On our vacation to Universal Orlando, my son and I took a side trip to see the Boston Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. This is the 13th current Major League Baseball ballpark where I’ve attended a game in addition to 6 former stadiums. It was my son’s 6th ballpark.
The first thing we learned is that the Tampa Bay region is larger than I realized. We got to downtown Tampa and it was a still a 30 minute drive to St. Petersburg. I thought the cities were right next to one another. I noticed exit signs for the home venues of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in downtown Tampa and I wonder if the Rays’ low attendance problems have anything to do with being so far away from the rest of the local teams. Of course, Tropicana Field is also generally poorly regarded among MLB ballparks, which probably contributes to attendance problems. At any rate, after driving through several rain squalls we arrived in sunny St. Pete where a rainbow pointed towards The Trop’s tilted dome. It was an impressive introduction!
Even though the Rays are one of the newest MLB expansion teams, Tropicana Field is actually the 8th oldest currently MLB ballpark. It opened in 1990 and hosted NHL hockey and Arena Football before 1998 when the Rays played their inaugural season. Tropicana Field is the only current MLB venue with a fixed roof. I think only the Rays and Blue Jays play home games on artificial turf instead of grass, which is quite a difference from the 1980s when about half of the ballparks had artificial turf.I noticed during the game that ground balls would zip along the artificial turf into the outfield (and sometimes past the outfielders) which is quite a difference to how grass slows a ball down. During the game I heard a sound that I thought was people stomping their feet, which was strange since the game was sparsely attended (the official attendance was 7,923 souls). My son pointed out that it was actually the sound of rain falling on the roof. Since the roof is made of some kind of fabric, we could actually see it billowing as the rain ran down the exterior.
It’s hard to judge a stadium when there’s no home crowd, but Tropicana Field feels too sterile and lifeless for a baseball game. I have to give credit to the Rays management for trying hard to improve the fan experience. There was a good food court with a lot of options, on-field entertainment between innings, and some nifty lighting on the underside of the dome that made it different colors (including making it look like a giant orange). The Rays are a talented, first-place ballclub and deserve a packed house. But ultimately, no matter what they do with it, The Trop is just never going to be an inviting place to take in a game.
The game we saw by the way was really good, an old-fashioned pitching duel. The Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez has his best start of the season and Garrett Richards pitched the final three innings to preserve a shutout. Although, the Rays starter Shane McClanahan allowed four runs but was never really hit hard. The game moved briskly and finished just after 10pm, so we had plenty of time to drive back to Orlando before midnight.
The player intro videos for the Red Sox included landmarks from Boston which I thought was a nice touch.
While Universal Studios Florida is designed to resemble a Hollywood film studio and backlot, Islands of Adventure is a more typical theme park design. It has several themed areas – or “islands” – arranged around a central lagoon. Overall I found Islands of Adventure to be more aesthetically pleasing and better landscaped of the two parks. It also has more roller coasters and all the water rides, compared with USF which is home to mostly dark rides.
Port of Entry
We didn’t do much in Port of Entry other than pass through, but the area has a number of shops, dining establishments, and bars with an old Mediterranean/Middle Eastern theme. It’s an attractive area even if we didn’t spend time there.
Marvel Super Hero Island
Marvel is owned by Disney but they continue to honor a licensing agreement with Universal for a Marvel-land. At least until the Disney lawyers figure a way out of the agreement. Since Marvel Comics have lots of reboots and multiverses, I think it’s actually appropriate to have attractions themed to comics and animated tv shows at Universal while Disney Parks have attractions themed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Storm Force Accelatron – This is a teacup-style ride themed to the X-Men with sound and light effects. Spinny rides make me puke so I enjoyed sitting on the sideline and watching my family on the ride. ***
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – When Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, this was a key attraction based on state-of-the-art technology. 22 years later it still impresses. The basic gist is that guests have been recruited as reporters for The Daily Bugle, and ride in a special vehicle called the Scoop to keep tabs on Spider-Man and the team of villains who have taken the Statue of Liberty hostage. The dark ride takes the Scoop into various 3-D projected scenes with motion and lighting effects. My Marvel-loving daughter insisted we ride 4 times in a row and I saw something new each time (including spotting all 4 of Stan Lee’s cameo appearances). *****
Captain America Diner – We had a filling and restful lunch here at your basic diner. ***
Comic Book Shop – The shop has a large selection of Marvel comic issues and compendiums (but sadly no Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). Oddly, they also had autographed photos and models of actors from Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Toon Lagoon is themed around old comic strips and some cartoons, seemingly whatever Universal could get a good licensing deal on. I don’t know if any kids still read the “funny pages” these days but I doubt they’re reading Gasoline Alley, Broom Hilda, or Cathy. Most of the land is shops and dining establishments themed around old comic strips, but the Lagoon is also home to two of the park’s water rides.
Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls – I absolutely loved Rocky and Bullwinkle when I was young even though it was already an old show by that time. Luckily, a log flume ride with corny puns is something that’s easy to follow regardless of your knowledge of the source material. The audioanimatronics and design do look a little bit cheap, but then again so did Rocky and Bullwinkle. The massive final drop makes it all worth it.
Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges – This raft ride is themed to Popeye the Sailor comics which means that my grandparents could feel nostalgic on the ride were they still alive. The ride is wetter and wilder than the similar Kali River Rapids at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but lacks a big drop. ****
Me Ship, the Olive – This is a play structure with ladders and slides adjacent to the Bilge-Rat Barges. We went on board to use the water cannons to squirt at people in the rafts. It was fun. ***
This area is marked on the map as its own island but it blends in pretty seamlessly with Jurassic Park. Anyhow, it has just one attraction.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong – I love King Kong, and think I would have loved Universal Studios Florida’s old KONGfrontation ride with the Roosevelt Island Tram. Skull Island is wisely not themed to any particular Kong movie although the look is more like the Peter Jackson 2005 remake than the 1933 original. The ride takes us on large buses to explore Skull Island. Things go wrong, of course, and we end up chased by the island’s large creatures ultimately swinging on a vine between a carnivorous dinosaur and Kong himself. There’s an awesome Kong audioanimatronic at the end. The buses are driven by 5 different virtual guides who provide unique narration although the plot of the ride experience is the same.
“You did it. You crazy son of a bitch, you did it!” Life imitates art as we get to step into a real-life Jurassic Park theme park.
Jurassic Park River Adventure – In the movie, guests ride past the dinosaurs in jeeps. Here we’ve been upgrade to sailing past dinos on a boat. But the educational experience is interrupted when Something Goes Wrong and we’re redirected into the raptor pen. The plotting is obvious but the details are really well done with some good scares along the way. The ride finishes with an 85-foot drop and a big splash. ****
VelociCoaster – I’m a big coaster fan and haven’t found myself actually feeling scared of a roller coaster since I was a child. But the VelociCoaster took my breath away. There were supposed to be velociraptors chasing us but I didn’t even see them until the second ride. I was too busy wondering if the ride’s lap restraint would hold me in for the inversion that seems to keep us upside down a few seconds too long. The VelociCoaster has earned a prime spot on my Favorite Roller Coasters of All Time list. *****
Raptor Encounter – This is a fun character encounter where you get to have your photo taken with Blue the Velociraptor. The hilarious banter of the host who tells guests how to interact (and not interact) with the deadly dino makes the attraction. ***
Pizza Predattoria – Under a sign of two raptors fighting over a piece of pizza is a food stand where my daughter and I got a cheese pizza to share and ICEEs. It was good. ***
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade
The wizarding village of Hogsmeade is meticulously recreated (complete with snow on the roofs that doesn’t melt in the Florida sunshine). We entered Hogsmeade via the Hogswarts Express from Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida (only available to guests with a Park-to-Park ticket) an through Jurassic Park. Like Diagon Alley, there are a number of opportunities for anyone with a special wand to cast spells.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – This is the other ride that I didn’t fit on (I’m not sure what the Harry Potter rides have against fat people). My daughter loved and wide and son enjoyed it as well. ****
Flight of the Hippogriff – This is a kiddie coaster that my wife and daughter rode on. My wife seemed to enjoy it more. **1/2
Hogwarts Express: Hogsmeade – The ride from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley has a different story and effects than it does in the other direction, but otherwise it’s a nice place to rest your feet in a cool, dark cabin while traveling from park-to-park. ***
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – This coaster is designed to look like a chain of motorbikes with sidecars that Hagrid and Arthur Weasley have designed to take students to a magical creatures class. Things Go Wrong of course and the bikes end up carrying us to the Forbidden Forest past dangerous creatures and various flukes. I think I ended up riding this 8 times in total and it never got old. Like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World it is a tamer roller coaster but the terrific theming and the seven different launches make another addition to my Favorite Roller Coasters of All Time. *****
Frog Choir – A quintet of Hogwarts students with two giant frogs sing tunes with more a pop beat than in the movies. It was a nice diversion while waiting for the fam to return from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. ***
Three Broomsticks – This large dining establishment has lots of cozy nooks and a filling selection of English pub foods. ****
Hog’s Head – An annex of Three Broomsticks serves beer and mixed drinks as well as the non-alcoholic Butterbeer. It is a cool and restful spot, although the line at the bar moved slowly.
The Lost Continent
This island is the rump of a larger area once themed to myths and legends that got taken over by Hogsmeade and when we were there it had only one operating attraction, which is more of a slight diversion.
The Mystic Fountain – If talk to this fountain, it talks back. His name is Bob. He liked my floral shirt which reminded him of Magnum, P.I. My wife was absolutely delighted to chat with the fountain for a few minutes. My son was embarrassed and went off somewhere to hide. ***
This children’s island is cleverly and colorfully designed after the artwork of Theodore Geisel. Unfortunately for a kid’s area, it seemed to have the least shade of anywhere in IOA and got very hot. They need to plant some more truffula trees, stat!
The Cat in the Hat – This traditional dark ride takes guests past audioanimatronics and projections that retell The Cat in the Hat. It feels uninspired that it basically is just a book report rather than something that builds on the story we know. It’s reminiscent of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom which has the same problem. **1/2
The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride – Universal’s answer to Disney’s Peoplemover is a trolley ride that goes over the rooftops of Seuss Landing with great views of the entire park. A narrator reads a Seuss story while we ride past various clever scenes in the different buildings. THIS is how to do a Seuss ride properly. There are two different tracks but ended up on the same trolley both times we rode so I can’t tell you which is better. ****
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – A spinner ride surrounded by water jets. I thought this would give us a chance to cool off in the scorching sun of Seuss Landing, but for some reason only one water jet actually functioned while the ride was operating. Very disappointing. *
Oh, The Stories You’ll Hear – A simple show we caught while resting featured a storyteller reading from a book while The Grinch and Sam-I-Am danced around. We were definitely too old to be the target audience but it was still very cute. ***
Beyond the Parks
Universal Orlando takes the “exit through the gift shop” ethos to a new level with CityWalk. In order to enter or leave USF or IOA, you have to walk through this shopping center with many restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen – On our arrival day we had dinner at this restaurant with a steampunk chocolate factory theme. It’s unique and well done and the food was good too! We finished up with some incredible milkshakes! ****
Cinnabon – This wasn’t our first choice on our last day, but there aren’t many breakfast options at CityWalk. The size of the egg & cheese sandwich was disappointing. **
Voodoo Doughnut – A better breakfast option is a half-a-dozen or more fancy doughnuts. ****
Hollywood Drive-In Golf – We played a round on the Sci-Fi Movie course cleverly themed with aliens “Invaders from Planet Putt-Putt”. ***1/2
Universal Legacy Store – This shop includes a number of props that were once used in attractions in the park, including from former attractions, so it was fun to look at even if you don’t buy anything. ***1/2
Universal Studios Store – This is more of your run-of-the-mill souvenir store. **
Cabana Bay Beach Resort
We stayed at this Prime Value resort which seemed to offer quite a lot for a good price. It is themed to vacation hotels and motels from the 1950s and 1960s and full of delightful mid-century modern details.
Game-O-Rama Arcade – The kids played in the arcade and seemed to have good time but were disappointed that several games were not functioning. **
Lazy River Courtyard Pool – The smaller pool was open all week and was a nice place to relax in the night after a day at the parks. It also has a great view of the volcano at Volcano Bay water park (which we didn’t visit). There’s a lazy river but you have to buy a flotation ring to use and we never had enough time to spend there to justify a purchase. ***1/2
The Hideaway Bar & Grill – Where parents go to hide away from their kids. We had a nice snack there while the kids played in the arcade. ***
Bayliner Diner – This is a large food court with a terrific variety of food choices including some impressive vegetarian options. The downside is that it is a bit pricey for the quality of foods. ***1/2
Swizzle Lounge – My wife & I stopped in to this bar in the lobby a couple of times for creative cocktails and beers. It was almost like we got to go on a date! The bartenders were very friendly and chatty. *****
Cabana Courtyard Pool – The large pool was open only on the weekend so we only got to use it on our last day. It has a slide but none of his tried it. It was a nice place to soak. ***
Atomic Tonic & Grill – The bar by the Cabana Courtyard Pool had a too long wait on the day I went there, but the grill offered a delicious falafel so things balanced out. ***
Until a few years ago, I assumed that Universal Orlando was something akin to a Six Flags amusement park, fun to go to but not worth traveling all the way to Florida. But then I learned that Universal has themed attractions that compete with and even are better than Walt Disney World’s. Plus my children, now aged 9 and 13, really wanted to go to Universal. So we spent the last week of summer at the Universal Orlando Resort!
Since every school in the country outside of New England has already had their first day of school, the week before Labor Day weekend is a good time to go to Universal. The crowd levels were minimal and we were pretty much walking onto every ride! With COVID still more of a threat now than I expected when making reservations, the absence of crowds was reassuring. I’m happy to note that almost all of the people who were there wore masks when indoors, and a good number of people wore them outdoors as well.
Today, I’m going to write up my thoughts on the areas, attractions, shows, and dining we enjoyed at Universal Studios Florida, the first park to open back in 1990. Tomorrow I will write about Islands of Adventures and other areas of the resort.
The entry area to Universal Studios Florida is basically designed to look like actual film studio buildings and is actually the least appealing area of the park, especially since there is little shade.
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem – While not a huge fan of the Despicable Me franchise, I have to admit the yellow, goggle-eyed Minions are irresistible. In this simulator attraction, guests sit in an auditorium setting with their seats synched to the action in the animated film. The plot has us as volunteers to be converted to Minions by the supervillain Gru, with his adopted daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes taking over the training. Hijinks ensue! There are two preshows before getting into the ride, and it’s both funny and fun. Surprisingly, this is the one attraction of this type that doesn’t require 3-D glasses, but I didn’t miss them at all. ***1/2
Shrek 4-D – This is another simulator attraction where theater-style seats are synched with the film action and the audience is periodically sprayed with water and air for “4-D” effects. Before the movie is an overly-long preshow in a standing room only area where fairy tale characters talk about how they are being tortured by the ghost of Lord Farquaad. The film itself involves Shrek and Donkey saving Princess Fiona from the ghost of Lord Farquaad. It was a funny movie, but not something I’d want to do more than once. ***
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – As a “plus-size” person, I was concerned about Universal’s reputation for rides where fat people can’t fit. I tried the test seat Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and found that I should sit in one of the modified seats. However, when boarding the team member said that they were going to try me out on the regular seat and then squished me beneath the restraints so I could barely breathe. One of the features of Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is being able to chose the song that will play during the ride, but with the kerfuffle about boarding I never had a chance to chose. I can’t tell you what the dance pop song was that played for me, but it was suited to the ride. The roller coaster has some great drops and inversions and is actually longer than it appears from outside. I didn’t get to ride a second time, but if I ever do, I will demand the larger seats. ***1/2
Transformers: The Ride 3-D – I don’t know much about The Transformers other than they are “robots in disguise” advertised throughout my youth. I never saw any of the many Transformers movies. So the plot of this ride was pretty incomprehensible. Basically the riders are caught in a big game of keep away with something called the All Spark that the good guy Autobots are trying to protect from the bad guy Decepticons (it didn’t help that I couldn’t distinguish the Autobots from Decepticons). Transformers: The Ride 3-D follows the same design as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure, with motion platform-mounted vehicles moving among projected scenes, but it has none of the storytelling or hear of its predecessor. **
TODAY Cafe – We stopped in to get a quick drink and a snack and escape the sun. It’s a bright and airy cafe with lots of TVs showing NBC news to remind you that bad things are happening in the world while you enjoy your vacation. ***
The New York area is basically a Hollywood studio backlot but it’s probably the second best themed area of the park. It’s basically an amalgam of brownstone houses, restaurants, bars, and recognizable miniatures of New York City landmarks.
Revenge of the Mummy – Based on the 1999 movie, this attraction is a clever mix of a dark ride and an indoor roller coaster. One of the downsides of no crowds is that you miss out on the story setup in the long queues. But the basic premise I got of this ride is that the cast of The Mummy are filming a sequel in a NYC museum of antiquities and the film crew are frightened of a mummy’s curse. Somehow we end up in actual archaeological excavation in Egypt before boarding the ride. The ride itself has a good mix of projects, audio-animatronics and practical effects as Imhotep threatens to steal our souls. On the roller coaster portion there are spooky projections reminiscent of old-time Pretzel Rides you might find at a Coney Island type of amusement park which is a nice touch. Also, there’s a fun fake out. ****
Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon – My kids really wanted to go on this ride despite the fact that they’ve never watched late night talk shows. For that matter, I haven’t really watched The Tonight Show since Johnny Carson was the host. It was nice to see an exhibit for Carson and other hosts in the lobby. The ride is supposed to be a simulated go-cart race so I thought we’d sit in a go-cart type of ride vehicle, but we actually sat in auditorium-style seating modelled after the studio at Rockefeller Center. Despite not really knowing Fallon’s characters, this ended up being a fun and clever ride with lots of nice New York City moments. ***1/2
Louie’s Italian Restaurant – my son really liked the pizza here, so we ended up eating here twice. In my opinion, it was better than typical theme park pizza but didn’t live up to real New York pizza, despite the themed ambience. ***
Beat Builders – The kids don’t like shows so we didn’t get to see much, but during an aforementioned stop for pizza, I slipped outside Louie’s to watch Beat Builders. These are four men dressed as construction workers who perform percussion on instruments made of hand tools. It was fun, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see them. ***
The San Francisco area is small and not as quite a recognizable simulacrum of the city as the New York area. Songs like “If You’re Going to San Francisco” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” appropriately play on a loop, as well as more bizarrely the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies. A shark hangs on a pierside as a tribute to the former Jaws ride that was located where Diagon Alley is now. As a Jaws fan, I kind of wish the ride were still extant, although from videos I know it was kind of cheezy.
Fast & Furious: Supercharged – Speaking of cheezy, San Francisco is home to a ride that brings fans of the Fast & Furious car racing movies into the exciting world of riding a party bus. I didn’t go on board myself but my wife and daughter gave it a “meh.” **
San Francisco Pastry Company – We stopped here for some nice breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and cold brew coffee one morning after early entry. Simple but solid. ***
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley
The best themed area in either of the two parks recreates the wizarding world secret part of London from the Harry Potter books and movies. There are a lot of shops, dining, and bars here for fans to spend their money, but it also is just a great place to explore and find little details. The shadowy Knockturn Alley is there for those interested in the Dark Arts, and the dragon on top of Gringotts Bank breathes fire about every ten minutes.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – This is one of the rides that I was not able to go on due to my girth, although my impression is that it’s similar to Revenge of the Mummy. I enjoyed the detailed queue area of the Gringotts lobby leading to the mine tunnels, and the rest of my family gave the ride high marks. *****
Ollivanders Wand Shop – The wand chooses the wizard and my daughter was chosen to participate in short choosing ceremony where an actor portraying Ollivander helped her find the right wand. It was a fun and cute moment. The wand (which we purchased) can be used to cast magical spells throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
Hogwarts Express: King’s Cross – A full-scale replica of the Hogswarts Express train departs from platform 9-3/4 from this recreation of King’s Cross station in London which has some nice details of the real world railway terminal. ***
Knight Bus – Outside on the London street front is a full-scale replica of the purple triple-decker bus for wizarding travel. Guests can talk with the conductor, although when we stopped by we chatted with a shrunken head who told deliciously corny puns. ***
If you walk from the New York area that recreates part of Manhattan, you have to pass through San Francisco and London to get to Queens, home of this recreation of the New York State Pavilion and observation tours from the 1964 World’s Fair.
Men in Black: Alien Attack – Stepping into the pavilion, a host promises a 3-hour educational presentation on the possibility of extraterrestrial life called “The Universe & You – Are We Alone?” This is all a front, of course, for the Men in Black who actually want us as new recruits for fighting an alien invasion. The ride involves shooting at aliens with lasers and is more fun and clever than the similar Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin at Walt Disney World. On one of our rides, I managed to get a 100,000 point bonus although I’m not sure how. ***
The Simpsons, along with The Muppets, were one of the shows that defined the comedic sensibilities of those of us who came of age in the 90s. I was a big fan at the time, although I haven’t really watched the show in the past 20 years. We didn’t spend much time in the area themed to a Krusty the Clown carnival with shops and food stands tied into various characters. It kind of felt like a bad fit with The Simpsons spoofing theme park conventions long after the show has ceased to be a transgressive commentary on society.
The Simpsons Ride – The ride is a simulator where we join the Simpsons on a new ride at Krustyland where things, of course, go horribly wrong. I’ve never suffered motion sickness on a simulator ride before, but this made me a bit queasy, maybe because it was very warm inside. Anyhow, the ride has some fun gags, but it doesn’t seem suited to multiple rides. The ride used to be themed to Back to the Futurewith the ride vehicles designed to look like Delorean time machines. Although I never got to rid it, I think a Back to the Future ride would be more timeless and fun than The Simpsons. ***
Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone
The park’s children’s area has a kiddie coaster themed to Woody Woodpecker and a play area themed to An American Tale, so there wasn’t much of interest there to our family. I really wanted to see the Animal Actors on Location! show, but I was vetoed.
E.T. Adventure – This is the only surviving attraction from the opening of Universal Studios Florida in 1990, and as such relies on old school audioanimatronics instead of projections. The ride vehicle is modeled after children’s bicycles and the first part of the ride recreates the part of the movie where government agents chase E.T. and the kids until E.T. uses his magic to make the bikes fly. The second part of the ride zooms us to E.T.’s home on the Green Planet and is extremely surreal. I ended laughing hysterically at the weirdness. My kids never saw the movie, but really nothing it it would prepare them for that second part. Apparently a feature where E.T. says goodbye to riders by name was discontinued because of COVID, alas. As weird as it is, I’m glad that one old-school ride survives at USF. ***1/2
The Hollywood area is small and indistinguishable from Production Central, so I’m not even really sure when we’re in it.
Mel’s Drive-In – The 50’s style diner provided a filling and refreshing lunch on our first day. There were jukeboxes at every table but they didn’t need quarters to play. Appropriately, as we dined on August 31, we heard “See You in September” by The Happenings.
This low-budget, indie film is known primarily for many scenes shot guerilla-style within Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It tells the story of a hapless Disney employee, Peter (Daniel Cooksley), who his recently separated from his wife and is struggling to connect with his teenage daughter, Molly (Kathryn Jenkins), as she is growing up. While wandering the tunnels beneath the Magic Kingdom looking for a birthday gift for Molly, Peter discovers that the Disney company keeps the frozen head of Walt Disney (Roy Schneider) there, and thaw it out once a year for 72 hours to get Walt to approve new projects. Walt asks Peter to take him to actually see and experience the Magic Kingdom. Hijinks ensue.
The movie is equal parts a skewering of the Disney company and a loving tribute to Walt and the Disney Parks. I think the major problem with the film is that Cooksley doesn’t really have the comic timing to be the lead, but Schneider is excellent as Walt. It feels more like a sitcom than a movie, and I think both budgetary issues and the fact that they would never get permission from Disney to make this film hampered their ability to really run with a fun premise. So I’ll call it a failed but noble effort, but your mileage may vary probably in accordance with how much you like Disney Parks.
My family is planning our first visit to Universal Orlando later this year. Since the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World proved useful in the past. Visiting a theme park these days is like planning a military offensive. These guides are helpful in cutting through the overwhelming options with strong opinions and tips for making the best of one’s time in the park. On the downside, almost all of the content of the guidebook is also available for free on the Touring Plans so there isn’t much value add to the book other than having all the information at your fingertips when you’re out of wifi range or your battery is running low.
Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.
Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends. Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear. The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students. As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.
In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed. Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse. There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.
The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story. The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.
Their Eyes Were Watching God remains one of my favorite books of all time. I read it several times in the 1990s but hadn’t revisited it since. To listen to the audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee is a treat.
The novel depicts the journey of self-actualization of Janie Crawford, a Black woman in early 20th-century Florida. It begins with Janie as young teenager, experiencing an awakening that is both sexual as well as tied to the natural world and the possibilities of youth. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, who raised her in absence of her mother, is anxious that Janie will follow her mother’s path as unwed mother and marries Janie off to older farmer named Logan Killicks.
It is a loveless marriage and Killicks mainly wants Janie as labor for his farm. Janie runs off with the charismatic Joe Starks, an ambitious man planning to move to the all-Black town of Eatonville, where he sets himself up as mayor and prominent businessman upon arrival. But Starks is very controlling and abusive of Janie, restricting even her social life. After Starks’ death, Janie meets the younger man Tea Cake, and at last finds love. While Janie experiences joy and fulfillment sharing Tea Cake’s life as a migrant farmer, he also gives off some red flags of possessiveness and irresponsibility.
The novel is framed by Janie telling her life story to a friend, and it is through the experiences of these four relationships – Nanny, Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake – that she is able to discover herself and control her own destiny. Hurston’s novel draws on African-American folklore and the importance of being tied to nature in human life. Published a generation before the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements it was a book ahead of its time. But it has rightly found its spot in the literary canon.
Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.
Title: The Cocoanuts Release Date: August 3, 1929 Director: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley Production Company: Paramount Pictures Summary/Review:
This the Marx Brothers first talkie and second movie overall after the lost 1921 silent film Humor Risk. Excepting Harpo, I can’t imagine the Marx Brothers in a silent movie since they are so reliant on witty dialogue. The movie is adapted from a stage performance and it doesn’t appear that all too many changes were made to adapt to the new medium. Performances of dancing girls and musical numbers are awkwardly intercut with sketch-like performances by the Marx brothers and the requisite romantic subplot, but in more of variety show pattern than something that flows from one thing to the next.
Released a few months before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, The Cocoanuts is a timely parody of the Florida land boom with Groucho as the unscrupulous hotel owner Mr. Hammer, Zeppo as his lazy assistant, and Chico and Harpo as a pair of crooks and conmen. As noted above the plot is very thin and this is more of an episodic linkage of Marx Brothers zaniness with song and dance. It’s fun to watch but the Marx Brothers will learn to take better advantage of movies as they gain more experience
Title: Notorious Release Date: September 6, 1946 Director: Alfred Hitchcock Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures Summary/Review:
I never knew how much I needed to see a drunk Ingrid Berman angrily cuss out a cop, but this movie satiates that desire. And that’s only the prologue!
Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, an American socialite whose father is convicted as a Nazi spy. Federal agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits her to help infiltrate a group of fugitive Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro. Much like The Stranger, the issue of Nazis continuing to operate was clearly a concern in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but I’m still impressed that entire films of fictional Nazi fugitives were written and produced so soon after the war. One odd thing about this movie is that while it primarily takes place in Brazil, I don’t think we see a single Brazilian character.
En route to Brazil and as they establish themselves in Rio, Huberman and Devlin fall in love. This leads to a racy-for-1946 scene where the couple kiss for over two minutes. Of course, considering that most human beings would like to kiss Bergman and/or Grant, this is also wish fulfillment for the audience. Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the romance leads a character to act unprofessionally, but this time it’s the male character Devlin, whose jealousy will ultimately put Huberman’s life in peril.
Huberman is tasked with getting acquainted with her father’s friend Alex Sebastian (Hollywood supervillain Claude Raines), a financier of the German war engine, and find out who he’s associating with and what the Nazis are plotting. The movie is a slow burn as secrets are revealed one by one and the steps that Huberman takes to gain access further strain her relationship with Devlin. It all leads to a satisfying denouement.
This is my entry for “V” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first V documentary I’ve reviewed.
Title: Vernon, Florida Release Date: October 8, 1981 Director: Errol Morris Production Company: Errol Morris Films Summary/Review:
This documentary focuses on several residents of a Western Florida town that was had a population of 885 in 1980 when it was filmed and is considerably smaller now. There’s no narration, interview questions, or anything else to link the movie together. It’s simply a series of intercut monologues of people talking about what interests them. And in most cases these seem to be the type who love to spin a yarn and are happy to have a new audience, even if it’s a silent cameraman.
A turkey hunter shares tales of his greatest hunts and admiration for the “gobblers.” An old man shows off the unusual wild animals he keeps at his home. A pastor preaches on the word “therefore.” Andthe town’s only cop goes into detail of the daily drudgery of stopping speeding cars, before finally relating about the time someone shot at him through the window of his cruiser. Reviews of this film invariably refer to these people as eccentric, but I find them rather ordinary. The strength of this film is that it shows the human spirit in their unique but ordinary enthusiasms.
What I do find unsettling about this movie is that of the dozen or so people who speak, they’re almost entirely white men. One woman speaks in tandem with her husband. Children are absent. People of color are not seen at all. I don’t know what to make of this film, but if you’re going to call it Vernon, Florida, I’d expect a more representative cross-section of that town
What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:
You’ll know a thing or two about turkey hunting, I’m sure.