Honestly, apart from anything with Harry Potter stamped on it, I didn't experience a lot of the best stuff at the Universal resort. Partly this was stupidity/lack of research/occasional unwellness on my part; partly it was having to wrangle a frequently grumpy 8-year-old. I shouldn't be too hard on her, though; she was, as always, far, far more intrepid about going on rides than I was at her age. When you're traveling with a kid you expect some opportunities to pass by unseized.
I made some mistakes. Two primary ones.
Mistake #1: Buying the dining plan. I should have listened to the many sources saying not to do this. The one we used at Walt Disney World had been annoying enough, but Universal's is worse: it doesn't work at any of the restaurants in the hotels, nor, frankly, at any place on site where one might actually want to eat. It might make monetary sense if you're a teenager fond of prefabricated burgers and willing to live entirely on that. If you like decent sit-down food, you're likely to not use it at all.
Mistake #2: Taking everyone on The Simpsons Ride. This ride is a fascinating train wreck of misplaced intent. You might think, based on the amusing set dressing of the surrounding area, that it's a dark ride concentrating more on humor than thrills; there are the standard motion-simulator safety warnings that you see before 80% of the rides at the park, but since they're the same everywhere, they give no real indication of what you're in for. The pre-show implies that Bart's old nemesis Sideshow Bob is going to try to kill you, but pre-shows at Universal rarely match up closely with the content of the ride.
Actually, The Simpsons Ride is one of the most intense thrill rides at Universal.
This is 90% psychological. Physically, it's quite tame; it's a basic ride-film-simulator setup, in which you're in a car mounted on mobile struts that can make it tilt several degrees in any direction. It doesn't go anywhere, doesn't drop or spin, and you're basically watching a 2D movie on a nearby screen subtending a wide visual angle. So there are are low height limits for the ride and the restraints don't have to be onerous.
The movie, though, is sort of an over-the-top parody of motion-simulator rides designed to be as visually disorienting as possible. You start out riding an impossibly huge roller coaster at the highly dubious Krustyland, seemingly climbing thousands of feet above the cartoon earth; then Sideshow Bob starts destroying the coaster, and from then on you're hurtling without pause at unbelievable speed through a litany of simulated devastation, involving various high-speed murder attempts by Sideshow Bob and a rampage by a giant radiation-mutated Maggie Simpson (who eats you at one point).
It is, in fact, all very funny, but only if you're not too busy holding in your vomit to laugh, or consumed with guilt over getting your more sensitive family members on the ride. The joke is on you. Real roller coasters are less likely to cause pukage.
Later on (solo) I rode the newer Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, which is basically the same ride done better: it's in 3D and there aren't partitions blocking your view of the other cars, but aside from that, the frenetic joyride actually pauses to let you catch your breath a little more often. Probably they went out of their way to make it a little more kid-friendly.
I also caught Shrek 4D, a mild ride-film attraction in the vein of Disney's Captain EO or It's Tough To Be A Bug!, basically a 3D movie rigged with various William-Castle-esque gimmicks that make your chair move around a little bit, brush simulated bugs against your legs, sprinkle you with water, etc. This is a good example of the nonsensicality of Universal pre-shows: there's a pre-show at the end of the queue that builds it up as a horrific experience in Lord Farquaad's torture chamber (I actually thought this was in slightly poor taste, maybe for political reasons of my own), but this has nothing to do with the actual show, which is just a mildly amusing mini-sequel to the first Shrek movie about the gang fighting the ghost of Lord Farquaad.
But my daughter didn't go on those. After The Simpsons Ride, she was done and wanted to go home, or at least spend the rest of the vacation hanging out in the hotel pool. Since this was before noon on the second of three days, that was kind of unfortunate. But there had been a breakdown of trust: she wasn't going to pay attention to any statement on our part that a ride or show was going to be OK.
Sam finally coaxed her to go on something on the afternoon of the very last day: Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges, one of our collective family favorite genre of ride, the raft ride in which you go through some rapids in a big circular raft and get splashed. Since it'd been pouring rain off and on all day, it was unclear that we'd get an opportunity to intentionally get wet, but there was in fact a short interlude of steamy 90-degree heat that made it worthwhile.
This was a revelation. People: Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges is the best raft ride. This is to say, it is extremely wet. Wetter by at least a factor of two or three than any other one I've ridden. Maybe ten times as wet as the fancy but tame Kali River Rapids at Disney. Once they let us ride on Thunder Rapids at Lake Compounce three times in a row without getting out of the raft. That experience got us as wet as one ride on the Bilge-Rat Barges. There is also some mildly droll Popeye theming, but that is not the point. Popeye and Bluto just want to make you soaked to the underwear.
And because of that, it's a good thing I rode it basically last, because another thing that caused me grief at Universal was that they use too many damn paper tickets. One thing I'll say about Disney's glitchy but interesting MagicBand system, it makes the plethora of things you get in a vacation package easier to carry around, because it's all in the cloud. Here, I basically printed out a deck of nearly identical paper cards at the hotel and was constantly fumbling around to distinguish the park passes, the useless dining-plan tickets (which you exchange for a useless plastic card elsewhere), the skip-the-line pass (which I actually lost on the first day and had to replace), the special breakfast tickets for the Harry Potter package, and some other stuff I never did figure out. If you ride with Popeye and Bluto, make sure you have some means of protecting these tickets from getting reduced to mush.
Our hotel, the Loews Royal Pacific, was a very nice place with cod-Hawaiian decor and a gigantic pool--I can't really make an apples-to-apples comparison with our Disney trip a couple of years ago, because we stayed at a budget resort then and we sprung for the next level up this time. My one complaint is that there was something in the room that had us all coughing with allergic reactions every night, maybe just leftover seasonal pollen in the air ducts. Fortunately I'd been having trouble back home for the previous week and brought lots of Benadryl. But it did mean that for my first full day at the parks I was not by any means operating at 100%, which cut down on the amount of fun stuff I was willing to do.
Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear
- Other stuff at Universal Florida