Trip report: Universal Orlando, January 18-20, 2011

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 29, 2011, 8:05 PM | comments: 0

After a couple of years of going to Walt Disney World instead, we finally made a return to my beloved Universal Orlando. After a couple of years of having an annual pass, and a suboptimal experience at the Royal Pacific, we put off returning until after the Harry Potter stuff was open, and not totally new. I watched the operating schedules and hotel rates, and found that third week of January looked promising.

Our agenda was pretty simple: Plan as little as possible and relax. We were staying five nights, but going to the parks three days, with one day to visit my family. With a 10-month-old little boy, you obviously have to adjust your expectations because you can't be sure he'll be up for anything.

We got in late on Sunday afternoon to the Royal Pacific Resort, a hotel where I've had many good times. The hotel was sold-out, and this was one of the excuses they used for a series of issues over the first 24 hours we were there. The biggest problem was that we did not have a crib, which is not cool when you travelled all day from Seattle. They also didn't have the fridge we asked for (baby formula and all). Getting feather pillows replaced took hours, and they still got it wrong. They didn't even get the comped breakfast right. It was a train wreck of poor service uncharacteristic of a four-diamond hotel. I wasn't looking for freebies or comps, I just didn't want to waste time and energy thinking about this basic stuff. Such a disappointment.

In any case, Tuesday morning, we met up with my BFF Kara, who now lives down there working for GKTW. Her annual pass scored us a discount on our three-day, two-park tickets. That saved us nearly fifty bucks with tax. No significant lines at the ticket windows for IOA, which were mostly open. They even had credit card-only carts selling outside. And for the first time ever, getting though the turnstiles was actually really quick. I don't know if the finger print scanners are just less picky or what, but it's super quick. It would still be faster it didn't require a person to take the ticket, scan it and give it back to you, but it's better. +1 for the gate operations.

Hotel guests get in an hour early for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but they do not have Express pass access for Forbidden Journey. We took our time getting in there after breakfast at the hotel, and didn't get in until 9. Still, we got back there and the posted wait time was 15 minutes, so we parked Simon's buggy (as the Brit ride host put it) and entered the queue. Parent swap at this ride is straight forward, as the queue has no stairs, so your entire party enters together. Not having the stroller sucks when your baby weighs nearly 30 pounds.

The queue is nothing short of stunning, walking you through a number of familiar movie areas, including the herbology lab outside, the Defense Against the Dark Arts class room, Dumbledore's office, a hall with the talking paintings, and a room where the Sorting Hat gives you safety warnings. Because we didn't stop in any of these rooms at all, I thought I was missing the plot, but looking it up later, apparently the only plot is that Harry and friends are trying to sneak us muggles down to a Quiditch match. Things of course get out of control, and you get to ride one of the greatest dark rides ever conceived. It's amazing, and fairly good execution of projection and live action elements. I would've liked to have seen higher frame rates (a la the Simpsons Ride), but the resolution is awesome. Can't tell it's digital at all. The motion is exhilarating without being too intense for families. It's really an amazing achievement. The hype is completely worthy. With a bench leaving every seven seconds, capacity clocks in around 2,000 people per hour.

Of course, the entire new themed area is well executed. The sight lines are really amazing, because as you move into the area, you're completely immersed in this world. While I don't feel the new Dragons entrance matches the old one in terms of sheer awesomeness, it really does feel like you're in Hogsmeade. Diana mentioned that technically the stores make it a mix of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, but I'm not enough of a nerd to be bothered by that. It's still impressive. The live performances are impressive as well, and the retheme on the Vekoma roller skater is well done. It's really fantastic all around.

About the butterbeer... It is in fact quite delicious, and worth the $4.25 or whatever. We went with the frozen variety, on the recommendation of the bartender in the Three Broomsticks. It's the foamy stuff on top that I really like. Also a hot tip, that's a better place to get butterbeer than on the "street," because the lines are significantly shorter.

Kara was good enough to hang out with Simon during a number of rides that Diana and I took during that day. The one I was looking forward to the most (in terms of credit whoring) was Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit over in Universal Studios. From a capacity standpoint, it's a pretty fascinating ride to watch. The moving platform is pretty brilliant in terms of getting as many people on and off as quickly as possible. I estimate it's like having a three-train station, and with the half-dozen blocks, you can send a ton of 12-passenger trains.

We did the single rider line, which may or may not have saved time given the short line. I used the "secret" button and chose 131... a Blue Man Group track. I have to say, that was the only thing that kept the ride fun. I didn't find it rough or anything (sat in the second row), just incredibly boring. The frequent blocks mean it never really gets going. The turn around at the end of the street set is way cool, as is the turn around near City Walk. The loop is a surprisingly neat sensation too. If it weren't for the long flatness of the blocks, it could have been potentially interesting, but it's just so boring. What a shame.

Fortunately, Mummy was running at its best, with all of the special effects running, and decent speeds from the launches. I love that the Express pass line basically gets its own station, because waiting is so rare. Diana got two laps while Kara and I watched Simon a lap a piece. I think this is still my favorite coaster in Orlando, and while I haven't been on Manta, I don't care for flying coasters, so I doubt that will change.

We had lunch at Mythos, which was OK. While I do enjoy it, I still don't understand the fascination with it. It's just average, and certainly not a best of anything in terms of food in theme parks. It's still the one thing that I wish Universal did just slightly better... a few more restaurants that were above average. I'm thinking Epcot style.

After an attempted nap for Simon back at the hotel, we returned for a couple of hours, including Simon's second carousel ride, this time on the Caro-Seuss-el. I watched this time, and I was surprised at how fast it was. He's not entirely sure what to do with these yet. It has been about four months since his first ride at Holiday World. I do know that he enjoys watching roller coasters. He was fascinated with the Hulk.

We also stopped at the Watering Hole back in Jurassic Park for drinks, and despite a line, they actually closed it after a two-hour window. Nevermind that there were people walking up who wanted drinks. It was completely bizarre. I've never seen Universal turn away money for alcohol.

We closed that first night at Margaritaville, which was predictably OK. It's not like we go there for the food. Simon did a nice job getting through the day. Kara was a huge help in letting us be carefree and jumping on rides whenever we wanted. And not surprisingly, Simon seemed quite fond of her.

In the second day, we went to the studio park again, and really took it pretty easy. Simon got to meet Barney. The kids area back there seemed nice enough, but incredibly dated. I really would have liked to have jumped on E.T., as I'm very nostalgic about that ride, but it wouldn't have been that fun by myself. That whole end of the studio park, from there all the way around to Jaws, really needs something. It's a bunch of large, kind of ugly buildings with nothing in between. With Fear Factor gone, there's even less going on than before.

The fatigue was setting in on Simon, with all of the irregular sleep, so Diana went back to the hotel with him while I snapped a bunch of photos of Rockit. He took a nice long nap, and we got to do some pool time with him. RPR has one of my favorite pool areas of any hotel, and it's especially relaxing in the off-season. Having a zero-depth entry really makes a difference when you have a baby. That evening, we met our GKTW friends for dinner at a place on I-Drive.

On our last day, we decided to brave the parent swap process by ourselves. We started with the Hulk. The good news is that their swap is awesome. One person goes up the exit, with the stroller, the other through the normal or express line. So we essentially got up to the station at the same time, and Diana went first. Simon loved to see the trains rolling in and out. The bad news: This is still, without question, the roughest B&M I've ever been on. I still maintain that the problem is spongy springs or pads in the guide wheels, because there is so much lateral play in every car. You can see it when you ride in a row toward the back, as each car shakes around independently of each other. I've seen the same thing on Intamin rides like Millennium Force, and when they fix the parts, they get smoother. It could be such a great ride.

Had lunch at Hard Rock, and met a friend working in the company's creative division. Yet another person I haven't seen in real life in years, and it was good to hear he was enjoying his gig. This was also the day that they handed out bonuses for the first time in, I dunno, ever? I've always thought the Universal parks were special, and it's good to see them enjoy significant success.

Simon managed to get a couple of naps in during the day while we were at the park, which was very nice to see. We took him down in front of the Jurassic Park visitor center building, which is a little quieter. He rocked it Florida style, with his bare feet hanging out. Later in the evening, we also did the Dragons, where thankfully they still have the Express pass shortcut, so we didn't have to go through the normal queue carrying the baby. The outdoor portion has some nice touches themed around the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and even the back of the Hogsmeade shops are properly themed. They have the flying car back there too. The swap rooms are kind of dark and scary, but they have barred windows where I could plop Simon, who enjoys seeing those trains. Annoying: Adults pushing their way through the parent swap rooms to re-ride. Assholes. Nothing much to be said about these coasters that I haven't said before. Love Fire, er, Chinese Fireball, and really enjoy Hungarian Horntail as well. These continue to be a couple of the best inverted coasters I've been on. Side note: I did notice they're more specific about the low zones around the ride, with fences. Gosh, I wonder why.

And guess what we got a walk-on for? Forbidden Journey my ass, we rocked that ride, no waiting. Not only did we walk-on and parent swap, but Diana went twice because they were sending empty benches. So all told for the week, we both had three laps with minimal waiting. We actually encountered people in some of the queue rooms hanging out to listen and watch for the film and effects stuff. Awesome. Love this ride.

Unfortunately, it just didn't get dark enough for me to snap some night photos. It has been years since I've been to these parks at night, and I desperately would like to photograph them at night.

We wrapped up our time there with dinner at NBA City, which is without question the most underrated and rarely mentioned restaurant at Universal Orlando. Diana had some kind of seafood with pasta (I forget what), while I had a chicken and pasta dish that was just fantastic. I've been there at least once on most of my visits, and I've enjoyed it every time. Simon made some friends who were traveling from Istanbul. He made a lot of friends on this trip, especially servers.

Overall, we achieved all of our objectives, and if I can block out the problems with the hotel during the first day, things went pretty smoothly. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is an excellent addition to Islands of Adventure, and finally makes it a first class part of vacations for a lot of people. I've liked it for ten years, but I think now it's bound to get the respect it deserves on a wider basis. I don't know when we'll go back, but I do look forward to it.


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