If you've been paying attention, you probably know how much I love Disney... especially the theme parks. I've been to Walt Disney World in Florida many times and I've been to Disneyland in California many times. When people find out about my affinity for Disney, they just assume that I like going to all theme parks. They assume incorrectly. To paraphrase Sinead O'Connor: "Nothing compares to Disney." I have been to Universal Studios once and that was one time too many. Actually, my experience there showed me why Disney is at the top of the heap and all others in the theme park game aspire to reach "Disney" levels... and, most likely, never will.
After trying (unsuccessfully) to convince my son that our local Disney Store was Walt Disney World, we broke down and made our first trip as a family to Walt Disney World in 1995. Because we are Pincuses with a penchant for the unconventional, we drove to Florida from our suburban Philadelphia home. We loaded up our minivan with luggage and food and activities for the road and headed south on I-95, stopping along the way to see the sights. As we drew closer to the Florida state line, we passed more and more billboards advertising "FREE THEME PARK TICKETS." We already had our Disney World admission, but my 8-year old son — also an avid Nickelodeon fan — was anxious to get an up-close look at the "Kids' Network" at Universal Studios theme park that had just opened its competitive doors a few years earlier. So, after a bit of cajoling, my wife swung the minivan into the gravel parking lot of a small building on a service road, just off the highway in South Carolina. A young lady behind a high counter greeted us with a smile. She explained that, in order to secure tickets to Universal, we would be required to attend a brief seminar at a soon-to-be-opened time-share complex minutes from the Disney compound in Orlando. My wife and I were young and naive, not fully aware of the hard-sell, pressure-heavy experience that awaited us. We excitedly made a reservation for mid-week to tour the complex, with effortless visions of free tickets to Universal Studios clouding our collective thoughts. We hopped back into our van and I tucked the reservations card away with our important papers.
Early one morning, our little family entered the Magic Kingdom, eager to share each other's joy and ride Pirates of the Caribbean a couple of dozen times. Disney, of course, did not disappoint. My son's first taste of a real, live Disney theme park was borderline mind-blowing. We basked in his excitement, as we re-watched familiar sights though a new set of eyes. We were also treated to that signature Disney service. Disney "cast members" filled our day with smiles and friendly words and honest-to-goodness happiness — from ride operators, to restaurant wait staff to the cheerful guy sweeping the walkways. Every Disney employee was willing to bend over backwards to make sure each and every guest had the greatest time.
|A reasonable facsimile.|
A few days later, we drove down a desolate stretch of Route 192 through Kissimmee until we arrived at the entrance to The Isle of Bali, a construction site with a single tower looming high above the giant piles of debris and dirt-caked bulldozers. The tower, a light brick structure inlaid with an aquatic pattern, was flanked by two in-progress edifices that had not made much progress at all. We found our way to a large conference room that was packed with folks milling about — obviously lured by the promise of free theme park tickets, because no one looked the least bit interested in buying into the sucker-pitch of a time-share. They were all like us — families on vacation. We were directed to a complementary continental breakfast, but no sooner had I begun to smear a lump of cream cheese across a pale, thin bagel than we were
interrupted greeted by our day's tour guide. He was a cheerful young man who resembled Tim Meadows before we knew who Tim Meadows was. He shook my hand, tousled my son's hair and led us to a small table covered with a linen tablecloth. Before he began his presentation, he made several persistent attempts at sticking our son in a "kids area" where he would be "more comfortable." When he finally realized that we weren't letting him out our our sight, "Tim" proceeded with the most incoherent pitch I ever heard. We could barely follow what he was saying, as he jumped from tales of overseas vacations to domestic golf courses, to fishing lakes for fishing (I swear he said that!) to the constant mispronunciation of the name of complex itself. He repeatedly called the place "The Bile of Ali." I kid you not! At the end of a grueling two hours (yes! two hours!), we squirmed and declined every single "supervisor" who accosted us after "Tim" failed to lock us into a commitment. Finally, when we just asked for our free tickets to Universal, we were met with scowls and directed to a door. "In there." we were told. I suspected that a blazing furnace lay on the other side on the closed portal. But, no. Inside was a bare room with a bare Formica counter and bored woman in attendance. Without a word, she handed over an envelope with three passes to Universal and sent us through another door that dumped us in a remote area of the parking lot. Whatever.... we got what we came for.
Universal Studios was just okay. We went on some great rides (Back to The Future, ET, Jaws) and encountered typical "theme park" atmosphere (I seem to remember Elroy Jetson and Beetlejuice passing us on a walkway that was dotted with a recreation of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf just a short distance from the fictional, shark-threatened town of Amity). But, to me and my Disney-loving family, there was something missing. Universal was closer to a regular, no-frills amusement park than the magical wonderment that echoed the dreams and imagination of a visionary artist from Marceline, Missouri. The employees (decidedly not "cast members") were not smiling and sort of trudged around like they had better things to do. The place, while certainly impressive, didn't sparkle with that otherworldly, pixie-dust sprinkled enchantment that we had come to expect from "theme parks" of this magnitude. Sure, it was nice, but it wasn't Disney. It was just a big place with rides.
While we waited in line for one of those rides, we suffered the blistering Florida heat along with our fellow day guests. As the crowd snaked its way through the roped maze of the queue line, a uniformed fellow skirted along the outside of the line carrying a vendor's tray stocked with $8.00 cans of beer. He paced slowly along the line, making sure everyone saw his pricey, thirst-quenching wares and he even had a couple of takers. My family took full stock of this scenario.
The next day, we were back in the welcoming arms of Walt Disney World. The Florida heat was not diminished in the least and we found ourselves in a similar situation, waiting in a fairly long queue for a Disney attraction. In an antithetical reflection of the events of the previous day, a cheerful, brightly-clad Disney cast member slowly walked along the outside of the ride line. She had a large water cooler (the kind you see at construction sites) ingeniously strapped to her back. She was filling up paper cones with ice water and distributing them to every single person in line. Every single person. While the majority of the recipients thanked her and were grateful for the free refreshment, the Pincuses took note. This was a perfect example of why Disney is successful at what they do. Sure they want your money, but they also know how to make their guests happy. And they think of everything.
It's been twenty-three years since the events of my little tale unfolded. I haven't been back to Universal Studios since that day in 1995, so I don't know if they stepped up their game. I do know, however, that Disney continues to prove themselves to be "The Happiest Place on Earth." Early this year, I came across this heart-warming photograph taken at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. It rains nearly every day in central Florida. That's why nearly every merchandise store at every Disney theme park showcases a fully-stocked display of overpriced rain gear. I don't begrudge Disney for trying to make a buck. After all, that's really what they do best — make their stockholders happy. But, because they are marketing geniuses, they don't appear to be forcing the foul weather items in your face, rather they are merely offered for sale, if you so choose to make that purchase. But Disney also knows how to make their "guests" feel like actual "guests." As proof of that, I offer this photo of a "Green Army Man" street character silently lending some assistance to a wheelchair-bound guest, who was caught in an Orlando downpour.
This is Disney at its finest. A true depiction of the Disney brand. I hope someone at Universal is taking note.