Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fun in Florida, Part 4--Universal Studios, Wizarding World

The day Kieran had been waiting for finally arrived! We headed out early for the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure (IA), this time with Mike's mum in tow. Because we were six in a medium-size car, I had Chris on my lap in the backseat. Even though he's 4 inches taller than me, I'm heavier than him...and I figured I might be more tolerant of having someone on my lap for 1/2 hour each way. Universal Studios was quite a bit farther from our condo than the Disney parks.

When we arrived in the park, we headed right for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (HP), only to discover a horrific line just to get into that area of the park. We heard it would take 1-1/2 to 2 hours to get through the line. And the overcast weather of the previous days had burned off...suddenly it was really HOT! Instead we decided to explore the rest of the park and leave HP for later.

IA has three fantastic water rides (which I love). First we went on Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Rapids and got soaked, followed by the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. Mike was the only one brave enough to tackle the exciting Incredible Hulk coaster, during which time Mike's mum Olga and I hung out with the young kids in Seussland. No matter where we go, if there is an opportunity to get wet, Kieran will find it. He and Nick had a blast playing in the Seuss fountains--getting completely soaked from head to toe:

IA is not the best park for young kids or older people, and I felt sorry for Olga (who we had in a wheelchair) and Nicholas especially. We went to the park's two shows, The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad and Poseidon's Fury. Poseidon's Fury was so scary for Nick that I decided to take him out (and he is a very brave boy!). Around 2:00, we headed back to the HP area, which was now open!

On the way to the castle!

First glimpse of the snow-covered houses

Alas, once we reached the Hogsmeade area, we were stunned by the crowds and hordes of people. People were packed in like sardines and it was difficult to move around, much less see anything. We told Kieran that we would have to come back later in the afternoon and hope that the crowds had lessened. He was NOT happy. After all, this was what he'd been waiting for...for months!

In the meantime, we explored the rest of the park and Mike, Chris, and I went on the Jurassic Park ride. One advantage Universal offers is a "single rider" line, which does speed things up on peak days. It meant that Mike, Chris, and I could ride on the popular rides without waiting very long, but it also meant that Kieran couldn't (unless we waited for over an hour)--because he had to be accompanied by an adult because of his height.

At around 5:30, we finally ventured back into HP again, only to discover the crowds had indeed NOT dissipated. However, I had promised Kieran we would wait in line to get into the castle even if it was 2 hours long! We headed for the castle with the "90-minute wait time" sign above it.

The line snaked around for ages outside before we entered the castle, and Mike had troubles navigating with the wheelchair through the various narrow twists and turns. They didn't plan to go on the ride (and Nicholas couldn't have anyway), but I had read that the castle was worth the effort and they could just exit right before the ride. In the end, it was a 65-minute wait instead of 90 minutes. Once we got into the castle, the line moved almost too quickly because there was so much to look at.

Chris took photos while we were waiting in line--both outside and inside--because I had Nick on my shoulders.

Mandrakes in the greenhouse:

Statue in the castle:

House points (Gryffindor ahead, of course!):
The phoenix:

These moving and talking portraits were amazing!!

Must have been posted by some Slytherins:
The Forbidden Journey, which is the showcase ride of HP, has all sorts of restrictions and warnings before you get on the ride--most notably, people who suffer from motion sickness, heart problems, and other illnesses are discouraged from riding. It's also caused a lot of controversy because obese or exceptionally tall people are unable to ride (they can't fit into the seats). I had read about people who had vomited two or three times on the ride. That was enough to deter Mike from attempting it (because he's prone to motion sickness), but later he regretted not giving it a whirl.

This ride is, simply put, AMAZING. Kieran, Chris, and I all agreed it was the best ride we'd ever been on, by far. Many people agree with us. Yes, it does involve lots of jumping, spinning, and lurching...a spider spits at you, you are attacked by dementors, and it feels as if you are flying on a broomstick right behind Harry. Beyond the unforgettable technology and thrills, for Harry Potter fans, there is nothing like the feeling of flying alongside Harry, Hermione, and Ron. I loved it, and I would have gladly waited another hour to go on it again if we were not running out of time. That was the downside of waiting until 5:30 to enter the HP area--the park closed at 9 and we still had to buy a wand and eat dinner.

After the ride, Kieran and I headed into Hogsmeade to look for his wand. Ollivander's Wand Shop, where you can watch a show of a wand choosing a child, had a horrendously long line (I'm guessing 2 to 3 hours). We asked one of the staff where else we could buy a wand, and we learned a secret: go into the back alley behind Dervish & Banges and enter the shop that way. You can't actually purchase a wand in Ollivander's, anywa--all the crowds go into Dervish & Banges afterward. You can skip the wand show and save hours by going in the back way. Because of the massive crowds, the staff only allow a certain number of poeple in at a time in every shop. Kieran and I waited in line for about 15 to 20 minutes to get into the shop. (I think this line was shorter because it was in a back alley and not on the main drag.) He was positively overflowing with anticipation and delight!!

View of back door of Dervish & Banges:

Once inside, Kieran talked to the dangerous book behind a cage (and it growled back!):

Hogwarts Express:

With a moving Sirius Snape wanted sign (and Kieran using his new wand):

Shop facades in Hogsmeade:

The amazing castle--beautiful!

We also waited in line to buy a frozen butterbeer and pumpkin juice. We actually preferred the pumpkin juice (unlike most people), but both were fun and tasty.

We didn't get to ride on the other two rides, Dueling Dragons or the Hippogriff Challenge, because of our dwindling time and the long lines. We also didn't get to go in any other shops (they all had huge lines) or the Three Broomsticks. I forgot to go into the bathroom to hear Moaning Myrtle!

The internet is full of tips about the park, such as this web site. My #1 tip is this: go in the off season! Or wait until the crowds die way down (who knows when that will be...?). At one point I felt close to tears because of the crowds and the frustration of it not ever getting less crowded!

I have to say I'm tremendously grateful to Kieran for his flexibility. Although all of us have been looking forward to HP, he's the one who is the biggest fan and saved his money until he had over $100 saved up. Even though he was upset when we initially left HP and said we'd come back later, he adjusted. And then when we finally got in and realized we wouldn't be able to get into most of the shops, he was okay. No screaming fits, no temper tantrums, and no complaints. Just simple enjoyment of the experience. We went on the amazing ride, had our butterbeer and pumpkin juice, and bought his long-awaited Harry Potter wand ($29.99). In some ways I wish we'd entered the HP earlier so we could have at least seen a little more, but on the other hand it was a HOT HOT day. All the lines were outside in the hot, unrelenting Florida sun. And Kieran was happy--that was the most important part!

Here's our troupe outside of the castle:

After leaving HP, we went to have dinner. (We had purchased the Universal meal plan, which was a mistake because we had only two meals in the park. At $20/adult and $10/child, it was a good deal for the kids, but not so for the adults [and Chris, who is priced as an adult].)

Then we returned to Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, which had a 2-hour wait earlier in the day. The story/background is not as good as Splash Mountain, but the water ride is awesome. Kieran and Chris went on it twice--once with Mike and once with me--and we all got thoroughly soaked.

My ultimate conclusion about Universal Studios? I vastly prefer the Disney experience. Universal Studios staff pale in comparison to Disney "cast members," and the park is grossly understaffed. It took us ages to purchase food because of the scarcity of employees.

Universal Studios also does not have the FASTPASS system, so there is no getting around those long lines. (We were able to go on the best Disney rides multiple times because we always took advantage of FASTPASS.) Universal has a hierarchical system, whereby you can purchase an express ticket, allowing you to take the express line into each included attraction once per day. The price varies depending on the period. During the summer, it costs an additional $50/day! So that would have been $250 extra for our entire family (or $200, probably, because we wouldn't have gotten one for Nicholas). I know I'm a cheapskate, but there is no way I could stomach paying that amount on top of all we were spending in the theme parks. And the express pass didn't even work on the Forbidden Journey!

IA is geared mostly to teens and young adults. If it hadn't been for HP, we wouldn't have chosen this park. I also have to compliment young Nicholas, who really was not able to do much in this park--at all. He was very patient and didn't complain--just tagged along with the rest of us in his stroller. (Same for Olga, who is not a thrill ride fan.) He enjoyed the Cat in the Hat ride and the carousel. And he fell in love with Thing 1 and Thing 2. Here he is trying on a Thing wig!

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