Universal's Islands of Adventure Is Fantastic Escape for Children of All Ages
By Karen Rubin

The instant you walk through the gate, you know you have entered the world of whimsy, adventure, fantasy, a place where storybook and cartoon characters come alive and dinosaurs still inhabit the landscape, where virtually anything the mind can imagine, artists and technicians have brought to fruition with incredible realism. It is a place where children of all ages can take delight. Bottom line: we simply loved Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park.

Islands of Adventure has a different feel and a different personality from the adjacent Universal Studios, where you "ride the movies," which is excellent because Universal has now become a much more complete destination (and a true resort destination, with the opening of two on-site hotel-resorts, the magnificent Portofino Bay Hotel, and the spectacular Hard Rock Hotel which just opened). Indeed, your adventure may well begin with a pleasant boatride from the hotel to the entranceway to the Parks (free shuttlebus service is also available).

The theming at Islands of Adventure carries into the rides, which incorporate the most amazing artistic features as well as unbelievable state-of-the-art technology. Equally important are the features that enhance the guest experience. Face it: visiting theme parks can be incredibly stressful, but the planners here at Universal have done an excellent job of minimizing the stress by taking care of guest needs and organizing the flow of people.

For example: Universal has just introduced a new "Express Ride Access" program, available to everyone, which easily cut off hours of waiting time at the prime attractions. Single-day ticket holders can select one attraction at a time; go up to a special reservations desk for that attraction and get a ticket with a designated time (a full hour) at which you return, and go through a VIP line to the front. Multi-day ticket holders though can select up to three attractions at a time-in effect organizing your day. Once you have used your reservations, you can get other ones (DisneyWorld has also introduced a similar reservations program at some of its attractions).

Presently, you can get such reservations for Dueling Dragons, an incredible roller coast; Jurassic Park River Adventure, which is unbelievably great; Poseidon's Fury: Escape from the Lost City (a kind of show-we never were able to get into it, though); the Flying Unicorn, the newest ride, which is a relatively tame roller coaster that children and those (like me) who can't ride the more aggressive coasters will absolutely love; and Doctor Doom's Fearfall (which rockets you 150 feet into the air, then pushes you back down faster than gravity).

In addition, there are various places where wait times for other popular attractions (like the Incredible Hulk Coaster, which is another amazing high-speed roller coaster and a longer ride than Dueling Dragons), are posted, so you know when it is best to scurry over.

Those who stay at Universal's on-site resort-hotels, the Portofino Bay and the Hard Rock Hotel (the first hotel for this famous company) get an even better privilege: VIP entrance (they call it "No Line, No Wait" priority entrance) to every attraction, all day, every day just by using their room "key" (more like a credit card). You get to enter through a special entrance and in most cases would not have to wait more than 15 minutes (on our last visit to Universal Studios, we took advantage of a five-hour VIP program which cost $125 pp, so you get an idea of the value of this feature). You also get priority seating at some restaurants, preferred show seating at the Eighth Voyage of Sindbad, and you get to enter the park at 8 a.m., instead of 9 a.m. (Monday and Wednesdays for Islands; Tuesdays and Thursdays for Universal Studios). Even if the hotels weren't as marvelous as they were, it would be worth it to stay there for this benefit, but in truth, these four-diamond hotel-resorts offer an incredible guest experience (more on this in a future feature).

Islands of Adventure is extremely well laid out so you can walk from section to section very easily, yet feel you are entering entirely new worlds. It is designed as five separate islands, each with its own theme, music, shows, rides, restaurants and shops. The rides are the centerpieces of their respective "island" of adventure. Each of the rides also involves extensive theming-storytelling leading up to the ride itself, and making the wait on line part of the experience; the ride further immerses you in the story.

You enter through a fanciful Port of Entry which looks a little medieval, and, bearing left, enter the Marvel Super Hero Island, where you will find the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. This ride was considered by everyone to be the best in the whole park (unfortunately, it does not offer Express reservation and often breaks down): billed as the first attraction in theme park history to combine rapidly moving, highly mobile ride vehicles hurtling through acres of vivid scene sets, and extraordinary specially filmed 3-D action with pyrotechnic special effects.

You don 3-D glasses and feel like you are enveloped in the animation and action as you speed through New York City streets while helping Spider-Man in his epic fight against villains. Flaming pumpkins and spewing water pipes hurled by the forces of evil seem to fly towards you before smashing into the vehicles, ultimately careening off into the night. In the comic book-style battle, Doc Ock takes aim at riders with his Doomsday Anti-gravity gun, zapping guests 400 feet in the air before plunging them the same 400 feet down towards the dark street below. The feat has never before been done: traditional 3-D films require viewers to remain stationary. The challenge of "Spider-Man" was to get guests directly involved in the action as they view three-dimensional films and move at high speeds past various movie screens and props. New technology, called "moving point of convergence" was developed along with pioneering motion-picture techniques. The effect relies on 25 large-format movie projects and dozens of smaller projectors, making flat-comic book characters into three-dimensional forms. The result is that you have a hard time telling between fantasy and reality.

Super Hero Island also has the new attraction, Storm Force Accelatron, where you help the X-Men's super hero Storm summon the forces of nature in a whirling, twirling, spinning power generator in her battle against the evil Magneto.

This section also has the Incredible Hulk Coaster, where you are catapulted from zero to 40 mph in three seconds, up a 150-foot tunnel at G-force speed (the same force as a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter attack jet) and immediately spun into a weightless, zero-g roll, turning upside down more than 110 feet above ground. Riders then dive at 60 mph before skimming the waves of the lagoon, rising 109 feet and plunging seemingly into the water below. The ride, through seven inversions and two subterranean trenches, lasts 2 minutes, 15 seconds and received rave reviews from our 16-year old, David (the only one brave enough to try it).

David also loved Dueling Dragons, another amazing coaster, this one in the Lost Continent section. This is really two coasters, Fire and Ice, which give a different ride-one is faster than the other and the other is steeper. Regardless, the coaster is designed so that its two sets of tracks intertwine in a knotted mass of metal that sends riders, who are actually suspended with their feet dangling, barreling directly towards each other at nearly 60 mph three times in 2 1/4 minutes, during which they also make five inversions. The coasters avoid impact at the last second by slamming their riders through a camelback, a double-helix and "compound inversion." As each coaster is loaded, they are weighed with the passengers on board in order to calculate the weight and set the speed to make "near impact" more precise.

One of our favorite rides was the Jurassic Park River Adventure, which is far more than your typical river raft ride (by the way, you don't get that wet on this one). You feel like you have become part of the Jurassic Park movie, with the most amazing dinosaurs (take advantage of the Express reservation for this ride).

We adored the Jurassic Park section. This also had Camp Jurassic, a fabulous prehistoric-themed "playground" where the kids can vent excess energy exploring amber mines, climbing dinosaur nets and other obstacles. The kids will also adore Pteranodon Flyers (we adults wanted to do it, but were told we had to be accompanied by a child under 56-inches tall; Grandma grabbed Eric, but we didn't want to wait 45 minutes for the 80-second ride, where you get to soar through the air and get a Pteranodon's view of Camp Jurassic).

I've got to say, I was fascinated by the Triceratops Encounter.
It reminded me of a visit to the Bronx Zoo when we got to see an elephant up close in a relatively small room. This attraction is a "walking tour" through a dinosaur feeding and weighing station, where you get to meet a dinosaur veterinarian doing an examination of "Sarah, a triceratops, that is so extraordinarily real-its eyes blink, its skin quivers, it moves its tongue, it raises its foot and snorts-you will swear that you have just encountered an actual triceratops.

This park is bigger on rides than it is on shows, but it has a few. In the Lost Continent section (which was fantastic for its theming that evokes myths and magic, and even has a Harry Potter store) you can see the Eighth Voyage of Sindbad, a stunt show (only so-so; pass this up in favor of Poseidon's Fury if you have to choose) and Poseidon's Fury; Escape from the Lost City, where guests get swept into the battle between Zeus & Poseidon and walk through water vortex-a moving tunnel of water (never been done before in theme park). An unexpected surprise is the Mystic Fountain, which talks back to the "audience" that gathers around, and squirts water at people when it feels like it.

From there, we strolled over a small bridge into Seuss Landing, based on the whimsical characters of the beloved Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel. This "island" is sheer delight which is certain to bring smiles even to the grouchiest Grinch. On this island, where there are no straight lines (even the palm trees are bent, acquired after a hurricane while other trees were specially grown), you can ride the Caroseussel-the first-ever interactive carousel-where the eyes of the Seuss characters move, tails flop around, heads bob. On another ride, One-Fish, Two-Fish, Red-Fish, Blue-Fish, you have to listen and then repeat a poem; if you are right, you stay dry, if you are wrong, you get splashed. And what would Seuss Landing be without a Cat in the Hat ride? The execution of this ride was absolutely superb and so entertaining for everyone (even a teenager). Here you ride in six-passenger "couches" through 18 different scenes including a perception-altering 24-foot tunnel; along the way, you experience more than 130 effects and 30 animatronic characters. This "island" also features an interactive playland, If I Ran the Zoo with 19 elements. There is also a new show here, the Circus McGurkus Seussian Sing-a-Long.

The attractions are unbelievable-adults will enjoy the artistry as much as the kids will enjoy the "thrill" or the special experience. Take for example Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges-this was the best raft ride we have ever experienced (take their warning, "You will get wet, possibly soaked," seriously; you can purchase a poncho, $6, and make use of nearby lockers if you want to change sneakers for sandals). Also in Toon Lagoon, you will undoubtedly love Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls , a plume ride where you will also get soaked.

The dining areas were also excellent, and provide a relaxing respite. Each of the sections has at least one major restaurant, as well as marvelous snack places (the map even points the way with a red apple to the places where you can get "healthy choices" and vegetarian meals). In Seuss Landing, you can actually get Green Eggs and Ham (sandwich) at the Green Eggs and Ham Café. We simply loved the Thunder Falls Terrace in Jurassic Park, magnificently themed and serving marvelous rotisserie chicken ($8.95), baby back ribs (a ribs and chicken combo is $11.95 but big enough for two) grilled chicken wings, roasted corn, salads, and a Dino Chicken Nuggets meal for kids ($5.99) all freshly prepared. The Lost Continent has the Enchanted Oak Tavern (and Alchemy Bar), which looks like the trunk of an enormous tree (there is happy hour and live entertainment from 3-5 p.m. daily).

Inside Tips

Typically, Wednesday is the least-crowded day in theme parks. Another good idea is to go to the back of the park first (though, depending upon when you arrived, that may not work so well) since most people stop and ride the first attractions they come to. Also, try to schedule your meal times either earlier or later than the crowds, and during peak-eating time, do the busiest rides, instead (easier said than done).

The best time to ride the Jurassic Park River Adventure and Dueling Dragons is before noon; the best time for the Incredible Hulk Coaster and Doctor Doom's Fearfall is after noon. Do Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and the Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls either in the early morning or late afternoon (but these are water rides, which is why most people want the heat of the day to dry off).

Because Islands of Adventure closed at 7 p.m. and we had a two-park ticket, we were able to high-tail it over to Universal Studios, which is open until 8 p.m., dodging the crowds that had already gathered for the Mardi Gras parade (which has become a February tradition), moving to the back of the park to the new Men In Black Alien Attack ride. This was fantastic. We didn't even mind the 45 minute wait to get in, because you go through what seems to be the MIB headquarters and there are lots of diversions. The ride itself is amazing: like laser-tag but in a car that takes you through a city invaded by aliens which pop out and shoot you, causing you to spin around. You accumulate points for successfully hitting the target (Eric got 91,000 on his first try; the fellow next to me, a regular, got 686,000, and the park workers are able to get a perfect score of 999,000).

Ticket Prices

Single day admission is $50.88/adult; $40.28/child (3-9). Two-day tickets ($95.35 and $79.45) and three-day tickets ($111.25 and $95.35) give unlimited park-to-park access (and never expires), and you get a CityWalk Party Pass, good for seven consecutive nights from first day of use. A really great value is the new Five-Park Orlando Flex Ticket which gives you unlimited access for 14 days to both Universal parks, SeaWorld Orlando, and Wet'n'Wild, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and even free transportation on the Busch Gardens Express Bus for $209.05/adult (10 and older); $167.65/child (3-9). A Four-Park Orlando FlexTicket is $169.55 and $135.60.

For more information, call Universal Orlando Resort at 407-363-8000, or visit www.universalorlando.com.

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