SATURDAY SIX: 6 Reasons We Love UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA

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This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at reasons we love UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA! With the theme parks in Florida beginning to re-open from an unprecedented closure, we felt it was time to celebrate what draws us all to these wonderful places. Our first stop is a park celebrating its 30-year anniversary: Universal Studios Florida (USF).

# 6 – Dining

Forget rides, one of the biggest transformations that USF has had over the course of the last decade is in the area of food. There was a time when you could make a case that USF dining was hands down the worst at any Disney or Universal park, and now it has become one of the best thanks to the introduction of several unique and highly themed quick service venues throughout the park. From the great tasting and healthy options at Today Cafe to the hilariously and maybe a bit unhealthy options at Fast Food Boulevard (we’re looking in your direction The Clogger), there is something for everyone.

Today Cafe. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Today Cafe. (photo by Alicia Stella)
Today Cafe. (photo by Hedgehog’s Corner)
Finnegan’s. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Finnegan’s fish and chips. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Finnegan’s webb burger. (photo by Megan Stump)
Louie’s.
A cheese pie from Louie’s. Attention Disney fans. This may come as a shock, but it turns out not all theme park quick service pizza has to be bad. Who knew?
Mel’s Drive-In. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Leaky Cauldron. (photo by Brandon Glover)
Leaky Cauldron. (photo by Brandon Glover)
Krusty Burger, part of Fast Food Blvd. (photo by Brandon Glover)
Krusty Burger menu. (photo by Brandon Glover)
The Clogger (photo by Brandon Glover)
Themed napkins.
Monsters Cafe. (photo by Michael Carelli)
We have the meats. (photo by @ViewsAndQueues)
Monsters Cafe sides (Photo from Brian Carey)
Lombard’s Seafood Grille. (photo by Michael Carelli)
More themed napkins. We are truly #blessed. (photo by Brandon Glover)

# 5 – Photo Ops

In an Instagram world, pictures are becoming an even bigger part of the theme park experience. For the first-time visitor – or longtime seasoned theme park veteran –  USF has a bunch of locations, characters, and other photo-ops that are going to make you stop in your tracks and get out the camera. In fact, it starts off right as you are approaching the park. Located directly in front of Universal Studio Florida’s entrance is the spinning Universal globe. The iconic globe is just perfect for photos from several different areas (including the bridge leading to CityWalk). Make sure that any camera rookies in your party don’t have an itchy trigger finger and be sure they wait for the “Universal” logo to turn around and frame the shot.

Universal Globe. (photo by Mike Sperduto)
USF Arch. (photo by Brandon Glover)
Jaws. (photo by @ViewsAndQueues)
Scooby Gang.
Optimus Prime. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
BTTF’s Delorean.
Shrek. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
Knight Bus conductor. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
Hashtag. (photo by Hunter Underwood)

# 4 – The Shows

The most underrated aspect of Universal parks are the shows. Trust me, I get it. For years I avoided the Horror Make-Up Show thinking I wouldn’t like it. Personally I’m not a big fan of horror movies and “make up” isn’t that high on my list either. Once I was finally dragged into the theater and watched the show, I had a moment straight out of Arrested Development; realizing I had made a huge mistake taking a pass on the show for so many years. Turns out it is a fascinating look into the make-up (and special effects) of horror films and is absolutely hilarious. There are two hosts of the live show, and they spend much more time on “funny” rather than “scary.” They also throw in a whole bunch of pop-culture references for the crowd to enjoy. I could not recommend the show any higher and for me it is just as enjoyable as the big budget shows at Disney like Finding Nemo: The Musical or Festival of the Lion King.

Horror Make Up Show. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Beetlejuice, making sure guests are properly following social distancing rules.. (photo by Megan Stump)
Horror Make-Up Show. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
Horror Make-Up Show. (photo by Hunter Underwood)

Enjoy live music? USF is gonna rock your world with several wonderful acts located throughout the park.

The Beat Builders. (photo by Michael Carelli)

Another moment of full transparency. I’m not a fan of the Blues Brothers film. I love Dan Aykryod and John Belushi, but the movie does nothing for me, so for a long time I had zero interest in seeing this live show.

Boy, what a mistake that was.

The Blues Brothers Show has energy and every Team Member I have seen play the characters of Jake and Elwood Blues seem to nail it each time. Each set they are accompanied by the singing waitress Mable and a sax player appropriately named Jazz. These two also bring it, every performance.  The songs are for the most part well known (Gimmie Some Lovin’Jailhouse RockRespect, and the headliner Soul Man), but it’s how the characters seem to channel their movie counterparts which makes this a must watch show. The show is so good it overcomes several of the things that I’m generally not a big fan of in theme parks, including 1) live music, 2) standing, and 3) no shade. Don’t be a fool like me and keep putting off this show during your touring of the park. The Blues Brothers play several times throughout the day, and you can fit a performance into your schedule. It will be worth it.

Blues Brothers.
Blues Brothers. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
Blues Brothers. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
Blues Brothers. (photo by Hunter Underwood)

Over in Diagon Alley we have Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees belting out wizarding world tunes in a show that has quickly become one of the best live acts in theme park history. The character of Celestina Warbeck was one that was only mentioned briefly in the Potter books (J.K. Rowling has since gone on to write a small historical essay on Celestina for Pottermore), but Universal Creative took that small piece of coal and pressed hard enough to produce a true diamond.

Banshee. (photo by Hunter Underwood)
Celestina. (photo by Brandon Glover)

Diagon Alley continues its theme park show dominance with the live performances of the Tales of Beedle the Bard. The Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts (WADA), a roaming street troupe, performs hourly in Diagon Alley to recreate the tales from Wizarding World’s equivalent of Aesop’s fables. Using Michael Curry puppets (Finding Nemo: The Musical, Tapestry of Nations, many Olympic performances), WADA brings to life the morality plays central to the Wizarding World. 

The Tale of Three Brothers is a parable about the power of wishes and instant gratification (and the basis of the Deathly Hallows), while The Fountain of Fair Fortune is an inspirational tale about the rewards of overcoming one’s hardships and setbacks. Performances from the talented, comedic cast celebrate the many types of dramatic personas to create a real personality that melds with the stories. This unique style adds style and texture to an already realized world. Another highest possible recommendation.

Tales of Beedle the Bard. (photo by @ViewsAndQueues)

 

# 3 – The Events

I mentioned my own trepidation about trying the Horror Make-Up Show, and I had the same fears about Halloween Horror Nights. For me, it was AMC’s The Walking Dead which got me through the door. Since that time, American Horror Story, Stranger Things, and Ghostbusters have been gateways to get casual fans to experience the event. Once you try HHN,  you are almost sure to get hooked. While HHN is a separate hard ticket USF’s Mardi Gras and Christmas events are both included with park admission.

Halloween Horror Nights. (photo by Michael Carelli)
HHN scareactor. (photo by Michael Carelli)
HHN scareactor. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Mel’s DIE-IN. (photo by Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog)
Killer Klowns merchandise. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Mardi Gras. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Mardi Gras. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Mardi Gras. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Mardi Gras. (photo by @bioreconstruct)
Christmas. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Christmas. (photo by Mike Sperduto)

 

# 2 –  The Attractions

One could make the case that USF was years ahead of its time. When it opened, USF’s concept of “ride the movies” was a stark contrast to what Disney had done with EPCOT several years earlier. As we all know, almost all theme park rides today are built with an Intellectual Property attached.

Rip Ride Rockit. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Rip Ride Rockit.
E.T. Adventure queue. (photo by Travis Terrell)
Botanicus. (photo by Travis Terrell)
E.T. (photo by Mike Sperduto)
Escape From Gringotts.
Transformers: The Ride 3D. (photo by Mike Sperduto)
Social distancing in place.
Revenge of the Mummy. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Men In Black: Alien Attack. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Men In Black: Alien Attack. (photo by Brandon Glover)
The Simpsons Ride. (photo by Brandon Glover)
Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl.(photo by @HateToFly)

# 1 – The Theming

For the longest time, the biggest knock against Universal parks was they were “just a collection of rides.” No matter how good the rides were, the level of immersion just wasn’t the same compared to other world class theme parks. Universal could have been considered a poor man’s Walt Disney World or a rich man’s Six Flags. However, to quote Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin‘. Universal had already changed the game with the introduction of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade Viillage, but Diagon Alley took theming to the next level. With the London waterfront area outside leading into a jaw-dropping reveal of Diagon Alley inside.

London. (photo by Michael Carelli)
London. (photo by Michael Carelli)
The wonder of walking into Diagon Alley. (photo by Megan Stump)
Diagon Alley.
Diagon Alley.(photo by Michael Carelli)
Fire! (photo by Mike Sperduto)
Knockturn Alley. (photo by Michael Carelli)

The New York area of USF is a good example of how Universal is “fixing” some of its previous – for lack of a better word – “mistakes.” Replacing the Twister attraction was one based around The Tonight Show. This allowed Universal to create a facade that fits much more in line with the other New York theming in the area.

New York. (photo by Brandon Glover)
Rip Ride Rockit passes through New York. (photo by Michael Carelli)
Sting Alley. (photo by Michael Carelli)

As theme park fans, we are generally used to concept art being an “interpretation” of what we will actually see. Often times the finished result has huge differences from the concept art. However, over at Universal, the concept art is almost always spot-on, even to the tiniest detail. The transformation of the area of USF that became Springfield USA, is nothing short of phenomenal. If you are a fan of The Simpsons tv show, it’s a dream come true.

Springfield USA Concept Art.

 

Honorable Mention – The Merch!

Generic merchandise is a Nay Nay when it comes to Universal, as the park routinely delivers fantastic merchandise!

USF mask. (photo by @bioreconstruct)
Chocolate frog. (photo by Hedgehog’s Corner)
Bort keychain. This is referencing a fantastic moment from The Simpsons show when they visit a theme park and Bart can’t find his name on merchandise. Instead, he finds “Bort.”
Jaws metal earth. (photo by hedgehogscorner)
Hello Kitty/Jaws mashup. (photo by @HedgehogsCorner)
Evac figure.
I’ve always loved this plush based on a target in the Men In Black: Alien Attack ride.

 

Double Secret Honorable Mention – THE HISTORY

Just as Universal Studios Florida opened not long after EPCOT, both parks share another similar trait: extinct attractions which theme park fandom still clamor for. While Disney fanboys miss the days of Horizons, World of Motion, and Universe of Energy, the Universal stans want to bring back rides based around King Kong, Back to the Future, and Jaws.

Original logo, with E.T. art by Drew Struzan.
You may be familiar with Drew Struzan’s work in the movie poster industry with his well known drawings for Indiana Jones, The Goonies, and Back to the Future.
Doc Brown in Back to the Future: The Ride.
DeLorean ride vehicle in Back to the Future: The Ride.
Jaws.
Jaws.
Kongfrontation.
Kongfrontation.

 

So there you have it: Six Reasons We Love UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles covering the latest from the Disney Outlet Stores. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).

If you enjoyed this article, you will surely like the following: 

Six Surprises of Universal’s DIAGON ALLEY

Six Reasons We Love Universal’s MEN IN BLACK: ALIEN ATTACK

Six Reasons We Love Universal’s SPRINGFIELD USA

Six Times THE SIMPSONS Totally Nailed Being a Theme Park Fan

Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and “the Dadalorian” Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, charter member of the Universal Four @Nitro230, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will  enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.

GREAT MOMENTS IN THEME PARK HISTORY (CRUDELY DRAWN): For those who don’t know the backstory: when Universal was preparing to build USF in Orlando, it reached out to other movie companies to partner with. One of the companies they had a meeting with was Paramount, who at the time was led by Michael Eisner. Shortly thereafter, Eisner took a job with Disney and fast tracked Disney’s MGM Studios, a move clearly intended to cut the legs out from under the Universal park before it could gain a foothold in the marketplace. Eisner denies ever being at the meeting with Paramount, but everyone else at the meeting says he was there. Common sense tells you it wouldn’t make sense for a person in his position not to be there.

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