My wife Leslie and I were dating when I began taking her to Florida to vacate at my grandparent’s place in Homosassa Springs.
One of our traditions was following the Homosassa River out to the Flats, a bay or inlet connected to the gulf.
I liked the fishing but I also just liked the experience. However, this time, we got lucky.
We got into a mess of bull sharks. We got four or five. They were not especially big, but they have a lot of muscle and power.
Leslie, who can’t swim, was seated on the pontoon bench, soaking up the experience.
When Pap caught the last of the sharks, he sat down on the bench beside Leslie, who was waiting for Pap to take the shark off the hook. Before he could, however, the shark jerked and seized, wrenching the hook from its own mouth.
Everything went into slow motion as the shark fell, head first, onto Papaw’s leg. The shark bounced off the leg and fell right at Leslie’s feet.
Cursing loudly, Leslie hurdled the cooler, pushed my tiny grandmother out of the way and RAN to the front of the pontoon.
I’ve told that story for 20 years or more. It’s my go-to story when I’m entertaining new folks or when we get together and reminisce about the good old days.
Our Raptor Encounter at Jurassic Park
I never thought I’d be able to top the shark story. But then, we went to Universal Studios.
We were in line for the Raptor Encounter in Jurassic Park. In line to see the big raptor, they asked if anyone wanted to see the baby first. We went and saw the baby raptor then right back in line to see the big animatronic one.
It’s not like Leslie didn’t know what was coming. We’d seen Jurassic Park. We saw the other people go up for their encounter, one by one, unable to stop themselves from jumping when the large – incredibly realistic dinosaur made its move. She laughed when one boy dang near jumped out of his shorts.
So when the handler who positioned us for a family picture, he mentioned that the raptor (not Blue) might be interested in Leslie’s hair bun. We lined up as a family, Leslie in the middle rear and JP in the front.
The photos were snapped and I turned to the side, knowing what was coming next. The dinosaur lunged.
Leslie, who had established her position on fight or flight all those years ago, reverted to form. Ainsley was pushed to the side while Leslie dashed ahead like the raptor was coming out of the paddock to get her.
Character experiences at Universal Studios
We’ve been going to Orlando area theme parks for a long time. Since we’ve had the kids, character encounters have been a massive part of the experience.
But this year at Universal Studios, we’ve had some of the best character interactions ever.
The best one for my youngest wasn’t someone even one who was even remotely on our radar.
Our experience at Seuss Landing and Guy-Am-I
When we were in Seuss Landing, we saw one of the Dr. Seuss characters between One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and the Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous.
Turns out it was Guy-Am-I, the doubting Thomas of Green Eggs and Ham.
Ainsley didn’t care. It was a Seuss character. She went in for the hug and giggled as she posed for pictures. Guy-am-I noticed the M&M on her shirt and playfully tried to pluck at it. The character mimed like we were hungry and wanted an M&M. Ainsley thought this was uproariously funny.
Afterward, I went into the café and refilled our cups and then found an outside table in the shade. Ainsley and the rest of the family came and sat down to cool off.
As we were sitting there, Guy-Am-I and his handler appeared from behind a gate at the back of the café. He’d gone in for a little rest and was coming back out. We waved as he passed.
But then he did something I’ve never seen a character do in all of our years of going to Orlando theme parks. He pulled up a chair and sat down next to Ainsley.
Characters going to and from their designated spots are treated like heads of state in theme parks. It’s their handler’s job to get them from point A to point B and – while being polite – keep them moving.
That Guy-Am-I stopped for a minute to play with Ainsley. It absolutely delighted her. It made her trip and created a memory she will have for the rest of her life.
She talked about it the whole week and still talks about it. “He didn’t want Green Eggs and Ham,” she’d say. “He wanted orange M&M!”
What characters can you find at Universal Studios?
The list is long and eclectic. Some of the characters ready to be met include the members of the DreamWorks cartoon movies like Kung Fu Panda and King Julien and the Penguins of Madagascar.
Near the Transformers ride, you can meet favorite characters like Optimus Prime, Bumble Bee and Megatron.
Shrek, Princess Fiona and Donkey have moved near the Character Party Zone where a variety of different characters await. Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” and Marilyn Monroe are also in the Universal Studios park.
I’m surprised the Wizarding World of Harry Potter doesn’t have more characters, but you can meet the conductor of the Knight Bus outside Diagon Alley, Stan Shunpike. You can also interact with Goblins at the Gringotts Money Exchange.
Keep in mind character appearances vary. Any character may or may not be in the parks on any given day.
Over in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, you can meet characters like Popeye, Olive Oyl and Betty Boop in Cartoon Lagoon.
There are several popular characters on Marvel Super Hero Island, including X-Men-related Marvel characters like Magneto, Wolverine, Cyclops Rogue and Storm as well as Marvel superheroes villains like Dr. Doom and Green Goblin.
Is there a character dining experience at Universal Studios?
Yes. It appears right now that Universal Orlando Character Dining is limited to the Marvel Character Dinner at Café 4. Universal’s Superstar Character Breakfast closed for good in 2017.
There will be seasonal options during Halloween and Christmas.
In addition, there are seasonal options such as Halloween Horror Nights and Dr. Seuss’ Wholiday events.
So what are the best character meet and greets in the park? Here’s a ranking of some of the best ones.
13. Betty Boop: Cartoon Lagoon, Islands of Adventure
I ranked this one last for a reason. Do kids know who Betty Boop is? How old do you think the youngest person who knows Betty Boop is? 35?
And to some degree, the same for Popeye and Olive Oyl.
12. The Blues Brothers: New York, Universal Studios
Is this technically a meet and greet? No. It’s a performance. But the Blues Brothers – a foundation film in my life – come out in the street and dance so I’m counting it.
I love the “Blues Brothers” movie. In fact, I wore out the soundtrack growing up. I STILL listen to the “Blues Brothers” soundtrack. And I STILL listen to the soundtrack of “Blues Brothers 2000.” I listen to a song that didn’t even make a movie. No apologies will be forthcoming.
Paul Schaffer – David Letterman’s famous sidekick – put together one heck of a band. Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper were the backbones of the Memphis Stax sound. That band could play. Did the Blues Brothers deserve that good of a band? Maybe not, but I love it all the same. Those are big shoes for the guys at Universal to fill and I give them credit for trying. Plus, The Blues Mobile is awesome.
Was the highlight of my trip when Elwood drove past me in the Blues Mobile announcing the next show through the speaker just like at Lake Winnipesaukee and I yelled, “It’s Ladies’ Night” and Elwood responded, “It IS Ladies’ Night?”
11. Scooby-Doo: Hollywood Blvd, Universal Studios
We met Scooby and the Gang – well most of the gang. Actually, Fred was missing – likely getting the oil changed in the Mystery Machine.
If I’m being honest, I find many of the human characters at Universal leave a little something to be desired. There are a couple of humans I really like, but overall without costumes, there’s something… off.
10. Destination DreamWorks: Woody Woodpecker’s Kids Zone, Universal Studios
Somebody at Universal deserves a raise.
For instance, this high-energy, air-conditioned meet and greet knocks out characters four at a time. And then, wait a few minutes and knock out four more. It’s pure genius.
It’s a dance party with DreamWorks characters from the Trolls movies, the Madagascar movies, Puss in Boots and others.
King Julien from Madagascar is a star – he also shows up on the Lost Continent in Islands of Adventure.
However, some of the others have Q-ratings that are dropping. However, still a big hit and a fun place to stop to beat the heat without getting soaked in the Curious George play area.
9. The Simpsons characters: Springfield, Universal Studios
The Simpsons Q-rating has dropped a little over the years, but I suspect the shelf life of Bart Simpson to endure Betty Boop-style at least.
Located right outside the exit of the Simpsons Ride, seeing the Simpsons characters in the yellow flesh is cool.
I didn’t actually realize where I was, waiting for the kids to exit the Twirl ‘n’ Hurl when I turned to see a giant Sideshow Bob staring me right in the face. Unnerving and excellent.
8. Captain America: Super Hero Island, Universal Studios
The whole Marvel theme park deal is weird. I don’t really like the feel of Super Hero Island. Specifically, it seems chintzy compared to what has been done in the Wizarding World, Jurassic Park and other places that get into the theme.
When Universal bought the theme park rights to the Marvel characters everywhere east of the Mississippi River, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t even a thought. The heavy comic book panel theme and pounding music make the whole section seem to need a massive overhaul.
I haven’t been to the Avengers Campus in California where Walt Disney owns the Marvel character theme park rights, but it looks so much cooler than what Universal has. That being said, the Captain America meet and greet was exceptional.
Cap took time to speak with each of the kids, giving them individual attention and really interacting.
7. Spider-Man: Super Hero Island, Universal Studios
Mostly the same. The Spider-Man ride is nothing to write home about, one of Universal’s many rides that blast you around from screen to screen amazing you with 1998 technology and effects.
The Spider-Man meet and greet? Really fun.
Spidey hit the right tone of the character, even pretending to flirt with Sofia, a “fellow teenager” getting ready to go into her senior year of high school.
6. Seuss characters: Seuss Landing, Islands of Adventure
Sam-I-am. The Grinch. The Lorax.
These are high Q-rating characters and the kids all had a great time seeing the show and getting their pictures made with them.
5. The Knight Bus Driver: Diagon Alley, Universal Studios
The Wizarding World could use some more characters if you want my opinion.
But the kids enjoyed the Knight Bus complete with the talking shrunken head. Both drivers were funny and engaging, asking the kids about their houses.
Sofia was thrilled to have someone talk Harry Potter with her.
4. Shrek, Donkey & Fiona: Woody Woodpecker Kids Zone, Universal Studios
We were literally among the last to see Shrek, Donkey and Fiona at their former location near Production Central – where the Universal site still lists them as of this writing. We were the second or third to last in line at the end of the day.
The next day, the meet and greet closed only to reopen a couple of weeks later over near the DreamWorks site.
It appears the experience hasn’t changed much despite the new location. The star of the show is the fast-talking Donkey who interacts with the kids and is legitimately funny, not a small accomplishment considering the venue.
3. SpongeBob & Patrick: SpongeBob Squarepants, Universal Studios
Air-conditioned. SpongeBob Squarepants. Patrick. What more could you want?
The kids were in heaven, then they got to explore the shop and Ainsley bought a giant SpongeBob and had it shipped to our hotel, very convenient.
2. Blue and the Raptors: Jurassic World, Islands of Adventure
For Christmas, I’m commissioning an oil painting of my wife pushing my daughter out of the way as she runs from a fake dinosaur.
And I’m hanging it in the Louvre.
1. Guy-am-I: Seuss Landing, Islands of Adventure
I can’t guarantee your experience with Guy will be like ours but the joy he gave Ainsley will last a long time. For that? He gets the top spot.
What are your favorite characters at the Universal parks in Orlando? Let us know in the comments below.