SeaWorld Christmas Celebration 2018 Review

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, no theme park does Christmas better than SeaWorld! From the food to shows to lights, SeaWorld Christmas is a spectacular event. With so much to see and do, you’ll want to experience it multiple nights in order to make sure you create memories that will last for a lifetime. Although I’ve attended Christmas Celebration in the past, it is so magical that I just love experiencing it again and again. Perhaps you are like me in that you attend as many theme park and resort events at possible at Christmas, but if you can only select one for you and your friends/family, then I highly suggest SeaWorld Christmas Celebration!

Before we get into the shows (which are largely unchanged from previous years), I want to talk about the food. Oh, and speaking of food, you’ll want to treat yourself to the sampler lanyard (5 or 10 items) for all the delectable food and drink cabins. My invitation to the media event came with the 5 item sampler, but I can see the advantages of the 10 item option if you plan to attend multiple nights or are there with another person or group. As far as the 5-item lanyard, my friend Dani and I were able to share it and had plenty to eat and drink. Prior to setting out into the park, the SWO public relations team provided many food and drink items for us during the media mixer. My favorite is the s’mores waffle cone! Absolutely delicious. We also had the Christmas dinner and candied popcorn. Out in the park, we had the donut pulled pork sandwich (not included in the sampler), brisket macaroni and cheese, and chicken and waffles! Yes! Chicken and waffles, you heard me. For drinks, we had the Jingle Juice. All the speciality beverages I saw were hot (just FYI). For a cold beverage, there are options but they are not the specialty drinks.

We attended Clyde and Seamore’s Countdown to Christmas, Winter Wonderland on Ice, and Shamu’s Christmas Miracle. Unfortunately, we did not attend O Wondrous Night because of scheduling conflicts. Of course, we also enjoyed the Sea of Trees show on the lagoon that runs throughout the evening. Clyde and Seamore’s show is always hilarious!! You are in for a laugh for sure. Since we were attending during the same showtime as O Wondrous Night, it wasn’t terribly packed but was nicely filled. Largely unchanged, this show is pretty much the same as it was last year, but it is still such a fun show and will have you laughing the whole time. One of my favorite parts of the show is actually the pre-show when the audience all joins together to sing familiar Christmas songs and carols. Although it is a show geared towards the younger members of the audience, there are jokes and references for us adults to chuckle as well. At one point, one of the trainers forgot his line, and there was a comedically self-aware moment. And the Frozen jokes were great. New for this year were some meta jokes about the stores in the mall. So incredibly funny! Poor Blockbuster haha. Do yourself a favor and sit down for a heaping helping of laughter and merriment as Clyde and Seamore Countdown to Christmas!

Winter Wonderland on Ice returns this year! Arrive early for the preshow! Enjoy the beauty of the violin as a fantastically talented violinist plays Christmas music as you wait for the show to begin. Much like the Christmas on Ice show at Busch Gardens, this show features many talented figure skaters in beautifully choreographed skating numbers to your favorite Christmas songs. To be honest, I still prefer the Busch Gardens show, but those skaters are at the park year-round so they can put more time into the show design. That being said, with SeaWorld placing the show on the water’s edge, the exquisite Sea of Trees can be seen behind the ice stage. Since the show is outdoors, SeaWorld is able to integrate some lite pyrotechnics in the show! As a figure skating hobbiest, I have a high degree of appreciation for these shows. I love watching the movements and picking out the ones that I am able to do! Note: I still have a long way to go haha. Bayside Stadium is packed for this show, so make sure to arrive early.

The Christmas Village at Port of Entry is always a treat! With special a’cappella groups, the Christmas village train set, and of course, you can meet Rudolph and Friends! This is the area where you can also enjoy hot chocolate, eggnog, craft beer, and cookies! Located near the Christmas Village is Santa’s Base Camp where you can meet the big man himself. With many places to sit down and relax, this is a great place to slow down and take in the smells and songs that make this “the most wonderful time of the year.” I came across the most adorable plushies, once of which is a promotional item! I saw a Shamu with a Santa hat and a Santa Sloth!! There is also a hedgehog and other cuddly plushy animals that will be hard to resist.

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW him!

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“First Man” full film review

A solidly good film eclipsed by a star that was born last week. While there have been many movies and documentaries about the space race of the mid 20th century, including the amazing Hidden Figures, this is the first film to truly take us behind NASA and into the very home of the American hero astronaut Neil Armstrong. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not just another film that tells the story of earth to the moon using familiar events, characters, or archival footage, but instead, it takes us behind the headlines to vicariously experience what it was like for Niel and his family on this and other dangerous missions. This is not a film about the US Apollo mission to the moon nor is it about how NASA had to push through major public negative criticism of its money-sucking endeavors; it is about the hero’s journey. And our hero is Neil Armstrong. As I do not want to spend time on that ridiculous flag controversy, I will summarize that element of the film. The flag IS there at the landing site and there are plenty of flags and references to the United Staes in the film–there–moving on. When it comes to a Chazelle film, I expect a strong screenplay to serve as the foundation upon which the visual elements are build. Unfortunately, Chazelle did not write this film and it shows. It suffers from a weak screenplay that has repercussions felt through the movie. Some critics have been writing about the strong emotional tug in the movie, but I did not feel it. I also feel that Gosling was not at the top of his game, compared to past performances. First Man is all around good, and I hope for nominations for it! It’s just not as strong as I had hoped the next Chazelle film would be. Compared to A Star is BornFirst Man is not as strong and I imagine the popularity of this week’s Halloween will also cast a shadow on this riveting story.

Before Neil Armstrong uttered his now famous words when he stepped foot on the moon, he first had get there. But he had to endure a lot more than just training for the Gemini and Apollo missions in order to be the first man on the moon. More than previous films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 also about critical space missions, this one practically places you in the cockpit for a first person journey from earth to the moon. You will be taken back by the sheer number of personal and professional tragedies to befall Armstrong; and furthermore, you’ll feel the vibrations of the rocket, the out of control spinning, and the moments where you are on the cliff facing death. Follow Neil and his family on this turbulent drama that takes the fascination with and mind-blowing nature of the cockpit and turn it into an image and confinement to dread for it feels more like a death trap than the bridge of forging a new frontier.

This is a drama, not an action movie. So if you are searching for a space adventure, then this is not a film for you. But if you want to learn more about the first man on the moon, what he went through personally and professionally and feel what he felt, then this is a film for you. Incredible opening scene! Hitchcock once stated that a writer or director needs to drop the audience into the middle of the action in order to instantly hook them into the story. One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting is to start each scene as close to the end of the scene as possible in order to write leanly and effectively. That is precisely what awaits you at the beginning of First Man. No ramping up to conflict here; you are in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong as he is testing an aircraft when the ship begins to drift closer to space instead of returning to the ground. This opening scene is one of the most incredible ones that I have seen in a long time. Heart pounding. Demonstrating his mastery of visual storytelling, Chazelle crafts an opening scene that thrusts you into a gritty, visceral journey that will leave you breathless. As intense as this scene is, there are man others in the film that will place you at the brink of death and destruction in an effort to puncture a hole into what is possible with the fledgling space program.

On the heels of that incredibly intense scene, Chazelle takes us to a hospital where Neil daughter Karen is undergoing radiation therapy for her tumor. In an attempt to channel Pixar-like storytelling for the opening of a film, we quickly follow the family from the hospital to a funeral for a fellow pilot, at which his daughter is playing, to Neil battling insurance companies and doctors over the phone to an intimate father-daughter moment to lowering Karen’s casket in the ground. As emotional as this opening sequence is, it falls short of where it needed to be in order to truly evoke the strong emotion for which the film was going. Compared to watching A Star is Born the week prior, I was not feeling as strong an emotional connection to these characters to justify how I was supposed to feel after these scenes. Audiences were not given sufficient time to connect with the characters in order to feel the heartache intended to be felt during and after the funeral. It was sad for sure, but not devastating. That being said, it is entirely possible that audience members who have children may have felt the heart-wrenching moment differently because of knowing what it’s like to have a child. It is evident that Chazelle did not write this film because the screenplay is on the weaker side. Now, I am not suggesting the story is weak compared to most films. On the contrary, it is much stronger than many other films; however, compared to what I expect from Chazelle, it is weaker than Whiplash and La La Land.

The screenplay contains three stories. The A story is Neil Armstrong’s personal journey, the B story is Neil’s relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and the C story is his career at NASA. There is clearly a desperate attempt to link the tragedy of Neil’s daughter to his hell-bent nature to constantly take himself close to death, putting his family and marriage under immense strain. With the tragedy of Karen not sufficiently setup and rushed through, it is hard to connect it to the rest of the movie. The film wants audiences to believe that dangerous missions are Neil’s coping mechanisms to deal with the death of his daughter, but there just isn’t enough evidence in the film support that. I see Chazelle’s desire to link Karen’s death to Neil’s desire to put himself and his family in physiological and emotional harm’s way. In terms of the character development of Neil, the stoic behavior, monosyllabic responses, countless moments of silence, and machismo become repetitive and boring. Although he certainly battles inner demons and real-world obstacles in order to eventually reach the moon, I don’t witness inner character development throughout the screenplay. Neil, at the end of the story, is pretty much the same Neil we meet at the beginning. While we are witness to the strife in his marriage to Janet, that relationship goes no where as well. There is simply no character arc or growth in this film. And that is what hinders this screenplay from being great.

Perhaps the film was built upon a weak screenplay, but there is quite a lot to like about it! Much like Interstellar was showered with nominations and wins in the technical categories, First Man will likely also see nominations for score, sound, editing, cinematography and more. From a technical achievement perspective, this film is incredible to behold. If you have the opportunity to watch the film in IMAX, then that is definitely what you want to do for the full, immersive experience. When you cannot pick out the score, that is often the park of a brilliantly diegetic score that seamlessly integrates into the film. There is a highly emotional component to the score that enhances the screenplay and picks up where the screenplay felt off in order to evoke that emotional response. I absolutely loved the cinematography. Much like the score, the cinematography felt so incredibly natural, so organic. Whether the camera is providing me with a subjective or objective POV, it frames each shot perfectly to communicate the tension and suspense. All around, Chazelle takes all the elements (except the screenplay) of the film and combines them for a solidly good film.

Some quick notes on the performances, I found that Gosling delivered an above average performance. And that’s above average for him, not compared to the litany of other actors. Obviously, compared to other actors, he is at the top of his game. But I feel that he is stronger in La La Land. And the reason for this performance that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me can be traced back to the screenplay. I’ve no doubt that he will be nominated–and he should–but I’ve little confidence that he will win. Claire Foy’s performance of as Janet Armstrong is fantastic! She will most likely also see a nomination for her role as the wife of the first man on the moon. She was incredibly strong, determined, and loyal. She demonstrates a stronger character growth arc than Gosling. The screenplay appears to have developed her character more effectively than his. Compared to the other performances in the film, hers is the most standout.

Definitely see this film. Just because it suffers from a weak screenplay does not mean that it doesn’t have a lot of offer. I greatly appreciate this film for taking us on an intimate journey with the Armstrong family. This is a story that has not been told on screen before and truly shows us the personal and professional links that Neil Armstrong went to in order to stand on the moon and announce to the world “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII Full Review

What an opening weekend! This past weekend saw the grand opening of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 28, and it has got to be the busiest weekend that I can remember in the last several years. Headlining this year’s HHN is Stranger Things and Poltergeist followed by eight other licensed and original IP houses. Boasting more houses than ever, HHN28 has got to be one of the best years yet. Although there is some disagreement on whether Stranger Things or Poltergeist is the best IP house or Slaughter Sinema or Scary Tales is the best original house this year, there is little (if any) disagreement on the level of attendance reaching epic proportions! Wait times for Stranger Things reached 150mins, and many other houses also had extreme wait times. Often, opening weekend tends to be less busy than the following weekends, but HHN fans were turning out in droves to attend Friday and/or Saturday nights. The energy level was incredible! Fans from all different age groups were all excited to enter the gates as the theme music from Stranger Things, Halloween, and Poltergeist filled the air. Armed with my Express Pass for Friday night and Rush of Fear HHN ticket, I was excited to meet up with my annual HHN crew for a night of frights and fun set to the beat of 1980s music and horror. One might even go so far as to say that this year’s HHN is an entertaining love letter to everything we loved about the 80s.

Prior to arriving at the archway, I just had get to the park. A lot easier said than done. There were so many horror fiends heading to HHN that the exit ramp from the 4 to the park was backed up to the driving lane. Not to mention the 40mph traffic all along I-4EB for miles and miles that I drove through. Once I finally got to the auto toll plaza for parking, I thought everything would move a little more smoothly. Nope. Although each of the toll booth holds two team members, from what I could tell, each booth had ONE–yes one–team member. After I finally parked, I looked at my watch and realized that nearly 45mins past from the exit ramp to the parking spot. Tip to Universal: please fully staff the booths to move cars through the plaza more efficiently. Once I made it to the archway, I had to pickup my tickets from the will-call kiosk. And just like usual, at the kiosk, neither liked my QR code nor my confirmation number. I encounter this problem every year. Any tips from those of you who do not have problems with the kiosk would be appreciated!

Finally, I was at HHN! Phew, what a process. But it was all worth it! One of my favorite things to observe is the variety of horror graphic T’s. So many different horror movies and fandoms represented. There is truly a sense of community at HHN. Maybe you don’t think about that at first because of the long standby (and even Express) wait times this year; but for those of us who love horror, this is the time of year (and the event) that we feel that we are not weird as characterized by popular culture at large. Even before I arrived, I had many fellow #FilmTwitter #Tweeps who hoped to see me, and I them, at the event. Unfortunately, I didn’t run into any of my Twitter followers at HHN this year, but I had a lot of fun following them, and reading what they thought about the different houses. Even though I did not end up meeting up with any of those I follow (or follow me) on Twitter, I felt connected to them through exchanging comments as we were all experiencing HHN at the same time. What I would like to see emerge from the Twitter and blogging communities as well as the #PodernFamily (podcasters) is to make an effort to connect in person as much as digitally. Perhaps many of us are covering HHN for our various media outlets; but at the end of the day, we are all there to have fun and should exhibit that same sense of community in person as we do through social media. Be social in real life!

(Twisted Tater has sense been added to the event)

Before I get into my brief review of each house, there is one other item of mention that I greatly missed at this year’s HHN. Twisted Tater. Yes. That spirally, starchy, fried goodness that has been a staple of HHN for what seems like forever. It was nowhere to be found. At least, I never found it nor did I see anyone post about it. Thankfully, my friend Dani and I had Twited Tater back during Mardi Gras, but we were both saddened that it was not part of HHN this year. Speaking of food, I do not feel that the selection of HHN food was as strong this year as it has been in the past. Yes, that Stranger Things cookie-like treat was popular on social media, but most of the HHN food seemed to skew towards sweets moreso than savory or starchy. In the future, aside from Twisted Tater returning, a nice balance of foods for any fix that an HHN guest may have, should be added. Oh yeah, Pizza-dogs need to return too! The fries just don’t do it. Speaking of fries, fresh cut fries would be a great addition to the food lineup!

Although it’s the houses that typically get the most attention running up to and during the event, after last year’s success of the elaborately immersive Trick ‘r Treat scare zone, the scare zones have begun to get an increased level of attention. Like with last year’s Trick ‘r Treat, it stands to reason that scare zones can definitely be used as a testing ground for future houses. The concept of testing an IP or concept for a house in a scare zone the previous year is not new, but it seems to be becoming more of the case over the last couple years. Scare zones this year are: The Harvest, Vamp ’85, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Twisted Traditions, Revenge of Chucky, and I also count the annual chainsaw wielding clowns in Springfield.

The Harvest: Here you’ll encounter all the horrors you have ever feared were in your grandparents’ barn. I feel that this scare zone was a little weak compared to what is typically in this same area, but still a fun scare zone to get you in the mood for your night of horror. One of the best parts of the scare zone are the variety and amount of jack-o-lanterns! They are everywhere. It feels very much like Halloween!

Vamp ’85: Ring in the new year with 1980s vampires and music! Loved the small stage show! With many of the houses having roots in the 80s, this zone worked extremely well to continue that immersive love letter to the 1980s. Make sure to stay for the countdown but watch out for big haired vampires in flashy clothes!

Killer Clowns from Outer Space: My pick for favorite scare zone! Absolutely loved this scare zone, and I know you will to. Based on the cult classic, this scare zone has the best costumes and atmosphere. It successfully strikes that balance between horror and comedy, and works as a fun way to cleanse the pallet from the much darker areas of the rest of the park.

Twisted Traditions: Best part of this scare zone is the creepy church building! I walked though this scare zone a couple times, but unfortunately, I never felt that it actually accomplished what it set out to do. Only the church building is memorable. Couldn’t name one unique costume.

Revenge of Chucky: I was pretty hyped for this scare zone because I like the movies so much, but it was a bit disappointing. However, the interactive Good Guys display with Chucky was great! And that man baby you’ve probably seen on Twitter of IG was truly disturbing. I think it could have used a little more scare factor. Maybe even a Chucky jumping out at guests or something. It was okay, just not quite what I expected.

Now for what you really want to know about–the houses!

GET THE EXPRESS PASS even if just for one night, which is what I did. It is definitely worth the cost.

Poltergeist: MY FAVORITE HOUSE at HHN28! Such a successful translation from screen to live experience. All the moments from the movie that you want to see and experience are there! I wonder if real skeletons were used in the HHN house like in the movie, hence the curse and lore that follows Hooper and Spielberg’s movie to this day. You start in the back of the house in the pool then make your way through the infamous suburban home. The scares are perfectly effective and the production design is right out of the movie.

Stranger Things: This is likely the house that you may be looking forward to experiencing the most, as it is the other headliner house this year. The demogorgon will chase you throughout the house. All the scenes and locations from the show that you want to see are in the HHN28 house. And the lighting and special effects are spot on. From the living room with the Christmas lights to the Upside Dows, you will feel completely immersed in the world of Hawkins! The only negative criticism I have is the lack of live cast members. Yes, much has to do with an inability to cast kids in a house, but the absence was noticeable.

Halloween 4: With the highly anticipated Halloween (2018) releasing next month, Michael Myers once again returns to HHN! This is the third Michael house in the last few years with Halloween 1 and 2 with 3 being skipped since Michael is not actually in it. It’s a fun house for sure! And you get lots and lots of Michael. It’s been a while since I’ve seen H4; but from what I remember, this house does capture many scenes and elements of the movie. However, ultimately I feel that this house feels like more of a Michael Myers tribute than a “Halloween 4” house. This may be the case because HHN will be going on a Michael break for a while.

Trick ‘r Treat: In short, it works better as a scare zone than a house. That being said, it’s still a solid house with many of the scenes you want to see recreated. You’ll encounter Sam several times and you’ll get to see some of your favorite kills from the movie.

The Horrors of Blumhouse: If you need to skip a house for the sake of time, skip this one. Better than last year, but still (and according to most polls and reviews I’ve seen on Twitter) the least liked house at HHN28. At this house, you walk through Happy Death Day and First Purge. HDD was repetitive. Yes, I realize that is the point because the movie is a twisted Groundhog Day, but as a house it gets old quickly. And then The Purge movies just don’t translate well to a house, with the exception of the first one, which was more of a home invasion.

Scary Tales: My pick for best original house! From the moment you enter the Wicked Witch’s castle as she flies overhead, you will be completely immersed in the absolutely impressive production design that works perfectly around every corner. Each and every fairy tale was twisted beautifully. The effects were fantastic and the attention to detail was unlike anything I’ve seen in an original house before. What I find most interesting about the experience is that this house actually gets back to the original idea behind these tales in that most fairy tales were darkly cautionary stories told to influence a child’s behavior. Many are quite scary! So, this feels like an exaggerated version of how these tales were received back when originally written.

Slaughter Sinema: Close runner up to Scary Tales. Ever wanted to visit the world of those schlocky horror films of the 1980s??? Now is your opportunity to get inside the screen. Such a great house! While waiting in queue, you’ll get to watch trailers of some terrible, great horror movies. My personal favorite is Attack of the Swamp Yeti. The movies are so bad that I want to see each of them. Too bad that they are completely made up for this event. You’ll enter this house through an old drive in movie theatre then walk through each of the movies. There are some excellent kills and the production design is impressive!

Seeds of Extinction: Life after people! Visit an Arizona that is overrun by predatory plants and see you as their next dinner. A post-apocalyptic house is not entirely new, but this is a new twist on a past concept. We are used to being chased by zombies or creatures, but now you must fear plants. Some will eat you whole and others will shoot you with poisonous darts like the plants in Jumanji.

Carnival Graveyard: What is more terrifying than an abandoned carnival inhabited by hillbillies and killer clowns? Not much, haha. This house successfully combines the best of circus and hillbilly horror for one nightmarish house. Of all the original houses, this one is probably the most detailed. Even more than Scary Tales. The scares are so good! I like how the characters are extensions of the setting itself instead of feeling like their are just stuck in there to frighten us.

Dead Exposure: Ehh. This is a concept that has been done before, and like before, it fails to ever be truly scary. The idea is that you have been given an inoculation to prevent you from turning into a zombie after an outbreak at a facility. This shot is said to have nasty side effects such as disorientation. And on that, the house delivers in spades. The lighting design and special effects were so disorienting that I legitimately had trouble walking around to the point that is was annoying and not playful.

I did not experience Academy of Villains. And that is by choice. I felt like Harry Potter talking to Snape when he exclaims “how dare you stand where he stood…” That is how I felt because it’s now located in the stadium where Bill & Ted used to be. A horror comedy show that is built upon satire and parody is missing from the HHN28 lineup. If for no other reason, this show served as a means to take a break from the macabre and cleanse the pallet for more frights! I hope to see a show along these lines return one day.

Well, there you have it folks! A comprehensive review of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII. You definitely need to get out to HHN while it is going on. Fortunately for you, it just opened so you have several more weeks of HHN on select nights. With a variety of tickets and passes to choose from, there is a ticket for nearly every budget. If you can only go one night, I highly recommend getting the Express Pass. Otherwise, you may only make it to 2-3 or at the most 4 houses during your night.

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