The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids: Universal Studios Florida

This post is part 4 of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids series. All photos in this post were taken by me on a Samsung Galaxy S6. 

Universal Studios Florida also includes lots of other rides that we wanted to ride, including the awesome Simpsons Ride and Race Through New York. By comparison, there was little else we wanted to do in Islands of Adventure, so we bought Universal Express Passes for Day 1 at Universal Studios.

A little history lesson: Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990 and I first knew it as the place where a lot of my favorite Nickelodeon shows were filmed. Nickelodeon Studios is sadly long gone now–the building is used by the Blue Man Group–and they even took the 1992-era time capsule (to be opened in 2047) over to Burbank, California. No real vestiges of its past as Nickelodeon Studios remain now, but all of us who grew up on a steady diet of All That, Clarissa Explains it All, Kenan and Kel, Double Dare, Figure It Out, Legends of the Hidden Temple and so on know the truth.

These days, Universal Studios has 6 themed areas arranged around a central lagoon. You have Production Central, New York City, KidZone, Hollywood, World Expo and London/Diagon Alley. There is also somewhat of a San Francisco area, but it’s mostly restaurants–the rides there are gone and being converted to a Fast and Furious ride. (Charlie, a fan of the movies and of cars going fast in general, was a bit gutted that the ride won’t open until next year!)

On Day 1, we spent our morning at Diagon Alley, but moved on around noon or so, hanging a left just past the Knight Bus to head for World Expo. World Expo is kind of a weird random catch-all area that includes a Fear Factor thing, the Men in Black Ride (that I was amazing at when I visited in 2002 for a middle school chorus event) and Simpsons/Krustyland.

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Hey, hey, kids! [Krusty laugh]

The Simpsons and Harry Potter are pretty much the two most influential bits of media in my entire life. I was watching The Simpsons as a really young kid, during the Golden Era, and thoroughly enjoy the FXX marathons as well as new episodes. (They are good! Please believe me!) The Simpsons area of the park features a variety of midway games, places to eat and the flagship Simpsons Ride, which you can go on by walking through Krusty’s mouth.

The ride was once the Back to the Future ride and is a motion simulator. You will experience lots of sudden movements, CGI animation, be briefly splashed with water and smell baby powder at one point. But, the ride is gentle enough that you can bring your backpack. It’s actually better to not have an Express Pass for this ride because the normal line features TVs showing funny Simpsons bits that are mainly themed around capitalism and theme parks. Wikipedia has a great summary of the ride from start to finish. It’s basically a mayhem-filled day at Krustyland with Sideshow Bob trying to kill the Simpsons, a nuclear-irradiated giant Maggie running wild, plenty of sly commentary on theme parks and even a clutch guest appearance by Ralph Wiggum, whose one line per episode crushes it every time.

You can tell the ride was created with great care by the Simpsons team. Yes, Matt Groening himself had a role in developing it. At least 24 characters make an appearance, although as Harry Shearer declined to participate, none of his characters (Ned Flanders, Kent Brockman, Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy, et al) have speaking roles. Kang and Kodos do make an appearance on this ride and on the nearby Kang and Kodos’ Twirl and Hurl ride. Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.

The ride’s gift shop is nearby, not directly connected, and is the Kwik-E-Mart.

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You are now on Fast Food Boulevard once you pass the Kwik-E-Mart. There are many places to eat here, including…

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Moe’s Tavern! (“Is there an I.P. Freely here? I.P. Freely?”) Inside Moe’s is a front room where you can sit and mostly drink, I think, including Duff beer. But walk through the back and you enter a Simpsons-themed food court with many different offerings. The food court includes Lisa’s Teahouse of Horror (vegetarian/healthy fare), Cletus’ Chicken Shack (fried chicken), The Frying Dutchman (seafood), Flaming Moe’s (drinks) and Krusty Burger (burgers and hot dogs). Lisa’s stuff is grab-and-go, but everything else is made to order. The layout is kind of weird: you have to wait in line and then be prompted to go and pick out your food, even at the non-peak time of 2:30 or so. Also, don’t try to have one person in your party pick a table while another orders food. I did that and was told off by two different employees, despite the fact that my feet were killing me and two other people who later did the same thing were not told off. Hmph.

I had a Krusty hot dog that was just okay and Charlie had a Krusty Burger that was also just okay. He said the Duff beer was good, though. Maybe choose food from a different vendor if you’re looking for something to possibly wow you.

There’s also a standalone Bumblebee Man taco truck that smelled heavenly. We should’ve held out for that! Plus, there’s a Duff beer garden facing the lagoon and a Lard Lad Donuts that sells, among other things, enormous donuts that are the size of a dinner plate and sold one to a box.

As a shoutout to the old Back to the Future ride, they kept the DeLorean and Doc Brown occasionally visits for photos.

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Chief Wiggum enjoying his favorite treat, possibly before heading out to 123 Fake Street.

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The DeLorean. Fun fact: my uncle had a DeLorean. It was not modified for time travel, though.

When we finished up at Springfield, we hoofed it over to New York City for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon ride, Race Through New York. I typed Escape from New York at first. That would be a very different ride and also involve Kurt Russell. Heh. Anyway, they filmed the opening credits for All That in this part of the park.

MOVIE TIME!

Kenan Thompson was the MVP of that show and is now the MVP of Saturday Night Live. I’m convinced my love of rap and R&B stems partly from All That featuring such artists on the show, which was a pretty daring choice at the time.

To find Race Through New York, just look for the much shorter version of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

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Here is where you can use the ride’s “virtual queue” on your Universal app. To get in line, the app will prompt you to pick a time when you want to return. Useful for if you want to get lunch and come back later, but also useful for just putting yourself in the ‘right now’ return time and having them scan the QR code right away. They’ll also take Universal Express passes for immediate riding.

You enter the first floor lobby, which is cool both literally and figuratively.

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An “NBC page” at the desk on the right side will hand you a card that is one of the colors of the rainbow. You’re free to go upstairs to the lounge any time and when the large lighted panels up there turn your card’s color, it’s your turn to ride. But you’re also free to browse the first floor, which features exhibits of memorabilia and clips from all 6 Tonight Show hosts.

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YES, they remembered Conan O’Brien! I was worried they’d try to bury that bit, hidden under the shame of how Jay Leno did him wrong just like he did David Letterman wrong. (I don’t like Jay Leno. Can you tell?) But they didn’t! Conan was one of my favorite hosts. I was more often able to stay up and watch all of the show during his era–early work wakeup time affects my ability to do that now, though I still like seeing bits when I can–and I love his brand of comedy. I even saw him on tour during the time when he was legally unable to have a TV show!

Jimmy Fallon’s memorabilia display includes a yearbook from elementary school where little James Fallon is named most likely to replace David Letterman on The Tonight Show. Seriously.

The second floor lounge is the best idea I have ever seen in a theme park, truly. It features a row of couches with armrests that have USB and power plugs, so you can charge your phone. The couches are comfy. There are also large interactive screens where you can play cute retro style Tonight Show-themed games. A stage at the back apparently features the Ragtime Gals barbershop quartet performing, but I didn’t see them either time. Screens broadcast clips from the show and Hashtag the Panda wanders around for photos.

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Floor-to-ceiling light panels turn the different rainbow colors and the NBC chime sounds each time to signal the change. The panels kind of turn the whole room that color, though, leading to some confusion about what is orange vs. what is yellow. The cards should say “this card is yellow” or whatnot to help. You know, I just realized red-green colorblind people will have trouble with those cards too. (The aforementioned DeLorean-owning uncle was also red-green colorblind. Remembering him made me think about that.)

The ride places you in the Tonight Show audience and you pick up your 3-D glasses on the way to where you are sorted into seating rows, a little antechamber that has little more than rows and TVs. Once all 76 guests are queued up, the TVs show the Tonight Show opening credits. Tonight’s guest is you and instead of his customary shouting the episode number, Questlove (in his Scrabble letters tie) shouts out to Universal Studios before the ‘show’ begins. Jimmy explains that we’re about to race him through New York, kind of like the hallway races he has from time to time. There’s also an appearance by his Sara character (no H because Hs are EW!) and her obedient stepfather, though they are asked to leave so the audience can arrive. You run into them later, though.

Wikipedia has a play-by-play of the ride right here. It’s a motion simulator and really very cool with the 3D effects. You go through Times Square, the subway, the East River, visit the Statue of Liberty, see a King Kong-style Hashtag atop the Empire State Building and even briefly visit the moon. All the while, various Tonight Show characters weave in and out of the story, so the ride is more fun if you are at least vaguely familiar with Sara, Gary, Tight Pants Guy, Hashtag, the Ragtime Gals, the Puppy Predictors and the Thank You Notes segment. Fun fact: Jimmy’s wife and two young daughters make an appearance at the part where Jimmy is picking up pizza. Look on the left side of the screen to see them. I remember noticing them on our second ride, but not recognizing them right then.

After shopping the Tonight Store, we left 30 Rock just in time to catch the end of the nearby Blues Brothers concert. So, we got to hear Soul Man, which is worth the price of admission by itself. The brothers even drive to and from the little stage in the Bluesmobile.

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Obviously this should ideally be in Chicago, but what’ll you do.

After the Blues Brothers, we pretty much called it a day at around 4:30, having been there since 8. Oh, there is a Hello Kitty store in the park, near the front entrance. I was hoping it would have stuff that blatantly said “Universal Studios” on it, but not really–instead, there were cute items that recast Hello Kitty in iconic movie posters like E.T. and Back to the Future, along with tasty treats and other cute goodies featuring many other Sanrio characters.

If you collect Starbucks You Are Here mugs like my friend Amanda, there is an Orlando one and a Universal Studios one. There’s a Starbucks in the New York area and one in City Walk outside the parks.

In the next part of this series, we’re gonna go to Islands of Adventure.

 

Are you also a Harry Potter/The Simpsons/Jimmy Fallon loving millennial thinking of visiting Universal Studios Florida? Do you have any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask!

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