By ATD’s Florida experts Susan & Simon Veness
When it comes to the most diverse array of new attractions in Orlando this summer it’s hard to beat Universal Orlando’s line-up. From King Kong to the Strong Water Tavern, it not only looks good, it tastes great, too!
For those familiar with old British navy terms, ‘Strong Water’ is a euphemism for Rum, and rum is one of the highlights of the new Sapphire Falls hotel, which has a great view of the revamped Hulk Coaster. Which is close to Skull Island: Reign of Kong in the Islands of Adventure park.
And which is all a long-winded way of combining the three newest Universal elements into one action-packed day earlier this week, as the resort staged a special media showcase to highlight their latest and greatest.
It was a genuine three-part extravaganza and, even though it started at 7am, we were wide awake and ready to rock and roll in the company of Universal Creative’s Executive Producer Mike West, Show Producers Adam Rivest and Gregory Hall, and Executive Project Director Russ Dagon.
The high-powered quartet were on hand to walk us through the trio of new openings, starting with Skull Island, which we reported on in our weekly blog at the end of June, shortly before its official opening.
For West and Rivest, Reign Of Kong has been their ‘baby’ for the past three years and it is clear they have lavished a huge amount of care and attention on one of the largest rides in the Universal catalogue.
Getting the chance to re-ride it in ideal early morning conditions, we quickly discovered this is an attraction that needs multiple rides to appreciate the wealth of detail that’s packed in here. Both of us saw things we didn’t glimpse the first two times (we actually rode it three times), and the real triumph is the immensity of the ride allied with the extreme precision that puts it exactly where it needs to be, to the millimeter.
Some of the things we noticed this time included the ‘scars’ on the huge ride vehicle (from past encounters on Skull Island, of course), the different radio communications from the Eighth Wonder Expedition team in the loading area, and the large spider that follows the truck down during it’s ‘drop’ over the cliff edge!
West told us, “Working on a ride on this scale gave us a real challenge because we had to have an environment that matched Kong himself, so the vehicles had to be pretty big. And it was important to create our own story as well in this huge space. Peter Jackson’s 2005 movie created the look and feel of Skull Island, but we wanted it to be our own story so that when you come here to Skull Island you have your own experience of Kong.”
That we certainly did, and we left the ride once again shaking our heads in astonishment at the sheer creativity and dexterity of a ride that can exhibit 150,000sq ft of hand-carved rock-work but also create its own language with the Sha-woman who delivers pre-ride warnings about Kong (which was another of West’s creations).
From Skull Island our media tour hopped over to The Incredible Hulk, a journey of just a few hundred yards but more than nine months in the re-building. Because Universal took down every last inch of this massive green structure last year and put up all-new track in its place. Same look and configuration, but very different ride experience.
The original version of this ride (dating back to 1999) was starting to feel slightly rough, while the theming was out of step with the two recent Hulk films (2003 and 2008), so Universal took the unusual step of a complete do-over. Or, as Hall told us, “The Hulk has gone through some major enhancements to make it even more incredible. We have a brand new storyline, a high-tech queue, a fiercely remodelled ride vehicle and we have a custom musical score by Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy. All of this together has created a more immersive and high-tech experience while keeping the same incredible personality that was there before.” And he’s not wrong.
Just to start with, guests now enter the ride under a huge statue of the Hulk holding up an arched piece of the old track (salvaged from the re-build and now providing an iconic new look), and enter the top-secret world of General Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, and his genetic experiments. It is highlighted by a massive ‘Gamma core,’ with a special effect that utilises the largest plasma display in the world. In story terms, it powers the gamma bombardment chamber that everyone enters as they board the ride vehicles.
The coaster cars are distinctly more sleek and ferocious than before, with LED headlights, low-profile front end and an all-round dynamism that makes it seem like it goes distinctly faster than the 65mph top speed. You must empty your pockets of all keys, phones, wallets, etc, in the free-to-use lockers at the entrance, as they will shake loose otherwise. The ride is then the same exhilarating, fast-paced whizz around this corner of Marvel Super Hero Island, with a new smoothness and energy – boosted by that musical backing – that continues to ensure this is one of the best coasters in America.
After we had enjoyed the Hulk and heard the full story from Hall, it was time to sample the final part of this three-piece tour and head over to the recently-opened Sapphire Falls Resort.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect as we had only seen this from the outside on the June media event, and much of the external landscaping was still being done. We needn’t have worried, though. This is a crisp, clean and very alluring hotel, with several unique features and some truly tempting food and beverage options (especially the rum bar – ask us about the rum bar!).
Dagon filled us in on some of the detail, including the central feature of the Falls themselves. “The idea was to take geography that might be found in the Caribbean and how we could build a resort around that, and one of the founding elements was water. We wanted to have water that bisected the resort, starting at the rock-work above our 16,000sq ft pool, with a ‘river’ that meanders through, creating a sand-bar in the middle (that conveniently leads to the pool bar!). The water continues under the bridge into the Falls and eventually ends up in the main waterway, where you can board water-taxis and take them to the parks and CityWalk.”
The Falls, he told us, were partly modelled on the famous Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica, and they are stunningly lit at night, adding a whole new ambience to a really eye-catching vista.
The eye-candy is matched, though, by what’s on the inside. As well as beautifully spacious and comfortable rooms, the hotel’s amenities are top notch, including the indoor/outdoor Amatista Cookhouse restaurant (for breakfast, lunch and dinner), the modern fitness centre, games arcade and neat New Dutch Trading Co grab-and-go café that dishes up snacks, small-plate meals, tea and coffee in bright surroundings.
Our big discovery, though (as we might have mentioned), was the Strong Water Tavern, which inhabits a wonderful space just off the capacious lobby. This elegant bar/lounge is dedicated to the world of rum, with its decadent Caribbean overtones, but a lot more besides. It also features craft beers, epic cocktails, an outdoor patio (with fire-pit) and an outrageously good small-plate menu that is as good as anything we’ve tried this year.
Universal laid on a comprehensive tasting session for the media – from the signature Tavern Grog (a delectable white rum, Demerara and citrus concoction) to their superb ceviche – that showcased the bar’s Caribbean roots and made it an instant highlight for us. Everything we tried was tasty and flavourful, and there is a genuine sense of authentic cuisine given a modern twist.
And, if you’re looking for our latest Brit Tip, it would most certainly be if you’re visiting any part of Universal Orlando, you MUST make a detour for the Sapphire Falls Resort and hang out with the food and drink at the Strong Water Tavern. We may well see you there!
If you have questions about Orlando’s theme parks – or anything else about the wonders of Florida – be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums, on this link.
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