Florida Travel

Race through New York with Jimmy Fallon and slide down a volcano at Universal Orlando

Jimmy Fallon's New York at Universal Studios

Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, notable for its "Tonight Show"-themed queue, lounge and the lack of a conventional waiting line, opened in April at Universal Studios.
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Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, notable for its "Tonight Show"-themed queue, lounge and the lack of a conventional waiting line, opened in April at Universal Studios.

Unlike some of the rides created with cutting-edge technology that have been introduced in Orlando the last few years, Jimmy Fallon’s new attraction at Universal Studios, which uses 3D projections and motion simulator technology, has a comfortable familiarity.

Which isn’t to say Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon isn’t a fun ride — it is. And if you’re a fan of his “Tonight Show,” you’ll love the way his shticks, characters and fellow cast members pop in and out of the action.

Instead of waiting in a traditional line, guests are issued color-coded tickets that determine when they enter each space on the way to the main event.

Exhibits on the first floor pay homage to the “Tonight Show’s” six hosts, going back to Steve Allen. The second floor is set up like a lounge where guests can feel like they’re waiting for the “Tonight Show.” Because guests don’t have to hold a place in line, they can send Fallon-style thank you notes and take advantage of the lounge’s couches and touch-screen games. They’re entertained by the Ragtime Gals, Hashtag the Panda and television screens showing Fallon’s “Tonight Show” highlights.

RagtimeGals
The Ragtime Gals from the “Tonight Show” are part of the entertainment leading up to Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. NBC Andrew Lipovsky

Eventually, you file into a small auditorium, where audience seating is pretty much the same as NBC’s Studio 6B — except there are seat belts. Buckle up, put on your 3D glasses and get ready to ride.

Fallon drives a go-kart as he leads you on a speeding, skidding, swerving race through Times Square, the subway, more New York landmarks, under the East River and to the moon and back. All the while, you’re wondering whether your seat, which looked solidly fixed in place when you sat down, is moving, or whether the special effects on the screen are just really good.

There’s synergy here — NBC and Universal are divisions of the same company and part of Comcast. It’s not much different from Universal building an attraction around characters from one of its animated movies.

The line has two special features intended to cut down on the wait time — or make it feel like a shorter wait. One is an experiment with timed tickets, which visitors can get on the Universal app or at a kiosk in the park. The other is the lack of actual lines inside the building and the theming and entertainment that lead up to the ride itself.

“We don’t want guests to feel that they are in a line. People want to be entertained, to be transported, they want to have fun,” said Thierry Coup, Universal’s senior vice president for Creative. “These pre-shows aren’t just lines, they are part of the attraction. You don’t feel like you are in a queue. You are completely immersed in all the magic.”

“Lines have long been one of the big dissatisfiers in our guests’ day,” said Jason Surrell, creative director at Universal Creative. “Race Through New York is an experiment with a virtual line. Guests can reserve a time to ride … We’re re-educating our guests to a certain extent. A generation from now, you’ll have kids coming into a theme park and saying, ‘What’s a line, Grandpa?’ 

VOLCANO BAY

krakatau vertical
Krakatau stands at the center of Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando's new water park. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Krakatau looms over Universal Orlando’s new water park, waterfalls spilling down its sides, steam spewing from its top, thousands of people milling around and sunbathing at its feet.

Volcano Bay opened last month at the edge of Universal’s complex of parks and hotels, promising theme-park thrills on its many slides and a roller coaster that runs through the heart of the volcano.

The park has a South Seas theme and a story line about the Waturi people who live there. It is lushly landscaped and has a beach, two rivers for floating (one lazy, the other not), a wave pool, two kiddie play areas, cabanas for rent, two bars, several fast-food places and a variety of water slides. Krakatau by itself houses a roller coaster and two water slides. Guests don’t have to haul rafts and tubes up the stairs of slides; a conveyor belt does it for them.

The most expensive water park in Orlando ($67 for a one-day pass), its big selling point is a ride reservations system that was designed to use “virtual lines” to end standing in line for attractions. The system uses a wristband called a TapuTapu, which allows you to register for one slide at a time and alerts you when it’s time to ride. You can sunbathe or have lunch or float on a lazy river until your turn comes up. You can sign up for another slide only after you’ve completed the previous one.

Drop Slide
A drop slide at Universal’s new Volcano Bay water park. Daniel LeClair UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

When I was there the day after the park’s grand opening, the waits were outrageously long — two to six hours for most. Construction on a few features, including some of the cabanas, wasn’t complete. Through last weekend , visitors — albeit a smaller number of them — were still complaining about waits so long that they had time for only a couple slides.

Glitches, delays, long lines and temporary closings are not unexpected with any new park or attraction. A shake-out period is common, and everyone wants to experience what’s new. Like Disney’s World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom, which opened the same week, Volcano Bay closed several times to new visitors because it reached capacity. But problems with wait times seemed to be deep-rooted.

float river
Guests float along one of Volcano Bay's two rivers. Marjie Lambert

“We are working hard to make sure our guests are enjoying themselves and to make it right when they tell us they are not enjoying themselves,” said Tom Schroder, a Universal Orlando spokesman and vice president. “You can’t predict some things when you open a theme park … especially one as innovative as Volcano Bay.”

“The wait times are longer than we want them to be, and we know that disappoints our guests,” Schroder said, adding that the staff is continuing to make changes to speed things up. “It’s getting better every day. We’ve seen our ride capacity continue to improve every day, and we’re seeing a drop in wait times.”

Krakatau, a 200-foot volcano, is the centerpiece of Universal Orlando's new water park. Volcano Bay has 18 attractions, including a variety of water slides, a roller coaster through the heart of the volcano, two rivers, two childrens' play areas,

INCREDIBLE HULK

The big green roller coaster with its pretzel-like track and a story out of Marvel Comics debuted when Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened in 1999 and immediately got high rankings on coaster fan websites. The Incredible Hulk scored big for its thrills: a fast launch followed immediately by a zero-g roll — the track twists 360 degrees — and seven inversions.

Hulk
The Incredible Hulk roller coaster shoots out of the gamma-ray accelerator, turns upside down and dives. The coaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure recently got a makeover. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Sixteen years later, Universal decided the coaster needed a makeover, closed it down and rebuilt it. Although the steel track was replaced, the design remained the same. The ride got sleek new vehicles, a new story line and a redesigned queue experience. It reopened late last summer.

The fast launch is still startling, and the sight just before the train emerges from the gamma-ray accelerator looks like the track ahead is twisted and broken. Definitely high on the scream scale. “I wasn’t prepared for that start,” said the teenage boy next to me, looking pale, as our train rolled back into the station.

HOTELS

Cabana Bay, Universal’s fourth hotel, just grew with the addition of two 200-room towers.

For years, Universal had three hotels. Now it has five, a sixth under construction and has submitted paperwork to build two or three more. After years of only high-end hotels, Cabana Bay and the hotel under construction are more moderately priced.

Cabana Bay Monument Sign
Universal Orlando’s fourth on-site hotel, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opened in 2014. Universal Orlando Resort UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Cabana Bay, which opened in 2014, “was a game changer for us,” said Vince LaRuffa, senior vice president for resort sales and marketing. “It introduced a hotel experience that was incredibly fun and entertaining with a lazy river, bowling alley, amenities not to be found in this market at that price point. It really resonated for our guests.”

No. 5, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort with 1,000 rooms, opened last July. The 600-room Aventura Hotel is scheduled to open in August 2018. Universal plans to build two or three more hotels totaling 4,000 rooms on the property where its old water park, Wet ’n Wild, was located.

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