Universal v Disney – Variations on a Theme Park

Travel – Orlando, Florida

Another autumn holiday beckons, and once more than magnetic pull of Florida sees my partner Rachel and I heading for the sunshine state.

After flying into Miami and spending a few days at Fort Lauderdale to see a David Cook gig, we head to Orlando and our obligatory pilgrimage to the theme parks.

First up is Universal Studios, a place that never ceases to amaze me. Unlike some Brits who have been coming here since the early 1990s, I made my first visit in 2002, and enjoyed many trips since, either covering the launch of The Simpsons Ride in 2008, or just for pleasure.

Universal; photo: Roger Crow

Of course the beauty of being a repeat visitor is knowing which rides and attractions to experience and which to steer clear of.

Dinner, or rather brunch at Finnigan’s Irish bar is terrific. We get there at opening time, 11am, so there’s time to enjoy The Blues Brothers show outside while scoffing fish sandwiches.

That gives us time to plan our day: tick the map of attractions that are ’musts, maybes and avoids’ as we’ve done them before.

In the ’musts’ is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which I’ve been looking forward to since our last visit in 2015.

Thanks to Express Passes, we are on in no time. Dense jungle and skulls on poles line the queuing area, and once we’re inside the ride zone, there’s the usual 3D glasses to collect before boarding trucks that take us off on the perilous journey.

With 3D films playing on both sides of the vehicle, that all important immersive experience soon kicks in as cinema’s greatest ape tackles dinosaurs and lethal beasts, while terrified and thrilled holiday makers make a series of interesting screams and yelps. Me included.

Universal: Photo: Roger Crow

It’s five years since I experienced a similar Kong ride at Universal in California, so it seems the company have taken elements of that, and merged it with new scenes from the enjoyable Kong: Skull Island movie. Or maybe it’s all new. I do know it’s a terrific experience and well worth the trip. As are most of the attractions at Universal, especially the new improved Spider-Man ride. Again thanks to Express Passes, we walk straight on, so if your time is limited (and whose isn’t on holiday?), it’s worth spending the extra money.

Rachel and I also experience the thrilling but truly bizarre Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon, in which the talk show host takes punters from his studio in the Big Apple off through a breakneck ride through the streets. Fallon’s a huge name in the States, but his comedy shtick loses a bit in translation, especially his woeful teenage girl character which the locals love, but I find hugely annoying.

All parks need at least one must-see attraction, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Universal’s. I’ve seen the place grow from stage one at the start of the decade to the gobsmacking experience it is now. In 2015 it blew my mind that Potter covers two parks, and that a replica of King’s Cross Station had been created. That experience is obviously a less gobsmacking when you know what’s coming, but it still amazes me the scale of the experience.

I’m not a Potter fan, but full marks to the team who created one of the greater park attractions ever seen.

As it’s autumn, or fall, the traditional Hallowe’en Horror Nights means the park becomes something a lot darker after the regulars go home. We’ve done it in the past and it’s an extraordinary experience, so if adrenaline-fuelled attractions are your thing, it’s definitely worth a look.

But what of the competition? Well, if you do nothing else in Florida, I’d recommend…

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Pandora – Flight of Passage vlog review by Roger Crow

Years ago, news arrived that Disney and James Cameron were planning a theme park experience based on his blockbuster. I was thrilled, but lost interest when nothing happened and assumed the gap between the 2009 film meant it would never see the light of day.

But Disney and Cameron never do things by halves, and finally walking round Pandora, I realise why it took so long to create. Cameron’s lethal planet is now a lot more friendly at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. And it really was worth the wait.

The thought of a two-and-a-half hour queue to experience Flight of Passage (riding on a banshee, aka a dragon that looks like it’s burst from a Roger Dean 1970s album cover) did fill me with dread, but the wait is so entertaining, it’s never boring. Watching cascading waterfalls from huge ’floating’ rocks, or soaking up the exotic scenery is a treat for the senses.

And after the winding queue takes us inside Na’avi caves and into a lab, we get to see one of the huge floating blue bodies that our brain syncs with for the ride. (I think my avatar has trouble finding my mind, it’s so blown by the experience).

For newcomers, It helps if you’ve seen the film, but is not essential.

Eventually I settle into what looks like a glorified motorcycle ride, but what unfolds after that is a stunning flight through the skies of Pandora, swooping, diving, soaring through that exotic landscape. It’s everything I hoped for in 2009, and a thousand times more.

In short: Pandora is an incredible experience.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

It’s proof of what can be achieved with one person’s fertile imagination; millions of dollars, and an army of experts, both on the design and construction side, that manage to create this behemoth of an attraction.

I was an enormous fan of Cameron’s 2009 fantasy blockbuster, like many others who helped turn it into the most lucrative film ever made. And it had to be. As the most expensive movie in history, it was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, but Cameron has long been one of the most reliable filmmakers in Hollywood, since The Terminator turned him into a superstar filmmaker back in 1984. By the time he made Terminator 2: 3-D, a thrilling park attraction at Universal Studios just around the corner, Cameron had raised the bar for theme park attractions so high, many suffered vertigo trying to match it.

But that was years ago, and in the time since, Universal created the aforementioned Harry Potter attraction that literally took my breath away in 2015 when I first experienced it in its finished form.

Just when you think that can never be topped, Disney and Cameron has created the largest, most stunning attraction ever seen.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

Inbetween rides, Rachel enjoys the best vegetarian dining experience she’s had in a theme park. My reinvented burger in a bun, a ’pod’ of doughy ’bread’ filled with minced beef, is a nice change from the ubiquitous burger and fries you get in most parks.

Having recharged our batteries, we set off to queue for the Na’vi River Journey, in which we travel through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. After a 50-minute wait, we board our vessels and set sail. This is a less full-on experience both in queuing and the trip itself, so I’d recommend doing that first if you want to get a taste of the Avatar experience and then get blown away by the Flight of Passage ride.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; photo: Roger Crow

We only have a day at Animal Kingdom, one of my favourite of the many Disney parks, but Pandora aside, it’s never dull. Though my favourite other attraction, the tigers in the Asia section, are busy raising young, the sight of monkeys leaping from branch to branch is forever fun and awe-inspiring.

Obviously there’s plenty to see and do at the other parks, so there’s little chance of the ankle-biters getting bored. Epcot especially is a terrific experience, not least because of the annual Food and Wine experience in which you wander round the world showcase sampling food and drink from different vendors. We didn’t get a chance this time but will no doubt be back in a couple of years.

:: With thanks to Universal and Disney for their help with this article.

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Travel: Yorkshire to Miami

I can’t get no satisfaction, with Milk Jigger. London to Miami.

It’s incredible what you can do with next to no sleep. After a 90-minute drive from Howden, Yorkshire to Manchester airport after a day at work, Mrs C and I arrive at our ’park and stay’ hotel with time enough for one hour’s sleep before we’re checking our and getting a complimentary shuttle to said airport. If that sentence sounds rushed, it’s intentional.

Thankfully after bag drop, we crash out at one of the posh lounges for breakfast and a chat with the staff. It’s ridiculously early-4.45am, though we arrive 20 minutes before it’s officially open.

Breakfast, a cheeky Disaronno and Coke leaves me feeling like a hypocrite after mentally tutting at all the lager drinkers in the regular lounges. “Alcohol. At this time in a morning? Outrageous”.

It’s freezing in the VIP lounge, which costs around £30 each. It’s worth every penny for the food, booze and chance to chill out.

We fly to Heathrow, go through security again and hang around waiting for the gate.

I’m in my Captain Scarlet tee shirt; it’s the 50th anniversary this week), and get chatting to an MoD ex-pat from Harrogate on his way home to DC. Obviously a fan, he wonders where he can get one.

Twenty minutes later we go our separate ways and queue for the gate.

After a random security pat down (or was it random after my chat with Mr MOD?), we’re on board and right by the toilets of our 747. ’This should be nine hours of fun,’ I think.

It’s actually not the aromatic experience I’d feared.

Okay, it’s freezing and there’s no air nozzles, but the films are great. I sit through The Belko Experiment, which looks like an episode of Black Mirror. I told writer James Gunn as much during one of his fan chats; the sublime Anne Hathaway indie comedy Colossal, and a chunk of Alien Covenant and Life. Essentially the same movie with Life far better.

My head starts pounding two hours before landing, and dinner makes me nauseous so I try and sleep. Which happens briefly, but the thunderous clouds over Miami and unwelcome turbulence make me nervier than ever.

Irma has left its mark, so I have no idea what to expect as we finally touch down.

Thankfully customs, bag collect and shuttle pick up are relatively easy compared to a two-hour nightmare in Dallas a year before. I suspect some tourists are staying away, or we just got lucky.

After telling our shuttle driver we need to be dropped a couple of miles from our original destination, he finally finds the place and is thrilled to get a little extra on top of his pre-paid tip. That’s the thing about Florida. It’s a flexible state with some of the best service in the world.

We check in to the Courtyard Marriott on Fort Lauderdale beach (literally as sand is piled high feet from where it should be), and grab another hour’s sleep before freshening up and heading out for dinner with friends.

The first Uber of the trip whisks us to a terrific traditional pizza restaurant where we enjoy beer, wine, starter and pizzas for around £20 each, including a 20 per cent tip. Bargain.

Ft Lauderdale is rain-lashed by the time we leave. I’m feeling more human, my head has stopped pounding and the nausea has gone. This should be a fun trip.

Courtyard Marriott, Fort Lauderdale, September 2017

Day two

So, a year after meeting David Cook in Texas, the wife and I do the whole thing again in Fort Lauderdale, which is a great excuse to try out a Floridian place we’ve not been before, and see one of the nicest blokes in showbiz.

Before which, too much sun on the beach across the road from the hotel, and a calorific dinner at Bubba Gump’s (I still think it’s amazing that Forrest Gump spawned a successful food chain, though their shrimp Mac and Cheese is out of this world).

Meet and greet wth David Cook is a fun preamble as the uber fans line up behind me. I’m first in the queue, which is nice, and when he finally comes on stage, after terrific support act Kathryn Dean, the place goes wild.

Broward Center for the Performing Arts seems like a posh venue for a rock act, but it’s a great gig, even if there’s the obligatory crazies who have had too much booze, drugs or both. And they always seem to stand next to me.

After a night of semi-restless sleep due to Saturday night party goers and thumping music elsewhere, things settle.

Day three

Last day in Fort Lauderdale on a rain-lashed Sunday, so hopefully things will pick up as we set off for the semi epic trip to Orlando.

Breakfast in a freezing mezzanine cafe area means punters in shorts and tee shirts have to do a 180 and get another layer from their rooms. Me included.

Thankfully the food is pretty good at the Courtyard Marriott. Two hot teas, a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast and another involving egg white frittata came to a reasonable $36, inc 20 per cent tip. My tip to them? Turn down the AC.

Film review The Mummy (2017)

The Mummy (2017)Directed by Alex Kurtzman

Starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella. 

Certificate 15

The latest take on Universal’s enduring horror property would go by a more accurate title: An American Tomb Raider of the Lost Ark in London. 

Throw a bit of Lifeforce in there too and you have this Frankenstein’s monster of a movie; ideas stitched together from other flicks to form an underwhelming action adventure with some hit-and- miss horror moments. 


Tom Cruise is Nick Morton, the Indiana Jones-style hero who plunders antiquities in Iraq with his irritating mate Chris Vail (New Girl’s Jake Johnson); happens upon the eponymous antagonist Ahmanet, (the ever excellent Sofia Boutella), and escapes with glam Lara Croft-type accomplice Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). 


Due to some psychic link with the evil, ancient force, our hero survives an attempt on his life by his possessed mate, then wakes up unscathed after an impressively staged plane crash. 

Thrown into the mix is Russell Crowe’s shady boffin, Henry, and the quest for a dagger with a precious gem in the hilt. 


Sadly, once the plane goes down, so does my interest. There’s so much exposition, I grow sleepy, and not even Cruise running, snappy editing and the score-what-you-see soundtrack can inject the necessary lifeforce to make this work. 

Seen after Transformers: The Last knight, I seem to be watching elements of the same movie. Tombs; ancient England; chases in modern London; supernatural threat. You get the idea. 

Oh and more skulking around in digital darkness. The visual equivalent of nails down a blackboard. 


When I start wondering about the nocturnal habits of cows more than the plot due to one scene, a sure sign I’m not immersed in the plot. 

It’s not a complete disaster. The cast acquit themselves well even if a so-called twist with a certain character falls flat. Annabelle Wallis is a fine love interest who can carry a scene with assured skill and Boutella has become rather skilled at propping up films, such as the disappointing Star Trek Beyond and this offering. 

The Mummy (2017) is the first part of Dark Universe, Universal’s attempt to create an interlinked Marvel-style world of overlapping horror characters. Alas it feels more like Hugh Jackman action-horror flop Van Helsing than Brendan Fraser’e feelgood take on The Mummy (1999). Even the much maligned League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a better mash-up than Tom’s money-spinner. 


The last five minutes is also a mess as the finale goes down one path, then the epilogue seems to ignore all of that and ends as it began. 

A shame as I have a lot of time for the Cruiser. Let’s hope the pending Mission Impossible 6 gets things back on track. 

5/10

Back in Orlando – Part four: The food

So that was it. Two full days in Miami and seven full days in Orlando. 
The holiday of a lifetime, or it would have been if we didn’t plan on doing it again in the next year or so. 

We weren’t in Miami long enough to form a widespread enough opinion, so here’s the lowdown on food in Orlando, including service, value for money (VFM) and quality. 

10. Planet Hollywood, Disney Springs. 

Brusque hostess who seated us at a tiny table for two at the back of the restaurant and showed little interest in placing us somewhere better. Thankfully the waiter was better, but the veggie fajitas were average. The tortillas were like cardboard; the rice tasted like microwaved packet stuff; not much cheese and average veg. The meat burger was ok. The place also looks shabby and tired. 

9. Hooters, International Drive. 

Service: attentive hostess seemingly oblivious to the fact her costume was several sizes too small. 

Food: gristly, fatty pulled pork sandwich. Fish sandwich was greasy but nice. Oil could have done with draining. 

8. Pizza Predator at Universal. 

Great cheese pizza and terrific meatball sub. Fast, good quality (no gristle). Stroppy server let the side down. 

7. Uno. Lake Buena Vista.

Good vfm; great waitress; superb pizza, even a day later after being reheated. Table top ordering via gizmo a bonus. 

6. IHOP, Lake Buena Vista. 

Amazing pancakes and pretty good breakfast. 

  
5. Olive Garden. Lake Buena Vista. 
Good vfm; tasty and hot with speedy service. Good waiter. The garlic bread sticks and salad are always worth the visit alone. 

4. Prime Time 50s Cafe, Hollywood Studios. Great food, good vfm, quirky ambience and best of all, George our waiter. Had an almost psychic link, pre-empting refills, being attentive without hovering and having a great sense of humour. Best server of the holiday. 

3. Food and Wine festival at Epcot. 
Terrific selection, great ambience, good vfm, and terrific music by the Pointer Sisters. 

  
2. Hamburger Mary’s. Downtown Orlando 

 Terrific service, awesome Philly Cheese Steak with sweet potato fries, and a great tuna mayo on toasted wheat bread sandwich (Tuna Turner) and great fries with excellent seasoning. The choice of 17 sides was impressive and the multi coloured chips and dips were great. Fun, quirky and the check/bill arrives in a pink shoe. An instant favourite. 
  
1. Morimoto. Disney Springs. 
It had been open 16 days when we dropped in on the last night; well worth the trip. 

Stunning ambience, attentive staff and great food. 

Terrific vegetarian Pad Thai and Singapore Laska Noodle (coconut and spicy curry, rice noodle, chicken meatballs and soy marinated egg). Each was $17 (£11). 

  

If you’re on a budget: Taco Bell. Lake Buena Vista and Vineland Premium Outlet. Great vfm; good food; fine service at both. 

Back in Orlando- part three

It takes a lot to impress me. I’m of an age where I’ve seen a lot, especially when it comes to theme parks. But I always live in hope that one day I will be impressed by new attractions.   Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

The last time I was at Universal Orlando was around three years ago. I’d grown tired of the same old rides and thought the Harry Potter attraction and ride was good, but after a couple of visits my interest had started to wane. 

  
The same old Universal, Orlando? Video: Roger Crow

So that was Christmas 2012, and what a busy lot the Universal team have been in the interim. 

Aside from an expanded Springfield, the second phase of their Potter expansion is astonishing. A staggering feat of design, engineering and construction on an immense scale. 

  
Diagon Alley, King’s Cross Station, the Hogwarts Express, Escape from Gringotts ride and countless shops are worthy of a park on their own. 

The attention to detail is remarkable, no rush job this. Unlike some park attractions where fake wood has been painted over construction material like MDF, and you can see the gaps, this was pretty flawless. No mean feat over such a huge physical canvas. 

  
Diagon Alley, Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

The Hogwarts Express links you from one Universal park to another, and the onboard entertainment does a great job of keeping you in that universe for the duration. The Gringotts ride is breathtaking without inducing nausea (unlike some rides) and added touches like a fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts bank is incredible. Yes, you soon run out of superlatives at an attraction like this. 

 

Diagon Alley, Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

Enough gushing. I’ll just say that for years Universal seemed like a poor cousin to the Disney parks, but this added attraction, together with the Transformers ride, has made it a serious player once more.  

 

Transformers 3D ride Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

And with the Skull Island King Kong attraction set to open in summer 2016, I’m guessing the team at Mouse HQ are really going to have to pull something out of the bag to compete.   

Skull Island under construction at Universal, Orlando; photo: Roger Crow

Back in Orlando – Part one

There are some love stories that never die. Bogie and Bergman in Casablanca. Han and Leia in the Star Wars saga. And Orlando and I. No, not Orlando Bloom, as handsome as he is. Bit wooden though.   
The quest to find a decent cuppa in Orlando  photo: Roger Crow

The one in Florida that acts like some cartoon magnet pulling thousands of Brits across the pond every year. 
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been here since 2002. Around 14, either for work or fun. 

There’s such a fine line between the two. I’ve made friends here, met up with old friends, and piled on the pounds.   The Sunshine State  photo: Roger Crow

Okay, I’ve done that in the UK too, but given the amount of walking I do in Florida I wouldn’t be surprised if I burnt off as much as I consumed. 

I’ve also destressed with ease, thanks to a mix of sunshine, attractions and good times. 
It never gets old. 

Yes, the theme park attractions come and go, but that can do attitude, making dreams come true cliche never stops working wonders, especially on seasoned journos who really should have grown out of this kid’s paradise by now. 

  
Epcot  photo: Roger Crow

Of course it’s not really just for kids. The inner child in everyone usually takes over. Well it does in me. 
I probably could have paid off my mortgage by now instead of spending a decade coming back year after year, but that few days in paradise makes the horrendous shifts almost worthwhile. 

 
Animal Kingdom photo: Roger Crow