On January 24th and 25th, Universal Studios Orlando celebrated its 23rd annual Rock the Universe festival. For those unfamiliar, the event is a two-day mini-festival that packs some of Christian music's biggest names into two nights of concerts on multiple stages. As usual, this year's line up captured big named and widely known CCM artists along with some smaller up and comers. The event features three stages spread throughout the park, but not so far apart as to keep you from making shows at each stage -- especially with the start times staggered per stage. Six artists were featured on the two main stages (three per night) and seven were featured on the smaller Fanzone Stage (four per night). The Fanzone Stage featured: WHATUPRG, Land of Color, Leanna Crawford, and DJ Promote on Friday and Wande, Caitie Hurst, Spencer Kane, and a DJ Promote reprisal on Saturday night. The Hollywood Stage, featuring the second tier of talent, saw the likes of The Afters, Tauren Wells, and Tenth Avenue North on Friday and I Am They, Unspoken, and Bethel on Saturday. Finally, the Music Plaza Stage (main stage) featured event headliners Tedashii, Newsboys United, and Switchfoot on Friday with We Are Messengers, TobyMac, and Chris Tomlin leading the shows Saturday.
While at the Universal Studios Resort for the two days, I was able to enjoy the normal park with my family from 9am to 4pm. Universal is the king of 3D and 4D motion simulator rides, and I was able to ride every single one of them between their two adjacent theme parks. The parks also have a couple of really standout roller coasters with the Incredible Hulk (touted by Michael Tait as the best in the park) and the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit that was the backdrop for the main stage. With that said, Universal is now the home of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, and everything else Potter related. Full confession: I have never read a single Harry Potter book or seen a single movie. Yeah, I'm one of those guys... However, I did find myself enjoying the Potter-themed rides and attractions despite the extremely crowded areas they were contained within. I will say that one of the best rides I've ever ridden at a park like this is the mega-popular Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. This coaster-type ride is full of surprises and typically features a wait time of two to three hours (I heard there were waits of up to six hours when it first opened) for one lap around in Hagrid's magical motorbike and side car. I won't spoil it for fans and passholders who have not ridden due to the astronomical wait times, but I will say the following: The ride isn't the fastest or most thrilling you'll ever embark upon, but it is one of the most surprising, well-crafted, and extremely fun rides you'll ever experience. It's an absolute 10/10 -- and I'm not even a fan of the series. Bravo to the engineers and creators of this one. One of the coolest things about Rock the Universe is seeing different artists roaming the park before the shows. I saw Phil Joel and Duncan Phillips getting off of the Hogwarts Express park-to-park train, Tim Foreman and Chad Butler outside of the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, Michael Tait heading towards The Incredible Hulk, and Jon Foreman hanging out near the Music Plaza Stage where he would play later in the evening. It's fun to see them all out and about enjoying the park and getting to do something a little different from their normal tour schedule.
Rock the Universe-only tickets start letting guests into the park at 4pm (non-RTU ticket holders must exit the park by 6pm), but the RTU festivities don't truly start until 6pm with the first concert. With the long days, and time with my family factored in, I personally focused on watching the main headliners -- cathing two full concerts each night with a partial set in between. While I've seen a Pete Furler=fronted Newsboys and, seperately, a Michael Tait-fronted Newsboys in concert before, I had never seen Newsboys United prior to this event. The current Newsboys roster opened the event with Michael Tait singing "The King is Coming" before going right into "Restart." Tait welcomed the attendees and talked about his day at the park before going into a string of songs. The band hit "Your Love Never Fails," "Live With Abandon, "That's How You Change the World," and "Born Again" before the show got a little more interesting. Tait unexpectedly started singing a Furler standard in "He Reigns," but after the first verse Furler and Phil Joel stormed the stage to join (with Furler taking the lead on the second verse). At this point, things switched over to Furler and Joel leading the concert. Furler opened with the Newsboys classics "Shine" and "Breakfast" before introducing Phil Joel and one his personal favorite songs, "Entertaining Angels." After Phil Joel's solo, Tait joined the crew for the United part of the set, starting with "Something Beautiful." While Tait handled member introductions, the band starting playing "Back in Black" as they were talking about Australia (the home of Peter Furler, Duncan Phillips, and AC/DC). Obviously, they didn't play the complete song, but it was pretty fun to see them jamming on the iconic lick and hearing Tait belt out the opening line before stopping the song. After playing "Love One Another," Tait took a minute to tell a story about his father and talk about the recent and unexpected death of TobyMac's son, Truett McKeehan. From there, the band went into the truly moving "We Believe" that had nearly all of the audience worshiping the Creator; it was a powerful moment. The band closed their set out by ripping through three more numbers. "Greatness of Our God," a rendition of "Jesus Freak" featuring Phil Joel on TobMac's parts, and Tait's first smash hit with the Newsboys, "God's Not Dead (Like a Lion)." While I haven't been a fan of the Tait-fronted Newsboys, the band sounded incredible and put on a very entertaining show to start my Rock the Universe concert experience.
After the Newsboys, I rushed down to the Hollywood Stage to catch Tenth Avenue North whose set was already in progress. As I joined the crowed outside of Mel's Diner, the band was playing "What You Want" from Followers. Mike Donehey and band went into a medley of sorts playing abbreviated versions of "You Are More" and "By Your Side," and included the full version of "Worn" in the mix as the songs flowed perfectly into one another. Before playing "No Shame," Mike talked to the audience about how it's alright to be hurting and that people should allow you to feel that instead of invalidating those feelings because of what God has done for us. The most touching moment of their set came when Mike stopped in the middle of one of their newest songs, "Greater Than All My Regrets," to talk about the song's meaning and his regrets of touring too much in the band's early days keeping him away from his family. It added a really nice perspective to the song and spoke to many people that have their own regrets in life. Due to the time, I had to make a quick exit while the band was in the middle of playing their 2012 hit, "Losing." Mike was his usual self and was very entertaining to watch as he did numerous stupid (his words) dances during the show.
Friday night's main headliner was Switchfoot and the crowd was gathering in a big way. The band hit the stage with their opening number, "Stars," and quickly went into "Native Tongue," "Hello Hurricane" (dedicated to Florida), and "Live It Well." After Jon addressed the crowd a minute and told a story about moving as a kid and fear, the band went into "I Won't Let You Go." Switchfoot picked up intensity with "If the House Burns Down Tonight" and then moved straight into "Love Alone is Worth the Fight," "Where I Belong," and their career-making hit, "Meant to Live." After a brief exit from the stage, the band returned for a two-song encore to end the night a little after midnight. The encore opened with "Float" and then turned to one of their most popular songs to close the evening's festivities. The entire crowd was ready for it and sang loudly along with Foreman as the band played "Dare You to Move." I haven't seen Switchfoot since 2008 and was pleasantly surprised with their performance. Long-time JFH readers may know that I have some indifference to Switchfoot, but the guys were super entertaining, looked like a family on stage, and provided the most rocking show of Rock the Universe. It was a late starter at 11pm, but well worth hanging around.
On Saturday, I started my night two of concerts off with TobyMac at the Music Plaza Stage. The crowd started building early and was easily the biggest gathering of the entire event. Toby opened the show on a very solemn note addressing the audience before even playing the first song. Toby thanked everyone for their prayers in the most difficult time of his life -- the death of his son back in October. After a very somber intro, Toby and the Diverse City band went into one of his newest songs "The Elements." From here, Toby dove headlong into a barrage of songs taking very little time to speak in between. The group went through the songs "Lights Shine Bright," "Backseat Driver," "Everything," the smash hit "Speak Life," "Move (Keep Walking)," "Till the Day I Die," and "Made to Love" in an effort to pack in as many songs as possible. Toby then changed things up a touch and did two partial songs back to back -- "Tonight's the Night" and "Me Without You" -- before stopping to address the crowd again. He spoke to the audience a bit and discussed the importance Matthew 16:26 before going into one of his most popular songs, "Lose My Soul." After this, Toby left the stage and DJ Maj took over to hype the crowd up a little more. Maj started with Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" before playing a techno beat followed by a hip/hop and dance beat. In between each of these sections, Maj got the crowd going a little bit more each time. After DJ Maj finished, Toby reappeared with a fresh jacket and a hat to continue his set. From here, he jumped right back into things going through the popular songs "Eye on It," "Love Broke Thru," "I Just Need U," and "Feel It." TobyMac and Diverse City provided a jam-packed and entertaining set blazing through a lot of songs in his hour on stage. It's clear that Toby is a pro and it's encouraging to see him on stage again after an extremely difficult past few months.
Much like the night before, I rushed to the Hollywood Stage to catch Bethel -- at least as much of their set as possible. As I arrived, the worship outfit was in the middle of their newest single, "Raise a Hallelujah." While Bethel Music typically has around fifteen members, only eight were present for the Rock the Universe set (bass, rhythm, lead, acoustic, keys, drums, and two singers (one providing an additional acoustic guitar on occasion). After the very popular "Raise a Hallelujah," the group went into "Let the Redeemed." However, once the band got into their song "Come Alive," it was clear to see that many in the crowd were truly worshiping -- something that was extremely cool to see at a theme park. The group followed with another newer song in "Goodness of God," but saw a huge swell in audience interaction during their rendition of "Way Maker." During the song, the band stopped singing and asked for those hurting and in need of healing to raise their hands. They encouraged those in the audience to lay hands on those people and began to earnestly pray for healing in the lives of those in need. After prayer, worship began again as they continued with "Way Maker." From here, the group seamlessly transitioned into the bridge and chorus of "What a Beautiful Name." After marinating on this for a while, with many continuing to worship, the band started "Stand in Your Love." It's at this point that I realized the event's main headliner was about to start and I had to exit early.
I rushed down the street yet again and got to the Music Plaza Stage just as Chris Tomlin and his band started their set with "Our God." After finishing the popular song, Tomlin talked to the audience for a couple of minutes about his struggle to put this set list together, but in the end wanted to play as much as he could from old to new. This led to Tomlin to launch into "God's Great Dance Floor." The upbeat and poppy number got the crowd involved and led perfectly into "I Will Follow." It was about this point that I could truly see Tomlin's heart. I've personally had gripes with his music and creativity, but you could clearly see that his heart was in praising his Savior and helping others to do the same thing. Tomlin then reached way back in the vault and pulled out "Everlasting God" from 2006's See the Morning album. From here, Tomlin and his band went into a trio of "parenthesis" songs: "Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)," "At the Cross (Love Ran Red)," and "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)." After these three, he played "Home" before introducing his band. After this, Tomlin apologized to his band as he went off course to play impromptu partial versions of "Nobody Loves Me Like You" and "Lord, I Need You." Afterwards, the group started "Good Good Father" -- the song Tomlin had earlier joked the crowd would burn his bus down if he didn't play. At the conclusion of his extremely popular cover, Tomlin started in with the bridge and chorus of "Great Are You Lord." After closing out in a very worshipful fashion, Tomlin and his band left the stage shortly before coming back out for the closing ceremonies. I had never seen Chris Tomlin live, but I was really impressed with his set. The band was very tight and Tomlin proved why so many love his music. People were worshiping and singing along throughout the entire audience; it was a very moving and palpable experience.
I had an incredible two days at the Universal Studios Resort! I had a blast at the parks and really enjoyed the concerts. While a lot of the artists I watched aren't in my typical wheelhouse of who I'd listen to on my own time, I found myself really enjoying them all. On top of that, the sound and production were phenomenal. All of the stages were just open outdoor stages, but the Music Plaza Stage, in particular, sounded so clear. It was also especially great to see Peter Furler and Phil Joel on stage together again with Newsboys! Universal Studios does a fantastic job of putting this event together and it's highly recommended that you attend it if you haven't been able to in the past. The 2021 dates have already been set (January 29th and 30th) so there is plenty of time to plan and save. Keep your eye out for the 2021 line-ups and hopefully I'll see you there next year!
Tenth Avenue North
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