Monday, June 28, 2010

Thrills and spills at Universal Studios

After breakfast at Toast Box at the Forum, we walked over to the highlight of the day - Universal Studios.

Just a quick side note: there are a couple of interesting stores outside Universal Studios which we had explored the day before. One of them is Garrett's Popcorn which is supposedly one of Oprah's favourite snacks. I don't know how she can keep her diet under control while munching on these cos we sampled the caramel one and it was cloyingly sweet, even for a sweet tooth like mine. But I have to admit the buttery scent was rather enticing.

Next to Garrett's is Hershey's Chocolate World and THAT really sent my kids over the moon. As Andre described, it was like being in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

Back to Universal Studios. The park opens at 10am but by 9.30am, queues had already begun to form. I love the atmosphere outside a theme park before it opens. The swell of movie music and the excitement of the crowd always makes me feel like I'm about to enter a Very Happy Place (the type without narcotics).

Just before 10am, the attendants start letting the increasingly impatient people in and off we go! Immediately we made a beeline for Lost World as we'd heard that it has some of the more popular rides.

First stop, Rapids Adventure. This ride is similar to the one in Dreamworld, Gold Coast, Australia. Up to 9 persons sit in a circular raft which goes through a watery path of gushing rapids. It begins with pleasant scenes of the more placid dinos and halfway through the ride, you'll hear an emergency announcement that the T-rex has escaped and for everyone to evacuate. The raft then goes into a pitch black tunnel with T-rex screams (at which point my two chicken kids closed their eyes and missed out on the occasional flashes of T-rex. The finale is a sudden end to the dark tunnel and a short drop.

Concept-wise, the ride is sound but there are two major flaws in execution which makes it inferior to the Dreamworld ride. First, with similar rides, the passengers usually get slightly wet with at most a damp patch on their clothes. With this ride, there's a high chance you will get completely drenched, some have emerged looking like they fell into a pond.

I don't know about you but I don't relish having to walk the rest of the day with clothes sticking to my skin and squishy shoes, it's extremely uncomfortable and annoying. Luckily I had read about it beforehand online and was warned by friends so before the ride, we donned unsexy disposable ponchos and changed into flip-flops. My kids were worried that it would be terribly embarrassing to go on the ride dressed for a dunking but guess what? Almost everyone we saw on the ride had the same idea! News travels fast in Singapore.

The second flaw is that due to the design of the ride and the seat, you can get bumped around quite violently. On one of the turns, I whacked my hip against the seat and had a large bruise to show for it the day after. Owww.

Any ride that is so inconvenient and potentially painful is just not worth the effort. We didn't bother to take that ride again and likely never will.

We then headed to the Canopy Flyer where a car of four (two facing front, two facing back) is suspended over a track with mild drops and turns. It's fun, albeit short (53 secs) and a good alternative for little kids who are not brave enough to face a junior roller coaster. We took this ride twice and I would recommend you try both the front and back facing seats for a different experience.

The rest of the rides I'm describing here are not in the order we took them as we spent the rest of the day taking and re-taking rides, interspersed with shows.

Another ride in Lost World is Dino-saurin', which is your traditional kids ride - take a spin in the air in one of these pterodactyls. You can control how high you go although with Andre, this can become one bumpy ride as he attempts to inject thrill by pressing and releasing the button incessantly.

Ancient Egypt has the most impressive landscaping, in my opinion. Its giant obelisks and pyramids make you feel like you're on the set of The Mummy. You almost expect Brendan Fraser to make an appearance.

The picture below shows the entrance to the Revenge of the Mummy. It's an indoor roller coaster in darkness, something like Disneyland's Space Mountain but scarier as it also has backward drops.

We didn't try this one, I like to see when I'm going to drop or be hurled over to one side, thank you very much! With the Battlestar Galactica coasters still out of action, this is the most thrilling ride in the park at the moment.

The only other ride in Ancient Eqypt is Treasure Hunters, where you drive a vintage car around an excavation site. The description on the website certainly sounded way more interesting than the ride, which was soooo boring I can't believe we queued 35 minutes for it. It's on a track so there's really no driving involved and the sights you see along the way, like a cheetah, cobras, rocks with scarab beetles, are uninspiring.

Maybe I'm being too harsh, this ride is obviously for little kids. I mean very little kids, like two-year-olds who get a kick just from turning a steering wheel. Do note though that this was one of the rides where the queue never seemed to wane, it averaged about 35-40 minutes all day.

Moving on to Sci-Fi City which had become something of a ghost town since its star attraction, Battlestar Galactica was grounded. However, this meant that its only other ride, the Accelerator, had relatively short queues.

Accelerator is basically a typical teacups ride but in zippier cars. Lesley-Anne and Andre tend to like the these types of rides, they're simple but spinning round and round at top speed is fun in its own way and short waiting times are always attractive.

Far Far Away is the trademark land for Universal Studios, based on the movie Shrek. It's like Disney's Fantasy Land, except the castle belongs to Princess Fiona instead of Sleeping Beauty.

It's here that we discovered our favourite ride - Enchanted Airways. It's a junior roller coaster in the form of Dragon, Donkey's partner. As junior coasters go, this one packs a punch. I rate it as more thrilling than both Gadget's Go Coaster in Tokyo Disneyland and Flounder's Flying Fish Coaster in Tokyo Disneysea.

Lesley-Anne usually shuns all roller coasters and at first refused to go on it. An hour before the park closed, she suddenly decided to brave it and went with Andre. I saw her crouching in the seat as the coaster hurtled past and thought she had regretted her decision. To my surprise, she proceeded to go on it three more times! It's always the fear that paralyses her so I was glad to see her overcome it.

How much do we love this ride? Well, Andre went a total of 9 times, 5 with me and 4 with Lesley-Anne. He managed to sneak in one last ride at 7pm, just before the ride closed for the day.

I had intended to write about Universal Studios in one post but what with my verbose rambling, I realise this has become one very long piece! So I'm breaking this up into a two-parter, this one is mainly about the rides. Look out for the next piece about the shows and some tips coming up next.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Channelling the inner rock star

Technically going to Resorts World doesn't classify as "Travel" since we live in Singapore but our 3-day, 2-night stay was as much of a vacation to us as any of our previous holidays so I'm going to blog about it here. Plus it gives me an excuse to update my otherwise woefully inadequate travel blog.

We'd planned to bring our kids to Universal Studios during the June holidays and decided to stay two nights at a Resorts World hotel just to make the experience seem more like a real vacation. It was a toss up between Festive Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel, the latter being just a tad more expensive. In the end, we went with Hard Rock Hotel even though Festive Hotel is billed as the family hotel because I saw pictures of the Hard Rock pool and was sold.

We were glad we went with that decision when we walked by Festive Hotel and were confronted by Ikea hues and hordes of screaming kids. In contrast, although there were also families at Hard Rock Hotel, it wasn't noisy and it never felt over-crowded.

The edgy, hippie-chick ethos of Hard Rock suits us and brings out the party mood. Everything about Hard Rock Hotel has that retro glam ambience which I love. From the bling bling in the lift (we were excitedly taking pictures, to the amusement of someone who walked in and probably thought we were mountain tortoises) and the dimly-lit corridors to the Rock Shop (bottom left), the check-in counter (bottom right) and the lobby, it was all too cool for words.

Throughout the hotel, there were windows displaying costumes and paraphernalia of the musical greats, like this one below.

The room had a very luxe feel with dramatic "rock-star" touches. You can see how enamoured Andre was with the room, even though he wasn't too thrilled by the groovy montage of Jimi Hendrix over the beds, whom he pronounced "the creepy weird guy". Sacrilegious!

Despite being something of a boutique hotel, the room was surprisingly large. There were two double beds and another pull out bed, meaning it can sleep five. I imagine families with three kids would especially welcome such an arrangement.

The cordoned off bath area had separate shower and toilet stalls but really, it's more design-worthy than practical. The shower stall had no facilities to hang up your clothes so you still had to emerge to change anyway, thereby negating anyone else from using the toilet while you're in the shower unless you're the type of family that bares all at home.

Apart from that impracticality, the bath area too had rock-and-roll features like the cute guitar-shaped amenities holder (left) and a large mirror studded with light bulbs.

The room also featured a verandah and we were fortunate enough to get one with a pool view - breath-taking.

View from verandah at night:

Amidst the many "stars" at Hard Rock Hotel (sorry, bad pun), this pool truly gets the award. I have been to many hotel pools in my lifetime and I've honestly never seen a pool like this one - it's the motherlode of all pools. It looked impressive in pictures and even better in real life.

The free-form pool has more features than the car in Knight Rider. There's a children's play platform with fountains and a slide, a sandy beach area with palm trees, even a beach volleyball court.

For adults, there's a lap pool and a sunken bar where you can savour cocktails to the strains of the Beach Boys, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Instantly transports you to the 1960s blues, chill mode. Very Forrest Gump.

I had a lychee martini in the middle of the day. How very decadent! Lesley-Anne had a more age-appropriate cranberry juice while enjoying her book at the cabana.

We visited the pool twice during our three-day stay. Fortunately the weather held up.

Here's Lesley-Anne cooling off her feet at one of the half-submerged deck chairs. Pretty nifty idea, I thought. Yeah, she's reading again. Once a bookworm, always a bookworm.

And here's a very happy little boy.

Ok, enough about the pool, moving on now. What we love about Resorts World is its convenience. In most cities, theme parks are located in isolated, sprawling pieces of land in the middle of nowhere, necessitating long walks which can be tough on little legs.

Resorts World however, is a fully self-contained entity. Right next to the hotels is the Forum which is a covered complex housing mostly F&B outlets as well as the entrance to the casino. We appreciated the fact that there was a good variety of culinary choices within easy reach and we weren't limited to over-priced hotel buffets.

As you can tell, soccer fever has taken over the Forum, there were mini competitions being held (Ben & Jerry's was giving out prizes to those who could guess the top player of each LOSING team) and nightly screening of the World Cup matches. Bleahh. As an indication of my soccer expertise, I have been known to remark on a couple of occasions to Kenneth, "hey, there's another Ronaldo!" To which he'd roll his eyes and reply, "there's only one Ronaldo, it's the same guy."

Getting to the Forum from Hard Rock Hotel can be tricky. On the map, it's just next door but the first time we walked over, we ended up manouvering an elaborate labyrinth past Festive Hotel, up and down escalators that never seem to end. The signages left much to be desired and we were convinced that the arrows were randomly arranged (or maybe someone changed the directions every night just for fun).

Anyway, after several dead ends and mis-directions, we finally found it - a three-minute stroll through the Convention Centre that leads right from Hard Rock Hotel to the centre of the Forum. Seems like it's not a well-known route since we didn't meet many people along the way, the few times we used it. We called it our secret passage.

We were at the Forum for every meal (except the one lunch at Universal Studios) and believe it or not, we only ate at two places. One of them was Toast Box. I'm partial to the BreadTalk group as they're one of my clients but apart from that, we really like their teh, otah thick toast and quirky assortment of buns. Cheap and good, Toast Box serves up a hearty breakfast that leaves us satisfied.

On our last morning at Resorts World, Kenneth and Andre woke up early, nipped over to Toast Box and tar-pau-ed breakfast back to the hotel, which we enjoyed out on the verandah.

The other restaurant that we patronised was none other than Hard Rock Cafe. I was stoked when I found out that they'd recently opened an outlet at the Forum. I mean, staying at Hard Rock Hotel without dining at Hard Rock Cafe is a little incomplete, isn't it?

I know eating three meals there in three consecutive days seems excessive but let me say this: we LOVE the food at Hard Rock Cafe (especially when there's an irresistible 1-for-1 entree promotion by DBS cards). The steak and beef fajitas are exceptional, and there's a new item on the menu - Twisted Mac 'n Cheese which my kids tried and adore.

And of course part of going to Hard Rock Cafe is to soak in the music culture, which was an apt complement to the whirlwind rock tour my kids had been receiving at Hard Rock Hotel. U2, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Police, the Killers - all the legends in their full glory blasted on large screens and surround sound.

If you haven't gathered by now, our hotel and food experience at Resorts World more than lived up to our expectations and I would recommend it to anyone. At just under S$300 a night (before GST) per room during off-peak periods, admittedly Hard Rock Hotel doesn't come cheap. But if you consider that we didn't have to pay for airline tickets, our whole staycation cost us less than if we'd travelled out of Singapore to the nearest theme park, which would be Hong Kong. All in all, it was well worth the splurge.

Coming up soon, Universal Studios. Stay tuned.