Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Trip Report: What I Learned Last Week in Orlando

Filing a trip report was standard procedure way back when I was in the five-sided building, so what did I learn in Orlando last week?

  • The Universal folks did a most wonderful job implementing JK Rowling's vision.  Everything was wonderfully crafted from the Hogwarts building to the butterbeer (more on that below) to the wildly over-priced souvenirs to the rides to the Ollivander wand show to the joke shop to even Moaning Myrtle in the bathrooms.
  • Butterbeer IS awesome sauce.  If you go (and you can only get BB in the Harry Potter part of Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure), order the frozen version (the cold liquid version is swell, too).  It is just delicious even if it seems like just creme soda with caramel sauce because it does have a secret ingredient--magic! The staffers must drink the stuff because they were universally (sorry) very friendly.  The wizard outside the Three Broomsticks, for instance, gave great advice for when to dine there and what to order (not Shepherd's pie).
  • The HP area (officially the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) is way too small.  The shops are small, there are only three rides, and few shows.  My guess is that the "Lost Continent" part of the Islands of Adventure, which already lost its roller coaster to HP (and a very fine ride that is) will be lost for good.  There is so much one can do with the HP world, including rides focusing on the Gringotts escapade in HP 7.2, the Department of Mysteries, and more shops for their super-expensive stuff.  Instead of one downtown strip of Hogsmeade, I can easily see a second called Diagon Alley and perhaps even a dark side street of Nocturn Alley.
  •  Despite the prices, the stuff was pretty hard to resist.  Chocolate frogs make great gifts, the wands are, well, a geek-requirement, plus individual tastes will be sated.  I not only bought a fanged frisbee in the HP part but a Captain America shield in the Marvel area.
  • As always, doing the water rides early (morning) or late (evening) is not the best idea.  It was pretty warm during the trip, but cold wet clothes are uncomfortable and buying shorts is expensive in the park.
  • I learned that my Disney strategy in California works well at Universal as well: get there early and go to the most desired ride first.  Universal actually opened its gates at around 8:45 (listed as 9am opening), even earlier to those who were staying on the property.  We were slightly off property because I was using my Hilton Honors points for a free room (who says years of APSA/ISA attendance does not pay?).  Still, getting there at 8:20 or 8:30 put us near the front of the line, we fast-walked to the Forbidden Journey through and beyond Hogwarts and got on the ride too quickly.  Too quickly?  Yes, because the castle has heaps of details that one can only appreciate if one is in a slowish line.  Like the pictures on the walls talking to each other, for instance.  
    • Not only is early good but valet parking is to be recommended.  Sure, it costs $15 more than regular parking (plus tip), but you avoid the lines to park, the crazed parkers, the longer walk in and out for the price of three chocolate frogs or half a wand. 
  • The Ollivander wand show gets long lines as only twenty or so people get to see each three minute show or so.  If the line is 30 minutes or less, do it.  If the line is longer, don't.  It is good but not great.  The rides are worth longer waits, especially the HP Forbidden Journey, the Spider-man 3D ride, and the Simpsons ride (the last is on the Universal Studios side of the area).
  • We didn't use our express pass that much the first day (it does not cost that much per person but adds up for an entire party so we only got the passes for the first day).  The pass does not apply for the Forbidden Journey or Ollivander, but does for the Hulk roller coaster (an excellent one), the Spidey ride (an excellent one) and several others.  If you don't have an express pass, a good strategy for some rides is to join the singles line.  This will mean that your party gets divided up (problematic if you have a large party and/or small kids) but you go through much faster--like half the time. 
  • Spider-man really is friendly.  He signed my shirt and was very nice to us.  Good thing since it is our 20th anniversary (yes, we are quite the nerds to celebrate our anniversary this way), and we had used Spider-man and Barbie figurines instead of the traditional and over-priced cake topping.
  • Perhaps we had some selection bias, but all of the coasters we rode (Hulk, Rockit, Dueling Dragons) were very, very good ones.  Didn't do the kid-friendly one at HP--my 16 year old is beyond such stuff, although she did enjoy the Seuss carousel.
  • EPCOT is ok.  We did that in between days at Universal.  Disney has way too many parks in Orlando so we had to choose and EPCOT was the most distinct from other experiences (we did Magic Kingdom a couple of years ago in Calfornia, we have done water parks and zoos elsewhere, Disney Studios would seem like too much replication of Universal's).  But that meant we missed the new version of Star Tours (a Star Wars ride) at Disney Studios.  Anyway, get reservations because all of the country-themed restaurants fill up.  For the racing simulation, do join the single line, but for the space sim, don't.  You can have four people act as team members simulating a landing on Mars--very cool and fun as a family.
  • Our last day was mostly doing two things: an airboat ride (imagine a sled with a huge fan on the back) and Gatorland.  We saw a few gators and heaps of nature on the airboat ride, which was a fun experience.  Well worth it.  Gatorland was a very cheesy, silly and interesting experience with heaps of gators and crocs and all other kinds of animals.  
Overall, we had a great time (and sold our house while we were out town!).  Now, we just have to catch up on everything else.

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