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The Great Zo

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The Great Zo last won the day on December 7 2020

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  • Birthday 04/25/1985

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  1. OK, this is it! Leaving the theme parks behind, what else is there to do in central Florida? Let's start in the Lakeland area with my absolute favorite nature preserve in the state: the Circle B Bar Reserve. Why is this my favorite natural area in the state? Wildlife. So much wildlife. I've been here three times, and it's just a constant stream of different birds and animals on every single visit. A Gulf fritillary butterfly! A lizard climbing a tree! Feral hogs! I've even seen armadillo here before. 'MERICA! There were several bald eagles flying around. Also, more osprey than I could count. See? More osprey. Even more osprey. Some of them were going fishing in Lake Hancock. More fishin' birds. Gators hiding just under the slime. I don't really recommend getting this close. Cormorants! Common gallinule! A Great Blue Heron has, uh, speared itself some lunch. How you gonna eat that whole thing? Always, always look up. Someone might have their eye on you. After a three-mile walk around Circle B, I was hungry. So, naturally, my next stop was... MEAT MONDAY Can I list this as an attraction? Because this was fun, and it was tasty, and it was better than salad. Seriously, huge thanks to the Alveys for inviting me, this was awesome! Next up is an odd little place I've been wanting to visit for a while. Celebration Celebration is a weird master-planned community originally developed by the Disney company. It's got a kind of fakey, Truman Show vibe to it. I think I wanted to see it just because it's odd. The first thing I noticed, driving in, is all these really weird Art Deco office buildings. I felt like I was driving onto a movie set. I did a lap around the walking path that surrounds Lake Rianhard near downtown Celebration. The theater! It's a local landmark! Or maybe it's not, I don't really know, I'm just making stuff up at this point. Congrats if you're still reading. Do not feed or harass the alligators! I will gladly follow the rules. Celebration is obviously not really a tourist destination or anything, but it's the kind of place I'd visit just because it's there. The main waterfront, with another gator swimming nearby. There's a tower. I tried to climb it, but you can only go about halfway up. Of course I tried to climb it. Main Street, USA! Kind of. I mean, honestly, I didn't hate Celebration. It's definitely odd. It definitely feels kinda Stepford. But it's not awful? I stopped in the bakery on main street. I got a really good cookie. I was happy. I saw some gators. I saw an anhinga! Yeah, honestly, it was alright! Celebration would like to remind you that Walt Disney World is just right over there. See? There it is. But I was just driving through on my way to the next destination. Plus, it's fun to drive on some of those kinda-backstage roads around the Magic Kingdom. I was headed to Tibet-Butler Preserve. Tibet-Butler is all of three miles, as the crow flies, from the castle. You know the castle. I don't need to specify which one. My sources indicate that this is a spiky purple flower thing. Sorry, I'm not good at this. I didn't see much wildlife, but Tibet-Butler is a nice walk through several different Floridian habitats. There's even creepy boardwalks through creepy trees! It's great! Mossy trees out on the water. No frogs to be found. I did find a gopher tortoise, though! There's also a sulcata tortoise -- rescued and kept safely captivity. Much bigger than the natives. And several of these stick bug things, which look totally foreign to me, but are kinda cool I guess. I think we should call it a day on the nature stuff before I start making up names for even more things. So, we'll head back to I-Drive! My last trip report covered my day at Universal's Islands of Adventure, but I wasn't quite done there. First, here's one shot of Fun Spot from atop the Universal parking garage. I wasn't heading there, however. I was going to Icon Park! It's got a big wheel! A really, really big wheel. And fountains. And a wax museum. And a whole bunch of other stuff. Also, free parking and a Shake Shack that was open 'til midnight, and I hadn't gotten dinner yet, so... I did not ride the wheel. But if you want to know what it's like, just fuzz your vision at this long-exposure version of the previous shot, and it's probably something like that. Wheels in motion! I did, however, ride the Star Flyer. At 450 feet tall, it opened as the world's tallest swing ride. While writing this post, I learned that it is no longer the world's tallest swing ride. I am disappointed. Nonetheless, it's really tall, and it was only like $10 so I figured hey why not, I'm here. I don't really need to explain the ride experience, because everybody reading this post has probably been on a Star Flyer. You go up, you go around, you go down. But this one has views of Universal and I-Drive and downtown Orlando and I guess that's kind of cool. If you squint, you can even see parts of Disney, but it's rather distant. So, you know what, let's just close this out with some long-exposure Star Flyer shots, because they look cool as hell. Spinny! Colorful! Like a buzz saw! Remember spirographs? Yeah, this is kind of like that. So, we've reached the end. And Florida is saying goodbye. Thank me for visiting Florida! I'm sure I'll be back soon. Maybe this fall! I hear there's a coaster in Tampa that finally opened! And thank you for reading. If you actually made it through this whole post, my sincere appreciation. (guess I gotta finish that 2019 TR now...)
  2. Alright, for the next batch, we'll focus on the Tampa / St. Pete area, which is usually sort of my "home base" for Florida trips. Spending some time near Busch Gardens? Looking for a quick and easy escape to nature while you're in the area? Just a few miles away is... Lettuce Lake Park That is, if you like boardwalks through swampy areas. I do. Maybe you do too. From what I recall, this was a rather loud and obnoxious ibis. With sharp eyes, you might see the gator hiding below. Views from a tower above the Hillsborough River. Same river that runs through downtown Tampa. Further south, on Tampa Bay, another little park to check out... Picnic Island Park It's got grass and trees and water, what else do you need? Maybe some birds? A pelican, resuming normal safe operation. And now, diving in for a snack. Downtown St. Pete across the water. We'll get over there shortly. This spot is on approach to Tampa International Airport, so you might see some traffic overhead. Or, some arrivals at MacDill Air Force Base, like this KC-135 Stratotanker. Don't get too crabby. Yep, there were also hundreds of these little fiddler crabs at Picnic Island. Picnic Island isn't actually an island, though. That kind of bothers me. Another little park out in Pinellas County: Boca Ciega Millennium Park. Some people ask me if I need a vacation from my vacations. But walking around places like this is my vacation. Another obs tower view! As the sun begins to set. Not a bad spot to spend an hour. Onward to see the sunset at Pass-A-Grille Beach. Some clouds in the sky, but it's still nice. This little platform at the end of the jetty says "keep off" so of course I went out there. The southernmost beach of the main populated stretch of beaches in Pinellas County. Just to the north, the opulent Don CeSar hotel, with sunset onlookers watching the sky. A relaxing scene. Some clouds got in the way, but it still looked nice. The next morning, I headed back to the southern end of Pinellas County for a trip to... Fort De Soto Park I think this is the fifth time I've been out to this park. It's one of my favorites. This is the Fort De Soto Gulf Pier, with more birds than people. This one has the right-of-way. This egret was about to go fishing. I think this great blue heron was just catching some sun. See that stretch of land across the water? With the tower near the right side? That's my next destination. Egmont Key State Park But how do you get to Egmont Key? You get on Hubbard's Ferry. The boat doesn't look like much, but on these calm waters, it does the trick. Egmont Key has been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and I finally made the time for it on this trip. There's only one way to get there -- by water. And unless you have your own boat, you're taking the ferry, and you're on their schedule. The island has no facilities and no concessions. You're on your own for three hours with whatever you brought with you. Actually, that's quite nice for a chance of pace. The 1858 Egmont Key lighthouse. You can't climb it, but it's a landmark for the area, extremely visible at the mouth of Tampa Bay. A cemetery near the lighthouse -- or is it? Actually, all the residents were removed and re-interred elsewhere. Up above, an osprey on the weather equipment. My kind of bird. Egmont Key is also home to the ruins of Fort Dade, a fort built during the Spanish–American War in the late 1800s. This is one building (the Guard House) that was actually up-kept. Pathways through the former fort. And if you want an idea of the atmosphere around here, I was completely on my own at this point, hiking on a virtually-deserted island through historic ruins and scenic pathways. At the south end of the trails, I headed west toward the beach on the Gulf shore. Stubby looking dead trees on the beach. Egmont Key is also a National Wildlife Refuge, and the southern tip of the island is off-limits to visitors. So, I walked north from here. The beach here is pristine. Ruins of the fort's power plant, and finally getting back to the area where some day visitors were stopping by. People go snorkeling around these ruins, too. Fort Dade's bunkers, building up an otherwise flat stretch of island. There were quite a few people on the north part of the beach, but it's still pretty neat to visit somewhere kind of remote like this. The birds can drop by whenever they want. And before I forget, Egmont Key is pronounced "egg-mont", and I might have messed that one up once or twice before I figured it out. The ruins of one of the batteries, open for exploration. Atop the battery, now devoid of any heavy artillery. A view over Egmont Key from up above. It's a pretty scene. Oh, and one more thing. Egmont Key is home to a huge population of gopher tortoises. Who wouldn't like gopher tortoises? They crawl around and eat grass and that's pretty much it. They're the best. Gopher tortoises are listed as a vulnerable species, but Egmont Key's population is quite large. I've never seen more than one or two at any nature preserve or park I've been to before, and I saw five at Egmont Key. I even found two at the same time! If you've never been to a Florida park and run across a gopher tortoise, you're missing out. It's like finding a hidden gem, or finding a winning scratch-off ticket, or finding a modern-day B&M that doesn't suck. You better get back on the ferry on-time, or else you're going to find yourself stranded on a remote island for the night, and I wouldn't recommend doing that. Heading back across to the mainland, with the Sunshine Skyway in the distance. So, I've been to Tampa many times, but I'd actually never spent any time in downtown St. Pete. So. Downtown St. Petersburg The big attraction here is The Pier. It used to be this weird upside-down pyramid thing. Now it's modern and it's better and it's a great place to walk around. The big building at the end has a tiki bar on top, or you can just head up there and use it as an observation deck. Which, of course, I did. There's downtown St. Pete off to the west. A very busy general aviation airport, Albert Whitted Airport, just to the south. It's just little airplanes, but a whole ton of them. Way across the bay, there's downtown Tampa. We'll get there in a bit. This is art! OK, I'll credit the artist. It's called "Bending Arc" by Janet Echelman. Hey, did you know the first commercial airline flight took place right here in St. Pete? This is a replica statue of the Benoist -- the first airliner. The Benoist was flown by Tony Jannus, pilot of the St. Petersburg - Tampa Airboat Line. The first flight was on New Years Day in 1914. And now you know. A pelican on the pier. Another view of the pier -- and downtown Tampa in the distance -- from Albert Whitted Park. If you're into art, one of St. Pete's main attractions is the Dali Museum. For performances, the Mahaffey Theater is right next door. I was actually supposed to see a concert here during this trip. I had a second-row ticket for Steely Dan. The show got cancelled due to the pandemic. Boo. A slightly smaller airplane than the ones from earlier in Miami. Still, kind of fun to watch from up close. Maybe the busiest little airport I've seen. South of downtown is Bay Vista Park. Another nice view of the skyway, and a visiting great egret. Overall, not much to see here, just another little waterfront spot. So, that brings us to the Sunshine Skyway. And in particular, the Skyway South Fishing Pier. Here's another bit of history! The big dramatic Sunshine Skyway bridge is actually the second to stand on this spot. The first was struck by a freighter in 1980 and collapsed in a horrific deadly tragedy. So, they built a new bridge, just east of the location of the old one. What do you do with the approaches to the old bridge? You convert them into giant fishing piers. And the views are pretty nice. Bridges are cool. The Sunshine Skyway is one of my favorites. It's not the first time it's appeared in one of my TRs, either. It's got about as much airtime as Kingda Ka's second hill! Oh! Take that! OK, heading into Tampa now. Here are a couple views from the southern end of Davis Islands. Yep, it's another little airport, and a view of downtown. Also, a hecked-up boat. No trespassing! The sun sets on Davis Islands, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Tampa. Star athletes live out here. People like me only visit and take pictures. Alright, one more little airplane shot just because. Time for another night set. Downtown Tampa -- From the Platt Street Bridge (and nearby) Dusk. Dusk-er. Dusk-est. Night. Yep, this is a nice view, and the changing shade of blue in the background make the shot. Sunset on the Jose Gasparilla. Insert stupid pirate reference here. A view over the Platt Street Bridge. The convention center walkway. Colorful lights and a nice downtown. Moon over Tampa. So, what's the story with Jose Gasparilla? Jose Gasparilla's final battle took place on December 12, 1821, when he and his krewe attacked a "slow moving" merchant ship off the coast of Gasparilla Island. The attack began and Gasparilla soon realized it was a trap. The merchant vessel was a disguised U.S. Naval Ship, sent to capture him and his krewe. Jose Gasparilla quickly understood the battle was lost. 40 years of pirating had been a good life, but now he was trapped at the bow of his sinking ship. Feeling the inevitable; he wrapped himself in the anchor chain, raised his sword and said: "No man will determine my fate, only I will choose my destiny!" He then threw himself into the waters of the Gulf, never to be found. And now the city of Tampa celebrates him with a pirate festival every winter! Just north of downtown... Heights Public Market / Armature Works Tampa's best food hall. Only food hall? Not sure. A cool place to stop by, even late at night. Not my first visit here, in fact. It's just about a mile north of downtown. Still crowds of people at 10PM on a weeknight. Oh, and a good view of downtown across the Hillsborough River too. Almost done with Tampa. But there hasn't been any hockey yet, so that has to change. Tampa Bay Lightning Actually, much of this Florida trip was built around the Lightning home opener for 2021, which I had very good reason to want to attend. Because, well, they were celebrating back-to-back Stanley Cup championships! And I happened to be in attendance at the last one! *FLASHBACK TO JULY 7, 2021* Steven Stamkos lifts the cup! Steven Stamkos lifts the cup again at 4:15 AM, this time like 4 feet in front of me! Phew, that was a night! *END FLASHBACK* Alright, back to October. So, introduce the new team... And then, the moment we've all been waiting for! Raise the banner! Watching your favorite team win a championship, and being there for the banner-raising, is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Sort of a dream to actually get to experience it. I went back to another game a week later, and saw the banner in its final spot -- marking the team's third championship overall. And that wraps up Tampa, but we've got some central Florida stuff yet to come...
  3. And finally, Part 3 of this trip report, which I don't know what to title other than: October 12-21, 2021 -- All The Other Crap I Did In Florida Sometimes when I do TRs, I'll throw in a short bit of "other stuff" after a theme park segment. This time, it's all getting its own segment. This is really long. I apologize in advance. Just wanted to get it all done in one shot. Florida is much more than theme parks. Interesting cities, wildlife, nature, hockey, tons of water, and an endless supply of ideas for a photographer. This stuff isn't anything even close to resembling chronological order -- just gonna throw it all together kinda-geographically in three parts, from east to west to central, and see how it turns out. So let's start on the Atlantic coast with... Flagler Beach Pier Actually, this is the last thing I did in Florida, on my way northbound out of the state. I like piers. Scenic, relaxing, good for photography. Bird on the pier. Red flag means lightweights better stay out of the water. A distant view north. Flagler Beach is about halfway between Daytona and St. Augustine. Looking south, on the steep, red-tinted beachfront of the Atlantic coast. Very different from the Gulf coast. The end of the pier. I have walked the plank. Fishers out in force -- and catching stuff, too. Also, surfing! Let's head down the coast to... Cocoa Beach Pier And hey, this one's got a tiki bar at the end! It's a wider beach here. Zoomed in, you can really see the curvature of the barrier island. Cocoa Beach is just south of Cape Canaveral. If you've heard of it, it's probably due to the 40 million advertisements for that surf shop. You know the one. And the surfers were out today! So were some dolphins, but I wasn't quick enough with the camera to get a shot. Off to the north, the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, and some launch facilities nearby. Is that a roller coaster on a cruise ship? See, this post has theme park content! Sort of! Sometimes you take the waves. And sometimes the waves take you. Next up... Sebastian Inlet State Park Not much here, just some fishing piers and beach areas, but another scenic area to check out. Piers line both sides of the inlet. On a Saturday, it was busy with boats coming in and out. Plus, a whole bunch of people fishing. Waves crashing ashore to the south. And shorebirds scurrying around. A1A is a scenic drive, with parks and beach access all over the place. Even on a Saturday, most of the beach spots weren't too crowded. Here's another park further south. Round Island Riverside Park This park goes out on the west side of A1A toward the intracoastal waterway. Some walkways through the mangroves. An observation tower! Views out over the water. Distant boats. I don't own a boat. I just get to look at them from afar. Also, a whole bunch of these lizards running around. Kind of like the ones you see at Disney, only twice the size. Across A1A is Round Island Beach Park. A quiet stretch of beach on the Atlantic coast. More pelicans flying by than you can count. Waves and condos or whatever. This is just outside of Fort Pierce. A pleasant curl. Some serious fishing going on, too. Alright, heading way way way further south for a night photo set... Downtown Miami -- From the Venetian Causeway I arrived just after sunset, as the lighting got good. An orange glow on the skyline. Oooh, klassy! The view on the north side of the Causeway. Miami has so many tall buildings near the waterfront. It's nuts. This is one of those nice photo spots I didn't read about anywhere or anything -- I just sorta played around looking at maps and found it on my own. Long exposures at night -- and airplanes streaking across the sky. Two cruise ships sort of blocking the view. (For some reason, some of these pics are a little fuzzy in-line in the thread, but if you open the full size version they should be OK.) A closer view of downtown. A little bit of Disney magic to keep this almost relevant! They've even got a big wheel. I have no idea why these fireworks were occurring, but I'm not going to complain. I just had to switch targets real quick in the middle of my photo set! A nice spot with a nice view. I wasn't the only one who stopped to take a few pictures from here. And then, another angle from the next morning. Downtown Miami -- From the Rickenbacker Causeway Great view, sketchy location. I might have been trespassing to get this shot. Not totally sure. But I definitely had to drive on a dirt path with potholes the size of my car. It's an interesting skyline because, unlike a lot of big city skylines, so much of this one is residential. By air or by sea. In this case, by air. At the southern tip of Key Biscayne, one of my favorite Florida State Parks... Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park You can start with the pristine waters. Or, the birds, like this Great Blue Heron. Or all of these birds in flight. The main attraction here is the Cape Florida Lighthouse. It's 95 feet tall, and dates back to 1825 -- renovated in 1855. Let's climb up! One of the rare US lighthouses I've been to where you can actually get in the lantern room. The lens is unimpressive and modern, though. The views are tropical and beautiful. A nice beach for the Miami locals. The city is not far to the north. And there's South Beach, where you can take your talents if you'd like. Recreational opportunities abound. Just offshore is an interesting oddity -- a collection of stilt houses called Stiltsville. Can you imagine living out there? There were originally many more stilt houses, but after a handful of hurricane impacts, only seven remain. Next up, a quick stop at the Woodlawn Park Cemetery. This is a weather history stop. The 1935 Florida Keys Labor Day hurricane is one of the worst in the country's history. This is the site of a mass grave for US military members who died while out in the keys. About 80 veterans were buried here, but very few of the graves are individually marked. After this, I went to the famous Versailles Bakery on Calle Ocho. I got some outstanding pastries, and a terrible Cuban sandwich. The inconsistency was baffling. Finishing off the Miami segment with some planespotting at Miami International Airport. Yep, for the three or four of you who like airplane pictures -- this is the best spotting airport in Florida, and probably top 5 for my favorites in the country. Miami has a ton of traffic from countries in Latin America, so it's not just your typical US carriers coming in here. Nonetheless, here's one for Garbles. It's an American hub, so here's a 777-300. From some of the spotting locations on the east side of the airport, it looks like the planes are landing right on the Dolphin Expressway. Iguana-spotting? So, another spotting location -- the Hilton on the Blue Lagoon -- is absolutely overrun with Iguanas. More than I've ever seen. They are funny little creatures, and not particularly shy. Not particularly little, either, now that I think of it. Back to the airplanes -- it's interesting to see stuff like Cayman Airways that you just don't get in the midwest. The best spotting location is outside of a furniture store at the west end of the southernmost runway. You can get really close. Seriously, the planes land right in front of you. And this spot is always crowded with locals watching too. This spot is best when planes are landing from the west. Hey, who you lookin' at? The queen of the skies. From here, I headed east, crossing the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail, and then eventually... The Loop Road If you've never heard of the Loop Road, look it up on your mapping website of choice. It's a 27-mile loop off of US-41 that cuts way deep into the wilderness of Big Cypress National Preserve. Most of the road is gravel, but in decent shape. Just very, very dusty. The gators are plentiful, including this very large one just a few feet away from me in a culvert. Further along the Loop Road, I came across a spot called Sweetwater Strand. It's a swampy waterway about as far as you can get from the main road. I parked, turned my car off, got out, covered myself in bug spray, and just spent 15 minutes kind of observing. Not a single vehicle passed me in that entire time. You could hear birds and animals calling in the distance. Pretty cool place. Fish in the stream. Cypress rising above the water. And one more gator, just because. Heading north on the Loop Road, I came across a whole bunch of little things crossing in front of me. Baby softshell turtles! Probably two dozen of them, recently hatched, trying to get from one spot to another. Look at this little guy! Maybe 3 inches long, at most. I had to move a few of them out of the way to ensure I didn't hurt anybody before I drove through. With that, I headed north, and we'll pick this back up in Tampa for the next section...
  4. 100%. Hulk's first half is amazing, but the second half is kind of meandering. Kumba and Montu are fantastic from start to finish. Montu might have the best second half of any B&M I've been on.
  5. The Udvar-Hazy Center is the real deal. If you've got any interest in airplanes or spacecraft -- they have the Discovery! -- it's a place you have to get to some day. But, it's way up in the DC area, so... More realistically, in the Richmond area... 1) It's the capital of Virginia, so you can tour the State Capitol building and see a bunch of statues and stuff if that's your thing. 2) The area along the James River near downtown is actually fairly pretty, and on a Sunday it should be lively with people out and about. The Pipeline Walkway is a very rare "this exists in America?" kind of thing. Belle Isle is nice, and if the river's low enough you can scramble across the rocks. Some nice views from the Potterfield bridge too. 3) Otherwise, as others have mentioned, history is the main tourist attraction in the area. More Civil War sites than I can count -- museums and preserved battlefields all over the place in SE Virginia. In addition to Colonial Williamsburg, there's the Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne to the south of the city. Those are separate places -- Jamestown Settlement is more of a living museum type of place, and Historic Jamestowne is more of an actual historic site with archaeological goings-on.
  6. I went to Optimist in June, and even though I've never really met a food hall I didn't like, I thought that one was well above average. Definitely recommended.
  7. You keep a busier schedule than I do! Was great it aligned for us for a little while! And it's more that you ride with your arms kinda stretched out diagonally instead of straight up. I mean, who does that???
  8. Thanks everyone! I'm hoping I just had a bad day with the crowds. I really did like the ride, and I'd love to get on it a few more times to get a feel for everything it does. Front row would be great! Canon T7i with the low-end EF-S 18-55 and 55-250 lenses, plus a Gorillapod for the night shots. Probably about the limit of stuff I'd want to lug around a theme park all day!
  9. VelociCoaster isn't the only show in town, so let's take a look around. Some nice golden hour lighting on the rest of the park. I see a HRRR. From this angle, it looks like a rather extreme addition to Seuss Landing. Hulk looks great in this lighting. Tried a few long-distance zoom shots of Hulk from up here. It's a fake splashdown, but it still looks good. Well, Hulk looked so good that I just had to go and ride it. The regular queue was posted at 35 minutes, but I hopped in the single rider line. I waited only 10 minutes. I was assigned the front row. My ride took place as the setting sun was just an inch over the horizon. That's the kind of thing you couldn't plan out in a million years, and it was amazing. I still think Hulk has an outstanding first half and a "just OK" second half. Really good coaster, but doesn't top the B&Ms in Tampa. Oh, and Bluto's broke down and had an evac, so that was kind of funny to watch. Well, with my sunset ride on Hulk complete, I just had two goals left. 1) Dusk/night photography of VelociCoaster. 2) Get back on VelociCoaster for a night ride. The changing colors in the sky gave me a nice head start to goal #1. I see you over there, VelociCoaster. And, well, you look spectacular. This batch of photos is from the walkways behind Bluto's, right on the waterfront. These are long exposures (20-25 seconds) using a mini tripod. If you look closely, you can see the faint glow of the coaster train cresting the top hat. I wasn't aimed quite right, but I accidentally got the Potter castle show fireworks in this shot! The star of the show, though, is the lighting package on the VelociCoaster trains. With a 25-second exposure, I was able to get the train through just about the entire second half of the ride. It's interesting that of the four trains, three are lit up with the amazing blue lighting package seen here. One of the trains, however, simply has a plain white lighting array on the front car -- and nothing else. One of my favorite shots of the set. You can feel the twists. You can sense the speed. Oh, and suck it, JK, again! Over there, I spy a Mythos. There's a HRRR, with another long-exposure train shot. And Hulk, with the same! If you recall the long-exposure I did of the Sheikra splash in the last set, here's basically the same shot, but this time with the Jurassic Park River Adventure. It's very purple-ish. Alright, time's about up. It's 10 minutes to park close, and I've got one ride left to go. How great does this area look at night? Very great. I entered the queue at 7:50 PM on a day with an 8PM close. The wait was posted at 40 minutes. The single rider queue had been closed. There was a short pause (maybe 5 minutes with no trains cycling) but even with that factored in, I was on the ride in about a half hour. I took a few queue shots on the way, including this awesome sculpture at the end of the first room. I got to meet four velociraptors. Here's Blue... ...and here are the rest. A quick note about the lockers: this was my first time at Universal since they went to a park-wide system with those free lockers. The plus side is that they're free! The down side is that they're narrow -- maybe 5" tall. Could I fit a bulky backpack, with camera equipment and a water bottle, inside? You bet I could. I had it down to a science by the end of the day. VelociCoaster's "two sided" system, which reminded me of a few parks I've visited in Europe, worked quite well. No complaints. Oh, so how about my final ride on VelociCoaster? Well, actually it was two. As a single rider in the regular queue, I was assigned Row 6 by myself. I took the seat closest to the loading gates, had a fantastic ride, and pulled back into the station. Once we parked, though, I looked over and realized that they'd placed another single rider in Row 6 for the next cycle. Well, I'm all about thinking quickly. While the rest of the train exited to the left, I just kinda stood up slowly, sauntered over one seat, sat back down, pulled down the restraint, and probably confused the guy who came in to take the seat I'd just occupied. After the Hulk front-row sunset ride, who knew I'd get lucky again? Yes, I will take two VelociCoaster night rides for the price of one! That last ride was probably among the final handful of VelociCoaster trains sent out, and by the time I got over to anywhere with a view of the coaster, it was done cycling for the day. That didn't stop me from doing a round of long-exposure night photography in an increasingly-empty park on the way out! Ripsaw fuzz. Superhero stuff! And no people anywhere to be found! East-coast Spiderman! One more set of views over the water. Goodbye, wizard stuff. So long, Jurassic Park. Ah, VelociCoaster. It's been fun. An empty Hulk plaza. Hulk Smash! A glowing inversion. Cobra rollin'. It's now a full hour past closing time... ...and, OK, I guess I should probably leave. But we're not done yet! HRRR was still doing it's thing, as this long-exposure captured. More HRRR stuff. Oh, and... Over at the Studios park, it's Halloween Horror Nights. I don't do Halloween stuff. But I'll take pictures of the awesome lighting effects on the main gate! I did enjoy the intense music and the occasional bursts of fire. Oh, and the crowds. With the people heading in, you'd think it was the biggest, hottest club in town. In 2017, I tried some long-exposure shots of the globe, and wasn't happy with the results. Tried again this time. Yep, that's better. A lot going on in this shot! The reflection here is quite nice. A view over the CityWalk lagoon. A glow from the lighthouse, and there's that airplane again. Yep, it's crowded. How crowded? At 10PM, this was the line of cars waiting to get in. Yep. As for me, I was about done. Or was I? Actually, I headed over to Icon park for dinner and a ride on the Star Flyer, but I'll cover that in the final TR segment some other time. For now, there are still a few views to be had from the parking garage. One more long-exposure coaster train shot for the road. The IoA skyline at night. And a goodnight to some awesome coasters. That's the end of Part 2! If you made it this far, thank you for reading!
  10. Alright, enough Harry Potter crap. Back to Jurassic World we go. The wait time was fluctuating between 40-60 minutes all day, and the single rider line was intermittently open. However, rather than brave the wait for another daytime ride, I was set on continuing my photography. A wider view of the back part of the ride, with a train going through the stall. Very reflective. Cruising past the lighthouse. If only they'd let you actually climb the lighthouse. Only after reviewing this photo, as the train heads toward the heartline roll, did I realize that those people are standing at a really good photo spot that I never even made it over to. We got fire. And we got raptors. This top hat is great. All of the reviews I've seen were extremely complimentary of the experience in the back row. Well, my first two rides were in the back row, and it was just the level of crazy I'd expected. There was that "Favorite Non-Rides" thread the other day, and I was also thinking about how awesome photo spots are kind of a "non-ride" thing I look for. Well, VelociCoaster has several. There is none better than the spot right at the bottom of the drop off the top hat. You can line up directly with the track, for a straight-on view of the most exciting part of the ride. If you're looking for great reaction shots, you can't do much better than here. Go Bolts! It helps that trains dispatch at a ridiculous rate. You'll have new subjects to photograph very frequently. The excitement at the top! Hairtime, people flying, people scared, people with hands up... This coaster gives you a bit of everything. Also, a few damn-near-wardrobe-malfunctions, which I am using my discretion not to post. I'll give some credit to the train design, too. They look nice. The scratch marks are a great touch. Florida screamin'! Switching angles a bit for a different view. This stall is amazing. It's taken so fast that you don't totally feel the pure sensation of upside-down weightlessness like you do on Wildfire, but it makes it that much more exciting. Once more from underneath! Flipping through the clouds. Kind of an opposite-angle view of the curves I shot from the Harry Potter patio thing earlier. My next photo spot was from the terrace level of the Jurassic Park building. There are a bunch of tables and chairs out there, and plenty of room to get some shots of the coaster from an elevated vantage point. Also, a pretty cool view of the heartline roll with the rest of IoA in the background. I did not find the perfect angle for the big finale, and I'm not sure if there's a dead-on straight view from over near Bluto's, but maybe I'll look for a spot next time. I'm not gonna crap on Maverick too hard, really, but the fact that VelociCoaster kept its high-speed heartline roll is just another big green check mark for me. A full-train view of the drop. Another one, from the other side of the terrace. This is actually one of the closest spots for pictures of the train cresting the top hat. I don't have a caption for this shot, so I'll join the chorus of people noting that this is an Intamin coaster with an impressively reliable track record, in a weird season of failing RMCs and B&Ms. (Pay no attention to the Hagrid's around the corner...) Crazy air in the back. We're going flying! Amidst a backdrop of clouds... ...another big drop commences. One obligatory coaster nerd shot! Alright, so that's the back half of the ride. Let's head to the front. There are a few spots from the main pathway where VelociCoaster is visible, including this view of the top hat through the trees. The first half of the ride is perhaps not as intense, but it traverses the coaster's most impressive (and immersive) theming. Seriously, the rock work and foliage are pretty awesome. The only challenge with this photo spot is that you have to shoot through some metal fence work that is not quite big enough for a full-size camera lens. It requires getting creative with the angles, and OK, maybe a bit of cropping in post. Maybe this part of the ride isn't quite as intense, but I still found it full of quick pops of air and good forces. In fact, on my rides in the back row, there were definitely a few "pulls you through the elements" moments that actually reminded me of some back row rides on Outlaw Run. Yep, this part of the ride is still quite exciting. Forceful enough for some hairtime, too. I headed up to the SS Olive for a wider view of VelociCoaster. Admittedly, the lighting for this spot would be better in the morning. How many billions of dollars worth of I.P. is in this picture? Again, JK knows what to do here. One more big curve. Overhead juxtaposition. A little pop of airtime... ...and into the twist! Goodness, this ride is fun. One segment to go...
  11. Let's begin. A fond hello to the giant spinning globe. Nonetheless, I wasn't here for anything on that side of the property. I was here to ride some roller coasters. Well, one in particular. Crowds earlier in the week had been manageable, according to those I met up with, but this Friday ended up being somewhat busy. I'd soon be meeting up with our very own DBru. Before he arrived, I did a lap around CityWalk and got a few pictures. Have you ever seen a close-up of the Universal globe? Now you have. I thought this was just a prop, but supposedly it's actually Jimmy Buffett's Grumman HU-16 Albatross sea-plane. Now we know. I did not go into the Studios park, but HRRR has some decent photo views from CityWalk, so why not get a few shots? This was fairly early in the morning, so I saw a few empty rows going out. The little path near the old Blue Man Group theater, which is completely outside the park gates, has some of the best views of HRRR. A good place to get some rider reactions. This ride sure has a lot of block brakes. Also, a good deal of hairtime. Now, I'll be honest and say that a couple rides have opened at the Studios park since I visited in 2017 -- Fallon, and Fast and Furious. The fact that I never even went into the Studios park all day long tells you about how interested I was in those. I've seen some people here talk up the Bourne show, but I didn't even know about that when I visited, and probably wouldn't have had time for it anyway. Nonetheless, I was here for IoA, and just doing a little photography before meeting up with Daniel and heading in. It was apparently a very big deal to the locals that the decorative top pieces on Dr. Doom had only recently been restored to the ride -- perhaps that same day. I had no idea this was a thing, but I am posting this picture to prove that the entire ride structure is now intact! From a distance, the IoA coasters are beckoning. Hulk, with one of the only cobra rolls I find tolerable. Another inversion on Hulk. One of those Universal hotels off in the distance. So, let's head on in! And let's make our way to what I'm really here for. In 2017, this plaza was sort of a dead-end, unless you wanted to head through the Jurassic Park building. Now, it's one of the more lively places in the entire park. You've got the bottom of the top-hat drop to the left... ...and my second-favorite coaster stall right behind you. (Wildfire still takes the cake!) To say the least... ...this area looks very different from when I saw it last. Here's how the first part of the morning went. First, Daniel and I got our inaugural rides on VelociCoaster -- back row, too! Then, we managed to meet up with the rest of the TPR group -- Robb, Elissa, Chuck, and Erik. Together, the six of us got on the ride again and did a TPR takeover of the back three rows of the train! It was awesome! Another view that has been significantly changed. The juxtaposition of Jurassic World and Hogwarts makes me want to say "Suck it, JK!" which also probably means I spend too much time on TPR. Big drop, meet ride entrance. This seems like as good a spot as any for a brief review of VelociCoaster. Did I love it? You bet I did. I'm thoroughly shocked that a high-powered Intamin enthusiast-wish-list kind of coaster got built at a major media theme park like IoA. Shocked and amazed and absolutely loving it, because it's themed to the nines with the kind of quality that matches the ride experience. The queue is awesome. The locker system is awesome. The trains are very comfortable. The operations were flawless. And the ride? It's one of the best coasters in the US, and the only stuff I have ranked higher than VelociCoaster is a handful of sentimental favorites and a smattering of RMCs. Yes, it's better than Maverick, on the merits. So I guess that means I'm a fan! I'll share some more thoughts about VelociCoaster along the way. To keep the TR moving, after the two morning rides, our group found the wait times for other stuff in the park a little less-than-desirable, but we did take a ride on the no-longer-topless Dr. Doom. After that, we split up for lunch and the Alveys headed home. Chuck and Erik and I got some pizza, and then I met back up with Daniel for a few minutes before he had to run off for another meet-up. That left me with some time for photography, and I started at the outdoor patio behind the Hogwarts Potter Wizard restaurant whose name I really don't care to remember. There's a fantastic view of the back section of VelociCoaster from here, including the exit from the stall. This is like a beefed-up, modern version of the classic Intamin twisty bits on rides like I305 and Maverick. And I prefer VelociCoaster to either of those. Fly like a raven. Almost like you're in a jungle. The excitement is quite visible. One thing is for sure -- a coaster of this type and intensity is not what you'd expect to find at this sort of park. In my opinion, it's on a different excitement level than anything else at Universal, including Hulk, HRRR, and even our dearly departed Dueling Dragons. Flipped around. Tough shot to time out, because the train is flying through this section. Hands ... down? Spiraling out! And the train heads onward. As luck would have it, I did catch a couple shots of Daniel snagging a front seat ride. Say hi to the DBru in the green shirt! He's flying, but he's not doing "the method", so we're gonna have to re-do this shot some time in the future. Gonna keep this gratuitous lens flare, because it works for JJ Abrams. Alright, now time for a quick break from VelociCoaster to go do some Harry Potter BS. The only problem? It wasn't a "quick" break at all. So, Hagrid's is kind of a mess on a busy day. It might be kind of a mess on a non-busy day, too, but I'm just working with the knowledge I've got. Using my phone, I got a spot in the virtual queue not long after 10AM. The wait was supposed to be about 2 hours before I could enter the line. Unfortunately, the ride broke down several times, which extended my virtual queuing to about 3 and a half hours. So, we're already not off to a great start. However, once I got in line... ...I still had a full hour wait. I honestly can't recall the last time I waited an hour for a theme park attraction. In the era of line-skips and TPR trips, that just doesn't happen much! So, yeah, the combined 3-and-a-half hour virtual queue, plus 1-hour actual queue, was kind of a bummer. It also ensured I'd only be able to get one ride on Hagrid's. At the very least, the queue was pretty nice -- well, until a bunch of unruly young teenagers merged in behind me and tried to run me over a half dozen times. Finally! Let's ride! And you know, I'm really going to try to separate the ride from the poor queue experience and the ridiculous hype, because on its own, Hagrid's is actually a really good coaster. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think it's the kind of ride that would be fun to go on several times in a row, with so many little details to check out. There's only one good spot to get photos of Hagrid's, and it requires walking up the exit ramp a little ways. I had to go get my stuff from a locker after riding. The launch into the castle-type-thing is fun and photogenic. The ride is very well hidden, with just a few little spots where you can see it go. If you squint, you can even see a completely separate theme park off in the distance! This launch is one of the two best spots for photos. It's a little far and the lighting is tricky, but you can get some good reactions. This little twist, however, is the best spot. It's a very Intamin moment, even on a family coaster, and the people seem to love it. When I rode, I was in my own row, so I took the bike seat. The two seat types seemed basically identical, so I opted for the one with the better view. Hands up for Hagrid's! Sorry if this is coaster blasphemy or something, but the bottom line is that I think Hagrid's is a much better fit for the park than Dueling Dragons / Dragon Challenge. It's also a really fun coaster in its own right. I just hope they get the queue thing sorted out, because that was a huge detriment to its enjoyability. More to follow...
  12. So, did some new coaster open at IoA this year? Friday, October 15, 2021 -- Universal / Islands of Adventure These might be the best photos of VelociCoaster you've ever seen! They also might not be, because I don't know what else you've looked at. The funny thing is that I wasn't actually planning on going to Universal on this particular trip to Florida. BGT was always in the itinerary, since I knew I'd be in Tampa for a while, but the whole Universal thing only came together in the 36 hours before I visited. Why? Because it's nice to have TPR friends, and they are very good at influencing your decisions. To be up front about it, I really didn't go into this day planning on riding a ton of stuff. I don't completely love Universal's rides, and I never even made it over to the Studios park. Plus, the crowds were larger than hoped for. So, my focus was simple: two new coasters had opened since my last visit to IoA, and I intended to ride them, while saying hello to some people I hadn't seen in a while. Turns out, we all ended up riding VelociCoaster together, so that killed two raptors with one stone. The ride count for the day is short: 4 on VelociCoaster 1 on Hagrid's 1 on Hulk 1 on Dr. Doom I'll tell more of the story along the way in the captions, including some complaining about the Hagrid's queue experience, and a whole lot of love for Intamin's latest. If you're looking for a full-on comprehensive review of the park, this isn't it. I guess I already did that in 2017. But if you're looking for a whole lot of VelociCoaster, you're in the right spot!
  13. I enjoy when parks do little things that enhance the experience -- things they could certainly get away without, but sort of show that they're willing to put in the effort. Example: the little synchronized light show they do in Cars Land after sunset. They could just flip all the lights on, but instead they cue up the music and make kind of a show of it. I don't think that's something you'll find on the DCA calendar, but if you're in the right spot at the right time as dusk falls... At Efteling in 2019, at night, I stumbled into a big dance party / conga line thing when I went to get a stroopwafel in the plaza near Bob -- led energetically by a singing guy in lederhosen. Completely unexpected. Quite entertaining. Toverland is practically built for this thread, too. Our group might have had more fun not dying / breaking a leg / falling in the water than we did riding the coasters.
  14. Beech Bend wasn't directly hit by the tornadoes, though at least one of them got within about a mile and a half of the park. The surveys aren't finished yet but most of the damage points have been plotted. (image source: NWS Louisville)
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