My latest adventure began with an afternoon flight to Los Angeles operated by Aer Lingus. I’d have preferred to fly with just about any other airline, but an eleven hour non-stop service was always going to win out over a longer journey with a layover, even allowing for the many inadequacies of the former Irish flag carrier.
Aer Lingus was first awarded a 4-star rating by Skytrax in June 2016, and this award remains in situ seven years later despite a pronounced and very well-documented dip in overall service standards. Short-haul services are now operated in full low-fare mode, with everything imaginable costing extra, including luxuries such as permission to carry a bag in the cabin. The long-haul service is better, unless you’re flying in business class where you’ve a one-in-six chance of ending up on an aircraft with a different (and markedly inferior) seating arrangement than the standard advertised product. Personally I find it remarkable that the rating hasn’t been withdrawn given the inconsistencies; I can only assume that a deal may have been made behind the scenes.
Today’s journey was on-brand from the very start. A home-printed boarding pass featured a quarter-page advertisement for “Bia Pre-order Meals”, an upgraded meal service that I was very happy with in the past. Unfortunately the product was withdrawn from sale well before the COVID pandemic hit, rendering the promotion of it today more than a little pointless. At the risk of belabouring the point a little too much, the fact that a service is still been plugged more than three years after it was discontinued shows a truly embarrassing lack of care and attention.
Checking in online probably saved me some time at Dublin Airport, but the bag drop queue was still an hour-long series of switchbacks snaking its way across much of the terminal building. It moved very slowly, largely because only a subset of the self check-in machines were working. A lone member of staff was doing her best to support people in their valiant battles with the technology, and she was certainly playing a solid game of Mogura Taiji, but it was obvious to anyone paying attention that she was being overwhelmed by sheer volume. It took her almost ten minutes to get to me when the system decided that my bag couldn’t be sent onwards without a manual passport check.
Security and immigration were remarkably efficient in comparison, perhaps because neither are run by Aer Lingus. I cleared both in less than fifteen minutes, arriving at my gate just in time to hear an announcement advising that my flight was delayed for an hour “due to the late arrival of an incoming aircraft”. This was a true if somewhat disingenuous statement; a quick check of flight tracking software showed that EI-GCF had previously operated flight EI952 into Dublin, landing just one minute behind the filed plan. Ryanair can turn around a 737-8 in 25 minutes, and while it takes longer to pre-flight and refuel an A333 I'd have thought that 142 minutes (almost six times as long) should have been enough.
In the interest of fairness, once we got underway the service was fine, aided considerably by the fact that I had an empty seat next to me. I’d have liked a little more leg room, but economy class passengers don’t get much of that anymore regardless of airline. I used the journey to binge-watch the entirety of The Days, and it was almost perfectly timed; minutes after it ended the seatbelt sign came on for landing.
Universal Studios Hollywood
30th June 2023
My first visit to Universal Studios Hollywood took place almost by accident way back in June 2004. I’d planned to spend a full day at Six Flags Magic Mountain, but shoehorned in a quick side trip after I heard through the grapevine that the then-new Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster had opened for technical rehearsals. Almost two decades later I figured it was about time to return and see the park properly.
The main impetus for my long-overdue trip was Super Nintendo World, a small but elaborately themed land based around the Mario Bros franchise. I couldn’t wait to experience a real life version of the computer games I played in my youth, and with that in mind I decided to pay a $30 supplement for early entry, granting admission an hour before the published park opening. This meant getting out of bed much earlier than I’d ordinarily choose to – I was at the front gate at 6:30am – but that wasn’t anything like as awful as it might have been given that my body clock was still on something approximating to European time.
The only real nuisance of the early start was that I had to leave my hotel before breakfast was served. I thought that I’d be able to get something passable at Universal, but a cursory search revealed nothing that I’d typically slot into the “morning” category. In the end I accepted defeat and went into Panda Express at its 9:00am opening. This felt like a bad idea at the time, as indeed it was. Readers retracing my steps are advised not do to something quite that stupid, even if there was perhaps just the tiniest element of “when in Rome” about the food.
My extended gait put me ahead of the multitudes on arrival at the new area, and while it was tempting to take a few crowd-free photographs I decided it would be altogether more sensible to go directly to Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, the signature (and only) ride in the new area, and one that has developed a reputation for extended wait times. There was nobody ahead of me, allowing me to stride all the way into the pre-show space without stopping.
Unfortunately it was at this point that an operator announced a delayed opening due to a technical problem. Fast passes were available to anyone wishing to come back later, and some of the people behind me took up that offer, but I figured there was no point in leaving given that the rest of the park would not be open. After about half an hour in situ a fellow guest politely expressed dissatisfaction at paying $30 to do nothing, which triggered an improved offer: everyone in the pre-show room was handed a fast pass and there was no requirement to leave the line. That calmed the crowd noticeably, and there were some loud cheers soon afterwards when news came through that the recalcitrant machinery had finally come to life.
The new ride is a collaboration between MTS Systems Corporation and Universal Creative, and is the second in the world to use augmented reality technology (after the initial version at Universal Studios Japan). At the end of the pre-show guests are handed Mario-themed head bands, giving a few minutes before boarding for those all-important Facebook selfies. The bands are magnetically attached to individual visors, which are permanently connected to seats via heavy-duty umbilical cords. The joining process is straight-forward and (in most cases) obviates the need for operator assistance, representing a vast improvement over the convoluted preparation required for rides with VR headsets.
After dispatch guests are taken through a series of scenes from the Mario Kart franchise, including Royal Raceway, Mario Circuit, Piranha Plant Slide, Dolphin Shoals, Twisted Mansion, Cloudtop Cruise, Grumble Volcano, and Rainbow Road. Each seat has a steering wheel, but the main appeal of the ride involves shooting – which you do by looking at things and pressing a fire button. The tracking system works well and is fairly intuitive once you get your head round it (pun absolutely intended) though I’d be quite surprised if it becomes commonplace, as it feels very complicated when more traditional targeting systems are both robust and effective.
The hardware has been designed for capacity, with two parallel tracks loading together, and the overall presentation is very good indeed. It uses a mix of physical sets, animatronics, and screens – and the joins between them are seamless. Scent and wind effects are also used in places. Despite the positives, however, I'm not entirely sold on the theme; Mario Kart is inherently fast-paced, and this ride definitely isn’t. If you feel like you’d get value out of playing Mario Kart at 20% of actual speed then great (and you can do that at home through the magic of emulation!) but for me the overall experience felt like it lacked a certain energy.
I’ve seen trip reports online suggesting that Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge is the best dark ride ever, and to that I say a hard no with added hearty laughter. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure are both well ahead in my book, and in all honesty I’d be tempted to place some of the better target shooters (Maus au Chocolat, Toy Story Midway Mania, etc) in front too. I managed three rides by 8:30am courtesy of my fast pass and an extra bonus lap after my head band self-destructed half way through the second ride, and that was ample. I don’t think I’d bother waiting more than half an hour to repeat the experience on a future visit, and definitely wouldn’t wait the three hours the ride was posted at by 8:30am.
I spent a few minutes taking in the scenery, theming, and sound effects in Super Nintendo World before leaving the area and heading to Transformers: The Ride, a dark ride that I first encountered at Universal Studios Singapore in September 2016. The experience was every bit as immersive as I remembered, and I enjoyed this a lot, though it wasn’t something that I felt the need to do more than once despite the minimal queue.
Instead I made my way into Revenge of the Mummy. Nineteen years ago I described the ride as “distinctly average” and not something I’d wait for a second time. With the benefit of hindsight and maturity (of a kind) I think I might have been a bit harsh for what is a respectably solid family coaster that has stood the test of time. Tracking today was smooth, and the launch felt energetic and fun. The experience is definitely shorter than I’d have preferred, a point re-emphasised by a young voice in the car a row behind me, but it was respectable, and at the end of the day that’s what really matters. The only thing I didn’t like was the way the ride came to an end on a turntable, even if that was presumably required for space reasons.
I decided against Jurassic World: The Ride as I had no dry socks available, heading instead to Flight of the Hippogriff (#3065), a custom Mack YoungStar coaster built as part of a Harry Potter area in 2016. This ride struck me as an anomaly when it was first installed given that the first two Hippogriff rides (in Florida and Japan) were supplied by Vekoma. However, I’ve since realised that the most recent example at Universal Studios Beijing is also a Mack product – and further research suggests that Universal hasn’t installed a new Vekoma product in a decade. One suspects this to be at least in part due to the well-documented troubles with Battlestar Galactica; if that's the cause it's a shame, since current Vekoma produces some of the best rides in the business.
The "flight" itself was exactly what I thought it would be; a pleasant family coaster and a decent first credit of the trip. I’d have happily ridden again, but decided that I wasn’t willing to wait in line a second time. Instead I headed over to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an immersive dark ride built inside a mockup of Hogwarts Castle. I’d ridden the Florida version of this without issue but today encountered some definite nausea issues, which I really hope to have been a side-effect of my awful breakfast rather than age. Only time will tell on that front.
I decided I needed something sedate as a follow up and found the perfect candidate in Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash, a dark ride added to the park in 2021. Regular readers will appreciate that I’m somewhat disconnected from the zeitgeist at the best of times, and so it was here; I was entirely unaware that this ride was based on a popular animated media franchise. I’m glad to say that I enjoyed it even still, and while some of the finer details were no doubt lost on me I did enjoy the theming, not least the cardboard box ride vehicles. (The above photo was taken during a brief operational halt; we paused for about thirty seconds to load a guest requiring special assistance.)
My next stop was at Kung Fu Panda Adventure: The Emperor’s Quest, a multidimensional movie that replaced an earlier Shrek 4D attraction. The pre-show area reminded me very much of the Shrek movie at Universal Studios Singapore, and it was scarcely a surprise when the Mike Myers-voiced green ogre (and companion donkey) put in a brief appearance. The main experience was on motion base seats in front of a large screen. In this litigation-happy world it was a treat to find no seatbelts or indeed restraints of any kind. From time to time projection mapping was used to move some characters off the screen and onto side walls, a nice touch that worked very well.
I had about ninety minutes left in my time budget, and decided to burn much of it on the Studio Tour, an hour-long tram journey around a backlot area behind the park. The route took us past several sets, notably the Courthouse Square used for the clocktower scenes in the Back to the Future movies. There were also several more active stops along the way: a demonstration of staged rain and a flood, a Jaws set reminiscent of the late and much-lamented rides, and two immersive tunnels, one featuring dinosaurs and the other based on the Fast and Furious franchise.
My last stop was at The Simpsons Ride, a motion simulator that replaced an older (and probably more interesting) Back to the Future attraction. The video is based in Krustyland, a virtual theme park with a berserk roller coaster that doesn’t entirely comply with the laws of physics. I found myself wondering whether a Simpsons-themed area of Universal might have been built to the same standard as more recent expansions if the technology had been available when the show was at its peak popularity in the late nineties; I guess we will never know.
30th June 2023
Driving in the greater LA area requires an equal measure of patience and aggression, the latter being absolutely essential if you want to get anywhere at all. Lane discipline is non-existent, and there’s no point in leaving a safe distance to the car in front as other vehicles will pull into it at any perceived opportunity (whether it is there or not). Speed limits are advisory, and on the rare occasions where it’s actually possible to drive at them the locals will add an extra twenty or thirty percent at least.
Google Maps suggested that it should take about 2 hours 15 minutes to drive from Universal Studios Hollywood to SeaWorld San Diego. Californian readers are probably already laughing at this point, and with good reason; while this estimate might be realistic at 3:00am assuming no roadworks, it is completely impossible during daytime hours due to the sheer volume of traffic. While researching this report I discovered that there are eight daily flights between Los Angeles and San Diego, a journey of just 125 miles by road; the fact that these exist speaks volumes.
Today the drive took just under five hours without stopping, putting me well behind schedule. Rather than run myself ragged I decided that it would be best to write off my planned evening at the San Diego County Fair, even though that came at the cost of three potential coaster credits. Though it pains me to admit it, I’m not twenty any more (or even thirty) and as such it’s no longer realistic to schedule a sixteen hour day of parks and coasters in the immediate aftermath of an eight hour time zone jump.
SeaWorld San Diego
30th June 2023
My stateside trip this year included three parks in the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment family, and after adding up single day admission and parking costs I determined it would be very slightly cheaper to buy a platinum season pass. I made a brave attempt to do this online prior to arrival, but was unable to do so without a US billing address; the loophole I used to get one two years ago had apparently been closed off. On the plus side, this at least allowed me to avoid the chain's continuing use of dark patterns to sign up customers for auto-renewing subscriptions. This customer-hostile behaviour should be illegal; the fact that it isn't a problem in the United States is a terrible indictment of the powers that be. But her emails.... sigh.
At one point in time SeaWorld San Diego had staffed ticket windows, but these have been largely phased out; instead, guests are expected to self-service. Ticket machines are available for those unable to buy online, and they offer the full gamut of options as well as special deals on Quick Queue passes and meal plans. I pressed the button for a season pass, and was immediately prompted for a large quantity of personal information that I did not feel it necessary to share. The system also asked for permission to contact me by email and phone with "relevant offers", which I declined, only to have the question repeated more forcefully; apparently I wouldn't be able to take advantage of website features if I didn't agree to receive spam, though why this was a requirement is anyone's guess. I declined again, sadly without the system noting the expletive modifier I added for emphasis, and eventually got the required piece of cardboard.
It goes almost without saying that there was no way to claim a refund for my $30 parking as part of the purchase process, so my first port of call was to stand in line at Guest Services in order to get this sorted out. The wait took more than half an hour, but I was determined to get my money back as a matter of principle. The staff member I dealt with was friendly, helpful, and efficient – taking less than thirty seconds to complete the process. She told me that the charge would be refunded to my purchase card within 5-7 days. I thought about asking why I was being required to offer a large corporate an interest-free loan for a week, but I decided that I had better things to do.
I'd planned to get the silliest new roller coaster out of the way first, but found Tidal Twister in an advanced state of non-functionality. It was hard to contain my utter lack of disappointment; powered coasters have never been particularly important to me, and enthusiast reports from this one suggested it was an acquired taste at best. Coaster-Count indicates that the figure-eight ride reopened a few days after my visit, though it remains temperamental; it was once again temporarily closed in late July as this trip report was being finalised.
As such my visit started with Emperor (#3066), a B&M Dive Machine constructed in early 2020 but held back until 2022 as a result of the pandemic. It would have been nice if the two year hiatus had been used to add theming or construct a station building, but I’m sorry to report that this hasn’t happened, resulting in what is by some margin the most utilitarian looking example of the genre in operation today. The loading platform has two rudimentary pieces of fabric suspended overhead, but there's nothing else to protect either guests or operators from the elements. The vast majority of full-size travelling coasters have much more elaborate stations.
I couldn’t bring myself to stand in the posted two hour line, choosing instead to redeem a single use Quick Queue that came with my season pass. This cut the wait time to a relatively manageable thirty minutes. If a second one had been available at a sensible price I'd have been tempted, but today's cost was $69.99 plus tax – mainly because an individual skip was being sold only as a bundle with unlimited access to three older rides that were not on my hit list today: Journey to Atlantis, Manta, and Shipwreck Rapids. The pass was also supposed to be valid on Electric Eel, but that ride has been out of service for a number of weeks due to an incident.
Emperor is a solid crowd pleaser, albeit one that breaks no new ground. Statistically it's the shortest of its type in the western hemisphere, though the 2411 feet of track doesn't feel particularly stunted. A holding brake prefixes a 143 foot main drop followed by three inversions – an Immelmann, a barrel roll, and a corkscrew – all of which are negotiated with the usual finesse one has come to expect from the Swiss manufacturer. There were no problem spots anywhere in the layout. I’d have loved to have ridden more than once, but with a two hour wait that was out of the question. Instead I decided I'd look for a quick bite to eat before heading to my other credit.
European law mandates that the prices displayed on menus equate to the prices patrons actually pay, but sadly this has never been a requirement in the United States. The SeaWorld chain decided to take advantage of the lax regulation last year when they added a 5% surcharge on all food prices to "cover increased operational expenses". This taurine excrement, coupled with a 7.75% sales tax in San Diego, means that a published $9 equates to a real world price of $10.15 – which I'd argue to be more than a little excessive for three soggy gyoza (roughly six mouthfuls of food) that had likely been sitting in oil for hours. I suppose I should have been grateful for getting ten percent off the headline figure using my season pass; the brief snack certainly didn't help my hunger very much. I needed far more, but decided that coasters took priority.
As such I made my way across to Arctic Rescue (#3067), a custom launched family coaster from Intamin that premiered just four weeks before my visit. The design is perhaps best thought of as an extended version of Jet Rescue, with three tyre drive launches propelling snowmobiles around a layout consisting almost entirely of low-to-the-ground turns. The track is almost completely hidden from the midway, thereby providing an element of surprise for first-time passengers. (It may have been possible to get a photo of the layout from the Sky Tower, but I didn't feel like waiting in line for an hour to find out, especially as the sun was beginning to set.)
The ride was down when I arrived at the entrance, perhaps in deference to the laws of new Intamin hardware, but the queue was still moving steadily as plenty of people were leaving the line. That being said, I was told I could not enter the queue until the ride had reopened. This restriction did not apply to those with Quick Queue passes, who were welcome to stand in their much shorter waiting area if they so wished. I decided against an immediate avalanche of colourful metaphors only because I didn't want to be thrown out of the park before getting my credit – but I feel duty bound to chronicle this for posterity; guests who paid extra were being allowed to stand in line for a brand new signature attraction even as ordinary punters, many of whom would have been on single-day tickets costing around $100, were being told to go swivel.
When the ride eventually did reopen, perhaps half an hour later, it was running a single train, giving a very best case capacity of around 320 guests per hour – and a very large percentage of those seats were being filled from the Quick Queue. It took a little over two hours for me to reach the front of the regular line, which had increased in length by time I disembarked. The crowd was remarkably patient all things considered, with the notable exception of a corpulent gentleman with a cockney accent whose sarcastic observations dovetailed rather precisely with my own.
Readers might legitimately ask why I didn't just bite the bullet and buy my own Quick Queue ticket. It was definitely possible; a huge Skip the Line button next to the the all-new Arctic Rescue in the SeaWorld App was impossible to miss. Unfortunately the only option was the same bundled deal presented on Emperor, charging $69.99 plus tax for a single lap, paired with unlimited access to other attractions I didn't want. Even aside from the price, though, the ethical aspect didn't sit well with me. I'm not fond of selling premium access to brand new rides at the best of times, but when that ride has hobbled capacity due to one train operation it borders upon disgusting. I want no part of it.
The unnecessarily long wait was particularly galling because the ride was fantastic. Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for family launch coasters that stay close to the ground, and despite the lack of theming (beyond rudimentary decor in the station area) Arctic Rescue was well up there with the best I've experienced. The back seat ride was top notch. I'd have waited again in a fair queue, even one spanning hours, but decided instead to cut my losses and go for dinner.
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