Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Life Beyond the Mouse

It's not surprising that Celebration has more than its fair share of Disney fanatics. After all, it was originally created by Disney, and it is located less than 10 miles from the gates of the Magic Kingdom. You can reach Disney World property without ever passing through the outside world of cheap motels and tourist traps.

But while Mickey and Company offer a rich buffet of shows, rides, and activities, it could all disappear tomorrow and I would still find it impossible to be bored. There are so many other wonderful places that are overshadowed by the mighty Mouse. Believe me, you can have a wonderful time in the Orlando/Kissimmee area without ever setting foot on Disney property.

For example, I firmly believe that Universal Studio Orlando/Islands of Adventure is one of the most under-rated destinations in the area. Half the people I talk to don't even know it exists, and the other half don't realize that they are actually two totally separate parks.

Granted, Universal Studio Florida got off to a rocky start when it opened prematurely in an effort to beat Disney-MGM Studio back in the end of the 1980s. Sadly, even though that was over a decade ago, the reputation of being a motley Disney wanna-be has been almost impossible to shake. In reality, Disney would do well to take a few pages from Universal's book; maybe it would help to undo some of the damage caused by the years of Eisner economics that have turned the mighty Mickey into a mediocre Mouse.

Once upon a time, Disney-MGM Studio was a bustling, vibrant place, with "real" studio attractions that gave you the feeling of being on an honest-to-goodness backlot. These included the original animation studio tour, Superstar Television, and the Monster Sound Show. You were an active participant, not a passive observer.

But as Eisner economics and cost-cutting measures kicked in, most of the interactive (and labor intensive) shows were replaced by uninspired but low-maintenance tripe. For example, Drew Carey's Sounds Dangerous show has nothing to do with the way in which studio sound effects are created like Monster Sound Show (which it replaced)did. The insipid Doug Live that replaced Superstar Television was a new low in dumbed-down attractions. Superstar Television graphically demonstrated how blue screens and technical wizardry can be used to re-create television shows. I never got tired of it because it was a different show every time, based on the fact that it drew heavily on audience volunteers.

Worse yet, since the Florida animation studio is history, the tour isn't even worth taking any more. You used to see a real studio, with real working artists working on their latest film. Now the "tour" is an anemic clone of the offering at Disney's California Adventure.

Universal Studio Florida doesn't pretend to be a real working studio. Rather, it themes its attractions directly to specific movies. In general, they do a much better job than Disney. For example, the Muppets 3-D show doesn't even begin to compare to Terminator 3-D. Terminator is an older show, but it still stands head and shoulders above any other similar offerings that I've seen, including the new Shrek show.

For simulator rides, Disney's Star Tours is definitely showing its age, while Universal's revamped Johnny Neutron is lively and realistic enough to give me a whanging case of motion sickness. Of course, their "Back to the Future" ride is pretty decent, too.

Neither of these two parks is very heavy on thrill rides. The Mummy roller coaster at Universal has Disney's Rockin Roller Coaster beat, but neither one is what I would classify as truly thrilling. Universal has nothing that compares with my perennial favorite, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, although it has a couple of rides that are similar to Magic Kingdom offerings. There is Men in Black Alien Attack, which is a souped up version of the Buzz Lightyear interactive shoot 'em up, and E.T., which is similar to the Peter Pan dark ride, but on bicycles. Jaws has a corniness level on a par with Jungle Cruise (I mean that in a good way...I enjoy them both). Actually, at Jaws, I enjoy the Amityville television clips shown on the monitors in the queue line almost more than the ride itself.

But the best rides can be found at Universal Studio's next door neighbor, Islands of Adventure. Disney doesn't have anything that even remotely resembles a true thrill ride, unless you count Mission Space. Its roller coasters are more like souped up baby carriages, at least for the most part (I'll admit to getting whiplash in the back seat of Rockin Roller Coaster," and we won't even go into the vicious spinning action that you get with "Primeval Whirl" when the weight distribution in your car is just right). But the potential for bodily harm or nausea doesn't necessarily correspond to the thrill level.

The Hulk roller coaster at Islands of Adventure is one of my top three favorites, with the other two being Magnum XL at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, and Batman at Six Flags Great America, in Gurnee, Illinois (which I once rode 40 times in a row). I speak from reams of experience, as I am married to a roller coaster fanatic who used to drag me across the United States in search of the ultimate thrill.

Hulk, like Rockin Roller Coaster, shoots you out of the station. But unlike Rockin, it doesn't immediately apply the brakes. Instead, you rocket down a hill and immediately are flung into an inversion. It steals your breath right from the start, and you don't regain it until you pull into the station.

I also love Spiderman, which combines a dark ride with 3-D effects and motion simulation in a way that I've never seen anyone else, including Disney, ever match.

The great thing about Islands of Adventure is that its attractions are not served up in a generic, Six Flags-style environment. Rather, its rich theming reminds me of Disney's heyday. Universal has its own version of Downtown Disney, too, in the guise of Citywalk. There are many excellent restaurants, including Emeril's and Margaritaville, and Pat O'Brien's has lively dueling pianos (and excellent drinks). The nightlife there is as vibrant as anything I've seen at Pleasure Island, although they could use an improv comedy club.

Universal doesn't offer a heavily discounted annual pass for Florida residents like Disney does, but it isn't needed. Anyone can buy the pass for less money that it costs for a three-day ticket.

Universal/Islands of Adventure is only a short jaunt down I-4, or at least it's short when the traffic isn't backed up bumper to bumper. But I find that it's well worth the trip, and it's not so bad if you get an early start. Just be aware that none of the parking is anywhere near the parks. You'll go on the neverending trek that takes you along the parking garage and through all of Citywalk before you get anywhere near the actual park entrances.

Close proximity to various amusement parks isn't the only advantage of living in Celebration. Eating is another of my favorite past times, and a wide variety of food is readily available in and around town. I reviewed the Celebration restaurants in an earlier blog entry, so now I'll discuss two of my outside favorites.

On Sand Lake Road in Dr. Phillips, which is close to Universal, there are two eateries called The Melting Pot and Toojay's. They are very different, but they have one thing in common: they are both big favorites of mine.

The Melting Pot is a fondue restaurant, and my husband and I favor their combo meals. You get salad, cheese fondue, an abundant main course including items like steak and lobster, and of course melted chocolate with various items to dip for dessert. If you don't like the idea of cooking your food in oil, you can opt for broth (like I do). Just be aware that it's a long meal, since you cook most of the items yourself. Be sure to make reservations if you go at a peak time.

In sharp contrast, Toojay's, which is located on the same side of Sand Lake Road, but in a different strip mall, is more like a cross between a Jewish deli and a neighborhood Greek restaurant. The food is plentiful and the prices are reasonable for a great selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items.

My personal favorite is chopped chicken liver, a craving that I share with maybe three percent of the human population. But if you're not one of that tiny percentage, you'll love other items like the blintzes and the potato pancakes. We were turned onto Toojay's by friends who live in Dr. Phillips, and now it's a regular stop when I get my chicken liver cravings.

Celebration is not just a suburb of the Disney resort, and Orlando/Kissimmee is not just an island of hotels, motels, and tourist traps surround by new subdivisions and old farmland. We've got plenty to see, do, and eat far beyond the Disney World gates.

If you have questions or comments, email me at

Check out my Celebration website at

1 comment:

Joel said...

WHOA. Didn't know this. Sending your post to my Disneyphile friends. Thanks!