It's a sad fact of theme-park life that the best fantasy characters always get the worst rides. What does Batman have? Some lame stunt shows at various Six Flags locations. How about Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest of their monstrous ilk? That sophomoric, Branson-ready "Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue" at Universal Studios Florida. Robin Hood? Bupkus, unless you count a Kevin Costner movie as a roller coaster of perpetual terror.
Let me happily report, then, that the new Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios Escape is a terrific break from tradition, a self-contained playground of myth in which a handful of fictional icons spring to breathtaking three-dimensional life. Finally, there exists an imagination-fueled exception to the stifling rules of attractions.
Last weekend, the park opened its gates to a limited number of preview guests, including annual-pass holders, tour-group members and nosy journalists. The "soft open" ensured that a sunny Sunday's walk across the grounds could be a leisurely paced investigation of IOA's numerous joys, with no pushy crowds or long lines to spoil the fun.
With an entrance situated to the rear of the recently launched Universal Studios CityWalk, Islands of Adventure proved to be an architecturally segregated compendium of five highly atmospheric entertainment environments. The Port of Entry food-and-shopping plaza just beyond the turnstiles immediately provoked the intended disorientation, its culture clash of design styles encompassing Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean elements. The park staffer who was acting as my tour guide explained that we were supposed to feel as if we were "everyplace, nowhere and somewhere all at once." I've worked in offices that were just like that.
Silly seas ahead
To our right lay Seuss Landing, a colorful explosion of characters and scenes straight out of the whimsical Dr. Seuss books. Every last kiosk was a spot-on re-creation of the good Doctor's delightfully warped vision. The simulation must have been no mean feat, given the author's propensity for impossibly top-heavy, gravity-defying structures. Even the palm trees were bent, though the construction crew couldn't take credit: The trees, I was told, were victims of Hurricane Andrew that had been sought out for their already stooped appearance. It's nice to know that Universal makes it a policy to hire the handicapped.
The rides included a Caro-Seuss-El whose fully interactive wooden animals moved their eyes and wagged their heads on command. I was disappointed, however, that the classic "Hop on Pop" had only been transformed into an ice cream shop; think of the great kids' attraction that one would have made, especially for neglected, revenge-hungry tots whose papas had missed one too many Little League games.
It was a short walk from Seuss to Zeus, as the neighboring Lost Continent toned down the frivolity for a darkly entertaining trip through ancient mythological scenarios. The Merlinwood area took us back to the knights (and the nights) of the Round Table, its Enchanted Oak Tavern and Alchemy Bar a dimly lit grotto of an eatery that admitted precious little of the outside noontime sun.
The continent's flagship ride, Poseidon's Fury: Escape from the Lost City, was among a handful of Islands of Adventure attractions that weren't operational on Sunday; being part of a preview audience means that you take what you can get. But excited screams were already emanating from Dueling Dragons, touted as the first dual roller coaster whose tracks intertwine. Three "near-misses" were built into the ride, so that opposing cars could be brought within 12 inches of each other for added thrills. Despite the obvious lure of replicating the I-4 experience without actually risking life and limb, I decided to pass. My brief flirtation with roller coaster connoisseurship long ago gave way to a lasting acrophobia. I even get dizzy when I have to stand on ceremony.
Opening the floodgates
A good flume, on the other hand, is always worth a shot. Making our way to the Jurassic Park area, my guide and I braved the River Adventure's death-drop-with-tyrannosaur perils and ended up soaking wet but pleasantly catatonia-free.
As we exited our drenched boat, we were greeted by strolling impersonators of the characters played by Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum in the Spielberg screen epics. My host cheekily informed the Attenborough look-alike that something had "gone terribly wrong" on the ride, causing the faux Goldblum to respond with an immaculately timed stammer of "They should ... they should fit you for coffins on that thing!" Someone please open a "Big Chill" park right away, so this guy has year-round work.
The nearby Discovery Center was drier in its humor, a roomful of infotainment exhibits about dinosaur genetics that was as intellectually respectable as the Orlando Science Center, but a good deal more fun. I particularly enjoyed the setup that allowed guests to combine their own DNA with that of a prehistoric beast, resulting in a photographic composite of their own features and the 'raptor's. Still, I was somewhat unnerved by the air jet that blew some skin off my palm for analysis. Just what could the Seagram's/Universal conglomerate want with my DNA, anyway? I hope I don't end up on some cryogenics company's mailing list.
The weak link in Islands of Adventure's own genetic makeup was Toon Lagoon, a surprisingly unfocused amalgam of animated and newspaper-strip influences that seemed to have been devised according to contractual availability, not thematic cohesion. Dudley Do-Right rubbing shoulders with "The Family Circus'" PJ? Please.
A far finer representation of comic-panel aesthetics was on display on Marvel Super Hero Island, where an art-deco Manhattan street scene provided the backdrop for a pitched battle between the good and evil forces of creator Stan Lee's radioactively enhanced universe. In keeping with four-color tradition, the shops and restaurants were devoid of clever names, instead christened with such utilitarian appellations as the elegantly simple "Diner."
Reaching new shores
Even on a sparsely populated preview day, the lines were out the door for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, ballyhooed as a landmark achievement in multimedia immersion. The hype, thankfully, was entirely justified. Beating even Universal's own Terminator 2 3-D for sensory assault, Amazing Adventures took us on a full-motion 3-D voyage to the rooftops, where Spidey duked it out with his arch enemies as their electrically charged, mutated fisticuffs spilled over into everyone's laps. The panorama culminated in a 400-foot drop to the city streets below.
I'd love to be able to report that the visuals remained sterling all the way down, but I'm honestly not certain. Somewhere around the 20th story, I realized that my eyes were shut tighter than Jack Benny's wallet. That darned vertigo again.
So maybe I don't want to be a super hero after all. Perhaps I could settle for something less stressful, like being Mandrake the Magician on weekends. But I know where I'll be in May, when Islands of Adventure opens its portals in earnest: back on line for the Spider-drop, wondering how long I'll be able to keep my eyelids parted this time. As anyone involved in the creation of this simply wonderful land of excitement would surely attest, that action habit is a hard one to kick.