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Dani’s Best Week Ever August 4, 2016: Reign of Kong, Off Kilter, Emeril’s Happy Hour and SeaWorld

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The pendulum is always swinging. Just two weeks ago I truly had one of my best weeks ever! This one was decidedly less so. But I am an optimist and try to make the best of each situation. It also helps that I live in Orlando and have annual passes to all three major theme park destinations, plus I have a great collection of friends in my life. So when the air conditioning went out for four days in my house, I did what needed to be done and enjoyed Orlando life while waiting for my house to become livable again.

Thankfully this week marked new and exciting adventures at Islands of Adventure, and new fun offerings at SeaWorld as well. Come with me as I face the Reign of Kong, contemplate facing my ultimate fears with the Incredible Hulk, enjoy live music from the beloved Off Kilter, and take a quick stroll around SeaWorld enjoying the most affordable snacks and drinks in any Orlando theme park!

Beautiful signage - photo by Brandon Glover
Beautiful signage – photo by Brandon Glover

Off Kilter and Dancing at CityWalk

Saturday early morning I awoke to a hot and humid house. Goodbye air conditioning, hello discomfort and an expensive repair. I couldn’t get it taken care of over the weekend so I did what any reasonable adult would do, make plans with friends and head for Universal Orlando!

On short notice my friends and I learned that Off Kilter had a performance scheduled at the main City Walk stage. I am one of those fans that took Off Kilter for granted. I never thought I’d see the day when they no longer performed in Epcot. They are such a talented, fun, group and I am so happy I’ve gotten to see them perform at many local gigs now that they are actively touring all over.

They played three sets, starting at 7:00PM and going until 10:00PM. A nice mix of long time, devoted fans with special song requests as well as regular Universal Orlando guests, made up the crowd. Seeing them on the stage with a panoramic view of Universal Orlando felt somehow comforting to me. Hearing this band that performed at Epcot for about 20 years, has been playing all over Orlando and in other parts of the country…their entertainment power transcends the barriers of theme parks.

After a great night out at CityWalk, I wondered what the next day would have in store…

SeaWorld – free beer and Summer Soak Party

One benefit of SeaWorld being the least attended of the major Orlando theme parks, is that they run all kinds of promotions in hopes of boasting attendance. This is especially true for Annual Passholders. They offer more benefits to passholders than Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, hands down! Anticipating that the air conditioner was going to cost me a pretty penny to fix, I needed to find more economical ways of enjoying the theme parks. One of those ways is with free beer (for annual passholders!)

When I arrived the line to get through security made my jaw drop. At about 12:00 PM the line stretched to almost the parking lot. Like Universal Orlando, SeaWorld now has metal detectors for all guests to walk through. There is a separate lane for guests without bags. What makes this line so long isn’t that it takes so much time, but that the metal detectors are almost directly behind the ticket windows, it does not make for good crowd flow.

Once inside the gates I made a bee line for the Annual Passholders Lounge at the back of the park. This is part of one of three areas in which annual passholders can enjoy one free draft beer of their choice (one per day until August 31, 2016). My plan was to enjoy my beer and order something to eat from the special Annual Passholder Lounge menu, where the food is somewhat more creative and somewhat lower priced.

Mako Red Ale - photo by Brandon Glover
Mako Red Ale – photo by Brandon Glover

I went with the Mako Red Ale, which essentially mimics all other specialty “exclusive” red ales found in many theme parks, like Disney’s Animal Kingdom Safari Amber. Still it is smooth, has a warm flavor, and is easy to drink. Disappointment came when no server in the Annual Passholder Lounge could be found. I waited for about ten minutes and decided to wait no more and headed for “Blue Horizons.”

I found not only disappointment in this show, but also heart break. “Blue Horizons” has been a favorite of mine for about ten years. It is a show that always brought a tear to my eye because one of my many childhood dreams was to be a dolphin trainer. The show I bore witness to on this visit resembled barely a shadow of what it used to be. Many acts were cut short. Show elements were missing. The finale came 14 minutes into the show, and it lacked many layers that used to make this show end on an incredibly powerful moment. Not anymore. I departed the show early, feeling somewhat deflated.

I didn’t want to leave the park on a sour note, so I decided to head to the front of the park to check out the Summer Soak Party. This added entertainment runs daily though August 13, 2016 and then on “select dates” through September 5, 2016, 12:00PM – 6:00PM. It is located at Bayside Stadium. Don’t expect to be overly impressed. This offering is a simple way for families to take a break and cool off, and a creative way to let kids let off some steam.

Every kid I saw participating in the party seemed ecstatic. Water fell from above the dance floor in solid waterfalls and spinners sprayed dancing patterns of water, and other various patterns. Other kids partied with SeaWorld entertainment crew members and a DJ. The good old, never-fails-to-entertain kids hula hoop contest helped kids get out some extra energy. The highlight for me is the super affordable snacks and drinks. There’s popcorn and cotton candy for $1.00, domestic beer for $3.00, ice cream bars for $3.00. Plus annual passholders get 10% off! After enjoying my $3.84 snack of popcorn and beer, I decided to head to Universal Orlando; I was in a rare mood for adventure.


Universal Orlando – Movies, Happy Hour, and Reign of Kong

I met up with a friend who was just getting off work. We both noticed the sign outside of Emeril’s Orlando displaying their brand new happy hour menu, daily 3:00PM – 6:00PM. Happy hours have all but become extinct inside Universal Orlando. In fact there aren’t any left inside the theme parks themselves, and it is rare to even find a happy hour inside CityWalk.

Emeril’s happy hour may be my new favorite way to enjoy quality food and drink at a reasonable price at Universal Orlando. My friend and I enjoyed some quality wine, for $5.00 a glass and some delectable baked oysters from a place very close to my heart, Cedar Key, FL. We were torn between the Smoked Fish Dip and the Crawfish Andouille Toast, each $5.00, so we asked our bartender for his opinion and he recommended the Crawfish Toast. It was a little difficult to share, but it was incredibly flavorful.

We continued to escape the heat by visiting the AMC Universal Cineplex Theater, where we were joined by another friend of mine. For all three of us it was our second time seeing “Star Trek: Beyond.” The AMC Theater at Universal Orlando is convenient, and has an IMAX screen, but it is not a remarkable theater. Still, it is a great option if you are on vacation and want to escape the heat or rest your feet.

The Incredible Hulk looks... well... incredible at night - Photo by Seth Kubersky
The Incredible Hulk looks… well… incredible at night – Photo by Seth Kubersky

After boldly going where no man has gone before, it was time to head into Islands of Adventure and face Kong.

Ok, let’s get real for a minute. I am a big time scardy cat. Up until a few months ago I did not set foot inside any ride that remotely resembled anything close to a thrill ride. I am slowly making progress.

As we entered the park something brilliant and green caught our eyes… The Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster has roared back to life! Soft openings are among us! I felt a tinge of temptation, maybe someday I’ll push myself to my limits and experience what many consider to be Universal’s best coaster. It looks incredible at night!

Time to face a different beast. We headed straight through Marvel Super Hero Island and continued undeterred through Toon Lagoon. It was dark. The air thick. Flames and dim lights lit the entrance to Skull Island: Reign of King. A posted 45 minute wait seemed reasonable and so we followed the sounds of mystery and entered the queue.

Universal Orlando has built some breathtaking queues in recent years: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and now the immersive and somewhat thrilling queue of Reign of Kong. This queue with its dark corners and shadows, props, and foreboding music set the mood, but the animatronic Shawoman and small corridor with restless natives popping up and spooking fellow park guests (I may have jumped and squealed upon encountering such a native), all add up to an experience unto itself.

Beware the warning of the Shawoman - photo by Seth Kubersky
Beware the warning of the Shawoman – photo by Seth Kubersky

As we approached the expedition vehicle I had to work to maintain any sense of calm that might somehow be left in me. I joked repeatedly that this is how I would die. The expedition vehicles are fascinating unto themselves. There is no ride track, adding to the illusion of reality. Weather permitting your expedition starts off outside. And there are no other vehicles within sight. I applaud this expert timing and design.

One of the most fascinating ride vehicles I've ever laid eyes on - photo by Seth Kubersky
One of the most fascinating ride vehicles I’ve ever laid eyes on – photo by Seth Kubersky

The large, imposing gates opened and I was filled with delight. A familiar scent wafted through the air, I swear it is the same exact scent that filled the air during the days of the original King Kong attraction, Kongfrontation. The rest of the ride is a bit of a blur. You see, I have many tactics for dealing with my fear during a thrilling attraction. Most of them involve not really looking at the attraction, but rather looking at my feet. This is usually only during my first time ever on such a ride, or if I haven’t been on it in a while.

I will say that although the reliance on projection screens is somewhat annoying, the picture quality (at least the bits that I saw) are simply stunning. Visually and auditory it is an intense experience! Thankfully the vehicle’s movements are not all that intense compared to other traditional thrill rides. If you are prone to motion sickness like me, I think you can handle Reign of Kong, though you’ll experience it in an alternative fashion. The vehicle does not move all that much, so I found when the visuals become too much for me I simply looked down to the floor and I did not feel any intense sensation of movement. You can do it!

I am anxious to ride Reign of Kong again. I am pleased that Universal’s newest attraction is a great blend of story, theme, and thrills without being something that someone like me can’t handle. Not every attraction needs to be the tallest, fastest, or most intense. Reign of Kong is a decent example of providing thrills without being a wholly uncomfortable experience for non-thrill seekers.

In the end, I may have faced some challenges at home, but I am so thankful that Orlando’s theme parks offer me, and so many thousands of guests like me, a place to escape for a little while. A place where even a short visit can be the best ever!

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Born and raised in the land of sunshine and dreams come true, Dani is a proud Orlando Native who loves sharing her hometown with others. She's worked in nearly all of Orlando's theme parks, on board Disney Cruise Line, and in hotel management. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @thisfloridalife

3 thoughts on “Dani’s Best Week Ever August 4, 2016: Reign of Kong, Off Kilter, Emeril’s Happy Hour and SeaWorld

  • I am not a thrill rider and am concerned whether I can cope with this attraction. Can you compare it with another attraction so that I will have some idea whether I can cope with it? I can just about manage Big Thunder Mountain, Spiderman, Gringotts but don’t lie The Mummy or the Forbidden Journey.
    Thank you

    • If you are ok with Big Thunder, Gringotts, and Spiderman I think you will be perfectly ok with Reign of Kong. I am about the same way. I do not like Mummy or Forbidden Journey either. But Reign of Kong was just thrilling enough and since the feeling of moving comes from what is being shown on the screens, if the motion gets to you, you can easily look away (down at your feet is best) and you’ll see the vehicle really is not moving that much at all.
      I didn’t mention it in the post, but afterward we rode Spider-Man and it is more intense in movement than Kong is. I recommend Kong for any non-thrill riders.

      • For anyone nervous about Kong – it’s a clone of the Kong 360 3D stop on Hollywood’s tram tour, which has no seat restraints and no height requirements. It’s immersive and loud, but not a “thrill” ride in terms of the physical experience.

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