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Trip Report Lebeau Family Trip Report 2017: Universal Orlando

Discussion in 'WDW Trip Reports' started by lebeau, Jul 7, 2017.

  1. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member

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    (This trip report recently ran at my blog, so you may see an occasional reference to the site the report was originally posted to.)

    My family and I have recently returned from our latest theme park vacation. When the kids were little, we made regular visits to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Following our last trip in 2014, we decided it was time for us to explore some other options. The following year, prior to embarking on our first family cruise (with Disney of course), we spent a day at Universal Studios. This year, we settled on an extended visit at Universal Orlando.

    Introductions are in order. Presumably most of you know me. I’m Lebeau. My lovely wife Mindy mostly tolerates my theme park obsession. Over the course of several Disney World trips, she got fed up with the hassles of getting around Disney’s gigantic resort and found she very much preferred Universal’s compact layout. We have two daughters; Josie (12) and Kara (8). If you’ve been reading my trip reports I imagine you’re marveling over how big they have gotten.

    Before we get started, I want to give you guys some background on this trip. For a while leading up to our departure, we seriously considered cancelling or at least postponing this vacation. As the school year was winding down, Kara suffered a mysterious injury to her ankle. We’re not sure exactly how it happened, but she had a break or at least a fracture that was going to limit her mobility for several months. The best case scenario was that she would be in physical therapy and an ankle brace during our trip. If you have ever visited an Orlando theme park, you know how much walking is involved.

    There were other concerns. Josie got braces which are not only expensive, but they cut up her mouth for a couple of weeks. During that time, it was hard to imagine she would have a lot of fun on vacation. We had also adopted not one but two dogs. It’s a long story, but the bottom line was that we weren’t sure we would have anyone available to watch them while we were away. A month or so before we left, I was very close to scrapping the whole thing.

    Obviously, we decided to carry on. Kara’s ankle healed as well as could be expected. Her physical therapist told us we were going to have to work within her limits, but that seemed feasible at a relatively small resort like Universal. Leading up to the trip, I made lots of little preparations. We found relatives to take in each of the two doggies. We ordered new luggage, picked our restaurants where we thought we might like to eat, etc.

    Just before we left, we checked the weather forecast and it was foreboding. In all my trips to Florida, I had never seen such dire predictions – and we’ve been during hurricane season. Every day of our trip included high chances of not just rain but severe thunderstorms. If you’re familiar with Florida weather, you know that these storms typically come and go pretty quickly. But going in to this trip, we knew that we were going to need to be ready for rain. I was reasonably confident we could work around whatever Mother Nature threw at us this week.

    Our flight in was pretty uneventful. I had scheduled an early morning flight which was later rescheduled for an even earlier time by our airline. We arrived at the Orlando airport ahead of schedule, so we had plenty of time to check in and have some fun. I had arranged car service to the hotel via Happy Limo. Although it is pricier than some options, we were happy with the service we received during our 2015 cruise and decided to give them repeat business. It’s much more convenient than renting a car or taking a shuttle.

    Our driver’s name was Ashley. On the way to the hotel, we made small talk. She assured us that she had heard very good things about Loews Royal Pacific. We talked about recent additions to the Orlando scene like Volcano Bay and Disney’s Pandora. Ashley mentioned that her mother was a bartender at Animal Kingdom Lodge who had been moved to Pandora when it opened. (I mention this because it will come up again later.)

    We also talked about the weather forecast. Ashley informed me that prior to our arrival, central Florida had been in the middle of a terrible drought. She said they really needed the rain. Good for them, bad for us I guess.

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    We would be spending the week at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. This is one of the deluxe hotels at Universal. All of the on-site hotels include some very nice perks for Universal guests like early park admission, transportation to the parks and the ability to pick up tickets in your hotel lobby. On our previous visit, we enjoyed the kitschy Cabana Bay Beach Resort. But the allure of free Express Pass for the length of our stay was too much to pass up so this time we upgraded to deluxe accommodations.

    The math on this decision is going to vary depending on the size of your party and how much you value what Express Pass has to offer. If you are paying for EP out-of-pocket, it will typically run you around $80 per person. For a family of four, that’s right around the cost of the hotel room. I was able to get a good rate so I paid less for the room than I would have paid out-of-pocket for the passes.

    Of course there’s no way I would have shelled out for six days of Express Pass. So you have to factor that into your value assessment. Given Kara’s limited mobility and the kids’ impatience with lines, I put a pretty high premium on front-of-the-line upgrade. Your mileage is going to vary.

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    For a long time, I had aspirations of staying at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. Eventually, I decided that as nice as that hotel is, I would never be able to justify Disney’s asking price. Loews Royal Pacific, however, has a similar theme with a much more reasonable price tag. It would make a suitable substitute for the Polynesian.

    Both hotels feature lush landscaping and running water. But Royal Pacific has a more upscale feel to it. The decor leans towards Asian influences as opposed to the Tiki culture celebrated at the Poly. The hotel doesn’t quite make you feel like you have been transported to a far away island, but it does a nice job of evoking a sense of something more exotic than your standard hotel.

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    The overall vibe is one of serenity. Loews Royal Pacific is classy without being stuffy. The surroundings put guests in a relaxed state of mind. Some hotels feel like they are buzzing with hyperactive children and frazzled parents. Others feel too formal for you to really let your kids be kids. Loews Royal Pacific hits that balance nicely where parents can relax and the kids can have fun.

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    Once we arrived, we had some business to attend to. The first stop was at the front desk to check in. I was not surprised to discover that our room wasn’t ready yet. We had arrived earlier than expected. I wasn’t entirely certain what time check-in was, but I knew that if necessary we could check our bags at luggage services and get something to eat.

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    More often than not, the staff will greet you with a welcoming “mahalo.” I would say that the service we received during our stay was consistently friendly and occasionally exceptional. When I checked in, we were given Hawaiian leis which I think we all wore for about 10 seconds before deciding to stick them in our bags.

    Our next stop was at the nearby kiosks where we could print up our park tickets and Express Passes. The Express Pass includes a photo, so everyone had to smile for the camera. I had also secured priority seating at Volcano Bay for Sunday, so I printed up those vouchers as well. With all of our park-related business attended to, we stopped by the luggage desk to drop off our bags. After the bags were safely checked, we went searching for lunch.

    Next: Lunch at Jake’s American Bar
     
  2. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    There were basically two ways we could have gone. On the one hand, we could head on over to CityWalk and then straight out to the parks. But Mindy was hoping to unpack our bags first. She says she can’t really relax until everything is put away in drawers. So instead, we went to one of the hotel’s on site restaurants.

    We were trying to decide between Jake’s American Bar and the Islands Dining Room which are right next to each other. The decision became an easy one when we realized only Jake’s was open for lunch. Jake’s it is then.

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    The restaurant is not highly themed, but it does have a story. It’s a pretty simple story, but it does have one. Jake was an American pilot who decided to set up a bar on a tropical island. It’s basically the same background story as Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs only without the Indiana Jones connection. I found myself thinking of some of the Indiana Jones knock-offs from the 80’s. Anyone remember the TV show Tales of the Gold Monkey? That’s the kind of vibe I got off Jake’s.

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    At our waiter’s suggestion, we started off our meal with an order of homemade pretzel rods. These breadsticks were slathered with butter and dusted liberally with salt. They came with two dipping sauces; a tangy honey mustard and a cheese fondue. We split the three breadsticks into halves so that there were enough for everyone and they quickly disappeared. I think we probably could have just ordered five or six of these and everyone would have been happy. If you go to Jake’s, try the pretzel rods.

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    The service was a bit on the slow side. This wasn’t a problem for us because we were looking to kill some time before our room was ready. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. But if you’re the kind of person who is constantly checking your watch between the appetizer and the arrival of the entrees, you might find your patience tested.

    I was torn between the reuben sandwich and the beef steak flatbread. Ultimately, I was swayed by the promise of caramelized onions and blue cheese. The pizza had a cabernet glaze which added a bit of sweetness.

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    Mindy ordered the tomato mozzarella cheese sandwich. She’s a big fan of caprese, so this sandwich was right up her alley. She insisted I take a taste and I thought it was good, but I don’t get as excited about tomatoes and mozzerella as she does. The sandwich also features a pesto and a balsamic glaze.

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    Josie got the kid’s cheese quesadilla which you can barely make out under the mountain of french fries. She didn’t care for the quesadilla which she said was “too cheesy”. I was too full from my meal to try it for myself, but it appeared to be a pretty standard quesadilla. I can confirm that it was stuffed with cheese which would probably please most guests. Josie pretty much lives on french fries, so she ate hers and helped her mom out as well. Sometimes, we don’t even bother trying to push the issue on an entree and just let her order a side of fries. It’s cheaper and less wasteful.

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    Kara had a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. She dug in before we got a picture, but it was about what you would expect from a kid’s order of pasta. Instead of fries, she got the fruit cup because she’s always trying to find ways to eat healthy. I had expected the kind of fruit cup you typically get at a Disney restaurant which usually consists of mostly flavorless melon, a few grapes and a couple blueberries. Maybe a strawberry if you’re lucky. But nope, not here.

    Kara was so pleased with her decision that she ordered the fruit cup whenever it was offered. And it was offered quite frequently. The cup was loaded with chunks of pineapple and of course some melon and berries. And surprise, surprise, the melon was actually juicy. The serving size was so large that we usually stored half of it in our hotel fridge for a snack or breakfast the next day.

    As a drink, Kara ordered strawberry lemonade which she raved about. She asked for it at every restaurant for the rest of the trip. Most just had pink lemonade which was okay, but apparently not nearly as good as the strawberry stuff she had at Jake’s.

    After lunch, we went back to the front desk to get an idea as to when our room would be available. They were supposed to text us when the room was ready, but we figured there was no harm in asking. They told me that it could be ready any time but since the hotel was basically sold out it would probably be closer to 4:00. I took the hint. Go to the parks.

    Mindy wasn’t thrilled with the idea of visiting the parks prior to unpacking, but she handled it well. We asked for our bags from the service counter so she could change shoes. There were a couple of other things we needed. But soon, we were on our way to the hotel’s water taxis.

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    We must have looked pretty lost because a hotel employee stopped us and asked where we were going. She said she was headed our way and could walk us where we needed to go. On the way, she gave us a friendly tour making sure to point out all the shops and places where we could spend money. Soon, we were delivered to Royal Pacific’s boat dock.

    This was another nice perk of staying on property. When we had stayed at Cabana Bay in 2015, we were impressed with their shuttle service which we never had to wait for. But the water taxis have the shuttles beat in most ways. When you arrive at the dock, they do a quick security screening. Once that’s done, you won’t have to go through another baggage check for the rest of your day. That’s because unlike the shuttles which drop guests off outside the CityWalk parking structure, the water taxis take you right into the middle of CityWalk just by the bridges that lead to the gates of the parks!

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    The ride is slow and relaxing. I have read some advice that it is faster to walk to the parks from the hotel. That’s true if you’re in a big hurry. But when you’re armed with Express Pass, what’s the rush? Instead, you can kick back and relax with the full knowledge that you will still get your steps in touring the theme parks. No point wearing yourself out getting there, I say. This was especially important for us given Kara’s injured ankle. She could walk, but the idea was to give her frequent breaks to rest up.

    Next: Spider-man, Dudley Do-Right and Kong
     
  3. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    During our 2015 trip, we visited both Universal parks in a single day. Since we started in Universal Studios, we were pretty beat by the time we got to Islands of Adventure. As a result, there was a lot there we hadn’t seen yet. We decided this time, we would start off in Islands of Adventure and check off a few boxes we missed last time.

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    But first, we had some business to take care of. Just before our trip, I found out Universal was running a summer special on their photo packages. For less than the cost on a single day of pictures, I could get a My Universal Photos package that covered the entire trip. That seemed like too good of a deal to pass up. It turns out, it really wasn’t. But I will get to that in more detail as we go. While the girls were taking care of potty breaks, I went into the photo shop to redeem my package. I was given a lanyard with a barcode which I was told to give to any photographers I saw and to have it scanned for any ride photos I wanted.

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    I had read some reviews of the service before I made my purchase. By and large, the big knock against My Universal Photos is that there just aren’t all that many opportunities to use it. If you’re used to Disney’s photo service, there are photographers around every corner. But at Universal, they can be a little scarce. Universal uses a third party for their photo packages and so it’s probably not all that surprising that the service is inconsistent.

    Generally speaking, whenever we passed a photographer, they would spot my lanyard and offer to take a picture. (As you can see from the picture above I was really rocking the lanyards. I had bought one for everyone, but the girls asked me to hold theirs. So I ended up with a total of four lanyards around my neck; mine, the photo package and one for each daughter.) We ended up with family photos in front of most of the park icons. The quality of the pictures was nothing special. Some never turned up on our account. I ended up with around 30 pictures which wasn’t terrible. But if I had paid the non-discounted price, I’d be asking for some money back. Even with a steep discount, I wouldn’t do it again.

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    As we entered Marvel Superhero Island, I took this picture because I was struck by the kinetics. A stationary picture does a lousy job conveying all of the movement in this part of the park. The Incredible Hulk coaster goes roaring past overhead and in the distance you can see elevators rising and dropping on Dr. Doom’s Fear Fall. Additionally, the artwork makes an effort to recreate the kind of movement you get in comic books. For example, the Human Torch leaves a trail of flames as he flies around the Cafe 4.

    There are rumors that in the not too distant future Universal will be revamping Marvel Superhero Island to give it a more modern aesthetic. I hope these rumors turn out to be true because the character designs are stuck in the later 1990’s when the park opened. The emphasis then was on “extreme”, exaggerated and cartoonish art. Fortunately the art in this part of the park was by Adam Kubert whose style has held up better than many of his contemporaries. But an update would be welcome as long as it maintains the same kind of kinetic excitement.

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    We ended our previous Universal trip with a ride on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man. By then, Mindy and Kara were done with rides, so it was just me and Josie. This time, everyone was riding. During the ride, I turned around to see how Kara was handling the villains some of which are kind of scary. She was laughing and enjoying herself. She especially enjoyed being sprayed by water during the scene with Hydro Man. Everyone enjoyed the ride and we all agreed it was a terrific start to our trip.

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    The girls were mostly interested in getting from the front of the park to the back as quickly as possible. They wanted to pick up some interactive wands at Olivander’s. Last time, Josie had been picked for the wand show, but we didn’t actually purchase any wands since we were only there for a day. So this time, they were looking forward to buying some wands and practicing their spells in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

    That was definitely on the agenda, but I was in less of a hurry to get to the wand shop. I knew our chances of being chosen for the show were better in Diagon Alley than they were in Hogsmeade. I also would have preferred to pick up the wands early in the morning when the parks would be less crowded.

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    As we made our way through Cartoon Lagoon, we saw Popeye and Olive Oyl out for meet and greets. There was literally no one in line to see them. They had just taken pictures with some guests and were waiting for someone else to approach them. The girls have little to no familiarity with the characters, so they were reluctant to pose for pictures with the sailor man and his best girl. But since there was no wait, I decided I was going to meet Popeye. The girls ended up following me.

    I couldn’t tell you what Popeye said, but it was definitely conveyed in his trademark mumble. The kids remarked on Olive Oyl’s high pitched voice which was also on point. We were asked to show off our muscles and then we were on our way.

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    By this point, it was the middle of the afternoon and it was hot. Hot enough that you could break a sweat standing still. The oppressive heat made Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls an easy sell. Kara was a little leery of the drops, but she likes the log flume at our local amusement park so we were able to talk her into a ride with the entire family.

    Despite using Express Pass we actually had about a ten minute wait for this ride. I guess everyone was looking to cool off.

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    Dudley Do-Right is comparable to Disney’s Splash Mountain in that they are both flume rides with audio-animtronics. But the show scenes on Ripsaw Falls are nowhere near as elaborate as the ones on Splash Mountain. The show scenes consist of very basic recreations of Snidely Whiplash capturing Dudley’s girl, Nell. These animatronics would feel at home in a regional amusement park. They definitely aren’t the main draw for this attraction like they are on Splash Mountain.

    Instead, Dudley Do-Right offers a solid flume ride with some good dips and drops. There are some elements of the cartoon’s signature humor mostly in the form of silly signs. Unlike some other flume rides, you will definitely get wet on Dudley Do-Right. At one point, a lift hill passes under a wall of water. There’s no avoiding it. But on a hot day like this one, getting doused was a welcome relief.

    Whenever we would ride something new, I would watch Kara to see how she was handling it. Once I knew she was enjoying the ride, I could relax and enjoy it myself. She had really taken to the flume ride at our local amusement park last summer, so I was relatively confident she would enjoy Dudley Do-Right despite the higher thrill factor. Sure enough, she was laughing and having fun.

    After the ride, we were all soaked but we knew we would dry quickly in the Florida sun. I went to a nearby kiosk to add the ride photo to our package. After flipping through dozens of pictures a few times, I was informed that apparently the camera didn’t catch us on the way down. There was no picture. Since I had the photo package, they offered to let us ride again if we wanted to. They said we could wait in the Express Pass line, but since we already had Express Pass through our hotel, that wasn’t much of an incentive. We decided to move on.

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    Since we were already damp, I wanted to hop onto the Jurassic Park River Ride. But Josie had decided that certain attractions just weren’t in the cards for her and Jurassic Park was one of them. She told me she doesn’t like boats and she doesn’t like dinosaurs so she doesn’t want to take a boat ride to see dinosaurs. She wouldn’t budge from that position despite some prompting from both me and her mom.

    As a form of compromise, I convinced the girls to ride Skull Island with me. To sweeten the deal, I offered to pay them each $5. Kara tried to extort me for $10. Reluctantly, they accepted my enticement and agreed to ride the King Kong attraction.

    The queue for Skull Island is supposed to be really cool. It includes some spooky elements such as actors who jump out at guests as they make their way through the line. Since we were using Express Pass, we bypassed most of this stuff (we did see an animatronic witch from a safe distance). The girls (Mindy included) were not at all disappointed to skip this part of the experience.

    The wait time for the stand-by line was posted over an hour. Even with the advantage of Express Pass we had a six or seven minute wait to ride. The EP line goes through some dark, narrow passages which Mindy didn’t love. But it wasn’t long before we were boarding our vehicle and donning our 3-D glasses.

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    All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Reign of Kong. Yes, it’s another screen-based motion simulator at a resort that is already stocked with them. But the ride vehicles differentiate this attraction from similar rides like Spider-man or Transformers. Most importantly, the execution is solid. As the truck rocks back and forth, it really feels like you are stuck between a battling dinosaur and King Kong.

    If you’re completely averse to motion simulators, Skull Island probably won’t change your mind. But I found it to be surprisingly fun. Even the girls, who were reluctant to get in line, said they enjoyed the ride.

    Next: Hogsemeade and a race against the weather
     
  4. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    Finally we had arrived at Hogsmeade. The kids wanted to get some wands and as far as they were concerned they had wasted enough time getting here. Kara had some very specific ideas about the wand she wanted based on what had happened during our 2015 visit. The first time we went to Olivander’s in Diagon Alley, Josie had been chosen for the wand show. The wand that had been selected for her at the time had a Phoenix feather core.

    Kara never explicitly stated the connection to the previous experience, but she wanted a wand with a Phoenix feather. She was also keen to be chosen for the show, but she wasn’t pushing that issue. In fact, the girls initially decided to go wand shopping without watching the presentation. But our shopping hit a bit of a road block when no one at Olivander’s could confirm which wands had what for a core.

    We spoke to a few different employees in the store who would neither confirm nor deny the interior of any of the wands. (In truth, all the wands are plastic. However, we must maintain the illusion.) They offered advice about choosing the wand that feels right to you. But Kara wasn’t convinced. She wanted a wand with a Phoenix feather and she wasn’t taking any chances with getting a unicorn hair or a dragon heartstring by mistake.

    Finally, one employee directed me to ask the wand master in the purple robe. We could either go through the show or wait for them by the exit. With that, the girls decided to go through the presentation. Kara, of course, was hoping to be selected but they went with an older girl.

    After the show was over and the room had cleared out, I asked the wand master if she could tell us which wands had Phoenix feathers. We got more cryptic answers about wands choosing their users. She also said that most wands don’t choose their users until the wizard is old enough to go to Hogwarts. But she didn’t push the “too young” angle too hard because you don’t want to screw up a sale on a $50 souvenir.

    On the one hand, I appreciated that the wand master spent a bit of time with us after the show. And you have to be impressed by everyone’s devotion to immersion in the Wizarding World. On the other, I really just wanted someone to tell us which wand to buy to make my kid happy. We ended up back where we started in Olivander’s going through shelves of wands.

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    Josie was getting a bit impatient because she knew what she wanted – a replica of Hermione Granger’s wand. I decided it was time to make something happen on this Phoenix feather thing. So I approached another employee and more or less guided him through the responses wanted from him. “This sure does look like it has a Phoneix feather core, doesn’t it?” Nodding my head vigorously but out of Kara’s line of sight so the guy knows “just agree with me here.”

    Thankfully, he got the message. He wouldn’t confirm 100% what kind of core the wand we had selected contained, but he came close enough that Kara was satisfied. Perhaps fearing the wrath of JK Rowling, he made sure to tell us that there were charts at the Diagon Alley location where we could verify what kind of core the wand had. Yeah, thanks. We’ll do that.

    By the time we had selected our wands, the girls were in a hurry to get out of the crowded shop. They decided to hunt down some Butterbeer while I stayed behind and paid for our purchases. By the time I had done so, they were standing outside the shop with our beverages. We grabbed a nearby table and sat down for a drink.

    Last time, I greatly enjoyed the frozen Butterbeer, but in the heat I found it hard to drink because it kept giving me brain freeze. So this time, I ordered the easier-to-sip “cold” version of the drink. Unfortunately, the liquid in my cup was something less than “cold”. The foam, as always, was sweet and tasty. But the drink was a bit disappointing. I finished it because it was too expensive to waste. That didn’t prevent the kids from wasting quite a bit of theirs.

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    After we finished our drinks, the girls understandably wanted to try out their wands. We checked the map for a nearby spell location. That lead us to Honeydukes where the kids were able to use their wands to reveal a croaking chocolate frog. It was cute, but the area was so congested that it was a bit challenging to cast the spell. So we decided to put the wands away for another day. Besides, Josie wanted to get something from Honeydukes.

    After a quick bit of shopping, Josie was happily noshing on a chocolate frog. Kara was less decisive. She considered a chocolate frog but ultimately landed on a giant caramel apple.

    Having emptied our pockets, we decided it was time to head back to the room. Around about 4:00, I had gotten a text as expected confirming that it was ready. Between the flight and the heat, we were wearing out early. Also, the sky was starting to cloud over and storms were expected to roll in. So we made our way through Seuss Landing to the front of the park.

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    On our way, we were stopped by another photographer for a picture. Determined to get our money’s worth out of our photo package, we stopped and posed. In retrospect, I wish we had kept on going.

    When we arrived at the boat dock, there was a water taxi waiting for us. Unfortunately, just as we walked up, they shut down the operation of the boats due to approaching thunderstorms. That’s a perfectly understandable safety measure, but we weren’t entirely sure how to proceed. I asked an employee what they recommended and they pointed us to the nearby walking trails.

    The trails are very nice and the walk is at most ten minutes from CityWalk to Lowes Royal Pacific. But with Kara’s ankle, it was a bit much for her. Especially coming off touring Islands of Adventure. I should have walked to the CityWalk entrance and hopped the next shuttle back to our hotel, but instead we took to the trails.

    Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been an issue. But Kara was struggling. Mindy carried her part of the way. Eventually, I told Mindy and Josie to walk ahead and I would stay back and walk with Kara. Mindy had everything she needed to pick up the room keys at the front desk. Kara and I got to the hotel entrance just before the clouds opened up and rain came pouring down. It was close, but we stayed dry.

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    Our room ended up being in Tower #2. The hotel has three towers with the second tower being the farthest from the boat dock. I was initially disappointed with this, but it turned out not to be an issue. A few steps through the hotel lobby would get you to any other tower. Nothing was far away from anything else which is definitely a bonus. I love Disney’s Moderate Resorts but they are so sprawling that you are practically guaranteed at least one long hike if not several. At Loews Royal Pacific, everything was convenient.

    With the turn the weather had taken, we spent the rest of the night hanging out in the hotel room. Royal Pacific has been refurbished recently and the room was nice. Nothing mind-blowing but definitely on par with what you would expect from a similarly priced room at Disney World. Mindy set about unpacking while I started fiddling with the TV.

    Since I knew that we would likely spend a fair amount of time avoiding the rain, I packed an Amazon Fire Stick so the kids wouldn’t be limited to the channels offered on the hotel TV. This turned out to be a good call because we spent a lot of time in our room and the hotel offered only one channel for kids. Over the course of a rainy week, we got a lot of use out of Netflix.

    I had another small bit of business to attend to. Just before we left, I managed to snag priority seating at Volcano Bay. This guaranteed us four loungers and two lockers for about $130. Steep, but I thought it was worth it for peace of mind. As we were leaving the parks, Mindy told me Josie wasn’t going to be able to swim this week. That was going to put a crimp in any plans to visit the water park. I was going to need to cancel those reservations. Fortunately, Universal allowed me to do so with no hassle.

    Personally, I was still pretty full from our lunch at Jake’s. But the kids were getting hungry again so we decided to order up a little room service. Kara ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and another fruit cup. Mindy got a kid’s mac and cheese with a salad. Josie decided to skip dinner and just order dessert because… vacation.

    Kara thought that sounded good, they both ended up ordering brownies. The brownies turned out to be too fancy for the girls. They were very rich and fudgy, with enough whip cream and chocolate drizzle to qualify as a sundae. There was no ice cream, but each brownie came plated with a chocolate covered strawberry.

    After a few bites of grilled cheese, Kara thought the mac and cheese looked pretty good so she switched with Mindy. We all ended up sharing. I made a meal of whatever the kids didn’t finish. After everyone was satisfactorily full, I wheeled the room service cart out into the hallway and we settled in for the night. Tomorrow, we would be our first full day at the parks. In theory anyway.

    Next: Minions and Monsters
     
  5. fractal

    fractal Premium Member

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    Really enjoying your report!
     
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  6. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    Thanks. Despite some challenges, it was a fun trip.
     
  7. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    Today was the first full day of our vacation at Universal Orlando (Read about Day One here.). One of my goals for this trip was to slow down and take it easy. Usually on a Disney World vacation, we are racing around in an effort to get the most out of our time there. But Universal is small enough that we should be able to get our fill in six days without driving ourselves crazy. Especially since we were staying on property at Loews Royal Pacific which is both conveniently located and includes free Express Pass. There was no reason for us to rush. The question was, could I slow myself down?


    As a first step towards that goal, I did not set an alarm. Realistically, I tend to wake up pretty early on vacation anyway so I usually don’t need any help getting to the park gates early. I didn’t exactly sleep in, but I wasn’t up at the crack of dawn either. More importantly, I didn’t roust anybody else out of bed or push them to get ready. Everyone woke up and prepared at their own pace.

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    Even without me hurrying anyone up, we were still able to get to the boat docks reasonably early that morning. Early admission was at Islands of Adventure every day of our stay. Today, we were starting off at Universal Studios which opened at 8:00 am. We arrived at the gates shortly thereafter.

    When the water taxi pulled up to CityWalk, the captain informed us that there was a TV crew working near the bridges to the parks. Some people were hanging around trying to get on camera. The large screens nearby kept flashing the logo for the entertainment program Extra so we figured they were filming something on Universal for the show. Extra typically tapes at Universal Hollywood, so apparently they were in Orlando to promote some of the new attractions like Race Through New York and Volcano Bay. We didn’t think much of it, but it will come into play later.

    There was a pretty large crowd at the front gate that morning. Since we already had our tickets, we were ushered into a shorter line. It seemed like a lot of people were having problems with their biometric scans which was slowing down the entrance process. But once we got through, the crowd quickly dispersed.

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    Since my photo package lanyard was on display, we were stopped and asked if we wanted to pose for a picture. We made a habit of stopping whenever possible in order to try to get our money’s worth out of the discounted package I had purchased. The photographers had three poses they would ask for. First, a smile. Then everyone give a thumbs up (which always looked really stupid).

    For a third option, some photographers would ask one or both of the kids (always Kara, sometimes Josie as well) to hold out their hands. Then the rest of us were supposed to look surprised by what they were holding and point at it. I was the only one who ever made an effort to look surprised. Mindy and Josie just did the “smile and point” thing. Later in the day, I had to stop by the photo shop for them to add Hello Kitty to the picture.

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    Our first stop of the day was Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. Last time around, this was Kara’s favorite ride so I wanted to make sure we got to it. She had hoped to meet a minion at the dance party exit, but there were none to be found in 2015. One of my missions for this trip was to get Kara a face to face meeting with a minion.

    This ride regularly has very long lines, so it’s always a good idea to prioritize it. If you’re not using EP and you want to experience Minion Mayhem, I would recommend queuing up first thing in the morning while everyone else is making their way to Diagon Alley. The wait time this morning was still very reasonable, but since we had Express Pass we were able to walk right on.

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    Kara asked me to take a picture of her in her 3-D shades. As you will see, she was very into having her picture taken today. Expect to see that smiling face a lot.

    Minion Mayhem is a relatively tame motion simulator in which Gru from the Despicable Me movies turns guests temporarily into minions to do his bidding. The queue and preshow are loaded with gags from the movies.

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    As we exited the ride I was happy to see a couple of minions hanging out in the “dance party” that takes place between the ride and the gift shop. Since Josie had no interest in meeting the Minions, she and Mindy went shopping while Kara and I got in line for her meet and greet. Due to the colored lighting in this room, the pictures I took on my cell phone camera weren’t terrific. But thankfully there were photographers on hand to capture the moment. (For most meet and greets, this would not be the case.) Score one point for the photo package.

    While we were meeting minions, Josie found a bracelet in the gift shop with her name on it. It actually said “Joey” but we call her by that name at home. Mindy also bought some banana-flavored off-brand Tic Tacs. The girls all thought they were nasty and refused to eat them. The banana flavor was strongly artificial and the candies were crunchier than the name-brand breath mint. They went to waste. Mindy also picked up a Minions keychain for friend Larry whom we would be meeting later in the week.

    With one ride under our belts it was already time for a break. When you are travelling with three girls, you have to be prepared for frequent stops. I stuck around to pay for our purchases while the girls went in search of a restroom.

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    Once my credit card had been swiped, I called Mindy to see where they had ended up. They were in the nearby Monsters Cafe. We have yet to eat in this restaurant, but we visit every trip for potty breaks.

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    From what I have read, we’re not missing out on anything by avoiding the food here. But the place is definitely worth checking out if you have any kind of affinity at all for the classic Universal monsters. It’s basically a movie monster museum that houses a so-so cafeteria. Go for the exhibits (and restrooms), but eat somewhere else.

    Before we left, I wanted to fill up some water bottles to help us stay hydrated. The Monsters Cafe had Coke Freestyle machines which I had seen people use to fill up bottles during our previous visit. But these machines wouldn’t let us get water without a refillable cup. I asked an employee if it was possible to get plain old H2O from the machines and he directed me to the soda station instead.

    At the soda station, an elderly man named Bill was filling soft drinks in anticipation of the lunch rush. We asked Bill if he could fill up our collapsible water pouches for us and he was more than happy to oblige. Bill was exactly the kind of person you hope to meet when you visit a theme park. He loved his job and it showed. That kind of interactions adds something intangible to your vacation experience. Thanks for the drinks, Bill!

    Next: Race Through New York
     
  8. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    We regrouped to figure out our next steps. We knew we would probably end up making our way to Diagon Alley, but we weren’t sure which attractions we would visit along the way. Since it was new and nearby, our top candidate was Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon. Emboldened by her ride experiences so far, Kara decided she liked motion simulators and asked if they had any more. “You’re in the right park,” I told her.

    [​IMG]

    If a ride based on The Tonight Show seems like an odd fit to you, you’re not alone. Nothing about the long-running late night talk show screams out to be made into a theme park attraction. But corporate synergy demanded that NBC should promote Universal theme parks and Universal theme parks should make every effort to get its guests to tune in to NBC. The end result is a pleasant-enough ride that is basically Soarin’ with Jimmy Fallon.

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    What sets Race Through New York apart from other attractions is the inclusion of a virtual queue. This doesn’t mean you won’t have to wait for your turn to experience the attraction. What it means is that instead of waiting in a traditional line, you can hang out in the relative comfort of a lounge area with some form of entertainment.

    Since we had Express Pass, we were able to skip the first stage of the waiting process. Guests need to schedule an appointment in order to gain entry. This can be done at a kiosk outside the ride or on the Universal app. From what I have read, you will get more flexibility with regards to return times using the app than the kiosk.

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    When guests enter, they are handed a color-coded card. There are six colors in total matching the plumage on the NBC peacock. The card above explains how the queue process works. There are two floors. When the lights in the area you are in turn to the same color as the card you are holding, you may advance into the next holding area.

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    Truth be told, I never read the instructions on the card. Regardless of the color of the lights on the first floor, we walked upstairs right away. No one was waiting downstairs. I’m not sure if this reflects a change in policy for the ride or a lack of enforcement. Maybe we were able to skip the downstairs lobby as part of Express Pass, I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, we never spent more than a minute or two walking through the downstairs lobby.

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    For those who are curious or those who are forced to spend time on the ground floor, there are museum-style exhibits documenting the long history of The Tonight Show with individual displays dedicated to each of the show’s many hosts.

    Once you get upstairs, there is a lounge area with limited seating. There are also game kiosks that allow guests to play games based on The Tonight Show. These games are nothing special. One of them was a simple memory game. Frankly, you probably have more entertaining apps on your mobile phone. But the giant lit-up tables appeal to kids. Given the limited availability and no rules limiting the amount of time a kid can monopolize a game, getting access to a kiosk can be competitive.

    There is also a little showroom where more often than not clips of Jimmy Fallon hosting The Tonight Show are played. Every great once in a while, there is a live show. The Ragtime Gals is a recurring bit on the show (or so the clips tell me – I watch Colbert). The central gag is that they perform modern pop hits as a barbershop quartet. We never caught a live performance, but once while we were waiting for our turn to ride, there was a show going on which we were able to watch on TV monitors.

    Regardless of what was going on in the showroom, getting into it could be problematic. Generally speaking, people crowded the entrance. Unless you were willing to push your way in, it could be hard to gain entrance even if the room was half empty. I had done exactly that while Mindy and the girls were waiting for a game kiosk to become available. That meant that when the lights changed to our color, I had to scramble to find them in the crowded lobby.

    Once the lights change colors, you had best be prepared. There is a rush to get to the page’s desk and with good reason. If you are one of the first to respond to the colored lights, you will likely get to ride in the attraction’s next cycle. If not, you will wait for 10 minutes or so in a crowded hallway watching clips from The Tonight Show. If the line bends around the corner, you can’t even see the monitors.

    I think Universal still has some kinks to work out of their virtual queue system. They have said that they view this as the future of the parks. At a high level, I much prefer waiting in a lounge to waiting in a traditional line. But the execution feels like it’s still a little off. Guests are probably going to have to learn how to adapt to this system after decades of being trained to stand one behind the other. Bottom line, even with Express Pass we had a significant wait both times we rode Race Through New York.

    Was it worth it? I didn’t think so. The premise of the ride is that the audience at a taping of The Tonight Show races Jimmy Fallon through the streets of New York. It’s basically a motion simulator similar to Soarin’ in that there are not individual ride vehicles. You’re not hang gliding, but the ride is much faster paced. The jokes are corny (the race is interrupted by a cab driver who looks like Robert DeNiro – get it?) but they come at you so fast you might not mind that they aren’t funny.

    All in all, it’s a fine simulator attraction in a park that didn’t really need another motion simulator. But Kara enjoyed it which is why we would revisit it later in the trip. If you asked her, Kara would probably name Jimmy Fallon as her favorite ride of the trip. And despite not being familiar with the source material, the girls latched on to a couple of Fallon’s signature bits – especially a character named Sarah. So, based on the kids’ reaction, this new ride comes out as a win.

    Next: Springfield and Men in Black
     
  9. fractal

    fractal Premium Member

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    "You talkin' to me" ?


    thanks for the details description.
     
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  10. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    By this point, we were getting hungry. We had skipped breakfast and lunchtime was quickly approaching. I asked the girls what sounded good and there was no real consensus. We considered eating at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, but the menu didn’t sound all that appetizing to the picky eaters in the group. Instead, we made our way to Springfield.

    [​IMG]

    Since Kara was enjoying motion simulators, we decided to visit The Simpsons Ride. Because the ride is a little more herky jerky than the other simulators in the park, we decided to hit this one before lunch. The standby wait wasn’t terrible, but thanks to Express Pass we had no wait at all. After nearly being killed by Sideshow Bob, we were ready to eat.

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    The Simpsons-themed section of the park is relatively modest. But if you are a fan of the show’s irreverent humor, there are lots of little details to enjoy. A few years back, Universal expanded the area to include an upgraded food court which can be counted on for all your fast food needs.

    [​IMG]

    The Krusty Burger facade actually houses several dining options. The last time we visited here in 2015, the place was packed. There was a wait just to get in line at any of the individual stations. This time, we beat the lunch rush which resulted in a much more pleasant experience. We walked right up to the counters that interested us and quickly placed our orders. Mindy and the girls wanted burgers and I got the chicken and waffles sandwich.

    [​IMG]

    I had read reviews which indicated that the maple mayo made the chicken sandwich and that I should order extra. I did, but I’m not sure the sandwich needed it. The mayo is thinner than typical mayonnaise and tends to run over the sides of the sandwich making for a messy bite. The waffle is both crispy and chewy. It’s not a homemade waffle by any stretch, but it differentiates the sandwich from the usual meal on a bun. The waffle doesn’t hold together quite as well as the run-of-the-mill burger bun which contributes to the messiness of the sandwich. All in all, it was slightly better than average for theme park fast food.

    The girls felt similarly about their burgers which were slathered with Krusty sauce (basically thousand island dressing). Kara didn’t care for the stuff, so I scraped the goop off. Josie skipped the burger and went for a side order of curly fries. She’s had these kind of seasoned fries before, but apparently she doesn’t remember them because she found them to be a revelation.

    When everyone was done eating, I gathered up the trash and took it to the nearest receptacle. When I returned to our table, someone had taken my spot. An employee in a wheelchair was chatting with Mindy and the girls. He looked distressed when he realized he was blocking my seat at the table, but I told him not to worry about it. Mindy later told me that the employee, Pedro, had specifically asked if the seat was taken before he blocked it. She didn’t know how to tell him that I was coming back.

    Pedro talked with us for a while. He clearly wanted to make sure we were having a terrific time at Universal. He offered several touring tips which I didn’t need at all, but I appreciated that he was trying to be helpful. Much like Bill at Monsters Cafe, Pedro is exactly the kind of guy you want to have working at a theme park. He just loves brightening people’s day.

    [​IMG]

    Last time, we kind of blew past Moe’s Tavern. No one wanted a drink, but we decided to check it out because it is such an iconic location on The Simpsons.

    [​IMG]

    The girls posed for a picture with Barney. It was fun being immersed in the world of the show.

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    As we were leaving, we saw the entire Simpsons family doing meet and greets. Despite the fact Josie watches The Simpsons practically every night before bed, I couldn’t convince her to queue up to meet with Springfield’s most famous family. So I snapped this picture just to prove we actually saw them.

    [​IMG]

    With the exception of Race Through New York which opened this year, we were mostly revisiting rides we had enjoyed in 2015. Continuing that trend, we made our way over to Men In Black. After a quick stop to drop off our loose items in a complimentary locker, we were ready to save the galaxy from an alien invasion.

    [​IMG]

    Once again, the standby wait was not unreasonable. But with the benefit of Express Pass, we were able to walk right on to the ride. The attraction is like any other shooting gallery ride, but the execution is a step up in quality.

    The ride ends with an opportunity to score 100,000 bonus points. Ultimately, the winner in any competition will come down to who hits the bonus first. In our car, the bonus points were earned by the stranger sitting next to me. With the bonus taken out of the equation, Mindy’s superior aim gave her the highest score in our family.

    [​IMG]

    Since we were paying for a photo package, we made sure to pick up ride photos whenever they were offered, Since a lot of the rides involve 3-D glasses, this is less often than you might think. The strangers who rode with us were cropped out of our picture and digitally replaced with an MIB agent and an alien in disguise.

    Mindy and I look way too intense. That just goes to show you how competitive we were. She won the first round, but there would be a rematch before the trip was over.

    Next: Messages From the Ministry of Magic, a Shark Attack and a Frosted Minion
     
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  11. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    By this point, we were winding down. The park was getting crowded and we knew Diagon Alley would be packed. We decided to check out a few things on the London side of the land and then head back to the hotel for a break. I told the girls about the telephone booth and that something would happen if they dialed the word “MAGIC”. They decided they needed to check it out.

    [​IMG]

    There was another family in front of us, so we waited outside the phone booth for our turn. A woman with that group decided we were not giving them enough space and asked us to take a step back in order to accommodate a picture. We were happy to oblige, but frankly, we weren’t crowding them in the least.

    Afterwards, she leaned up against the storefront for the nearby record store. I knew the window included a tribute to Jaws, so I decided to snap a photo. I politely asked the woman if she wouldn’t mind stepping a bit to the side so I could get my shot. She was confused, but moved over so I could snap a picture of the cover above.

    If you don’t get the reference, stop what you are doing and go watch Jaws.

    [​IMG]

    Soon it was the girls’ turn in the phone booth. Not being familiar with rotary phones, they needed a little help from Mindy getting started. When you dial “MAGIC”, you get a message from the Ministry of Magic. The girls were suitably impressed. Having received our secret message from the Ministry, we headed to the front gates.

    [​IMG]

    You may have noticed I wore my Jaws shirt to the park this day. In case the shirt and the record store encounter didn’t give it away, Jaws is one of my favorite movies. While I will be the first to sing the praises of Diagon Alley, I still miss the Jaws ride it replaced. So I wanted to stop by the nearby Jaws statue and pay tribute to my favorite defunct Universal ride.

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    Before we left on our trip, I had told Kara about the Jaws ride. Mostly, I assured her that the ride no longer existed so there was no chance she’d be asked to ride it. Eventually, out of curiosity, we watched an old ride video. She was fascinated but also relieved that Harry Potter had taken up residence in the old Amity Island location.

    As we were making our way through Springfield, Kara caught sight of the Jaws statue and got very excited. She wanted to make sure I saw it too. As we made our way around to the side of the lagoon where the statue resides, Kara and I decided to get a closer look while Mindy and Josie took a potty break.

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    After taking the “normal” picture, Kara asked me if I wanted one of her afraid. I said “sure” and she immediately opened her mouth as wide as the shark hovering above her head. People waiting in line behind us started cracking up. She’s such a ham.

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    Once we had our pictures, we met Mindy and Josie in a nearby shop. They wanted some sweets. Before our trip started, I had sent Mindy pictures of some of the edible offerings from Universal. Based on the picture alone, she decided she need to have one of the frosting-covered cupcakes from the display case above.

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    A few minutes later, Mindy had her cupcake. She didn’t actually eat it right away. Instead, she saved it for the boatride home.

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    As we made our way to the front of the park, Kara complained a bit about her ankle hurting. We decided to take a break at the electric chair in front of the Monsters Cafe. This became another photo opportunity.

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    Both girls were hamming it up. I have at least a half dozen pictures of them clowning in this chair.

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    I assure you, no sisters were harmed in the making of this trip report.

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    Kara stopped again for another picture in front of the Universal globe outside the park. The primary appeal here was the mist that surrounds the base of the globe. Plus, she was just in the mood to pose for pictures.

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    On the boatride back to the hotel, the girls enjoyed the treats they bought before we left. Josie had a giant rice krispie square with M&M’s. She’s not supposed to eat these things with her braces, but since we were on vacation we told her it was okay as long as she was careful. She must have enjoyed it because somehow she ate the entire thing. I’m not sure the picture does this snack justice. It was roughly the size of a Rubik’s Cube.

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    Kara got a triple-chocolate brownie. This snack was equal parts brownie and chocolate. Once again, I think it was a bit too fancy for her tastes. She wrapped it up and took it back to the hotel. Eventually, I ended up eating what was left of it which was roughly half. If you like chocolate (and I do) the brownie was decadent.

    Next: Dinner With Scooby Doo
     
  12. Minnesota disney fan

    Minnesota disney fan Well-Known Member

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    I'm with you on the love of the old Jaw's ride. My kids remember it fondly,too. It was fun, scarey, kinda cheesy, but a blast. I miss it too.
    We didnt' know about the phone booth message, so will try it on our next trip. We did know about knocking on the door at #12 Grimmald Street so Kreacher would come and look out the window. That was fun.
    Love all your reports, thank you:)
     
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  13. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, Jaws hit just the right blend of fun and thrilling but not too scary... you know, depending on your kid anyway. I've seen more than one video of kids screaming their heads off on the Jaws ride, but those parents probably should have known better than to take their kids on a shark attack boat ride.

    There are so many hidden details to be found in the Universal parks (especially the HP areas). Lots to see and do outside of the rides.
     
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  14. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    As expected, the weather took a turn for the worse. Thunderstorms rolled in. We had talked about heading back into the park at night to let the girls use their wands, but that was looking unlikely.

    Having had a large lunch, it took us a while to get hungry for dinner. By that time, the weather had improved a little. But we were reluctant to head back to CityWalk and run the risk of thunderstorms causing the boats to be closed. So we decided to eat at one of the hotel restaurants instead.

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    Since we had already tried Jake’s, we decided to check out the Islands Dining Room. The menu is largely Asian food, but the kid’s menu was generic enough for the girls. On Thursday nights, the Islands hosts character dining. Not long after we were seated, our table was visited by Scooby Doo and Velma. Velma commented about the “monster” on my shirt.

    In terms of character dining, this was very different from what I am used to at Disney World. Usually, character meals at Disney involve over-priced buffet food with lots of characters making their way around the dining room. At the Islands, it was just the two characters. The primary draw here was the food. The characters were just an added bonus a couple nights a week.

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    As for the food, it was good. I ordered the shrimp pad thai. You can’t make them out in the picture, but there were several large shrimps buried under those noodles. The shrimps were perfectly cooked and delicious. I thought the sauce was just a little thin though. The noodles at the bottom of the bowl were soaking in it, but bites from the top didn’t have as much flavor unless I mixed the noodles into the sauce.

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    Mindy was more enthusiastic about her stir-fry. She offered me a taste and I thought it was good. I believe she finished her meal which is a sure sign that she enjoyed it. That doesn’t happen very often with restaurant portions.

    I didn’t take pictures of the kids’ meals. They were pretty standard fare. Kara got a grilled cheese sandwich which was essentially the same thing she had ordered from room service the night before. But this one was less crusty, so she deemed it superior. She was also thrilled that they offered the same strawberry lemonade she enjoyed at lunch at Jake’s. Josie ordered the pasta without meatballs which she liked well enough.

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    The girls ordered dessert. Josie got a mousse cake off the regular menu. It had a yin-yang design. She really enjoyed the dessert and ate every bite.

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    Mindy got a deconstructed banana cream pie. Once again, I was offered a bite and it was good. Mindy thought it was better than that and ate as much as she could. I finished off the few remaining bites.

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    Kara ordered a plate of chocolate chip cookies from the kid’s menu. Like the brownies, these turned out to be a bit too sophisticated for her. We brought some back to the room and ate them as snacks.

    After dinner, we went back to our room and relaxed. There were more storms predicted the next day. If the forecast held up, we were looking at rain and possible thunderstorms every day of our trip. Even though we had decided not to set any alarms, I decided it would be a good idea to get an early start at least once during the week. Tomorrow seemed like as good of a day as any.

    Next: Spell-casting in the Wizarding World
     
  15. Minnesota disney fan

    Minnesota disney fan Well-Known Member

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    We loved staying at RPR last February. What a beautiful resort. We actually like it better than the Poly. My daughter stayed at the Poly and we were unimpressed with the musty, worn room. They also had food trays ignored for 2 days, so they set them outside the room door. Well, they were never picked up and were joined by a multitude of more trays by the end of the week. I was impressed by the room, the staff, and the resort at RPR. I was wondering where you found out the hidden secrets of Universal??? I would love to read up on some of these for our next trip next year. Love your report!
     
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  16. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    I have heard reports that the Poly has gone downhill. "Musty" is a word that should not be used to describe a hotel in that price range, and yet I have heard it used more than a few times.

    I picked up little tidbits about Universal here and there. I read a few helpful trip reports in preparation for our vacation. The most useful single resource for hidden secrets would have to be Orlando Informer. We used their spell casting guide while we were in the parks.
     
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  17. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    Our first two days at Universal Orlando were cut short due to rain and thunderstorms. We still had three days left to tour the parks, but the weather forecast continued to be gloomy. The girls really wanted to spend some time in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter trying out their new wands. But that was difficult during the busy afternoon hours and the evening was likely to be rained out. So I set out to get an early start on our third day to take advantage of the early admission perk offered to guests at Loews Royal Pacific.


    My idea was met with some resistance. Before we left on this vacation, I had promised a more leisurely pace than our typical theme park itinerary. Armed with Express Pass, we would be able to sleep in. There was no need to set an alarm clock. But I knew we would have a much better spell-casting experience if we could beat the crowds to the park.

    This morning, everyone got up early enough that we could with just a little effort take advantage of the extra hour offered to hotel guests. Mindy cast a few sideways glances my way, irritated that I was hurrying everyone along. I assured her that I would only play this card one time during the trip and that it would be worth it. I don’t think she believed me on either count, but she played along anyway.

    A water taxi was waiting for us when we arrived at the dock. Thanks to the superior transportation provided by Royal Pacific, we were able to get to Islands of Adventure minutes before hotel guests were admitted. In no time at all, we were marching through an empty park with our wands at the ready.

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    Our destination was Hogsmeade, the only section of the park that was open early. Most guests made a beeline for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. If one were so inclined, they could ride this headliner attraction several times before the park opened to the general public.But we weren’t there for rides. We just wanted to take advantage of relative low crowds for spell-casting purposes.

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    My impression that morning was that Hogsmeade was empty. Looking at the pictures, “empty” is a relative term. As you can see, there are still plenty of people wandering around. But it was nothing like the congested walkways we experienced in the afternoons. The kids were able to walk from one spell location to the next with minimal waits. Frequently, there was no wait at all.

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    Kara took her spell-casting very seriously. I don’t know if it was a case of beginner’s luck, but she managed to trigger most of the effects within the first couple of attempts.

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    Spell-casting locations are marked (with a couple of exceptions) by a metal plate. The plate indicates which way you should point your wand, which gestures you should make and what magic words you should speak. The words are just a flourish, as long as you make the right motions with your wand it will have the desired effect. Cast a spell properly and you never know what will happen. This one caused a pixie to appear.

    (There are some unmarked spells. If you see a sensor in a store window, point your wand at it. You may be rewarded with some form of magic.)

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    You can see from the look on Kara’s face that she has successfully cast another spell. Must be the Phoenix feather core she searched high and low for.

    Generally speaking, the spell markers are outside of store windows. As you can see in the background, it’s not uncommon for lines to form at these locations. When the park is busy, you may have multiple children trying to cast the spell simultaneously which is more chaotic than it is fun. During early admission, we had no such issues.

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    All the while, I was keeping an eye on the time. I really wanted to be among the first to get into Diagon Alley which had more spell locations. During the week of our stay, early admission was never offered at Universal Studios. The only way we could beat the crowd to Diagon Alley was via the Hogswarts Express.

    There were attendants outside the station preventing people from queuing up early. I asked when they would allow people to get in line for the train and they responded that since guests were not admitted to Universal Studios until 9:00, the train wouldn’t open until then. This did not turn out to be the case.

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    As 9:00 approached, Hogsmeade was beginning to fill up. While the number of hotel guests with access to early admission is relatively small, they are all herded into one location until the rest of the park opens. Some of them will disperse to other areas of Islands of Adventure, but a large number of guests were waiting for their opportunity to hop the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley.

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    Our arrival outside of Hogwarts signaled that we had completed this half of our spell-casting tour. There was still about fifteen minutes left until the official park open. If we were so inclined, we could have queued up for one of the attractions. But I thought it was worth it to go back to the train station to see if they were letting guests in yet.

    When we returned, the same attendants were blocking people from entering. A decent-sized crowd was waiting outside of a rope for their opportunity to ride the train. Then suddenly, with no warning, one of the attendants unlatched the rope and took a step backwards. Neither one of them said a word. The crowd didn’t move at first. Then, realizing that the entrance was no longer obstructed, there was a mad rush towards the station.

    Fortunately, we were well-positioned to beat the crowd. On our way in, our tickets were checked to make sure we had admission to both parks. Since the Hogwarts Express travels from one park to the other, you can only ride with a multi-park ticket.

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    We made it through the queue in time to see the first train of the day pull into the station. Everyone applauded. There was genuine excitement in the air as though we were about to embark on a real journey.

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    The train has a large capacity, so everyone who participated in that mad dash was able to board. We had previously experienced the train ride going in the opposite direction, but this was our first time traveling from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley. The experience is different depending on which way you are traveling.

    Next: Diagon Alley
     
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  18. fractal

    fractal Premium Member

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    I could easily do 10 days at WDW.

    Do you feel there is a maximum of days one could/should reasonably do at Uni?
     
  19. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    [​IMG]

    When we arrived at the train station in Diagon Alley, I had to take this picture. The last time we were here in 2015, the station was packed. But since the park had just opened to the general public and we were on the first train over from Hogsmeade, there was no one else here yet. It wouldn’t last long. Guests were already making their way past the front gates and most of them were headed our way. But for a short while, we had Diagon Alley all to ourselves.

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    Our primary goal for the day was to visit the spell-casting locations so the girls could continue using their interactive wands. But since the area was empty, we decided to squeeze in a quick ride on Escape from Gringotts first.

    [​IMG]On our previous trip, we had early admission to Universal Studios. Like just about everyone else, we headed straight for Diagon Alley’s headliner attraction. On that day, we had a fifteen minute wait which I considered to be pretty good. I was mildly disappointed that during this trip, we only had early admission at Islands of Adventure. But as it turns out, getting on the first train from Hogsmeade gives you an even bigger advantage than early admission to the Studios. We walked right on to Gringotts with no wait whatsoever.

    (Rumor has it that Universal is considering lifting the Express Pass limitation on all Harry Potter attractions. If that happens, it will increase the value of this perk for hotel guests or those willing to pay out-of-pocket. But for the time being, I definitely recommend beating the crowd via the Hogwarts Express.)

    Another difference from our previous experience with this attraction was that we were all able to ride together. Last time, Kara decided to sit out and we had to do a child swap. But this year, she was brave enough to ride with us and she loved it. After escaping from the goblin bank, I retrieved our wands from the nearby lockers and the girls resumed their spell-casting.

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    As the girls were casting spells around Diagon Alley, I kept trying to get a picture of the dragon on top of Gringotts as he was breathing fire. There are tons of pictures of the dragon online, but I wanted to try to get my own picture just because its something tourists do. But it seemed like every time we would hear the dragon’s telltale roar, we were at some awkward angle and I missed the picture.

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    Eventually, I managed to snap this one. Maybe the worst picture ever taken of the Gringotts dragon breathing fire, but at least I had done what I set out to do.

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    Mindy decided to take a load off while I followed the girls from one store front to the next. You can see her sitting on the bench in the background.

    Some of the spells are more difficult than others. Universal staff wanders around offering assistance to spell-casters as needed. It prevents the experience from ever becoming frustrating. With help and minimal practice, everyone with a functioning wand should be able to get the desired effect.

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    This umbrella lights up and makes storm noises before rain comes pouring down from the sides. As the girls were casting this spell, I stood underneath the umbrella. They were greatly entertained by the thought of making it rain on daddy. Of course I was safely under the umbrella, so I didn’t actually get wet but the girls were tickled all the same.

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    And here come the crowds. Believe it or not, this is still a light crowd for Diagon Alley. We were more than halfway done with our spell-casting, so we would be leaving before the place was packed.

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    We took a brief break from casting spells for this popular photo-op.

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    As we finished up the spell-casting spots, we stopped into Gringotts to see the interactive goblin banker. He asks questions whether anyone answers or not. The girls did not want to talk to this guy, so we were in and out pretty quickly.

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    Before we could leave Diagon Alley, we needed to try out Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor. Before we left home, I had shown the girls all of the exotic flavors of ice cream available and they were looking forward to giving them a shot.

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    Like everything else in Diagon Alley, the ice cream shop is heavy on whimsy.

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    Here’s a shot of the menu. Beyond the usual offerings like chocolate and vanilla, there are exclusive flavors like butterbeer and sticky toffee pudding. You can also choose from soft serve of hard packed ice creams.

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    Here’s a look at some of the hard packed flavors. I got a scoop of strawberry and peanut butter. It was good, although our scooper needed a little more arm strength. For what you’re paying for this ice cream, you want a healthy scoop. He struggled a bit which resulted in somewhat anemic cones.

    The pink color of the ice cream lets you know that strawberry is the star of this flavor. Peanut butter is present, but it’s subtle. If you didn’t tell someone the name of the flavor, they could mistake it for regular strawberry ice cream.

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    The girls opted for soft serve. As you can see from their cones, the ice cream is actually plain vanilla. The flavor comes in the form of those colored swirls. Josie got chocolate and Kara ordered orange marmalade. I sampled both and I was surprised that the flavoring completely masked the vanilla despite covering only a small portion of the overall surface area. Kara’s orange marmalade tasted like a Creamsicle.

    We took our cones by the stairs behind the motorcycle and sat down for a rest. Diagon Alley was getting crowded, so we decided to take our leave when we finished our snack.

    Next: Men in Black Rematch, Back to the Future and Transformers
     
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  20. lebeau

    lebeau Well-Known Member Original Poster

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    I would say there is, but it's situational. 10 days at WDW would be the death of me. I can do about a week. I know people for whome two weeks is not enough. It's going to vary.

    Universal is a lot smaller than WDW, so it follows that there is less to do. Also, you can tour Universal much, much more efficiently than Disney World. Since you're blowing through attractions faster, you don't need as much time. There's also motion simulator fatigue to deal with. No matter how much you like these rides, there's no denying that there's overlap with Race Through New York, The Simpsons and Minion Mayhem which are all located in close proximity. To a lesser extent, you have Transformers, Spider-man, Gringotts and Kong all heavily featuring screens. At some point, they start feeling too similar. Your mileage will vary.

    For us, the rain slowed us down which prevented us from hitting that wall as early as we might have. I'd say Universal can be taken at a much more leisurely pace than WDW. If you blow through it at top speed, you will burn out faster. The addition of Volcano Bay provides another option to extent a Universal-centric vacation.

    For a lot of people, carving out two days out of a WDW vacation will be sufficient. I'd say if you really want the full experience, you need 2 days minimum. I think three will be ideal for a lot of folks. If I'm spending more than a week, I would probably need to explore some other Orlando attractions.
     

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