This year, we hit the theme park.
Universal Studios Orlando, to be exact. I was with my family in Sarasota for the umpteenth time (thanks, Grandma), and it’s a pretty quick drive (about 90 minutes) so off we went. We stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. It was lovely, and cracked me up. I mean -- they dug a bay and put row boats in it. They built a piazza! But somehow, it's not terrifyingly tacky. Not at all. I kind liked it. Our room was spacious enough, with a large balcony overlooking the “bay.” The only odd thing was that our bathroom – I suppose in an attempt to look Italian, had a double shuttered window that opened – not to the outside – but right into the bedroom. Why? I cannot imagine. Odd. And while the room was perfectly clean and passed my paranoid bed bug test with ease, our towels were a bit frayed and tired looking.
Still, no one goes to Orlando for the Hotels. And those frayed towels were more than made up for by our dinner on the "piazza" that was – surprisingly - excellent. As well as reasonably priced for the kids. They loved the all you can eat pasta bar which allowed them to choose their ingredients, present them to a chef, then choose their pasta and watch him put it all together in front of their eyes. Fun, and good.
In fact, there are eight restaurants and the seriously Italian themed Loews Portofino bay. All of them….you guessed it, Italian. Although the deli where you can grab a bagel and coffee – even though they also have Panini is still basically a deli!
Staying at the Loews, because it is within the park itself, has three big advantages: First, you can get into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter early – and it is crowded in there. Second, you get a “free” (hey, the hotel room was close to $400 per night – even with my AAA discount – so Free? – I don’t know.) anyway, you get an Express Pass, which allows you to bypass most of the lines at the Park. Normally, these are $25 each and totally worth it. We breezed through. And third, you get a courtesy boat ride – along the faux canal – to the Park and back. No parking miles away, no waiting to get out of the lot. Excellent.
As for the park itself, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was terrific. The details, the signature ride, were thrilling. And there were some other rides we loved, too. The new Spiderman Experience was technically amazing, with a three-d experience unlike any other. The Hologram at the Disaster ride of Christopher Walken was the best I’d ever seen. The roller coasters are big and scary. There are some terrific aspects of the park. The New York City section actually had fake bubble gum on the fake cracked sidewalks. Impressive detail. The Dr. Seuss rides and the Curious George sections were adorable and make me smile. But somehow, it felt more like an amusement park than a theme park. I guess by that I mean that it didn't feel like such an "experience." I never thought I'd say this - but Disney has just set that bar way up high -- and ain't nobody gonna touch it. (Though Harry Potter World comes close.)
It was the little things -- like when I saw the King Tut and Cleopatra characters come out to pose for pictures in the crowd. My guess is, they had to start at 1pm. So at 12:55, they were standing around, looking bored, checking their fingernails. So much for suspension of reality. The flames were out in a bunch of the torches in the Jurassic Park section. The staff overall were helpful, but you got the impression that they were working. I'm sure that all that incredible enthusiasm and uber-niceness at Disney is forced, too. But maybe they're just better at it.
Also, Universal just felt so…merchandized. There was something very commercial feeling about everything. I know it’s crazy – Disney is all about merchandising the crap out of everything. But again, maybe they’re just better at it.
The quality of the shows also just couldn't match up. The Beetlejuice Show just felt like it was starring “The People that Weren’t Good Enough to be Cast at Disney World.” And at the beginning and end of every ride, the staff gives a wan thumbs up. My guess is, this is a safety measure: they’re telling each other, all clear. But all I could think was – these people are going to get Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. Seriously – it looked like it hurt. At $135 per person for a two day dual park pass ( and really, it isn’t two parks – it’s one, with two difference entrances. I mean, be serious.), and with my 11 year olds paying full, adult prices, I guess I wanted more suspension of disbelief, better fake enthusiasm.
That being said, when my daughter fell and cut her knee, Universal’s staff were there in an instant with a first aid kit and got her patched up in no time. My kids are still talking about that Spiderman ride. But even at the ripe old age of almost 12, they both kind of missed the magic that is Disney, and preferred it over the technical, commercial success that is Universal Studios Orlando.