After a year and a half of pandemic-related lockdowns and protocol, theme parks are slowly returning to normal. Parks in Orlando, Florida have technically been operating since last summer, but on May 15, Universal Studios allowed vaccinated guests to walk the grounds unmasked. And on a clear Wednesday in June, it’s as close to normal as it can be in the park, with throngs of visitors gathering under the intense Florida sun, and large steel coasters looming above.
Theme parks always bring back childhood levels of excitement. They’re pure escapism, and even if long lines, hot weather, and overpriced food threaten the perfect day, patrons always come back for the thrill. Growing up in Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure in particular was the premier destination for middle school day trips (when you’re an edgy preteen, you think you’ve outgrown Disney). I go back every so often when I’m around town, but this month, after such a long period of time since stepping into any theme park — or pretty much anywhere fun — hopping on board Universal’s new ride, the Jurassic World-themed, Velocicoaster, was a revitalizing rush. It was the sheer exhilaration of stepping off an intense coaster for the first time and grinning at my classmates in triumph all over again.
Memories of the last year test the strength of nostalgia. I’ll admit that swaths of unmasked people still threw me off. I’m vaccinated, but I could only hope for the same for the rest of the people around me. I didn’t go to a theme park in the height of COVID-19, and the clash of a year of lockdown life with an aggressive push to be back to normal is jarring. Beyond some PA announcements about trying to maintain social distancing (basically impossible because of just how many people are allowed in at a time), there seems to be little memory of what we’ve all just been through. In pre-pandemic times, theme parks were sweaty and crowded and not everyone was on their best behavior. Now they felt sweatier and more crowded. Add the mix of uncertainty that comes with vaccines and masks and COVID, and a place of total childhood adrenaline becomes muddled by adult concerns.
With a brand new ride and my vax status on my mind, I focus on the excitement and privilege of being back in a park, which is (mostly) outdoors and by all suggestions from the CDC, safe for those who got their shots. Universal Studios has evolved since I’ve come here on field trips, though some places [cough the Marvel Island cough] have remained exactly the same. The VELOCICOASTER — a ride name my phone keeps insisting on turning into all-caps, but honestly, is deserving of the treatment — is a fresh addition to Island of Adventures, and billed as the tallest and fastest roller coaster in Florida. It fully lives up to that promise. When I’m on the Velocicoaster, the only thing on my mind is the exhilaration of the ride, and the anxiety takes a backseat.
Lined up with the continuity of the Jurassic World movies, the Velocicoaster launches riders into a raptor enclosure. Movie characters, like Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady, make appearances via videos, and animatronic raptors snap and growl. Seated on the ride, it becomes clear this isn’t a typical high-octane coaster: the restraints only go across my lap, instead of securing me entirely in the seat. This is frightening, in a good way.
I’ve never been afraid of coasters, but there’s always a moment right before I jet off where I think to myself Ah, yes, I will be the one person in five billion who falls out of the restraint and plummets to my death. On the Velocicoaster, with only a lap bar to contain me, this feeling is all the more evident. The real twisted logic is what I tell myself in the next second: If the Velocicoaster decides to claim me, so be it. It’d be a pretty epic way to go out.
In the takeoff, the ride prioritizes atmosphere, rumbling through raptor cages where I can see the outlines of dinos rattle against the walls. This is the only “slower” moment, though the growling dinos and the swirling fog only serve to heighten the anticipation. Once the coaster shoots from 0 to 50 mph in 3 seconds, it never lets up. There are drops and twists and inversions, and just when I think the ride can’t get anymore intense, the ride accelerates to 70 mph (You see, Velocicoaster works for both the word velociraptor and the word velocity).
Every time I reach a moment that on any other ride would lead to a soft denouement, the Velocicoaster keeps on giving. At one point, the ride skims so close to the water that I almost think it’s going to drop into it. The coaster snakes and turns and plummets so quickly, never once letting up. When it does finally reach that end, I’m almost certain it’s going to pick up again because of how often it felt like that might happen through the rest of the ride. For their part, the cross-lap restraints do a good job of holding me in place — though certain inversions make me sweat for a split second.
I’m not a huge roller-coaster screamer. But on the Velocicoaster, I find myself laughing and squealing to the point where I thought my face might fall off. This isn’t the same, unadulterated adrenaline of baby’s first big-kid roller coaster, but damn if after so long it doesn’t come real close. For a few minutes, I soar through the sky without a care in the world — no anxiety about the masses of people that await me back on the ground, no fear about whether or not I’ll be judged for wearing a mask, no jitters about waiting long lines indoors — because all that matters is clinging onto the restraints and feeling that wind hit my face as the coaster zooms along.