“It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides…”
With deepest apologies to Charles Dickens, today I present a Tale of Two Parks. As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time these past few months at Universal Studios Florida, documenting the debut of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley. But USF isn’t the only movie-centric theme park in Orlando. So on Monday, July 28, I stopped by the other Studios for the first time in forever — or at least since Star Wars Weekends — for some observations from Disney’s Hollywood Studios. How does DHS stack up in the age of Harry Potter’s newest expansion?
First, a bit of background. The origins of DHS and USF will forever be entwined, as Michael Eisner accelerated the opening of Walt Disney World’s third gate to upstage Universal’s first Floridian attraction. Though it was announced first, Universal Studios Florida opened a year after Disney/MGM Studios (as the park will forever be known in the hearts of long-time fans) and was initially hobbled by famously malfunctioning E-Tickets like Jaws and Kong. MGM sported only a half-day slate of entertainment upon its debut, but added major rides like Star Tours and Tower of Terror during its first decade, while Universal used that time to tame its balky headliners and add effects-driven shows like Twister and Terminator 2.
By the turn of the millennium, Orlando’s two Studios parks were roughly equivalent in terms of attractions lineups — at least in the minds of many vacationeers, who would often bypass USF for DHS if they had purchased multi-day Disney passes. But over the next fifteen years, the stories of these two parks distinctly diverge. Disney added Toy Story Midway Mania and some shows, while letting much the rest of the park (especially the once-iconic Backlot Tour and Animation exhibits) become stale. In contrast, Universal systematically replaced or reimagined nearly its entire opening slate; aside from E.T., Animal Actors, and the Horror Makeup Show, hardly a trace of the 1990’s version USF is still recognizable.
That tug-of-war between the latest thrills vs. reliable nostalgia is emblematic of the ongoing competition between Disney and Universal, and the latest battle in that war is being waged with snowballs. As you can see from these photos, my return to DHS coincided with their Frozen Fun promotion, capitalizing on the seemingly endless popularity of the animated film.
Guests are given these cute (and cheap) paper Olafs on sticks upon entry. Use them to fan yourself in hopes of not melting like a snowman in summer.
Both Studios have a Hollywood Boulevard with some of the same architectural landmarks, but Disney’s is scenically superior. Or at least it would be, if it wasn’t for a certain ginormous hat…
As I entered the park, a brief show was occurring on the Sorcerer’s Hat stage, featuring a live host interacting with a video of Olaf. Olaf wished for it to be “cooler,” provoking a flurry of fog and fake snow. According to Accuweather, his wish went unfulfilled; with the humidity index, it felt like 1000°F out there.
My first destination was to secure a return ticket for the “For the First Time in Forever” Frozen Sing-Along Celebration in the Premiere Theater. Disney has been taking a page from a classic USF attraction and is going “Back to the Future” with a new form of paper FastPass, which elderly readers may dimly remember from the epoch before MagicBands.
With only one Cast Member distributing reservation cards, the line moved fitfully at best, and by the time I reached its head all slots for the next show were gone. Luckily, a standby line had just formed for the performance that was about to start, and joined the queue only a few guests from the front.
A few minutes before showtime, we were allowed into the theater, while being warned that it may be “standing room only.” However, an entire row in the center of the theater turned out to be almost completely empty. Reserved for purchasers of viewing packages, this row becomes fair game once the show begins, and beats standing in the aisles or blocking the view of the technicians.
The sing-along itself was delightful, especially considering that it is a sort-term seasonal show assembled in a short amount of time. Anna makes an appearance in the opening minutes, and both sisters return for the finale, but most of the show is carried by a pair of storytellers who deliver a subversively snarky and self-aware retelling of the movie’s plot, in between screening musical numbers with projected lyrical subtitles. The script does a serviceable job of condensing the story (though I was disappointed that “Fixer Upper” is skipped over), but it’s the improvisational-style commentary from the humorous hosts that make this as entertaining to adults as their caterwauling kids.
Frozen is big enough by now that it deserves a dedicated year round attraction, but until that happens I hope Disney considers continuing this production beyond its projected September 1 closure.
After the sing along, I circled around the park to take the temperature of the crowds. The park was originally predicted to be a 4 out of 10 in our Crowd Calendar, but was later revised up to an 8. After several weeks of visiting USF on 9+ days, I was surprised to see how DHS felt even more crowded than its numbers indicated. Perhaps the Frozen festival is drawing even more guests than anticipated, or maybe I was experiencing the effect of DHS’s relatively small number of guest-absorbing rides. Either way, outside of the Gringotts queue Universal subjectively feels like it has more elbow room, despite being objectively busier.
Proving that Potter doesn’t have a monopoly on getting guests to queue for merchandise, Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post had a 15 minute wait when I walked by.
By now, it was time for a ride on Orlando’s other 3-D spinning family-friendly thrill ride. I booked an afternoon FastPass+ for Toy Story Mania, which allowed me to bypass the 90 minute wait and board in under 5 minutes.
I confess that I’m not a huge fan of Toy Story Midway Mania. The polarized 3-D lacks the depth and contrast of the Dolby 3-D screens in Star Tours and Gringotts, while the pull-string launchers inevitably give my forearm embarrassing carpal cramps. As far as interactive shooting attractions go, I’d much rather ride MEN IN BLACK or Buzz Lightyear (especially the California version).
Keep in mind than several attractions, including Toy Story and The Great Movie Ride, close early to prepare for the nightly Frozen fireworks.
Or maybe I’m just bitter because I can’t win anything better than a beaver. At least I managed to beat the non-existent players in my empty car!
Speaking of the return of paper FastPass, these “Crew Card” timed reservations are still required to experience the Captain Jack Sparrow walk-through near Toy Story Mania!
Before I knew it, it was time for a trip to the Twilight Zone. Again, I was grateful for my FastPass+ appointment, as it allowed me to bypass a full standby queue snaking through the Hollywood Tower Hotel’s decaying gardens.
It’s been a little over 20 years since Tower of Terror opened, and in my opinion Walt Disney World has yet to top it. It may be the Mouse’s best combination of story, design, effects, and thrills — at least on this continent.
I hoped to take a quick joyride in Aerosmith’s limo, but the line for Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster was an hour long, and the single rider line stretched out the door and down the ramp.
My quality time with Mr. Tyler will have to wait for another visit; since the attraction is in FastPass+ Tier 1 with Toy Story Mania, more and more guests are using its standby and singles lines. Since I’m impatient, I’ve cut back on my Rock ‘n’ Rollering recently.
On my way down Sunset Boulevard, I noticed these menus placed along the queue in front of the quick-service dining menus. Hopefully these will help guests make up their minds before it is their turn to order.
Here’s what the park’s official wait time tip board looked like in mid-afternoon:
With a little time to kill before my last FastPass+, I took in a few minutes of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, which still boasts some great action but takes far too much labored talking to get there. Then I slipped into the Guardians of the Galaxy preview, a 3-D movie trailer that has taken over the Sounds Dangerous theater.
The preview includes a substantial scene from the film plus an extended trailer, and it ratcheted up my already intense interest in the flick to new fanboy extremes. I was somewhat surprised to see the “Marvel” brand-name used in the preview, as the press information on the attraction had omitted Marvel’s mention, presumably in deference to Universal’s licensing contract. The film clip was presented without any of the 4-D effects included in Anaheim, which could be a legal tactic to avoid being branded an attraction.
Following the film preview, I few off to the Wookie planet with C-3PO and nearly got sonic bombed by Boba Fett before reaching the Rebel base. The simulator technology may be aging, and I’ve long since seen every possible random ride combination, but Star Tours still makes me smile every time it takes me to that galaxy far, far away…
However, it appears I may be in the minority, as my FastPass+ reservation proved entirely unnecessary. Though a 15 minute standby wait was posted, in reality neither queue stretched much beyond the point at which they merged, making FastPass+ pointless here.
Finally, I finished my DHS day with a late lunch at the ABC Commissary, which is frequently overlooked by DHS diners.
I ordered the seafood platter, which turned out to be a decent value by theme park quick service standards: under $10 for a half-dozen fried shrimp, a couple pieces of fried fish, and a plate of fries. That’s cheaper than a similar meal at Magic Kingdom’s Columbia Harbor House, though I think Harbor’s shrimp are more plentiful. The formerly-frozen fish is equally mediocre at either location, and all Disney fries are equally limp. For really good fast food fish and chips, you’ll have to go to Epcot’s UK pavilion, or Universal’s Simpsons or Potter restaurants.
An area Disney dining continues to excel at is inventing irresistible desserts. This Olaf cupcake was almost too adorable to eat…almost.
With a carrot cake base, cream cheese frosting body, dark chocolate arms and rocks, and a white chocolate head, he’s big enough to share, and sweet enough to put you into insulin shock.
In closing, I enjoyed reuniting with some of my old favorites at DHS, and the Frozen sing along restored my faith in Disney’s ability to stage a first-class show on short notice. Besides, neither Studios park has much movie-making content left to speak of, and both are filled with film properties that didn’t originate with their respective companies. Even so, I definitely find more of the innovative thrills and unconventional edibles that personally appeal to me at USF than DHS these days. Universal also appears to be handling its crowds better than before, while Disney is dithering with manual guest management methods in a digital age.
As a lifelong Walt Disney World fan, I’m hoping that Mickey’s empire will soon strike back, and that it won’t be a long, long time before Bothan spies confirm rumors of major new developments for Disney’s Hollywood Studios.