Author: Emma

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids: Outside the Parks

This post is part 6 of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids series. All photos in this post were taken by me on a Samsung Galaxy S6. 

Yes, there are actually things to do outside the parks at Universal Studios Orlando! We probably didn’t do as many as we could have–for example, there was a go-kart track and a mini golf place near our hotel–but that was due to being tired and achy after long days in the park. The idea of standing up and doing stuff in the evening was sometimes the farthest thing from my mind. There’s definitely stuff like that in Orlando if you want to do it, plus a huge Ferris wheel sponsored by Coca-Cola and a smaller theme park called Fun Spot USA that looked cute.

Nevertheless, there were still some things outside the parks that we did.

On the night we got to Orlando, we went to a seafood place called Fish Bones on a recommendation. While it’s a casual sit-down restaurant, the prices are fairly high for the entrees, but they are very big on fresh seafood and whatnot. Still, be ready to possibly spend about $100 for two people to have an appetizer, entrees and a dessert.

We weren’t going to have any appetizer at all, but then Charlie spotted the words “Florida Gator” and we figured we’d give it a shot. These are nugget-sized bites of alligator, breaded and fried in Cajun spices and served with a tangy garlic aioli. That saying about alligator tasting just like chicken is true. It’s a little gamier, but just as white as chicken, too.

20170602_185611

If I hadn’t told you this was alligator, would you think it was based solely on the photo?

I had cedar plank roasted salmon with parmesan cheese and red onion coated on it, which was amazing, incredibly rich and I could not finish it all. Blame the gator bites. Charlie got Hawaiian triggerfish, which was very tasty and a mild white fish like tilapia. He also had key lime pie because it is Florida, although they give you little chocolate chunk brownies as a thank you with your bill (also maybe to soften the blow of how much you spent), so you could easily hold off on dessert and enjoy that as a sweet treat.

I have to admit that, on two other dinner occasions, we were just too tired to imagine a sit-down meal and so we got fast food. We never went to either the Epic McDonalds (yes, they call themselves that) or a similar two-story Burger King I saw nearby. Both of those had arcades on the second floor and the Burger King even had Dance Dance Revolution, which I haven’t seen in an arcade version since I was in high school. Maybe next time.

But there was one place at City Walk that I’d read so much about and absolutely HAD to go to: The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen. That’s a mouthful. Let’s call it Toothsome. It’s located on the park side of City Walk, by the Hard Rock Cafe, and you can’t miss it.

20170604_183845

This photo doesn’t really do it justice–the place is enormous. Unfortunately, they follow that super annoying restaurant trend of not taking reservations. It might be best to try to go at non-peak times. (Google’s graphs of peak and non-peak times might be useful!) What they will do is take your number at the hostess stand and text you when your table is ready, which for us took about half an hour starting at 6:30 on a Sunday night. It’s best to not be starving as soon as you decide to go to Toothsome or you’re gonna have a bad time.

The lobby also has what looks to be an a la carte milkshake bar with some seating if you want to bypass having a meal altogether and just enjoy a dessert. If you’re expecting a standard milkshake, don’t.

20170604_191208

Yes, that red velvet milkshake has an actual full-size cupcake around the straw. The one on the left has an enormous marshmallow and a full-size Rice Krispie treat around the straw. We did not get any milkshakes.

There are two seating levels in the restaurant, so they can get lots of folks in and out pretty efficiently. The steampunk theme continues throughout–there’s even a guy dressed as a robot who wanders around interacting with guests, plus a woman in steampunk garb who is meant to be the founder of this establishment. Page 1 of the extensive menu details her story.

As far as I know, the menu isn’t online. I got a flatbread with mushrooms and goat cheese that was perfectly tasty and tangy, if a bit messy because stuff kept falling off the crisp bread. Charlie had an awesome risotto. We were really saving room for one of the gigantic sundaes, which is easily enough for 2 or even 3 people to share. There are photos of them in the back of the menu and we chose the peanut butter themed one.

20170604_202419

Y’all. This was incredible. You got peanut butter ice cream with a peanut butter drizzle and crushed peanuts, two Reese’s cups, a sprinkle of Reese’s pieces, peaks of whipped cream, a portion of some sort of peanut butter and chocolate mousse pie and two pieces of peanut brittle. The bowl it’s served in reminded me of beautiful asymmetrical Chihuly glass and, while we stayed away from the sticky peanut brittle, we put a nice big dent in the rest of it.

And the bill only came to right about $40! We did just drink water and share the sundae, but still.

The lobby also features a candy shop that we visited after dinner and if it hadn’t been so crowded, I might’ve bought some stuff. Instead, I looked with my eyes.

20170604_203909

20170604_203902

20170604_204136//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Mother of God, macarons! In some standard flavors and then some nonstandard ones like absinthe, key lime pie, peanut butter and jelly, lavender and more.

20170604_204152

All manner of pretty colorful jewel-like truffles.

So yeah, if you have a sweet tooth or a sweet mouth, you absolutely have to go to Toothsome. Just remember to try a non-peak time and/or a non-peak day.

On Sunday afternoon once we left Islands of Adventure at midday, we were hungry but for something not fast food. In searching Yelp for nearby places, Charlie found a New York style pizza joint that was rather adorably called NYPD Pizza. Please note that they are not an official arm of the real NYPD, lol. Their slogan should be “pizza so good, it’s arresting!” If they use that, I WANT ROYALTIES. The one nearest to our hotel was a little drive away, past the convention center, in a strip mall in a quieter and more residential area. We got a large cheese pie to go and ate it in the room while watching Scrubs (related: I am so happy Netflix lost the rights to Scrubs because now it’s back on Comedy Central, where I first saw it). It was terrific. Again, so good, it’s arresting.

In driving to one of the approximately 17 Publix locations within 5 miles of the hotel–it is Florida, after all–we also saw a small shop that immediately piqued Charlie’s interest: Hogan’s Beach Shop. Yes, like Hulk Hogan. He and his twin brother both grew up watching wrestling and so we made a note to come back for a visit. The shop is small and focuses mainly on selling clothes, beach towels, action figures and glassware, but there are multiple TVs playing different wrestling events, plus cool memorabilia like signed championship belts as well as a red and yellow Dodge Viper convertible that Hulk Hogan drove while introducing himself to the rival WCW in the 90s. I even spotted a signed hat once belonging to Macho Man Randy Savage, who might be my favorite wrestler just because of his flamboyant style.

MOVIE BREAK!

If you like wrestling, whether the 80s-90s heyday of Hulk Hogan and the gang or the latter-day incarnation with John Cena et al, Hogan’s Beach Shop is worth a visit.

 

Those were the main cool non-Universal places we visited during the trip. There were some mundane places as well–Publix, for bottled water and snacks; CVS, for better sunscreen; Walgreens, in an attempt to lessen my foot pain with shoe inserts–but those aren’t as fun to write about, now, are they? 😉

That concludes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids mega-series. You’ve been a great crowd. Feel free to ask questions, let me know what you think or share what Hogwarts house you are in the comments. Share this series with any sans-children millennials you know who have been talking about making the trip to Orlando. Or pin my pictures onto your Pinterest board called “#vacationgoals.” Or do all of those things, it’s all good. Thanks!

Advertisements

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids: Islands of Adventure

This post is part 5 of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids series. All photos in this post were taken by me on a Samsung Galaxy S6. 

I’m gonna be real with y’all right now: despite the fact that all 3 of our park days began at Islands of Adventure thanks to it being the only early opening one, we didn’t really want to ride much of the stuff in there. It just didn’t appeal to us, outside of Hogsmeade stuff. If you also like Marvel comics, King Kong, Jurassic Park (note: there are no apparent references to Jurassic World in this area of the park, which is kind of fine by me lol) water rides or Dr. Seuss, you’ll find other rides and attractions that appeal to you. But if you’re just here for Hogsmeade, that’s cool too.

20170603_081844

Hogsmeade is the place everyone makes a beeline for upon early entry to the park. It’s smaller than Diagon Alley and has fewer shops, but also has more rides. It opened first, in 2010 after being announced in 2007, and features Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Forbidden Journey. You can eat at the Three Broomsticks and drink at the Hog’s Head. You can also decrease your bank account balance at the Owl Post (stationery and actually sending postcards), Honeydukes (candy), Dervish and Banges (clothing and such), Ollivander’s (wands) and shop the gift shop at the end of Forbidden Journey.

20170604_090842

In here, it’s winter all the time.

When we got here on our first park day, having not yet eaten breakfast, we noticed the short line for Dragon Challenge. This ride is intensely serious about you not bringing stuff on it, so much so that there is a metal detector to ensure your pockets are empty. I later learned this is due to some incidents of flying items injuring people in 2011 and leading to the dragons not truly dueling anymore. Instead, the red Chinese Fireball coaster has a head start on the blue Hungarian Horntail coaster. Stowing our stuff was our first experience with the free ride lockers.

Here’s how they work: a touchscreen prompts you to start your locker rental and asks for your fingerprint, which you also give to enter the park or ride the Hogwarts Express. I used the same finger for all these occasions, my right thumb. I don’t know if that makes a difference or not, though. It assigns you a locker that looks deceptively small but is very deep inside. My backpack fit, though sometimes on its side, along with my small crossbody purse, Charlie’s phone and his wallet. Make sure to press the green button once all your items are in the locker or it won’t lock.

Every time we needed to use a locker, we were within the free range of time, which is shown to you on the touchscreen and varies depending on how long the ride’s line is. If you’d rather use that locker for a longer time, you can pay for it. We did have a problem with the Men in Black locker where it said our locker was disabled upon our return, but a park employee sorted that out lickety-split.

Some rides are stricter than others–Dragon Challenge makes you put everything in a locker, but Forbbiden Journey allows you to bring your phone. So, I have no photos of the cool stuff along the way in the Dragon Challenge line, including the Goblet of Fire, Triwizard Cup and flying Ford Anglia. Such is life.

Dragon Challenge is an intense roller coaster. Your legs are dangling from the ride car and you will go upside down. It was too intense for us in the end and we’re glad we did it before gobbling up a big English breakfast. The red and blue dragons are different, so you might want to watch POV videos of both before choosing which one you want to ride.

Okay, so on our second park day, we focused entirely on Islands of Adventure. We happily walked right past Dragon Challenge and instead went for the Hogwarts castle, home to Forbidden Journey.

20170604_091030

Remember to bring your phone for this one because the line is almost as fun as the ride and you will want to take pictures. You weave your way through the Herbology greenhouses and enter the castle, where you’ll see cool stuff like the phoenix statue outside Dumbledore’s office, intricate tapestries, the House points jewels (Gryffindor was winning as always), the Pensieve, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and a tall room that features talking portraits of all four House founders having a conversation between one another, mainly about you because it’s implied that we’re all Muggles who have been given special permission to visit the castle. (Salazar Slytherin isn’t too happy about that, but Helga Hufflepuff points out that maybe some of the visitors could receive Hogwarts letters soon.)

20170604_105915

20170604_110025
Hufflepuff, bottom right hand corner

20170604_110231
Gryffindor common room touches

You’re not supposed to use flash photography in the line, so I didn’t, but a lot of it is in very dim lighting.

The ride is…kind of a motion simulator, but your car (4 people seated side by side) does move around, though never upside down. Of course Wikipedia has a play-by-play of the entire ride, if you wish to read that. You go around a lot of the castle grounds, including the Forbidden Forest, so you will see Aragog and the Whomping Willow. You also find yourself as part of a Quidditch game and pursued by dementors before flying over the lake and into the Great Hall. Harry, Ron and Hermione mainly guide you through this journey, though you also see Draco and then pretty much everyone in Gryffindor at the end. This ride was a major blast and we rode it twice, nearly thrice. (The third time, the line was quite a bit longer and we were tired.)

I also rode the Flight of the Hippogriff, which was a cute and gentle rollercoaster suitable for families, kind of like the Mine Train at Six Flags Over Georgia. It has a lap restraint with netting that goes all the way to the floor and holds you in, though there are not any loops or upside-down parts. It’s themed after Harry riding Buckbeak during class in Prisoner of Azkaban and Hagrid even reminds you to make sure to bow to the hippogriff first.

Hogsmeade is a great place to enjoy a butterbeer. Red wheeled tankers are parked in at least two places, offering cold and frozen versions. Frozen comes from a swirling tap, kind of like Slushies, and I chose that one. It is refreshing and very, very sweet with a foamy head. Charlie got cold, which is tasty but not as intensely sweet. If you like Frappuccinos, you’ll like frozen.

There are lots of shaded areas in Hogsmeade where you can sit and enjoy your beverage, including an alcove just outside Hog’s Head, but we ducked into the bar to enjoy the benefit of air conditioning. The bar is actually attached to Three Broomsticks and does serve alcohol, but we did not imbibe. Instead, we just took a table and enjoyed the atmosphere. There is a taxidermied hog’s head behind the bar that moves around from time to time.

20170604_104738

20170604_102510
Cheers! (You get a straw with frozen butterbeer, but not with cold.)

On our third park day, we had breakfast at the Three Broomsticks. They offer basically the same breakfast menu as the Leaky Cauldron, but have a display featuring plastic models of each dish, kind of like restaurants do in Japan. While Charlie got the English breakfast again, I got a pancake meal this time, featuring 3 large pancakes, bacon and sausage. Oh, huh, I didn’t take a photo…Anyway, it was good!

20170605_082632

A thoughtful detail I especially liked about the Three Broomsticks and every other place in Wizarding World: light fixtures that looked as if they could possibly be gas-powered. They’re not, of course, but many feature a very linear design typical of gas-powered chandeliers. Since there’s no electricity in the wizarding world, it is entirely possible they might still be using gas lighting along with candle flames.

20170604_111713

The chandeliers inside Honeydukes are a good example. Electric chandeliers have mostly moved away from this design since electric wires don’t need to travel in strict straight lines! (Oh, almost forgot to mention: the butterbeer fudge is just okay. Compared to the ice cream and drink, it’s not nearly as flavorful for some reason.)

All but one of our journeys on the Hogwarts Express began at Hogsmeade, so I’ll cover it here. The walk to the train platform is kind of long, but the payoff is worth it. You sit 6 to a train compartment, 3 facing 3, and both the door and window are actually screens, so you do not get to see the actual journey between parks. Instead you get fun Harry Potter themed visuals–if you’re departing from Hogsmeade, it’s themed like you’re leaving school for the summer, but if you’re departing from Diagon Alley, it’s themed like you’re arriving for the school year. It’s cute and makes the journey fun, plus the compartment is comfortable and cool. Even if you’re not big on Harry Potter, this is the most efficient way to move between parks since you don’t have to walk all the way to the main entrance, exit and then go to the other park. I actually don’t know what the policy is on going park to park via main entrances; there isn’t any hand-stamping, so maybe they base it off your ticket? Look, just take the train, it’s easier!

In the conclusion of this series/magnum opus, we’ll take a look at some stuff to do outside the parks, because yes, that’s a thing.

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

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.

20170603_113821

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.

20170603_121501

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

20170603_121648

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.

20170603_121759
Chief Wiggum enjoying his favorite treat, possibly before heading out to 123 Fake Street.

20170603_121909
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.

20170603_130639

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.

20170603_130820

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.

20170603_130919

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.

20170605_112133

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.

20170603_134002

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!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids: Diagon Alley

This post is part 3 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 hosts the Diagon Alley half of Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It is the more recently-built part, debuting in 2014, and has one ride: Escape from Gringotts. It focuses a lot more on shops, though the Kings Cross station of the Hogwarts Express gives you the chance to walk through the barrier between Platforms 9 and 10 on the way to Hogsmeade.

We thought we’d go to Universal Studios right at 8 am because our reservation for breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron was for 8:45. This was NOT THE CASE. Only Islands of Adventure opened early, so we had to go through there and then take the Hogwarts Express once it opened. We got to Diagon Alley at about 9, but they happily honored the reservation.

Check this page about early park admission to see which parks will open early during your stay. Had I known to do that, I would see that Universal Studios will do early opening but only from June 17 to 30. D’oh.

I am one of those millennials who takes pictures of food, but only when I intend to review it, so here goes:
20170603_091523

This is the traditional English breakfast, available at both the Leaky Cauldron and Three Broomsticks. It features (clockwise) a croissant, sauteed mushrooms and potatoes, scrambled eggs, baked beans, bacon, sausages, black pudding and a tomato. I’ve had this kind of meal before in Ireland and it fills you up real good with loads of protein. However, I don’t like tomatoes, so I set that aside, and gave the black pudding a no thank you bite. It tasted really dry and wheat-y, if that makes sense. The sausage and sauteed veggies were my favorite, followed by the warm croissant and eggs. I prefer my baked beans sweeter than they were on this plate. This costs about $17 plus the cost of a drink for an adult, but that was covered by our vouchers, thus saving us about $40 and filling us up until way past the typical lunch time of 12-1 pm.

20170603_091309

Here’s how it looks inside the Leaky Cauldron. I loved the vaulted ceiling, the lighting and the decor (including a Sirius Black wanted poster). The tables are almost but not communal, so you’re sitting close enough to others that you might even make a new friend. Instrumentals from the Harry Potter movies play. I had fun trying to identify which movie each song is from–the waltz from the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire seems to play a lot for whatever reason.

When we finished eating, we had some time before our free moving photo session at Shutterbutton’s, so we explored. Like I said, there are many more shops here than in Hogsmeade, so bring your favorite credit card and prepare to spend! You can relieve yourself of your money at Madam Malkin’s (clothes), Magical Menagerie (stuffed animals), Ollivander’s (wands; we didn’t do the wand choosing ceremony because the lines were always long), Quality Quidditch Supplies (sports-themed clothes), Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment (lots of cool stuff), Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes (honestly mostly candy lol and it connects to a different candy shop whose name I forget) or Borgin and Burkes (dark/evil themed stuff) located down the very dark Knockturn Alley. It was literally hard to see, it was that dark in there, but it is also kept comfortably chilled in terms of temperature. Please don’t buy anything with the Dark Mark on it, at least not in my opinion: it’s basically an allegory for the swastika or other immediately recognizable signs of hate. We don’t need that kind of stuff in these trying times.

ANYWAY!

I bought my handy-dandy Hufflepuff lanyard at Madam Malkin’s, where you can also buy robes and even a replica of Hermione’s Yule Ball dress. Check out the talking mirror, too, though it said I was wearing weird robes. 🙁 Madam Malkin’s connects to Shutterbutton’s.

I tried to resist buying a wand at Ollivander’s, but couldn’t. The shop offers replicas of various characters’ wands, but we chose to go the other route of buying wands in different woods. Display cases explain the personality traits best suited to each wood: I picked ash and Charlie chose birch. The wands cost about $53, but are interactive–you get a map with places where you can ‘do spells’ and then gold plaques in the ground tell you what movements to make so that various things in shop windows will react. We had trouble doing the spells at first. I seemed to do better when I held the wand in my left hand and made the movements a little tighter. The reactions aren’t instantaneous, either. Employees often wander around and can provide assistance in doing spells, too.

20170603_095621

Hey, can I get that wand up on the top shelf?

It was pretty much Shutterbutton’s time after that (I reserved for 10:45, we got there at like 10:30 and only had to wait for one group to finish–I really just needed to sit down, which I had to do a lot throughout the trip because I have bad feet), and let me tell you, it was probably corny to an outsider but so much fun for us. You are given house robes and stand in front of a green screen, so the photographer coaches you on what is happening and how you should react. There are 12 scenes total, including ones where you get to Hogwarts, plus a few still photos are taken too. Our package included the DVD and digital copy of our scenes. You can buy stills separately. They will hold your items until the end of the day, too, so you don’t need to worry about bending any still photos in your backpack.

That reminds me: bring a backpack! You are allowed to do so and to carry nonperishable food and water. The backpack is also a great place to stash stuff you buy, the park map, your wands, sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hats (I am for real about sun protection), money, phone chargers and whatever else you need to schlep. For some rides, you can carry your backpack, but for others, you’ll need to stow items in free lockers while you ride. This did not apply in Diagon Alley, so I’ll cover that later. That backpack was basically Hermione’s beaded bag throughout the trip. It carried everything and was super important. I couldn’t stash it in my sock, though.

To cool down a bit, we got soft-serve butterbeer ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s, located near the Gringotts ride, and ate it on the steps next to the ride. It was delicious and subtly flavored. I highly recommend it. I gobbled it up so quickly I didn’t take a photo!

Oh, there’s also a handy way to kind of tell time in Diagon Alley. About every 15 minutes or so, you’ll hear the dragon atop Gringotts start to growl. That’s your signal to get into position near Madam Malkin’s and prepare your phone because a few moments later, the dragon emits a huge fireball from its mouth. Don’t worry, it’s perched up so high that no one runs the risk of getting burned, but if you’re standing nearby, you might feel heat like when you open the oven door.

20170603_103029

Pretty much all of us were parked there with our phones up for, like, at least 2 or 3 minutes before the growling.

Here are some more photos of Diagon Alley shops and sights:

20170603_094209

20170603_101125

20170603_101214

20170603_101916

20170603_101440

We visited Diagon Alley on 2 out of 3 park days: the first and the last. We wanted to ride some rides again on our last day and board the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross, plus buy souvenirs. Though we tried to ride the Gringotts ride on our last day, something was wrong with it–a voice announced it was out of normal operation, then a while later said it was back online, but the line never moved after that point and we just said forget it. We did get to see the bank lobby, though, with the massive chandeliers and goblin staffers. I didn’t have my phone because I stashed it in the ride lockers.

The Hogwarts Express was also having technical issues when we wanted to ride it, but we refused to just say forget it. Instead, I downloaded the Universal app and told it to alert me when the ride reopened. It took about an hour, which we spent hiding from the sun on a bench just inside Knockturn Alley, but the reopen notification worked! The app is also key for riding Race Through New York, so definitely download it.

We never caught any of the little shows that happen in Diagon Alley–the Tales of Beedle the Bard puppet shows or the Celestina Warbeck performances–but I think there are schedules available for those if you are interested.

Next up: let’s explore the rest of Universal Studios Florida!

 

Are you also a Harry Potter loving millennial thinking of visiting Wizarding World? Do you have any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids: Getting There and the Hotel

This post is part 2 of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids series. 

With the booking process complete, our thoughts turned to the all-important process of getting to Orlando. We’d budgeted two days, Friday and Tuesday, for travel, but hadn’t yet decided on what method. So, we first considered flying. Flights from Atlanta to Orlando are pretty short and plentiful, offered by carriers including Delta, Frontier, Virgin Atlantic and Southwest. But then you have to, you know, book plane tickets, incurring relatively high additional costs. You also need to arrange for transport to the airport (which my dad usually offers to do, thus saving money on parking, and it is highly appreciated), allow for the time to get there and get through security, hope your flight doesn’t turn into Fight Club for whatever reason…We weren’t really feeling it.

Charlie’s a car guy. He’s a Subaru technician and has been into cars since he was knee-high to a pig’s eye. He really does enjoy driving, even driving long distances, which is a treasure. I’m OK with it too. Driving there does take longer than flying, but costs way less–just the cost of refilling my trusty steed the 2012 Toyota Corolla, which is incredibly efficient. Equipped with cruise control and Bluetooth, my trusty steed is ideal for long journeys and has traversed the path to Florida once before, when we decided on somewhat of a whim to drive to Tampa for a Boston Bruins game one weekend.

Plus, the car gives us the opportunity to go to other places in the city, whether they might be random but incredibly fun themed shops or the major key CVS, without needing to take a taxi or bus. We could also pack whatever we wanted to: more than one bag? Sure! Stuff that wouldn’t be allowed in a carry-on bag, like full-size shampoo? Go for it! A really cool battery pack that can charge electronics or cars, purchased from one of Charlie’s tool dealers? Yeah buddy!

Google estimates the drive from Atlanta (specifically Decatur, on the east side) to Orlando at about 6 hours and 20 minutes. But when you account for traffic, slowdowns due to torrential rain, gas stops and food stops, it’s probably more like 8 hours. The Corolla only needed one fill-up per trip and I always insist on filling up at a quarter tank.

The trip is pretty easy: mostly you are taking I-75 South, except when you use I-675 to bypass much of south Atlanta and I-475 to bypass Macon. It only gets difficult when it’s time to pay the Florida Turnpike enterprise.

I mentioned going to Tampa earlier in this post. When we did that, we did have to pay a toll to enter downtown and get to Amalie Arena. But that toll was snazzy: there were no booths at all, just a bunch of cameras that took pictures of my car, scanned my license plate and mailed me an invoice a few weeks later. That is not the case for the turnpike you use to get to Orlando.

That turnpike, christened with the incredibly original name Florida’s Turnpike, is the fastest way to get to Orlando by far. It branches off from I-75 south of Ocala, but even after a visit to the Turnpike website, I was not exactly clear on how much the toll would cost. I considered buying a SunPass, but decided not to because we’d only use the turnpike twice in the trip. (However, SunPasses can actually be used to pay for the adjustable-price toll lanes on I-85 in Atlanta! I don’t use those, though.) We armed ourselves with a bunch of $1 bills and quarters and hoped for the best.

Turns out that a 2-axle car will pay $3 at the start of the turnpike, though not right at the start, and 75 cents to exit. That’s $3.75 total or $7.50 round trip. To keep you from incurring the 75 cent exit charge if you just need to make a pit stop, there are large service plazas along the way. We never needed to visit one, but they have at least 4 places to eat (including the clutch Dunkin’ Donuts) and a Shell gas station. They’re located in the middle of the turnpike, so you’ll exit on the left, which is weird.

Eventually you leave the turnpike and get on I-4 heading west to Orlando. They were doing construction on various parts of I-4 in the city, including our exit, so be careful and take your time.

Let’s talk about our hotel, the Best Western Orlando Gateway. Here are some reasons we liked it:

  • Great location, even though it is across the street from the former Wet ‘n Wild water park. Universal tore that down to be replaced with Volcano Bay. There was a remnant of a black water slide still standing, which we joked was the death water slide because it suddenly stopped way too far up in the air and was surrounded by rubble. It might be fully demolished and cleaned up soon.
  • Very nice and friendly people working at every desk. There’s a front desk and a Universal service desk, but we’ll cover the latter more in a minute.
  • The wi-fi was fast, though our phones warned us the SSL certificates weren’t awesome, so you should avoid going to your bank or credit card websites while there unless you use a VPN. That’s standard operating procedure for any hotel wi-fi, though.
  • The TV was nice and had loads of channels, including a rather interesting one in Portuguese where a guy took viewers to various points of interest around the city. Lots of yummy Brazilian food was showcased.
  • Free parking! You just needed to have a parking permit on your dashboard at all times. The permit stipulates only one car per room and doesn’t allow for buses or RVs.
  • There’s a deli that also sells sundries in case you need anything.
  • The pool was nice and comfortable, plus it was near a game room where I crushed it at Ms. Pac-Man.
  • Universal Partner Hotel status.

Here are some reasons it was, as my mom is fond of saying, just okay:

  • The beds! All that was left when I booked were 2 double bed rooms. I assumed that meant the beds would be full or queen, enough to sleep one short adult and one tall adult relatively comfortably. Nope! These were strange beds, not quite full but definitely not twin. I’ll call them tweens. Not a girl, not yet a woman, as Britney Spears once sang, and not wide enough for the both of us. We slept separately, like married couples in old movies, but would sometimes hang out during the day on one bed to watch TV. The pillows also looked kind of weird, almost more like throw pillows? I don’t know.
  • The shower. I once saw a meme that said “Me trying to figure out my friend’s shower settings” and showed the logo of the show Naked and Afraid. This was our experience. I start a shower by running the bath tap first, adjusting the water, testing it and then going shower, but that seemed to result in nothing but scalding hot water for some reason, no matter where I turned the dial. I had to learn to go to shower first and then adjust–turn it to about 8:45 on the clock for something ideal and know it might take longer than at home.

The pros outweighed the cons for us, but do keep those things in mind.

That Universal desk I mentioned was so incredibly helpful. They printed up our park tickets and food vouchers, sold us Universal Express Passes and got us shuttle passes. Getting those tickets printed there kept us from having to visit Will Call at the park entrance!

The shuttle departs once an hour each hour from 7 to 11 am, though actual departure times vary between hours, and then brings you back once an hour in the evening starting at 4 pm. It goes to 2 other hotels before Universal, so you’re not gonna get there in 5 minutes. The 7:15 am bus ended up being the one we used most often and would get us there around 8 am for early park opening. Keep your shuttle pass with you so you can get on the return buses in the afternoon.

You’re going to have a lot of really important little bits of cardstock paper: your park tickets, your shuttle pass, your food vouchers, your Universal Express Passes. I highly recommend purchasing a lanyard at the park. They come in lots of fun themes, including ones for each Hogwarts house, and then you’ll get a clear plastic holder with a Ziploc-style closure to protect your papers. Mine cost about $11 and helpfully identified me as a Hufflepuff to passersby.

Now that we’ve covered all the logistical whatnots, let’s get on to the REALLY fun stuff: the actual parks! That begins with part 3.

 

Are you also a Harry Potter loving millennial thinking of visiting Wizarding World? Do you have any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids: The Booking Process

This post is part 1 of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids series. 

With the dates and length of our trip decided upon, I started the process I undertake every time I’m so much as thinking about a trip: extensive hotel research on Booking.com! It’s a Sagittarius thing. We like to travel. Or to even just imagine traveling.

However, somewhat uncharacteristically, I decided in the end to get a package deal direct from Universal Orlando when I discovered a special Harry Potter themed package while doing my research on park ticket prices. It included not only a 4-night hotel stay and park tickets, but also two free breakfasts for the both of us (one at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, one at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade) and a free ‘moving photo’ session at a photo booth in Diagon Alley.

The package originally included a 4-day 3-park ticket, but we only needed 3 days and it was oddly difficult to change that when booking. Basically I had to remove the park ticket altogether and then re-add it with a 3-day 2-park pass. We didn’t really want to go to the new water park Volcano Bay, which is the third park in the family. This might have been a good call–later I found myself looking at Twitter replies to Universal’s account and saw lots of people complaining about long lines and other problems at Volcano Bay. Growing pains, maybe.

Note that Universal Express Passes cannot be used on any Harry Potter attraction except Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, so it’s really not worth getting that unless you want to use the pass on other attractions. I should note that every time we walked by Dragon Challenge, regardless of time of day, the line was estimated at 5 minutes. Flight of the Hippogriff also had a really short line. I think it was estimated at 15 minutes when I rode it, but it feels like it didn’t take 15 minutes. We ended up only buying Express Passes for 1 of our 3 park days, but I’ll cover that later.

The hotel was Best Western Orlando Gateway, located literally one mile from the parks, so there’s that physical separation between on-site hotels and off-site ones that results in the latter costing a lot less. As a Universal partner hotel, the Best Western offered a free shuttle bus to the parks, thus saving $20 a day on parking, plus, we got to go to the park an hour early! However, there were other hotel options to choose from when booking the package and it defaulted to choosing a more expensive one for me at first, but it was pretty easy to override that choice and pick a more affordable option.

Bonus: Booking 4 nights at the aforementioned hotel gets you a $25 credit to use at the hotel restaurant. (That offer ends September 30.) That’s enough to fully cover one morning at the breakfast buffet for two people, which is how we ended up using that credit.

One really cool feature that was quite helpful is that Universal’s website allows you to split the purchase of a package deal 4 ways. So, if you have 4 adults going, it’s super easy for everyone to pay their share at once. I’m fine with telling y’all how much we paid: just over $562 a person, or about $1125 in total. It sounds like a lot up front, but when you break it down into pieces–the hotel, the park tickets, the free breakfasts, the shuttle buses–it isn’t as big a wallop.

Print out a copy of the confirmation email Universal sends after booking. It has a confirmation number in it that you’ll need to pick up your tickets and vouchers. I’ll tell you more about how we accomplished that in the next part of this series, Getting There and the Hotel.

 

Are you also a Harry Potter loving millennial thinking of visiting Wizarding World? Do you have any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids

I’ve been a Harry Potter fan since the beginning–I have hardcover copies of every book except the first because we borrowed that out to someone and it never was returned–and ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Studios Orlando, I’ve wanted to go there! In fact, I recently re-discovered an article I shared in late May 2007 that talked about the announcement of Wizarding World. I had just graduated from high school and gleefully imagined myself as a college student taking a road trip down there once it opened.

Well, it took literally a decade, but the stars have finally aligned in my favor, as old Professor Trelawney might say. As fate would have it, my fiance Charlie is also a big Harry Potter fan. (I chose right, y’all.) We were recently brainstorming a vacation that would only require a few vacation days to be taken and I thought why not Orlando?

Why not, indeed! We decided to go for basically a long weekend and selected the first weekend of June. Yes, I am aware Florida is hot in June. Georgia isn’t exactly arctic at that time, so I’m used to it. Yes, even the fierce humidity and sudden afternoon rainstorms that end as quickly as they began–that’s kind of our thing, too!

Plus, we don’t have kids, so we don’t need to worry about planning around their school year–even though it would already be over by then because in Atlanta, we get those kids outta there before Memorial Day. Yep, we’re just two folks in their late 20s who have always wanted to go to Wizarding World and now we finally can. Here’s our story, plus tips and tricks that might help you too if you’re in our boat.

I’m going to split this into a series of different posts so that they don’t get too horribly long. Plus, if you’re only looking to read about one certain thing (say, Islands of Adventure, or practical tips about where to stay), you won’t have to read through the others. Although, of course, I won’t mind if you do read them all. 😉

The Booking Process

Getting There and the Hotel

Universal Studios Florida: Diagon Alley; Everything Else

Islands of Adventure

Outside the Parks

If you have any other questions about going to Wizarding World of Harry Potter, especially if you happen to be traveling as millennials sans kids, please don’t hesitate to ask!