After months of anticipation, I finally got to experience Central Florida’s newest attraction: Legoland Florida Pirate River Quest and Universal’s Great Movie Escape. Rather than high-speed thrill rides, both shows rely on atmosphere and interactivity to immerse guests in nostalgic intellectual properties, both created by bringing long-sleeping venues to life. But you might be surprised to find out which adventure I thought was worth the trip, and which adventure simply isn’t.
pirate river mission, Winter Haven’s Legoland Resort’s ambitious new ride takes guests on a 20-minute tour of the historic Cypress Gardens canals, flooded by a noisy crew of plastic waste. Passengers are tasked with retrieving the stolen treasure of Captain Redbeard, who was cursed by a tribe of mischievous monkeys and banished to the “lost brick sea”, by counting the colorful gems and giant coins that litter the river banks and participating in similar pre-school-friendly challenges.
The closest comparison to rides in the Orlando area is to the popular Magical Forest ride at the Magic Kingdom, as both are slow-moving boat rides that bypass simple animated outdoor scenes, but there are a few key differences. First and foremost, Legoland boats are completely free-floating and navigating a natural body of water, rather than being driven on a course along an artificial river. This means that Pirate River Quest captains leave the talking to the pre-recorded narration (which syncs up with simple music and special effects as they sail) and focus on not crashing into the canal walls, which they sometimes do.
Morris, who ran me during the media preview, was the captain of a tour boat at Cypress Gardens during the 1990s, and said, “I’m so glad we did this, I was afraid the ducts would go into the bowl.” Since taking over the property more than a decade ago, the gardening team has Legoland has always done a great job preserving the old botanical displays, which were Central Florida’s first tourist attraction decades before Disney arrived. But the work they’ve now completed on the canals is truly remarkable, restoring eroding waterways and incorporating new life-size creatures and characters—including an enormous octopus-like kraken—without destroying the natural integrity of the area.
Another significant component of the Pirate River Cruise is that two of the fleet’s ten ships are fully ADA-accessible, allowing a standard wheelchair (or electric lighter) to roll directly aboard. There’s also no height restriction (although life jackets are provided for guests 6 and under), which makes it, as Legoland marketing chief Kelly Hornick says, “a family-friendly ride that every member of the family can ride.”
As a lifelong LEGO fan, I found Pirate River Quest’s scallop scenery utterly mesmerizing, and even game-hating adults suffering from PTSD from stepping on painful plastic molds will be soothed by the ultimate float along the open waters of Lake Eloise, where the birds Aquatic and even otters can be seen along the swampy shoreline.
My only warning, before you hit the 80-minute drive from Orlando, is that with only about ten passengers per boat, the attraction’s theoretical carrying capacity is less than 250 guests per hour. This means you’d better get to the park opening and make Pirate River Quest your first destination, or prepare your loot for a long wait in the queue.
At Universal Orlando, the creative minds behind their theme parks and haunted houses have tried their hand at the popular escape room genre, taking over CityWalk nightclub formerly known as the Groove and using the bones of its original Art Deco theater as the setting for a pair of attractions inspired by two of the studio’s biggest franchises. . Escape from Universal’s Great Movie Back to the Future features: Outatime on the first floor, and Jurassic World: Escape on the top floor. Each separately booked experience holds up to eight guests at a time, and consists of eight highly themed rooms where participants must solve various puzzles as the story progresses.
The chained multi-room format is one way Universal deviates from the traditional escape room model. There’s no ticking clock or chance to fail, and each group will progress through the 50-minute match at roughly the same pace. This is because there is no penalty for failing any of the challenges, and solving puzzles quickly is only rewarded with additional frequent tasks. There is also no human interaction with your hosts once you enter the rooms; All backgrounds and instructions are pre-recorded, with major characters referenced in the films but never seen.
I tried the escape game Jurassic World, which depicts participants as geneticists training in the doomed park. I was very impressed with it as an immersive attraction, thanks to the sets and props that authentically recreate the cinematic atmosphere, as well as the spot sound and lighting effects that provided a few effective scares. But as a veteran of dozens of escape rooms, I was frustrated by Universal’s failure to follow basic principles of good game design, such as providing clear feedback when a player is making progress, reporting consequences for mistakes, or providing hints that aren’t just repetitive. From initial unclear instructions. I discovered then that my team (made up of myself and a family of randomly paired strangers) scored only 11 out of 20, but there was no indication along the way as to where we failed or succeeded.
Finally, Universal’s escape rooms are designed for operational efficiency, relying on touch screens and video projections onto tactile props that may require the employee to manually reset between sets. Unfortunately, this system robs players of experiencing any sense of exploration and discovery, which is usually the genre’s greatest asset. I am a big BTTF Nerd, so I’m going back to try the other story just for Christopher Lloyd’s voiceover and references to the Extinct Simulator. But at $50-60 per person, I don’t feel the need to revisit Jurassic World unless they completely rethink its many mysteries. If you find yourself running away from Universal, feel free to ignore the frantic instructions; Just try to enjoy it as an expensive slow paced haunted house.