The Fanny Pack Fiasco

The Fanny Pack Fiasco

As I mentioned in my last vacation post, my recent trip to Florida included my first trip to Universal Studios. Our second day at the park started at the customer service desk. The Gryffindor friend I mentioned in my last post purchased a t-shirt from the Islands of Adventure park which needed to be exchanged. Since we could only get into one of the parks, and didn’t want to spend another entire day at Islands of Adventure, we asked the lady at the customer service desk to exchange it for us. She understood our problem instantly and disappeared to take care of it. Five minutes later we headed to the other side of the park.

We had problems right from the start, and not because the hill of the first rollercoaster my Slytherin friend wanted to ride scared the bejeezus out of me.

Before we left on the first day, my friend showed me the fanny pack she carries with her to amusement parks. It’s smaller than a purse, and she can wrap the handle through her belt loops in such a way that it won’t fall off of her, no matter how hard you tug. I thought it was a marvelous idea, since it was big enough to carry most of the things we needed (money, credit cards, those little passports you get at Epcot) but small enough she didn’t need to carry it and it didn’t interfere with her riding any rides. She also informed me she’s carried it with her everywhere in Disney and Universal Studios on previous trips. So we thought it strange the ride attendant at our first stop made her put her bag in a locker. Yet my camera case, similarly attached to my belt loop, was deemed fine.

Since lockers are free for the first half hour, and there was no line, my friend shrugged, took off her fanny pack an shoved it into a locker for the fifteen minutes it took us to ride the ride. I can’t recall the name of the rollercoaster, but it was pretty cool. Every person gets to choose the music they want to listen to while they ride and each song is perfectly synched to the coaster. We both chose Born to be Wild. We retrieved my friend’s pack from the locker afterward and soldiered on.

Our next stop was the Twister ‘ride’ (not really sure that’s an accurate description, it’s more of a demonstration). It’s another up-close and personal look at special effects. Then we headed over to the Mummy ride. We must have walked past three ride attendants and none of them said anything to us until we were sitting on the ride. Then the attendant looked at my friend’s fanny pack and told her she couldn’t take it on the ride. We had to exit, get a locker, and go all the way back. Now it was early October when we took this trip; the park was by no means busy. The five minutes it took us to walk that far was all the longer it took us to get back on the ride. But if we’d been visiting during the heat of summer, during peak park days, when the line took two hours or more to traverse, we’d have been extremely upset. Especially since that ride is disappointingly short.

As you can see, this trend set the mood for our entire day. Shortly after exiting the Mummy ride, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our experience in that section of the park. So of course we took five minutes to describe the situation and ask that the park attendants please develop a universal criteria for what is and isn’t acceptable to carry on rides, so that no one waits in line for two hours to be turned aside. It was especially annoying since we saw a guy with a larger camera case than my friend’s pack get on a ride wearing the bag around his shoulder, where as my friend’s pack was attached to her pants.

From there we went over to the Men In Black ride and this time we asked the attendant if my friend would be turned aside for wearing her pack, despite having taken it on every ride in previous years. He informed us that the person strapping you into the ride makes that decision – again, why is there no universal standard here?

At this point, you’re probably wondering why this is such a big deal in the first place. Most amusement parks provide bins for you to store your personal belongings while you ride the ride. Most of them are either right before you get on the ride or on the opposite side near the exit. You cross the rollercoaster, perhaps, put your bag in the square, and get back in the seat. When you leave, you pick up your stuff and take it with you. It’s pretty simple. Some have little nets you put your stuff in under the seat or behind the one in front of you, depending on how likely the ride is to spill your stuff into the grass underneath it. Every other park I’ve ever been to provides this convenience for free, even Disney.

But not Universal. At Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, you have to store your personal belongings in a locker located before the entrance to the ride. These lockers are free for exactly half an hour. So you have to navigate the line, ride the ride, and get back to the locker to open it (and each individual locker doesn’t have an access pad so you might have to wait in line for that too) before that half hour timer expires. Otherwise, they expect you to pay and payment is based on the amount of time your belongings have been stored in the locker. Of course, most people can’t pay because their credit cards are stored in the locker. So they have to get a park attendant to unlock the locker for them, and the employee then holds their bags and refuses to give them back until they pay. If you refuse to pay, you get ejected from the park.

This irks me to no end. What about families traveling with young children who pretty much require carrying a bag or backpack (or more than one depending on how many kids they have with them)? On top of the huge price tag to get into a park like this, you have to pay to ride each and every ride, or designate someone to stay behind and hold all the stuff. On top of that, Universal charges money for their fast passes, so the only way to decrease the amount of money you’re paying to store your stuff is to pay more money.

In fact, our entire trip to Universal seemed to be about dodging the money grubbing. It feels a bit like extortion considering how much you pay to get into these places. To make matters worse, no sooner did we get into the Men In Black building, than did an announcement come over the PA telling us the ride was moving at half-capacity so the wait might be longer than expected. So of course we spent the entire time worried the timer would expire on the locker and we’d be forced to pay for it (which we decided ahead of time to refuse). The Men In Black ride is one of those laser shooters. It’s an interesting ride, but with so many laser sights it’s nigh impossible to tell what you’re actually shooting. It’s one of those rides where I get to the end and think it gave me pity points so I wouldn’t feel like a loser for having a score of 0. Luckily we got back to the locker before the time expired.

After a few more rides, we decided we didn’t want to deal with the locker crap anymore so we found an Irish pub and ate a nice long lunch to get out of the heat. Honestly, I don’t remember much of what we did in the afternoon after lunch. The entire day was marred by the locker headache. Unfortunately, Universal just didn’t live up to the hype I’ve heard half my life from people who visited it in earlier days. It seems most of the classic rides are gone now. Even Jaws has closed. We encountered one set of character actors just outside the Mummy ride and they were on their way out, though one of the guys on stilts stopped to bend over and play with the buns we were wearing our hair in, apparently mystified by them. This in contrast to when we crossed into Disney’s Magic Kingdom the next morning to character actors standing in the streets singing songs. We also noticed that Disney hid their “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary” Halloween party stuff during the day, but Universal left the stands in the open but covered, giving the impression chunks of the park were closed.

I wanted to love Universal Studios. I’ve spent many years feeling like I missed something for never having gone. But after spending the better part of a day there, I wasn’t impressed. I found a Spiderman mug for my hubby and we decided to leave early. I wanted to prepare a submission for HarperVoyager (who was accepting open submissions at the time), and we decided to meet our Gryffindor friend when she got off work and spend the evening with her instead. Some people have told me since that Universal is trying to reinvigorate their park; it definitely needs it, but I think they could jump start it by knocking off the money-squeezing.

(Apparently Universal’s business philosophy. Taken from within Universal – this hangs in the line leading up to the Simpsons ride)

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