On holiday in Florida I spent two fabulous days at Universal (as well as a few fun days in Miami and Palm Beach). It was, a little to my surprise and low expectations, amazing. This is part one of two posts (go here for part 2 on Universal Studios) which tell you why 🙂
The Cabana Bay Resort Hotel: Shiny Chrome and 50s Kitsch
A little googling and not much time to book meant we went for one of Universal’s four resort hotels for our accommodation. Not something I would usually have considered.
But it was fantastic.
I’d wondered if the theming might be a bit cheesy – and well, Butlins. But the Cabana Bay Resort Hotel was anything but.
Huge (1800 rooms), it’s themed like a 1950s Americana Motel, but as the youngest of the four resort hotels it’s super clean, bright and new. It feels like the American dream when the space age was dawning – like chrome and bright colours and hope. Helen said it felt classically ‘wholesome’ in a ‘have a nice day!’ kind of way.
We travelled over from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando by Spirit Airlines (fine for short distances, but it’s very stripped down, so include all your extras when you calculate costs). We had dinner on the way, and shared a table with the wonderful Angel (who was as brown as anything as she’d just been on a
few days of a cruise taking photos for the wedding of a friend), who works for the United States Coastguard. She’d
given us a few great hints and tips about the park, for which we were very grateful.
It’s a quick hop from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando, but we arrived late-ish. We took the shuttle bus from Orlando airport which is very straightforward, but the relief when we checked in and found such spacious and well-appointed rooms was huge. We were glad we had three nights here and could settle with space to unpack some of our things.
Getting into the Park(s) and Buying Tickets
There are actually two theme parks at Universal Florida, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Personally, I struggled to see the difference between the two. Both had similar types of rides (from roller coasters to 3D rides), and both had film-themed rides. In fact, there are Harry Potter rides in both.
But what is does mean is that if you want to go to both parks you have to buy a ‘two park’ ticket, which costs more. Hmmm. The complex ticket buying (complex because there are a lot of possible choices) we has done before the holiday. Because one of the key attractions for us was the Harry Potter Hogwarts Express, a ride that connects the parks, that meant we needed a ‘park-to-park’ ticket as that’s the only way you can go on it. Given we knew we also only had two days, we went for the ‘universal express pass’ which means you can go in a special speedy line on some rides. This was well worth it and I would recommend that to anyone who only has a couple of days at the park.
One of the advantages of the hotel was the early access to Islands of Adventure (8am and not 9am). Which you wouldn’t think would make a difference, but oh, how it does. Despite Helen and I not being morning people, we got up early both days and were waiting in line to enter when the park opened at 8am.
Battle strategists both of us, or at least, anally retentive planners, we’d scoured the guidebook and online blog posts about the park before we went. We had our eye on our first target right from the start.
1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (HPFJ)
The most popular rides in both rides parks as I write (2015) are the Harry Potter rides. We headed first to the HP ride in Islands of Adventure, which is called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The express pass doesn’t work on a small handful of the most popular rides, hence our early entry and speed-walk to the ride.
As you’d imagine, Universal has queuing down to an art. Despite a 30 minute waiting time (yes! Even though we were practically first in the park!) you queue through a simulation of Hogwarts itself, so there are plenty of talking photos (very clever) and nods at different parts of the book. Our excitement levels were pretty intense at this stage as it was our first ride. HPFJ is fairly new, and uses the best of 3D technology to combine a physical ride where you sit in a carriage, safety harness on with movement – drops, dips, spins and even almost being turned upside down – with a 3D screen so you feel like you’re flying around Hogwarts. It’s stunning, fast-paced, and great fun. Many of the characters from Harry Potter appear as part of the ride, which is lovely if you’re a fan of the books and the films. Helen and I went on this ride at least three times across the two days we loved it so much.
My Rating: 5/5
Helen’s Rating: 5/5
I’m not a roller coaster fanatic and was nervous before we attended. I’d already prepped Helen we would probably split up for most of the rides. I did manage to go on this teeny tiny roller coaster with her though.
Not much to tell really, but if you have kids (or you’re a scary cat like me) it’s a good, easy coaster to try, with a few small drops and dips, enough to get a little adrenaline racing, but nothing too frightening.
My Rating: 2/5
Helen’s Rating: 2/5
This isn’t actually a ride, but the area where the Harry Potter rides in Islands of Adventure are located. And it’s amazing (clearly I’m going to run out of superlatives in this post).
You walk in under an arch with ‘Hogsmeade: Please respect the spell limits’ on a sign, and you’re confronted with a faux English village with snow on the roofline. Visually, it’s a complete delight. Helen and I tried a Butterbeer (which was delicious, but so sweet we had to share), looked at the (ridiculous amounts of) merchandise, visited Ollivander’s wand shop, which came with a little magic show, and just soaked up the atmosphere.
Exemplifying the level of detail, you can buy an ‘interactive wand’. Although Helen and I refrained, we saw many kids waving these wands in special areas, which then activated ‘spells’. You could see that this level of interactivity, whereby children feel like they’re really doing magic, was thrilling to the kids.
My Rating: 4/5 (if I hadn’t seen the even more amazing Diagon Alley, which I’ll come to in the next post, it would have been a 5/5)
Helen’s Rating: 4/5
After Harry Potter, we were pretty hyperactive and full of beans. We’d decided to do a full loop of Islands of Adventure before we agreed, if we had time on day 1, we’d get on the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios.
We walked pretty fast through the Jurassic Park area, and a couple more water rides (one of which Helen went on below), and went to the Marvel Super Hero Island area, to go on the Spiderman ride. We weren’t too sure about this, but it was still early, there wasn’t much of a queue and we were able to use our passes to whizz past those who were queuing.
And it was great! Again, a mix of a physical ride and 3D (this time using 3D glasses), you’re following Spiderman in a chase through New York city as he goes after some bad guys. It’s completely immersive, the action, speed and movement all combining to make what’s effectively being inside a cartoon real. It’s also a lot of fun, and like many of these rides, we came our grinning like loons. I went on this one again the next day.
My Rating: 5/5
Helen’s Rating: 4/5 (It’s a classic, but might need updating as new films come out over time…)
I went on this to fill the time while Helen was on the Hulk Coaster below. It’s basically a tea cups ride that’s themed as if you’re in a device which is helping the Marvel character Storm (X-men) battle Magneto. Quite fun, but you could do this at any fairground. But there was no queue, and I had a cup to myself. I went on it twice.
My Rating: 2/5
It’s funny, written out like this, it seems like we haven’t been on many rides at this point. But we’d also mooched around a number of shops – the merchandising is done extremely well – and eaten some very-average-but-quite-expensive pizza. Oh, and we’d met some of the characters along the way – there’s a fair few dressed up who you can have your photo taken with. (We didn’t.)
The park itself is also huge, so there was a lot of walking involved to get from one area to the next. We completed the loop early afternoon of Islands of Adventure, and decided to catch the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios. We were planning to take this again the next day, but we wanted to ride it twice (in both directions, so four times altogether!) – greedy. We also decided that we’d just scope out Universal Studios for an hour or two (as we were quite tired already!) before heading back to the hotel.
Hogwarts Express is one of the newest rides, and again, the attention to detail is stunning. If you catch it the Islands of Adventure side, you’re in Hogsmeade Station. You get on an actual steam train, and into an 8-person carriage. There are screens up both on the door and on the window, and as the train moves between parks, you’re treated to watching the scenery – including characters – go by between Hogsmeade and Kings Cross. Again, it all feels very realistic, with sound to go with the visuals.
As the train drew into ‘Kings Cross’ I actually found I had a lump in my throat, as you see scenes of London which are very true to life (though I’ve never seen the Knight Bus squeezing through alleys as I’ve come into Kings Cross proper to be fair). There’s also some fun as some well-known Harry Potter characters pass through the corridor side – pay attention to both sides of the carriage if you go on this ride!
My Rating: 4/5
Helen’s Rating: 4/5
The Really Scary Rollercoasters in Islands of Adventure!
Helen went on a few rides on her own too (the biggest, baddest roller coasters). Here’re her thoughts:
There are two dragon rides available here, one blue and one red, each intertwined with the other as though they are flying together (neatly done to get two rides in the same area). I must admit to only going on one as I found that to be more than enough. I think this was actually only my second ride of the trip (after HPFJ) and was one of the fastest and scariest roller coasters I have ever been on (including the rest of Universal and Alton Towers back home). The corkscrew exit from the first run up at the start meant I shut my eyes and screamed the whole way round. So much so that the people next to me on the ride checked if I was ok at the end (I made a lot of friends on the roller coasters I did on my own). I’m glad to say I did it and survived, I didn’t feel unsafe at any point, but it is a definite Thrill ride (capital T intended) so don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Helen’s Rating: 4/5
Of the two good water rides (this one and Jurassic Park River Adventure) this one had the best write up so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s classic log plume and yes, I got soaked. For most of the rides there are lockers to put your valuables to keep them safe, but not this one. This is an oldie but a classic.
Helen’s Rating: 2/5
If I was going to do any of the thrill ride roller coasters in either park more than once, it would have been this one. Not so much pace I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but also just enough twists, turns and loop the loops to make it a fun ride. I don’t think this one will ever tire on me.
Helen’s Rating: 5/5