All aboard for the $1bn ride

Does Orlando need yet another theme park? Universal Studios thinks so, and Fred Mawers went to try it out

Orlando's newest theme park, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, officially opened last Friday. Universal is making extravagant claims for its $1bn venture, calling it the world's most technologically advanced theme park, and saying that its rides are the fastest and the steepest in the business, and its animatronics (theme-park speak for robots) are the most lifelike ever.

Why is Universal building yet another theme park in Orlando?

Universal's presence in Orlando has long been in the shadow of the big ears of Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney World, with its four theme parks, water parks, nightlife area and many hotels, attracts over 40 million visitors a year. Until now, Universal has had just one theme park with which to fight back, the film-based Universal Studios, and that lures just nine million visitors annually. So it has gone on a $2.5bn spending spree in an attempt to redress the balance.

The result is Universal Studios Escape, which presently includes Universal Studios, a new dining and nightlife centre called CityWalk, and Islands of Adventure, and will take in three new hotels within the next couple of years.

What exactly is Islands of Adventure?

In design for a decade, covering 110 acres and with a staff of over 5,000, IOA is the centrepiece of the Universal Studios Escape expansion. It isn't really made up of islands, but of elaborately themed zones set around a lake. Unlike Disney, which uses home-grown talent such as Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Pluto as the linchpins for its parks, Universal has no great store of animation films. So, in order to bring three of the park's zones to life, it has imported characters from books, comics and cartoon strips. Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk appear, both as themes for rides and costumed actors, in Marvel Super Hero Island, Popeye crops up in Toon Lagoon, and The Cat In The Hat and other figures from Dr Seuss' children's stories in Seuss Landing.

The park has two more zones: the mythical Lost Continent, and the conceptually neat Jurassic Park - the Spielberg movie on which it is based was set in a theme park.

What's the best ride?

All this theming is really just a backdrop to what makes the park special: namely, its state-of-the-art thrill rides. The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman is the top dog. It was the most expensive ride in the park to build, costing in excess of $60m. The result is a mind-blowing experience for all the family that fully lives up to Universal's hyperbole for technological wizardry. It is partly what is called a "simulated" ride, in that you're shaken and juddered in sync with 3D images to heighten the reality - for example, Spiderman appears to leap from the screen and land on your vehicle. But these effects have become almost old-hat in theme parks. What pushes Spiderman into another league is that sometimes your vehicle does actually whizz around at high speed, the fireballs are for real and water is actually sprayed on to you.

Anything that's really frightening?

IOA has two rollercoasters, whose great curling masses of metal visually dominate the park. Leaflets offer reassurance that they "provide the illusion of danger, not actual danger", but the rides are about as far removed from conventional coasters as possible. On Dueling SIC Dragons, with your legs dangling freely, you ride one of a pair of coasters through various corkscrews and loops. At one point, you come within a hair's-breadth of colliding with passengers on the other coaster. Tom Williams, president of Universal Studios Escape, told me: "If two of the tallest basketball players were to sit in opposite seats, they would clash" - adding that this couldn't happen as their bodies wouldn't fit in the seats.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster kicks off by catapulting you - apparently with the same force as a US Air Force F-16 fighter jet - up a tunnel from zero to 40mph in two seconds, before turning you upside down seven times and skimming you across the top of the lake. On both coasters, I escaped with just sweaty palms and a certain dizziness; others fare worse. The rides are far more vivid if you sit at the front.

What else is unmissable?

The realistic dinosaurs in the lush, palm-covered "island" of Jurassic Park fully bear out Universal's lofty animatronic claims. The Jurassic Park River Adventure beats the Countdown To Extinction ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom hands down. The only problem is that you're concentrating so hard on the 85ft drop that you've been told is coming at the finale, it's somewhat hard to take in the finer points of the five-storey T-Rex that is about to devour you.

It's easier to admire the technology in the Discovery Center, where you can watch baby Raptors hatching from ostrich-sized eggs, and on Triceratops Encounter. This show is tacky, but the dinosaur even blinks and sneezes, and the child I saw touch it fully believed it was flesh and blood.

If you enjoyed being soaked on the Jurassic Park ride, you'll also get a kick out of Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, which gave me the biggest drenching I've ever received in a theme park. Its big trick is that the log you ride appears actually to plummet through the surface of the lake.

Is there anything for younger children?

Head for the multicoloured Seuss Landing with its zany play-area called If I Ran The Zoo, where you can make characters' heads appear by, for example, tickling their feet, as well as a couple of cute fairground rides and a good computer-animated ride based on The Cat In The Hat.

Will there be long queues?

You bet. I visited during the park's testing period, when only a few thousand visitors were allowed in each day. Even then, there was a half- hour queue for the Spiderman ride. So, for all the park's top rides, expect a wait of an hour or two this summer. Make a beeline for them early or late in the day. And head left. Since most people are right-handed, theme-park anoraks swear that most visitors bear right when they enter a park or, if presented with two queues, choose the one on the right.

Where should I eat?

Dr Seuss fans might want to try the Green Eggs and Ham Cafe, for lime- coloured scrambled eggs (they're mixed with parsley paste). The park's most ambitious restaurant, serving decent modern American fare, is Mythos, set in a giant grotto and with staff named after gods and goddesses. Otherwise, head for CityWalk, a two-minute walk from the park's entrance. Its best restaurant is the trendy, warehouse-styled Emeril's, which specialises in Creole food.

What happens after dark?

At peak times, the park will stay open late, but there are no plans as yet for a rousing finale, such as the extraordinary fireworks display at Disney's Epcot.

To return to the real world from IOA, you'll have to pass through CityWalk. This slick, purpose-built and almost-finished complex is Universal's answer to Disney's eating and nightlife district in Downtown Disney. Many of its dozen restaurants double as clubs with live music. I liked the Motown Cafe, where the resident band impersonates the Temptations and the Supremes under a giant, revolving vinyl record on the ceiling, and the clapboard recreation of Bob Marley's Jamaican home, where reggae bands perform in the courtyard. There is also a jazz club, and a dance club in a repro Victorian theatre. Cover charges are around pounds 2-pounds 4, or for pounds 11 you can buy a pass for all the clubs. The clubs were fairly empty on the weekday night I visited, but I'm told CityWalk is already buzzing at the weekends.

So what's the verdict: is Spiderman going to knock The Mouse for six?

Islands of Adventure is without doubt the most exciting theme park in Orlando for teenagers and the young at heart. But while it is more than a match for Disney for its high-tech and scary rides, it loses out in the charming-the-socks-off-toddlers stakes. The costumed characters aren't as lovable or as universally recognisable as in Disney's Magic Kingdom, and you need to be over a certain height to experience the big-thrill rides. Entrance costs the same as at Orlando's other theme parks: around pounds 28 for adults, pounds 22.50 for children between the ages of three and nine. There are also passes for admission to all Orlando's non-Disney theme parks over a period of days.

ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE

GETTING THERE

Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 617181), the leading operator to Florida, offers over 50 hotels in Orlando. A fortnight this August for a family of four, with two children under 12, including flights car hire, staying at the Holiday Inn International Drive, and Universal Studios passes, costs around pounds 3,000.

GETTING IN

Entrance to Islands of Adventure costs the same as Orlando's other theme parks - adults pounds 28, children aged three to nine pounds 22.50. A FlexTicket, covering admission over seven days to both Universal's theme parks, Sea World, and Wet 'n Wild is pounds 106 for adults, pounds 85 for children aged three to nine.

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