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Trip report for a whirlwind day at Universal Orlando

I’ll try to make this painless if you have no interest in hearing about our theme park visit, go ahead and click over to something more to your liking.  I do have a lot of info on the food, but there’s also quite a bit on the rides, etc., which I didn’t talk about much after our last visit in November 2016.

Last year I damaged my back shortly before our trip, which meant almost no rides for me.  This time, as luck would have it, we had planned a short visit to see my parents in Florida right when Hurricane Irma was also planning to visit.  Off we went and this is what happened (but look at this gorgeous view as we flew from Upstate NY)…

So we flew in on Friday, not long before they stopped taking flights in Orlando.  Needless to say our flight was pretty empty, most people were fleeing Florida.  There were maybe 50 people on the plane.  Well, you probably know what happened…Irma kept wandering west and west until the danger to the east coast became danger to the west coast (we were on the east coast, somewhat south of Orlando).  Irma, expected Saturday night, dithered and dithered and dithered, slowly wreaking havoc on the Caribbean.  Sunday passed until Irma finally got close that evening and really got whipping over night.  We spent the day getting constant tornado warnings on our phones, though, as the winds grabbed thunderstorms off the coast and drove them onshore.  Power finally went out Sunday night and stayed that way most of Monday.

We had plans to stay at Universal Orlando at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort Monday and Tuesday nights.  You don’t get free Express Pass by staying at Sapphire Falls, but you do get early admission.  Given that it was supposed to be “slow” I thought it would be a waste to spend for a more expensive hotel just to get the Express Pass when it was unlikely to be worthwhile.  This turned out to be a good choice.

Anyway, because of their hurricane policy, we were allowed to cancel without penalty.  Universal Orlando itself had closed late Saturday and was planning to reopen Tuesday, which is the day we planned to be in the parks, then staying one more night before flying out Wednesday.  Anyway, I waited as long as I could, then called to cancel the first night (Monday) late Monday afternoon, we didn’t want to leave my parents without power. I thought we’d play it by ear and maybe drive up early Tuesday and still get in the park.  We could then decide to either stay there or come back if my parents were still dark.  Of course power came back about an hour later.  At my parents’ urging, I called to rebook that night, figuring they would still have room (the hotels on-site were all PACKED up until Monday, as people went inland – plus all the resorts have backup power).  I made a quick dinner for all, we packed up, and headed north.  We must’ve passed 50 power company bucket trucks in several convoys headed south.  We checked in at 9 or so, the lobby was packed with people just hanging around, many of them with dogs.  Evacuees, we assumed.  Anyway, in we went and got a good night’s sleep in the lovely air conditioning.  The call volume must have been insane, by the way, but the phone staff was so great each time I called.  Even when the 2nd guy informed me that he was sorry, but the price had changed and he had to charge me for the price difference…2 cents.  😀

Sapphire Falls is as lovely as the other resorts on property (at least the three we’ve seen).  Our room was fine enough, not overly large, but fine for two.  The only negative, if it is one, is the utterly bizarre sliding door that separates the toilet and shower from the rest of the bathroom alcove.  It’s like closing yourself up in a bank vault.

We got up at a reasonable hour and headed down to the water taxi for a quick ride to City Walk.  With the hurricane past, it was a gorgeous day, as you can see in the photos.  Early admission that day was for Universal Studios, I think 8:00, so we went through the turnstiles with no wait at about 8:30.  It was obvious right away that the parks were, relatively speaking, empty.  Despite the terrible cause, I was pretty excited to think that the hurricane was going to mean that the parks would be super quiet and that was case.  We headed right back to Diagon Alley to make sure we got on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.  We had ridden this one last time and it didn’t disappoint again.  I really enjoy this ride, despite some flaws.

In order to avoid repeating myself, I’ll point out that we walked right onto the ride.  All day long, we literally walked onto every ride and attraction with the longest wait being for the next car/show.  According to the posted times and app, there were a few waits at things like Skull Island: Reign of Kong at some points, but we just avoided those at those times.  There were simply no waits, it was amazing.  Unless you wanted Doctor Doom’s Fearfall…for some reason there were like 60 minute waits all day starting noonish.

EMPTY

When I first started planning our trip last year, it was mostly to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  I started trying to get more info so as to make our trip more productive and I found the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast (UUOP).  After that trip I kept listening and went through most of their archive.  I have developed a lot of fondness for Universal Orlando from UUOP and will continue to listen to their news, rumors, behind the scenes ride history, fun conjecture, etc.  They also are utterly obsessed with Halloween Horror Nights, so if that interests you (not for me), that’s just one more reason to check them out.  Anyway, a while back they were wondering if someone could ride every ride at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in one day.  One person tried and failed, another succeeded.  It would have been a piece of cake, ALMOST, if someone had tried it the day we were there, post-hurricane.  With every single ride a walk-on really, I think you could do it with time to spare.  We, however, were not going on everything, but we rode enough.  I say “almost” because, sadly, the one single ride I was most looking forward to was riding the Incredible Hulk Coaster…and it was down *sad trombone*.  They were still checking it for damage from the storm.  That and the Jurassic Park River Adventure (if I recall correctly) were the only two rides out of commission, but we had no interest in that one.

I’ll try to be quick, but it was such a jam packed day, I just want to dwell on it all…

Gringotts out of the way, we were ready for some breakfast and decided to try to recreate the wonderful meal we had last year at the Beverly Hills Boulangerie.  That meant swinging back through San Francisco and New York on our way to Hollywood.  And it meant passing Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.  I thought I’d get that one out of the way on an empty stomach.  Despite my best effort, I failed at getting to the hidden song choices and ended up with ZZ Top, which was OK, even though I really wanted Rush.  There were only 2 other people on the whole train with me (my wife passed on this one).  It was fun.  I feel somewhat fragile at this age and had some apprehensions about my neck and back, especially since everyone says this ride is very rough, but it was totally fine.  That first lift hill, though…wow.

Breakfast was not as successful this time.  It seems like the fruit plate had been sitting since before the storm and the watermelon juice everything was sitting in had turned a bit and a lot of the fruit just wasn’t tasty.  Our blueberry muffins were good, though.  Character actors were out and about, taking photos with guests and entertaining people walking or eating breakfast.

Mostly refreshed, we started a circle of the spots I planned to hit in Universal Studios.  In rapid succession we did (order may not be exact):

  • Transformers: The Ride-3D – OK, didn’t do much for us, it was as confusing to figure out what was going on as the recent movies are…all flashing motion, no clue who is good or bad.
  • Revenge of the Mummy – As a thrill ride, this indoor coaster was WAY more fun than I expected, although I think I would enjoy it again next time even more, I was so surprised at everything it was a little overwhelming.  As an attraction, it made absolutely no sense.  Maybe because, with no wait, we just whipped straight through everything and onto the ride, but I had no clue what was supposed to be going on, story-wise.
  • Terminator 2: 3-D – Had to see this as it was announced shortly before we left that this combo 3-D movie/live action show was going to be retired.  We had already missed out on Dragon Challenge by a single week, as it closed permanently a week earlier and I couldn’t ride it last year.  It was OK, maybe a little tired.  The 3-D was TERRIBLE, but I don’t know if it was a reflection of where we sat or a bad pair of glasses or something, but it really stunk (the 3-D, not the show as a whole).  I’m glad we saw it, but wouldn’t have rushed back.
  • Men In Black Alien Attack – I tried to put some tips from UUOP into action, but still did quite poorly.  We had fun, though.  I will say I did better than last year, mostly thanks to my red button bonus.

And back into “Potter World” and Diagon Alley.  I was hoping for at least a little merchandise turnover, but I guess they didn’t want our money because we didn’t buy anything this time.  If anything, it seemed like there was less choice, for example in Filch’s.  By now the walking (1 and a half times around Universal Studios) and slim breakfast meant it was time for ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour!  I went for Strawberries and Cream soft serve and my wife tried Sticky Toffee Pudding hard ice cream.  They were both pretty good.  I would have liked more strawberry.  We sat on some steps basically right under the fire breathing dragon and ate our ice cream, watching people wait for the dragon to breathe fire, which it did once while we sat there.

From here:

  • Ollivanders – We skipped the wand shop show last year because, even with light crowds, there was a considerable wait for this.  But, again, we walked right up and into the next show with a handful of others.  There was only one child, a rather young girl of I think 5, so it was obvious who would be picked for wand testing.  The team member did an amazing job and the girl was splendid for her part, not being fussy or shy at all.  It was a great little show, but I wouldn’t wait an hour or even half that for it.  With no wait, it was really fun and kudos to the team member for picking and doing a great job with a child younger than they normally choose (based on what she said).
  • Hogwart’s Express – Again, in line for the very next train after a brief wait.  Off to Islands of Adventure!

Off the train and back at it:

  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – As good as last time.  I can’t recall if the finicky whomping willow was whomping last year, but it was whomping away on this trip.  By this time, nearing lunchtime, there were actually people filing in, so we weren’t almost alone, but still basically walked through the abbreviated cue and onto a ride vehicle.

I had in mind Mythos Restaurant for lunch so we headed that way, looking forward to air conditioning and a chance to just relax.

It’s a reasonably well themed restaurant and was kinda sorta busy.  I think we waited a couple of minutes for a table, which isn’t the case normally I am led to believe (normally much longer waits).  Again, feedback from UUOP helped me make this choice.

I do like the theming on the handrail in this photo:

Although the menu has some more involved options, we kept it rather simple with a lot more walking in the heat still to do.  I got the lamb burger, because of course I did.

It was quite good and the fries were fantastic.  My wife got the same, but got it with falafel instead of the lamb burger.

You can see that they cook the falafel on a waffle iron, which is a neat way to make them work as a ‘burger’.  I didn’t try it, but she said it was good and the falafel was actually decent, not too dry.  Service was fine, neither outstanding nor poor.  Price was very reasonable, too, it was probably only about $40 for two of us, including tips and iced tea.  For a nice sit down meal in an amusement park, that’s pretty good!

Back at it:

  • Poseiden’s Fury – We headed to this attraction that I’m not sure I even noticed last year, but (again) UUOP had made sound worthwhile.  This was probably our longest wait of the day, but it was only as we waited for the preceding show to finish so we could file in to the next.  It might have been close to 10 minutes.  An interesting experience, combining live effects and projections with a ‘tour/escape’ through a few rooms led by a team member actor.  She did a really good job and made it fun.  The downside is that the group is quite large and she sort of has to start her spiel in the next space before everyone is in and settled so I think we missed a bit here and there as we were in the back.  The showdown climax was maybe a little dated, but it was worth seeing.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – At this point there was actually a pretty long posted wait for Skull Island for some reason, so, with Hulk down, this was the last ride on my to-do list.  It lived up to it’s name…AMAZING.  It’s sitting at the top of my favorite rides list for the two parks.  The 3-D was the best in the park for me.  The story made some sense, there’s stuff to look at in the queue (though of course we just scurried through it all with no lines), and a decent ride vehicle.  My only complaint was that there’s too much Stan Lee. 🙂

At this point it was time for a real rest.  We took the water taxi back to the hotel for napping/resting/feet cooling off.  Somewhat refreshed, we were ready for our final push and dinner.  IoA closed at 7 I believe the day we were there while Universal Studios was open until 9.  So we headed back once more and knocked off a few more things before dinner:

  • A walk through Port of Entry where I tried to take note of some of the overlooked aspects so beloved by UUOP.  I did note some of the voices coming from the buildings and some signs, etc. but didn’t really have time to just completely soak it all in.
  • A quick second ride on Spider-Man for me, I just really got a kick out of it.  As good the second time and I was able to notice a few more things.
  • The posted wait for Skull Island was down to maybe 20 minutes so we went for it, but this was wrong.  We walked on.  This newer ride was OK.  The effects were decent, although getting sprayed with water was getting old by this point.  Some of the almost-roller coaster aspects were interesting, given the large ride vehicle.  I mostly liked the story.  While the Kong animatronic was decent, I didn’t really get the point of the LOOOOOONG period of practically parking next to it.  The more time you spend, the more fake it gets.  It was OK, I’m glad we rode it, would do so again with a reasonable wait.
  • Time to shop, so we headed to Hogsmeade in the back to check out Filch’s.  With no waits, I decided to take just one last ride for the day and headed to the single rider line for Forbidden Journey.  The single rider queue is amazing, it seems like you get to the ride vehicles in no time, you must REALLY meander about in the other line.  I really just did it to cut off the long walk since there was no regular line.  Locked in and off I went again.  Not going to lie, I was feeling a little disoriented when I got off, the sheer number of rides with motion, 3-D, etc. all day had finally gotten to me.  It was actually a couple of days before I really felt put back together – especially with a flight mixed in.  As I said before, the merchandise seemed the same or worse so we bought nothing.  I kinda sorta wanted a Merauder’s Map, but it just wasn’t worth $50 to me.
  • Finished with IoA and just about 7:00 we headed out to City Walk for dinner.  The lines were pretty long to get through ticketing outside of the Hogwarts Express as people tried to make their way back to Diagon Alley, which still had a couple of hours to go.

Dinner was, yup, another UUOP recommendation – Antojitos Authentic Mexican Cuisine.  It was a wise choice.  No wait to get seated but it seems like maybe they were a little understaffed due to the hurricane…?  Once our server came he was great the rest of the time, bringing us the many refills we needed after this long, hot day before we asked, and even to-go iced teas when we left.  Free chips and salsa were fine to nibble on until our entrees came.  I think my wife got the Adobo Chicken Salad, although she said something seemed to be missing from it…jicama, maybe.

I was pretty hungry and since we hadn’t been buying much of anything I splurged and got the most expensive thing on the menu, the churrasco:

Skirt steak, ancho chimichurri, grilled chorizo, black bean purée, house rice, crispy chile onions

It wasn’t all that photogenic, which must be why I didn’t take a picture.  But I ate every scrap.  The crispy onions went well with the steak.  It was an interesting presentation, though. I thought it was a pretty small serving of steak for a $28 dish, but it was actually just all coiled up.  Unraveling it, it was quite a decent serving size.  I was stuffed when I was done.  Of all the places we’ve eaten lunch/dinner at the parks and City Walk (admittedly not that many) this was perhaps my favorite.  I could really do without the 100+ decibel mariachi band, though.  Wow.  Just too loud.

I think it must have been about 8 by now and apart from a bit more shopping, I only had one more item on my wish list – seeing the dragon breathe fire in Diagon Alley in the dark.  So, back into Universal and allllll the way to the back again and into Diagon Alley.  No sooner did we step inside than I hear the rumble and quickly get my phone ready and…bam, right in front of us, looking down the main thoroughfare, lighting up the night, off it goes.

  • Quick turn to the right as I was determined to blow money on something so I led us into Sugarplum’s Sweet Shop.  Here I picked up some butterbeer fudge that was packaged in this great box I can’t quite bear to throw out:The fudge itself is, at best, OK.  Really sweet and not presenting any dominant flavor.  I don’t think I was able to even finish it.I wanted to get a cauldron cake, but everyone is saying they changed them and they’re not very good anymore.  I did splurge on this:Yes, a Chocolate Frog.  Despite not being overly fond of milk chocolate and knowing the frog itself is probably very middling quality.  I just wanted the box (and card!):Yes, I got Godric Gryffindor.  The frog is still sitting in his bag in the cabinet.  I think that’s all we got there.  With the park closing soon and VERY tired feet, we launched ourselves towards the exit for a couple more stops.  We stopped into the Minion shop (nothing much new and we bought nothing, which was as shocking as can be) and went to pick up a couple of things in the Terminator shop (Big Bang Theory shirt and magnet, actually).  At this point collapsing into our hotel room sounded great, but I wanted one last crack at the shop in Toothsome in City Walk.  Below are a bunch of pictures of my haul:Dark chocolate bar…last year the place was hammered and only had white chocolate…this time they had that as well as milk and dark.   I won’t keep repeating myself, but the packaging is all fantastic.  Love the text on the back of the wrapper.  It’s decent.  Just a touch bitter in the finish, as it should be with dark chocolate.  Has the logo stamped into it, but my bar was broken in transport so I didn’t bother to take a picture.  Nice, smooth melt.  Despite the fact that I make my own marshmallows, I got two kinds to try as inspiration – birthday cake and cookies and cream.

Wiz!  The cookies and cream ones are nice.  High quality vanilla marshmallows, cut into little bite size pieces, covered with crushed cookies.  As expected.  Very nice.  The birthday cake was a little disappointing – sweet vanilla flavor with multicolored sprinkles on top.  Bit of a yawn.  We also got an assortment of macarons that were well done (although they only held up so-so in my wife’s carry on).  They do a very nice job on the flavors.  I might keep these boxes, too, although I still haven’t figure out what to do with this from last year:It’s a nice glass jar that you fill with bulk candy, but you can just buy the jar if you want, which I did since the candy was nothing special.  I like the look of it, just don’t know what to put in it.

I really wanted to hit up the fabulous breakfast buffet at the Hard Rock again, but couldn’t make the clock work for us.  So we opted for the Amatista Cookhouse in Sapphire Falls, thinking we’d be able to get something more filling than a donut or bagel in the little shop.  I didn’t see anything in any of the information or menus about a breakfast buffet at Sapphire Falls, but we walked in and there it was, a nicely set up breakfast buffet.  We were seated and selected the buffet – our really friendly server brought us our choice of juice and we helped ourselves.  It was probably only 60% of what they have at the Hard Rock, but there was way more than enough including all the classics and much more on top of that.  My wife especially liked the biscuits.  Our server came back to chat a few times.  The only downers were that the luscious looking pan of cinnamon buns were just not good and the pastries were all a little bland and maybe even stale.  But, c’mon, it was the day after a hurricane, they were probably not fresh.  I’m totally not dinging them for that.  It was a lovely, unexpectedly nice breakfast and we appreciated it all.

That’s about it.  Checked out in the AM, found a gas station that actually had gas…regular anyway…to fill up the rental, and took our 100% packed flight home.

It was a bit of an odd vacation, but the Universal part, tiring as it was, was almost completely great.  If only they had a $5 “come in and ride the Hulk then leave” pass, I’d be all over it next time we’re in Florida.  As it is, I guess we will likely not be back until the new Harry Potter ride replacing Dragon Challenge is complete.  Until then, we have a couple of days planned at Disney World in November, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about that food when we get back.

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