Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Way an Annual Pass Should Be

Living in Celebration, literally next door to Disney World, it's easy to forget that there are other theme parks in Orlando. My husband and I do tend to venture over to Universal Studios Florida/Islands of Adventure every now and then, but one of the Disney parks usually wins out because of the convenience factor. We have annual passes for both theme park complexes, but when we weigh a short jaunt down World Drive vs. a nerve-racking NASCAR experience on I-4, the Mouse usually wins.

This year, we purchased "two years for the price of one" USF/IOA passes via a special promotion. That was back in September, but we finally got around to activating them this past weekend. Normally, they would get stashed in our wallets and forgotten for a few months, until I decide that I need a ride on Hulk or Spiderman, but my husband chanced across some information on the USF/IOA AP website that ratched them up several notches in my theme park estimation.

Universal has introduced something called a Premier Annual Pass, which includes a very valuable benefit: Express Access to all of the rides and shows at both parks after 4 p.m. every day. Sweeeeeeeet! USF/IOA already offers that perk to guests of their onsite hotels, and those lucky saps get it all day, from park opening to closing. They also sell a one-day Express Access pass, but it's only good once on each ride.

The Premier Pass strikes a perfect balance...while it would be nice to have all-day front-of-the-line access (or nearly so...Express Access waits run anywhere from zero to 10 minutes on average, depending on the crown density), I have no problem with getting to the parks at 4. CityWalk (Universal's answer to Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island) has a plethora of wonderful restaurants, from Bubba Gump's to Margaritaville. Most of them are open early, so I figure hubby and I will enjoy a late lunch/early dinner around 2:30 before heading over to the theme parks. Their hours of operation vary by the season, but even if it's only until 6 or 7, traipsing to the front of all the lines means you can accomplish just as much in a short timeframe as you would all day if you had to wait at least half and hour a pop (and much longer than that in the summer).

For example, on the day that we upgraded our passes to the Premier version, we rode the Mummy roller coaster 8 time, Men in Black, 3 times, saw Twister, and rode Jaws, E.T. and Back to the Future all in the space of three hours. The park was only moderately crowded, with standby waits between 20 and 40 minutes, but it was such a treat to bypass the hoi polloi and traipse through the special entrance, waving our passes like a talisman of privilege. Like Fast Passes at Disney, Universal has two checkpoints for its Express Access entrances where you have to show your hotel key, Premier Pass, or one-per-ride ticket. I was amazed at the number of people who snuck by the first checker and who thought they had it made, only to be turned away just as they reached the inner sanctum.

I don't think many people have the Premier Passes yet because most of the "gatekeepers" gave them a pretty thorough going-over, and one actually said that this was the first time he'd encountered one. I'm surprised...apparently they have been available since September, and I'd think they would have been popular with locals over the insanely busy Christmas season.

During the summer, I avoid the Disney theme parks like the plague, other than an occasional people-watching jaunt. Disney has Fast Pass, which I am quite adept at using to my advantage. But in the peak season, it's virtually impossible to work them in a convenient manner unless you're staying all day. Fast Pass works by assigning you a return time for a particular attraction. For example, let's say it's 9 a.m. and you want to ride Soarin', but the standby line is already an hour. You check out the Fast Pass distribution machines and discover that if you get one, you can return to ride it with a minimal wait between 11 and noon. Kill two hours riding red-haired stepchild attractions that never have a line, then return, buzz through the FP queue in mere minutes (snickering to yourself as you notice that the poor standby saps are now dealing with a posted 120 minute wait time), and enjoy your handglider trip over rivers, mountains, orange groves, and golf courses.

Problem is, you can only hold a Fast Pass for one attraction at a time. No getting another one until you reach the "start time" of your current one. If it's a particularly busy day, all the FPs at the most popular attractions might well be gone by that time.

Also, it takes a lot of coordination and difficult choices. At Disney-MGM, it's pretty easy...the only must-do ride for me is Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, although hubby often begs for Rockin' Roller Coaster. At Animal Kingdom, I usually opt for Kilimanjaro because I can use the single rider line on Everest. At Epcot, it's a no-brainer (Soarin', of course). But at Magic Kingdom, it's always a toss-up: Do I want a FP for Buzz Lightyear? Space Mountain? Jungle Cruise? Big Thunder Mountain? Arrrghhhhh!!! Too many options!

At USF/IOA, I don't have to worry about making any choices. Just arrive in the late afternoon and ride whatever I want, whenever I want, as much as I want. Theme park heaven!

USF has quite a few good rides and shows, but I imagine that I'll focus most of my efforts on The Mummy. The easiest way to describe it is a combination dark ride/roller coaster, but that doesn't do it justice. It has the coolest fire effects ever, plus air time that will have your butt levitating over the seat as you plunge down hills in the darkness. It's was Everest could be if Disney dared to put in a real thrill ride. I won't even compare it to the snore-fest called Rockin' Roller Coaster. Even though it doesn't go upside down, Mummy is what an enclosed roller coaster should be.

Still, it's nice to know that I can ride anything in the park. At Disney, not all of the rides even offer Fast Passes. At USF/IOA, there is an Express Access entrance for every ride, plus the shows too. At USF, I enjoy Men In Black, a souped-up version of Disney's Buzz Lightyear shoot fest, but I can't ride it too often because it tosses in some fairly intense spinning. Unless I have a high blood sugar content, spinning gives me a whanging headache.

I can't take too much of Back to the Future doesn't spin (it's a motion simulator), but for some reason it gets to my head much in the same way that Body Wars at Epcot has always made me queazy. I can ride Star Tours with no ill effects, but Body Wars is a puker for me, and Back to the Future is the same. I like to ride it once...and only once...a day.

I like the E.T. dark ride, even though it's mainly aimed at the kiddies, and Jaws is corny but I still like to give it a go. I love Twister (more of a show than a ride), and the Terminator 3-D show is the best!! I usually check out the animal show, too, and although I haven't seen Fear Factor yet, that will probably enter the rotation. I am neutral on the Shrek 3-D show and the Johnny Neutron simulator...I guess they're worth it if there is no wait, but time wasted on them is time that could be better spent on The Mummy.

At Islands of Adventure, there are two places to concentrate my attention: the Hulk roller coaster and Spiderman, an incredibly innovative combination dark ride/simulator. I've ridden dozens of roller coasters in my day, since I'm married to a coaster enthusiast, and Hulk is among my top three all-time favorites (the others are Magnum at Cedar Point and Batman at Six Flags Great America). The thing that wins me over is the fact that you are blasted up the lift hill and right into a heartline spin before you shoot through a traditional loop. I love being upside down, and Hulk whips me head over heels right from the start of the ride.

Spiderman is great because there is nothing else like it. Normally, I would expect that sort of innovation from Disney, but IOA really has them beat with Spidey. They have some other good rides, like Dueling Dragons (twin suspended coasters), Dr. Doom (a freefall) and Jurassic Park (a water ride), but I know where I will be concentrating my efforts.

The Premier Pass also has some other cool (and occasionally perplexing) benefits, from free valet parking to free Halloween Horror Nights passes to eight free bottles of water (?!). At Usf/IOA, the valet parking is nearly as valuble as the line-cutting. If you're never been there, imagine the length of the walk from the Ticket and Transportation Center parking lot to the Magic Kingdom transportation...and triple it!! Epcot may stand for "Every person comes out tired," but the Universal complex should be called Epcit (Every person comes in tired). Valet shortens the walk by a third.

Usually I dread the coming of Spring Break, with summer hot on its heels, because it means the end of my theme parking. This year, I don't have to worry...sure, the drive might be a little longer, but riding without a wait will make up for the drive time and then some. Now, if they would only sell an Express Pass for I-4, my world would be complete.

Ask an Expert - Visit my Virtual Office at Kasamba

1 comment:

Denise in PA said...

Hi Barb,
Thank you so much for the low-down on Universal. We've never been able to break away from Disney, as much as we've wanted to check out Universal. But now I'm determined to on our next vist!