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March 12, 2016

A Trip to Universal Orlando

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After our trip to Walt Disney World we spent a few days at the Universal Orlando Resort. Since a few people have asked me about that I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts.

Universal Studios Florida

We stayed at Universal's Cabana Bay Resort. It's the least expensive of the Universal hotels - on a par with a Moderate Disney resort in terms of price and amenities.

Cabana Bay Resort

The resort is a blast from the past - a return to the early 1960s.

Cabana Bay Resort

I thought the public areas all felt bright and open.

Cabana Bay Resort Lobby

The rooms were also very light, though the colors were not really to my taste. Still, they fit the theme.

Cabana Bay Resort Standard  Room

We had a standard room, and it was fine. A little tight on storage. There was a small refrigerator in the cabinet.

Cabana Bay Resort room

We had a view looking towards the parks. No balcony, and our window didn't open at all.

Cabana Bay Resort view

The toiletries cracked me up - it's been years since I saw Zest soap or Alberto VO5 hair products - but I certainly remember them growing up!

Cabana Bay Resort Toiletries

There was a large food court called the Bayside Diner. We ate there a couple of times. The resort was not anywhere close to full, so it was never very crowded, but I thought the food lines moved very slowly. Lee waited 10 minutes one morning just to get a normal breakfast plate - and there weren't that many people in front of him! They had a pretty good selection of grab-and-go items, though.

The pool area was very cool. Very beachy, with lots of sand. The resort is sort of X-shaped, with the lobby area in the middle, and there are pools in the middle on each side.

Cabana Bay Resort Pool

There was a $12/night charge for self parking.

The bus service was GREAT. We never waited longer than 5 minutes, and usually there was a bus waiting at the bus stop. We had dedicated buses for our resort, and there were always at least two in service any time we were coming or going. We returned to our resort one night at park closing, and although there was a line of people, there was always a second bus waiting while the first one was loading.

There was a single bus stop at our resort. And only one drop-off point at the other end for CityWalk and both theme parks. There was a walkway that would have taken us to the Royal Pacific resort and we could've taken a boat from there, but we never did that - I was conserving energy by this point.

I was impressed with the security at Universal. EVERYONE who enters via CityWalk, whether they are coming from one of the parking lots or getting dropped off by a shuttle or taxi, goes through security BEFORE they enter CityWalk. I'd say there were 15-20 different lines of security people doing bag check. And then each line had its own metal detector that we went through. In case someone needed a secondary check with a wand, there was a wand person for every two lines. It was fast and efficient - I never waited behind more than one person, and usually I walked right up to a bag checker.

It is a significant walk from the drop-off area through CityWalk to either of the park entrances - about a third of a mile. There are a couple of moving sidewalks between security and CityWalk, but after that you're under your own power. Those sidewalks were FAST, too, and you better be ready to move when you get to the end of one! I really liked them. :-)

For tickets, we ended up buying the PowerPass Annual Pass. It's blocked out during the summer, as well as during Christmas and Spring Break, but those are times when we won't be visiting! The PowerPass was only about $50 more than a three-day park hopper ticket would have been. If we get even one more visit in the next year then we'll be ahead.

I can't say that I was very impressed with the look of the ticket, though. :-)

Universal Studios Annual pass

Universal also uses a finger biometric that's associated with the pass. We found that entry at the turnstiles was pretty slow. A lot of people show up with a ticket that's a piece of paper with a barcode on it - and the employees at the turnstiles often had difficulty getting them to scan. Not their fault - it just didn't work that well. For those of us with regular tickets it worked much better.

Our main reason for visiting was to see the new Harry Potter Diagon Alley-themed section of Universal Studios. We'd seen the Hogwarts/Hogsmeade part several years ago, and most people said Diagon Alley was even better. We'd also never been to Universal Studios Florida, and had heard there were lots of other interesting attractions there.

Diagon Alley was very impressive. It certainly felt like entering another world!

Universal Studios Diagon Alley

The only attraction is Escape from Gringotts, but it feels like there's a larger area to wander around than in Hogsmeade/Hogwarts, and there are a lot more shops. Including many that fans of the books will recognize, like "Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes", "Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream", "Madame Malkin's Robes for All Occasions", "Quality Quidditch Supplies" and of course "Ollivanders" wand shop.

Universal Quality Quidditch Supplies

There's a "show" that goes along with Ollivande's. Groups of about 20 go into the shop, a couple of people (usually children) are chosen, and one of Mr. Ollivander's assistants helps them select a wand. Then everyone goes into the main shop, where there are quite a few different wands available for sale. There is a large selection of "interactive wands". These are kind of fun - in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade there are spots where, if you perform the correct motion and incantation, you can make things happen. Lee bought one, and he had fun with it - he was quite good at it. No doubt he earned an "Outstanding" on his Charms O.W.L. :-) (One warning: there are several places in Diagon Alley where the wands set off a water effect - and an innocent bystander in the wrong place might get wet. Avoid areas with puddles. :-) )

Universal Studios Diagon Alley interactive wand

If you take a wrong turn you can end up in "Knockturn Alley" - you'll find the infamous "Borgin and Burkes" there, which has merchandise that's quite different than what you'll find in the rest of Diagon Alley. That whole area really is quiet and dark and a little bit spooky.

There are a couple of live shows on the stage. We saw Tales of Beedle the Bard, which was a re-telling of "The Three Brothers" - aka the origin of the Deathly Hallows. I thought it was well-done and entertaining. The other show is "Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees", but we never managed to catch that one.

Universal Studios Tales of Beedle the Bard

Escape from Gringotts is the main attraction. As with many of the Universal attractions, you'll have to lock up any loose items (bags, backpacks, cameras) in the free lockers before entering. The building and the queue are really impressive, and it feels like a huge, fancy bank. We even wander past desks where there are copies of "The Daily Prophet" open - complete with moving pictures.

Diagon Alley Escape from Gringotts

The ride is mostly a runaway mine coaster type of thing, but with lots of projections of Harry Potter and the gang. Despite all of the warnings, I didn't think it was particularly rough, and I found it much less disorienting than Expedition Everest. Really a lot of fun. I think we both enjoyed it more than the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride over in Islands of Adventure. We never saw the line posted at more than 10 minutes long - I think they move a lot of people through it pretty quickly.

The dragon on top of Gringotts will flame occasionally - but she's very temperamental, and doesn't do it on a schedule. I managed to catch it twice - the second time I'd waited over 20 minutes and I had actually given up and walked away (but not too far) when I heard her start growling.

Universal Studios Diagon Alley Dragon

We ate lunch at The Leaky Cauldron on our last day, which was pretty good. On the expensive side, though. But as Harry Potter fans we had to do it! :-)

I thought one interesting thing about Diagon Alley is that it really is hidden away - when you walk past it, it just looks like buildings along a London street, and you have to go through a not-so-obvious passageway to get inside.

Universal Studios London

Right next to it, and far more obvious, is King's Cross Station.

Universal Studios Kings Cross Station

This is where you catch the Hogwarts Express to travel between London (in Universal Studios) and Hogsmeade (in Islands of Adventure). You need a parkhopper ticket to go between parks - your park ticket is scanned before you get too far into the queue. The queue is quite long - I shudder to think what the wait would be if it were full!!!

Universal Studios Hogwarts Express

The conductors will place up to six passengers in each compartment, and then shut the door, and the train begins traveling to the other park. There's a window where you can watch what's going on outside, and you can also see shadows (and hear voices) of people walking by on the compartment door side. It's a different experience traveling each direction, so you really need to take the Hogwarts Express both ways.

Universal Studios Hogwarts Express

The Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle area of Islands of Adventure is the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It's still very well done, and very well-themed. Unlike Diagon Alley, a fair number of the store fronts are just false fronts with nothing behind them - there aren't as many shops in Hogsmeade. But Honeydukes has all kinds of interesting treats. There's another version of Ollivanders, as well as a shop selling Hogwarts attire and other souvenirs.

Islands of Adventure Hogsmeade

But there are three rides in this area: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Dueling Dragons and Flight of the Hippogriff. The latter is a small "beginner" roller coaster, but it's fun. Dueling Dragons has two coasters racing side-by-side, with lots of inversions - I've never done that one. The queue for Forbidden Journey is really fascinating, as it takes you all over Hogwarts Castle, including Dumbledore's office. Several encounters with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, also. The ride is on a "broomstick". While it doesn't go upside down, it does throw you around a bit at lots of different angles, and there's some rather scary visuals. Lee doesn't like it because there's a shoulder harness to hold you in, and it's very confining. It's definitely a more intense experience than Gringott's. It had a longer line - 25 minutes both times we were in that area (I rode it once - it said 15 minutes when I entered, but took almost 25). Both Forbidden Journey and Dueling Dragons require that loose items be placed in a locker (or left with a non-rider).

We didn't eat at The Three Broomsticks this time, but we did go into the Hogs Head for a drink. Lee tried hot butterbeer, and I got a pumpkin fizz - pumpkin juice with sparkling water. The Hogs Head is the only place I know to get that.

There's two different live shows in Hogsmeade, also - the Hogwarts Frog Choir and the Triwizard Spirit Rally. The Frog Choir features four vocalists, once from each house, and two frogs. Very talented.

I have terrible luck with the Spirit Rally. It includes students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons. We kept missing it on our first visit several years ago. And this time, we watched them come out, but the performance suddenly turned into a photo opportunity only because of a threatening rainstorm.

Islands of Adventure Triwizard Spirit Rally

Our main reason for visiting Universal was to tour the Harry Potter-themed sections, but we had time to enjoy some of the rest, also. We'd never been to the Universal Studios part before, and spent most of our time there. The rides were good, but so many of them were variations on the same thing: motion combined with projections - often 3D projections. Revenge of the Mummy, Transformers, Men in Black, Minions, as well as Escape from Gringotts. We never made it to Shrek or The Simpsons. We also did the E.T. ride - cute, and brought back a few memories. We caught the Animal Actors live show one day, and found it entertaining. There were otters in it. :-) And they'd even trained cats to perform! That takes some doing.

Universal Studios Men in Black


Universal Studios Revenge of the Mummy

I found it interesting just to walk around the park and see all of the different themed areas, like Hollywood, New York, San Francisco, and London.

Universal Studios San Francisco

The first night we were there at park closing (which was early - 7:00), and saw the nighttime show: Universal's Cinematic Spectacular - 100 Years of Movie Memories. Movie clips shown on two-sided mist screens, with fountains and fireworks. The mist screens were distracting, since they are pretty transparent, so we saw the reverse images on the other side. Still, interesting to see the clips from so many different classic movies. It was visible from all around the Embarcadero area - we just walked right up to a spot along the water not long after it started. It's no Illuminations or World of Color - but I wasn't expecting any kind of nighttime show, so it was a bonus.

Universal Studios Cinematic Spectacular

We've been to Islands of Adventure twice before, so didn't spend much time there on this trip. I still love the look of much of this park - I think it's the closest thing we have in the U.S. to rival the beautiful theming of Tokyo Disney Sea. The Port of Entry and Lost Continent areas are just incredible. I also love Seuss Landing and of course the Hogsmeade/Hogwarts area.

Islands of Adventure Port of Entry


Islands of Adventure Seuss Landing

It was raining off and on during the half day we were there, so we were trying to do indoor things. We saw Poseidon's Fury. It was raining pretty hard when we went in, and it was sunny and beautiful when we came out! The show is just ok, but there are some pretty good visual effects.

Islands of Adventure Poseidon's Fury

We also sat out a shower during The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad Stunt Show. I would've liked to see the Dr. Seuss show, but we didn't get to it.

Islands of Adventure Sindbad Show

The parks were not too crowded when we were there. I think the longest we waited for anything was about 40 minutes for Transformers and Minions - the wait times were posted at 30 minutes, though. Usually we waited less than 15 minutes.

Universal Studios Transformers

We enjoyed our time at the parks, and there were a number of other things we could've done if I'd been feeling better. Since we have the passes I can certainly see us popping over there first thing in the morning and staying until early afternoon one day on some of our upcoming trips.

Universal Studios banner

Thanks for reading!







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