Universal Orlando - 11/18/04 - 11/21/04

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 21, 2004, 11:23 PM | comments: 0
We (as in Stephanie and Jeff) stayed at the Royal Pacific Resort for the third year in a row, coinciding with the IAAPA trade show down the street. We love this place, and the only serious regret this year is that I had to make the trip a day shorter for volleyball tryouts.

After spending time at the show Thursday, we checked in at the hotel. I signed-up for the "Loews First" program a couple of months ago, because it had some nice perks, among them being a room upgrade, when available, and complimentary beverages and nuts. Despite booking on the Loews site (they operate all three Universal Orlando hotels), apparently it was a discounted rate and the perks weren't available. They upgraded us to a pool view anyway (which was pretty awesome), and promised us the beer and nuts as an act of good faith since their Web site doesn't really detail the conditions of the "amenities." It never happened. Not a big deal, really, but it was still kind of irritating. They need to figure that out.

Overall, this is one of my favorite hotels I've stayed at anywhere (only the Sheraton Kauai would rank higher for me). For the most part they do earn their four-diamond rating. It's clean, fairly new, the housekeeping is fairly transparent, the pool is very nice, and you can't beat the tropical feel, right down to the faux beach. Like everything in Universal, they tend to hide everything and submerge you in the theme. The only thing endangering their rating is scuffed up hallways. Paint and carpet cleaning are in order.

That night we hit City Walk and ate at Margaritaville. City Walk has been just slightly more crowded every year on Thursday nights since 2001, and we'd find out later that Orlando tourism is certainly back in style.

I'm no Parrot Head, but the food at Margaritaville is really pretty good, and the vegetarian choices for Stephanie were adequate. The live entertainment was a nice touch, and their walk-up beer service on the side of the building never seems to have a wait.

We did find a shortcoming about City Walk that night. As best we can tell, there are only two restrooms that aren't inside one of the clubs or restaurants. One is hidden between The Groove and Latin Quarter, the other is tucked under the movie theater next to the NASCAR Cafe. Both are poorly marked with inadequate signage. If there are others, we couldn't find them. Doesn't that seem kind of odd in a place where you can buy alcohol approximately every 100 feet?

We drank quite a bit and did a great deal of people watching. There aren't many places I can think of where you can safely do this every day of the year outside. Even on this non-crowded evening, there was security and police everywhere. If places like Cleveland's Flats or Baltimore's Inner Harbor had this kind of presence, they'd be far safer and attract more people.

Friday was theme park day. We started with the character breakfast at the Confisco restaurant in Islands of Adventure. No, it's not cheap, but the food isn't bad and you can eat until you barf. Plus you get photos with Spiderman, Wolverine, Cat-In-The-Hat and the budget costumed Grinch.

We defected over to Universal Studios from there and went straight for Revenge of The Mummy (warning: spoilers ahead). Much has been said about this ride, but as far as I'm concerned, it's not enough. This ride kicks more ass than Dakota Fanning on a Ritalin-speed cocktail. I think that as far as themed coasters go, this one is a home run.

The loading platform arrangement is very well done, with express pass guests loading on the opposite side of one of the dual-loading platforms, while the main queue comes up the middle between the two. We did the main queue the first time to see what was in it (hotel guests get express access to everything), and had a walk-up. I got enough of the story to get it, but I'm sure we missed a lot.

The cars are comfortable despite the Premier foot canisters. The cars appear to be propelled by some kind of flat LIM's in the center of the track. I noticed for the big launch that there were vertical "sandwiches" on both sides of the track, but I couldn't tell if those were brakes or the traditional LIM's. The first part of the ride is all flat, with no incline, so the cars are moved after the station switch by these flat devices, not kicker tires.

The first encounter with the mummy (the creepy bastard from the first movie) is really impressive. He's not overly animatronic looking at all. In the next treasure/mummy room, however, it's a little disappointing that these critters don't have any movement at all (unless that's the point). That's the only real fault I can pin on the ride.

The bug room is impressive because of its audio component more than anything. The projected images might not otherwise be as convincing. One element I didn't notice was the physical beetles coming out of the center of the front wall until the third time we rode. It was pretty seamless with the projected images. Steph kept talking about a beetle slot machine jackpot and I didn't get it until then!

The movement from there, with the reverse and the track switch is very smooth, and very crazy. The top of the launch pops you out of the seat hard then throws you into the side before you come back down. Excellent. I have no idea what the track does from then on, and it doesn't matter. It feels very out of control.

I knew ahead of time about the fake ending, but wow, all three rides we took, the people with us fell for it every time. The shot out of the fake exit platform is really fun, down into the mist. Unfortunately the mist doesn't cover the entire ending helix on every lap, so it's a little less impressive if it's thin.

Overall, I really dig the ride. It's a lot of fun, and I feel really good about the ride element of PKI's Italian Job being in Premier Rides' hands.

We didn't want to spend a ton of time in the studios, so we hit a few more things before leaving. We missed Woody Woodpecker's coaster last year, so we snagged that for the credit. Steph had never been on E.T., so we walked on to that. For 15-year old technology, it's still kind of impressive (especially the queue). We also did Men In Black because it's a blast. We finished with the second and third Mummy rides, this time bypassing the line and walking right on.

Back at IOA, we caught lunch at the place in Jurassic Park next to the splash down area of the River Adventure. The food wasn't bad... Steph had some kind of wrap without the chicken, and I had roasted chicken, corn and new potatoes. Not really that pricey for the portion size. We had fun watching a couple of young families mess around in the water after they finished eating.

Finally, for the first time in three years, Pteranadon Flyers was operating. Unfortunately, it had a 45 minute wait and no express entry, so we skipped it. Foiled again!

We made our way back to Dueling Dragons and took a lap on each. The park by this time had a fairly significant crowd. Needless to say, even with "only" four trains, the dragons just eat people. Really good crews certainly help.

The Sinbad show was one of the few attractions we had not seen, so we made it a point to hit that. Not bad. Yeah it had the corny family-friendly jokes, but the stunts were cool, and the female lead really kicked ass.

Looping through Seuss Landing, we stopped at One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, another ride we never hit before. It's a fairly typical circular ride where you can raise and lower the sweeps of your car, the trick being the water spouts at all levels that can tag you when you least expect it. Anyone know who built this?

It was warm enough, so we did Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. Best. Flume. Ever. This is another ride where the express pass is nice just to bypass the huge queue. Did they change the boats? I don't remember individual seat backs before. After a five minute ride restart, we rode with a little girl from Maryland that was skipping gymnastics practice to be there, along with her mom. She was ridiculously excited. Unfortunately, the little girl and her also little mother got in at the back, which put my relatively heavy ass in the front. I knew that would be bad news, and I got soaked. To make matters worse, they put those coin-op water cannons right next to the trough, so the spectators can nail you point-blank. Lame! Still, what a blast. The only flume I know with floater airtime.

After ringing out, we got our obligatory lap on Spiderman. The heat effects helped us dry off a bit. Dr. Doom was next, my favorite S&S towers anywhere, followed by Storm's "tea cups."

We finished our day on The Hulk. Ouch. What the hell are they doing with this ride? It's ridiculously rough. The road wheels were visibly not in good shape, and the springs are so loose that you can see the trains shift all over the place if you sit in the back. It's not comfortable at all. Normally on any B&M you can press your head against the shoulder restraint and it will be quick movement without the head banging, but not on this one. I actually had a minor headache getting off. This ride needs a little love.

We ended the day with a stroll through the Port of Entry shops.

After a day of theme parking and drinking the night before, we settled for just dinner at Pastamore on City Walk. Steph's primavera wasn't bad, but the alfredo I had sucked. Worst I've had in awhile. The waitor was a moron as well. Maybe he wasn't a moron, but he couldn't multi-task.

Saturday was all about chilling. We left the grounds for breakfast at Denny's. I hate that dump, but we wanted to go cheap this one meal, and surprisingly the service wasn't bad.

We hit Pirate's Cove for some mini-golf. They really have the best courses. The only negative was that the waterfalls weren't running. I won. :)

Back at the Royal Pacific, we did some pool lounging and ordered food. This is why I love the hotel... they're very attentive to your needs. They had no problem doing grilled cheese for Steph even though it wasn't on the menu, and I had some of those "gourmet" chicken fingers to satisfy my fried food craving. Towels were plentiful, the service was great, the spas were hot and shade was adequate if you wanted it. Plus there was the B&M roar of Hulk and the S&S hiss of Dr. Doom. Beautiful settings.

That night we finally hit the Hard Rock Cafe. Another perk: priority seating as a hotel guest. The line was absolutely huge. Whatever doubt I had about the rebound of tourism in Central Florida was erased. City Walk was packed. This is apparently the largest HRC, and I believe it. The memorabilia collection is also impressive. Many of the servers are "our people" (the well-groomed pierced and tattooed types). Food was excellent, and there's a lot of stuff for vegetarians to eat. There was an impressive bar mitzvah taking place in one of the private rooms, complete with light show and a DJ.

City Walk was hoppin' like I had not seen it before. So much eye candy. Again, quite an impressive show of security and police. The "street" performers were doing their thing, every club and restaurant was packed, and if I was an NBC exec I'd have a huge smile on my face.

We closed out the evening, and really our trip, by chilling on the "beach" watching the boats deliver party people back and forth between the hotel and City Walk. It was a short, but really fun trip. I could easily spend a week there and never leave the property. It's hard to believe it's all so self-contained, on a relative postage stamp to the size of the Disney property. We might go back next year, even though IAAPA will be in Atlanta. We've yet to have a bad time as a Universal guest, and IOA is easily my favorite theme park on the planet. Good times.


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