Monday, March 16, 2015

Universal Studios, Orlando Florida

Two weekends ago, our family went on our first mini-vacation of the year.  We spent three spectacular days at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.  First off, the hotel is gorgeous and a huge bonus is that it is a pet-friendly hotel, so we were able to bring our 70 pound lab along with us.  In that regard, they have a very nice section for dogs, and the check-in attendant gave us a room on the first floor that was right around the corner from the dog walking area. 

We didn’t hit the parks on the first day.  Instead, we explored the hotel and we grabbed dinner at The Kitchen, which is a restaurant in the Hard Rock Hotel.  The food was fair and a bit overpriced, but that is to be expected when dining onsite.  The waiter was very friendly and gave us complimentary soup, as well as complimentary cookies for the girls. 

Since staying at the hotel also qualifies guests to receive free Express Pass tickets for Universal, we decided to collect our tickets after dinner.  The kiosks for the passes are located in the main lobby and only take a few minutes to process.  The passes really did make a difference with regards to the amount of time we would have spent waiting in lines the entire weekend, so I definitely recommend getting them.  The only downer is that for some of the best rides and attractions at Universal and Islands of Adventure, the Express Passes aren’t valid.  Just be sure to check for the Express Pass icons on the guide map prior to entering the parks so that you are aware of which rides participate in the Express Pass program.

The next day, armed with our tickets, we woke early and headed to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  We are all avid Harry Potter fans, so it was hard to contain our excitement.  The Harry Potter World in Islands of Adventure opened early to guests of the hotel, so we took advantage of that time by exploring Hogsmeade, riding the Hippogriff coaster…twice, and taking a visit to Hogwarts.  The small details of the Harry Potter sections were extremely impressive.  The Hogwarts Express train was an amazing experience!  At one point, the dementors came aboard the train, and the air got colder.  It was a very small detail, but also a very important one for those who really love the Harry Potter series.  Also, in the bathrooms, you can hear Moaning Murtle!  We also got to try Harry, Ron & Hermione’s favorite drink -Butter Beer, which tasted like a mix between cream soda and butterscotch candy. 

Our hotel stay also included a breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley.  Due to the small size of the restaurant, I would strongly recommend reservations.  The food was fair, but the experience is really what you pay for.  The décor was similar to that in the movie and my girls really loved it. 
Exiting the Leaky Cauldron leads you back into Diagon Alley, where every 15-20 minutes, the dragon sitting atop Gringotts Bank spews fire out into the crowd.  It was one of the most amazing features of Diagon Alley. We went on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which is a fabulous 3D coaster ride that puts you face to face with Voldemort and Bellatrix.  My youngest, who is seven and about four feet tall, absolutely loved this ride! 

Once the ride was finished, we went to Olivanders wand shop.  We saw the wand show, where a member of the audience gets to try out some wands.   The show only lasts about 10 minutes, so if you have time and the line is short, go check it out!  Olivanders sells the wands of each character in the Harry Potter series.  Although they are expensive, they also sell interactive wands that are really a great feature to offer for the kids.  I bought each of my girls a wand, and they were able to cast spells that really worked just as long as they were in either Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. 

In addition to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we also were able to get back to the hotel each afternoon for some relaxation.  The pool at the Hard Rock Hotel was heated, which was welcoming due to a “cold front” that had moved into Florida over that weekend.  A really cool feature of the pool is that they have speakers under the water, so you can hear the music while swimming.  The music isn’t all that clear unless you are near one of the underwater speakers, but it really made my girls happy.  There is also a sand beach around the pool as well.  And surprisingly, the pool was very clean and seemed sand free.  There is a water slide for the kids, as well as some water fountain areas and a toddler pool for smaller children.  Sunday was quiet, but on Friday and Saturday, there was some sort of entertainment for both children and adults at the pool throughout the day.  They also have movies at the pool after dinner.  If I have to complain about anything, it is that the hot tub was always crowded with unsupervised children.  At one point, some of the kids were playing a game and trying to jump into the hot tub from certain distances.  This went on for quite a while and there were no parents or lifeguards around to stop them.  Other than that, the hotel was perfect, and I would definitely stay there again.

On Saturday night, we braved City Walk for dinner.  Let me just say that City Walk at dinnertime was more crowded than either of the parks were throughout the entire time we were there.  It was almost impossible to stay together.  And to be honest, I don’t understand the draw.  It’s just restaurants and shopping.  But I just wanted to put it out there that it was a nightmare to navigate through, especially after a long day at the parks.   So, just a tip based on my experience, if you have a family with young ones who are cranky from walking all day long, I would definitely recommend grabbing dinner somewhere else.

We spent the next day exploring the parks outside of the Harry Potter areas.  We went to the Dr. Seuss area, the Jurassic Park area, and we also got to experience some of the amazing attractions such as Minion Mayhem, The Mummy, Transformers and Disaster.  We also got to see the Shrek 4D movie, as well as the Animal Actors on Location show.   Even though I am more of a Disney person, Universal really has done an incredible job with their parks.  There are some pitfalls that everyone going to the Universal parks should be aware of (listed below), but I don’t think any of these should be reasons to disregard Universal.  In fact, I really can’t wait to return when my youngest (the daredevil of the family) gets a little bit taller so that she can ride all of the great coasters!

Here are some of the pitfalls:

1.        Some attractions in the park aren’t opened at the same time that the park opens.  For example, the park opened at 9am each day, but the Jurassic Park Discovery Center didn’t open until 10am.  I find this a bit odd, especially if you happen to have done all of the rides in that area.  You are then stuck waiting for something to open, or you have to just skip it.
2.       Because of the early admission offered by the hotel, you need to show proof at the entrance that you are, in fact, staying at one of the participating hotels.  This wasn’t an issue.  However, once we got in the park, we were again asked to show our room keys to get on the rides.  It was cumbersome to continually have to get out our room keys, especially when we already showed them at the front gate in order to get access to the park. 
3.       Staying at the Hard Rock, Loews Portofino Bay, or Loews Royal Pacific resorts includes early admission to the parks.  However, the only part of the park that is opened for early admission is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the Island of Adventure.
4.       As I stated earlier, not all rides accept the Express Pass, so plan accordingly.

Overall, this was a great vacation to start our year off.  If I had to do it again, I would purchase an extra day at the parks, as we only had the 2-day multi-park passes.  Even though we saw everything we wanted to see, and even got to do some things twice, I really wish we could have seen a few more shows, tried a few other rides and just got a chance to leisurely explore the park a little bit more.  Having said that, our first mini vacation was a huge success!  We really did have a lot of fun, and the girls’ smiles throughout the entire trip made it all worth it!  And to make it even better, even though two weeks have passed, the girls are still talking about it! This is definitely something I think we will all remember for a very long time.