A mysterious package recently arrived for me at the Weekly bearing an "ORLANDOWORLD, FLORIDUH" return address. It wasn't a letter bomb (those usually come to my home), but a beautifully brain-bending book. Strange Rumblings in Mickeytown USA is a slim-but-dense volume of artist/writer/bohemian Morgan Steele's rambling ruminations on Orlando. During his stumbles around our fair city, he encounters some of the same folks I cover in my column, and he's got an opinion or three about each. Steele's Kerou-wacked-out grammar makes Rumblings wonderfully unreadable like On the Road, except you won't bump into Neal Cassady on an Orange Avenue bar crawl. Check out MorganSteele.com while I report some rumblings of my own from the amusement universe.
Universal Studios Florida's Earthquake was recently refurbished and rechristened Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride … Starring You. The basic structure of the opening-day attraction is unchanged — several preshows about special effects filmmaking leading up to a "subway disaster" simulation. But Chuck Heston's miniature models are long gone, replaced by Christopher Walken as "Frank Kincaid," impresario of the imaginary Disaster Studios. Walken appears onstage via the magic of musion, a next-gen amplification of the classic Pepper's Ghost illusion behind Disney's Haunted Mansion ballroom.
Seeing Walken seemingly walking before you, delivering cracked-out quips in full-on "more cowbell" mode, is an amazing "How'd they do that?" moment. But the real stars are the performers playing Kincaid's frazzled assistant, Lonnie (a superb Lauren M. Hamm at opening, with spot-on signing by Babetta Popoff). Actual actors (instead of apathetic ride spielers) and a much-improved script (including eyebrow-raising double entendres about "three ways" and getting "shot in the balls") make the preshows better than the big finale.
The climactic ride is largely unchanged, except for brighter lighting and added audience participation instructions to diminish the drama, but the mock movie trailer starring audience volunteers and a tongue-in-cheek Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson made me laugh. Elsewhere at Universal, construction has begun on Hogwarts Castle (ride the Flying Unicorn for a peek), and CityWalk's CityJazz has been turned into the Rising Star karaoke club, perhaps to counter Disney's announced American Idol attraction. In the distance is Project Rumble, USF's next big thing after the Simpsons Ride's upcoming debut. There's no official confirmation, but permit filings with the Orange County Comptroller indicate Germany's Maurer Söhne will build the ride, possibly one of their prototype X-Car coasters. Hopefully it will be better themed than the eyesore Hollywood Dream that clutters Universal Japan.
Bright House Networks recently added Animal Planet to their HD lineup, but when your widescreen won't do, the Orlando Science Center has big cats on a really big screen.
Roar: Lions of the Kalahari is wildlife documentarian Tim Liversedge's first foray into big-format filmmaking, and the lions he captured in the Botswana desert are overwhelming on the giant, curved Omnimax screen. Though obviously edited for anthropomorphic effect, the story of an aging king and his rival compels, and the slow-motion shots of hunting lionesses are stunning.
OSC's headliner through the end of 2008 is Titanic — The Experience, formerly located at I-Drive's Mercado. I toured the old incarnation several times, and despite necessary downsizing of some sets, the Titanic exhibit has lost none of its appeal. Explorer/exhibitor G. Michael Harris has the tragic ship in his blood (his father was a Titanic documentarian; his son Sebastian is the youngest person ever to dive the wreck) and it shows in this respectfully presented tour. Guides do a great job of delivering details while staying in character, making for a fast 45-plus minutes that you don't have to be a Kate & Leo fan to appreciate. Robots: The Interactive Exhibition, a kid-friendly intro to robotics themed around the forgettable CGI film, is also on display through May 11. I liked the William Joyce concept art and the tributes to Robbie and Gort, but it's a bit small and shallow. Also new is the high-tech Giant Worlds astronomy display, with a nifty video globe. Recession alert: The cost of admission is about one-third the price of a theme-park ticket.
Screamscape.com reports the Las Vegas Hilton will close Star Trek: The Experience to make way for more casino games. The 10-year-old mini-theme park features the Next Generation Klingon Encounter simulator ride and the Voyager Borg Invasion 4D multimedia show, both first-rate examples of their genre. More than just rides, these interactive adventures are supported by a cast of committed actors as good as any I've seen in Orlando. Most victims of Vegas' mid-'90s "family destination" flameout go unmourned, but ST:TE isn't just "Disney quality" — it's better. I hope they at least salvage Quark's bar, the best place in the galaxy for a pint of blue Romulan Ale.[email protected]