Pros: awesome water rides, water incorporated elsewhere, effects shows, very well themed
Cons: too extreme at times (especially the so-called children's rides), very spread out
Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando is one of the more unusual amusement parks I've ever visited. Heavily, almost lovingly themed, it both seems geared to children and has some of the most extreme rides around. Ever the versions of normally innocuous carnival rides are revved up here. Water is a major or minor element of almost every ride and show - even the Incredible Hulk Coaster dips down and skims the water, creating a splash. Above all, Islands of Adventure believes a wet guest is a happy guest, the wetter the better.
The Lay of the Land
Islands of Adventure is a roughly circular park composed of five separate and distinct "islands" surrounding a central lake. It's all connected to the Port of Entry, a small shopping area that serves as the park entrance.
Guests are free to traverse the park in either direction. If you head to the right from the Port of Entry, the five islands in order are:
* Seuss Landing
* The Lost Continent
* Jurassic Park
* Toon Lagoon
* Marvel Super Hero Island
Each island is individually themed and contains a mix of attractions, shopping, and fast food restaurants.
Most really extreme land rides are in Marvel Super Hero Island and most child-oriented rides are in Seuss Landing. If you're at the park for the roller coasters and other such rides, you're probably best off starting from Marvel Super Hero Island and making your way to the right. If you're not or if you have small children with you, you're likely best off starting from Seuss Landing and working your way left through the park.
Seuss Landing pays delightful homage to the world and works of Dr. Seuss. Bright, colorful, and curvy, there isn't a straight line in sight. The attractions are pulled right from Seuss books, yes, but so are the shops and the restaurants. This is a visual treat for kids of all ages and, as a solo adult visitor, one of my favorite sections of the park.
The attractions at Seuss Landing are all over the place, both in terms of their age appropriateness, their style, and their appeal.
The Cat in the Hat Ride - a short indoor track ride that follows the story of the book using animatronics and light effects, it's fun but a bit extreme for little ones
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish - a water-themed spoke and hub carnival ride with a delightfully catchy song, it's by far the best incarnation of this type of ride I've ridden. You will get wet, possibly soaked.
Caro-Seuss-el - a Seuss inspired carousel, it's one of the least enjoyable carousels out there. The music is disappointing, the seats hard to mount and dismount, the characters difficult to recognize, and the ride very short.
The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Ride - a baby roller coaster with small dips and tilts that rides over the rest of Seuss Landing, this is actually two different rides with different rhymes and themes.
If I Ran the Zoo Play Area - a small playground for the very little kids out there, it's an opportunity for little ones to burn off some energy. It fits the theme, but unlike some other park play areas, it's limited enough to have absolutely no appeal to older kids or adults who are kids at heart.
Restaurants and Shops
I didn't eat anywhere in Seuss Landing, but it does have a fast food restaurant and several places that offer more limited options. Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous is the only real restaurant, offering options like fried chicken, pizza, spaghetti, and salads to diners. Green Eggs and Ham was not open during my visit, but it's supposed to serve green egg and ham sandwiches. There's also an ice cream stand, a candy shop, and a drink stop called Moose Juice Goose Juice.
Seuss Landing has a bookstore that sells Dr. Seuss books - I thought this was a really nice touch - as well as a plush store selling stuffed animal Seuss characters and a general souvenir store. I don't go to amusement parks to shop, but if I were going to do so, this would be one of my first stops.
The Lost Continent
The Lost Continent isn't quite as well themed as other sections of the park, mainly because it has two areas that don't seem to mesh. Entering from the Seuss Landing side, you first encounter the lush, tropical Poseidon's Fury attraction and environs, but most of the rest of the island feels like a Saharan village. Then, just before the exit, it seems to revert back to the tropics again. Maybe it's supposed to represent the different climates of Africa? I don't know. However, if you think of this island in the plural, though, as separately themed sections of the park, it works.
Poseidon's Fury - a multi-scene walkthrough adventure with some interesting and unique fire and water effects, this is Raiders of the Lost Ark writ small. It gets crowded at times, there are portions of total darkness, the special effects can be intense, and you'll get a little wet, but if you're okay with all of that it's great fun.
The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad - a 20 minute stunt show with an engaging story, this is swashbuckling melodrama at its finest. The show only runs a couple of times a day, so you may have to backtrack to catch it, but it's worth the extra effort.
The Flying Unicorn - Supposedly a family-oriented roller coaster with a fairy tale theme, you can't really see the ride to gauge it without waiting in the always extensive line. Because I'm a major wuss when it comes to rides like this, I skipped it.
Dueling Dragons - One of Islands of Adventure's two major roller coasters, Dueling Dragons is really two intertwined coasters that "battle" each other by seeming to head for the same spots at exactly the same time. This ride is way too extreme for me, so you'll have to look for more information elsewhere.
Restaurants and Shops
Most of the dining and shopping options in The Lost Continent are along the main desert drag which greatly resembles a bazaar. It's a fun stretch with a lot of smaller stands offering one or two specialty items. This is the best window shopping at Universal.
There's also the Enchanted Oak, a counter service restaurant that looks like it's inside of a tree and Mythos, one of the few sitdown restaurants in the park. Mythos is supposedly the nicest restaurant around even although its menu is now supposedly limited to burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, and pasta dishes. Mythos was closed during my visit or I might have given it a try.
Welcome to Jurassic Park. With fake dinosaur fossils embedded in large stones along some of the pathways, there's just enough theming outside of the attractions to make this island work. It's the rides, though, that really set it apart as the land of the dinosaur.
Jurassic Park Discovery Center - All dinosaurs, all the time. This small museum-like attraction features raptor hatchings, fossil hunts, and my favorite - the You Bet Jurassic! game show.
Jurassic Park River Adventure - a leisurely boat ride through Jurassic Park turns bad when an out of control dino pushes your large raft into the raptor containment area. Featuring a large drop that's unusual only because you're in a raft rather than a flume, this ride is fun but suffers from some design flaws including poor animatronics. Expect to get soaked.
Pteranodon Flyers - A children only ride (adults are not permitted!) where you dangle in the open air from an overhead glider and ride slowly around a track, this ride would have given me a heart attack when I was a kid (I'm not sure I'd do much better now) but I bet the views are spectacular.
Restaurants and Shops
There are a couple of stands here and there, but for the most part dining in Jurassic Park means eating at the Burger Digs, located on the second floor of the Jurassic Park Discovery Center. This is the only place I ate within Islands of Adventure and, while it served the purpose of keeping me going, it wasn't exactly a great meal.
The menu is limited mostly to burgers or hot dogs with fries and fountain sodas. There is a free fixings bar with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup, but that's as fancy as it gets. The best thing I can say about this restaurant is that they will give out small cups of water for free (with food purchase). The food is expensive even for an amusement park, running almost $8 for a very small hamburger and a slightly larger portion of french fries. The quality of the meat isn't very good, but the fries were acceptable. It's possible to fill up on the fixings, but lettuce and pickles will only go so far. I was hungry again a couple of hours after my meal.
Toon Lagoon is practically perfect in every way. From the absolutely incredible theming to the world's best water rides, every inch of this island is delightful. With fountains of all shapes and sizes all over the place, buildings designed to match dozens and dozens of comics both old and new, and even signs that delight the eye, pure fun is the name of the game.
Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges - Hands down the best amusement park ride I've ever had the pleasure to experience, it's all about finding new and fun ways to get thoroughly and completely soaked to the bone. The Popeye theming is picture perfect too, adding to the fun. You will never get this wet with your clothes on again.
Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls - A traditional log flume ride that moves beyond the standard because of terrific theming and attention to detail, the ride includes impossible geometric shapes, bad puns, and, of course, Dudley trying to save Nell from the evil clutches of Snidely Whiplash.
Me Ship, The Olive - A large children's play area featuring all sorts of water fun including the chance to shoot water guns at rafts on the Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges ride, this is another good place to burn off some extra energy.
Restaurants and Shops
The visual cacophony of building after building of comic-covered shops and restaurants is a jolt to the system, but a good one. Have a favorite strip? You're likely to find it here, even if it's been a while since it actually showed up the newspapers. I just walked up and down, enjoying the view, but eating at establishments like Wimpy's (serving burgers, of course!), Blondie's, and the Comic Strip Cafe would be a real kick.
Marvel Super Hero Island
Marvel Super Hero Island is, as its name implies, home to the heros and villains of Marvel. It's louder, more fluorescent, more angular, and less nostalgic than Toon Lagoon and doesn't quite have the same magic, but it's still a nicely themed section of the park. It's also home to most of the more extreme rides in the park.
Storm Force Accelatron - a slightly jazzed up version of the spinning saucers carnival ride, this ride features poor theming, no rider control over car movement, and pounding music sure to give you a headache. It's the least well designed ride I experienced in the whole park and should be avoided unless you feel you must try everything once.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster - Extending out over the central Islands of Adventure lake and even skimming the surface at one point, this is not a ride for the faint of heart (like me).
Dr Doom's Fearfall - One of those open air tower rides where you're shot up then dropped back down to the ground, this is another extreme ride that you couldn't pay me to try.
The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman - A 3-D track ride/motion simulator with spins, drops, and all sorts of rapid sharp motions, this ride takes the most extreme and interesting features of a combination of standard modern amusement park rides and puts them together into one cohesive ride. Although I'm a big Spidey fan, I reluctantly decided to pass on this ride after talking to the attendants about it because it was clear that it was way too extreme for my tastes.
Restaurants and Shops
There's the requisite comic book shop and a variety of kiosks and the standard fast food restaurants found throughout the park, but in general I wasn't that impressed with the shops and food offerings here. The building exteriors were more fun than their interiors.
Park Hours and Deals
Islands of Adventure opens at 9am and closes as early as 6pm during the off season. It can close as late as 10pm during busier seasons (or later on special occasions like New Year's Eve). During my December visit, the park closed at 6pm on weekdays and 7pm on the weekends. That was more than enough time to ride most of the non-extreme attractions (attractions I skipped are outlined above) at least once, with multiple visits to several of my favorites. I spent part of a second day here as well, but that was all for repeat rides.
I was able to purchase a seven day two park CityWalk pass for $90 including tax online and a similar deal is still being offered in April 2007 on the Universal website (it seems to be a regular offer). Individual one day admission just to Islands of Adventure runs about $60, so you should definitely consider taking advantage of one of this or other online discounts.
In addition, there are two "deals" you can buy for in-park usage: the meal deal and the express pass.
At $20/person for unlimited food only (no drinks) at only three of the restaurants at Islands of Adventure (Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous in Seuss Landing, Comic Strip Cafe in Toon Landing, and Captain America's Diner in Marvel Super Hero Island), the price of the Meal Deal is pretty steep. Worse, the accompanying all you can drink cup runs about $10 (only available with the food plan). Unless you're planning to spend your whole day eating and don't mind being limited to these three restaurants, I'd take a pass.
Express Pass allows park visitors to use shorter lines at some (most) of the attractions in Islands of Adventure. Each pass only entitles the visitor to one trip through the express line and the passes are extremely expensive (now up to $40; I thought they were overpriced at $15 during my December visit). Unless you're just visiting the park for one day, it's busy, and you want to ensure you ride everything once I just can't see paying for the pass.
There's also a version of the pass called the Express Gap pass that allows disabled visitors unlimited use of the express lines throughout the day. The pass is only available at the customer service station just inside the park entrance and be aware that not all of the staff there are aware of its existence so if you need an Express Gap pass, you may need to ask for a supervisor or otherwise press the staff to get what you need.
In general, Islands of Adventure offers fairly extreme rides. Even fairly innocuous rides like the carnival spinning saucers ride (Storm Force Acceletron) are faster and edgier here. Even kids rides can be fast and dark and involve spinning and light effects. Many of the rides are designed to get visitors wet, often soaked.
I really enjoyed the water aspects of the park, but I wish some of the rides had been toned down a bit. The Cat in the Hat, for example, wasn't as enjoyable as similar rides at Disney not because of any lack in the story or animatronics or theming but because of the sharp spins and jerky motions. Similarly, The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Ride gets the adrenaline going in ways Tomorrowland Transit Authority wouldn't dream of doing.
The park involves a lot of walking and the place is large, but there aren't really that many rides about. A lot of space is devoted to theming and atmosphere. I loved both, but perhaps just a bit more space could be devoted to attractions providing a bit more for visitors to actively do.
All of that said, it's Toon Lagoon and the water rides there that really make Islands of Adventure stand above the crowd. If I hadn't been able to ride Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges over and over and over again, I don't think my overall impression of the park would have been so positive. This is definitely a park for water lovers and water lovers will find enough cool stuff here that they'll be able to overlook minor disappointments in other aspects of the park. If, like me, you love water rides, then you should definitely give Universal's Islands of Adventure a try.