Every year the tough deciding arises: which to choose? Rock The Universe (RTU) or Night of Joy? Both are in Orlando, FL; both are held on the same weekend. But in most cases, the artistic lineup at RTU is arguably the stronger of the two. 2012 was no exception.
Things change a little bit every year too. In 2008, it was the placement of the main stage, AKA "Music Plaza Stage". Last year, it was the addition of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster behind Music Plaza. This year, it was expansive construction in two areas of the park that made foot traffic more congested. Earlier in 2012, Universal closed down their classic JAWS ride and the surrounding buildings and stores for a secretive new project. However, a quick Googling of the closing reveals the apparent plans of expanding the Harry Potter attraction from Islands of Adventure into Universal Studios, which may also join the two parks. Another change is located adjacent to the Hollywood Stage where a big stage building was demolished and mysterious fencing was erected around a construction site. While no one at the park seems to know what they're building, rumor on the web is that the popular Transformers ride at Universal in California is being built in FL for a late 2013 opening. Confirmation has yet to be given for both rumored projects, however.
Another change, for the better, is the relocation of the Fan Zone Stage to a street corner as opposed to a street alley. It allows for bigger crowds and heightened visibility. It was moved to right outside the old Ghostbusters firehouse facade (the facade is left over from the old attraction which was replaced with the Twister attraction in the late 90s) next to the Twister and Mummy rides. Honestly, I hadn't tried watching a show at the Fan Zone stage while someone played over at Music Plaza, so I don't know if there was a battle over sound volume, but it still seemed like a location improvement.
One of the best parts about Rock The Universe is being able to visit both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure during the day and then going to the concerts at night. Granted, that can be pretty exhausting because it involves a lot of walking around in the intense heat and humidity, but let's face it; fun comes at a price. And it's always worth it. The basic RTU ticket only covers the concert event at night for Friday and Saturday, with admittance into Universal Studios only beginning at about 4:00PM. Those tickets do not include admittance to the Islands park. So your best bet, then, is the "Rock Your Weekend" tickets which include both parks, both nights of concerts, and a worship service the following morning. You can't beat that.
Needless to say--and especially since we're located in Pennsylvania-- we always choose the entire weekend event with both park access, and we try to squeeze in all of the rides we really want to experience earlier in the day before focusing on the RTU event (which isn't easy to do, and we inevitably miss a couple each year). We hit Islands on Friday during the day and then went over to Universal Studios around 4-ish to make sure we were inside the park with plenty of time to spare. We went right for the brand new Despicable Me "Minion Mayhem" ride (admittedly, I have a strange soft spot for those hilarious gibberish-spewing little yellow guys) and did that first. "Minion Mayhem" had replaced the Jimmy Neutron ride, which we'd always passed by in exchange for other attractions, so I can't really compare it to its former experience. However, you do enter the building, are treated to a waiting room with a video of Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) and the minions talking about "minion-izing" the audience, and then after that, you're ushered into large bench-style seating with lap bars, sort of like an open version of the cars in the former Back To the Future and now Simpsons ride. The seats you're in then rise up slightly, move up and down and forward and backward, tossing those in their seats around in sync with what's going on on screen (which is in 3D). The end result is much like that aforementioned Simpsons ride, but definitely in a smoother, less nausea-inducing manner. Overall, I didn't love the ride, but I found it to be pretty fun and cute. I'd definitely check it out again (whereas the Simpsons ride made me feel quite queasy and I will probably never ride it more than the first time I did).
The downside to an outdoor festival in Florida is rain. And lots of it. Each year, you can pretty much count on there being some substantial rainfall in Orlando every day. This time, on Friday, the rain started up around 7ish and didn't let up for quite a while. I'd wanted to watch for King & Country over at Music Plaza (7:30pm), but decided to stay inside the enclosed Starbucks near the Hollywood Stage to grab some much-needed downtime while the skies unleashed their fluid fury. Pop artist Robert Pierre opened the Hollywood Stage at 7pm, while the festival's first act had been new Word Records signing Everfound on the Fan Zone Stage at 6:30. While we'd missed all of those performers (sorry, folks), we ventured into the tapering off drizzle to find a spot within the Hollywood Stage audience to prepare for Family Force 5's 8:15 show (which got off the ground just a couple minutes late). We've seen the band perform that stage a couple times now, but this may have been their best set at the Hollywood Stage yet. Surprisingly, they kicked off with their new song "Zombie" (a song that I've even heard playing in the clothing store, Tilly's), and followed it with the old school FF5 fan favorite, "Kountry Gentlemen." The band members were all wearing their own custom-made patriotic "CRAY" tank tops, themed for their electronic song "Cray Button." But they wouldn't play that particular song until near the end of the set. Front man Solomon Olds showed the audience how to move to the band's own dance song "Wobble," before encouraging all the "ugly people" to "put your hands down!" for another party song, "Put UR Hands Up." "Paycheck" was next, and it seemed apparent that Soli was struggling just a bit with a more hoarse voice than usual. But even with a little hoarseness in his voice, he still performed well, and it didn't slow him down from being energetic on stage. "Supersonic, "Radiatior," "Dance Or Die," "Can You Feel It" (which Soli announced was used in the movie Battleship, although he hadn't seen it for himself as of yet), and "Ghost Ride The Whip" all followed. Then with a clip from C&C Music Factory's "I've Got The Power," they launched into the frenetic "Earthquake" before Solomon donned his customized Hulk movie gloves for "Love Addict" (That still hasn't gotten old). "Fever" kept the energy going before Solomon stopped to introduce their closer. With a patriotic salute, and news that a music video is coming out for it, the guys performed the dance theme "Cray Button" and wrapped up their set. Bass player Josh Olds then led the audience in prayer and gave somewhat of a salvation message before Solomon decided to lead the audience in their acoustic worship song "Superhero." It was a great way to wrap up their set with a focus on why we were all gathered for RTU in the first place.
As the audience cleared out to go watch Jeremy Camp perform at the Music Plaza Stage for his 9:00PM set (Jason Castro had preceded him with an inspirational message), we decided to stay at the Hollywood Stage and moved forward in the crowd toward the front. Staying at the stage you first plant yourself at earlier in the night is really the only way to ensure a decent viewing point from the crowd to the stage. For example, those who come to a show on the later side, will most likely be met with incredible crowd traffic and be stuck at the back or off to the side of the massive audience. Unless you're incredibly rude and shove your way through the crowd (which is not recommended), you probably won't get anywhere near the stage if you arrive there late. We wanted to watch Skillet's 10:45PM set, but also see some of Newsboys, so it made most sense to not even bother leaving the crowd to attempt to see some of Jeremy's set before those. We waited around in the crowd after FF5 for Newsboys to start, and they kicked off their worship-centric set with "Escape," from their first album with Michael Tait on vocals, Born Again. The foursome had emerged dressed in matching black suits with red shirts and black ties. The guys looked super classy in the process. "Escape" was followed by "Something Beautiful," from the album Go, which had featured Peter Furler's vocals. It's still bittersweet to hear any of Peter's songs sung by the former dc Talk member. "The King Is Coming," from their most recent all-worship album, God's Not Dead was next. "Your Love Never Fails" followed as well, along with "Here We Stand." Tait's vocals sound excellent and these worship covers never sounded better, but it still feels odd for a band with such a huge catalog of their own music to spend most of their time covering other artists' work these days (So, while they try not to sound like 'Newsboys Karaoke' by having Tait sing the old Newsboys songs, it somehow is better for them to sing a whole lot of other people's songs instead?). But it works great in a live setting if the band is aiming for more of a worship service, and appropriately so they inserted one of the band's oldies "He Reigns," from the Thrive days, to mix it up a bit. The old hymn "Nothing But The Blood" was next, to which Tait lead the audience with no musical accompaniment at one point, and then they broke out some of their own material with "Born Again" and "Save Your Life." It was at that point, as it neared 10:45, that we decided to depart from the Hollywood Stage and venture over to the other stage to see Skillet. As we walked away, Michael and the Newsboys teased the audience with a line or two from "Shine" and then "Breakfast," before breaking into dc Talk's "Jesus Freak."
The crowd gathered at the Music Plaza Stage was impressive. The unreasonable structuring of metal fences around and inside the Music Plaza audience made it nearly impossible to navigate the audience. And with it being completely dark outside by this time, with just the stage and surrounding attraction lights to illuminate the way, it was especially difficult (heck, it's tough to navigate those dang fences in the daylight!). We worked our way about as close as we could get before the crowd got too dense and parked ourselves for the duration of Skillet's set. Since it's been three years since the release of their last new album, Awake, their set was pretty much the same list of songs they've been playing for a while now, but that didn't make it any less fun or exciting. With a big curtain bearing the band's name serving as a backdrop, there was a violin and cello duet of sorts that preceded the curtain being removed to unveil the band's full performance of "Whispers in the Dark," complete with pyrotechnics. "Better than Drugs" and "Hero" followed the hard-hitting songs, and then Korey Cooper provided an electronic vocal intro for "Comatose." At this point, her husband and front man/bassist John Cooper provided a brief message about the daily spiritual warfare going on for our souls, which lead appropriately into "Awake and Alive." The heavier tone of the songs and set then lightened up tremendously for the retrospective "Those Nights." And, like with each Skillet show when this song is performed, Cooper got out his handheld video camera to ask the audience to "Say hello to YouTube!" The moderately cheesy "It's Not Me, It's You" from Awake then preceded the much more serious "The Last Night," a song inspired by a girl who had been contemplating suicide. Interestingly enough, I think the first time I'd ever heard that song live was at a Rock The Universe set when Skillet performed an early evening show to a very small crowd on the Music Plaza Stage. It's amazing to see how much bigger their audience--and their show--has grown in recent years. The band's guitarist, Seth Morrison, then performed an attention-grabbing guitar solo, followed by drummer Jen Ledger's own solo performance (complete with rising drum platform and light show). It was a great moment in the set. "Savior," the lone selection from their album Collide, was next, with the ballad "Lucy" close behind. We then took this opportunity to survey our late night "dinner" options and left the stage area to walk around the park. Looking back, I assume they performed an encore that included "Monster," complete with the creepy stage set up they've been using for a while now.
Usually the music is over before or around midnight, and the park stays open until 1:00AM, allowing music fans to still get some time riding rides (or standing in their respective lines) before officially calling it a night. And with the close of Skillet's set was the end of the first night at Rock The Universe 2012.
We had chosen Saturday as our day to spend at Universal Studios, but we also had decided (for the first time ever in our RTU-going years) to re-visit Islands first to ride the popular Jurassic Park River Adventure ride. It's one of our favorites, but you're likely to exit the ride completely drenched, and we hadn't wanted to spend our Friday evening soaked to the shorts. Unfortunately, we ended up with the misfortune of riding in the front row of our boat on the Jurassic Park ride, and we exited the attraction sopping wet. After catching an attraction or two more, finding a bite to eat, and realizing we weren't any drier than we were when we got off the ride, we decided to return to our hotel for a change of clothes (So, remember kids, pack extra clothes!...or bring a poncho).
We got to Universal Studios around the same time that RTU-goers were starting to check in. We began making the rounds to a few rides we wanted to go on--quickly hopping from Twister to The Mummy to Men In Black to E.T., and then got ready to spend the rest of our day watching great music. After grabbing a bite to eat, I ran over to Music Plaza to watch the final moments of Rhett Walker Band's set. I really only caught his closing song, the title track from his debut Come To The River. As I had been walking over to Music Plaza to catch Walker's set, I'd passed by the Fan Zone Stage where Everfound was finishing up their set as well. I did't see enough to get a feel for the band, who I'd been completely unfamiliar with, but they seemed very focused on worship, and had closed their set in a passionate praise moment. After the two sets had finished, I made my way over to Hollywood Stage where Group 1 Crew had begun performing. The former trio, now duo, had a full band with them, along with a group of female dancers who came out to jam with the group for some songs. The dancers seemed to range from pre-teens to adulthood, which was a slightly odd assortment, but they added to the energy on stage for sure. When I got to the Hollywood Stage area, they were performing the classic tune "Celebration" ("Celebrate good times"), which was followed by their own tune, "Live It Up" (for which the dancers came out for and Manny tried to teach the audience how to "gangster step"). "Dangerous" was then followed by Blanca's talk about beauty before playing "Beautiful" from Outta Space Love. Their radio hit "He Said" was next, and then Manny talked a bit about their brand new studio album, Fearless, which was releasing on Monday but they'd already had copies on sale at the festival. With that, they began "His Kind of Love," the opener from Fearless.
At this point, we decided to mix it up a bit and went over to Music Plaza, where Britt Nicole was performing, to catch some of her set. We arrived at the stage just in time to hear her perform "World On Fire" with her live band, followed by "Ready Or Not" from her latest studio album, Gold. Her power pop set was a good one, and we then took a moment to catch the Terminator 2 3-D show before TobyMac's 8:30PM set at that stage. However, we were stuck pretty far in the back of the audience, and it was really difficult to get anywhere remotely near the stage (hence no photos included here. I tried, though! For a full set of up-close-and-personal photos of Toby's set a week later, check out our Uprise 2012 review...coming soon). TobyMac and his Diverse City Band were right at home on the big Music Plaza Stage. DJ Maj's DJ riser was gigantic, towering the mix master high above the stage, displaying a screen that displayed random images (including a camera right in front of Maj) as he performed. Despite having a brand new studio album out, Eye On It, which had just debuted number one on the Billboard charts across the country, Toby and his team hadn't quite adapted their set yet for the new songs. But TobyMac performed "Tonight," followed by "Catchafire," while we were trying to navigate the streets around the audience to get closer. We then just gave up and found a spot to park ourselves for a chunk of his set. "Lose My Soul" preceded Toby talking about his wife's Jamaican heritage giving him a pass for putting a Jamaica flavor in his music. He then performed "Break Open The Sky" before returning to his more signature hip hop/pop/rock blend with "For You" and "Diverse City." The infectious "Boomin'" was next, complete with a solo from DJ Maj, and then the poppy "One Time."
At this point, we left to go to the Hollywood Stage to find a place to watch Relient K's 9:15PM performance from. It'd felt like some time since we last saw their live show (actually, it may have been since RTU last year?), and it was interesting to note that the band had been moved from the Music Plaza Stage last year to the Hollywood Stage this year. But it is tough to compete with TobyMac and Switchfoot these days. To my surprise, the Relient K set mixed up a great deal of songs that spanned their twelve-year career. They opened with "Pressing On" from their 2001 sophomore album, The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, and then moved into their hit "Be My Escape." "Forget and Not Slow Down," the title track from their last all-new studio album was played before "Who I Am Hates Who I've Been" and "Which to Bury, Us or the Hatchet." Vocalist/guitarist/pianist Matt Thiessen then introduced a brand new song (from their forthcoming 2013 release), called "Boomerang," followed by the fan favorites "Mood Ring" and "High of 75." Another standout, "The Lining Is Silver," from the band's b-sides album, was next, followed by "Sahara" and a song I didn't recognize that was either a brand new one or a cover song. Finally, their set began to wind down with "Devastation and Reform" and the hugely popular fan favorite "Sadie Hawkins Dance." From the opening song, it was clear that the band knew who their core audience was at this show: Christian youth. While the band continues to grow and mature and want to be taken seriously along with that maturation, it was interesting to see them give in to their audience and play some of the goofier songs of their past along with their more recent material. Regardless, it was a good mix and a strong set that the audience sure seemed to love as well. Thiessen mentioned a couple times that Switchfoot would be playing soon and it was apparent that the band had aimed to end their set closer to the beginning of Switchfoot's as not to overlap too much. But by the time we'd slowly made our way over to Music Plaza, Switchfoot was already under way and was performing their The Beautiful Letdown hit, "Gone." The streets across from and neighboring the stage were loaded with onlookers. And with no other band performing at this time, the RTU attendants were either watching Switchfoot, eating at a nearby restaurant on-site or were riding rides. But the congestion of people surrounding the Music Plaza Stage was truly overwhelming. After "Gone," frontman/guitarist Jon Foreman reflected to the audience on the massiveness of the crowd, and he announced the next song as a song about grace. As they began performing "Restless," Foreman waded into the crowd and stopped way back in the middle of the audience to play the song among the fans. With his harmonica strapped around his neck, he continued with another song of grace, "Your Love Is A Song." About mid-way through the song, he walked back to the stage through the audience, continuing to sing on his way back. Foreman then talked briefly about the movie Fading West that they're currently making along with their next studio album, and proceeded to play their hit, "Dare You To Move." The band amped up the rock once again for "Mess of Me" and then leaded into "Dark Horses" with a new, quieter intro. Exhausted and knowing we'd see the band again six days later at Uprise Festival back in our home state, we decided to bow out before the evening's closing Candlelighting Ceremony to find some dinner.
With another Rock The Universe under the proverbial belt, it seems safe to say that Universal delivered another great year of the festival. While I can't say I'm much of a fan of the spontaneous rain showers or gigantic crowds with the park's poorly constructed crowd control (the intense fencing over at Hollywood Stage this year was pretty crazy too), Rock The Universe is a truly unique concert-going experience that offers a little bit of everything for everyone. If you don't want to watch a particular show, you can just ride a ride or check out an attraction. If you're not a ride person, there are all kinds of music performances available at any given time throughout the night. And then there are always non-ride attractions, eateries, snack places, a small arcade, and much more. It's a great festival to center a vacation around and it's a must for any Floridian within traveling distance! Check out www.rocktheuniverse.com for more info!-- John DiBiase, 9/23/12
Family Force 5: 8:15pm Hollywood Stage, Friday
Newsboys: 10:00pm Hollywood Stage, Friday
Skillet: 10:45pm Music Plaza Stage, Friday
Everfound: 6:00pm Fan Zone Stage, Saturday
Rhett Walker Band: 6:00pm Music Plaza Stage, Saturday
Group 1 Crew: 7:00pm Music Plaza Stage, Saturday
Britt Nicole: 8:30pm Main Stage
Relient K: 9:15pm Hollywood Stage, Saturday
Switchfoot: 10:15pm Music Plaza Stage, Saturday
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