The Sunshine State, Part Three: Universal Studios

Trip Start Sep 07, 2012
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Trip End Ongoing

Flag of United States  , Florida
Wednesday, December 5, 2012

After our visit to Kennedy Space Center, it was time to bid adieu to the Atlantic Ocean and start heading Northwest again. It was also getting close to Wren's 11th birthday, and we had cooked up a very cool surprise for her: A four-day trip to Universal Studios Orlando.

First, a few details about our camping experience during this two-week period. We stayed in Kissimmee, FL, which is about 10 miles from Orlando. One thing I didn't like about Orlando: the entire city is surrounded by toll roads. It's really hard to get anywhere in the area without paying
$5-10 in tolls. On our way in, we told the GPS to avoid toll roads, and the only way to do it was to travel through the airport, and drive through the terminal itself...funny.

In our campground, Kat and Wren saw some huge turtle living in a culvert. They said it looked prehistoric and was 18-24" large. I never saw the thing (looked for over a week). It became a running joke. I believe them, I guess...sort of. The other highlight was Kat scaring some old lady in the bathroom so much that she nearly died of a heart attack. Way to go. Also, some kid stole a can of iced tea from our campspot. Classy.

Our inspiration for visiting Universal came when Wren had seen an ad in a magazine for the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" attraction at Universal, and her and Kat both really wanted to go see it. After some research into ticket prices (usually over $100 per person per day!), I found a good deal online for 1/3 of the normal price. So I bought three four-day passes, and Kat and I planned a big surprise for Wren.

The scheme we came up with was that I would, the night before, discover that there was a "Legends of Poker" event in Orlando, and sigh about how I wish I could go. Then in the morning, I would explain how I wanted us all to go, because they had it configured so that the more tickets you bought, the more poker celebrities you got to meet in person. Kat played along, and Wren, bless her heart, put on a good face, although I could tell that she loathed the idea of spending all day tagging along at a poker event.

As we neared the gates of Universal, we pulled over and broke the news to Wren...Happy Birthday, kid! She literally jumped out of her seat and hugged me -- it was well the worth the psychological torture we had put her through!

Two nice things about our four day park passes: 1) They got us into both parks (Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure), and 2) You have 14 days to use your four days, so they don't have to be consecutive days. This turned out to be great for us older folk...having this much fun is exhausting!

Before I delve into the details of what we did, I want to commend Universal for their professionalism and organization. The way they've planned out everything from parking to ways to keep ride lines at a minimum is really stellar. They usher you right to a parking spot, have people-movers to help you get long distances quickly, and we never waited for than 25 minutes to ride on any ride (most were 5 minutes).

Day 1

Our first day was Harry Potter day. We decided to spend a whole day in the Harry Potter part of Islands of Adventure, so that Kat and Wren could get completely filled with Harry Potter (and then we could move on and do something else on the other days).

I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan myself, but I have to admit that they did an amazing job recreating the town of Hogsmeade and a scaled-down version of Hogwarts' school. There were plenty of odd little shops and curiosities, including Zonko's, Honeyduke's, Ollivander's, and the Owl Post. On the streets were butterbeer vendors and a replica of the Hogwarts Express train. We paid $5 to try a butterbeer, and it was basically cream soda with some butterscotch foam on top...hmm. On the plus side, we paid an extra $7 for the collectible cup, and got $1 soda refills for the rest of our stay, which turned out to be an awesome deal.

There was a line to get into Ollivander's, and we discovered that this was a little show where the proprietor would pick someone from the small group and have a wand 'select' them. Normally these wands cost $30. Wren tried three times but was never selected for a wand. Wankers. The last time, they picked a 20-something dude that was playing on his phone and not paying attention at all. Oh well. The last time Wren and Kat waited in line, I waited for 30 minutes over by a shop where a baby mandrake root was screaming over and over...and I still can't get that sound out of my head!

We had a lunch of fish and chips and then it was time to hit the rides. We started off with 'Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey'. The coolest thing about this ride is that the line takes you through Hogwarts, and this is the only way to see the living paintings, holograms of the cast, and other cool reproductions/relics from the movies. They really did an amazing job with this. The ride itself was ok...basically a video roller coaster, where you are moving on a track while a movie shows around you and makes it look like you are flying, playing quidditch.

After trying the 'Flight of the Hippogryph', which turned out to be a kiddie coaster, Wren wanted to go on the 'Dragon Challenge' coaster. At this point, after Kat got motion-sickness on the first ride, she was done. I took one look at the loop-de-loops of this ride and told Wren she'd have to go on her own. For the next two hours, Kat and I sat and watched Wren go on this ride over and over. I went on plenty of other rides with her over the four days, but I draw the line at coasters that go upside-down. Call me a wuss.

After a whole day immersed in Harry Potter world, we were tired and after grabbing Wren a stuffed owl and some other trinkets, we headed back to camp for a few days before gearing up for day 2.

Day 2

[Day 2 started with us earning a $160 ticket for taking a right turn in a no-turn-on-red zone. Oops. We wouldn't find out about this until a week later, however.]

For day 2, we switched gears and headed over to the main Universal Studios park. Right after we entered the gates, Wren was accosted by some Men In Black characters, and they grilled her and inspected her, untying her shoes, asking silly questions, etc. It was awesome.

The first attraction we saw was the Twister one. It was a bit of a letdown...they usher you into a dark room to watch a video starring Helen Hunt and Bill Pullman explaining how scary twisters are, and then they take you into a room where they've got a small town replica, and they put on a twister show, with rain, lightning, and (the best part), a cow flying by. It was ok, but you could tell this must be an older attraction. It didn't have the wow factor.

Next up, Wren and I tried to get into the Disaster! ride, but after waiting in line, we were told it was offline for a bit and we'd have to come back. They did give us a special code to skip the line when we returned. When we got in later, it turned out to be pretty cool. It's an homage to disaster movies from the 70s, like Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno. They put you on a subway tram as a group of 'extras' for a movie shoot. The director (Christopher Walken!) comes on a screen and tells you how he wants you to act, screaming at the right moments, as the area floods, a tanker explodes, you go through an earthquake, etc. It was really cool, but only lasted about 3 minutes. It left me wanting more, but smiling nonetheless.

We grabbed some lunch at the Richter Cafe (LOL) and went over to check out a live show called Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue. It was a variety show MC'd by Beetlejuice and starring Frankenstein, his Bride, the Wolfman, and Dracula. They mostly sang newer songs that kids today would know...it was surely geared toward kids. But I had a huge laugh when Frankenstein launched into You Shook Me All Night Long. Hahaha. AC/DC would be...either horrified or honored, or maybe both.

Now it was time for more rides. We checked out Krustyland (the Simpsons ride), which turned out to be a video roller coaster...so-so, although they did have a cool area, with a replica of the KWIK-E MART, selling cans of Duff beer (non-alcoholic I'm sure). And the ride itself had custom video/audio from the stars of the show, Hank Azaria, Kelsey Grammer, etc. So the experience was fun, even if the ride was meh.

The Men In Black: Agent Training ride turned out to be our favorite ride. They put you in a car on a track, with a laser pistol, and they take you through a 'city' besieged by aliens, and you can shoot the aliens from your car and get points. Your car competes against another car for bragging rights, and at one point, you can even shoot at the power orb on the other car. This ride was really well thought out and exciting. Wren and I went on this ride probably 10 times over the four days. I won't brag about my score, but I did pretty well for an old timer.

Next, we had a photo op with Scooby Doo (!) and checked out some of the Blues Brothers stage show, and then we parents took a break while Wren rode a few times on the RockIt roller coaster, on which you can choose your own music, and -- if you want to spend $40 (we didn't) -- buy a DVD of your ride, with your music as the soundtrack. Cool idea, at least.

One of the coolest things we saw was the Horror Movie Makeup Show, which was a live show held in an old-style movie theater. In the lobby, they had a lot of actual horror movie memorabilia, including Michael Myers's mask from Halloween, a spider-head from John Carpenter's The Thing, and the heads of Herman Munster and Grandpa Munster. During the show, they demonstrated some effects, like how they did the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf In London (they had the actual prosthetic used in the film!).

Our long, fun day 2 was capped off by watching the Macy's Holiday Parade. Having missed most of our regular Christmas traditions this year, this was a treat. They had a bunch of the actual balloons and floats from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a little weird that it was sunny and 80 degrees. But no complaints here. We ended the day with a brief stop at the Mannheim Steamroller concert before bailing to get some rest.

Day 3

For day 3, we returned to the Islands of Adventure park, to do all the stuff we missed out on by spending a whole day in Harry Potter land. We started with Marvel Super Hero Island. Wren took a few rides on the Hulk coaster and tried out Dr. Doom's Fear Fall, and I got a picture in front of some Captain America art, wearing my Captain America t-shirt. Then, to my surprise, a bunch of superheroes appeared, including Spiderman, Wolverine, and yep, Captain America himself. I got some fun pics with Captain America, and we moved on to Toon Lagoon.

Toon Lagoon celebrates the old newspaper comic strips, like Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey, Flash Gordon, Betty Boop, and Blondie. This is also where you need a poncho, as most of the rides are water rides. We took a couple rides on Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, and then got soaked on Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges. On these rides, people watching can put a quarter into a machine for the honor of squirting you with giant squirt guns while you ride. Nice.

Next up was Jurassic Park. You enter through the famous, tall Jurassic Park gates, and then there are two things worth doing, the River Adventure ride, and the Discovery Center. The River Adventure takes you on a boat cruise through Jurassic Park which starts peacefully enough, but then predictably all goes wrong, and dinosaurs start appearing to scare the crap out of you. At the end, they designed it to make it look like you were going to fall into the T-Rex's mouth, but you barely escape and plunge down a water slide instead. Wren was totally freaked out and kept grabbing my arm for safety (like I was going to do anything...).

The Discovery Center was pretty cool. It was built to be a replica of the Discovery Center from the original Jurassic Park movie. They had the intro movie playing that explains about dino DNA and mosquitoes trapped in amber. They had dinosaur egg incubators, the whole bit.

Now it was on to The Lost Continent. This is an area meant to bring you visions of the Far East, of Sinbad's adventures, etc. They had a magical fountain out front that would taunt you, ask you questions and such. Then we got into a special effects show called Poseidon's Fury, which was pretty cool -- Poseidon battles a freed demon, and you get to watch the show on waterfalls used as video screens, as fire blasts and water sprays happen all around you. Also in this area was a live show called The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, which was basically another live show geared for the younger crowd, but did contain some impressive stunts and more pyrotechnics (yeah!).

Our last stop in Islands of Adventure was Seuss Landing, where Wren and I went on the Cat in the Hat ride and we all attended the Grinchmas live show, which was a 30-minute musical performance featuring a bunch of Whos from Whoville, and the Grinch (the more recent, slapsticky Grinch). FYI, I'm not a fan of this version of the Grinch. I'm a bit of a purist and prefer the more evil original Grinch. Still, the show wasn't bad, and we got a photo op with the Grinch.

Thoroughly exhausted at this point, it was time to leave and rest up for day 4.

Day 4

On day 4, we hit both parks, to spend more time on our favorite rides (especially MIB!) and try a few we hadn't done, like the Mummy (scared Wren a great deal) and the new Despicable Me ride (another video coaster, but well done). We also made one more visit to Harry Potter world, so the girls could get closure with it.

Most of the details on day 4 surround my adventure in auditioning for and winning Fear Factor Live! There is so much to tell about that, that I want to separate it into a separate blog entry, so as not to overwhelm you. But you don't want to miss the next entry!
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