On Location: What A Wreck

March 17, 2008

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WHAT A WRECK | What a blessing

This is what’s left of Lee Ann’s van after our accident Saturday afternoon. I was driving, son Zachary (15) was in the front passenger seat and son Addison (13) was sitting behind Zach in the middle row of seats. We were just a couple of hundred yards from our house on Chris Cole Road, ironically at nearly the exact same spot Lee Ann and I were hit by a drunk driver a little more than two years ago.

We were nearing the curve after making a trip to the convenience center near Tramway. A car sped around the curve and came into our lane. I turned to the right at the last minute to avoid the collision, but the other car struck the van. We slid and rolled once, landing on our wheels. Seat belts and side air bags saved us. My cell phone and driver’s license, both of which were on a console between the seats of our Honda van, ended up on the road, having been thrown from the car’s broken front windows during the roll.

The driver and passenger in the other car were more severly injured than us; the driver was life-flighted to Chapel Hill. The boys and I are extremely sore, Addison less so (probably because he’s in the best shape). I have a possible fractured vertebrae in my neck; I’ll find out for sure on Monday.

Needless to say, we’re very thankful for the blessing of being safe. Lee Ann heard the crash and came to help, never dreaming it would be us. Thanks to the quick response from the EMS workers and other emergency personnel, including my best friend Charlie’s son Matt, who just recently became a member of Tramway’s volunteer fire department. Also thanks to all our great neighbors who came out to help, including Polly Bouldin, who took these pictures…

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On Location: Universally Adventurous in Florida

March 11, 2008

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Sons Zachary (age 15) and Addison (13) and I took advantage of their school’s early spring break with a four-day trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, beginning last Thursday. While wife Lee Ann and daughter Karis (11) were snowbound in Dallas en route to what turned out to be a mostly luggage-less trip to Omaha, Neb., to see Karis’ pen-pal 4th cousin, the boys and I had a blast…

We went at the perfect time: the parks (Universal Studios, the original park there, which began challenging Disney World in 1990) and the newer Islands of Adventure felt almost deserted when we arrived there around 4:30 Thursday afternoon. There were crowds on Saturday night and most of the day Sunday, but on Friday morning and evening and Saturday morning we felt like we almost had the parks to ourselves. Our longest wait for any ride was about 10 minutes, and that happened just once. Here’s a list of my five favorite attractions at the parks, then the low-down on the rides and attractions we experienced, with my grade for them:

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My Top Five
Shrek 4-D
The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman
Revenge of the Mummy
Terminator 2: 3D
Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges

Now, for the parks & individual rides…you can find fuller descriptions of the rides and see video clips at www.universalorlando.com.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA
Opened 1990 | Ranked #6 in park attendance in USA, 2006

Shrek 4-D | Grade: A+
Interactive Show
The “Shrek” franchise is a phenomen, and this attraction is a most worthy addition to it. After a pre-show in which the Magic Mirror, the imprisoned Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio and the Ginger Bread Man re-tell the story from the first Shrek movie, we learn that Lord Farquaad has returned in ghostly form with the express purpose of making Shrek a widower. His plan? To dispatch Princess Fiona, then claim her as his ghost queen. Lord Farquaad is trying to find Shrek and Fiona, but no one knows anything – except for perhaps someone in the audience. So Farquaad banishes the audience to the auditorium for some tortune, where the show begins.

The video which follows contains all the smart dialogue for which the “Shrek” films are known, plus the best 3-D experience I’ve ever had, with a few 4th-D surprises thrown in. (Think spiders.) It’s similar to Disney’s “A Bug’s Life” attraction, if you’ve done that, only much better – a better story with better visual components. Great fun. Seeing it multiple time allows you to catch all the nuances of the attraction. We watched it four times and I would have been willing to see it a few more times if the boys had let me.

Revenge of the Mummy | Grade: A
Indoor Roller Coaster
Based on “The Mummy” films. I’m not a fan of  roller coasters, but this experience combined a great scary environment with an indoor coaster that’s just enough to thrill you but not enough to make you sick. Coaster enthusiasts would call it tame, but it was just right for me. Great special effects, animatronic warrior mummies and other surprises.

E. T. Adventure | Grade: A
Fantasy Ride
Based on the movie. One of the park’s original rides, this one is still spellbinding. It just never gets old. Soaring through the forest and over the city in your bicycle…it’s always magical. We rode “E.T.” probably a half-dozen times or more, providing a different “name” for our intergalactic passport each time, just for fun.

Terminator 2: 3D | Grade: A-
Interactive Ride/Show
Based on the “Terminator” movies. This show’s hallmark is its seamless mixture of live and 3-D action. A truly outstanding production, but it was a bit loud for my tastes, and the 3-D would have worked better if the film part hadn’t been so dark. Still, it’s a must-do attraction. Very unique. It helps to have seen the original film, which I have not.

Men In Black: Alien Invasion | Grade: B
Interactive Thrill Ride
Based on the Tommy Lee Jones/Will Smith “MIB” films. A shoot-’em-up moving ride where you score points by zapping aliens which have invaded New York City. Good fun with some competition thrown in. The boys rode MIB at least 20 times; I held on for about 10 go-rounds. Zach and Addison routinely posted scores in the 200,000-300,000 range; my top score was about 125,000. Most of the folks we competed against were in the 50,000-75,000 range, but you have to be an enthusiastic shooter to make it work. Highest score ever posted is 999,999; we saw one person score around 360,000.

Jaws | Grade: B
Water Ride
A tour of the “real” (but fictional) Amity, where the shark attacks happened. A bit tired after all these years, but doing it at night added a bit of an edge and made the pyrotechnics better. The key is getting lucky and having a good “captain” of your boat – screaming “over-actors” distract significantly from the experience. I rode “Jaws” about 10 times back during two trips to Universal in 1992 and 1993, so I know where the shark appears, but I still enjoy it. Our last ride on Jaws on Sunday included a number of boat mates who obviously hadn’t taken the trip through Amity before, however, and hearing the screams of the teenaged girls and seeing them frightened by the big shark was more fun than the ride itself.

Twister…Ride It Out | Grade: B
Live Action Simulation
Based on the “Twister” movie. Combines props from the real film, footage of actual tornadoes and a pre-show with the film’s Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt talking about the experience of making the film. You end up in a setting similar to the scene where the tornado strikes the drive-in theater. We did it once and weren’t that impressed, but Addison and I did it a second time our final day and stood up front, and the impact of the “tornado” was much more impressive. Could have been better, though, with more wind and a few more effects.

Universal Horror Make-Up Show | Grade: B
Live Show
A 25-minute show demontrating how blood and gore are done for the movies. Great fun, and funny, too.

Fear Factor Live | Grade: B
Live Show
I’ve seen just a few bits and pieces of the real “Fear Factor” show. This was a pretty decent outdoor stage show…gross, but decent.

Disaster!: A Major Motion Picture Ride | Grade: B
Live Action Ride
Several pre-shows, an actual “filming” of a few of the final scenes from “Mutha Nature,” by the “acclaimed” director Frank Kincaid (portrayed wonderfully – and realistically – by Christopher Walken, one of my all-time favorites) of “Disaster! Studios,” and a ride. Frantic fun, but a bit drawn out. Seeing the “Musion” technology used to have Walken interact with your real-life guide is almost worth the price of admission. He was almost real…

ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE
Opened 1999 | Ranked #9 in park attendence in USA, 2006

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man | Grade: A+
Moving Simulation 3-D Ride
Based on the comic-book character. Simply an amazing experience, combining a moving ride, 3-D and motion-simulation to create sensations you won’t feel anywhere else in the park. A bit dizzying for me, but it’s so well-done I had to do it again and again. The premise is you’re a reporter for The Daily Bugle, and after walking through the newspaper building (great fun for me) you board a Bugle vehicle to get the scoop on the city’s crime wave. The sensations that follow aren’t to be missed. Check out the video clips on the Universal website, and read more about the technology (and staggering costs) of this ride here.

This ride’s highlight is when you fall 50 or more stories from a skyscraper, bounce off an adjacent building, then fall to the street – all in 3-D, all while pursued by famous villains. It’s sooooo real…

Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges | Grade: A
Water Ride
Raft ride made great by the real white-water feel. I was told it was the 4th-wettest water ride in the USA. Glad I had my poncho.

Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls | Grade: A-
Water Ride
Log ride; not too many surprises, but a good ending, with a spray-filled final drop.

Jurassic Park River Adventure | Grade: B+
Water Ride
Based on the films. A tour through Jurassic Park goes wrong. Above-average water ride with well-done animatronic dinosaurs.

Poseidon’s Fury | Grade: D
Interactive Show
Huge disappointment. Our only “bad ride” was this attraction. Billed as “a colossal battle between ancient gods with no hope of escape,” it ended up being a flame- and water-filled joke. Great build-up and a wonderful outside design, but it fizzled badly.

We didn’t do Islands of Adventure’s major roller coaster rides – the Incredible Hulk Coaster, Dueling Dragons and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. They looked fun, and very scary. But my boys aren’t into coasters of that sort, which is totally fine by me.

A note: Universal Studios’ “Universal Express Plus” passes are a must if you’re going. The passes (which we got because we stayed on-site, at the Hard Rock Hotel) allow users to utilize a separate line for most attractions. A limited number of passes are sold to non-property guests each day, but we were told they often sell out in advance. During evenings while we were there, and on Sunday, attractions with posted “wait times” of 30-45 minutes were common. But we’d show our “Express Plus” passes (actually our room keys), enter the Express line and often walk right onto a ride, by-passing the lines.

And a final note…on May 31, 2007, Universal Orlando announced that it had secured the rights from Warner Bros. and from British author J. K. Rowling to bring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to Islands of Adventure. Scheduled to open late next year, the 23-acre island will feature attractions, shops and restaurants set inside such locations as the Forbidden Forest, Hogsmeade Village and the iconic Hogwarts castle. Some existing attractions within the Lost Continent are to be updated to the new theme, and will be joined by a state-of-the-art attraction that remains unannounced.