The Introvert’s Guide to Orlando: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

I did a little social experiment with myself during my visit to Universal Orlando today. Given that I haven’t been to the parks in over 20 years, they were essentially blank slates to me. Given that, I wondered if I would be able to find “introvert spaces” or if they would just “call” to me as a natural consequence of being someone seeking quiet places. As it turned out, I was able to find some (rare) quiet places in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The final tally was something like six hours in the parks, 10.5 miles walked, and a lot of sunblock burned through. I do this for you, friends.

General Guidance

Since the Universal theme parks share a parking lot with the Universal resorts, I suggest you check out my blog on that area for some of my thoughts. However, I had a few other thoughts today as I was doing the parks specifically. By the way, it costs $170 and some change to buy the cheapest ticket, which is a one-day, park-to-park pass. It’s more than a one-day, one-park ticket for Disney, but each of the Universal parks is as attraction-dense as Magic Kingdom, and that park costs $105 as of this writing, so figure that as you see fit.

First item (and this was a rookie mistake): buy your tickets online, in advance. There are will-call kiosks at the entrance that will save you from having to stand in a 30-minute line at the ticket window.

The only other general thought I would have regarding the Universal theme parks is to take at least a day to visit each. There are 24 attractions at Universal Studios, 26 at Islands of Adventure, and each of them is going to have a line. Note also that the Studios is open 9-6 (in late August, anyway) and IOA 9-8.

Also, as with the Disney theme parks, if you have little ones, you might want to schedule some down time. As you’ll see over the course of this entry, it’s very easy to get overstimulated and require a break.

The restaurants throughout the parks are good places to sit down, take in some air conditioning, and just chill out. That is not to say it is quiet. I found few to no quiet places in the Universal theme parks–they are, like CityWalk, saturated with background music–but the crowds are somewhat less, or kept at bay at any rate.

Another heads-up to the crowd- or fourth-wall-averse introvert: you can suddenly find yourself face to face with street entertainers when you least expect it. This happened to me at least twice. Also, entertainment (such as parade floats or stage shows as opposed to “streetmosphere” can also pop out of nowhere.

Both parks are laid out more or less in a loop, with several side paths and twists and turns, but each park has a lake in the middle that provides the geographic center of the complex.

Universal Studios

I entered Universal Studios after a half-hour wait to purchase tickets and started meandering down Rodeo Drive. The area was relatively quiet, and I don’t know if that was a function of the time of year or the time of day (10 a.m.).

There are a couple places up Rodeo Drive that are just fun to visit, such as The Brown Derby Hat Shop and the Prop Shop. You might or might not want to buy anything in either store, but the merchandise is eclectic and amusing. I was maybe five minutes into my stroll when a single parade float came down the street, with the street speakers suddenly shifting from reasonably quiet background to SOMETHING LOUD TO GET YOUR ATTENTION. It turned out to be a float for Dora the Explorer. I kept walking. The Cafe La Bamba courtyard near the NBC Studios media building(?) was pretty empty…possibly because Cafe La Bamba was closed. Not sure if that was a long-term condition or if I was just early.

The first genuinely quiet area I found was a place I normally wouldn’t visit at all, and that was Woody Woodpecker’s Kid Zone–the area that caters to the kids 5-10 years old. A few restaurants were not open yet, so that left plenty of open table space away from the traffic flow. The background music in the Kid Zone is also not as BLARING or intrusive. (If you get the impression that I was less than enthused with the background muzak at Universal, your impression is absolutely correct. That was part of what drove me up the wall during my visit.)

I enjoyed walking around the Simpsons area, which hadn’t been there when I last visited the park–come to think of it, most of the park has undergone refurbishment or re-theming in the last 20+ years. It was like visiting a completely different park. The Simpsons area included a Kwikie Mart, Kang and Kodos Twirl and Hurl, Moe’s Bar (not an actual bar, just scenery), and a Duff Brewery outside bar/courtyard, which was pretty empty when I walked through in the mid-morning. I’m guessing it gets busier later in the day.

The next relatively quiet area I found was by the Fear Factor stage area, and this was probably because the stage was closed so it could be retooled for Halloween Horror Nights. There might not have even been any music around (huzzah!).

At last I came upon Diagon Alley, one of two Harry Potter-themed areas in the Universal complex. From what I recall of the first two movies, the lands/sets are meticulous in their appearance. And wow, I wish I had enjoyed the HP books enough to appreciate these areas, because there were doubtlessly many in-jokes and clever references from the books/movies that fans loved seeing but which made no impression on me whatsoever. Suffice to say, there are no quiet areas in the Harry Potter regions. You are there, along with hundreds or thousands of other HP fans, to enjoy the atmosphere. True fact: there were lines to get into the wand stores in both parks.

If I had one complaint about Diagon Alley–and several other parts of Universal as well–it would be that sometimes attraction areas lack signage. If you don’t check the maps or have a natural curiosity, you might miss entire sections of the parks simply because you didn’t know it was there. Some entry ways just look like entrances to “backstage” areas for employees. This lack of direction can be a bit disorienting, and I have a theory on that disorientation that I’ll come back to later. While in the Harry Potter area, I did have the following exchange with another tourist who saw me exit one of the random alleys/”cast area” entrances, though:

Tourist: What’s down there?
Me: Scenery.

Part of that cluelessness was a function of me not understanding what I was seeing (as noted above, I am not a Harry Potter fan) and part of it was the area itself, which was rather dark, with confusing sounds/voice-overs emanating from the sound system. All that said, the production values at Diagon Alley are very high, and the level of detail will satisfy avid fans. Non-fans like me will be baffled at times.

Moving past Diagon Alley, I encountered a pseudo San Francisco Embarcadero Street. I found some less-crowded areas by restaurants (Richter’s Burger Co., Chez Alcatraz, Lombard’s Seafood). Again, it was before 11 a.m., so perhaps those areas are busier starting at lunch time.

At one point in my perambulations, I found myself surrounded by a pack of singers carrying microphones. I sped up my walk to get out of the way–I was afraid I was interrupting a show accidentally or (worse) concerned that I might get dragged into a show somehow. Opposite from the singers was a park area, and beyond that was the Music Plaza Stage viewing area, which was a mix of sidewalks and astroturf. When no one is performing, the area is wide open and relatively people-free, and I saw several people sitting on the astroturf, taking a breather. Not a lot of shade, though.

The best place I found to avoid crowds at Universal Studios was, as the bartender at Pat O’Brien’s predicted, another bar–in this case, Finnegan’s. It’s not quiet, but the background music comprises Irish pub tunes, which can be entertaining.

As I sat writing at the end of the bar in Finnegan’s, it occurred to me that Universal has a different style of entertainment from Disney. They both do the immersive thing, with scenery and characters around, but Disney keeps the characters more at a distance. There’s a carnival fun-house atmosphere at Universal, where characters walk the streets and get in your face (think zombies at Halloween Horror Nights). The fourth wall is deliberately breached, and not always comfortably. They have a “gotcha!” tone to how they interact with the public, while Disney’s character behavior is more closely monitored and controlled: “The character greeting area is over there.” One is less intrusive…guess which one I prefer?

I asked people at Finnegan’s about the quietest times/places to visit the park. I was focused on places, but the bartenders didn’t have much advice in that direction. However, my friends at Finnegan’s were happy to share the best times of year to visit the park: the first and last months of school in Orange County, Florida (“No one wants to be the one to take their kids out of school at that time”); January (“Everyone’s tired of seeing family after the holidays and no one has any money”); and pretty much any holiday except Christmas, singling out Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

A few more thoughts on Finnegan’s, since I spent a little time there to have a beverage and lunch. The decor is cluttered–lots of photos and bric-a-brac on the walls. The bar itself is massive, and the area also includes a couple of island bars and a stage for a band, which doesn’t show up until 3 p.m.

Unlike the arcades/game rooms at Disney, the ones at Universal are busy. However, to be fair, the game rooms at Universal are in the parks while the arcades at Disney are in the theme parks.

A lot of the store fronts at Universal are just that–fronts. There were a few places at the park that I would have liked to visit, but they were just scenery, not actual stores. That said, one store I did like was an Irish-themed store, where I managed to find something with my last name on it: Leahy. Mind you, looking elsewhere in the park, I was unable to find anything with Bart on it, but they did have really “common” names like “Brayden” on coffee cups. Really, guys?

Islands of Adventure (IOA)

There is a train that connects one park’s Harry Potter area to the other. Just to make it fun, it’s an attraction unto itself, with some gorgeous computer-generated scenery on one side of the rail car and at one point some HP character interaction on the other side, including some animated frogs creeping along the glass. And you even get to use Platform 9 3/4. The set design for the train station is excellent, as it is for both Diagon Alley and Hogwart’s/Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. In fact, the Hogwart’s School is one of the best examples of forced-perspective scenery I’ve ever seen. The whole area is beautifully done, with the same whimsical “magical English” architecture and names. A lot of love and attention went into these attraction areas, and I commend Universal on their efforts.

The next place I wandered into for quiet was the Discovery Center in the Jurassic Park area. The upstairs dining area is pretty noisy, but the exhibit areas downstairs aren’t as crowded, and the courtyard behind the lower level was almost completely empty when I walked around it.

The “Lost Continent” area adjacent to Hogsmeade is a magical mixture of Middle Eastern and ancient Greek walkways and artwork. The entryway to Poseidon’s Fury is impressive, with massive faux ruins including what look like pieces from the lost Colossus of Rhodes. Across from Poseidon is Mytho’s, a restaurant that proudly displays a banner of the door declaring it “the best theme park restaurant in the world six years in a row.” Having already eaten, I just wandered around a bit. I liked the interior design, which looked like a series of caves adorned here and there with massive statues, mosaics, or pools. Out back, beyond Mytho’s outside seating area, is a good-sized promenade and walking area. The background music is an exotic mix of tunes that sound like they were soundtracks from Sinbad or The Ten Commandments. In spots, it was even nearly music free. Quiet at last!

Seuss Landing, home to some of the trippiest architecture you will ever see, is of course an homage to the works of Dr. Seuss. I found some less-crowded places in Seuss Landing, much to my surprise. The stores in general were uncrowded, as was the Circus McGurkus Cafe. McElligot’s Pool was a small but uncrowded place to sit down, as was the courtyard by Green Eggs and Ham, which was closed, either for rehab or due to the time of day (2 p.m.?). Nowhere in Seuss Landing, however, is quiet.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but the best place to get away from the crowds at IOA was a saloon: the Backwater Bar, which is in the “Port of Entry” area just after you leave (or just before you enter) Seuss Landing. The interior isn’t too cluttered, and the interior seemed to absorb sound pretty well. The selection of beers on tap and by the bottle was better than I expected for a theme park.

Anyhow, while I was sitting in the Backwater Bar, I had a little more time to reflect on the aesthetics and psychology behind Universal and why it’s so different (for me) from Disney. Universal feels more overwhelming. There’s a lot going on, and the scenery is very detailed. Just Diagon Alley and Seuss Landing alone can mess with your head at the quantum level. But I couldn’t help wondering if the combination of overpowering visuals, sounds (music and effects) and confusing geography were all deliberate–a massive psychological game designed to disorient the visitor into staying longer and buying more.

Regardless of the psychology involved, after six hours at Universal Orlando, I began to understand the term from a book by Neil Postman (or an album by Roger Waters): “amused to death.”

Finishing up at Backwater Bar, I continued my way around the lake, next visiting Marvel Super Hero Island. The first thing you see are the massive, inside-out tentacles of the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. Not being a roller coaster guy, I watched a few rounds of rolling caterpillars full of screaming people loop over my head before confirming that, nope, that wasn’t for me. That said, the observation area for the ride is pretty crowd-free, if not particularly quiet.

By the time I got to Toon Lagoon, I had about reached my limit with the overlapping music and noise. I found myself saying aloud, “Enough already!” I made another circuit around the lake and came to the Port of Entry area, where I found the Croissant Moon bakery, which was isolated, less crowded, cool, and abounding in baked desserts. They had a great selection, and I settled on the red velvet-chocolate chip muffin. Not good for me in the slightest, but I figured I’d consumed a good thousand calories walking all that way (9.2 miles just to get to that point), so I was good for it. The muffin was excellent, by the way.

But, again, once I had my dessert, I headed for the exit. Universal Orlando is full of exciting and adventurous things, to be sure. But I take my adventures a little more quietly–for instance, via the printed books, comic strips, and movie scripts that inspired all this entertainment in the first place.

The Abundance Mentality and Helping Others

My professional blog, Heroic Technical Writing, is a public education service. My goal was and is to honestly help people seeking advice about the business of technical writing. I’m not interested in putting up a pay wall, though I might write a book at some point. That’s about as far as my selfishness goes here.

Most of the time, I write blogs for a generalized technical writing community of students and professionals who check out my writing from all over the world. Every month or two, a reader contacts me directly asking for specific advice about their particular situation. What’s amusing to me is that a lot of the people who contact me directly all have the same intention: they want my job!

I understand that passion–I had it for years and it took me nearly 25 years to finally achieve it, so I appreciate that people think I have some magic formula for helping them reach the same destination.

Irony

There are a couple of ironic twists to the advice I release out into the world like a kid blowing soap bubbles in the park. The first amusing part is that I no longer earn my living as a space writer, and haven’t since I was downsized out of my full-time job (through no fault of mine or my employer’s, I hasten to add) in 2013. I do some space work, but that’s not my primary source of income. The other thing that amuses me is that as I offer advice or even suggest points of contact, it occurs to me that I am creating a cadre of potential competitors for future work.

I still offer the help. Part of it is because I genuinely want to help. Also, I suppose I’m confident enough in my abilities that I feel I could get specific work if I pursued it (I’m on a contract right now, so there hasn’t been a big rush). And the last reason why I keep helping is that I’m trying to develop what some folks call an “abundance mentality,” as opposed to a scarcity mentality.

Scarcity vs. abundance 

A person with a scarcity mentality sees the world as a zero-sum game: if I get a job, someone else will not get it. Or they think, as I suggested above, that helping others get a job in my field creates my pool of competitors and reduces my chances. There are, in fact, only so many full-time “space writers” out there–and I know or have met many of the best in the business. Surely I can’t afford to flood the market with proteges who might take the food out of my rice bowl! The scarcity mindset says, “I need to protect what’s mine!”

That’s one perspective. The abundance mindset, however, says that people can create their own jobs and careers. People thinking this way believe that the economic pie can and will continue to expand and that people can create their own special niches as the professional ecosystem diversifies and grows. The abundance mindset says, “There will always be more opportunity!”

And space is an expanding field (no pun intended). It isn’t just NASA or the Defense Department anymore. There is now a small but steadily growing entrepreneurial sector with companies starting to compete not just for launch vehicles but also satellites, space stations, asteroid-mining equipment, and other types of hardware. The sooner those private-sector companies reach and expand their respective customer bases, the sooner we’ll see additional start-ups to support the markets that the primary space companies create. And as the space market expands, there will also be more opportunities for government to settle in along the edges, should you wish to work in the civil service.

Thinking differently about your path

The point being, to be a writer in the space industry, you don’t have to be working directly for NASA or one of its contractors, though that’s still a good option when the jobs are available. Likewise, if you’re not a space enthusiast but care deeply about animals, hunger, or nuclear power, there are alternative ways to support those causes that don’t require you to be right on the front lines. I also know people whose actual job descriptions are nowhere close to scientist or engineer, but because they work at NASA, they take immense pride in “doing their part” for the space program.

No one needs to follow the exact path I did to get a job as a space writer–in fact, I highly recommend that you don’t: chose an easier route! However, there are many ways to serve a cause that you believe in, and having an abundance mentality allows you to be open to multiple possibilities and multiple ways of reaching your preferred destination. And you might find something along the way toward your goal that you like even better.

So if you are a seeker of advice, fear not: I will continue to give whatever wisdom I can offer. If you manage to get the same type of job I have, fantastic! Space is a difficult business and it could use all the good communicators it can find. Just remember to say thank you if I helped and to pay it forward if you get to a point where you’re able to help others. Think abundantly!

47

By the time you read this, I will be on vacation, not home. I decided to get out of town, even if it’s still in Florida. Still, I try to do one of these birthday essays once a year just as a way of checking in with myself and with you, my readers (I appreciate both of you) to see where I am with respect to myself or the world.

I’m coming more and more to know the sort of person I am and the sort of person I am not, and I’m willing to accept both. I am very much an introvert, for example. I can go hours or even days at a time without engaging in much verbal conversation. Much of the time my apartment is even quiet as I start my day: no radio, no TV, just me, the sounds of my daily routine, and whatever foolishness is buzzing about in my head. This does not mean I dislike people, merely that I don’t seem to require the presence of another person in my domicile. In fact, I’m usually more relaxed if I don’t have company. My habits are those of someone who requires a “Fortress of Solitude,” and is increasingly aware that such a lifestyle is likely to keep people at a distance. So be it.

I am still not an athlete, nor do I desire to be. Those of you who feel the urge to climb a mountain or run a marathon–God bless. You can take my turn. I won’t stop you, but don’t feel you have to invite me to your quest. My favorite physical activity is walking through aesthetically pleasing landscapes, interesting architecture, or preferably both. I can walk anywhere from one mile to ten at a stretch and do not notice or mind the passing of time. It’s hard to say what I’m thinking about on these walks. Often I’m not thinking at all, but merely using the exercise as a way to clear my mind and the scenery as a way to relax it. A long stroll through a museum would probably do me just as well.

I’m a very serious person, despite my verbal habits of wit and sarcasm. My reading list consists of a lot of philosophy, history, science fiction, and other such things that help me ponder or understand Big Questions. It’s all very abstract, dry, and contemplative. My musical tastes have been shifting, too. Not as much ’80s pop or John Williams soundtracks while I’m writing, more Mozart, Beethoven, or other classics.

Vexed by some of the rather angry chatter I’ve seen on Facebook, I’ve ratcheted down that hourly habit to something closer to a brief daily lurk before I find other things to do. The extra free time has allowed me to catch up on my long-neglected reading list, and so I’m trying to take a good whack at reading those books I’ve meant to read for a decade. So far, so good. Thirty-four books read this year; only 197 more to go before I can start adding books back onto the list again. I’m sure some will come to mind.

On the whole, thanks to a very loose freelance schedule that still manages to pay the bills, I’ve become less of a workaholic. I’ll do whatever work is in front of me gladly until the pile has dwindled, then I set thoughts of work aside and go read a book or take another walk in the vegetable-steamer heat of summer in Florida. Slowly, I’m learning how to be inactive, to take pleasure in downtime. This is a big shift, as I spent much of my time from 25 to 45 thinking about work. On the whole, I think this is a good thing.

Politically, I remain a gentleman of the Right, though more and more I find myself in the Libertarian camp, especially as the two most prominent prospects for president this year fill me with equal dismay. I maintain very strict standards for myself (and very definite opinions about others) but I have no interest in inflicting my personal morality on other people. Nor am I particularly interested in having someone else’s ideas foisted on my unwillingly. I live by an increasingly outmoded notion of “Live and let live.” I figure it’ll be appreciated somewhere down the line.

Otherwise, to quote that great philosopher Popeye, I am what I am: a graying, somewhat overweight, middle-aged and self-contained Anglo who usually has a book, pen, or computer in his hand. Eventually I’ll think of something useful to do with all the ideas I have in my head, but for now I keep on living my life, hopeful that eventually it’ll all make sense at some point or, barring that, I’ll do something constructive to do with myself that makes me feel like the journey has been worth the fare.

And so I celebrate living another year on this blue planet, curious to see what happens next.