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Friday, June 8, 2012

Orlando August 2010 Part 3

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Day 3 - August 17 - Universal Orlando

This was it. The big day. The day that we've all been waiting for. Universal Orlando and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Even with all that excitement we all decided to sleep in and take it easy in the morning. My experience from the morning before, unfortunately, left me with little desire to repeat my morning walk. So, after sleeping in we had a leisurely breakfast and hung out in the room or by the pool. I had made arrangements with a local car service to pick us up at 12:30 and take us to Universal Orlando (UO).


Before I go on I wanted to write a bit about transportation while at WDW. I listen to the podcast run by the folks at the Disney Information Station. Recently they have had many conversations about the pros and cons of renting a car while at WDW. Basically, there was a sentiment that it is always a better idea to bring your own car. The reasoning is that having your own car fives you the freedom to eat off site which is almost always cheaper and often you get better food. They even went so far as to say that the savings on food alone could save the cost of a rental car. I don't necessarily agree with this, however. To me it depends on what kind of experience you are looking to have, obviously how much you want to spend and, in a very large part, where you are staying.


First there is the obvious choice of staying offsite - clearly you would need to rent a car. So the question is - what about if you're staying onsite? In my mind it's all about location. If you are staying onsite obviously you really don't need to have a car as Disney provides transportation via bus, monorail and boat. The thing is, for a lot of the resorts - the budget resorts line the All Stars as an example - the only choice are the buses. And in my mind, if you are staying at one of the "bus only" resorts then the choice of renting a car is a good one. On the other hand, if you are staying at one of the resorts with other options for transportation other than the buses then I really think it's better to leave the car at home. I think that once you get in a car you break that "Disney bubble". Now, taking the bus breaks that bubble too a bit, and it's not possible to avoid the buses altogether, but I don't think taking the buses break that bubble nearly as much as getting in your car does.


I have often stayed at WDW on trips with my friend Kirk when we stayed at budget resorts or offsite and we always bring a car (Kirk lives in Jacksonville and drives down to Orlando). We actually rarely go off site anyway, but we do find that the convenience of having a car is great when your only other option is taking the bus. On this trip, however, we were staying at The Boardwalk and there simply is no better location in WDW, Period. Yeah, I know - what about the monorail resorts? Well, sure, you can take the monorail to MK (and Epcot if you don't mind switching trains), but at DBV you can get to three parks without taking the bus. Obviously Epcot is an easy walk, and you can walk to DHS as well. In addition the boat is a good choice for both of those as well. As for MK, while I would recommend the bus if you're going to MK directly from DBV, you can, if you really want to avoid the bus, walk or boat to Epcot, then take the monorail to the Ticket & Transportation Center (TTC) and get to MK from there. It's a bit of a long way, and it should be noted that you can only do it if you have a "Park Hopper" option, it still is an alternate route if you want to take it.


So, back to our trip...


In our case we had no car and I had decided that our best option for getting to UO was to take a car service. There are car service options that are cheaper - generally they charge per person and have set routes and schedules. I chose to go with a service that provided a car and driver just for us. With 5 of us the price difference was not too much. Anyway, after lunch we headed down to the lobby entrance to meet our car. The car the service provided was a van. Our driver was a gentleman name Suresh. On the ride over we started chatting with Suresh. We learned that he only drives part-time and that someone he is related to (sorry, Suresh, I forgot who) either owns or manages the car service (LINCS). We also learned that Suresh has 2 daughters of his own. We had a wonderful drive over and be the time we got there we were all the best of friends.


We had Park Hopper passes for UO (or whatever UO calls them) so I suggested we had to Universal Studios (US) first. My reasoning was thet I had heard the WWoHP is much less crowded toward the evening. We got there a little after 1:00 and it was HOT! We turned left and headed into the park. The first attraction we got to was "The Mummy". The sign read 20 minutes which isn't bad (it was actually 14). This was the second or third time for me on this ride - it's a winner in my book. A nice mix of roller coaster and dark ride. No Indiana Jones at Disneyland, but still a good ride. 


After that we checked out Disaster! but the line was too long and outside and it was too hot for such a long line while exposed to the Florida heat. We then went to the Amityville section where they were giving out "Fastpass" like tickets for JAWS. We picked up some tickets (which had a return time of later that afternoon). We were then at the back of the park and decided to ride The Simpsons. Another long line (the sign read 45 minutes) but at least the line was covered. I had never been on this before (although I had been on Back to the Future at Universal Hollywood which uses the same ride system. One great thing about the Simpsons is that the queue area is very entertaining with a very funny Simpson vidoe on the monitors. The line ended up being about 25 minutes at any rate, so it wasn't bad. And what a terrific ride! if you are sensitive to motion simulators you might want to think twicw, but otherwise I stongly recommend this. It is fun, exciting and extremely funny!


We then headed around to Twister which we rode with a 15 minute wait. I know this ride (show?) is not the greatest but the queue area is well themed and the cyclone effect is pretty cool. We contemplated going back to use our JAWS passes. I voted "yes" but was over-ruled. (ed. note - sine then the destruction of Amityville and JAWS has begun for the rumored Harry Potter expansion. I really wish I pushed them to do JAWS - that was our last chance and, as for myself, I've never done it. Oh well...)


On our way out of the Studios we passed Rip Ride'n Rocket where the posted wait was only 10 minutes. Marie and Gabby begged out so Nat, Charlotte and I rode. The wait ended being essentially a walk-on. The coaster tries to be sort of like Rock'n Roller Coaster, except in this case you pick your own music to ride to. When it came time to choose your song I looked at the list and was longing for "none of the above". I ended up with a ZZ Top song only because it seemed the least objectionable. I have since heard that some folks discovered that there were hundreds of "hidden songs" that you could choose if you know the code (someone mentioned riding to "Rainbow Connection"). And apparently Universal discovered this oversight andclosed that loop. Anyway, we rode the coaster and I have to say... I've ridden that coaster. I never have to again. And this is from a guy who lves a good coaster. Rip Ride'n Rocket simply is not a good coaster. It is rough, annoying and headache inducing. Nat agreed with me though Charlotte enjoyed it.


At about 3:00 we decided to leave the studios and head over to Islands of Adventure (IOA) and WWoHP. On our way we stopped at Ben & Jerry's for sundaes. We entered IOA at about 4:00. On our way toward WWoHP we passed Jurrasic park (JP). I should mention here that Gabby had been expressing a lack of any desire to ride either coasters or flumes with a large drop. Charlotte and I had both been trying to convince her that she should, at the least, try Splash Mountain at MK but Gabby was not interested. As we passes JP we were looking at it and everyone agreed we should try it out, but Gabby was concerned about the drop. Now, the thing is, the drop at JP is, I think, at least as radical as Splash. However, much of the drop at JP is covered by the ride building so it does not look that big. So, Gabby agreed to ride. And she loved it! Right then she agreed to try Splash when we went back to MK. (If you're interested the posted wait was 45 minutes but actually 15)


After JP we stopped at a stand and bought some frut for a snack. And finally... off to WWoHP!


Refreshmenst at one end of the park...
OK, first things first. This park is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. The level of theme-ing in IOA is very high in general, but the Universal designers have absolutely outdone themselves with this park. It is, hands down, one of the most beautiful themed areas in any theme park - Disney or otherwise. As soon as we got there everyone wanted a butterbeer. We were looking for a lace to get one and we noticed a young man standing near us in his full Harry Potter regalia including the Hogwarts uniform, robe and everything. I found myself feeling sorry for the folks that work there and have to wear these hot costumes in the August Florida heat. Anyway, we asked this particular young man where we can get a butterbeer. "I don't work here" he replied. Ooops. Anyway, everyone got butterbeer - except Gabby that is, who opted for a pumpkin juice ($16). Well, I didn't get one either but I did take a sip of both Nat's and Charlotte's. And I have to say it's quite good - sort of a butterscotch flavored cream soda (which, interestingly, is sort of what I imagined it would taste like.


We looked around the park and admired all the details. A very fun thing are the windows in the shops that have funny little in jokes (in one for a broom shop by example you can see a golden snitch flying around). We also passed a shop with a dress in one of it's windows. All of girls exclaimed "Oh my God! That's it!" This is when I was yet again reminded of the vast difference between the sexes. I looked at the dress and had no idea what was yet vertually every one of the girls recognized it right away. "What is it?" I asked. They literally could not believe I didn't recognize the dress. "It's Hermione's dress from the Yule Ball!" they said. "oh yeah... right..."

One thing we all agreed we wanted to do right away was The Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter (FJoHP). The posted wait was 60 minutes, but from what I'd been hearing I wasn't really expecting it to get much better so we hopped in line. Right at the queue entrance they have ride chairs you can try on for size as heavier riders have a hard time with the seats on this attraction. I understand that, since then, they have altered some of the seats to be more accommodating. I joked with the Universal Team member that I should try it out and they actually said I could - almost suggesting it - which gave me pause. Am I too big for this ride? Now, I could lose a few pounds but I honestly did not think I was in danger of not fitting! So I tried. No problem.


The queue area for FJoHP is one of the best I've seen. It takes you through several different sectins of Hogwarts - such as greenhouse for Herbology. Now, here is where I have one of my only gripes about the park (and I have not heard this anywhere else). As you are in the section of the queue before you enter the greenhouse, as you look up at hogwarts you see... cinderblocks. Painted cinderblocks, but cinderblocks nonetheless. Couldn't they have at leaste decorated it with stonework or vines? Something? If this had been the Studios I would not have minded - part of the charm of that park is that you can see the "backstage" Hey, even if this had been a part of the building you could only see from another part of the park I would have not been so critical, but you could see this right from the queue area. And the fact that the queue was so beautifully themed only made it stand out all the more for me.


And the other...
Once you enter the building you get told more of the story. I don't recall the details but I seem to recall it involved Ron urging us to skip class for a bit of fun while Hermione argues against it. And some dire warnings from teachers as I recall. We finally started approaching the loading area for the ride vehicles. Two things I noticed. First, while loading the staff would say "How many wizards in your party?" so long as somebody was wearing some sort of HP parphenalia - even just a scarf. If not they said "How many muggles in your party?". Nice touch. Second, there was a man and his daughter ahead of us who could not ride beacuse the girl was too small. I felt bad but - c'mon - check before you wait in line for an hour! (acutally the wait was closer to 45 minutes). And finally it was our turn to board!


So here's a quick description of the ride. The ride vehicle is called "Kumba". FJoHP is the first ride to use the technology. I heard that Disney was looking at it for something (don't recall what) but ended up not using it. Basically the ride vehicle is a row of chairs with shoulder harnesses - much like in an inverted coaster. Thhese chairs are on the end of a large hydrolic arm. The arm is then attached to a mechanism which rides along a track. Each of these vehicles has multiple arms with the ride vehicles (four in the case of FJ I believe). What this allows for is that, while the mechanism is moving along the track each of the ride vehicles can move independently - up down sideways... even upside-down. This would allow for, as an example, a ride experience where each vehicle has a different level of thrill. (Apparently this is something Disney was looking into). In the case of FJ your vehicle is thrust into different scenes. Some, like a scene with "Dementors", involve physical effects while with others, like a scene with a dragon, involve filmed scenes. In the filmed scenes you are thrust into what is essentially a small Omnimax domed screen which creates a totally emersive experience.


I've heard that a lot of folks find FJoHP to be a bit rough. And I can understand that. But, it is still a terrific ride IMO that uses a new technology to very good effect. A winner in my book.

After FJoHP we did a little shopping. Another criticism of Universal is that they totally missed the mark with WWoHP in terms of how popular the park would be. No argument from me on that. For instance, the main gift shop is Dervish and Banges (D&B) - and there was a line to get in! A line! To get in to the gift shop! And as for Olivander's - the queue there was listed at 2 hours. No way! You could get into the wand store from D&B, skipping the show of course. It would be fun to do the show but there's no way I'm waiting that long. Besides, the HP purist in me is appalled because Olivander's is in Diagon Alley, not Hogsmeade. But I digress...



Well, we finally got into D&B and did a little shopping. Chocolate Frogs were in order, as well as Bertie Botts Everyflavor Beans. And Charlotte chose to get a scarf (Ravenclaw, the house she identifies with). After a bit of shopping we decided to call it a night. We had one more day at UO planned for our trip so we would be coming back.


We decided to have dinner at Margaritaville in Citywalk. We got there about 7:15 and there was about a 30 minute wait. Our meal with tip was $102 - not bad for a party of 5. Of course I was the only one drinking - margarita's natuarally. Another reason for hiring a car - Suresh was my designated driver! On the way home we had another nice conversation with Suresh and the girls went on about what a great time we had. Then it was back to DBV for a little relaxation before bed.

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