This past weekend, the Springfield section of Universal Studio Orlando opened up additional new sections, revealing still more food and drink options, amid highly themed decorative elements.

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Universal has been on something of a streak lately, opening up attraction after attraction much faster than its competition in Orlando, and they have added to the already-expanded Springfield (Simpsons) area with a second set of dining options across the walkway. There is still more to come, when the alien-themed spinner ride opens up soon just next door, perfecting a mini-land where previously this part of the park had but a single ride, a single shop, and a single food court, all disconnected from each other.

First came the simulator, moving from Back to the Future over to The Simpsons. That was a few years ago. Then came the nearby shop, which transformed into the Kwik-E-Mart (a logical enough choice). This year has seen the blizzard of new stuff–the International Food Court shut down to make way for a more highly-themed replacement. Still a food court, this one has all the trappings of Simpsons characters and locations when you’re on the inside, and inviting themed facades on the outside. Now there’s a real Moe’s Tavern where you can, in fact, drink Duff Beer!

Joining Moe’s Tavern, Krustyburger, and all the other food is this weekend’s new offerings: smaller locations across the walkway in the form of a taco truck, a donut shop, an outdoor beer garden, and a smaller outdoor merchandise location.

The taco truck is themed to the smaller character, and the devil-may-care attitude you associate with the Simpsons is on display here, too, for there’s probably an element of racism in the depiction of the Spanish-speaking character as seen on television. Will his inclusion in the theme park, despite no obvious connection to the racism of the show, be a problem for the park? Time will tell, but the Simpsons have never shied away from cutting humor.

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More critical for the average visitor will be the taste. Here, alas, I found the product wanting. I desperately desired to enjoy the tacos. I like tacos in general and the promise of Korean tacos was even more mouth-watering. There’s a food truck here in Orlando that dishes up Korean tacos to die for (at about $3 each). Unfortunately, the ones are Universal cost more and taste less. They’re not taste-FREE entirely, but the dish is served with a lot of vegetables and it looks like it ought to be delicious. It’s mostly just kind of there, an after-image of Korean spices rather than any real zing. There’s no complexity to this taste, and that’s a shame.

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I didn’t try the donuts, nor did I sit down at Duff Gardens. I’ve previously sampled a Duff beer (not bad, not great) and will probably sometime soon drink the Buzz Cola they keep advertising, so of course I’ll be back.

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Mostly I was marveling that they had the foresight to include actual decorations. They didn’t just theme the buildings, they themed them WELL. And they didn’t stop there. The Duff Gardens could have worked fine without beer bottle guys out front, but Uni knows that everyone wants to take a photo with Surly (the Duff beer guys are like the seven dwarfs but with different attitudes. I have always thought the Simpsons was a perfect fit for Universal).

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They didn’t stop there, either. They added a photo opp with a statue of Chief Wiggum, who crashed his police car into a fire hydrant. All of that cost money, but they guessed – correctly – that these would be real crowd-pleasers.

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Everyone’s taking a photo! It’s funny how you can go super-high-tech (Disney and its NextGen/MyMagic/FastPass+ stuff leaps to mind) but at the end of the day, an awful lot of theme park visitors just want to hang out in immersive environments that are fun and familiar. And take pictures of decidedly low-tech statues.

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Book Review: Disneylanders

If you’re a certain kind of Disney fan, this book (I was sent a review copy) will feel less like a novel and more like a novelization. You’ll think you are reading a transcription of events that actually happened to you. Well, maybe not the complete story. But elements of this tale will reverberate for you like few other works of fiction. Why? Because it takes place in Disneyland, and there’s an honesty… an EARNESTNESS, really, to the events, emotions, and inner dialog to this book that all of us who grew up at Disneyland likely felt.

It’s a fictional story of a young girl about to start high school, dragged along with her parents to Disneyland for the millionth time. Our heroine Casey loves Disneyland, and the Disney fan in you will rejoice in her appreciation for Gurr-mobiles, the Skyway buckets long missed in the Matterhorn, and such park minutiae. But it’s not artificially injected. The park love oozes out of a more conventional story about a girl on a first date at Disneyland – made at Disneyland, in fact – and this drama drives the story forward.

It’s ultimately not the story of the girl and her crush, but I won’t spoil the ending for you. Suffice to say, it resonated with me, despite my situation differing a bit (I am, after all, male, unlike the main character, and I don’t have the memories of bra strap drama that the author seems to have experienced herself growing up). The emotional payoff of the story is more universal than that.

It helps that there is a bit of a refrain about the nature of Disneyland here. Why should we care about this fakeness and plastic reality? We do care, it turns out, for lots of reasons related to why we are human in the end analysis… still more tied up with the emotional denouement of the book.

But for all the universality of the book’s message, keep in mind that it reads in many ways like a youth novel (written for young adults). I still found it an enjoyable read, though a quick one. And my inner Disney geek cheered mightily at the lengthy discoure about the stretching portraits in the Haunted Mansion. This is every bit the kind of rhapsodizing that frequent visitors to Disney parks do, and if you’re one of them, this will hit home for you, as does the book in a thousand other ways. Usually in a more “hit and run” fashion, in the service of the larger drama of the storyline. A Disney fan will recognize a lot of truth in the story, and there’s not even much to quibble about (except, possibly, the giving out of a handstamp at the exit turnstiles after the park has closed for the day).

It’s probably the most successful novelization I’ve read yet that uses the Disney parks as a backdrop, and that’s mostly because it trusts the audience to be smart, informed Disney fans. This is not written for the “mass audience” who needs to be told that Splash Mountain is a log ride. It invokes Gurr-mobiles without further explanation, for goodness sakes. That alone should tell you what kind of tone we’re dealing with here.

More information and updates

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History. Readers are invited to connect with him online and face to face at the following locations: