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.

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