I spent last weekend and the start of the week visiting my friend Christine in Oviedo Florida, a town that is named after Oviedo but lost the Spanish inflection somewhere along the way to
The five big ones: Disney World, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios, all cater to slightly different groups, but my favorite has always been Islands of Adventure. I’m a fan of rides over non-specific “attractions,” and I’ve considered that one the best of the bunch as far as that goes.
It has been about thirteen years since I was last in Orlando, and the park has changed in some parts and remained identical in others. There are fewer roller coasters now, largely a result of the removal of the Dueling Dragons, which I missed this time around. In their place was a whole lot of construction, and the giant crane visible over Olivander’s Wand Shop definitely diminished some of the Magic of Diagon Alley.
Other than those, the rides I remembered were there, plus a few more, thanks to the addition of Harry Potter World and a ride themed after Kong: Skull Island.
The deemphasis of roller coasters (Harry Potter has only an entry-level coaster) has been met by a bigger push towards more high tech rides with greater property integration. I find myself somewhat conflicted about this.
On the one hand, the experiences offered by trusty old Spider-Man (asterisk for reasons we will talk about in a bit) and the newer ones like Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and Skull Island: Reign of Kong create some genuinely thrilling and unique experiences unlike any you can experience at other parks.
On the other hand, I really like roller coasters.
And sure, I could go anywhere to get on roller coasters; there are a bunch of cheaper coaster-heavy options in Orlando even, though why anyone would travel to the home of Disney and go to a non-Disney themed park is beyond me. But also, The Incredible Hulk is my favorite ride at the park and easily one of my favorite coasters period. I greatly enjoyed Dueling Dragons as well back in the day. I want some loops, you know? And there’s only one place in the whole park to get them. That’s a bit of a shame.
Christine had never been to an amusement park before. That made the visit particularly special. And our first ride, her first ever amusement park ride, was Spider-Man.
In Spider-Man, you put on a pair of 3D glasses and get sent out into Manhattan (not where I was looking to be on my vacation away from… Manhattan) in a car with a bunch of other folks. You see Spider-Man. You see villains. You see actual flames and water and you get lifted into the air and dropped and it’s all very exciting. But… it broke. In the climax, the projection gave out. First, the audio lost sync, then the video looped, and then it went black. And in that moment, the illusion was lost. A moment I remembered, one of the most intense of the entire ride, as you feel like you’re falling, is nothing.
It was actually kind of fascinating in the sense that it makes you realize just how much work your brain is doing to make the whole thing work. The vehicle barely needs to move for you to feel intense movement. But… you want to feel it from start to finish. It made me wonder if we were a one-off or if something was generally wrong with the ride and no one bothered to inform the operators. I considered it but didn’t; maybe no one else did either.
This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Two rides, Spider-Man and Jurassic Park, and one queue, the one for The Incredible Hulk, had moments when the theme park broke through the façade.
Despite the glitch, I enjoyed the ride. Christine did too. One down. It’s a start!
The last time I went to a Disney theme park, my family picked up the tab. This time, the $115 ticket – more, I imagine, than it was in 2005 – ripped a hole right in my wallet. But, ya know what, vacation, am I right? If I can’t make not-always-financially-sound decisions while I’m traveling, why even bother having money in the first place?
Before going on another ride, we experienced the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, a live show with some not-necessarily-great fighting but pretty great other stunts. That was fun. As with Spider-Man, there was actual fire, and it was something that I could feel. But unlike Spider-Man, where it was probably fifteen to twenty feet away, here it was probably sixty or more; and I still felt it. I can’t even imagine how hot it is for the people onstage within spitting distance of the flames.
Christine bought butterbeer in the Wizarding World, which seemed like something that just had to happen. It tastes like cream soda with butterscotch topping. I had about five sips of it. I liked it well enough but could tell it would send me into a sugar coma if I had any more.
The Hippogryph coaster was fine. Christine screamed a lot. It seemed like a good introduction.
Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey was perhaps the most interesting ride of the whole visit, owing largely to Christine’s intensely adverse reaction.
Forbidden Journey felt like the modern version of what Spider Man was trying to do. It didn’t use 3D glasses, and it didn’t need 3D glasses. The ride is long and the projections immersive as heck. It relies even more on those than Spider-Man. It has actual props and sets that you flip and turn your way through, but there’s no, for example, real fire. The effects themselves are are digital.
About those flips, though: Because it is a hanging ride with the track above rather than below, and there is only one row of seats to manipulate, a lot more can be done to these seats, including two instances of near upside-downness. I did fine with all this. Christine did not.
I left the ride thinking that it felt like the logical evolution of Spider-Man. The lack of glasses, the more intricate projections – it all felt very modern where Spider-Man felt retro. This even extends to the set. One of the most fun things about these attractions is the work that goes into the pre-ride. Long corridors with lovingly crafted sets to get you in the mood. Videos and props crafted just for the ride. If your ride wait is less than 40 minutes, you’re going to spend that whole time in this environment, and it adds greatly to the experience.
We went on a Monday after school was already in session. Much like my trip to Nuevo Vallarta, this off-season visit resulted in waits that were manageable *at worst*. These lines are built to accommodate such large groups that, so when the expected wait is 20 minutes, you can spend literally five just getting to an actual person to stand behind. This was truest with Harry Potter, but there were long walks to at least three separate rides. Still, we never waited more than half an hour. And while we watched the people with their express passes skip ahead, I never felt the urge to drop the extra $65.
So, not completely financially unsound.
Going on Kong’s ride made me realize that I was wrong in my original assumption about Harry Potter, however. The newest ride is even more projection-heavy yet requires 3D glasses. It has to do with your experience of it. As with Spider-Man, Kong puts you in a car with a number of others. You all experience it together vs the feeling of isolation you have with Harry Potter. And you’re able to look around at projections that come at you from both sides. In this environment, the glasses are a necessity.
Kong’s line has the most impressive animatronic I’ve ever seen, of an elder woman making what are probably religious proclamations about Kong. After the fun but silly ones on the Jurassic Park ride, where you can literally hear the movements, the jump in tech was again on display.
Jurassic Park didn’t glitch, but the in-ride intense voice-overs were mitigated somewhat by the actual voice coming over the intercom on four separate occasions “Row Three Take Off Your Hat,” chastising someone who wasn’t even on my ride. He was in the one behind, and clearly he didn’t care at all, because we kept hearing the messages.
The Incredible Hulk went down while I was in line, which resulted in some weird dissonance while an in-park voice-over while one voice over the intercom said “We are experiencing a brief delay and will update you when anything changes” and “Status Update: Gamma Radiation at full,” which sound like they could be related but aren’t. But I kept thinking that maybe they would be and waited for far too long… which was frustrating, particularly since they made me put away my cell phone, camera, etc. in a locker, resulting in me being alone and bored.
Eventually, though, I got on, and gosh darn was it good. Such a fun coaster. Gave me a bit of a headache as it knocked me around, but totally worth it.
We went on one other ride and walked through one other attraction: the Ripsaw Falls log flume and Fury of Poseidon, uh, walking tour.
Ripsaw Falls is a classic, and it’s a ride that people will literally stop to watch others experience. Jurassic Park has that too, though seen from a different angle.
More importantly, Ripsaw Falls makes you the rider, much wetter.
It costs $4 to rent a locker by the ride. It was the only money I spent once we got into the park itself. It was also a great purchase. Some rides – Harry Potter, Incredible Hulk – will give you free locker access because it would be dangerous to have loose stuff hanging around during them. The water rides don’t have that, but, like, if you’re walking around with a camera because you’re vlogging in a theme park, rent a locker. Your stuff is going to get soaked and probably not work anymore and then not be under warranty because of severe water damage, and then people will laugh at you.
And deservedly so.
Lastly, Poseiden’s Fury. This was the one older attraction that I hadn’t done before, and I’m both sad and glad about that. Sad because it was super cool and I wish I hadn’t missed it the last times around and glad because it was super cool and I got to experience it for the first time. In its climax, the whole space opens up in a way that is genuinely awe-inspiring, and though the projectors appear to be in dire need of bulb replacement, resulting in some muddled visuals, it was nonetheless a pretty incredible show.
And that was the experience in a nutshell. Sure, it would have been nice for things to have worked properly and that guy in the Jurassic boat behind me to not have been wearing a hat while a disembodied voice berated him, but though they impacted the immersion in those moments, they did little to diminish the overall experience.
In fact, there was something kind of amusing about seeing behind Disney’s curtain. They work so hard to keep you from seeing the seams, and to see them fail feels like a special thing.
Nine point zero out of ten.