Photopost: Busch Gardens

Way back in August, I took my kids on a day trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia.  This is the theme park I’ve visited the most in my lifetime so it has a lot of nostalgia for me.  I first visited Busch Gardens as an 11-year-old on a family vacation in 1985 and we returned for another visit the following summer.  At the time, Busch Gardens offered discount tickets for guests to return the following day in the evening hours, so we went several times after dark when it was cooler and less crowded.  When we moved to the Williamsburg area in 1991 we got season passes and over the years I visited many times with family and friends.

The last time I remember visiting was probably in 1997 so this was my first visit in 25 years! A lot has changed in that time.  For one thing, despite the name of the park it is no longer affiliated with Anheuser-Busch and tours of the adjacent brewery are not offered any more.  Busch Gardens is also home to nine roller coasters, including some very innovative thrill rides, whereas back in the day, there were 3 coasters at most.

We visited on a Wednesday at the end of August and since schools had already started in most parts of the country, the crowds were non-existent.  We were able to pretty much walk on to most of the rides, which was terrific.  The downside is that there didn’t seem to be much else going. I remember that Busch Gardens used to have a lot of musical entertainment and people walking around in character to add to atmosphere.  Whether it was a slow day or post-COVID labor cuts, or both, there wasn’t much going on, which was a bit of a bummer.

Here are my thoughts on the various hamlets of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and the rides we went on, with some nostalgia to boot!

Banbury Cross (England)

Look kids! Big Ben…

Banbury Cross has always served as the entry land to Busch Gardens, with shops and guest services rather than attractions.  There are a lot of nice thematic details, including a replica of the Globe Theatre with entertainments but none scheduled on the day of our visit.  The area was pretty unlively as it just seemed to be somewhere to pass through rather than linger. I remember back in the day the piped in music was always Baroque and Classical music, but these days they also play pop and rock music from the British Invasion.  So, for example, as we entered the background music was The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

  • Aeronaut Skyride – Just outside Banbury Cross is a station for the Busch Gardens skyride.  Skyrides used to be more common (Disneyland, Walt Disney World, the Bronx Zoo, et al), but this feels like one of the last survivors. It’s also unique in that it follows a triangular route stopping at three stations.  We rode the leg from Banbury Cross to Aquitaine.

Heatherdowns (Scotland)

Heatherdowns has always been a small hamlet with one ride and the Highland Stables, home to the park’s Scottish Blackface sheep, Border Collies and Clydesdale horses (another lingering symbol of the Anheuser-Busch days).  Disappointingly, a path that lead to a bridge over the Rhine River to Rhineland is no longer open, or at least wasn’t that day.

Entrance to dear old Nessie.
  • Loch Ness Monster – Nessie is one of my all time favorite roller coasters, and one that amazingly still operates after opening in 1978!  It was the first roller coaster with interlocking loops and the only one that still remains.  My kids loved it as much as I do and we rode it twice.
A majestic Clydesdale.

Killarney (Ireland)

Before 2001, this area was known as Hastings (England), and the thematic details of a medieval village with stone fortifications and a draw bridge are pretty much the same despite being a different country. Here more than anywhere else is an area I remember as being lively with characters such as a man collecting “arms for the poor” (carrying several prop human arms) and a storytelling show with dramatic renditions of Arthurian legend.  There was also an indoor Scrambler ride (now moved to another part of the park) and a simulator ride (akin to Star Tours) called Questor.  Now there doesn’t seem to be much to do except go to a replica Irish pub.


There didn’t seem to be any attractions within my namesake castle.
  • Finnegan’s Flyer – this giant swing over a ravine was the only attraction operating in Killarney.  Unfortunately, this was one of several rides that were not welcoming to my girth, but Kay went on it and said it was fun.
  • Eagle Ridge & Wolf Valley and Lorikeet Glen – Just outside of Killarney are some of Busch Gardens’ animal exhibits.  The Wolf Valley had closed for the day, but we saw the eagle and I went into the aviary with the lorikeets.  Back in the day, this was the site of Threadneedle Faire with carnival attractions with a renaissance theme and a participatory theater show.  The actors who worked here were so clever and fun, and it was a really special place but it had closed by the early 90s, probably because it was “inefficient” from a Human Resources perspective.
Close up with a lorikeet.

San Marco (Italy)

The Italian hamlet has lots of nice Renaissance-era details and a garden of inventions that is home to many of the rides.  One of my childhood favorites, a magic carpet ride called Da Vinci’s Cradle, was apparently removed just this year!

  • Escape from Pompeii – this a basic shoot-the-chutes ride but before you take the plunge your boat rides through the collapsing columns of Pompeii’s architecture and past frighteningly hot flames!  This was one of the newest rides on my last visits back in the 1990s, and I liked it a lot better without the long lines that were common back then.
  • The Battering Ram – another childhood favorite, and one that my kids loved too.  They even asked to ride it again.  Funny story: back in the 80s the ride operator had guests on each side shout “Tastes great! Less Filling!” when their side of the swing reached the top.  Ironic, considering that was the motto of a competing beer brand.

Festa Italia (Italy)

This Italian carnival-themed area was the first new hamlet opened after my first visits to Busch Gardens and for some reason still doesn’t have the lovely landscaping and tree cover that is common throughout the rest of the park.  What it does offer, though, is some exciting thrill rides.

  • Apollo’s Chariot – this was the first Hypercoaster when it opened in 1999 (notorious for the opening day incident when model/actor Fabio got hit in the face by a goose). It’s still a thrilling ride with a 210-foot drop and 8 air time hills.  Kay and I rode Apollo’s Chariot four times (twice while Peter rode Pantheon) and it is a definite addition to my all-time favorite roller coasters list!
  • Pantheon – Busch Gardens’ newest roller coaster opened earlier this year and it is a multi-launch roller coaster that appears to be similar to VelociCoaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.  Unfortunately, this is another ride that is not fat friendly, and Kay didn’t want to ride it, but Peter said it was pretty awesome.
Just because we didn’t ride the actual Pantheon didn’t mean we couldn’t have a photo op.

Rhinefeld (Rhineland Germany)

The main German-themed hamlet is a cute little village with a lot of fairy tale architecture.  It’s also the only place I saw costumed entertainers, a couple of men in leiderhosen playing the spoons. While there was supposed to be a craft beer festival during our visit, the tents here and in Oktoberfest were all closed during our visit.

The entrance to Alpengeist is well-themed to a ski resort village.


  • Alpengeist – the kids went on this inverted roller coaster without me because once again I was too big.  They enjoyed it, although Peter said it gave him a headache, but Kay wanted to go on it again.

Oktoberfest (Bavarian Germany)

We ate lunch at Das Festhaus (ironically the kids had pizza), a large beer hall that has a stage for oompah bands but there were no performances on this day so it was a bit disappointing.  Oktoberfest was once home to my most favorite roller coaster ever, the Big Bad Wolf.  The Wolf was an innovative suspended roller coaster, but sadly closed in 2009.  I found this great account of the Big Bad Wolf’s final day on the blog of another fan.

Flying high!
  • Der Wirbelwind (Waveswinger) – the kids rode these swings twice, while I abstained because they’re the type of ride that makes me queasy these days even though I loved them as a child.  I have no evidence to justify this belief, but these swings seem faster than similar rides at other parks.
  • Verbolten – A worthy replacement to the Big Bad Wolf is this multi-launch roller coaster themed to riding a German car on the Autobahn through the Black Forest.  Most of the roller coaster is indoors with special effects and lighting that tells three different stories, including one that is a tribute to the Big Bad Wolf.  Kay and I rode four times to make sure we saw all the stories.  The ride ends by replicating that final drop of the Big Bad Wolf down a ravine towards the Rhine River.  This is another new addition to my favorite roller coaster list.
Ready to brave the Black Forest on Verbolten.

Aquitaine (France)

We didn’t spend much time in this French hamlet other than arriving on the skyride and walking through.  It’s home to a dive coaster called Griffon, but neither of the children wanted to ride it, and I didn’t want to leave them since Peter already had a headache from the Alpengeist.

New France (French Colonial Canada)

Rainbow bears, just like they had in Old Quebec.

It was a requirement for every 20th-century theme park to have a “Western” land, and Busch Gardens achieved this by creating a logging/fur trapping outpost somewhere in Quebec.  It’s really the Old West, though.

Entrance to the logging-camp themed flume ride.
  • Le Scoot Log Flume – I talked up Le Scoot (which is French for “The Scoot”) a lot to my kids because I remember it being a most thrilling log flume ride.  It turns out that it’s no better or no worse than, say, the Policy Lake Log Flume at Canobie Lake.  It is a very scenic log flume, albeit not as much as used to be since Alpengeist and Invadr are now routed into the same ravine Le Scoot used to have to itself.
  • Le Catapult – a Scrambler ride that used to be located in Hastings (where it was called The Catapult).  I always love a Scrambler, but when the ride was indoors with special effects it was even more special.
  • InvadR – A relatively-new wooden roller coaster that for some reason has a lap bar that cannot contain my girth.  This was the greatest disappointment of my day since I love wooden roller coasters.  The kids enjoyed it, though.
Taking the plunge on Le Scoot.





Photopost: Serenity at the Gardner

I paid a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time since before the pandemic began.  It was nice to get there early on a relatively uncrowded day and have some of the galleries to myself.  The Gardner Museum used to be strict about prohibiting photography but in these Instagramable days they now allowed picture-taking without a flash.  So I tried to make my own art through photography.  I also enjoyed the audio tours that are now available through smartphones.

Here’s my full album of photos from the day:









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Photopost: Tropicana Field

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 Rays are the defending American League champions and currently have he best record in the American League, but still draw a small crowd on a Thursday night in September.

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!

From our seats out in left field behind the Red Sox bullpen.

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.

One of the highlights of The Trop is a touch tank with actual cownose stingrays who get a great view of the game and are protected from home runs by netting.

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.

A mid-inning mascot race was very short and not as fun as the Nationals’ Presidents Race or the Brewers’ Sausage Race.

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.


Eduardo Rodriguez warms up before the game.


Rafael Devers is close to scoring one of the Red Sox 4 runs.


Recovering a shattered bat from the infield.

Current ballpark rankings.

  1. Wrigley Field
  2. Fenway Park
  3. Oracle Park
  4. Oriole Park at Camden Yards
  5. Petco Park
  6. Citi Field
  7. Nationals Park
  8. Miller Field
  9. Dodger Stadium
  10. Citizens Bank Park
  11. Guaranteed Rate Field
  12. Yankee Stadium III
  13. Tropicana Field

Former ballpark rankings

  1. Tigers Stadium
  2. Shea Stadium
  3. Yankees Stadium II
  4. RFK Stadium
  5. Stade Olympique
  6. Veterans Stadium

Universal Orlando: Islands of Adventure

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.

Me and my drinking buddy, Kevin.

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

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 and Co overlook the falls.
  • 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. ***

Skull Island

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.

Jurassic Park

“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.

The rare but dangerous pizzaraptor.
  • 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.

It’s not every day you can chat with a fountain.
  • 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. ***

Seuss Landing

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!

Not getting wet on One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
  • 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 CineMark – On our last day we had time before our flight departed so we saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.  It is a movie multiplex, nothing less, nothing more. ***
  • 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.

Vintage cars are parked in front of the hotel. This one was used in the Audrey Hepburn/Albert Finney movie “Two For the Road.”
  • 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. ***

Universal Orlando: Universal Studios Florida

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!

Welcome to Universal!

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.

Production Central

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.

A Gru family trophy in the queue to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem.
  • 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.  ***

New York

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.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit zips past the false front of the New York Public Library and someone politely failing to not photo bomb.
  • 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. ***
Hashtag the Panda, one of the many zany Jimmy Fallon characters I’ve never heard of before.

San Francisco

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.

Me and Bruce!
  • 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.

When your lunch is too spicy.
  • 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. ***
Mischief managed.

World Expo

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 Future with 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.
Jukebox heroes.

Day 7: Leaving Yellowstone

Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the seventh day of our travels.

We packed up our van at the Canyon Campground and headed out for our return journey to Salt Lake City.  The Artists Paintpots was the one remaining attraction we hadn’t seen that was still on my wish list, so Susan graciously agreed to make a stop there on the way.  I thought the Artists Paintpots was a roadside attraction like the other geysers, but upon arriving we learned there was a 1.2-mile hike for the round trip to the paintpots.  Kay was not up for this, so Susan returned with her to wait in the van while Peter and I made the hike.

It was worth the trip.  We’d seen geothermal features by Lake Yellowstone in West Thumb and in arid basins in the Old Faithful area, but this was the first time we saw them in a forest.  The rising steam in the woods gave it a fairy tale feel.  I did have the impression there would be more bubbling mud than we actually saw, but I guess it was the dry season.  We returned to the van at the right time, because a wave of other tourists were just heading in. In fact we’d see a lot of inbound traffic heading into the park for the Labor Day weekend as we drove out.  Not all the congestion was human-made, though, as we delighted in the awesome experience of seeing a large bison bull saunter down the road.

Leaving Yellowstone through the west gate, we arrived in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana.  We stopped here to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, a small zoo for rescue animals that would give us the chance to see some of the wildlife we didn’t see in the parks, including grizzly bears, wolves, raptors, and otters! We arrived at the right time being the last family admitted for a noon entry group. Inside we saw the grizzly bear Nakina, and then the change over when the twin sister cubs Condi and Seeley enter the enclosure.  One of the cubs climbed the tree to get a feeder left by the center’s staff, but had some trouble getting back down from the tree.

Susan spent a lot of time talking with the naturalist, learning facts about the bears and their behavior.  She also got confirmation that she and Peter probably saw a glimpse of a bear several days earlier on the Moose-Wilson Road.  I spent a lot of time watching the otters until dragged away by the children. We headed into Yellowstone and were able to get lunch from a 50s-style diner.  Then it was on the road again for a long drive to Salt Lake City.  The route back through Idaho was less scenic than on our drive to Grand Teton, but we did pass numerous locations for boating and tubing that were attracting Labor Day crowds. We arrived in Salt Lake City just after sunset, happy to check into a hotel room with comfy beds and a television.

Day 6: From Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs

Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the sixth day of our travels.

We had a full day catching on many Yellowstone attractions we hadn’t seen yet.  Since we didn’t make it to Old Faithful on our geyser day, we headed there first. We arrived in the confusing complex of parking, access roads, hotels, and support buildings wondering where the actual geyser was located.  But it was Kay who pointed and said, “It’s right there, Dad!”

The next eruption was not expected for another hour so we went into the Old Faithful Lodge to pick up breakfast food from the cafeteria.  We took it outside to eat on a bench under the eaves of the Lodge and watch the steam rise from Old Faithful in the distance.  People were already gathering on the crescent of benches around Old Faithful, so after breakfast we claimed our own socially-distanced bench.  Peter & I went for a walk on the trails around Old Faithful and saw some of the smaller geothermal features in the area.

On schedule, Old Faithful erupted as it always does.  Kind of remarkable to think it has been doing so for hundreds probably thousands of years.  Having fulfilled our Old Faithful obligation, we returned to the van and drove to the Midway Geyser Basin.  It was also crowded and we ended up parking down the road along the Firehole River instead of the parking lot.  This gave us a nice walk along the river before reaching the boardwalks around the Grand Prismatic Spring.

The Grand Prismatic Spring was lovely and the boardwalks were nowhere near as crowded as all the parked cars would indicate.  I also began to notice that it was “Wear Lycra Leggings to Yellowstone Day” but we didn’t get the memo.  So embarrassing.  There is a path that leads to an overlook to see the Grand Prismatic Spring but we didn’t know where it was and after being in direct sunlight at both Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin, it was getting too hot to consider hiking up a hill.

So we returned to the van for a nice, long air-conditioned ride through the scenery to the park entrance in the northwest corner.  This included passing through a windy, mountain pass and into lower elevations than we had been to since arriving in the park (although still higher than most of the peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains!).  We visited Roosevelt Arch, the formal gateway to Yellowstone dedicated in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt himself. We did some shopping at a Yellowstone gift shop – where Kay got a bison hoodie – and then ate lunch at a pizza place.

We reentered the park and made our next and final stop at Mammoth Hot Springs. These springs deposit minerals creating terraces of stone with remarkable patterns.  Susan said it was like the inside of cave on the outside.  We walked up and around the boardwalks increasingly noticing that we were feeling quite warm.  The kids had enough so I took them to the van while Susan did some more climbing to an overlook.  While in the van we checked the local weather and learned that it was 90°! I guess this is what people call a “dry heat.”

Day 5: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the fifth day of our travels.

To lift our spirits after feeling tired and cranky the day before, we started off our fifth day by treating ourselves to a hot breakfast from the eatery at the Canyon Lodge. We ate at the picnic tables outside under the watchful eyes of the local ravens. Fueled by scrambled eggs and French toast, we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon taking in the views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

We started on the south rim stopping at Artists Point and Uncle Tom’s overlooks.  Then we saw everything again from the north rim at Lookout Point and Inspiration Point.  The Yellowstone River dropping over the Upper and Lower Falls never failed to please and we enjoyed the many colors of the canyon, including the stones of yellow. We also enjoyed watching the osprey soar over the canyon. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is very photogenic.  Not that it stopped Kay from stealing our phones to take selfies and silly photos of her family.


After resting in the afternoon, we went to the Canyon Corral.  Susan and the kids went horseback riding on an hour-long guided tour and saw elk from the saddle.  Kay bonded with the wrangler Jonathan by talking about Star Wars.  Meanwhile, I went for a drive through the Hayden Valley where I saw a small hide of bison (with very cute calves), a coyote, and many spectacular vistas.

Day 4: Geyser Basins

Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the fourth day of our travels.

We had trouble setting up the fold-out bed in our campervan the night before, so everyone was tired and cranky on our first full day in Yellowstone.  Nevertheless, we headed out to attempt to visit the geysers and geothermal features along the Grand Loop Road, leading up to Old Faithful.  We stopped first at Fountain Flat Drive where I got out to attempt some artsy photos of a hot pool draining into the Firehole River.

Turning around and returning to the van I spotted a bison walking right across the flat on the opposite side of the street.  We saw him poop and then approach a small pine tree which he used as a backscratcher.  We named him Itchy. Heading back to the main road we saw another bison sleeping by the side of the road.  We named him Sleepy.  Driving off, Susan was shocked to see in her rear view mirror that people were getting out of their cars to walk right up to Sleepy!

The next stop was the Lower Geyser Basin where Peter and I got out and saw the many geothermal features including the Fountain Paint Pots and the always-erupting Clepsydra Geyser.  Then we drove down Firehole Lake Drive and saw many more pools and geysers.  The White Cone Geyser is supposed to erupt every 20 to 40 minutes, so Susan got out to wait while the rest of us kept cool in the van.  We waited and waited, but it never erupted.

We stopped next at Whisky Flats Picnic Area for a late lunch.  By this time it was clear that everyone was too tired to go on.  So we made the plan to go back to our campground for a nap and/or quiet time.  By the time we were rested it was too late to head out again.

Day 3: Grand Teton to Yellowstone

Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the third day of our travels.

On our last day in Grand Teton National Park, blue skies returned, except for low clouds that hung out just below the peaks of each mountain in the range.  We checked out of Colter Bay Village saying goodbye to the tent-cabin and its cozy woodstove.  We drove to Jenny Lake where the parking lot was full of vehicles. We took the shuttle boat named for “Beaver Dick” Leigh across the lake, and then hiked up to Hidden Falls.  Although a short, easy hike it does count as our first hike in Rocky Mountains.

Shuttling back across the lake, we returned to our campervan and drove north toward Yellowstone.  The view of the Teton mountains looked spectacular even in the rear view mirror.  We stopped for a picnic lunch by Jackson Lake for one last view of the Teton Range while eating peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. As we continued north we passed through hauntingly beautiful burnt regions of the forest.

After checking into Yellowstone, and passing over the Continental Divide, we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin.  Our first set of geothermal features was located right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake, providing a stunning background to the geyser activity.  We continued along the Grand Loop Road (the long way around because of a road closure) to Canyon Campground where we’d be staying the next four nights.  At dusk, we once again went out wildlife spotting and saw a grazing elk and sleeping buffalo.