Since we ended up with an extra day in Florida and we had decided that Disney was not happening during this part of the adventure, we decided to take an excursion to visit the Universal Studios Parks in Orlando. I had been intrigued by the Harry Potter rides and theme areas since they opened, but I have not visited Universal Studios in oh, probably 30+ years.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) as it’s officially known, has portions in the Islands of Adventure park (Hogsmeade) as well as in Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley). Unfortunately, this requires admission to both parks, and some careful planning, even in the low season. We used this site to help with our planning.
We booked an on-site hotel in order to ensure early admission to the parks. All on-site guests get early admission, as do those who have booked a vacation package with a partner hotel. For us, this meant we could enter Islands of Adventure at 8 am instead of 9 am. The hotel itself (Cabana Bay Beach Resort) was quite nice (even though it was the budget choice for on-site hotels) and was about a 15-minute walk from the parks.
We arrived at the entrance to Islands of Adventure about 7:45 am. There was a small line outside and the employees started letting people in right after we arrived. The process was a bit slow, as finger scans were required and the (relatively) cold temperatures meant that the scanners did not work well. Once in, we made our way to Hogsmeade with the rest of the early crowd. We got in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey with a little trepidation. It was described as a dark ride with a state of the art motion simulator. Motion simulators tend to make both of us a little queasy, so we weren’t sure this was a good way to start our day. The simulator is a bench, seating four, on the end of a robotic arm. The ride was really well done, with lots of scenes from the books/movies, some great effects (snakes and spiders and such), and plenty of movement. We both survived, though, without very much nausea at all. I would definitely recommend this ride.
After the ride, we really wanted a cup of tea. You would think this would be available in Harry’s world. However, few food options are available during early opening hours. Instead, I rode Flight of the Hippogriff–a kiddie coaster not worth what the usual wait would be–and then we got in line for the show at Ollivander’s Wand Shop. This is a cute attraction based on the experience of first year Hogwarts students shopping for a wand. You know–the wand chooses the wizard. It was kinda fun, but the real purpose is to sell wands. You can buy a wand designed for most of the important characters in the Potter series, as well as a few custom wands. Wands also come in an “interactive” model, which allows their owner to cast spells in certain spots throughout the two WWoHP areas. We opted not to spend the nearly $50, but it is a very cool idea and is obviously bringing in lots of revenue.
Hot drinks were still not available, so we opted to leave Potter-land and enter Seuss-land. Note: we skipped all roller coasters (see motion-sickness note earlier) and water rides (wrong weather to get soaked–brrr) so you might want/need additional days if you choose to enjoy those attractions. We rode Cat in the Hat, a Disney-esque dark ride based on the book. It had a nice story and would be good for kids. However, it also began the trend of rides having gratuitous spinning. I don’t like spinning much anyway and I know I’m not alone in this, so I give Disney credit for using it pretty much only when it’s needed. Universal still needs to learn to use restraint in employing circular motion.
We finally found hot drinks in the form of (what else?) Starbucks. We were glad of it, and extra glad that they had chosen to participate in the resort-wide practice of giving a 10% discount on food and (non-alcoholic) beverages when using an American Express card. Suitably warmed and slightly refueled, we headed to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. This dark-ride 3-D effects cross was probably Maureen’s favorite attraction of the day. The story-telling is good and the ride is exciting with really well-executed effects.
Next was one of my favorite attractions of the day–Hogwarts Express. We were leaving from Hogsmeade station, so we were going back to London. The train compartment setting was authentic and reminiscent of our recent time in London and on trains in the countryside of England. Without giving too much away, I can also say that it very successfully incorporates elements from the books. The train runs between Universal’s two parks, so you must have a park-to-park ticket to experience it. The train terminates at Kings Cross station and the exit leads to a London waterfront themed area.
We planned to return to WWoHP later, so we headed across to the World Expo area. There we rode Men in Black: Alien Attack. This was the one active ride we experienced, much like Buzz Lightyear or Toy Story at the Disney parks. The pre-pre-show for this ride was a bit annoying though, with employees really wanting people to jam into an enclosed space. The ride also allowed riders to spin an opposing cartful of riders–a feature I could have done without. Shooting aliens was great fun though–I recommend at least one try at this.
About this time, we thought lunch might be a good idea. We checked out the Simpsons food court, but ended up at Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck across the “street.” Not bad at all for amusement park food. Next on our list was Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. Sadly, the wait time was about 60 minutes, so a plan change was in order. This is as good a time as any to mention that Universal has an app for the parks that shows wait times, describes rides and shows, lists eating and shopping venues, and guides you around the parks. They also have free wifi throughout the parks! Note, though, that the app should be closed when you are not using it, since it uses location services and will drain your battery.
The plan change took us to Shrek 4-D. The wait was a bit longer than advertised, but the queue area was nicely themed and the pre-show was very good, even re-telling the Shrek story for those who are not familiar or need a refresher. The experience was essentially a 3-D movie with moving seats. It was pretty good, but the contrast with the WWoHP rides really highlighted how much ride technology has improved in the last several years.
Minions still had a long wait, so we stopped by the American Express lounge (show your card and multi-park ticket purchased with it to get in) for a complimentary bottle of water and bag of chips and a chance to rest for a few minutes. We experienced the Disaster attraction (pretty silly, but mostly amusing) on our way back to Diagon Alley.
Back in Potter-land, we had some ice cream (Butterbeer ice cream was nothing to write home about, but the chocolate was good) and then got in line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The advertised wait was 30 minutes. It became clear early on that this was not accurate, but since we had checked off most of what was on our list, we just settled in for the wait. Once we got to the indoor part of the queue, the theming was amazing. You actually “were” in Gringotts, complete with goblins. There is an elevator that takes you “miles” down to the vaults, and a movie that sets the scene for the adventure and features Bill Weasley. We got as far as the actual loading platform and realized that things were not quite right. After we watched the ride not move for quite some time, the people on the ride vehicles were offloaded back onto the platform where we were waiting. The vehicles were sent forward empty and the next vehicles were unloaded (to the exit). This happened two more times. Then the first set of empty vehicles returned. Employees checked them and sent them again. One more set went empty, then the offloaded people were reloaded. They went, then we loaded. The ride started, swung around some corners, reached the top of a precipice, and stopped. Hmmm. After a few minutes, we went, then stopped again. We pretty quickly started again and got through the rest of the ride this time. It was shorter than the Forbidden Journey and not as impressive, sadly. It was a good story though and worth an actual 30-minute wait for the pre-show alone. As we exited, employees handed us a free one-use express pass (good for any ride in the parks) for our inconvenience being stopped during the ride. Score! Now we could ride Minions without an hour wait! (Universal Express passes are unlike Disney Fastpasses. Guests staying at the upscale, on-site hotels get unlimited Express Passes and other guests can upgrade their tickets for a fee. One-use express passes are unusual.)
So we went back to Minions and pretty much immediately got admitted to the pre-show. This was another great pre-show. Again, the ride/movie was fun, but not mind-blowing. We were glad we didn’t wait an hour, but also glad we got to see the attraction.
Seen in the Minions queue area:
At this point we were getting tired and a bit hungry. We walked around the shops in Diagon Alley and happened upon the hidden and creepily well done Knockturn Alley.
We decided to head for the Leaky Cauldron to see if food would rejuvenate us. We shared a mini pie combination and talked strategy. We had planned to stay for the nighttime show after park closing at 7, but we were both feeling tired and ready to hit the road. So we decided to ride the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade (i.e. Islands of Adventure) and then head towards the car. We finally found the British candies (but no Crunchies 😦 ) in the queue, but declined to pay $3.50 for an English Mars bar. The ride back was as enjoyable as the ride there, and included some great theming and a special effect at Platform 9 3/4 (not the owl–look for the effect if you go).
This owl moves!
After a few more minutes in Hogsmeade, we began the trek back to Cabana Bay. Although we could have taken a shuttle, it would not have been worth the few steps saved to go out of our way on both ends of the journey. When we got back to the hotel, we found that there was a little piece of iffy planning impeding our access to the car. Though we were permitted to park at the resort all day (I even asked), our key cards apparently stopped working when we checked out. And the pathway from the parks is separated from the resort by a keyed gate. Fortunately, a nice couple was leaving and let us in, joking a little about whether we were guests. The parking lot exit also required said deactivated key card, so an assistance button was needed. I trust they’ll work this out–the resort is only a couple months old.
The drive back was happily uneventful and I logged a record number of steps (over 23,000) so it was a successful day on many fronts.