At Orlando's Universal parks, movies come alive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Second of three articles about visiting attractions in the Orlando, Fla., area for the first time.

I was waiting in line for the gates to open at Universal Studios Florida when I got my first exposure to Disney envy. The gate attendants started chatting up the crowd. They teased little kids, asked grown-ups where they were from -- you know, the sort of things that keep people from getting restless and crabby.

One of them approached the guy behind me and said, "What are you doing wearing that Mickey Mouse hat?" The guy, who actually was wearing a safari hat, was understandably baffled. The gatekeeper made a quick recovery: "Oh, it's not from Disney," and, with a nod toward the gates, "You're good to go in."

It was all said tongue-in-cheek and drew a few chuckles, but it left me with a bad feeling that struck again later at the "Universal Horror Make-Up Show." There, one member of the stand-up comedy duo, dripping fake blood, was looking for volunteers to come on stage. He singled out a little boy in the front row, but the child didn't want to participate and was peeping through his fingers at the gore, shaking his head "no, no." After several taunts the actor gave up, but not without a parting shot: "We're not at Disney, so I don't have to be nice to you."

With two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure), a club-restaurant-concert complex (CityWalk) and three upscale hotels on the property, Universal Orlando Resort has a lot of entertainment to offer. Even before you enter the theme parks, there's lots of eye candy: the lush foliage along the canal, the stranded-seaplane-turned-bar that constitutes Lone Palm Airport, the shiny paint jobs in front of NASCAR Cafe and, above all, that irresistibly enormous globe with the "Universal" name slowly revolving around it. Few visitors miss this photo op.

Although the place is spoiling for comparisons -- a chart on its Web site pits Universal's attractions against Disney's -- I, for one, am not taking the bait. Florida is big enough for both empires plus the parks of Sea World; and an Orlando vacation needn't be an either-or proposition.

Living the movies

Once you are at the globe, the music takes over as familiar movie soundtracks draw you in to Universal Studios Florida. The movie business is nothing if not a probe of the human psyche. Movies succeed in direct proportion to how well they appeal to the deepest emotions and longings of moviegoers. Universal has been fulfilling those desires for decades on screen. Universal Studios Florida simply uses what they already know about you, then takes the experience to the next level.

This is what Universal knows about you: You don't want to just watch E.T. go home; you want to join the adventure on a flying bike of your own. You want to knock bad-guy Bif for a loop and escape through time in a souped-up DeLorean, battle vengeful mummies and space aliens, and come out on top. You don't want to just see footage of earthquakes and tornadoes; you want to experience them and live to tell about it.

You want to become part of the action, part of the story. That happens best at:

E.T. Adventure -- You mount a wide-seated "bicycle" and fly above towns and forests on Earth. I won't give away the ride's climax, but by the time you dismount you will have avoided the bad guys and joined the "welcome home" party on E.T.'s planet. It's a warm-fuzzy for little kids that grown-ups can enjoy.

Twister -- Ride It Out -- I grew up in tornado country and can vouch for the rain, wind and wreckage in this special-effects showcase. Standing nearest the action, you'll get wet and feel the heat of gas-tank explosions. It wouldn't be quite right to say this funnel cloud has a silver lining, but, this being Movieland, it definitely has a sense of humor.

Earthquake -- The Big OneYou may never board the San Francisco subway system after this. Your BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train compartment is deep under San Francisco Bay when the Big One hits: pavement breaking, live wires sizzling, trucks exploding. But that's not the worst of it. The real horror is that you must suffer through several lame special-effects demonstrations before entering the ride.

Living the fantastic

It's a fine thing to be able to step into a favorite movie. At Islands of Adventure, you enter into entire fantasy worlds. Most amusement parks are about the attractions, and certainly they have some good ones here. But Islands of Adventure is equally about the architecture.

Step through the archway into Seuss Landing, and just like that you are walking on pastel pavement, completely immersed in a kingdom of topsy-turvy lampposts and shaggy-headed trees. There's nothing in sight that hasn't been Seuss-ified. Look up there! Horton is balancing precariously atop the Caro-Seuss-el. Nearby, little kids fly 'round and 'round on One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Why, you might meet the Cat in the Hat himself in a place like this.

Pass the portals into the Lost Continent and you will find yourself in a land the ancient Greeks might have built, characterized by colossal ruins. Here, an enormous sculpted hand still clenches a trident and a magical fountain talks to children. Cross a bridge into Jurassic Park, and the pavement turns dirt-colored and scattered with the imprints of fern leaves. You might encounter a dinosaur at any moment. Heck, you might even ride one.

Entering Toon Lagoon, you find yourself in the funny pages; just claim a spot beneath your favorite dialogue bubble. And at Marvel Super Hero Island, you can get a thrill from rides such as the Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster.

Standouts in these fantastic worlds are:

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man -- You will need 3-D glasses and all your courage to join Spider-Man in this battle against evil. The 1.5-acre indoor ride combines moving vehicles, 3-D film and live special effects of water, fire and smoke that will leave you feeling like you are flying -- and falling a virtual 400 feet. This one gets my vote as the best thrill ride in Orlando.

"Poseidon's Fury"-- As volunteer explorers, you and your guide have gotten yourselves into the middle of a real clash of the Titans. Poseidon wants his trident back. To help him get it, you will brave a whirlpool tunnel, be rescued by a goddess and witness a monumental battle between the gods of fire and water. It's an Indiana Jones experience that combines live action and large-scale special effects.

The Cat in the Hat -- This gentle ride twirls you through the world according to Seuss, with themed music and spoken Seuss-ese as a soundtrack. It's like entering the pages of the storybook.

Living semi-reality

Back at Universal Studios Florida, you'll feel every bump of Princess Fiona's abduction and rescue and get sprayed with "donkey snot" when you sit down to watch "Shrek 4-D." Over at "Terminator 2: 3-D Battle Across Time," live action merges with film and includes motorcycle stunts and blazing shootouts between humans and cyborgs.

If you want to be the star you can audition for a spot on "Fear Factor Live." Contestants may find themselves dangling by their bare hands and later slinging dead squids through the air. If you don't get one of those spots, there's always a chance you'll get picked for one of the lesser challenges -- allowing your head to be locked in a cage with several scorpions, for instance.

Better yet, take my advice and do something else, anything else, besides "Fear Factor Live." Go see what the toddlers are up to at Curious George Goes to Town or Fievel's Playland; their delight in the cartoon surroundings is infectious. Drop by "Animal Planet Live!"; it's a bit on the dull side, but it'll settle your stomach. "Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue" is more entertaining and makes a good excuse to sit still for a while.

Or you could just go in search of celebrity look-alikes at Rodeo Drive and Plaza of the Stars. There aren't many other places where you can get your picture taken with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz or Marilyn Monroe.

Toni Salama writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Nonstop flights between Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshal Airport and Orlando International Airport are available for as little as $59 each way when booked online with Southwest Airlines. Connecting round-trip fares start at about $180 and are offered on AirTran Airways, Northwest, Delta and United airlines, among others.

TICKETS

Universal offers a variety of ticket options and price categories, from the basic One Day, One Park admission to guided tours with private character greetings. One-day park tickets purchased at the gate are $63 for adults and $52 for children ages 3-9. Tickets also can be purchased online at reduced rates.

LODGING

These hotels are on Universal grounds and operated by Loews Hotels: Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Royal Pacific Resort. I stayed three nights at Portofino Bay Hotel, a re-creation of its namesake in Italy - minus the mountains. Standard rooms are large and comfortable. Rates during regular season, through Aug. 19, start at $289 per night. Hard Rock Hotel's regular season rates start at $259 per night for a standard room. Royal Pacific Resort's rates start at $229 per night, standard. To book these hotels, call 888-273-1311 or visit universalorlando.com and click on the hotel links.

DINING

Dining prices at hotels on property are scandalous. Meal prices in the parks, while still high, are closer to Earth. If you think you'll eat more than one meal per day in the parks, you will probably save money by taking the Universal Meal Deal. For one price, you can eat all you want in a single day in selected restaurants within the parks. The One-Park Meal Deal is $18.99 for adults and $8.99 for children. The Two-Park Meal Deal is $22.99 for adults and $10.99 for children.

MORE INFORMATION

Universal Orlando Resort: 407-363-8000; universal orlando.com

[ TONI SALAMA]

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