Monday, November 8, 2010

Day 6: A Universal Kind of Day

We had predetermined a long time before going that Tuesday would be our Islands of Adventure/Universal Studios day. We had also decided to take a taxi both ways. There are several shuttle services available that cost less, however, you are then constrained by their schedules and you are stuck with other people (and more annoyingly, other people's possibly crying children). There's a valet service on resort, so they will hail a cab for you. The cost ended up being $37 one-way.

We arrived for opening. There had been a soft opening for Universal resort guests, so we were forced to enter the park and head to the left. This was the longest possible way to get to the main attraction- Hogwarts, etc. We were also only allowed to go as far as the Marvel area, which is still ridiculously far from Hogwarts.

Here's a picture from the Marvel area. There are several signs and what not like the one above.

They officially opened, and it became somewhat chaotic. There was no crowd control and running was permitted. A few things definitely annoyed me, first off, why did they have to stop entry SO far from the main attraction? They could have had the waiting zone much closer to the attraction. Also, and this really irked me... we get to the bridge into Hogwarts/Hogsmeade and it was announced that the main ride was down... Ummm, you couldn't tell the hundreds of people about this before? Thanks! Here's the view from the main bridge into the land.

So we, with everyone else, headed into the shops of Hogsmeade. The atmosphere is cute, but it is definitely a crowded environment. I know that's how it appears in the movies, so they really stayed true to that! There are some great details throughout the area.

Like this sign at the main entrance into Hogsmeade.

Tamara spotted this, which I thought was pretty hilarious. Great name for the ATM machine!

Some more signs, and the "snow" covered roof tops.

I thought this women's restroom sign was creative.

Inside of Honeydukes, the sweet shop. You can't go wrong with a bright pink spiral staircase!

I would've loved to take more pictures throughout Hogsmeade, but it was too crowded. And in this case, I was really trying to avoid people in my photos. There was something very wrong about seeing so many "muggle-dressed" people in the streets! We ended up trying the much hyped Butterbeer. I think Tamara and I were expecting vastly different things. They have two version of the drink, the slushie/slurpie version, and the regular drink version, nothing heated.
Basically, it was somewhat like butterscotch mixed with rootbeer. In place of foam on the top, they had this sweet vanilla whipped topping that resembled foam. It was okay, not something I would go out of my way to try ever again.

We carried onwards into Seuss Landing. We rode the Cat in the Hat. It was a little sad, I hate being the person to compare two vastly different things, like Disney and Universal, but it was very apparent that this ride needed some work. It also just didn't have the details that I associate with the classic slow track ride. There was lots of open space, that's really the best way I can try to describe it.

Next we wandered through If I Ran the Zoo. It had some cute Seuss-ish decor and some interactive critters.

We headed back to the Comic area and rode Spiderman. It ended up being a 20 or 30 minute wait. It was a pretty neat ride, very interesting mix of 3-D, sensory elements, and track ride elements!

We ambled onwards towards Hogwarts, hoping that the ride was running. That was pretty much the primary reason for even getting Universal park tickets! Of course, we stopped for a few photo opportunities along the way.

Here I am with my good Russian friends, Boris and Natasha.

And here I am, totally surprised by this Tyrannosaurus Rex. There were a few other poses, like the casual pose, and the "gee, this dino really smells" pose.

We made it to Hogsmeade again, and thankfully the ride was up and running! The line up was pretty chaotic. There wasn't an actual queue until you got to the main gates of the castle. There was also no staff to guide you. This meant there was quite the line just running through the entirety of Hogsmeade. I was not impressed with that. I like a bit more structure. The posted wait time at the gates was 60 minutes. While waiting in the streets, I snapped a photo of the Owl Post.

Here's a picture of the castle right before you enter the lower level.

Next up, before the rest of the wait and the ride itself- Locker Mayhem. Universal is obsessed with having lockers available, instead of just providing secure spots on the ride for personal belongings of any type. The lockers were also not at all organized. Basically there was a person that directed you to go left or right. However, once you got to a locker section, you needed to find the terminal, and hope that all the lockers in that section weren't in use (most were in use). Sure, the lockers are free for 2 hours or something, but that was not fun. We put all our belongings, except the small camera, and my hat (oops) into the locker, took a photo of the locker number, and went to find the queue.

Again, there's not really anyone pointing out where to go at this point. This is definitely an unfortunate theme. I don't like feeling lost. Once we found the line, it was pretty organized. Now, I have another complaint... Orlando is known for being typically pretty warm and humid, right? So why would you make the exterior queue to a highly anticipated, popular ride under greenhouse roofing? It was pretty gross. I'm not sure which group of designers thought that one through. At least there was a water fountain amidst the line. It was definitely nicer waiting outside than under that roofing though!

Finally we got inside the castle! Yay for the dark and the cool! There is also much more to look at once you're in the castle. You wander through the main hall, pass by Dumbledore, then head into one of the classrooms. You also pass by the guard painting for Gryffindor House. I guess the story of the ride is going through the school, into a quidditch match, into the forest with spiders and dementors, and then you're done and somehow you've helped save the day? I didn't actually follow the storyline. It was an odd mix of movie screens and larger than life props. Not at all what I was expecting. We were stopped for a good 5 minutes right before one of the large dementors. Thankfully we weren't at a really uncomfortable angle. We were also the only ones on that car (for lack of a better word), so we could just sit and chat.

Upon the ride ending, we were dropped off in a weird spot. We eventually learned it was the wheelchair loading zone, I guess they were pulling our car for use. Anyway, we thought it was strange that no one else was around other than a cast member. It was kind of cool to get to see that area and use the elevator.

We decided to re-enter the ride and just do the walkthrough instead. Somewhere along the line, I was totally misinformed that the walkthrough was a different experience. It's really not, you just walk through a separate part, in the same area as the queue. I had picked up my camera though, so at least I got a few more shots, since there really wasn't enough light for the little camera. It's like they don't want you taking pictures in there! Oddly enough, I don't recall hearing any announcements banning flash photography. I managed to get an alright shot of Dumbledore's office, as well as this wall of portraits. Some of them even moved!

We decided we had had enough of Islands of Adventures, so we made our way out of the park. We definitely needed some lunch, so we headed out to City Walk and ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. It wasn't busy at all there and we had a fairly chatty waitress. We had some garlic bread, house salads, and shared the Shrimp Lover's Heaven (a combo dish of shrimp, prepared 4 ways). It was a good lunch.

We headed to Universal Studios next. You can't go there without taking a picture of the globe!

We really didn't do much here, we were feeling a bit tired, or tired of the parks anyway. So we went over to the Simpsons ride. It is in the same building where Back To The Future used to run. The wait was pretty long, we were sent all the way to the 3rd floor waiting area. It was sadly apparent that they were understaffed. I only saw 2 cast members while I was up there, and they were both continuously running.

The ride was very visually interesting, it's really well done! But oh my goodness, is it ever hard on the body. There's a shared restraint bar for each bench. We were seated with one extra tall person, so their legs dictated how far the restraint came down. We were tossed around, slammed into the back of the bench, at one point I was actually standing... I was also concerned that I might actually lose some of the belongings that I had with me. If you've ever been in a minor fender bender, the ride felt kind of like that, repeatedly!!

Next, we wandered through Amity and into the Universal Studios Streets of America (I don't actually know what they're called) . That area was fully accessible, so I took photos. Here's one of the Hotel Empire.

And one of this hardware sign.

Our last ride of the day was ET. I still think it's one of the better rides, as far as it having a more interesting interior queue , the vehicle ride is pretty neat, and there's more to look at. Plus, it says your name at the end, and that's always good for a laugh!

I'm glad we had the day break from Disney, but it definitely became apparent that these places are run by vastly different companies. So here's my breakdown of items that I noticed. Feel free to skip it. I'm not saying Universal doesn't have its moments, just saying Disney has more.
  • The theming at Disney is just more immersive and complete. There are better meldings of the different "lands".
  • With the new Harry Potter area, they ended up re-theming 2 existing rides. That consisted of redoing the one's cars from a unicorn to a hippogriff, and giving the other one a different title. I guess it's good to make use of what you have, but it'd be better to have all new items.
  • There is way too much dependence on 3-d rides and motion simulators, anything newer was going that way.
  • Super boring queues. Really they are just lines with railings. Not really anything to even look at!
  • Standby times that were posted were often exact, or longer (I definitely got spoiled by the Disney way, they tend to post high, so if you get in faster you're happier)
  • Very little authority or staff. I really didn't see many people working.
Anyway, so we left around 3:30, got a taxi right away and beat the rush hour traffic back to the hotel.

Tuesday also had the fun of being laundry night! Woot. Tamara booked a massage- The Simpsons ride had really wretched her shoulder, so she needed to do something about it if she hoped to survive the rest of the week.

Since we were back, we managed to catch the hot appetizers at the lounge. They had various cheeses, some wine and beer, hummus with pita or bread, samosas, some sort of goat cheese tart, and peanut butter and jelly uncrustables and gummi bears for the little ones (or whoever else might take them...)

We had dinner at the food court- The Mara. We split mac & cheese and a turkey sandwich. The sandwich was really good. I'm not sure if cheese was actually in the mac & cheese.

We dipped our feet in the pool for a little bit, then headed to the bar, Tamara ordered a drink, then we went back to the room for an early night and we may have enjoyed some more time on the balcony, animal watching!

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