Not a fan.
But somehow I ended up here.
It’s not a mystery how, though.
Normally, the boys spend part of Christmas with the Florida family, but this year I thought we’d switch it up and they’d go for part of Thanksgiving instead.
A couple of weeks ago, the notion popped into my head of working some Universal action into that journey. Of all the theme parks down that way, Universal irritates me the least. A couple of years ago, I might have said LegoLand, but we’ve grown out of that stage (THANK GOD REALLY THANK YOU GOD), and so Universal – read Harry Potter – it was.
I’d been…a long time ago. I think Joseph was probably just three, judging from the photos and the absence of young Michael. It must have been the summer of 2004, the summer before he was born. In talking about it before we went down, I started to tell Joseph about it, and he stopped me, saying yes, he remembered being kissed by Betty Boop and his sister and I teaching him to say, “Betty Boop kissed me!” over and over.
I have my doubts, but, okay.
Both my young adult daughter and one of my older adult sons have been fairly recently and enjoyed it, especially the Harry Potter stuff, and it was the Harry Potter fan’s birthday weekend..so..let’s do this.
Left Friday 11/18 right after school. Drove to Ocala, arrived at 1 am at a Country Inn and Suites. Rose at 9, grabbed a quick hotel breakfast, arrived at Universal 11-ish.
Checked into the Loew’s Royal Pacific Resort hotel, then walked right over to Universal. The cousins from Gainesville arrived soon after, the kids all hooked up, and I found myself in the bizarre position of being at a theme park with no one to escort or supervise.
So I went back to the hotel.
Actually, first, I went to Wal-Mart, where I bought a swim suit for the kid who’d been told a thousand times to make absolutely sure he had packed “church clothes, toothbrush and a swimsuit.” Then I got back to the hotel, wondered what to do with myself, then wandered over to CityWalk, and eventually hooked up with my sister- and brother-in-law for dinner, after which we found the kids and went our separate, satisfied ways.
Sunday morning, we got up as early as we could manage, since part of the perk of staying at this rather expensive hotel was early morning park admission – along with unlimited Express Passes. We were at the gate of Universal Studios by 7:40, and in the park a little before 8, and along with the rest of the hoards, headed straight to Diagon Alley. We spent much of the morning there, rode the Hogwarth’s Express over to Islands of Adventure, at which point it was late morning. The cousins texted and said they were in the park for a few more rides. They found each other, and I went back to the hotel to load up the backpack with changes of clothes, for the plan was for the boys to do water rides in the afternoon. Which they did, and got soaked. After which we returned to the hotel. One kid went swimming (there were ducks in the pool!), then asked to go back to the park, and the other took a nap. The One Kid and I went back to Universal, rode a few rides, then returned to rouse the other one and head to the truly Last Chance Mass – a 7pm Mass at Holy Cross Church, which was great, and about which I will write later. Back to the hotel, then walk to CityWalk, to the new steampunk-style Chocolate Emporium where they had ridiculously monstrous milkshakes, and then back to the hotel.
Monday morning, one kept sleeping, but the other one and I headed over at 7 am for early admission to Universal Studios. It really is special to experience the Harry Potter stuff with minimal crowds. We wandered Diagon Alley again, took the train over to the other park and Hogsmeade, where he and I did the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride – he for the third time, me for the first. We then made our way back to the hotel, got the other one, checked out, loaded up the car, and then headed back to to Universal Studios for most of the afternoon – they did Men in Black again, we saw some street shows, ate lunch…then back in the car about 3, up to drop them off in Gainesville ,and I was back here in Birmingham by 11.
Quick Reviews and Thoughts
They did more than I did – obviously. And they enjoyed it, but were definitely done when we were done. As for me, I was basically thinking the whole time, “This will be my one and only time at this place for my entire life. So..whatever.”
- Everyone (including me) was most impressed with all of the Harry Potter stuff: Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and especially Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. I’ll write in a bit more detail on it in a separate post.
- I didn’t ride it, but they declared the Transformers attraction to be the worst.
- They didn’t ride the Hulk coaster, but they did ride the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (which they liked) and the Double Dragon thing at Harry Potter which they said was intense and they enjoyed, but was also not something they wanted to do again.
- I thought the Spiderman ride was pretty good, as was the Mummy. When it came to the Harry Potter rides, the Forbidden Journey ride (which is older) is far better than the newer Escape from Gringott’s. The difference? The former is a mix of film and “real” stuff, while the latter is almost all 3-d video effects.
- Three days was enough. If we’d gotten there earlier on Saturday, two days would certainly have been enough.
When I first started “planning” this – what, 2 weeks ago? – I had thought we would stay at the Cabana Bay hotel. I wanted to stay on the property to reduce driving time, and the Cabana Bay is famous among us Mid-Century Modern fans for having a distinct Atomic Vibe, and I had thought it would be fun to stay in that. Plus it’s the least expensive of the on-property hotels.
But then a vacancy at the Pacific Resort popped up, and I was pulled in by the fact that the available room was Club level – food available all day and into the evening – and that Unlimited Express Passes were complimentary. This means that even though the room price was higher, each of us would get three days’ worth of passes that would allow us to bypass the regular lines, passes that were going for a hundred bucks a person for the days we would be there – so basically $900 worth of express passes, plus complimentary food…it seemed more than worth the higher price, and the value on paper was far more than what I paid for the rooms. So surely it was worth it!
Well…I’m not sure it was.
Oh, it wasn’t a waste of money, and the hotel was nice, but….
Because we were at the park and out and about so much, we really were not able to take advantage of the food as much as I’d thought. I ended buying food for them, when I thought I wasn’t going to have to at all. Silly me. Secondly, I’m not sure the Express Passes were worth it for us. You can’t use them on the Harry Potter rides. I used mine maybe three times. The water rides had no wait, anyway. Of the other rides, the single rider lines were just as fast if not faster than the express pass lines.
And while the hotel *was* on the property, it was still probably a third of a mile walk to the parks from the hotel – further than it was from the day visitor parking lot to the parks.
So…even though this is not something I’m ever going to again, I’m offering my experience to you, in case this is something you might consider. I think if you are going during busy season and have a bunch of people you are squeezing into one room, and those people are going to want to ride a lot of rides for which there are (unbelievably) 90-minute to two-hour waits, the express passes can be used, and they are also going to be in the hotel during the times when complimentary food is available…it would definitely be worth it. But otherwise…stay at the Best Western or the Drury Inn and Suites down the road.