Monday, 14 August 2017

Universal 2017 - Minions, Marky Mark And Trundling Along In The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

If you are a guest at any of the Disney Resort hotels you can take a free bus from right outside your hotel to any of the four Disney parks. The buses are fully accessible, and run very regularly to all of Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney's Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios and, predictably, Disney's Epcot. All of which we were about to find very handy over the coming days. However, if you have the audacity to want to spend your day at Disney's great Orlando theme park rival at Universal then you are on your own.

That meant a taxi ride for us on Tuesday morning, and a very expensive one at that. We had been advised by the hotel concierge to give ourselves an hour to get there because of the traffic at that time of day, and that it would be expensive as a result. Ordinarily it is about a 20-minute drive from Disney's Port Orleans French Quarter to Universal but in the morning traffic it took around 45 minutes. It cost $37 which is roughly £28. Not much less than it costs to get home from Liverpool after a drunken Friday night with work. Still, I thought, at the current rate you are only in Orlando every seven years so just stump up and get on with it.

It was absolutely worth it. Universal is an amazing place, possibly my favourite of all the theme parks we visited on the entire trip. That view may or may not have been helped by the fact that we had fast passes for everything so queuing was kept to a minimum. Yet there are also six or seven genuinely great simulator rides across the two parks there as well as all of the new Harry Potter related shenannigans that Emma had been looking forward to seeing so much.

Fast passes or not any day at an Orlando theme park begins with a queue. First is the queue to have your bag checked by security, then comes the queue to actually get into the park. There are moving walkways leading up to the main entrance, rather like the ones they have at some airports. I mention these because if you use a wheelchair you are expressly forbidden from using the moving walkways. There is even a sign to illustrate this rule, a bog-standard disabled logo (man sitting down with spike up his arse, you know the sort of thing...) but with a big, thick red line through it. In a supposedly progressive, inclusive world it just didn't seem right seeing that sign. A little unsettling. The mind boggles as to what the kind of people who chain themselves to fences in disability rights protests would make of it. It also meant I would have to push myself down the walkway to the entrance which is something anyone can do without in 95° temperatures.

Once at the entrance we were helped by the fact that there is a queue reserved solely for wheelchair users and their companions. This shortened our wait considerably but it may have been shortened even further where it not for the lax attitude towards what constitutes the need for a wheelchair in the USA. Basically, anyone who can't be arsed walking and who can get their hands on a wheelchair can use this dedicated wheelchair users queue. Wheelchairs are readily available for hire, as are Brian Potter-style scooters that nobody in all of the United States seems to know how to operate. So anyway if we are being accurate about it the queue we were in is for wheelchair users and others who suffer from being fat, lazy or both. Nobody will be asking you for any proof of disability in this queue. The only qualification you need to be here is old fashioned sloth and/or the ability to eat continuously.

First up for us, just because it was right in front of us, was Minions. To give it it's full title, Despicable Me Minions Mayhem. Now you might have visions of this being a little childish. Of sitting in a very slow cart while watching those annoying, squeaky yellow ruiners of Despicable Me harping gibberish at you. Not a bit of it. Well, there are annoying, squeaky yellow ruiners of Despicable Me everywhere but there is also Gru and it is anything but slow. Last time we were here this ride was themed for Jimmy Neutron which was also a surprisingly entertaining affair. This is the same sort of thing, a simulator which would have you swear that you were driving, swinging, falling and swooping at breakneck speeds. All the while there is some sort of narrative going on involving the Minions and Gru but it is hard to make any sense of it all while your seat is veering this way and that. It's all pretty breathless but it is excellent fun all the same.

Shrek 4D was here when we last visited but the film has significantly changed. It is not as intense as a simulation as the Minions ride but you can still expect to be thrown around a little in your seat as it moves up, down, back and side to side. You'll also have water squirted at you to create the impression that you have been sprayed with something more unpleasant. It is a more coherent story than can be seen at Minions, though the rescuing of Princess Fiona from Lord Farquaad by Shrek, Donkey and the dragon might not be the most blindingly original plotline.

I've never been a fan of Transformers. I think it's my age. When I was very young they didn't exist, and by the time they did I had reached an age at which I considered cartoons beneath me. The revival of the characters in Marky Mark's smash-em-up movies has done nothing to inspire me to become interested either. But remember we are talking about rides and simulators for the most part here. I am not exactly an avid fan of Shrek or Minions either but the rides are no less fun for all of that. The same is true of Transformers, which is the same sort of thing whereby you are tricked into believing that you are driving, swinging and falling at ridiculous speeds while trying to avoid some grizzly fate or other at the hands of whichever one is the baddie. It's not easy to tell because again following what is being said while you are on the ride is a tricky business. Whatever it was that was going on it sounded serious but, this being a simulator, I always felt there was a fair chance we'd make it out without incident.

Next up was The Simpsons. That meant the long, winding, climbing queue which last time we were here led me to believe that this might be an actual, real rollercoaster. I don't do real rollercoasters. I'm probably not tall enough for a start. But the main reason is I can't for the life of me see the fun in being genuinely scared out of your wits for five minutes before spending the next 20 throwing up all over Buzz Lightyear. I stick to the simulators and the 3 and 4D shows. Anyway as we know The Simpsons is not a real rollercoaster and the winding, climbing queue is made bearable by some highly amusing clips at various points which I think are exclusive to the park and not just repeats of old shows that have been broadcast. The jokes relate to the ride and the likelihood of sustaining a major injury or incurring death so unless there is an episode where they all go to a theme park then I think this stuff is just for the theme park visitors. Like Shrek the in-ride film has changed since last time but it's still a very similar experience to what it was last time around. At one particularly hairy part of the ride you come to a sudden stop at the top of an impossibly large drop but are told by Homer not to worry because 'nobody is going to let you die in a theme park as long as you have a dime in your pocket'.

Re-reading my column on Universal from seven years ago I was surprised to note that I didn't rate the Men In Black ride very much at the time. Strange then that I felt genuinely disappointed on this visit to find that the ride was closed. It's either being refurbished or replaced with something else and my poor memory had tricked me into believing I'd be missing out on failing to hit targets from a spinning vehicle. It turns out the real reason that MIB stayed on my mind was the way they made it accessible which involved a large but just about portable ramp and a lot of slick manoeuvring. With that out of the equation it was time to turn to the real reason we had returned to Florida, the Wizarding World Of Harry Potter.

Emma loves Harry Potter. That is to say she loves the stories, not necessarily the speccy boy wizard himself. If you do too then this is the place for you. While the rest of the Disney and Universal theme parks have a distinct 'theme park' feel about them this section of Universal is vastly different. It's more like a film set or a studios tour like the one dedicated to Harry Potter at Watford. There's a full and detailed mock-up of Diagon Alley with its quirky wand shops and such like, and the Gringotts Bank which houses another great simulator. 'Escape From Gringotts Bank' tips you forward in your seat which is a bit unnverving for a biff with all the balance of a recently brushed Cristiano Ronaldo, especially when you then start to feel like you are travelling on the downslope of a rollercoaster at a million miles an hour. But as with all simulators its much more fun than an actual rollercoaster because you always know that you are not really going very far, if anywhere in most cases. Outside the ride, on top of the bank sits a huge dragon which, every 10 minutes or so, breathes actual fire into the sky above you. Well, it's a flame. Some kind of pyrotechnic no doubt. But you can feel the heat of it from the ground.

When another downpour came we took shelter right in front of a window displaying an animatronic version of Nagini, Lord Voldemort's great big, ugly snake. It moves and talks but there was too much murmuring from the crowds of people hanging around as well as the sound of the driving rain to make out exactly what it was saying. Something threatening, certainly. Nagini doesn't really do pleasantries. He's not asking how your day is. The rain was on and off for the rest of the day after that, so what better place to take refuge than in one of the Harry Potter themed pubs? We just happened to be in the vicinity of the Hogs Head, so a couple of pints in there was an obvious solution to the weather, which by that point had reached the kind of epic storm levels that we had found on our arrival at Port Orleans a day earlier. It would be a recurring theme in Orlando.

When it finally abated there was another side of Universal to discover, with more Harry Potter-related paraphernalia to explore. The pick of these was the Forbidden Journey ride, another wild simulator with which the only problem was a large bump in the middle of the seat which made transferring from my wheelchair a particular hazard. All I'll say is that you should be careful with it if you have any family plans in the future. Initially you are sat facing to the left at a 90 degree angle but once the ride starts to get in full swing it is you that it is doing most of the swinging. So much swinging was there, in fact, that even my legs were moving around as they dangled down from the seat. It might sound like an ordeal but it was amazing.

The preferred method of travelling to the other side of the park is of course the Hogwarts Express. Unfortunately they haven't yet come up with a way of having you run into a wall to emerge on the platform, but the Express itself is real enough. It's pretty slow, but then the distance between the two sides of the park is not that great so if it were to travel at any great lick it would all be over too soon. Instead you are entertained on your gentle coast by animated images of all of your favourite Harry Potter characters in the window. They are doing something or other, mostly waving and saying hello I think. On the opposite side the window is covered by a blind behind which shadows of Harry, Ron and Hermione appear and allow you to listen in on their conversation just like in the film scenes set on the train. In keeping with this shadowy vibe there are Dementors passing by. It's good fun if you like that sort of thing, and if you don't it is a good deal better than walking between the parks. Further authenticity is afforded to it all by the fact that you board the train after passing through Universal's own version of King's Cross Station.

All Harry Pottered out, the final ride of the day was an underwhelming affair, Skull Island; Reign Of Kong. It's a 3D experience inside a truck, the highlight of which is a dust up between the superstar gorilla and what appears to be a dinosaur. I haven't seen the film and maybe this makes more sense if you have, but although it is visually impressive there is very little to thrill in terms of movement on the ride. I couldn't help but think that it was a dereliction of duty on their part to not have the Empire State Building and some aeroplanes featuring somewhere along the way.

A significantly cheaper taxi ride back to Port Orleans in the lighter night time traffic ended our day. It cost around $20 (£15) which is still steep given the distance, but when you have been expecting to fork out another $37 it comes as a pleasant surprise. The Animal Kingdom, and the newly-opened Pandora area housing all things Avatar was on the agenda for Wednesday morning.

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