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FAMILY VACATIONS ISSUE

A Theme Park for WHEEEEEE! Folk

With heart-stopping roller coasters and other thrills, Universal unveils an Orlando attraction to challenge Disney

May 23, 1999|JAMES BERNSTEIN | James Bernstein is a business reporter for Newsday

ORLANDO, Fla. — Wearing his trademark baseball cap and slightly rumpled gray pants, Steven Spielberg appeared on the steamy sidewalk of a new amusement theme park in Orlando, popping up like a jolting image from a shock ride. He was trailed by reporters earlier this month at what Universal Studios, the Los Angeles-based entertainment company, is calling its Islands of Adventure park.

There should have been little surprise that the director of mega-hits such as "Jurassic Park" was taking a look-see. Spielberg, after all, served as creative consultant to Universal on the $2.5-billion park, the company's biggest and most ambitious ever.

But the key question is whether the Spielberg magic that turns make-believe into pure gold will rub off on Islands of Adventure, which Universal touts as the theme park for the 21st century. Islands of Adventure is also Universal's latest salvo in a decade-long war against archrival Walt Disney World, about five miles away.

Islands, whose official public opening is on May 28 (though it's been open for special groups since March), is a sprawling, 110-acre hilly complex a few hundred yards from the movie theme park Universal opened a decade ago, called Universal Studios Florida. But unlike the relatively sedate, sometimes deliberately understated Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure is largely a bold, brassy, in-your-face extravaganza.

Gary Slade of Amusement Today, a magazine in Arlington, Texas, says Islands is the first true thrill ride park in Orlando. "I think Disney's got to counter. Universal has built one incredible theme park," he said.

I went to Islands of Adventure for three days this month with my 11-year old son, Jake, as part of a media opening. It turned out to be a delightful experience. At the end of our second day, as we were leaving Islands of Adventure, Jake said, "I'm going to remember this for years and years and years."

We found Islands of Adventure to be an often unexpected mixture of gentle and not-so-gentle rides and attractions and unusual fast food: Consider a green eggs and ham sandwich at Seuss Landing. It took a lot of walking to cover the many games and rides, which owed much of their excitement to the technological marvels used in movies.

There are two types of attractions that set Islands of Adventure apart from other theme parks. One is a pair of high-speed, action-packed roller coasters (Incredible Hulk and Dueling Dragons) said to be the first of their kind in the country. The other key attraction is a tamer but technologically advanced ride called the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. It takes riders along a track on a 1 1/2-acre set and uses 3-D techniques to give one the feel of actually being part of a movie about saving Manhattan from bad guys. The last part of the Spider-Man ride is a surreal experience: You go down what appears to be a straight drop from a skyscraper, and you feel it in the pit of your stomach. Actually, though, the car you are in only moves about a foot; the sensation is all from a graphic, 3-D movie technique.

A visitor's reaction to the park will depend a lot on what you want out of a vacation. But Universal is trying hard to appeal to all comers. The hope, of course, is that there will be a little something to appeal to everybody. But not everyone is likely to be pleased. During the preview week we attended, some visitors were jubilant, while others said Islands of Adventure just didn't grab them as special enough. Some said they preferred Disney because it's bigger.

As you walk into the park, the first thing you see are the roller coasters, which are massive and colorful. "I can't believe I'm one of the first kids in America to see this," Jake said. Islands of Adventure is actually five theme parks in one, arranged horseshoe fashion around a lagoon. They are distinctly different from one another, each offering different rides, foods and places to shop.

Marvel Super Hero Island is just the spot for teens, and the still brave and young at heart, to strap themselves into the park's two giant coasters. Jake went on everything, including the roller coasters, but there was no way I was going on them. So I watched in horror as he sped about. The Hulk catapults riders up a 150-foot tunnel at the G force felt by an F-16 pilot, and immediately turns them upside-down more than 110 feet above the ground. Riders then dive at 60 mph before skimming the waves of the lagoon, rising 109 feet and finally plunging into the water. Jurassic Park is the place to study dinosaurs, take a ride in a vehicle that coasts gently along at treetop level, or pet an animatronic triceratops named Chris, who is treated by "vets."

In one building in Jurassic Park, there's a device that allows you to see what you might look like as a dinosaur. I stood in front of a glass and a camera took a picture of me; after a few minutes an animated, dinosaur version of myself appeared. I had the same nose and eyes, but the rest of me had morphed into a dino.

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