Universal Orlando 2011: A Book Review

Well this is a case of perfect timing. I have been getting very excited about my next trip to Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. It has been a few years since I visited Universal and I thought it was about time. In the past, I have enjoyed Kelly’s Universal books and thought they were very helpful.

Of course, the big news this year is the addition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. Like many of you, I have been trying to gobble up as much information as I can.

So this book review will be a little different. Not only will I be talking about this very good book, but I am creating a list of things I don’t want to forget in anticipation of this trip. Don’t be scared.

The authors recognize that Disney is still the big fish in the Florida theme park pond. But they also recognize that Universal is starting to take advantage of the decline in the Disney brand. The momentum is certainly on Universal’s side right now.

Another difference in the resorts is Universal is more “adult.” The authors say, “Whereas Disney World is perceived by many as a kiddie park that adults will enjoy, they see Universal as a park conceived with grown-ups in mind.” Some of the reasons for this are the adult themes, intensity of some of the attractions, the fact that beer and wine are everywhere, and Universal’s famous use of pyrotechnics.

The book has a good discussion on the various ticketing options. It has become like Disney and very complicated. One constant thread is the suggestion that you stay at one of Universal’s resorts.

I am a big fan of single-rider lines and the book does a good job of telling you where the opportunities are and some of the downsides to certain queues. For example, the new Harry Potter attraction apparently loses a great deal when you use the single rider line. There are quite a few at Islands of Adventure. The fact there is one for Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is very exciting.

For each park, there is a listing of Academy Awards (the rides you must visit) and the Runners-up. For my list of things to do, there is a trick photography spot in the Studios that uses the backdrops in just a certain way to give you a very special memento. The photo op is clearly marked with instructions.

A new feature is the color photos that provide some context to the book’s discussions.

Occasionally the book takes a little swipe at Disney. One example is the comparison of the Revenge of the Mummy versus the Magic Kingdom’s mountains. They say, “If you can handle Disney coasters like Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain, you’ll survive this one. You’ll just have more fun.”

What is going to really sell this book this year will be the Islands of Adventure section. You will not be disappointed. The authors believe that this park’s highlights are the roller coasters, “pushing the envelope,” more for the kids than the Studios, more themeing, and the music. I most certainly agree with the music. A great soundtrack and the use of sound throughout the park are outstanding.

Along with the soundtrack another favorite of mine that is highlighted in the book are the areas close to the Inland Sea. The way the park was designed, most of the “islands” have areas that are away from the main pathways and provide wonderful views and a break from the madness. The authors suggest, “They are surprisingly private and quite romantic places to snuggle up with that special someone.” I would agree that eating a treat while sitting on that bench way beyond the front entrance, somewhat under the Hulk coaster is a nice spot.

Like the Studios, each attraction description is star rated (1 to 5) and thoroughly described. I like the tips for best seats or things to watch for. The book also highlights the little things. The photo op of Horton’s egg or going on the train to the right in Seuss Landing.

I was glad to hear that Mythos remains a culinary treat.

Now I bet you want to hear about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. According to the authors, they describe the new island as, “the most visually dense attraction in any park, Mouse-made or otherwise, with the possible exception of Tokyo DisneySea in Japan.” Strong words. Can’t wait to find out. Instead of spoiling the new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, there is a spoiler alert. Read it anyway. And they say…

Now maybe it is just me but the idea of Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice sound more strange than good. However, their description of Butterbeer is the tastiest yet. They describe it as “a vanilla shortbread cookie flavored soda, with a thick head of butterscotch non-dairy whipped topping.” Hmmm. I shall step inside of The Three Broomsticks and take advantage of the nine-ounce cup for $2. And I understand I am supposed to give an extra tip to the bartender at the Hog’s Head Pub.

The book provides detailed information about Citywalk and the three resort hotels. The book is balanced, not fawning. If something isn’t that good, they do not hesitate to say so. And that 2 for 1 Tuesdays at Pat O’Brien’s has some merit…

If you are going to Universal this next year, you will find the information in this book invaluable. Good job.

About The Author:
Sam Gennawey of Pasadena, Calif., writes SamLand’s Disney Adventures: One man’s observations today about the world of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy (http://samlanddisney.blogspot.com). He has combined his passion for the theme parks with his career as an urban planner and community engagement specialist. He has won numerous awards for his collaborative planning process that has led to long-range visions for communities and the implementation of dozens of comprehensive plans for which he has been the principal author. He has demonstrated that if you can dream, you can do it, even in the real world.