Tuesday, April 5, 2011

King Kong All Over Again

Finding the correct title for a blog post can be difficult. Good ideas don't always present themselves. In this case, too many choices have made it difficult for me to pick one.

"Why Universal Studios Sucks"

"Universal Owes Me $430"

"All Style & No Substance"

They all express how I feel about our recent trip to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, FL.

My first experience with Universal Studios was 15 years ago, before children, when my Lovely Wife and I were newlyweds. She has never cared for thrill rides, so we took advantage of short lines in the off season to scoot me through the more notable adventures with the least inconvenience to her. Jaws was entertaining, Earthquake was under renovation, but King Kong promised a scream or two.

I'm a fan of the big ape. Almost every New Year's Eve of my childhood, when the local channels and PBS would run classic movie marathons, I looked forward to tuning in to the early afternoon showing of the black & white classic on my 13-inch black & white TV. Although the pathetically awful 1970s remake -- Jessica Lange never has regained my respect -- had come and gone long before we traveled to the theme park, my anticipation and expectations remained high.

Twenty minutes into waiting, however, it became apparent something was amiss. The line stopped advancing. People started grumbling. The message wafted through the queue like an unpleasant odor: "King Kong is not working." Disappointed, but not wanting to waste any of our time together, we abandoned the ride. I gave it one more chance later that evening, but as I approached, a sign indicated the ride was out of commission for the rest of they day.

Our general impression of Universal Studios was one of bemused apathy. Not too bad, but definitely not Disney quality in terms of total immersion into a memorable experience.

Cut to spring break 2011.

A solid year of planning had us booked on the new Disney Dream, a short cruise that would leave us an extra day or two to accomplish something else. Since the ship's home is Port Canaveral, just one hour east of Orlando, a theme park visit seemed the natural climax to our trip. But which park? Having hit all four Disney parks hard over the past five or six years, and all of us being avid Harry Potter fans, a quick visit to the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park seemed apropos.

Now, I wasn't expecting to skip down the lane in Hogsmeade, unfettered by long lines or throngs of fellow tourists crowding into Hogwarts Castle or the Three Broomsticks pub. This was spring break, and patience would be required. Unfortunately, along with patience came the need for drastically lowered expectations.

The first mistake we made was to follow the advice of a Universal Studios salesman I met during a recent tradeshow. He informed me the best thing to start with was Olivander's Wand Shop, since the line moves slowly for the brief theatrical presentation given before being allowed to enter the wand shop.

"The Castle can move 2,000 people through every hour, so save that for later," he said.

By the time we reached the wand shop, thanks to the early admission of resort guests and express pass holders, the Olivander's line already was over an hour long. We followed the advice and stood in line for the wand shop, watching the estimated wait time at the Hogwarts Castle behind us quickly building from 45 minutes to two hours, only to be disappointed by an underwhelming three-minute performance by an unenthusiastic "actor" in a very tiny room.

Ninety dollars later, with three plastic wands in hand, we decided to avoid the castle for a little while in hopes the line would diminish. My Lovely Wife wandered through the faux village of Hogsmeade while the kids and I rode the amusing Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster. Our plan seemingly working, the wait time at the castle had reduced to a reasonable length, so we gave it a try.

From the outside, it's a remarkable sight. It could not possibly look more like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that all us movie geeks wish were a real place to which we could travel. But when you step inside, the illusion crumbles. Heck, you don't even have to go inside.

Just stand on the snaking line for an hour inside the grounds surrounding the castle, and you quickly understand how lifeless an experience your tour of Hogwarts will be. Meandering through the herbology greenhouses, there are no screeching mandrakes or assortment of moving plants. The only plants are inexpensive real ones, hung high overhead in baskets that look like ones you can buy from Home Depot for about twenty bucks. You also get a great view of a tremendous blank wall.

During the next 45 minutes -- in which time we inched forward from a portrait room with only four moving paintings to Dumbledore's office -- we discovered that Universal Studios' idea of high-quality audio barely matches that of the Country Bear Jamboree. I swear, somewhere in storage I have an old Sony Walkman cassette player with clearer sound. We couldn't understand a dang thing anyone was saying, regardless of the fact we heard each repeated 1-minute loop at least twenty times.

And if you want to talk about missed opportunities, Disney's Haunted House -- one of the original attractions built in 1971 -- offers more tricks of the eye and technological wonders than anything the Wizarding World of Harry Potter meagerly doles out. I'm not sure if anyone has told the chiefs at Universal Studios, but flat screen televisions framed up to look like moving paintings are not futuristic technology. Where were the moving staircases? Where were the ghosts? Where was that sense of wonder I expected to feel?

Then, just like years before, the line stopped moving. We were trapped in Dumbledore's office for almost thirty minutes with no park employees in sight. Dumbledore endlessly repeated his bass-heavy mumbled welcome to us. Finally the announcement came: "We are sorry for the delay. We are experiencing technical difficulties..."

It was King Kong all over again.

Considering all the work that went into making the new Harry Potter section of the park look so amazing, it's pretty sad the most fun we had as a family during the entire day came at Seuss Landing.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler


  1. Not very encouraging for a mother of 4???

  2. I hate being the bearer of bad news, but the place overall (not just Harry Potter) was a let down. Next time, we'll be going straight to Disney World.

  3. You should have gone "King Kong" on them!

  4. Even though the park's attractions were fairly disappointing, at least most of the employees were rude.