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TR: IAAPA, Universal, Busch Gardens Tampa, & Fun Spot Orlando

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Hey everyone! I debated for a long time as to whether or not I should post this, because (as usual) I don't have pictures for you guys, and I don't want to bore you. But I had so much fun that I've got to get this TR out of my system! So, with that, I'm going to warn you: there's going to be a LOT of text in this. I'm going to break it up with other peoples' videos to keep it interesting, but it's only fair that you know that I'm going to obsessively go on for a while. :P You've been warned.

A few weeks ago, I had the huge pleasure of going to Orlando for a few days for IAAPA and (of course) a couple theme parks. Originally, I had only intended to visit Universal, but my schedule opened up the possibility of also visiting Busch Gardens Tampa and Fun Spot America (Orlando)--so, I did!

Days 0 & 1: IAAPA, Universal, and then IAAPA at Universal

Part 0: Getting there.
If you've seen a select few of Terp's posts around here, you probably have figured out that I'd like to work in the amusement industry someday. And if there's one thing you'll find in just about any article featuring advice from someone inside the industry on how to enter the industry, I guarantee you'll read something about attending the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. I've been trying for years (I think my first attempt was in 2009) to get to IAAPA, but something came up every year... until this year, when time and money finally coincided. I think I had a knot in my stomach that only got worse from the moment I booked the plane tickets, but I was exponentially more excited than nervous to attend. I waited five years for this thing; nerves would not be the downfall of the trip.

So, one flight (involving the first mid-air emergency I've ever witnessed!) to Orlando (involving the first time I've ever driven on an apparently speed limit-less road! Floridians be crazy) to spend the night at the Allure Resort (involving the first time I've ever seen two lobbies with two different names for the same dumpy building AND the first time I've ever had to reconcile myself with the idea that treating bedbug bites would probably be cheaper than canceling the reservation and staying elsewhere AND the first elevator I've ever ridden that made me truly question how scary any iteration of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror could possibly be) later, I found myself at the Orange County Convention Center.

Part 1: IAAPA, Day 1.
For those of you who haven't been, here are the things you need to know about IAAPA:

1. The place is enormous. However big you're thinking it is, it's at least three times as big.

2. Unless you're extremely pressed for time, take two (or more) hours and just take it all in. Do your best to avoid being pressed for time. There's so much to see, regardless of what you're there for. It's literally Christmas for people who enjoy having fun. There's so much more to it than roller coaster stuff, but there also are rides there that you can try out. I rode a Zamperla Air Race, an SBF spinning coaster, and a Triotech dark ride. There were a few other rides (including a Ferris wheel, another dark ride, and several other flat rides) that I meant to ride but never got around to. And there's food, too. (My mouth is watering for the BeaverTail I had with Nutella on it... Mmm.) IAAPA's just as much about having fun as doing business, and you're doing your IAAPA experience an injustice if you don't have fun while you're there.

3. Regardless of your intent, all roads lead to inflatables. We're talking jumpy houses, inflatable ball pits, the whole enchilada. The map says they're only in one corner of the show floor, but I SWEAR they were following me around when I wasn't looking. Or maybe they're omnipresent. I must have walked through the inflatables at LEAST six times over the course of the first day. Ugh... inflatables. Ugh. Ugh.

4. Maybe this is standard for trade shows that aren't the ones I've been to, but I'd never seen this before: several booths--especially the bigger, more corporate ones--had actual offices in closed rooms inside them for doing business. Which, if you're me, makes you even more nervous about taking up the industry folks' time with your "hi, I want to do what you do, what's your advice" talk. While I think it's important to respect the professionals' time, I do have to say that almost everyone I talked to at the booths could not have been friendlier or more open to talking to me. It really meant a lot that they took time to listen to me and offer advice. So if you're hyping yourself up over how you're going to speak with industry people, relax--but stay professional. It was also pretty neat that the people I talked to were just as open to talking about professional development as they were about talking about their favorite rides or projects, which made me fanboy on the inside pretty hard.

Once the trade show floor opened, I was off. (To inflatables, of course. Ugh.) It was all sensory overload for about the first hour, with a quick stop to the Zamperla booth to try out the Air Race in an attempt to calm my nerves. It worked really well, even if it did cause some nausea. :P The Air Race is a very fun ride, but it's very dizzying. I really don't think I would want to ride it more than twice in a row, at most. The hangtime and swinging is a lot of fun, but I was glad for the end of the ride cycle. Check out a video from Fun Spot America Orlando on their identical Air Race that, coincidentally enough, is only about 10 minutes from the convention center. The clip is short, but you get the gist:

On the way to Zamperla, I was able to look over Premier's, Vekoma's, B&M's (including a Thunderbird car! Very sharp-looking in person), Mack's, Intamin's, and Vortex Aquatic Structures International, Inc.'s booths. (If you remember Hot Blooded from Haunt a few years ago, VASII makes a product very similar to the waterfall effect that show had. Or maybe they provided that effect; I'm not sure. It was very neat to see that product up close at their booth. Of course, they make more than that, but that's probably the most notable thing for me to mention on a KI fansite.) Oh, and I made a quick lap through the inflatables. Because UGH.

After meeting with a few extremely kind folks at GCI, The Gravity Group, and Irvine-Ondrey Engineering, I was on a bit of a "holy cow, this thing is actually happening" high mixed with some slight hysteria, to be honest, haha. I decided to give my nerves a little bit of a break by grabbing some lunch and checking out the Triotech dark ride. There were a few food vendors in the far corner, so I inhaled some orange chicken and got in line at Triotech's booth (after somehow managing to make a lap through inflatables along the way.)

The Triotech dark ride followed a simple oval path between two scenes: a full 3D screen and a scene with real, plain white objects that had the scene projected onto them. The car itself could pivot and spin and would do so as it transitioned from scene to scene. Each seat had a gun with which you blasted zombies (on the 3D screen) and blasted paint containers and windows (on the all-white real scene). If you knocked out all pieces of the window panes, a zombie would appear. The ride was simple but very neat, and it showcased the product very well. I'm excited to see how Cedar Fair and Triotech's relationship evolves through future rides, because the concepts they had there were unique, intriguing, and different in execution from the "aim at the lighted target"-type dark rides we've come to know from the Paramount years onward.

From there, I stopped by a few other booths, including Sally Rides, Rocky Mountain Construction, Skyline Attractions, and Technifex (makers of many special effects seen on Tomb Raider: The Ride.) Here is where I have to offer any other people who want to do what I did an opportunity to learn from my mistake: when it came to the booths I made top priority to visit and connect with, like Skyline Attractions or RMC, I made sure I was familiar with who their staff was and what they make. When it came to companies like Sally and Technifex that I wanted to meet from more of a "familiarize myself with the industry in general" sort of way, I overestimated my ability to walk up to someone and introduce myself without knowing more about the company beforehand. I can tell you that Technifex makes very realistic-looking fire effects, but, at the time, I couldn't name one employee of the company. Same goes for Sally. I realize it's not a sin to walk up to someone without already knowing who they are and introduce yourself, but when you see the Technifex booth full of representatives talking with people, it felt somewhat petty of me to walk up, pull one of them to the side, and say, "So... what do you do, again?" Maybe I was being too paranoid or too much of a millennial, but that's how it felt to me at the time. But I digress: The folks at Skyline were incredibly friendly and excited to show off the Strike-U-Up and Spin-U-Win, both of which are very neat concepts that are very fun to watch. (I didn't try one--I wish I had!) I'm excited to hopefully see them appear at a park someday. The RMC booth was very full, so I didn't get a chance to speak with anyone, but I did get a very up-close view of the Ibox and Topper Tracks and of the Twisted Colossus car they had on display. Too cool!

At that point, I was due for another ride, so I hit up the inflatables. I mean, I meant to head to the SBF spinning coaster, but it had been a whole half hour or so since my last visit to the inflatables, so I was overdue for another one. So once I got done facepalming my way past inflatable steam trains and Transformers, I found my way to the SBF booth and took a ride on the spinning coaster. It was a very simple figure-8 layout, but it was surprisingly fun! The train made (four? five?) laps around the track, and the amount of laterals really had my me-only car really spinning, so I was good with just the one ride lest I revisit the aforementioned orange chicken.

At this point, I had been at IAAPA for about six hours. My dress shoes were slowly turning my feet into one giant blister, my tie was coming dangerously close to succeeding at strangling me after a six-hour effort, and my nerves were shot. I figured I'd have the next day to hit up the rest of the booths I didn't get to that day. I was due for some fun outside of IAAPA, and I was aware of the fact that Universal was but a 10-minute drive away. I remembered from my trip planning that Universal was running a "buy a two-day park-to-park ticket and get a third day free" special on their website. I checked my phone: Universal would close in about three hours. The special was still on. I would be in Orlando with plenty of time to use up all three days of the ticket. I had signed up for the IAAPA event at Universal that evening, but that wouldn't be for another four hours. I really wanted to buy a Ravenclaw sweater and tie so I could meet up with a similarly-dressed industry friend who is equally obsessed with Harry Potter at the IAAPA event. But with that timeframe, I wouldn't be able to change clothes (or, more importantly, shoes) and get to Universal with any decent amount of time left. No, I probably should wait, I told myself. It wouldn't be that much longer till I was at Universal with IAAPA.

Part 2: I went to Universal anyway.

I caved. I have no willpower. Sue me.

With my somewhat limited timeframe, I had to make due: I ditched the tie in the car, picked up my ticket from the will call kiosk, and was entering Islands of Adventure dressed like a guy who just left a trade show, ditched his tie, and went to a theme park. But that's beside the point, because HOLY COW, can we talk about Islands of Adventure for a second, here?!

In my time at IOA that afternoon/evening, I drooled over the total beauty that is Port of Entry, made a left, drooled/squeed over The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and then headed through Jurassic Park (not a property I'm particularly interested by) to Hogsmeade, where I'm pretty sure I keeled over and died. Without discounting the rest of Islands of Adventure (trust me, there are many paragraphs to come), Hogsmeade is a Harry Potter-slash-theme park nerd's dream. The architecture--particularly the looming outline of Hogwarts Castle at the end of the path--is so gorgeous and true to the source that I had to stop walking and just take it in for a minute (butterbeer in hand, of course.) It was absolutely surreal, from the angled chimneys to the intricate, pastel store displays to the steaming Hogwarts Express just inside the entrance. It's an absolutely breathtaking area for me. I get goosebumps describing it to people.

But, I still had a goal: I needed to get the gear for the later visit. So, trying very hard not to squeal like a little kid at Christmas, I scanned my ticket at the entrance of the Hogwarts Express, saw this:

...died a second time, and then boarded the train to Diagon Alley. (That train whistle gives me cold chills!)

I'm not going to spoil the trip on the Hogwarts Express in either direction to anybody, but I will say that, regardless of how you feel about Harry Potter, the effects you see while riding are really well done and had a lot of people in my cabins asking how it was done. If you can appreciate the magic of theme parks, you can enjoy a ride on the Hogwarts Express.

With that, we arrived at King's Cross station. The fact that the station looks exactly like a London train station (down to a rotating departure board) is a really impressive, creative touch that I appreciate Universal making. But as I exited King's Cross, I followed the crowds to the left...

And with that, I'm going to stop for tonight. I'll continue this in a new post soon. Thanks for reading thus far! :)
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Good stuff so far. I would love to go to IAAPPA someday! :D I'd like to share a quick story that might mirror your experiences, but relating to a different industry. I recently attended the CSOHIMMS Conference (a conference for Healthcare IT professionals; I attended as I am a soon to be graduating Health Information Technology major) near Downtown Cincinnati on October 24th and had a blast. I think the best part was talking with the different vendors/recruiters and learning about what each company does. I share this story because I can definitely understand your excitement for meeting professionals from an industry that you hope to work in someday as I also feel this way.

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I didn't realize it at the time, but the London facade of Diagon Alley blends really well with the rest of the New York City backlot area of Universal Studios Florida. At the time, all I saw were fancy British buildings and not a lot of indication as to how to get into Diagon Alley. But, as they say: when in a fancy, nondescript secret entrance to a Harry Potter-themed area, do as the blob of tourists do. Or something.

So I rounded the bend, followed the crowd around the brick walls, and...


Credit: Andy Sanchez, Flickr.

...Promptly felt my jaw hit the perfectly-themed ground. I honestly don't know where to begin describing Diagon Alley accurately, and I honestly just had to walk around, gawk, walk some more, gawk some more, etc. for who knows how long. The amount of detail is so insanely high in every window that I think it's genuinely impossible to notice everything. Period. (As far as I'm concerned, the interactive wands only serve to increase the number of details to try to take in--more on that in a bit.) There's something to see in every storefront, regardless of whether there's actually a store there or not. And the fact that there aren't any true dead-ends in the place (the backstage areas are accessed by what look like smaller paths that continue on to other parts of Diagon Alley, except there's a small fence to keep you out) gave the feeling that the place was much bigger than it actually was. There's a bridge (I can't decide if it was actually in use or was just for show) over part of it that has the booming sounds of a train passing overhead now and again. The inclusion of Knockturn Alley as this almost accidental side-area (the entrances are not wide and not obviously marked) makes it feel like you've discovered a part of the place not intended for average Muggles. The whole psychology of the place is--pun unintended--truly magical, and there are so many touches that make the place feel exponentially bigger than it actually is. If you can appreciate the magic of theme parks, you will appreciate Diagon Alley, even if you're not a Harry Potter fan. The amount of thought put into the place is absolutely mind-blowing. Check out Attractions Magazine's video of the area, including Knockturn Alley:

Being that I enjoy theme park magic and Harry Potter, the rest of my time there honestly passed by in a bit of a drool-covered blur. I didn't ride any rides (the line for Escape from Gringotts was longer than I was willing to accept with the schedule I had) and spent the rest of the time just trying to see everything. Which, as I said, is pretty much impossible. I did manage to pick up my Ravenclaw attire from Madame Malkin's and noted the location of Ollivander's (I had to get my wand that evening, of course!) There may have been a second butterbeer mixed in there somewhere. There may have been a lot of me telling myself I have no use for Ravenclaw robes, writing quills, or Quidditch sweaters.

At some point, I realized I wanted to see some more of Islands of Adventure before I left, and if I wanted to see it that afternoon, I needed to start heading that way. So with another bout of internal squealing, I boarded the Hogwarts Express (I am thoroughly baffled as to how the Platform 9 3/4 effect works) and headed back to Islands of Adventure.

When I got back, I headed through The Lost Continent... and realized I would need to spend a lot more time in The Lost Continent in the future. As much as I love Harry Potter, I have a soft spot for unique theme park areas that don't rely on intellectual property*. And that, to the best of my knowledge, is what The Lost Continent is. It's a breathtaking area filled with collapsed ruins and complex, beautiful stone structures that I only had about ten minutes to look through before having to head back towards the car. But I made sure to find where Poseidon's Fury was located--it was for sure on my to-do list during my time in Orlando. It would have to wait for another day!

*You experienced USF visitors are probably chuckling at this. I haven't missed the fact that USF is almost entirely filled with IP-based experiences. More on that later.

With that, I hurried back to my hotel room. Except, by "hurried," I mean I somewhat hobbled to the scary elevator and took the somewhat questionable elevator ride to my room. My feet were really aching, but there was more to come. So, with that, I changed into my Ravenclaw uniform, hobbled back to the car, and drove to the meeting place for the IAAPA trip...

To be continued in a future post! :)

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"When I got back, I headed through The Lost Continent... and realized I would need to spend a lot more time in The Lost Continent in the future. As much as I love Harry Potter, I have a soft spot for unique theme park areas that don't rely on intellectual property*. And that, to the best of my knowledge, is what The Lost Continent is. It's a breathtaking area filled with collapsed ruins and complex, beautiful stone structures that I only had about ten minutes to look through before having to head back towards the car. But I made sure to find where Poseidon's Fury was located--it was for sure on my to-do list during my time in Orlando. It would have to wait for another day!"

Yes! I could spend hours in the Lost Continent. It's so beautiful and peaceful. Definitely a top 5 candidate for best area of a theme park to nap in.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Part 3: Back to Universal...

Disclaimer: I was giddy for most of the events in this post. I'm giddy reliving them as I type. This post may cause you to roll your eyes. You've been warned.

I joined a large group of IAAPA folks at the meeting place, where we boarded several nicer Greyhound-style buses and headed (back) to Universal. (I really don't think I've ever appreciated sitting down more than I did in those blissful moments, and I don't think I'll ever enjoy it quite as much again.) Our buses entered via some backstage entrance behind Hulk, traveled around the perimeter of IOA (let me tell you, they hide the backstage areas incredibly well--they're RIGHT behind most rides around the edge of IOA), and stopped at the end of a path that let you enter USF very close to the entrance to Diagon Alley. Employees welcomed us to the park as we headed for Diagon Alley and informed us that food and drink would be available in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Transformers: The Ride 3D would also be available, though I never made it that way that evening.

As it turns out, food and drink being available meant that there were actual tables set up in the pathways throughout both areas with food on them that you could pick up at your leisure. It looked very delicious, but, to be honest, I had other things on my mind. Namely...

Stop 1: Ollivander's, Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 BC

There was NO way I was going to come all the way to Orlando and not stop at Ollivander's to see a wand pick a wizard and get one for myself. There was just no way. I had seen videos of the process and had somewhat hoped I might get picked myself, but just watching it happen once was more than enough for me.

Entering down a long hallway whose walls were filled from top to bottom with wand boxes, I was stopped by one of Ollivander's "assistants," who asked me to wait until Ollivander was prepared. He then noticed my Ravenclaw attire and high-fived me for being part of the best house. (I attempted to conceal squealing.) More people entered and joined me in the hallway. Ollivander's assistant began asking us about Muggle life (e.g. how did we travel to Diagon Alley, etc.) and asking if we were all there to get a wand. He then turned to me and asked if I was, too--and I was, so I said so. He then questioned why I would need a wand if I was already in Ravenclaw, so I told him I'd had an incident in Potions that was kind of a long story. He "understood." I really loved the fact that general shop employees were "in" on the theme of the area and acted appropriately--that's really a neat touch that I could appreciate out of any themed area, let alone one that's themed to some of my favorite movies and books. Being somewhat alone in my Harry Potter fan-ness in my day-to-day life also made standing in a room of grown adults who were just as excited as I was somewhat surreal. :lol:

Putting the details for the Ollivander's show in spoiler tags, just in case:

After what felt like an eternity, Ollivander's assistant led us back to Ollivander. While I wasn't chosen to get a wand, I was surprised again by the fact that Ollivander chose a couple (instead of a single person) to try out the wands. Each of them tried out one spell each (both of which "failed"), then Ollivander paused for a minute... And then had them trade wands. The lights swirled and the iconic music played, and Ollivander described how the wands' properties correlated to wizards who were protective of those they loved. It was really a special touch that was really well thought-out. For how excited those two were for the experience prior to entering, I'm sure they'll remember that experience for a long time. Kudos to Universal for really going above and beyond!

For the "standard" Ollivander's experience, check out this video from Attractions Magazine:

Our group then exited to the shop part of Ollivander's Wand Shop, where one of the assistants helped me pick an "unclaimed" wand (as opposed to one of the Harry Potter characters' wands) that correlated to my birthday. It actually ended up being a wand made of Elder, though it is not the same Elder Wand from the final book/movies. It's actually got a skull "carved" in the handle, which is by far the creepiest of the wand designs. I bought my wand, never having been so eager to drop $50 in any amusement park in my life, and within a few minutes was looking for one of the spell locations throughout Diagon Alley. Check out Inside the Magic's video of some of the spell locations throughout Diagon Alley:

I will put aside my nerddom for a moment to say that I think the entire "interactive spell location" idea is really an amazing idea, and I think the idea behind it could easily be used in other parks. While I can see some comparisons to adding guns to dark rides (and the negative points people have made about that invention), making theming interactive in the same vein as the spell locations at Universal adds a whole level of fun that can be accessed by many more people than rides. I LOVE the fact that just finding these locations and interacting with them can be as fun for families as the rides themselves, as I witnessed several times throughout my time in Orlando. I'm not sure how crazy I am about the required initial investment (i.e., buying a $50 interactive wand) but can see how you wouldn't want these areas to become so crowded that the quality of the experience is lessened. I think the employees that stand at some of the spell locations will let you use their wand, but they aren't stationed at each location, so you're limited if you don't buy one... Hm. I just thought this was such a neat idea. But I digress.

Several spells later, I remembered that it was probably in my best interest hit up some rides instead of repeatedly causing fountains to spray water all night. Since many people had headed straight for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, I figured my time was better spent in Hogsmeade (rather, in Islands of Adventure.) A quick ride on the Hogwarts Express later (in a cabin full of British people, no less!)...

Stop 2: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

WOW. I don't know where to start with this. The entire queue is a seamless, immersive walk through the grounds and halls of Hogwarts, complete with moving paintings and employees dressed as students from all houses.

[still typing--just wanted to get this much saved!]

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Great job so far!

As a note, saving partial posts and then editing the rest in to avoid losing things is not really the best way to do it, as when you edit the rest in, it doesn't mark the thread unread, and those who saw the partial post won't be notified that the rest is available. Instead of going that route, one suggestion I could make is to prepare the report in your favorite word processor, where you can save the file to your hard drive or flash drive to your heart's content, then copying and pasting into the forums when you're done. If you don't like that idea, the other suggestion I have is simply to double-post, which from what I've seen generally seems to be OK for longform trip reports.

Whatever way you choose, this is a fantastic report so far, and I look forward to the rest! :)

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Wow. Just reading through your report is making me giddy with excitement too! A few years ago when I went to Universal, I was blown away by Hogsmeade. Diagon Alley was still under construction, so unfortunately I haven't experienced that area and all of those attractions yet. Reading this and seeing all the videos you included is really making me want to go back. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! You're doing an amazing job and I can't wait for the rest! The way you're describing everything is allowing me to visualize it all and it feels almost as if there right now.

Great job, and glad you hear you had an amazing trip! IAAPA is definitely on my list to go sometime soon too.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Journal entry, day 21:

The lack of sleep is finally setting in. I thought caffeine would hold it off indefinitely, but no. Every keystroke is matched with two bats of my eyes; I fear that Fred, my new pet unicorn, may actually be an illusion after all. The impending wave of carpal tunnel will undoubtedly mark my final post as the last written communication I shall ever express. Surely my hands can no longer bear motion of any sort again...

(I may or may not have gotten a little lazy, haha. I'll try to finish things up and reply to everyone's posts this week. :) )

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