As I drive along U.S. 4 towards Universal Orlando, I conclude that most of Florida if not the world is also on its merry way there; we park in the Jurassic Park area (great pun!) and pay our $15 fee. Lots swell and long, automated walkways used at airports congeal people into slow-moving masses.
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It's hot. It's crowded. We are sheathed in sun-tan lotion. As we approach the "Port of Entry," we witness several children experience epileptic-type fits of enthusiasm and hear parents groan, wondering if they might last the day.
We travel through a stretch of City Walk, to be investigated later in the day. We set a counter-clockwise course taking in every item listed in the Islands of Adventure theme park. First up - Seuss Landing which our grandson will love. (Make note.) There is a "High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride," fountains named "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," a "Cat in the Hat" exhibit and an "If I Ran the Zoo" play area. Universal is clever: this introductory section immediately entices children.
Next, we brave "The Lost Continent," with its "Voyage of Sinbad Stunt Show," "Mystic Fountain" and "Poseidon's Fury" show. Here, we sense trouble. Wait Times! Children experiencing fits of enthusiasm and old codgers like us do not take kindly to waiting. Everywhere, it's the same - wait times of 30-40 minutes. I notice that some astute people have pre-arranged times set up. Mistake #1.
"The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" is next but it's roped off. "Do you have a ticket?" asks a stern-looking woman armed with an AK-47. She points to a long line trudging up the hill behind us, fellow lunatics intent on seeing Harry. Our journey had come to an abrupt end. That's when I become devious like one of J.K. Rowling's villains. I approach an attendant, pull out my press card, and say, "Look, I don't have time for that long line." She senses potential mayhem in my voice and allows us through, recalling page 326 in the Universal employee manual, "How to Deal With Crazy People."
Did I mention waiting times? Harry's section is so bursting with people that you need a magical wand to get through. We take five steps into a store and instantly retreat. It's packed. Ditto for the "Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff," "Triwizard Spirit Rally" and "Dragon Challenge." Our only experience amidst crowds is the "Frog Choir," Hogwart's students accompanied by rather large frogs. Even the butter-beer line is as long as Pinocchio's nose. Speaking of bubbly, throughout the park, there's a plethora of beer salespeople and complementary washrooms. At $6 per beer, we stick to water.
We wander off to watch the "Toon Lagoon's" "Dudley-Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls" transport riders into a tsunami-like wall of water, each passenger totally drenched. In the exhausting heat, it appears to be an exceptionally fine ride.
Next, we travel back in time through the "Marvel Super Hero Island," observing areas devoted to the Hulk and Spider-Man, but I am too pooped and hot to enjoy comics. Soon, we are back to where we started and the area known as City Walk, full of restaurants, bars and NASCAR autos, the latter a contemporary rite of passage, wherein a camera-toting elder props a child on the hot hood of a racing car and tries to elicit a smile for posterity.
We eat at Moe's, where I inhale the best burrito ever tasted and drink vast amounts of water. We have made good progress, encircling the entire theme park in which Universal's master plan reads: Retail - 75%, Other - 25%. Every second family wears t-shirts labeled "Thing 1," "Thing 2," "Thing 3."
I notice large fans that emit breeze along with mist, water fountains in which children and even a few adults dance, jump, parade and stomp, roller-coasters, one at Harry's and another huge green entity that twists, turns cars upside-down and elicits long screams of joy-fear as it loops around a remarkable course.
We decide to cool off and rest a tad by taking in a movie. Universal offers twenty huge screens, the theatre as gargantuan as the theme parks. It's an average flick, but the theatre is air-conditioned, the chairs quite comfortable and most impressive of all, NO WAIT TIME!
After the movie, we dare to enter theme park two, "Universal Studios Florida," again adopting a counter-clockwise strategy that takes us through a
remarkable collage of buildings that resemble movie sets of Hollywood, San Francisco and New York. For the kids, there's Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone.
At San Francisco/Amity we get in line for a ride through "Jaws" territory. A soothing boat ride might assuage the heat. Up and down we parade through roped lines, encountering and re-encountering the same people so often that we soon consider them family until finally we are collated into five equal groups (rows). We stand there for ten or more minutes and watch empty boat after empty boat pass us by, eventually learning, after some prodding that there is something wrong with the ride and they do not know how long it will take to fix it. We shrug and leave.
We have traveled through two remarkable theme parks without going on one ride. Our grandson would not be impressed. On the way back to the car lot, I notice streams of people and children slouched upon chairs or anything else that might support exhausted limbs. Wheel-chaired occupants sag in the shade. A new Universal theme park is in order - "Napoleon's Retreat From Moscow!"
Later that evening, we sit on our comfortable Kissimmee balcony, observing the radiant moon while sipping beer and enjoying a breeze. As you age, you realize that mom and dad were right; it's the simple things in life that bring forth pleasure.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.