Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Universal Studios Annoys Me

Dawn dawned and no-one got up.

Little wonder I was comatose after the hellish events of the past week that had piled inconvenience upon imposition almost beyond reason, but Mrs Stevie is normally up and kicking people out of bed as the first of the Sun's rays lick the horizon in order that no scrap of the day be "wasted". The roses, she reasons, will be there to be smelled tomorrow when "we" aren't in such a hurry to achieve enjoyment.

Of course, the usual course of events calls for the roses to be crushed under the smoking tyres of Mrs Stevie's vehicle du jour as they will undoubtedly be in the way, but it is pointless to try and remonstrate with the woman when her Florida Juices are in full boil. One can only hang on for grim death and hope it all works out for the best.

I cracked an eye open, or tried to. Over the course of the night it had become glued shut either because of the swelling or from the various bodily fluids that had been oozing from my integument thanks to my Safari of the day before.

I groped out for the tumbler of water I put on the bedside table before I retired and one of the paper towels doing duty as emergency tissue I customarily keep under my pillow in case of a sneezing fit or the need to staunch a nosebleed1 and by fumbling around with only my sense of touch and my innate spacial awareness and sense of balance to call upon I managed to spill the water on the floor, side-table and mattress. And break the glass.

I was able to moisten the paper towel in the small lake pooling next to my chest and then bathe my eyes until they unstuck. It took only a matter of minutes. Perhaps twenty of them.

I rolled over and cooed seductively at Mrs Stevie. How beautiful she looked as she lay snarling in her sleep. I kissed her carefully, and she smiled, opened her eyes and let out a scream that fetched the paint off the ceiling.

I leapt back and span around looking for the intruder that had so frightened her, then let out a scream of my own as my feet collected all the broken glass so no-one could stand on it.

This was a trifle unexpected and Mrs Stevie responded with another vocal excursion of the extreme kind. The sound must have carried through the peaceful holiday villa as I distinctly heard the Stevieling join in the fun, and a fraction of a second later the next door neighbours.

I decided not to carry on with this nonsense and instead fell onto the floor clutching my ankles, moaning in the way I've found to be effective in deadening pain, or at least, doing something until it subsides to a bearable level.

"What the hell did you do to your face?" demanded Mrs Stevie.

"Nothing. Why?" I replied as I began the process of digging bits of tumbler out of the Feet Twins.

"It looks horrible! Blotchy, swollen and covered in scratches! Were you with a woman yesterday? Have you been beaten up again? Oh God, please tell me there isn't a court appearance in our future! Not again! My mother was right about you!"

"Silence! If I were to be with a woman she would certainly not beat me up! That business in Maryland was a misunderstanding and it was her sister who attacked me, not the woman herself, and I was holding my own until the police dog got involved, I might add. No, these wounds are the result of my having to walk back from breakfast. I was caught in a freak wolverine stampede. It's nothing. Do we have any Hydrogen Peroxide?"

"Why do you need Hydrogen Peroxide?"

"I'm thinking of building a moon rocket. "

"Your feet are bleeding all over the carpet!"

"You think I should swab them with rocket fuel? Worth a try. Good thinking."

Thus another day in paradise was set in motion.

Mrs Stevie was feeling conflicted. On the one hand we had overslept and now would have to jostle next to the hoi-poloi in our planned trip de merriment to Universal Studios (not the Harry Potter one, the original one). On the other I had cheered her up by sustaining major wounds and alerted her to the danger of broken glass before she had walked on it. She settled for a sort of contented grumbling.

After coffee and toast we set out for the park with about four billion other people. The Florida People's Highway Infrastructure Soviet decided to spice things up by closing large portions of the major arteries on our proposed route, triggering massive traffic jams and impressive bursts of commentary from Mrs Stevie. We eventually gritted our teeth and allowed the GPS out of its lead-lined box and it suggested a new route that went round the side of all the stationary cars. We let out a group bleat of hopelessness and committed ourselves to the horror of GPS-assisted travel.

It is always a voyage of discovery when the GPS system is engaged. The problem is that the typical voyage it comes up with is constructed of discoveries we do not care to make situated in places we would not, given our druthers, care to visit on a bet. I may already have mentioned the demented thing's insistence on routes that transit or failing that at least visit Manhattan, even if numerous waypoints are laboriously programmed in to avoid that nightmarish traffic snarl masquerading as a major city at all costs. It once tried to get us to make a U-Turn off Staten Island so we could make a loop into Manhattan, then come back the way we'd gone and resume our current route across Staten Island2. The damned thing is insane. It's like we somehow got a piece of technology from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy3 or something.

This time the GPS faked us out by taking us where we wanted to go with no attempted side trips to Tampa or Jacksonville. I should have taken note of this deferred perfidy and would later regret not doing so because it left me open to a navigation ambush of the most virulent stripe, but that is a story for another day.

We pulled up to the parking lot entrance and Mrs Stevie wound down the window so we could pay and get a parking pass. There was a small delay when the young woman on duty peered in at us and fainted. Fortunately the security guard who was passing had smelling salts. I opined that she must have skipped breakfast, but the guard also looked pale so perhaps there was something going around. The guard said something about "cosplay" to the hysterical parking booth lady that seemed to calm her, and she returned to duty with many unearned dark looks in my direction. I determined to write a stern letter to the park operators. I have never been scowled at while attempting to pay for parking at Disney.

Once again I forked over for "Preferred Parking" and we parked less than a mile from the moving sidewalks Universal have provided to speed one to the fun of the security bag check and ticket registration.

The Universal Studio park dates from the days when Mrs Stevie had not discovered the mixed blessings of Starbux and the El Grande Maximo Clawhammer Double Espresso Latte5 and we were yet in a state of comparative bliss. Mrs Stevie was about six months pregnant with The Stevieling and the size of a small barrage balloon. Seriously, she would not have looked out of place if someone had written "Goodyear" on her while she was asleep7.

We visited the newly opened Universal Studios park that year. One look at Mrs Stevie over the closed circuit TV convinced the Park Personnel that she was several months further along in the baby-building process and thus a Lawsuit on Legs. This caused Panic in the Park Personnel and we were followed around the entire day by people with walkie talkies and steered to the non-moving seats in the exciting simulator-type rides (which was almost all of them). To this day I have only ever experienced The Jetsons ride, a ride that was in its day something people would exit slapping each other on the back and loudly extolling its awesomeness, as a rather boring movie seen from some very hard seats which if I didn't know better I'd suspect were just wooden boxes with carpet nailed on top. We were also forcéd to take the "static car" in the Back to the Future ride. It was so boring I seriously thought of dumping the buzzkill woman causing all the trouble until I saw her face, which by then wore an expression I've since come to know well but that day was just glad it was aimed at someone else.

The only thing they would let us ride was E.T., possibly the most dangerous precursor to diabetes in the world. If you think the movie is sickly sweet, the ride takes it and makes of it a soft drink even the FDA would not tollerate.

Mrs Stevie loved it and all was well with the World (most notably, the bits of the World occupied by my body).

Years later Mrs Stevie took the, what, four year old Stevieling on the ride. I stayed away from the park that day, but still experienced the ride in all its glory as it made An Impression on the child and she insisted on recapitulating it all week. Ah, the family memories.

Where was I?

The moving sidewalks propelled us past mini golf and lakes and various other diversions not inside the parks. The sidewalks were full of Brazilian merrymakers (and no-one can make merry like teenaged Brazilians let me tell you) but for some reason they gave us a wide berth so we weren't troubled by the usual close encounter issues. We joined a boisterous line of people waiting to enter the park, but as the bag check dragged on they became subdued and quiet, shooting looks back down the line and shuffling nervously. Some even shuffled out of line and joined one of the others. Clearly the bag-check guard was harshing everyone's mellow.

We finally got up to the turnstile and I presented my camera bag for examination. The guard, a short, wide man in his fifties seemed genial and not at all the grumpy anthrophobe the rather churlish behavior of the others in the queue had led me to expect. He finished rooting in my bag, looked up and let out a shriek that could have given me a heart attack if I hadn't been inured to such unexpected screams from a lifetime of making them.

I span round to see what had given the poor sod such a shock but whatever it was had gone. As my hearing began to return I heard Mrs Stevie engaged in a shouting competition with the gate security, who were gesturing toward me and saying something about only official staff being allowed in the park in makeup. Why they were pointing at me I have no idea. The only one in our family not wearing makeup was me, and as for that "staff only" law, well, I saw dozens of women wearing makeup and not one of them was wearing the matching staff ID badge.

One of the gate security came over to me and peered into my face, then asked if I needed the services of the first aid station. I thanked the man and told him my eardrums were already 80% scar tissue and could not be permanently damaged by the shrieking of the bag security guy who surely needed medical help more than I. He spoke briefly into a walkie-talkie, then looked at me and said in a hoarse voice "please enjoy your day at Universal Studios".

Heartened by this show of concern (however misplaced) we made our way into the park and headed to the one new attraction I was interested in: The Despicable Me 2 3D extravaganza and all-round good time for all the family. By all accounts it was not to be missed, and we would not have elected to miss it had the line not been already measured using line-length calculus8 as "three hours if nothing breaks down".

Mrs Stevie demanded we try the Shrek 3D thing so we did. It was a way of getting an air-conditioned seat at least, and the kids enjoyed it so much some of the joy leaked into the rest of us.

Thence to the Roller Coaster.

This edifice to conspicuous thrill-seeking was not only a twisted maze of vertical climbs to improbable heights followed by vertical drops into the former contents of your own stomach, corkscrew twists and loop-de-heart-attacks, it was the only roller coaster in this particular park, indeed, one of only two rides that went anywhere at a speed of more than walking pace. Mrs Stevie flatly refused to believe it was in this park until we were standing before the turnstile, reading the notice that it was out of commission for the foreseeable future.

I caught sight of the Transformers thing, which I had no wish to experience but which had a line even longer than that for Despicable Me, and began to discern a pattern. It seemed that if I hadn't seen the ride/attraction before it was either broken or full to bursting point with annoying people. SIghing I suggested we visit some old favorites from the days when the Stevieling had been knee high to, well, us.

First up was Twister, in which clever American Fungeneers9 bring the full majesty of a tornado to a captive audience with no danger of them being sucked into the vortex or impaled by wind-liberated bits of house. It is not bad, especially when you can get in without four hours of queuing. There is a set of bleachers on which the audience stands in a darkened theater looking out over a small town street. There is a roof over their heads, but only a sort of foreshortened porch-like affair. To one side a gas station sits, promising mayhem to come, on the other a farm house. On the horizon, the screen of a drive-in theater is showing a film. Clouds bedeck the night sky. A cow stands peacefully at the back of the stage. The audience leans on the rails provided for such lounging, and it starts to rain.

The wind picks up and things start rocking10. The drive-in theater screen disintegrates as thunder crashes and lightning rends the sky in twain. The vortex forms right before the audience's eyes! The unfortunate cow flies past, a truck skids. Gasoline squirts everywhere. The gas station sign falls over, hitting the electric cables and faWhoosh! goes the gasoline. Thunder peals. Houses disintegrate noisily. It is all very terrifying to small children and not unentertaining to those facing a day with small children. Just when everyone thinks the climax has arrived and nothing else could possibly happen, the floor that everyone is standing on drops about three inches or so, eliciting screams from the womenfolk.

The fun in coming back is to watch for the things you know are going to happen. My favorite is probably the flying cow which cracks me up. Possibly favorite for small children is watching the cow reset, proving that no cows were actually hurt in the production.

We emerged into the inevitable gift shop (all the rides and attractions at Universal Studios are simply complex foyers for themed gift shops and the sooner you understand this the happier your visit to Universal Studios will be) and headed out into the sun to do it all again so we could watch the bits we'd missed and I could get a second dose of the Flying Stuffed Cow of Hilarity.

After that we walked into the scenic part of the park. The back part of the park is carved into areas dressed as New York, San Francisco and other great American metropolises metropopli cities. I was told when the park was new that they actually used these places in films, but the back lot was shuttered years ago so I doubt that is true today.

New York used to have a wonderful recreation of the Roosevelt Island tramway station that housed the King Kong Encounter, but that had been replaced with a long queuing hut leading to a an indoor roller coaster themed for The Mummy. We committed our valuables into the questionable care of some fingerprint-secured lockers and raced through the miles of mostly empty queuing space and managed to secure a place in the front car by the cunning ploy of telling the attendant we wanted to do that and agreeing to wait while a few others took a turn.

It was a most agreeable experience with lots of zooming around in the dark augmented by back projected mayhem and animatronics in the Ancient Egypt-themed set dressing. The bit where the roof is engulfed in a sheet of flame is particularly effective, as is the scene where the car stops and one is confronted by the sight of a bajillion scarab beetles scuttling out of the wall in front of one. I made a note that next time we came on this ride to smuggle a bag of plasic bugs to toss over my shoulder at this point, to enable the other riders to properly immerse in the experience.

This was another twice around the block ride that had to be immediately had to be repeated, and I recommend it to all.

When we emerged from the gift shop I was surrounded by a number of young Brazilian women who for some reason wished to be photographed with me beside the entrance to the ride and the life-size mummy standing next to it. I would have obliged, but they were chased off by park officials and once again I was embroiled in a stupid misunderstanding with people accusing me of unlicensed activity on Studio property. A passing Brazilian lady spritzed herself with some sort of perfume and caught me in her sternwash as I protested my innocence, eliciting a scream from me as some of my wounds from the day before let me know they were still there and did not appreciate alcohol-based preparations thank you very much.

This brought an indignant Mrs Stevie into theater and there was a frank exchange of views that would have gone splendidly my way if one of the park staff had not mentioned the Brazilian ladies. I may have mentioned that Mrs Stevie strongly disapproves of Brazilian ladies, and things went rapidly downhill from that point as she visited the usual topics of debate in such strong and unequivocal terms that the park employees decided to retire from the scene while the getting was good.

I remonstrated with the demented woman pointing out that there were no Brazillian women anywhere near me, but she insisted that I must have been getting "up close and personal" wih at least one of them because she could still smell her perfume on me. I tried to explain this innocent misunderstanding but she was in no mood to listen to "any more fantastic lies" so I gave up.

We then went to the lockers where I put myself further up a certain apocryphal creek sans propulsion by paying the three dollar overage charge on our locker while Mrs Stevie was enjoying arguing the locker opener-upperer into waiving the "unreasonable" charge.

The way these lockers work is that the first however many minutes are free, where however many is the estimated time it will take for you to finish the ride from the time you asked for the locker. This time does not include goesy-roundies-for-another-turn or arguments-with-staff-over-bogus-license-and-copyright-issues time, for which a three dollar charge is levied. The Stevieling and I elected to pay so we could get on with our lives, for miserable as they are they are worth more than 3 bux per quarter hour during leisure time. Mrs Stevie believes arguing with people is leisure time, but won't use a separate locker which - it seems to me - would have addressed the problem of my "stupidly" paying up instead of standing around while Mrs Stevie made the locker opener-upperer earn his or her pitiful wage.

Mrs Stevie was just finishing her peroration. She span triumphantly to lead the poor, browbeaten locker opener-upperer to the scene of the financial outrage only to find me standing there with all her stuff, which I handed to her. The locker opener-upperer immediately assessed the situation and fled while Mrs Stevie selected exactly which terms of endearment to use on me, then - sensing the absence of the locker opener-upperer - span round enabling me to quickly absent myself from her rage by dodging behind a bank of lockers, where I was joined by the Stevieling.

Mrs Stevie span back around but I was gone. She span back but could not see me or the hapless locker opener-upperer. She might have simply gone off the boil in the target poor environment we had engineered had not the group of Brazilian ladies reappeared in theater after having experienced the ride and spotting me cowering behind the lockers loudly exclaimed and pointed while waving their cameras.

The Stevieling and I decided to move as quickly as possible on to the next attraction, and by the time Mrs Stevie had caught up with us tempers had cooled.

This attraction was the old Earthquake Disaster Ride which used to feature Charleton Heston, but has been retooled for some years with a "you are appearing in a cheap movie made by Christopher Walken" theme, which actually works very well and is quite clever. The show part of the attraction requires ten volunteers, and when the presenter asked for someone who could do an evil laugh Mrs Stevie tried to volunteer me, but was herself selected for her 15 minutes in the limelight.

Things got even better when the presenter asked for her very best evil laugh and then tagged her as "crazy lady". He played this up and I was agog to see how long he could get away with it before copping a size nine in the hurtybits, but Mrs Stevie had been bitten by the stardom bug and was, for once, pliable and cooperative even at the expense of her own image.

And I have to say she was quite good, cast as she was with two other women as "evil scientists". True, every time she lifted her face to the light her Evil Scientist hard hat fell off. Even so, I felt she was the best Evil Scientist ever and told her so, which cheered her up for most of the rest of the day.

Then it was on to the Men in Black ride, in which you ride in whirling cars while you shoot various targets of opportunity with a "laser" pistol. It transpires that winning an inordinate number of points on this idiotic ride is a personal strength, and so I was able to rack up 10,000 points and more to the womenfolk's aggregate score of 203. Mrs Stevie was driven to new heights of jealousy over this when I mentioned it a few times in passing, but I had to stop when we went to get our stuff back from the lockers.

There I found a French lady and her daughter in tears because they had locked up their valuables and the locker had refused to acknowledge them as them thirty minutes later. I became the hero of the hour by flagging down a locker opener-upperer for them, which was when I found out that Mrs Stevie does not approve of French ladies either.

We then moved on into the rather over-the-top Springfield area of the park and the Simpsons ride, which turned out to be the old Back To The Future ride with some plywood shapes screwed over the original fiberglass stuff and painted in Krusty the Klown colors. I was enchanted by the naffness of this half-arsed "renovation" and felt it stood a good chance of being the best ride in the park as a result. It was easy to see the provenance of the ride, and the old DeLorien cars were clearly visible behind the plywood sides.

The ride became even more brilliant when I realized that in all likelihood the hydraulic motion of the cars hadn't even been reprogrammed, and a new movie had simply been scripted to the existing motion scheme. This is a simulator-type ride with hydraulic cars suspended in front of a hemispherical screen on which is projected a wrap-around movie, producing a nauseatingly convincing illusion of chaotic movement - in the original a flight in the DeLorien time machine from Back to the Future but now a high speed ride in a derailed roller-coaster car in the Krusty theme park. There were and are certain key points in which recognizable and memorable things happen, and they happen the same way now as they did in the early 1990s.

For all that I have to say the new Simpsons movie uses the motion to better effect than the original ride did, and I almost threw up at several points. We had been forced to queue for about 30 minutes for this one but I think it was worth it.

We had lunch which was, wonder of wonders not the terrible, nasty and horrible experience it had been in the Islands of Adventure park at the start of the week where we despared of finding anything edible, and moved on at the womenfolks' insistence to the E.T. ride. I protested to no effect; the ride was closing at the end of the year, they said, and it was part of family history, they said, and shut up that moaning Mrs Stevie said so that was that.

Umpteen years ago Mrs Stevie and the four year old Stevieling had a girls only day at this park and The Stevieling rode the E.T. ride for the first time. She returned home wide-eyed and full of the backstory in which "E.T. must go home". In fact, she nearly drove me stark staring mad with this mantra over the next 24 hours, to the point I started to tease her by saying stuff like "E.T. must go to the store" or "E.T. must go to bed", which would drive her into a rage-filled correction. She was, and is, her mother's daughter in every way.

The ride itself is beyond lame from an adult perspective, and I was astounded at how many adults were on line sans children to experience it. It consists of an extremely sedate suspended coaster-like mechanism fashioned to look like ranks of bicycles (of course). Each "car" houses about 16 people in ranks of four and everyone "flies" over various scenes that tell whatever daft story has been going on until at the very end E.T. says goodbye to everyone by name as they coast past.

This miracle of technology is achieved by making everyone register their name and carry an ID card during the queue stage (which takes place in a giant "wood" somehow relevant to the backstory but which I've never understood despite having spent several hours in the bloody thing) and which gets taken just before boarding. The names get recorded in a computer and get played back as those seats pass the sensor at the end of the ride.

Actually, I've ridden this one a couple of times before, once when Mrs Stevie was pregnant when this was the only ride they'd let her on, and once a few years later with a young Stevieling, and on both occasions E.T. got our names wrong because the order everyone gives in their ID cards is not always the order in whch they are seated due to last second dithering in the line, and once E.T. is out of step, he stays out of step. It was the only redeeming feature of the ride in my opinion.

But this time he got everyone right, ruining the ride for me.

We wandered back to the roller coaster, which rumor had it had actually restarted, but it turned out that after running one train they had closed it down again.

We revisited Despicable Me 2 but the line was now a day and a half long.

So we rode The Mummy again a couple of times (I'm voting this as my new best ride in the park) and made our way toward the exit.

Mrs Stevie asked if we could perhaps take a look at the aging Terminator T2 show and I said okay, since it was a sit-down 3D and live action thing in air conditioned darkness and did not suck if memory was not playing me false. It also demanded no audience participation, so I was in no danger of being volunteered for public humiliation in the name of mass entertainment.

The show was quite good, not at all naff, and we nailed seats on the wide aisle about halfway down the theater so part of the live action took place a few feet from us, though I'd forgotten that happened (in my defense I hadn't seen the show in over a decade). Mrs Stevie swears that they used to ride a motorcycle down this aisle but I don't remember that myself.

We exited into the gift shop and I was confronted by a life-sized model of the skeletal robot from the original Terminator movie, the equivalent of a cigar store indian and made to serve much the same purpose. What caught my eye was the sign hung on it announcing that it was for sale (with no price on it). I speculated for a few minutes on where one would put such a thing - it stood over six feet high - and how one would transport it.

Then I took a long look at the collectible figures in the cabinet next to it, statuettes of Arnie as The Terminator. The sculpts were not spectacular (since the '90s a revolution in realism in facial sculpts has overtaken the collectible figures market and I've come to expect almost photographic realism in such items) but the poses and settings were nice. If I'd had anywhere to display one I'd have been tempted by one of the smaller ones.

As I walked toward the exit I saw that the floor was littered with souvenir leather jackets, so, not being a clod and wanting to look I picked them up and re-hung them on the hook. America can be such a land of clods, with people stepping around or even on merchandise dropped by other clods instead of replacing it where it came from. As I say, it was also an excuse to have a look.

Which is how I came to leave the park the proud owner of a souvenir Arnie motorcycle jacket branded for T2, something I'd never in the past have bought. It was real leather, decently made if a little heavy, at an attractive price. I have a leather jacket but it is far too nice to wear every day, and I'd been noodling with the idea of getting one I could screw up without worrying too much.

All I need now is a motorcycle and a lever-action shotgun.

  1. Mrs Stevie has been known to have dreams in which the dream-me indulges in various acts of perfidy, and upon waking hold me responsible for the imaginary transgressions her twisted psyche conjured in what passes for her mind, often exacting swift justice in a brutal attack while I am still asleep and in the arms of the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleader A squad
  2. While smugly announcing that we were to pay tolls twice for the privilege of doing so
  3. By a curious coincidence I had purchased a copy of The Ultimate Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy4 to read on my Kindle, but hadn't found time to do so. That should be read in Simon Jones' voice of course
  4. I have since found time. Would that I hadn't. Avoid this highly edited edition
  5. I have alluded in the past to the fact that I attribute her foul temper to overindulgence in this and similar beverages, which she developed a taste for in the third year of our marriage around the time I inadvertently killed the front lawn by applying too much Lorn Fude™, shortly after the Tree Felling Misunderstanding and about a month before the Heirloom Dining Table Fire Incident6
  6. This last the impetus behind the totally unreasonable "No More Steam Engines In The House" Snap Decision
  7. Although her reaction to finding that someone had indeed done this in indelible laundry marker was a harbinger of her coffee-fueled rages and then some
  8. δLine Length/δt
  9. A Stevie-invented term I'm sure is just waiting in the wings before appearing in some piece of park literature
  10. Moving laterally back and forth as opposed to becoming highly entertaining, though in this case both senses of the word apply if you enjoy such things

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