Florida – September 2011

Day 12 – Universal Studios

Friday 30th September

Patti had already left for home by late yesterday evening and so the house was back to its normal routine this morning. To all intents and purposes, we were on full auto-pilot as we packed our things and made ready for the day ahead. Sandy is still suffering from her usual affliction of simply waking up very early in the morning for no particular reason (although it’s often something for which blame can usually be directed in my direction). Like me, her bones ache and creek and she suffers from general stiffness – presumably as a result of all the pushing of the buggies and the carrying of the kids from time to time at various points during the day. She went back to bed again but she’s easily woken again. First it was Jennifer that started her usual morning singing, which I managed to stifle only by getting out of bed and putting her TV on in her room. Unfortunately, me getting back into bed was enough to cause Sandy to wake again. Not long thereafter, it was Joey’s turn and by now, Sandy was so wide awake that she gave up completely on the thought of any more sleep. I still have the digs in the ribs to attest to this point. We are genuinely having a good time but this is clearly not a holiday that affords us much rest and sleep. Perhaps in the final days of our visit, when we’re starting to repeat some theme parks again, we’ll start taking things deliberately slower. The problem here is that the kids are going to be up and awake early in the morning whether we want to sleep in or not. In other words, we simply can’t sleep in – or more accurately, Sandy can’t sleep in. Fortunately, for me at least, I don’t suffer from her problem of being roused into to full consciousness by the slightest sound, regardless of how tired I am. I’m more than capable of dozing off near enough instantly and remaining in a sub-conscious state for as long as the situation will allow. This is, on the surface at least, seemingly unfair on Sandy but I can’t do much about it other than to do my best to take care of the kids as much as I can during my wakeful hours. As such, I did my best to take care of the kids and most of the packing of the bags this morning to at least give Sandy some slither of rest-bite.

Our destination today was Universal Studios. We left the house in full anticipation that today will be a good day – and it lived up to it. We love this theme park and fully expect that it will keep the kids merrily entertained for the full duration.

Before the fun and frivolity at yet another theme park could begin, we still had to fill our tummies and so our favourite haunt, the Waffle House, would once again receive us this morning. We were greeted warmly and with smiles by the servers there – nothing to do with the large tips we usually leave I’m sure – and took our place at one of the tables. The servers can practically recite our orders by heart now and we thoroughly enjoyed it as usual. What’s nice about the Waffle House is that both kids eat well when we go there so we know we’re getting a good start to the day. Joey absolutely loves the waffles there and again he ordered another one ‘to go’ to eat in the car at the conclusion of our half-hour sitting.

Our brief, fifteen-minute drive down I-4 took us to the Universal resort area and after having been relieved of yet another $15, we made our way to the preferred parking area to ensure that we were parked on the same level as the main walkway through to the cluster of shops and entertainment of the City Walk area ahead of two the main park entrances.

Outside of the Universal Studios theme park entrance is a huge rotating Earth ball on which the words Universal Studios are affixed. I always like to have an opening photo on my blog pages that immediately depicts where we are and this is the quint essential photo opportunity to signify this particular theme park. Alas, between the blistering heat-induced lethargy and the fact that the sun was shining directly into my subjects’ eyes, I couldn’t really get the shot so we decided to try our luck towards the end of the day instead. This heat-induced lethargy is a frequent problem for us. The walk from the car to the turnstiles is usually all that’s required to bring this on. Just 5-10 minutes of pushing the fully laden buggies through throngs of people in the searing heat is enough to slow anyone down. You’d think that this would get easier towards the end of the day, as the heat will have cooled off significantly and the buggies would be lighter due to the fact that we will have consumed the half dozen or more bottles of water that we always bring with us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The burdens at the front end of the day give way to others at the tail end. The buggies are further weighed down, for example, with the various purchases that we make during the course of the day. By closing time, our feet (and my hips in particular) are also really quite knackered from all the walking and pushing. To make matters worse, we’ve had a whole day to get hot and sweaty and, particularly in those theme parks where there are water play areas, we’re generally half soaked through also. By the time we reach the car at the end of the way, we’re little more than walking wrecks – but contented walking wrecks nevertheless.

Once through the turnstiles, we walked straight into a street corner at which Scooby Doo and a number of other characters were entertaining the crowds with photos and autographs. This delayed us only long enough to conclude that there were just too many people that had congregated here and so we moved on in the general direction of the Eastern corner of the park, which is substantially given over to activities for children. This, we surmised, was going to be the main area of the park that would keep us occupied today – and so it was.

Along the way, I stopped at a very specific point to shoot a very specific photo of Joey – one that distinctly remember taking of him three years previous. When we get back home, I’ll put these photos side-by-side (and other similar such doubles) to see just how much Joey & Jennifer have grown and changed in that time.

Before we reached the far Eastern side of the park, we passed the E.T. ride and decided to give this a go. Both kids absolutely loved it – Jennifer so much so that she insisted that I take her again, which I did. I often ‘play along’ with the theme of the moment with both kids and jennifer, being the younger of the two, is usually quite receptive to this. At one point, our magic bicycles were soaring over the landscape below and I said to Jennifer “look, we’re flying over that city”, to which she replied “Oh Dad, it’s only make-believe!” She stuns me on occasions like this. She buys into the story of what we’re doing most of the time but more and more she’s starting to peer outside of that magic make-believe world to perceive the world around her with more grown up eyes. As is the case with Joey, I mourn the loss of sweet innocence each time this happens. At the conclusion of the E.T. ride, along with a ‘convenient E.T. merchandise shopping experience’ is a photo opportunity, where you can have your photo taken with E.T. in a couple of pre-arranged settings. I’m ambivalent towards these things at best nowadays but Sandy still likes to take advantage of them whenever and wherever possible and so we went through the motions and came away with a handful of prints to show for our troubles.

Right past the E.T. ride is Fievel’s Playground, which is where the kids were allowed to roam free and burn off as much energy as we could encourage them to. This is a fantastic outdoor play area that puts you at the size of a mouse, with everything around you being enormous objects that appear as they would from a mouse’s perspective. A particular source of fun for the kids here was the water slide ride, in which you sit in an elongated rubber raft and slide down a winding chute on a river of water. Over the course of the ride, which lasts no more than 10-15 seconds or so, you drop several stories in height. At the end of the ride, you end up getting varying degrees of water crash over the side and into your raft. It’s designed to get you mildly wet most of the time with the odd soaking on occasion. This kids absolutely loved this and went down the chute repeatedly. The low park visitor numbers meant that they could keep going back for more and getting near enough instant gratification. A monitor at the bottom depicted what was happening at the top and so we were able to get a good forewarning of when the raft with it’s occupants would emerge from the tube tunnel at the end. We got some fantastic photos as a results.

Abutting Fievel’s Playground is the Curious George water play area. We had an auspicious start to our visit to this section of the park. Knowing full well that the kids would get completely soaked through to their skins, we donned their swim clothes and I manned the underwater camera but no sooner had we wandered in, we were approached by a couple staff members and told that it was not allowed to have no shoes on here. My jaw dropped and I very nearly fell off the bloody floor. Who’s ridiculous idea was it to impose such a policy, I thought to myself, and I was completely unencumbered with any restraint about letting my views on this subject known to the staff. This is a wet play area and shoes will simply get soaked. Running through the back of my mind was the assumption that the underlying reason for this policy was that the park operator was trying to protect themselves from being sued and thus being characteristically overprotective. I absolutely detest this level of nauseating thinking which, sadly, is all too prevalent in the States. I decided to stake a claim to the point and told the two staff members that ‘I’ was the children’s parent and that ‘I’ would decide what was appropriate and safe for them. Universal were hereby ‘absolved from any responsibility in this matter’. I was polite but steadfastly firm on the point and duly sent the children merrily on their way to have fun, which they did in abundance. As we walked off, I heard one of the staff members say to the other “there’s little you can do about it I guess” – or words to that effect. Neither of them was impolite or rude, despite clearly being somewhat perturbed by the fact that they were unable to enforce what was clearly a rule that they had simply been instructed to ensure be followed. One of the two then walked off and through a staff door off to the side and for a while there, I had visions of him returning with some ‘muscle’ to enforce the point. They would probably have had the right to simply kick us out of the park for not following the rules and it would have been interesting to see just how that played out. I was already formulating various ‘defences’ in the back of my mind ready for the ‘conflict’ should it come to that. After half an hour of us wandering around following the kids with our cameras, nobody came back to talk to us and so that conflict never came and we continued our enjoyment of the park unabated.

Immediately adjoining the water play area is the indoor soft ball play area, where there is a main floor area and an circumnavigating upper level. Throughout this little building are all manner of contraptions to suck up, launch and shoot little foam balls. It’s enormous fun playing here (and the kids enjoyed themselves too). This served to burn up a lot of energy, which I can attest to personally. Regardless of how exhausting these things make us, it never seems to make much of a dent in the kids’ energy levels but we surmised that they would at least sleep well later tonight (or at least we hoped they would).

Also in this section of the park is a kiddies roller-coaster. Slightly less intense that the one of similar size in the Wizard World section of Islands of Adventure next door, Joey seemed to really like this one enough to want to go straight around for a repeat performance, which we did another two times.

As it was now well into the afternoon, we thought we’d do a quick tour around the rest of the park to take in some of the bigger attractions and so we wandered off in the direction of what looked like a brand new roller-coaster attraction over towards the far end of the park from where we were. This one is called the Rip Ride Rocket. Where ‘normal’ roller-coasters start with a climb up an incline, this one starts with a completely vertical climb, followed near enough immediately by a near completely vertical drop. As there were so few people here today, I decided to give this one a go, whilst Sandy sat outside with the kids enjoying some popcorn. Indeed, this is one of the best roller-coasters I’ve every tried and there are quite a few surprises over the fairly lengthy duration of the ride. The biggest surprise awaited me as I got off at the end, somewhat dizzy from the experience, and walked through the customary ‘purchase a photo of you on this ride’ booths that you are so often confronted with following a roller-coaster ride nowadays. The surprise was that they not only offered a photo of your experience but each row of the ride is equipped with a video camera and you can additionally buy a DVD with a movie of you on the ride. I watched ‘me on the ride’ on one of the viewing booths but at nearly $50 for the privilege, I felt that this was too much of a money grab and that they had priced themselves out of reach. We are being somewhat loose with our money on this holiday and I’m sure plenty of people pay the $50 but there has to be a limit at some point and I felt this was just a bit too much so I forewent the opportunity to buy the DVD.

Right next to this ride was the Twister attraction, where you get to see an actual twister form right in front of you. We felt this was going to be touch and go with Joey but we gave it a shot anyway. I had forgotten about how intense the video presentations were leading up the the twister part of the attraction itself and found I was constantly telling Joey how it was all make-believe and not really real. In the end, he didn’t like it – although Jennifer was not particularly phased.

Next up was The Mummy ride, which I again experienced on my own whilst the rest of the family took a load off and relaxed outside waiting for me. I had completely forgotten about this ride, which was actually really good. It’s an indoor roller-coaster that’s themed around the movie ‘The Mummy’. In an effort to upstage the competition, each roller-coaster usually has some feature that’s unique and this one sends you backwards for a section and then forwards again. Some of the interactive effects during the ride are quite intense also.

There were some other attractions that we could have done but they were all of the ‘fairly intense’ category and we were a bit jaded by Joey’s lack of fun in the Twister attraction so we skipped them. As we made our way back towards the Eastern end of the park again, we past through the midway games of skill section, where a number of carnival-style midway stalls were doing their best to tempt people in. I used to be quite keen on these things when I was younger but I mostly see these now as simple money grabs and an opportunity to burn through your wallet at a pace that outstrips your capacity to have fun in the process. I have no problem with spending money on enjoying myself but the burn rate has to be reasonable relative to the fun you have. Sandy insisted on letting Joey spend $2 on the throw of a single ball to knock all three standing blocks completely off the table. These things are designed to look easy but are usually nearly impossible to do and so this was always going to be a complete waste of $2 but Sandy felt that this would be a good opportunity to try to have Joey learn this lesson himself. His ball missed not on the the stack of brings altogether but came nowhere near the bloody table either! Whether this was successful ‘lesson’ or not is anyone’s guess. We may not find out for days, weeks, months or even years but if the lesson does happen to stick, then it would have been a good use of the $2. This section of the park wasn’t a complete write-off, as we all enjoyed a tub of Dipping-Dots ice-cream that we picked up from a food stall there.

The Men In Black Alien Attack ride awaited us next and this turned out to be one of the big successes of the day. It’s essentially a shooting gallery, where your vehicle moves through an inside terrain where aliens emerge from the various shadows and you have to aim a laser gun at them to shoot them. The more accurate your aim, the more points you accumulate. The kids enjoyed this one so much that we repeated it another two times before Mum and Dad insisted that we move on.

We returned to the kiddies play areas for the last 45 minutes or so of our park visit for the day and let the kids burn off some more energy – not that you’d know it to see them still bouncing off the bloody walls by the end of the day. A few more trips up and down the water tube slide confirmed that this was indeed the one thing that both kids enjoyed most today. Judging by their grumpy attitudes at being told that it was time to go, I’d say they really enjoyed themselves here today and we couldn’t have hoped for any more than that.

Along with what looked like the vast majority of people also heading towards the exist, we commenced our journey out of the park. one of the larger shops near the turnstiles captured us and the kids enjoyed yet another purchase for themselves. I shudder to think how we’re going to get so many damned stuffed toys into our suitcases at the end of it all. We plan on photographing all the ‘stuff’ that the kids have had bought for them since arriving here and I’m quite sure it’ll be quite a remarkable sight

Shortly after arriving at the park at the other end of the day, I was approached by a man with a clipboard who had ‘just a few quick questions’ for us. I told him that we’d only just arrived and that we’d had no time to form any of the opinions that he would have been looking for, but I did tell him that I would be glad to participate in the survey at the end of our day. As such, I was more than happy to be ‘hooked’ by one of the waiting staff members with clipboards just outside of the exit turnstiles. I’m not sure if this was the same survey as this morning’s but I was taken to an air-conditioned room to answer some questions. It took a few minutes longer than I anticipated but I at least got a chance to ‘vent’ a little regarding my encounter with the staff members who had earlier wanted to insist that the kids keep their shoes on at the water play area. I can only hope that management will take my comments into account. Whether my comments will carry sufficient weight as to dislodge their fear of being sued by gormless parents is, I fear, doubtful.

We eventually pushed the buggies all the way back to the car. There are moving walkways for much of this journey and we would gladly have made us of them despite the posted signs depicting a ‘no buggies’ rule. Alas, uniformed guards are nowadays standing at the entrance to each moving walkway and so we had to push for the entire journey. I can’t for the life of me think why it’s so important for buggies to not be taken onto these really quite wide moving walkways. Perhaps America is full of those same gormless parents that cause theme park policies to be so witlessly over the top with their over-protectiveness. Perhaps its a bi-product of the litigiousness of the society here, I just don’t know.

Dinner tonight was the Chilis on 192 and this time we made sure to leave enough room for desert. By this time, my entire skin surface had reached a degree of clammy stickiness that I could withstand no longer and so I found some clean and dry clothes buried somewhere in the back of the car to get changed into in the restrooms. My chaffed thighs have thanked me ever since.

Back at the house, Sandy drew me and the kids a bath whilst getting showered herself and we settled into our normal evening and bed-time routine. A new tumble dryer had replaced the one that had broken down yesterday by the time we arrived home and someone will apparently be here tomorrow morning to sort out why the pool has dropped a few degrees in temperature since we arrived. It’s now at the point that Sandy won’t get in and it won’t be too long before it gets down to the point that I won’t get in any more either.

Tomorrow is the last working day of this week and we had originally planned on visiting Seaworld. As we’re starting to run low on the ready cash that we’ve been surviving on since day one, I’ve been thinking that we should make tomorrow a rest day and take the opportunity to find somewhere that we can exchange some of the reserve Australia Dollars that we’ve brought with us. Sandy still insists that we continue tomorrow with Seaworld as planned so we’ll see in the morning how that pans out.