I had an annual pass to Universal Orlando for a number of years while I lived in Cleveland. The first time, it was because the math was so favorable with the hotel discounts that it paid for itself with one trip. But then there was a period where I went two or three times a year. In fact, I started going in 2002, and literally everyone I've ever dated seriously or been married to traveled there with me. All of those times I stayed at the Royal Pacific Resort, on-property, and was a platinum member of whatever Loews' crappy loyalty program was. In fact, the quality of service seemed to get worse every year, but the in-park perk of having Express entry into everything was worth it.
After Diana and I got married in early 2009, and pregnant shortly thereafter, we wouldn't return until 2011, flying in from Seattle, with Simon. That was after the first wave of Harry Potter attractions opened, and it was quite a change. In the old days, we pretty much had a run of the place, and City Walk would be so non-busy that we could always land there for dinner. The wizard made our little secret more crowded, but to be fair, there were few new attractions in the prior decade.
When we moved to Orange County in July of 2013, I figured we'd have passes to all of the parks by default, but it didn't happen. We bought Disney passes the day after Simon and Diana arrived, and got a comp and discounted SeaWorld passes shortly thereafter (because I was working there as a contractor, and a coworker generously offered). But we didn't buy Universal passes, I guess in part because we lived so close to Walt Disney World. I also thought it wouldn't be as fun, not staying there. I mean, I had never even entered the parks from the parking garages at that point. In those six years, we had visited three times, always on comps from friends who worked there, and only one of those times included Simon.
This year, they offered an 18-month deal on the passes, and we caved just before the promotion ended at the start of April. Because we bought the highest level passes, which include Express after 4 (there was no way I'd not do that), they were almost as expensive as Disney, but with 50% more time, I figured we would give it a go.
Simon and I have been twice, and Diana came along for the first time last night. Simon is surprisingly interested in the thrill rides, and to my surprise he volunteered to ride Rip Ride Rockit and Dr. Doom's Fear Fall. He also digs the big Harry Potter rides in both parks. He's still about an inch and a half too short to ride Hulk, but to my surprise he's interested in it. It's all good news, that he seems into it.
My impression is a mixed bag. I remember thinking the first time I saw Islands of Adventure that they out-Disney'd Disney. The two Universal parks desperately needed something new, and Potter was a big score. In the general sense, I'm very much in awe of the themed achievement there. It's so incredibly well done, in every detail, from the paintings inside of Hogwarts to the bank lobby of Gringotts, and especially the outdoor areas. Even the utilitarian design of Kings Cross Station is amazing. The Potter rides are so well run, as well.
Everything else is so hit or miss. The operations can be glacial in some places. The food service is generally mediocre at best and the food itself kind of sucks. The restrooms are almost universally (see what I did there?) a disaster. In recent years, everything has become a screen, often in 3D. There is litter in the queues and you'll still find a lot of food stands closed in the evening (unless they sell alcohol). It's frustrating, because they're on the verge of being as good as Disney even with their goofy mashup of IP, but they just don't run the place quite as well.
The future is bright though. This Hagrid roller coaster looks like it will be amazing. Apparently they're putting in a roller coaster in Jurassic Park, which seems a little light on theme, but that's OK.
It's fun to visit Universal, even if it is a different vibe from my "younger days" without child.