What are some of your earliest memories of amusement parks? While researching a visit to Universal Studios Orlando, I discovered that the first modern amusement parks began along the east coast. We are all likely familiar with the name Coney Island and it was home to one of these fun fixtures way back in 1895. I wonder if the pioneers of these parks ever dreamed of the day that you would find an immersive experience as we found in Florida. Today’s theme parks are expansive areas filled with themed spaces designed to whisk visitors away to a magical world. Needing a break from our Kansas City winter, we made our first pilgrimage to this entertainment mecca.
When I was planning our escape, I decided that we should just go all the way. The time lost between lodging and park can account for lots of lost fun. We had determined that we would spend three days at Universal and add one at Disneyworld. With this plan, it just made sense to choose to lodge in one of the Universal resorts. With three of us in the group, we ended up picking a suite at the Dockside Inn. While this hotel is a bit further from the park entrance, the shuttle buses make it a five-minute ride to the entrance. Not having any preconceived notion of this lodging, we ended up pretty pleased with the location, amenities, and customer service. Our late Friday night travel had pumped us up, so we struggled to fall asleep. We knew that in a few hours we would be entering the park for the first time.
Saturday morning we were welcomed by beautiful weather in the Sunshine State. After a run to the Starbucks in our resort, we packed our backpack for a day at the park. Knowing that they have tons of lockers makes it easy to bring more than we needed, but that’s what we do. The short bus ride gave us a chance to catch our first view of the park. Our anxiousness approached record levels as we made our way through the gate. With so many options, we weren’t sure what to do. Fortunately, our daughter had visited in the past and took over as a guide. My goal was to check out as many of the rides, as possible. One of the first I checked off the list was Skull Island: Reign of Kong. This immersive experience involves loading on a jungle bus and being hauled into the jungle. When various creatures attempt to end our journey, we are saved by the ferocious hero who thwarts each menacing attack. I enjoyed this ride so much that we had to do it again on the third day.
Let’s put it out there, our family is familiar with a lot of rollercoasters. While Crystal isn’t as big of a fan, I’ve ridden my fair share and usually with at least one of our kids in the mix. When our daughter, Amanda, mentioned this amazing new coaster at Universal, it certainly piqued my interest. We made our way into Jurassic Park while keeping our eyes peeled for any roaming dinosaurs. The stats for VelociCoaster are impressive. It offers two high-speed launches, a 155-foot-tall peak, speeds up to 70 miles per hour, and multiple zero-G moments. What makes this park an immersive experience is that it’s not just the rides that are engaging. As we made our way through the queue, we found ourselves engrossed in various dinosaur exhibits and artifacts on display. There is also an amazing looped movie that features the stars of the movie warning riders about the impending danger that awaits. Our group was lucky and we escaped the ride without any raptor attacks.
As I mentioned, we have been to a few amusement parks around the country. While we always have a good time, this one was different from the others. Most parks are set up as a way to display a myriad of thrill rides, as they do at Wonderland Park in Amarillo, Texas. Here, in Florida, we were finding an immersive experience unlike any we have seen before. Obviously, the rides are designed to blend into each zone, but they didn’t stop there. Throughout each area, we found a completely enveloping surrounding. When we stepped across the border into Springfield, it seemed like we had fallen through the TV screen and landed in the cartoon. All of the familiar landmarks were visible. Not only did we recognize the faces, but we could even step inside the Kwik-E-Mart to check out the Lard Lad Donuts and other souvenirs.
The more we wandered, the more we found that they really try to make the movies come alive. The park is split between two sides, so we made sure to buy passes that allowed us to move between them. On the Universal Studios side, there is a large portion dedicated to recreating iconic sections of major American cities. We enjoyed lunch along the wharves of San Francisco. Just blocks from there, we raced Jimmy Fallon through the streets of New York. As we made our way toward The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we happened upon the Blues Brothers performing along Delancey Street. Each of these areas is an immersive experience with cityscapes and building fronts that mimic the originals.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that Universal Studios was designed to attract visitors of all ages. Sure, they have plenty of spaces for the younger crowd, like the entire Dr. Seuss area. They also include spots that are attractive to the young at heart. In Toon Lagoon, I spotted an impressive collection of characters from my younger days. This area was clearly designed for my crowd and I wondered how many twenty-year-olds were wondering what it was all about. Where else would I have a chance to visit Gasoline Alley or Wimpy’s Hamburgers? It was the perfect area to pick up our Popeye and Betty Boop souvenirs, and since we were staying on an on-site property, they delivered our purchases to our hotel.
Losing Ourselves in the Fun
We were making our way back to the front of the park when we entered Marvel Super Hero Island. A mixture of protectors and villains surrounded us. Ducking into The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, we found ourselves in the offices of the Daily Bugle. Soon we were loaded into our vehicles and whooshed off to fight crime with our favorite web-slinger. We were still smiling when we exited the ride. Rising up from the landscape we spotted The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which was another must-do. Crystal watched from a safe distance, as Amanda and I launched into seven inversions that can make non-riders green with envy. Our day was wrapping up, as we headed to dinner. It’s always a little sad coming to the end of the fun, but we knew we had more days ahead of us.