Universal Orlando Summer Trip Report – Part 1

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Universal Orlando had been on my list of places to visit since the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened several years ago. I had visited regularly as a child, and fondly remember attractions such as Kongfrontaton and Jaws. Since the original Potter-land opened, it’s been a series of “next times” and close misses, including a weekend getaway for The Walking Dead at Halloween Horror Nights that was actually booked last year but ultimately canceled. Laziness always got the best of me, as it was always far easier to just stay on-site at Walt Disney World and rely on Disney’s Magical Express and other Disney transportation rather than renting a car.

But, the desire to return to Universal Orlando remained. Being a total dupe for good marketing, I was hooked on the idea of going to Universal Orlando after having watched every episode of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this spring when he filmed live at Universal Orlando and an NBC special on the making of Diagon Alley. I’m also incredibly impatient, so when Sarah set her dates for her annual mother-daughter trip with her mom, I penciled in a trip to Orlando on my calendar. After all, if she was going to have fun in the tropics, why should I just sit at home?!

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Fast forward to my third day in Orlando, and I was getting up bright and early to head to Universal Orlando after a late night at Walt Disney World. Rather than going alone, I assembled a rag-tag band of photographer-friends, and we made the trip together. The gang consisted of Mark Willard, Cory Disbrow and his fiancee Sam, Ben Hendel, and Kevin Davis. (I should disclaim from the get-go that the opinions herein do not reflect those of these upstanding individuals…actually, nor do they reflect mine, for that matter.)

Universal Orlando regular Cory Disbrow advised that we get there by 7:45 am to park and make it through security before getting in line for Diagon Alley’s 9 am opening. Maybe he meant 7:45 am Pacific, as this turned out to be super excessive as we sat around waiting from about 8 am until just before 9 am. It’s definitely better safe than sorry, though, I guess.

During that hour period, I wandered around the limited area where we were allowed to walk and checked out some areas of Universal Studios Florida that were vaguely familiar to me…

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…Part of this vague familiarity might have been in that Disney’s Hollywood Studios has similar representations of popular Hollywood icons. Curse Michael Eisner and his clandestine plan to open his studios park before Universal, orchestrated for the sole purpose of debuting his flagship Brown Derby before Universal! Too bad he misread the plans and made his a restaurant instead of a hat shop. WHAT A FOOL.

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Other parts of the park I definitely remembered from visits when I was young. Because replica Sunset Blvd. apartments are an “attraction” that leaves an indelible impression on all children.

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One of the unfortunate things about the first installment of a trip report starting with a morning visit in a confined area of the park is that you get a bunch of photos that aren’t exactly “wow” inducing. I promise the night photos of Diagon Alley in part 2 of the report will be more interesting. This installment is more of a “showcase” for my terribly lame sense of humor.

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Who am I kidding; what’s morning exciting than a photo of a parked yellow taxi?! Since I don’t know the significance of this vehicle (and I’m betting you don’t, either), I’m going to say it’s the original vehicle driven by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. 

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To answer the question above, a parked RV is more exciting (also accepted as an answer: just about anything).

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I don’t want to set the wrong tone from the outset–I’m not mocking Universal Studios Florida; more mocking the garden variety photos I felt compelled to take while waiting. Actually, I was impressed with what I had seen of the park to that point. My expectation, based on what I had heard from others, was that the park was sort of a hodgepodge, with no semblance of “theme.” That was not the case, and things that otherwise might be deemed superfluous–like the Allah Villas–are demonstrative of that.

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As I wandered around taking photos, security inched the line (because we weren’t the only ones crazy enough to show up over an hour early) ever-closer to Diagon Alley, further building the anticipation.

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Finally, we were allowed into Diagon Alley. Even though I had watched the ‘Making Of’ special, Tonight Show episodes, I had mostly averted my eyes to anything concerning Potter. Essentially, I knew there was a dragon on top of the building where the ride is located, but that’s about it. If you don’t want to see spoilers of Diagon Alley, you should stop reading now. While I can’t post on-ride photos, everything else is fair game.

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I assumed Diagon Alley is located in a mini-land with basically a short lead-in corridor and not much else based on comments I had heard about it being cramped. I was very wrong. Even though we were on a mission to make it to Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, I was still taken aback by the size and the various pathways I caught glimpses of as we raced to get in line. It almost felt wrong to rush through and not savor the land. It was like quickly devouring some Animal Style fries to get to that delicious Animal Style Double-Double, except if you didn’t already have the Double-Double and knew you’d have to wait an extra 90 minutes for it if you savored the fries. (Sorry, odd example…but I’ve got In-N-Out on the mind!)

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The wait was already posted as 90 minutes when we got in line. I’d take you on a riveting minute-by-minute replay of our wait, but we have a lot of ground to cover. Suffice to say, even with two ride breakdowns, we still waited less than 90 minutes. For those wondering, yes, Escape from Gringotts has a Single Rider line, but much of the story is told via the queue, and you don’t get the full experience via Single Rider, so we elected to do the regular standby line for our first ride.

Besides the dull, outdoor overflow queue, the wait flew by thanks to the way the story was set-up through the pre-show, which occurred in multiple rooms of the queue. That’s really saying something, considering that the attraction broke down twice while we were waiting! There were animated figures (I’m not sure what non-Disney “Audio Animatronics” would be called, so I’m just calling them this).

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The indoor queue was flat-out brilliant; easily one of the best queues I had ever seen, anywhere. I was actually a bit worried that it might have “Little Mermaid Syndrome”, with the queue overshadowing the actual attraction. I’m not going to fixate on the queue now, as I didn’t have my camera for this go-through, and I’m hoping to take it through on a later visit, at which time I’ll go into full detail.

Moving right along to the actual attraction itself, the only syndrome this had was “Awesome Syndrome.” I’ve heard a fair amount of criticism of Escape from Gringotts, and I think some of this is fair, but my prevailing line of thinking after getting off was: That. Was. Awesome.

I am not a Themeparkeologist (I believe that’s the technical term for a scientist of theme parks), so I can’t exactly articulate what the ride experience is, but I’d describe it as a hybrid of a simulator and rollercoaster, with 3D screens and projector effects, a ride vehicle moving along a track, and some tangible effects and props to give the attraction depth.

For me, attractions are more about the immersiveness of the experience and effectiveness of storytelling, rather than the mechanics of how it was accomplished and level of thrill, and regardless of the ride system here, I found the experience to be incredibly immersive and contain a well-told story. I know very little about the root story told in the attraction, since I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but it was easy to follow, and I felt like I was a part of the action. Never was I pulled out of the experience with a feeling that I was looking at screens or otherwise on a ride. The different types of effects were all well-employed, adding to the illusion and making me feel like was escaping from Gringotts.

The biggest criticism I would go on to have about other Universal attractions is that they are incredibly fast-paced, similar in nature, and feell a bit montage-ish in nature, rather than effectively pulling guests into a story. I would put Escape from Gringotts among the best attractions at Universal in that it did not do this.

After Escape from Gringotts, it was time for ice cream. I’m told it’s British custom to reward oneself with ice cream after a successful bank heist (minus the robbing the bank part, in this case).

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This would be my first encounter with Butterbeer. “Bad ice cream” is a contradiction in terms, so it’s tough to really sing the praises of this ice cream too loudly, but it was awesome, and I highly recommend it.

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Because I am a foolish blogger, I tried to get a photo of the ice cream with the dragon in the background. Mission…accomplished? (Yes, assuming the mission was to look like an idiot as I held one arm out really far and tried to aim my camera with the other hand as my ice cream melted in the Florida heat.)

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After finishing the ice cream, it was time to spend some time exploring Diagon Alley.

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The unfortunate thing about not being a Harry Potter fan was that I’m sure many of the references were lost on me. For example, when I first saw this statue, I thought it was a hobbit on a large stalk of corn. (I’ve spent too much time in Indiana…) Once I, you know, actually thought about it, I realized that it was a character on a stack of money (given the proximity to the bank), but this is just one example of something I’m sure is a patently obvious reference if you’re a Harry Potter fan, but was just a cool detail to me.

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To be sure, Diagon Alley is stuffed with these cool details. I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to be a Harry Potter fan to appreciate all of this, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt in “getting it.” There probably aren’t many hardcore Jules Vernes fans visiting Mysterious Island in Tokyo DisneySea, yet I think most guests fairly appreciate the beauty of that land.

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It took over 1,000 words before I finally made a Tokyo DisneySea comparison. Not bad, given that park kept springing to mind as I walked through Diagon Alley. By way of background, I’m admittedly infatuated with Tokyo DisneySea, and I consider it far and away the best theme park on the planet.

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The level of detail, the conveyed intimacy in a sprawling themed environment, the nooks & crannies, and the hidden treasures to discover were all shades of Tokyo DisneySea. Diagon Alley is the sort of place you just want to be in, a quality found in the best theme park lands. In that regard, which to me is the truest measure of a theme park, Diagon Alley is an A+ land. Escape from Gringotts is really just the (delicious) icing on the cake.

gringotts-early-morning-flare-diagon-alleyYou’ve probably seen 938,394,572 photos of that dragon from the rest of the internet by now, but it’s impossible not to photograph the thing. Even if it didn’t breathe fire(!!!), cameras would be drawn to it as the wienie towering at the end of the alley. I spent a lot of time blinding myself as I looked into the sun, waiting for the flames. Photos without fire are the Universal equivalent of a monorail beam in a photo without a monorail. Sorry.

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Coming soon to Universal Orlando: the Wizarding World of Hippopotamus.

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 I was so enthralled with Diagon Alley that I decided to purchase a wand to unlock some effects…until I saw the prices. Yowsers! Instead, I did the typical blogger thing and creeped on kids and watched them unlock the effects. (Since some of you might be new to reading my poor attempts at humor and may be “disturbed” by that, the preceding was a poor attempt at humor; I did not actually creep on kids–I quickly snapped this shot as I walked past.)

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All of that creeping really makes you work up an appetite, so it was time for lunch at Leaky Cauldron. I’ll have a full review of the restaurant at some point, but suffice to say, it was awesome.

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With my meal, I ordered Leaky Cauldron’s famous “glass of pure vodka” and…I think the drink to the right is wizard rootbeer. I kid. I was a bit worried that Butterbeer couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, but it absolutely did. Wow.

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I had the Banger Sandwich, which was very good, albeit pricey. Although it’s a counter service restaurant, Leaky Cauldron is perhaps in between typical counter service and table service at Universal Orlando, in terms of price and quality.

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After lunch, we stopped to watch Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees perform. These performers are talented and the show was a lot of fun.

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It seems like there are a lot of complaints about recent theme park lands (or “mini-lands”) having only one flagship attraction. This isn’t just aimed at Diagon Alley, but many new additions from Disney, too. This doesn’t bother me at all, especially if it means those lands can be more focused and better convey their theme. Plus, all have minor diversions, such as these performances, that round out the area.

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After that, it was time to take Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure. This is one part of the Harry Potter films I recall, and seeing this was really cool.

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From both an operations and a theming perspective, Hogwarts Express is absolutely brilliant. This is probably the most envelope-pushing thing to come to any theme park since 2001–maybe even before that.

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Starting the day in Diagon Alley probably created unreasonable expectations for Hogsmeade; expectations it ultimately could not meet for me.

This is not to say that the land is not amazing. It is. It just lacks the depth of Diagon Alley. It’s brilliantly done, but it feels like less on an immersive environment to explore, and more a corridor leading to Hogwarts Castle.

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I probably should be abundantly clear here so I don’t get hate mail for knocking Hogsmeade. I’m not knocking it generally–it’s still one of the best theme park lands anywhere, but I don’t think it compares to Diagon Alley.

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First stop here was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I’ll be brief here because I have a lot of photos of the queue that I took with a tripod (albeit from Universal Studios Japan, but it’s the same thing) and I plan on doing a dedicated post to the attraction. In short, I thought the queue here was even better than Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

As for the ride, I’m a bit torn on it. Most people I know far prefer Forbidden Journey, but I think I prefer Escape from Gringotts. To me, Forbidden Journey is probably more technically impressive, but it feels like a fast-paced montage through the world of Harry Potter. It’s like the Star Tours 2 of Harry Potter, if that makes sense. It’s still an incredible experience in its own right, but I think Escape from Gringotts is the more complete and well-rounded experience in terms of storytelling. Regardless, both are very impressive, unique draws, and score very highly for me. In terms of new attractions since 2001, Mystic Manor is the only attraction (of those I’ve experienced) that immediately comes to mind as topping both.

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I know I’ve basically only covered The Wizarding World(s) of Harry Potter up until this point, but that seems like a good stopping place for this installment. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at The Simpsons Ride, Spiderman, and the greatest attraction known to man, E.T. Adventure.

Share!

I’ll level with you–after not being too active with this blog for a while, I’m trying to kickstart it again and post here on a regular basis. If you enjoy this Universal Orlando Resort trip report, the photos, whatever, I would greatly appreciate it if you’d share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc., via the social media buttons on each installment to help spread the word. Reader comments with your feedback, thoughts, etc., are also greatly appreciated!

Your Thoughts…

Have you visited Universal Orlando recently? Do you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Are you interested in visiting Universal Orlando Resort? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

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