Our Gilligan tackles 'Islands of Adventure'

I have a confession: Sending me to a theme park is like turning Miss Manners loose at a monster-truck rally.

My idea of a thrill involves a library and an easy chair, not rocketing upside down at 60 m.p.h. or being dropped eight stories in the name of a good time.

This thought occurs to me as I'm being loaded into the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the premiere attraction at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, Orlando's newest theme park.

Over the next 4-1/2 minutes, I'm plunged into the middle of a raging comic book battle. You see, the Sinister Syndicate has stolen the Statue of Liberty, and it's up to us cub reporters to get the story, without getting killed.

As we race around New York in pursuit of the dastardly villains, the car is electrocuted, bricks and fireballs come flying through the windshield, and a really scary-looking lady with no face and a lot of teeth tries to claw my face. Finally, the evil Dr. Octopus sends us plunging 400 feet toward the street - only to be rescued by Spider-Man in the nick of time.

I loved it.

"If you're going to ride one ride for the rest of your life, that is THE ride," enthuses Joe Cota of Bangor, Maine. And he should know. He and his friend are on a grueling theme-park marathon -six parks in five days.

The ride is the first ever to combine 3-D animation with a moving track and is the pinnacle of the technological thrills available at the new park, which officially opens May 28. (A few fortunate season-pass holders and visitors to Universal Studios Florida were able to sample the park early.) The Spider-Man coaster uses 25 large projectors -as well as heat and water effects for verisimilitude -and took 1-1/2 years for the ride creators to figure out if they could even build it.

Islands of Adventure combines such high-tech marvels with some truly snazzy decor, as well as updated versions of old amusement park staples like roller coasters and carousels. The result is five "islands" (themed neighborhoods, really) with 13 robust rides and other attractions guaranteed to send you wobbling toward your car at the end of the day.

While the bulk of the park is decidedly not for the timid, Universal has considerately thought of coaster cowards like myself. They have a workshop, complete with video footage and background music, on how to ride the Incredible Hulk - which goes from 0 to 40 m.p.h. in under two seconds and features seven inversions - without fear. (I'm sorry, but it would take more than soothing music to get me on that glowing green monster.)

Mr. Cota, however, was delighted. "The roller coaster caught me by surprise. To be shot out of that thing the first time ... was amazing. I'm very impressed so far."

The other techno-marvel of Islands of Adventure is the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Parents may have trouble persuading smaller children that the giant lizards are extinct after they meet Cera, a triceratops that blinks, sneezes, and snorts, or watch a baby dinosaur emerge from an egg in the hatchery.

If you're looking to cool off in the Florida heat, head for Toon Lagoon and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges, a river raft ride complete with boat wash. In case you aren't completely drenched, obliging spectators will fire water cannons at you. The ride itself is fairly tame - especially considering the half-hour or more you spend sweltering in line, but you do feel much, much cooler.

More impressive is Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, a log flume that shoots riders 75 feet down through a fireworks shack and into an underwater tunnel. (I have to take Universal's word on the tunnel - I had my eyes closed.) Cartoons of the intrepid Mountie play while you wait to board, and two hunting trophies crack lame jokes to pass the time in line.

In some cases, Universal has spent almost as much effort designing the lines. Cool air is piped in many of them, and some - like the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man - give impatient thrill-seekers plenty to look at during the wait. Spider-Man takes riders on a tour through the Daily Bugle - and the broom closet (er, office of Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spidey) - while cartoon newscasts blare.

"The line itself is worth waiting in line for," said Jennifer Watkins of Atlanta.

The attention isn't surprising when you consider that, in addition to its other superlatives, Islands of Adventure boasts one decidedly mixed blessing: the longest line. That would be the 3,180-foot line for the Dueling Dragons roller coaster, the world's first intertwined coasters. They are designed to look like they're about to crash into each other several times during the ride. (The cars are weighed on their way to the top, to ensure as close a call as possible.) For maximum thrill, wait in the line for the first seat. Or so I'm told.

Playgrounds are scattered throughout the park - including a treehouse-and-cave play area in Jurassic Park - but the only place where small children can really cut loose is Seuss Landing. There are no straight lines in this candy-colored monument to the wit and whimsy of Dr. Seuss (landscapers even imported palm trees twisted by hurricane Andrew) and more than 500 colors were used in the design. The centerpiece is the Cara-seuss-el, the only interactive merry-go-round in the world (eyes blink, tails wag). Children can also ride a spinning couch while "The Cat in the Hat" story comes to life around them, or take a turn on the "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" ride.

Guests pronounced Seuss Landing as fine as anything Disney has to offer, but some questioned whether three rides are worth the $34 child's admission. Many of the other attractions would scare children under eight, and a majority have a height requirement of 42 or 48 inches.

A group of teens from Cedar Point, Mich., felt two roller coasters just weren't enough. "Too many shops and not enough rides," was the verdict of Cara Calkins and John Rice.

Perhaps the ultimate theme park compliment came from Kirsten Beagle, a teen from Orlando staggering off the Dueling Dragons roller coaster: "That was great!... I can't walk straight anymore."

*Send e-mail to zippy@csps.com

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