Went to the main office at Saratoga Springs after supper, looking for a concierge. There’s always someone there to help you, and she may be from Manila or New Jersey or Poland. They always say “Welcome Home” and I wonder how long it’s been since someone said that to them.

Leaned over the counter, as if entering into a conspiracy. “I know this is heresy,” I said, “but we’d like to go off-property tomorrow. To Universal.”

He leaned over and said “Between you and me, I have an annual pass.”

So the best way? Cab costs eleventy million dinari. Shuttle, cheaper. Back in the room I called up the shuttle’s website, and gah: 24 hours advance notice, they said. I was giving them eleven. Well, one can hope. There’s money to be made, and people do the dangdest things for money. Called the number on the website. The recorded message said that all the fairies were off spreading pixie dust, but if I left my name and number they would call before the stroke of 12!

Did this literally mean they’d call before midnight? Would I get an 11:55 call waking me from slumber?

Apparently not, since no one called. (As I later learned, I’d called a booking company that does booking for the shuttle. When the call was returned it came from someone working at home in Iowa.)

I tried the next morning and was informed they had three seats, and it would be cash money, pal.

I had no cash. Forgot to hit the ATM (why do we always hit the ATM? Poke, or punch would be better) before we left. Ran back to the room from the poolside breakfast: wife had cash, but was six dollars short. If I couldn’t hit - sorry punch - a cash machine I’d have to borrow money from the front desk, which seemed unlikely. There’s probably no provision in the machinery for advancing a guest a finn or two. Welcome home! No, I can’t give you a loan. But welcome home! Check out is at eleven and more shampoo costs extra. Welcome home!

I found a cash machine, and we were ready to go to NOT DISNEY. The first thing you see is a vaguely Moroccan bazaar, which prepares you for something or other. It has no specific movie connections, so perhaps it’s just there to acclimate you to a different reality. Went through a bright and cheerful Suess park, which held no interest for anyone, aside from daughter stifling a laugh when she saw HOP ON POP written large.

“Hop on Pop, and rupture his abdominal muscles or make him vomit,” she said, quoting my take issued years ago on the whole pop-hopping thing. I know I’m supposed to love Suess, but I got tired of the shambingles and clambrongles and garp-de-worblers. It’s easy to make things rhyme when you’re making up words, you know.

Through Sinbad Land, which had an impressive mountain containing a drooling old man:


It’s huge. It's like an actual mountain. Or so it seems. Equally impressive was the courtyard for something-or-other, which we would explore later:



By now I’m impressed with Universal.

And then:


The enormity of the structure cannot be underestimated.

We entered the castle to go on a ride, and I thought it was a mild-looking roller coaster. But the chairs out front suggested otherwise. They’re there to say “if you have a problem with being locked in like this, unable to move, think twice about this, please. Trust us.” They suggested something else. Well, like Haunted Mansion, I guess; you take a nice tour through Potter-type things. Certainly nothing that would play into claustrophobia or agoraphobia or any such things that bother me to contemplate, right? Hahahahah!

Certainly not. So we wind through the dark and gloomy castle, a marvelous experience if you’re a Potter fan, I suppose, and interesting as a piece of set design if you’re not. The number of people and the elaborate build-up told me this was not the roller coaster. This was the Big Thing. This was the showpiece. Then I’m in a room with chairs going past, continuously loading. The chair goes down a tunnel. It jerks back and I appear to be rushing forward at great speed, into a green light -

And then. Oh. My. And then you are suspended in the largest open space you can possibly imagine, flying. Over a forest. Under a bridge. The wind is in your face and you cannot see yourself attached to anything and the disorientation is utter and complete. I thought: well, this is everything I hate, isn’t it? So enjoy.

It was nothing I would ever willingly do, and it was spectacular. My God - you crashed through roofs, were spat upon by spiders, blasted by a dragon, something big like the limbs of a tree reached for you, and the spectacles moved with such speed it was difficult to discern the real from the filmed. By the end I'd given myself over completely to the experience, and was flying over the water to the very castle I'd entered an hour before, and it was the most utterly exhilerating thing I'd never really done.

Afterwards I had that great sense of accomplishment you get when you stumble into something on mistaken pretenses, and enjoy. Then we went to a show, “The Underwhelming Rote Motions of Sinbad,” performed by the Shouting Archetype Acting Troupe.



It’s like the “Indiana Jones” show at Disney, except the set doesn’t change, and the story is somehow more predictable. No one gets a small thrill of familiar delight when The Actor In the Trademark Hat appears with a whip. It’s Sinbad. He has no particular currency. His wacky comic-relief sidekick: Shish Ka-Bob. A princess had to be rescued from the clutches of the Stock Witch, Malicia; there were staged fights and explosions to keep your attention.

“Generic,” said my daughter when the spectacle was over. The Princess was something, though. Quite historically accurate for the daughters of Sultans: fit to the point of sporting an abdominal six-pack, and adept at hand-to-hand combat and swordplay, so she could Empower any girl who believed that princesses existed only to be rescued.




After an entirely acceptable meal (better than the rote Disney fare) we stood in line for 45 minutes for a roller-coaster. The ride took 50 seconds. As the line snaked along everyone shot hard looks at the people who sallied up the Express lane. That’s the difference: at Disney, everyone gets three shots at cutting the line, so no one who uses the fast lane suffers any censure. At Universal, you pay to cut, so the people who barge the line are the cake-eaters, the one-percenters, the top-hat crowd. If the revolution starts anywhere it will be the line for that stupid rollercoaster.

The Jurassic Park Park. Very cool. The gates! The music!



You’re reminded that Jurassic Park is one of the few movies where the logo for the film is used in the film itself. They built the pavilion with the dino bones, just as you saw in the movie. You took a water ride, which was not in the movie but had an amusing subtext: in the world in which the ride exists, Jurassic Park was opened to the public. All that unpleasant stuff didn’t happen, or was hushed up. And of course the simple water ride GOES HORRIBLY WRONG, and Raptors are loosed, as Raptors are wont to do. Somehow the designer for the water ride saw no problem with running the ride past the Raptor confinement area. Never occurred to him that the water ride might suddenly detour into the Raptor area by some horrible mistake, and find itself inside a dark industrial facility that just happened to have a chain-conveyance that pulled the water craft up six stories to the top of the building, where - somehow! - there would be a small river through which it could travel. All very fun and hah-hah, yeah, there’s a raptor, oh he’s spitting on me, that’s why the seats were wet when we got in -

And then you’re heading straight for the biggest g-d’m’d T-Rex you’ve ever seen, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this -

Oh wait - a door’s opening -

Annnnnnnd it’s a straight six-story drop into the river. I didn’t expect that. Screams all around. Soaking wet.

“Again!” said daughter, and since the line was short, we did it again. Sat next to a British fellow whose enormous stomach meant the safety bar could not come down all the way. He tried to pull it down.

"It'll come in handy," I said. "Trust me."

"All roight then," he said, and sucked in his gut. I think when we went down the drop he yanked it hard enough to drive the back of his stomach into the front of his spine.

That was it for the rides. Mostly we walked and observed. I wish I’d enjoyed the Marvel section more, but they missed the opportunity to connect with classic Marvel. Big mistake. The Toon Lagoon was hilarious: all the Universal properties you see in newspapers, and hence completely meaningless to most kids. Uh . . . Cathy. Really current things like:



I love Little Nemo - a brilliant strip which was introduced to millions when Google based a doodle on it - but it doesn't really mean much to anyone, and just reminds you how they've done nothing with the property. Does anyone know that's Flip up there with the ceegar? No.

That's possibly the only storefront about which there is a related song by Genesis. (Which also contains about the last time they wrote a good groove; it's short, but I've always loved it. It's at :50.)



Speaking of underused archaic properties:



Krazy Kat? Pogo?


Just storefronts with no connection to the properties, except to make you think that some executive regards them as properties. The entire Toon Lagoon is a reminder that the owners of these venerable characters are content to bottle and sell the last few fumes the characters give off. There's no love for any of the characters; there's no understanding of what they meant or why they matter.

Because Universal doesn't have a Walt.

By now Walt is a mythical character, but at least he unifies everything into one man with a vision that was specific (Mickey!) and broad (Disneyland! Epcot!). The Universal park we visited - there are two - is a walk through trademarks. With the exception of Harry Potter, nothing suggests anyone was passionate about doing this right.

Finally, an underwhelming merchandise outlet that suggests Universal is mostly clueless when it comes to wringing every shekel out of all of their brands. Sat down for a really good cup of coffee (again, better than Disney; they use reconstituted Nescafe crap, even in the French bakery, which is damned unforgivable.) No, one more ride - a spinning-teacup-type ride, the purpose of which was to defeat Magneto, somehow. He was duly defeated, but only for 20 seconds; as we left, I heard Professor X describing the situation with the same dire urgency he’d used when we came in.

Then we called the bus for a reservation, trotted down to Bay 41, and were entertained by a wonderful driver named Rick Just who handed out awful droll puns and jokes. A perfect day. With more to come! Burned off the rest of the arcade card with daughter by the pool, checked out whether I could afford that good Disney shampoo and lotion (no: $50) then walked back across the bridge over the lagoon to the room to watch “Gravity Falls” before calling it a night. A day. A weekend.

A trip. Another marvelous vacation, and not a jot of the angst that had struck the night before. Twelve? Twelve is great.

Fifty-something's just as good. For the same reasons.















blog comments powered by Disqus