ORLANDO, Fla. -- Watch out, Mickey Mouse. Spider-Man's in town.
He and his buddies -- the Cat in the Hat, the Incredible Hulk and Popeye among them -- aim to shake up this place big time. With the help of a couple of dueling dragons, a slew of Sunday comics cartoon characters and baby dinos from Jurassic Park, they just might succeed.
See how at Universal Studios' brand-new Islands of Adventure theme park, next door to Universal Studios Florida. The buzz is that this park, with its five separate areas of adventure and incredible roller coasters, is going to be a megahit, especially among those always tough-to-please-even-on-vacation-in-Orlando teens and preteens and up the ante for theme-park attractions elsewhere.
The oh-so-jaded theme-park-goers in my gang -- aged 8, 13 and 15 -- certainly think so, and they rarely agree about anything. After a preview a few weeks before this month's grand opening, they pronounced Islands of Adventure a cool bet for summer fun -- high praise when it literally was 90 degrees in the shade.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man certainly lived up to its hype -- for the grown-ups as well as the kids. It's the first attraction anywhere to combine a fast-moving ride with 3-D action and special effects. Suddenly, we were right in the middle of a New York City cartoon street fight, helping Spider-Man rescue the Statue of Liberty from super villains. Flames and gushing water pipes come at us. Zapped by a Doomsday Anti-Gravity gun, we plunge 400 feet. The ride seems to go on forever.
Scared at first, even 8-year-old Melanie was mesmerized.
That's the idea, of course -- wherever you are at Universal Studios Escape. With two theme parks, CityWalk just outside with themed restaurants, nightclubs and shops (the teens will love the surfer shirts at Quiet Flight) and the first of three planned hotels set to open later this summer, Universal is now positioning itself as a hip destination resort for families -- and the Orlando alternative to Mouseville.
It's definitely a ``happening'' place, my teens decided. But Islands of Adventure can appeal to everyone in the bunch, with three clever interactive playgrounds for the littlest theme-park-goers -- they'll especially like Popeye's three-story boat -- a fanciful Comic Strip Lane inhabited by Beetle Bailey, Blondie and other characters grandparents know well from their Sunday comics pages, as well as the water rides and roller coasters (for those who think near midair collisions or being catapulted up a 150-foot tunnel at G-force speed is fun).
I liked the manageable size of the new park -- just 110 acres, small enough to let older children wander safely. And the pre-ride entertainment makes lines more bearable. While you wait to board the super roller coasters Dueling Dragons, for example, you'll wind through an ancient castle where the Fire Dragon and Ice Dragon wreaked havoc as they fought to rule the kingdom. There are frozen bodies of knights, grinning skulls and ominous carvings on the walls. Getting scared in air-conditioned comfort sure beats waiting impatiently in the heat.
We cooled off on the River Adventure through Jurassic Park, too -- plunging 85 feet to get away from the hungry T-Rex. The special effects on the ride and in the adjacent Discovery Center were so good that some younger kids were asking if the just-hatched baby raptor was real. The kids also liked ``mixing'' their DNA with a dino's, seeing what kind of creature they'd make.
But it was Dr. Seuss who really sold me on this place.
With 500 colors and no sharp right angles -- hurricane-curved palm trees help set the tone -- the Seuss Landing area of the park is both whimsical and kitschy enough to bring on a rush of happy memories for anyone who spent hours reading ``Cat in the Hat,'' ``One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish'' and ``If I Ran the Zoo.''
We steered our our fish-vehicle 15 feet in the air and down again, through water spouts and streams. Of course, I didn't listen closely enough to the rhymed directions provided throughout the ride. I got soaked. I spied my 13-year-old and 8-year-old giggling together on the fish in front of us. I didn't have to bribe my teen to go on this ``kiddy'' ride, either.
Sample green eggs and ham, play electronic tic-tac-toe on a giant Seuss creature's belly, or whirl through a 24-foot tunnel as the Cat in the Hat comes to life all around you. There's Thing 1 and Thing 2 making a huge mess! There's the Cat cleaning up!
No wonder young kids don't want to leave. Parents, either. Melanie refused to go until we spent some time souvenir shopping on Mulberry Street. She left armed with the start of next season's Halloween costume. With her new electric-blue wig, she'll be the cutest Thing 1 (or maybe Thing 2¿) in the neighborhood.
IF YOU GO:
A two-day unlimited pass for both Universal parks will be available for $79.95 for adults and $64.95 for kids 3-9. One-day passes for each park are $42 plus tax for adults and $34 plus tax for kids. The best bet for those planning to hit several non-Disney Orlando attractions: the four-park FlexTicket that provides unlimited week-long admission to the Universal theme parks, Sea World and Wet n' Wild. It's $159.95 for adults and $127.95 for kids.
You can cut lines during the first hour the park is open if you're a guest at Universal's luxe Portofino Bay Hotel, set to open at the end of the summer. Rates start at $235. Call Universal Studios at 1-800-U-ESCAPE or www.uescape.com
For those in the I-don't-care-how-much-it-costs crowd, sign on for a VIP tour that enables you to bypass lines all day long. Cost is $110 per person (plus park admission) and advance reservations are required. Call 407-363-8295.
Save a few bucks on the family's theme-park admission as well as at restaurants, hotels, other attractions and souvenirs by ordering a free Magic Card from the Orlando's official visitor center. Call 800-551-0181 or www.Go2orlando.com
(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate