From D.C. to Florida: Five Days at Universal Orlando, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld

TPI's Russell Meyer recounts the first half of his recent visit to Central Florida with a trip report from the non-Disney theme parks.

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Published: December 2, 2005 at 3:40 PM

Our 10-day whirlwind tour of Florida began early on Friday, November 4, 2005 with a roundabout set of flights from Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport to Orlando International Airport with a 2-hour layover at Chicago's Midway. This definitely wasn't the way I would have chosen to fly to Florida, but our flights, first three nights of hotel, and three days of theme park admission were free, so I can't really complain. We eventually touched down in Orlando around 1:00 PM and grabbed a Mears Shuttle to the Hard Rock Hotel. We checked in, dropped off our luggage in our lovely room, and were ready to hit the parks by 3:00 PM.

We had three-day, two-park passes for Universal Orlando, and were going to use them the best we could. Our first afternoon started of at Islands of Adventure. I had ridden Curse of DarKastle at Busch Gardens Williamsburg just five days earlier, and I wanted to make the closest comparison possible with The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. After riding the two similar attractions within a week of each other, I have to concede that I had forgotten how good Spiderman really is. The original 3-D dark ride motion simulator has many more additional physical elements than DarKastle, which relies much more heavily on projected images. The props and special effects of Spiderman make the ride a bit more immersive, but the newer DarKastle may allow Busch Gardens a bit more flexibility, and the ability to completely overhaul scenes of the ride with little expense. Still, the bottom line is that Spiderman remains king, but DarKastle is pretty close.

As guests of one of Universal's on-site hotels, we were privileged to have unlimited use of the Universal Express "front of the line" access that is granted by a simple flash or scan of your hotel room key. While the lines were not very long while we were in the parks, the Universal Express queues allow for a slightly more direct path to ride loading platforms and probably allowed us to get on a half-dozen or so additional rides each day. The Universal Express perk for on-site hotel guests is likely incredibly advantageous during busy times. The attraction we found Universal Express most useful for was Revenge of the Mummy.

After walking around Islands of Adventure for about an hour, we decided to head over to Universal Studios Florida to check out Universal's latest thrill ride.

The exterior of the building, which once held King Kong (if only Universal knew Peter Jackson's blockbuster was on the way), looks rather unassuming, a large sign over the pillars with "Revenge of the Mummy" scribed on a black background. Because of our Universal Express, we never experienced the standby queue, but from what I could see, there were a couple of interesting props and things to look at and touch, but nothing quite as intricate as Disneyland's Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye queue. The ride itself lived up to its billing, and kept us coming back for more over our three days in the two parks. The ride is indeed a roller coaster, but is so much more, with intricate theming that far exceeds just about every roller coaster on the planet. Revenge of the Mummy makes Rock ‘n Roller Coaster seem like a Six Flags ride, especially because of one of the most amazing animatronic figures I've ever seen. While the high-speed coaster is not superb, it does offer some great airtime, and some well-timed lighting and other special effects, and a clever "fake-out" that may not fool you, but may get you to jump out of your seat. Revenge of the Mummy was better than I had expected, and I think some people are not considering the ride as a whole. While as a dark ride, it's not better than Spiderman, and as a roller coaster, it's not a top ten coaster, as a complete experience, Revenge of the Mummy is one of the best rides in Orlando.

One of our other favorite rides in Orlando was next on our list before the park closed for the evening. Men in Black: Alien Attack is still one of the most addictive rides I've ever gotten on, and we found ourselves drawn back to it over and over again. Despite having Universal Express, we found it faster to utilize the single rider line. Our first day on Men in Black proved how rusty we were, as we both could not break 300,000 points before the end of the day. For those who have not had an opportunity to ride this awesome ride, imagine the shooting gallery at your local amusement park, and instead of sitting in one place and shooting, you ride through the shooting gallery in a dark ride vehicle. The ride is really more of a game than a ride, but once you try it, it's really hard to stop. While neither of us were able to achieve the coveted 999,999 score, I did manage to get 875,875 points. Maybe next time I'll get that top score.

After a rather productive first day, it was time to grab some dinner and settle into our accommodations. We had a nice dinner at the Hard Rock Café. It's definitely not the greatest restaurant, but for a decent hamburger and a fun atmosphere, it serves its purpose. When we got back to the Hard Rock Hotel, the pool was getting ready for the "Dive in Movie." As its name would suggest, they show a movie on a big screen near the pool on Friday nights, and this week's selection was National Treasure. It's quite a clever concept, but I was hoping that they would pipe the movie's sound into the famous underwater sound system. Nonetheless, it was a nice way to relax and enjoy a nice evening outside.

Day Two

Saturday started bright and early as we headed straight for Universal Studios. Throughout the day, we experienced just about every attraction in the park. Shrek 4-D was new since the last time we were in Florida, but we had experienced Hollywood's version a couple of years ago, and Florida's version is not much different, aside from having two separate theaters which doubles the capacity. We also took a spin on Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast. The attraction is a fun romp through Jimmy's world with some great computer animation, and some cool special effects. Still, it probably would have helped to have previously watched the Jimmy Neutron movie to get some of the jokes. Of the two, I think Shrek is overall a better attraction, but Jimmy Neutron is not too much of a step down.

The other attraction that is new since our last visit to this park is Fear Factor Live. The attraction is straight off the small screen with all of the physical and gross stunts that you can think of. I even made an attempt to be a contestant on the show. Approximately 90 minutes prior to each show, the producers hold a casting call in front of the theater where park guests get an opportunity to face their fears. Up to 24 park guests for each casting call are weighed and checked in by the producers. Everyone selected then stands in front of the producers, and says their name, and where they're from. Based on that information, the contestant pool is cut in half to 12. Those people are then shown a video, which shows the three stunts that they will compete in, and are then asked to sign a medical waiver. After that, everyone is given asked where they're from, and the reason why they will win Fear Factor. Based on that information, the producers select the six contestants who will compete in the show. Sadly for me, I was not able to make the final cut, but after seeing the show, my wife was glad I was not selected to participate. In addition to the six main contestants, other park guests are selected during the casting call to participate in other stunts, which include eating a delicious shake of some of the nastiest items you can think of (meal worms, fish juice, squid, etc…), and having dangerous animals placed on your head (scorpions, tarantulas, etc…). The show is actually pretty entertaining, as the six main competitors compete in three stunts with the other audience participants filling time between stunts with gross-out stunts. The competition is pretty exciting, and the stunts look rather challenging physically. This show also offers the park quite a bit of flexibility as they can change the stunts after a while to keep it fresh.

We also experienced Universal Studios' other attractions, which never fail to disappoint. Earthquake and Twister are still really good effects extravaganzas, and T2-3D is still the best 3-D movie/stunt show in the world. Back to the Future is still in desperate need of updating, and E.T. is a cute ride for the kids. With the addition of Revenge of the Mummy, Universal Studios Florida has become a much better park than Islands of Adventure, and definitely become a park that requires more than one day to fully experience, even at off-peak times. After the park closed at 6:00 PM, we went back to our hotel, and went to dinner.

We decided to try one of the restaurants in our hotel, and ate dinner at The Kitchen. The Kitchen turned out to be a very nice place with a pretty cool atmosphere. We ended up dining during the character interaction time, so chef Scooby-Doo and Shrek were strolling through the dining room as we ate dinner. It wasn't exactly what I would call a "character dinner," but it didn't cost any extra to dine while the characters were around, and they made an effort to get around to just about every table while we were there. The restaurant has a very diverse menu, which leans towards fancy American fare. I selected the Mushroom Risotto, while my wife had the Chicken Pot Pie. Both entrees were very tasty and filling -- in fact, I was not able to finish my hearty portion. The Kitchen also has a chef's table in front of the open kitchen where diners can enjoy the chef's specialties prepared right in front of them. Unfortunately, we learned about the chef's table after we finished dinner, but it leaves something for us to try the next time we return. After dinner, we grabbed some tickets for a movie and had a few drinks at Pat O'Brien's at CityWalk beforehand. While there's a lot to do a CityWalk, we felt a little a bit trapped staying on-site without a car, especially for breakfast, since many of the CityWalk restaurants do not begin serving until 11:00 AM.

Day Three

On Sunday, we started our day bright and early at Islands of Adventure. As with the previous two days, the crowds were rather sparse, and with the additional advantage of Universal Express, we were walking onto just about every ride. There have been no major additions to Islands of Adventure since our last visit in 2002, but we did try to experience some things we missed the last time we were in the park. Of course we gave The Incredible Hulk, Dueling Dragons, and The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman thorough workouts, but we also took some time to have a wonderful lunch at Mythos and a spin on Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges. On our last visit to this park, we took a ride on Dudley Doo-Right's Ripsaw Falls, but the soaking attraction was under rehabilitation this time around, so we decided to give the Bilge-Rat Barges a go. Of every river rafting attraction I've ever been on, this one has got to be the best at getting every single person wet. My wife and I had avoided a soaking until the last quarter of the ride when we took our turn at getting wet. The theming is very good also, but as far as an exciting river adventure, I think Grizzly River Run at Disney's California Adventure is just a bit better.

Thanks to the light crowds, we had the luxury of having a wonderful sit-down lunch at Theme Park Insider's #1 theme park restaurant in the world, Mythos. Islands of Adventure is very proud of this distinction, as a giant banner signals guests of this high accolade, and the menus again remind diners of the restaurant's status in the theme park world. I have never had a chance to eat here before, and was really looking forward to it. Mythos did not disappoint as I started my meal with a cream of mushroom soup that was incredibly rich. My entrée choice was the day's Pastabilities, which on this day was corkscrew pasta with sirloin tips and a mushroom-primavera sauce, an amazing creation that would not allow me to put my fork down. My wife chose the Asian Pad Thai pasta, which was also very good. The dessert options were served in shot glasses, a new trend in fancy restaurants these days, and we chose a very delicious shot of tiramisu.

With its reasonable prices, incredibly inventive dishes, and beautiful setting, we found that Mythos lived up to its reputation. While I still think some of Disney's restaurants are better, for the price, Mythos is almost impossible to beat.

With about two hours left before park closing, we decided to hop back over to Universal Studios and take a couple more rides on Revenge of the Mummy and Men in Black before the Universal portion of our vacation came to a close. After another great day, we finished the evening with a light dinner at NBA City, also known as the place next to the Hard Rock Café. I was still pretty full from my outstanding lunch at Mythos, so I decided to get the mixed appetizer platter, which was pretty good. The plate included pecan-breaded chicken strips, barbeque beef quesadillas, and barbeque chicken wings, and was plenty for a meal.

Day Four

On Monday morning, our stay at the Hard Rock Hotel was sadly over, and we had scheduled a pickup for a ride to the airport from Mears so we could get our rental car. After some confusion with our pickup (what Orlando vacation is not complete without some trouble with Mears), we eventually made it to the airport, and FREEDOM. Staying at an on-site hotel is really nice, and not having to worry about paying for parking is also nice, but having the ability to go wherever you want whenever you want is almost priceless. With my hands on the wheel, it was off to Tampa for a full day at Busch Gardens Tampa.

The skyline of Busch Gardens Tampa had changed slightly since my last visit to the park with the addition of SheiKra, and I couldn't wait to take on North America's first and only dive coaster. SheiKra towers over the landscape, and we headed straight for it as soon as we got into the park. Throughout the day, we rode SheiKra about ten times in a number of different seats on the uniquely designed trains. Having ridden other roller coasters over 200 feet tall, the height was not terribly intimidating, but the 5-second hang over the edge of the first drop is a bit unnerving. The coaster has a pretty simple layout, but maximizes airtime with plenty of time out of your seat on each drop and on the apex of the Immelman. While the lines for the front row will outpace the lines for other rows, the tiered seating allows a clear view for every passenger. I would, however, highly recommend the front row, as it provides the most tenuous sensation as the train dangles over the edge of the first drop. The airtime and g-forces were pretty indistinguishable between the different rows, but passengers may get misted a bit in the splashdown pool if sitting in the back row. I was really impressed with this coaster, especially since it's so re-rideable, since many enthusiasts have referred to other B&M dive machines as "one trick ponies." With two drops, and the out-of-your-seat rush of an Immelman, SheiKra is truly an impressive addition to a theme park with an already long list of great attractions.

We also made sure to check out the other new addition to Busch Gardens since our last visit, Katonga. The multi-million dollar Broadway-style show follows an African storytelling competition, and is brought to life by some incredibly talented performers and some really good original songs. I wasn't sure what to expect from Katonga, but I came out realizing that I had just watched the best theme park show I've ever seen. Many people will probably want to draw comparisons to Animal Kingdom's Festival of the Lion King, but I think Katonga's imaginative story and original score elevate it even higher than any of Disney's show offerings. I was truly impressed, and Katonga is definitely a HUGE improvement over World Rhythms on Ice.

A trip to Busch Gardens Tampa is not complete without taking a spin on some of their other world-class roller coasters Montu and Kumba. We also made sure to take advantage of the many wonderful animal exhibits. Busch Gardens is really a theme park for everyone, and being just a short drive from Orlando, it's a shame more Orlando guests do not take advantage of this great theme park.

Day Five

After a great day at Busch Gardens Tampa, it was time to drive back to Orlando. We stayed at the Baymont Inn in Kissimmee, which was a decent stop, and having free Internet access was a definite plus. We only stayed at the hotel for one night, but would probably recommend it for those who want a hotel that is close to Disney, but still close to Sea World and Universal Orlando. The next morning we headed to Sea World. While no major attractions have been added since our last visit, Sea World has undergone a massive transformation since we were last in this park. The new Waterfront area is a dramatic improvement, and while the new Mediterranean themed section does not boast a new attraction, it makes a major impact on the park. The Waterfront has a number of shops, a couple of new restaurants, and a very well done oyster diving pavilion. Sea World also added fountains to the lake near the tower, which are very much like the Bellagio fountains, doing a dance to music every fifteen minutes. Blue Horizons, the re-envisioned dolphin show, is also new since our last trip. We had seen Viva at Sea World San Antonio earlier this year, and Blue Horizons was very similar in style, but a bit different in substance. I think Blue Horizons is a great show, but Viva was just a bit better with better music, and a less-cheesy story.

We also took advantage of the Save A Species behind the scenes tour. The tour focuses on Sea World's role in the rescue and rehabilitation of animals, and concludes with a trip through a tropical aviary.

We made sure to get our fill of Kraken and Journey to Atlantis, and both never fail to disappoint. We also saw the Shamu show, probably the last time we will see this particular show, as all three Sea World parks will be upgrading the killer whale show to follow the trend of more entertaining and less educational shows. Shamu Stadium has already begun its transformation, and is expected to begin new shows next spring. We had yet another very productive day, but we were noticing the crowds starting to grow as we toured Sea World, and were beginning to worry about the Disney half of our vacation. After leaving Sea World, it was off to Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Disney half of our vacation…

(To be continued)

Readers' Opinions

From Robert OGrosky on December 5, 2005 at 10:53 AM
Very nice trip report!!!!!!!!!
So what is your favorite coaster of the ones who have ridden in FLA???
I have yet to ride the dive coaster at BGT so i cant judge that one, but it is hard to choose from the theming/overall experience Mummy gives you to the rush one gets from Kumba/Montu/Hulk.
From Russell Meyer on December 5, 2005 at 9:39 PM
I would probably have to go with Kraken. Montu and SheiKra would be a close second and third. Mummy is a great "ride," but as a "coaster," it just doesn't measure up to the massive B&M creations.

I have a feeling that Expedition Everest may blow everything away whe it opens next spring.

From Robert OGrosky on December 6, 2005 at 12:52 PM
I would agree that EE looks to be great, but i wonder if it wont be like Mummy where the theming is great but the coaster portion wont be as exciting as the B & M coasters elsewhere in FLA.
From Russell Meyer on December 6, 2005 at 2:45 PM
I don't know. With a 112-foot drop and a 50 MPH top speed, that pretty far up there for a Disney coaster, and 10 MPH faster than Mummy. Just seeing it last month is pretty awe inspiring. It is possibly Disney's most detailed attraction in quite some time. The area around it is almost becoming its own country in Animal Kingdom. This is what Disney Imagineering should have been doing the past 20 years instead of cloning attractions in other parks.
From Anthony Murphy on December 6, 2005 at 7:36 PM
No Disney World? Awwwwwww, well, I like the pictures alot, that special tour looks really cool. Thanks for brining up the different and cool things in parks outside of Disney World!
From Russell Meyer on December 6, 2005 at 8:08 PM
Disney is coming in part 2 of the trip report. I don't think anyone could spend a 10-day vacation in Orlando without taking at least one day to go to Disney. The second half should be ready soon...
From Robert OGrosky on December 7, 2005 at 12:44 PM
I couldnt agree more that this (EE) is what disney should have been doing in the past and lets hope it is a good sign of things to come.
From Pete Brecht on December 20, 2005 at 1:49 PM
Russell, did you not get a chance to check out the Odyssea show at SeaWorld? I just got back from a trip to Orlando, and I was really impressed by Odyssea; it may be the most enjoyable theme park show I've seen.
From Russell Meyer on December 21, 2005 at 8:01 AM
We did see Odyssea. It was a very entertaining show, but very much in the mold of other Cirque d'Soleil shows. The story was very clever, and the lead actor was very good. However, Katonga, Festival of the Lion King, and Sinbad are the cream of Florida theme park shows. I would consider Odyssea a "second-tier" show even in Sea World with Blue Horizons and Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island must-sees before Odyssea.

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