replica of the bank lobby as seen in the movie series, complete with animatronic goblins working at their desks and an elaborate chandelier that I can only assume to be powered by eckeltricity. Those looking closely may spot a talking painting on the wall at the back of this room. A walkway past a series of vaults and work desks leads to an artificial elevator, which takes guests from Deep to Deeper to Extremely Deep to Extraordinarily Deep to Even Deeper Again to Bottom, where the boarding platform can be found.
The experience is definitely more of a dark ride than a roller coaster, as is evidenced by the requirement to wear 3D glasses on board, but there’s a perfectly satisfactory ten seconds of roller coaster shortly after dispatch. After a brief scene starring the lovely yet irritable Madame L’Estrange, a track section tilts to a 45 degree angle ahead of a drop and turn. This brief moment arguably qualifies the ride is the world’s second tilt coaster, coming some fourteen years after the original in Taiwan and a good two years ahead of the first Chinese version.
After slowing down the vehicles pass by a series of video screens that broadly follow the bank scenes from the Deathly Hallows movie (and indeed the book). There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but there doesn’t need to be for the target audience; what is there works well enough. There’s even a water splash effect at one point. The layout concludes with what can almost be described as an upward launch towards the unload platform, accompanied by suitable victory music. The ride isn’t one I’d go out of my way to return to, but I did enjoy it, and not just because it was one more box ticked on my coaster count.
One of the many minor nuisances inherent to the pandemic is the requirement to wear face masks indoors. This is a particular embuggerance when wearing glasses, as breath rising out of the top of a mask invariably fogs things up. On my first ride I found myself cleaning the provided goggles on almost a continuous basis. On my second ride I decided not to bother but instead took them off, and while this meant slightly blurred projections I nevertheless managed to see far more overall. Readers who encountered the same problem are encouraged to watch through the whole experience on YouTube to fill in the blanks.
At this point it was time to do what I’d bought the park hopper ticket for in the first place: the Hogwarts Express. The ride is a Doppelmayr-built cable railway that takes just over four minutes to travel between the Harry Potter sections of Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure. Each end has an intricately detailed station. The USF station, branded as King's Cross, features replica British Rail signage and a neat visual effect that shows guests apparently disappearing into the wall between platforms 9 and 10. On arrival at the platform a uniformed bellhop with a not entirely convincing faux-cockney accent pointed me to my cabin, which on the outside at least appeared to be contained within a British Railways Mark 1 carriage. Keeping with the theme the front of the train was a replicate of the GWR 4900 Class 5972 used when filming the movies.
The view out of the cabin window is obviously of a projection screen, but the effect works reasonably well. The first twenty seconds or so consist of shots from the actual King's Cross, though the tunnel under the Regent’s Canal is shortened and radically rerouted as the camera moves to the outskirts of London. A digital Hedwig flies alongside the train and a number of Dementors can be seen in the distance. Night falls moments after crossing the M25, and just seconds later the train passes Malfoy Manor (reportedly in Wiltshire) during a thunderstorm. It is perhaps churlish to point out that this would require a ground speed in excess of 18,000 miles per hour – though perhaps some magic has been used to shorten the journey. Soon after comes the expected Dementor attack, though it’s over quickly enough – and when the lights come back on Hagrid’s flying motorbike appears out of the window for a few moments before Hogwarts Castle comes into view.
The total journey time is a little under four minutes, and it’s certainly a novel way to get from one park to another – though I rather suspect that the key benefit from the perspective of the bean counters is the fact that it sells park hopper tickets to those who might otherwise give them a miss. I don't expect it to be a factor for me when I decide whether or not to buy a park hopper ticket on future visits.
Universal Studios Islands of Adventure
25th August 2021
On arrival in Hogsmeade my first task was to locate the entrance to Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure (#2943), a highly themed family coaster experience that opened in June 2019, roughly three months after my last visit to the Sunshine State. The new ride took the place of the much-loved Duelling Dragons, a pair of B&M inverted coasters thoroughly emasculated in their later years, initially with a lazy theme change to fit into the Potter universe, and subsequently with the decision to deactivate the duelling function after more than a decade of safe operation. The writer is of the view that these changes killed the appeal of what had been a star attraction, and as such wasn’t particularly bothered when the final closure was announced towards the end of 2017.
The new coaster is an Intamin creation with an incredible seven launches powered by Linear Synchronous Motors (LSM). This is three more than the previous record holder in Abu Dhabi, and no other coaster in operation as of this writing has more than two. There’s a good solid reason for this; launch mechanisms require a lot of power over a short period.
The first modern launch coaster was Flight of Fear, which featured Linear Induction Motors (LIMs). These are reported to require approximately 3 MW during the launch sequence, a figure broadly equivalent to the average power demand of around 2500 homes. LIMs have not been used on new coasters in more than a decade as more efficient technologies have come to the fore, including compressed air, hydraulics, and Linear Synchronous Motors (LSMs). While figures for these systems are hard to come by, the LSM-powered Blue Fire is reported to use just over 1 MW at peak, despite having a higher top speed and faster acceleration than its predecessor.
Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure operates with an incredible twelve trains, each of which can hold fourteen passengers. In normal operations it is designed to have a dispatch approximately once every 28 seconds, equating to roughly 900 launches per hour. While I'm speculating here, my guess is that the layout has been designed to ensure that (insofar as possible) only one of these is energised at a time. There are two styles of seat available; those on the left have a side car, while those on the right straddle a motorbike. I got to experience both positions twice, and can say with conviction that the bike is the preferred option if available, as the view is infinitely better. Positioning within the train is entirely down to luck, as the station uses a conveyor belt loading system with no facility to wait for a front or a back. Having said that, it’s not all bad news; the relatively short rolling stock means that there’s almost a one-in-three chance of a premium seat.
The main portion of the ride features an onboard soundtrack, featuring music and a running commentary voiced by Valentin Zukovsky, a slave to the free-market economy... whoops, I mean Rubeus Hagrid. Much of the layout comprises low-to-the-ground coasting with lively side-to-side turns that are perfectly thrilling on their own, but there are a number of special features that upgrade the experience significantly: a dark ride scene with an animatronic blast-ended skrewt, an intentional roll-back and backwards section with a track switch, and a vertical drop. The combination may not have the raw aggression of the former Duelling Dragons, but there’s more than enough variety to keep things interesting even for jaded enthusiasts.
One major positive is that the experience is lengthy. In today’s world it is rare to find a coaster that lasts more than a minute, and before anyone starts quoting park statistics at me I’m firmly of the view that the time spent slowly climbing lift hills or sitting on brake runs should not count towards this metric; marketing departments take note. Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds from start to finish, and all of that is activity, be that high speed coasting or a slower meander past animatronics and scenery. The ride is great, too; the only thing I’d seek to change is the fast section at the end, which could do with being a little longer. That's really a nitpick, mind; overall Universal have a winner with this one.
With four laps completed I meandered across the park to VelociCoaster (#2944), a ride that I fully expected to be the highlight of my day. Universal’s newest attraction has received virtually universal acclaim from enthusiasts who’ve experienced it. Behind the Thrills said "The Jurassic World VelociCoaster may very well be the best roller coaster in the world.” Inside the Magic said “Universal definitely deserves to hype up this coaster, because it will live up to the reputation.” Theme Park Insider said “Intamin completely knocked this out of the park.” Theme Park Tribune stated that “The only real debate about VelociCoaster is over how highly it should be ranked.” I figured I was in for something special, but I don't think I appreciated just how special.
The new ride is a machine of two halves. The first begins with a launch to 50 miles per hour into a compact knot of track, which routes around and through a compact yet lush landscaped garden filled with elaborate rock work. Those looking closely might spot the occasional raptor statue, though they’re easy to miss even when watching the official POV. The thirty seconds spent in this area include an Immelmann, a Dive Loop, an airtime hill, and a variety of smaller manoeuvres, all of which are negotiated effortlessly. They finish with a turn on to a LSM boost, which kicks the train up to its published top speed of 70 miles per hour.
The second half of the ride would be a respectable attraction on its own. It begins with a twisted climb up a 47 metre high top hat that gives a very brief overview of quite a lot of the park, not least the show building for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is ordinarily hidden from guest view behind the facade of Hogwarts Castle. The subsequent drop leads into one of the highlights of the experience: a 30 metre long zero-gravity stall that works remarkably well despite looking like something created in RollerCoaster Tycoon. Riders spend almost two seconds upside-down without feeling like they’re about to fall out of their seats, which by any stretch of the imagination is an impressive engineering achievement.
Some wide turns over the lake prefix the other highlight: an element that the park is referring to as a "Mosasaurus Roll". Marketing teams have to justify their existence somehow, and this is a classic case of that; it’s a barrel roll, and nothing but a barrel roll, though in fairness it is probably the best example of the type I’ve ever seen. The track is positioned within feet of the water, so close in fact that one suspects that those with really long hair might want to tie it back to avoid an unintentional dunking.
Regular readers will be well aware that I’m not afraid to play the role of curmudgeon, especially when hype is concerned. On this occasion, however, I found myself completely lost for words even after three laps. I don’t keep a top ten list any more – it’s far too difficult to do with a coaster count approaching three thousand – but as I type this I have a very hard time thinking of a better sit-down launched coaster on this planet; VelociCoaster really is that good. As ever I’d prefer that it didn’t have mandatory lockers enforced using a metal detector, but on the plus side they’re free and part of the queue, which is a significant improvement over what some parks have chosen to do.
With no particular time constraints I took the time to experience both tracks of The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride. These are a matter of some debate in the enthusiast community, as they use the Mack powered coaster platform for propulsion and indeed they are listed on the official web page for the product line. They do not appear on RCDB however, not least because the top speed achieved is little more than walking pace. I’d never bothered to ride them before and wouldn’t have done so today had I not seen them as undefined ticks on the Coaster Count app. Those who are less obsessive definitely shouldn’t bother; the experience has as much in common with a roller coaster as McDonald’s food has with haute cuisine. The soundtracks are also quite painful to listen to, though on the plus side they are different: the left track talks about imitating sounds, and the right track goes through the alphabet in Dr Seuss fashion.
My next stop was at Incredible Hulk, a B&M looper that received completely new track in a major overhaul for the 2016 season, allowing it to continue to operate for the next few decades. On a less happy note the ride was also given mandatory lockers enforced using metal detection, and unlike its newer neighbour these are located outside of the queue. They are still free, but they have a time limit of the posted wait time plus twenty minutes, meaning that anyone wanting to do more than one lap at a time will need to reclaim their items then deposit them again seconds later. This was far too much of a faff for my liking, and as such I decided to only ride once.
The time limit on the system is designed to stop people using the lockers while going elsewhere, but in practice it doesn’t actually prevent that; as long as you’re back within the appropriate window nobody will be any the wiser. Thinking aloud here, would it make sense for the locker system to dispense a barcode? An initial rental could be good for a maximum of ten minutes before charges kicked in, but scanning your barcode at the queue entry would reset the expiry time to the current queue length plus a margin for breakdowns, say twenty minutes. Something like that would allow anyone wanting to do more than one lap to scan a second or indeed a third time, provided that they went back to the entrance immediately upon disembarking.
The ride retains its classic and unique inclined tyre drive launch, which uses 230 individual motors. Total Immersion, a documentary on the park produced in the late nineties, reports that this system uses an incredible 8 MW of power at peak. A flywheel-based storage system was developed in order to avoid brown-outs in the surrounding area; power is taken in at a steady rate, then dumped all at once when the train is dispatched. I’m a little surprised that the park didn’t replace the launch with something marginally more efficient during the renovation project; while this would have a short term cost it would presumably pay for itself several times over during the operational life of the ride.
I was assigned a seat in row four, and from that location the experience was actually a little disappointing. I’d expected something perfectly smooth, but today there was a pronounced shudder throughout. I wouldn’t call it a rattle, as there was no banging involved, but it was what I’d imagine a rattle to be if tackled by quality shock absorbers. I did laugh when the ride exited past a photo purchase points; how exactly are guests supposed to buy pictures when they’ve been forced to take their money out of zipped pockets and leave it in a nearby locker? (Separately, I wonder how much face masks have impacted on-ride photo sales; I daresay the figures are significant.)
I wandered around for a little longer after disembarking, but decided I’d done everything that I wanted to do in Islands of Adventure, and with that in mind I joined the queue for the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios Florida. The video for the return journey had the same backgrounds as the outbound route, but the CGI additions were different. Dispatch was marked with an exhortation to avoid tickling charms on the train. A series of centaurs could be seen galloping alongside the train for a few seconds, followed in short order by Fred and George Weasley on broomsticks – were they not supposed to be on board? I guess not – detonating a collection of Weasley’s Wildfire Whiz-bangs. On arrival in London the Knight Bus could be seen driving with no regard whatsoever for obstacles. If I could pick only one thing to be made real from the Harry Potter series, it would have to be the purple triple-decker; rapid transportation to anywhere would be remarkably convenient.
Universal Studios Florida
25th August 2021
On arrival back at Universal Studios Florida I spent a bit of time looking around the different shops within Diagon Alley, and a bit of time looking at the small area built to resemble London. One interesting feature was a replica of Grimmauld Place, including a decidedly grubby number twelve showing in an otherwise spotless street. Every few minutes an animatronic house elf could be seen looking out the window. Once I’d had my fill I decided to head in the general direction of the exit, with a few tactical stops along the way.
Transformers: The Ride was announced in 2008, with initial installations going to Universal Studios Singapore (2011) and Universal Studios Hollywood (2012). A third version was announced for Universal Studios Florida just days after the American premiere. Officially the new ride cost the same $100 million of the initial two versions, despite the fact that the engineering and design work was already done – in fact, the senior VP of Universal Creative was reported to have said that “We’ve done this twice now and the same team is assigned to this project”. An innocent might suggest that construction costs in Florida are higher than other markets, while a cynic might suggest that marketing might have published alternate facts. The reader is invited to make their own assessment.
I wrote a brief synopsis of the ride experience in my trip report from Singapore back in 2016 and there’s no real value in rehashing it here, other than to state that the ride can be enjoyed without detailed knowledge of the franchise. I have watched the movies, but all I really know at this point is that Optimus Prime does his best to defeat the Decepticons, a species that sound like they might at some point be called upon to provide a name of a future variant of Covid-19.
Next up was a token ride on Revenge of the Mummy, and I’m glad I made the effort. There were a number of signs that this ride isn’t new any more, not least a very hard stop at the scene where the train launches backwards, but on the whole this has held up well. The main portion of the layout is great; fast, thrilling, and intense. A few weeks after my visit Universal announced that the ride would be closing in January 2022 for an extended refurbishment, predicted to last the better part of a year; one suspects that many of these issues will be resolved during the overhaul.
My final stop was at Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a simulator ride with multiple motion bases in front of a single large screen. I hadn’t planned to do this, but I noticed it was walk-on and I'd never experienced it in English; my only previous encounter with the type was at Universal Studios Japan. My mind was a thousand miles away as I joined the queue, and as a result I got about as much of the storyline as I did when watching it without subtitles in Japanese!
Fun Spot America Kissimmee
25th August 2021
The GPS route from Universal to my overnight hotel with toll avoidances turned on routed me within three miles of Fun Spot America, and given that I decided to make a fast stop to renew my acquaintance with the ride formerly known as Jack Rabbit and Viking Voyage. A $10 ticket (yikes) got me a middle seat on the rebranded Hurricane, which proved to be unexpectedly good. I’d been expecting a wild and not-terribly-comfortable ride, but in the end the only adjective required was wild; the experience was basically that of a particularly lively mouse with a three car train. The brake sections were doing nothing obvious, resulting in a delightfully out of control experience.
The operator didn't have the appropriate scanner for invalidating my ticket, which allowed me to use it for a second ride. I chose Mine Blower, the park’s wood coaster, which proved to be a tactical error. Despite being in the front seat the tracking proved to be utterly brutal, with a few serious ouch moments. I can only imagine what the back was like. It’s fairly evident that the park hasn’t been maintaining this ride properly; a four-year-old 25 metre high wood coaster really shouldn't hurt.
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