Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida!

During the past year or so, little man has read all of the original Harry Potter books. He'd read a book, then watch the movie. Then read the next book, then watch the next movie. And when he was done, he also read Tales of Beadle the Bard, which is the book of wizarding fairy tales that Dumbledore bequeaths to Hermione. He loved the fantastical, magical world of Harry Potter.

So, hubs and I decided to enchant him a bit further with a trip to Universal Studios Orlando, which features two Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks. A quick consult of the park's crowd calendar told us that early November was a low-crowd time to visit, and our friendly hive mind on Facebook let us know that three full days at the park would allow us to take a "deep dive." Off we went!

We decided to stay at one of the park's official properties. We chose Cabana Bay because it offered good value, featured a free (and frequent) shuttle both to and from the parks, and allowed us to access at least one park per day early. (More on this later.)

We flew through Atlanta and arrived at Cabana Bay shortly after lunch on a Saturday. We'd decided not to visit the parks that first day, opting instead to settle into our hotel and relax after our flights. This was a really good decision! First of all, our hotel - Cabana Bay is a HUGE property. It offers a variety of rooms in different styles (traditional, suite-style, rooms with kitchens, etc.), and they are clustered around two large, beautiful outdoor activity areas. In one area, there's a lovely pool, a lazy river, a spa, a small bar, a small splash pad, and a large sandy beach area with lounge chairs and games. There are also two fire pits in this area. In the other area, there's a really large pool with a fun water slide, a larger splash pad, a spa, a bar, a green lawn where evening movies are shown using a projector, and a fire pit or two. We really enjoyed spending time in both of these areas during our time at the resort. The pools are amazing!

The aesthetic of the hotel is mid-century modern, and it is beautifully executed throughout the property. Cheerful colors, Eames-style chairs, modern light fixtures, and palm trees reaching skyward in the lobby.

The goblins at Gringotts regard interlopers
rather severely.
We arrived shortly before our room was ready. First things first - I traded our park ticket vouchers for actual tickets at the guest services desk. That done, we checked our bags and stopped for lunch at Bayliner Diner, the big cafeteria-style eatery at the property. We LOVED this place and ended up eating there often. You can choose several different lines: salad bar, pre-packaged to-go foods, grill (hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.), pizzas and sandwiches, and then more "real food choices" (think meat and three). You could also pick up desserts, snacks, s'more kits (for use at the on-property fire pits) and more.

You got your food FAST, it was very reasonably priced, there were plenty of healthy options, and it was delicious! Perfect for families and large groups! By the time we finished lunch, our room was ready. We picked up our bags at the front desk and checked in.

We'd chosen a traditional room. Nothing fancy, just two double beds and a bath. The room offered plenty of storage and mirrors for getting ready in the mornings (smart).

After we'd rested a bit, we headed out to the pools! Clay donned his suit, grabbed his swim goggles, and off we went. We first tried the pool on the lazy river side of the development. The side we sat on is zero-grade entry, and Clay happily played with the other kids in the pool for an hour or two. Then, the two of us played some beach games for a while. (Giant versions of Connect Four! What fun!) After that, we checked out the other pool. Clay loved the water slide! Not too scary, but plenty of thrills and spills for a 9-year-old! After an afternoon of fun in the sun, it was back to the hotel room to freshen up for dinner.

We went to Universal's CityWalk shopping/dining/entertainment development to take a look around and rustle up our evening meal. We hopped the free shuttle to CityWalk right outside the hotel, and within 10 minutes, we were going through the quick security check. The buses let you off in front of escalators and stairs. Up those, you go through security, then take two moving walkways to CityWalk.

There's so much to see at CityWalk, especially when it's all lit up at night! They have tons of restaurants and shops, a movie theatre, and some entertainment venues. We walked around a bit, then popped into Emeril's for dinner. Even though we didn't have reservations, because this restaurant is at a higher price point than most of the offerings in CityWalk, we were able to be seated quickly. I had a specialty pasta with a glass of red wine, hubs had lobster bisque and salad with a cocktail, and Clay had chicken tenders. We had great service, and the food was delicious. After dinner, it was back to the hotel for bed!

The next morning, we were up and at 'em early. Guests at Universal Orlando properties get early admission (1-hour early) to one park of the resort's choosing each day, and we didn't want to miss it! (All three days we were there, we got into Universal Studios, where the Diagon Alley portion of the Harry Potter theme park is, one hour early.) We had a big, delicious breakfast at Byliner Diner, which opens at 7 a.m. Then, we caught the shuttle to CityWalk/the parks at 7:45. A little after 8 a.m., we were in the mid-sized line to get into the park.

A word about the early-entry benefit - Though Universal may say the park opens early, it really doesn't. In reality, most of the park is still closed when it "opens" to on-property guests at 8 a.m. The only thing that REALLY opens early is the Harry Potter portion of the park. So, of course, all of the on-property guests pack in there. I thought this completely defeated the purpose of the "benefit" of having extra time in the park. If the WHOLE park (Revenge of the Mummy, the Simpsons, ET Adventure, Transformers, etc.) really HAD BEEN open early, at 8 a.m., this "benefit" would have helped me as an on-property guest. But most of that other stuff didn't open until 9 a.m., or sometimes 10 a.m.! So, in reality, the whole exercise kind-of defeated the purpose. We were in the park early, but it wasn't any less crowded, because we were all in the only part of the park that was actually open early.

The fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts is soooo cool!
Anyway, we got in and headed straight for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. The theming in this part of the park is intense. You walk through a passageway in a brick wall on a "normal" London street (You can dial MAGIC in the red telephone booth just outside to hear a message from the Ministry of Magic.), and suddenly, the wondrous alley is revealed to you. (Very dramatic.)

Once we caught our breath, we got in a pretty short line to ride Escape from Gringotts, which we loved! While you're in line, you get to see the Gringotts lobby, where the goblins are going about their work. Some of the paintings talk to you, and as you wend your way through the areas leading to the vaults, you see shadows and hear conversations through the office windows. Then, you watch a short film that sets up the journey, take the elevators "down" to where you board the carts, pick up your "safety glasses," and board.

This amazing ride combines true motion, 3-D video, and other effects to send you down through the Gringotts vaults. You meet up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione; narrowly escape being toasted by dragon fire; and flee the killing spells of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. We loved this ride and rode it twice during our visit!

After escaping Gringotts, we explored Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. In Borgin and Burkes, we heard a bird tweeting in the vanishing cabinet. The mirror in Madame Malikin's told us we looked fabulous! Nagini spoke parseltongue to us in the glass case behind the magical menagerie, and we caught a performance by Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees on the park's stage. We also checked out the Knight Bus, where you can have a chat with the driver and the shrunken head!

Jurassic Park is lit up beautifully at night!
The rest of the park opening by this time, we popped out of Harry Potter to ride the Men in Black Alien Attack ride (really fun, and similar to the Toy Story ride at Disney). I enjoyed this ride, but as half of it broke down while we were waiting in line (thus halving the number of riders they could accommodate), we waited in line too long for it. We followed that up with The Simpsons Ride (a 3-D affair that I really disliked - not much real movement, closed-in space with no air) and Kang and Kodo's Twirl 'n' Hurl (think Disney's Dumbo ride, but with a different theme, and there was zero wait).

By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We headed back to Diagon Alley and bellied up to meals at The Leaky Cauldron. We had cottage pies and butterbeers! Butterbeer is very sweet (almost like a dessert) and very good. We found that you could get waters, then get one butterbeer for everyone to share, and it was usually plenty. Our tummies full, we headed for the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade.

Whew. This line was loooooong, much longer than I expected during low season. We must have just hit it at the absolute wrong time. We waited more than half an hour before boarding, which *I* think is entirely too long. And unlike other park attractions, there's nothing to keep you entertained while you wait. We finally got on the train, which takes you from Diagon Alley (in the Universal Studios park) to Hogsmeade (in the Islands of Adventure Park). It's a short, comfortable ride during which you see the shadows of Ron, Harry, and Hermione (and hear them talking) in the train car, watch London go by out the window, and narrowly miss an encounter with a dementor. Pretty soon, you're pulling into the station in Hogsmeade, which is also wonderfully themed!

We looked around a bit, but we didn't spend too much time in Hogsmeade that first day, as it was crowded. We had other plans! We headed for the Jurassic Park River Adventure. We'd seen on the park's app that lines were really short for it, and we were ready to get wet! (In general, we found the official theme park app very helpful. It's just a little bit behind on wait times. So, for example, the app might say that wait times for an attraction are 15 minutes, but there are in actuality about 20 minutes. It was often about 5 minutes off, but not usually more inaccurate than that.) This ride was so much fun! It's not really scary, but you're always waiting to find out when you'll get soaked! We all loved it! (A note - At the end of the ride, as you're beginning to pass under a bridge, guests standing on the bridge above have the opportunity to soak you. Watch out!)
Soaked but thrilled on Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls!

After this ride, since we were wet anyway, we decided to check out Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. There was no wait, so in we went! At first, Clay was a little nervous about the big drop at the end, but he loved it! We were completely soaked by this time, so we decided to head back to the hotel room for a break and to dry off.

On our way, we made a pit stop at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium for a snack. Clay and I split one of the eatery's HUGE sundaes. Delicious! A note - We saw families coming here and getting a sundae or a milkshake for each person. These things are expensive - $10-$13 each. And because they are so big, most folks would eat about a third of it and leave the rest. Don't make this mistake! Plan to share, and you'll waste less money and ice cream!

After a break (and drying out) at the hotel for a bit, it was time for more fun! We came back to the park that night at around 5 p.m., and the park closed at 7 p.m. As the parks were emptying out, we headed back to Hogsmeade to catch the attractions that had been crowded earlier in the day. First, we rode Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was really fun! The wait in line was really short, but for this ride, the line is really part of the attraction. You are walking through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You see the big towers of jewels that measure how each house is doing on points towards the house cup. Harry, Ron, and Hermione explain the world of the ride to you. The fat lady admits you (grudgingly) into the Gryffyndor common room, and you visit Dumbledore in his office, where you can see the pensieve. You even get to see the sorting hat, and it talks to you!
As you wait in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden
Journey, the sorting hat talks to you!

Once you get on the ride, in many ways, it's similar to the Gringotts ride. It combines video, real motion, and other effects to zoom you all around Hogwarts, encountering dementors, visiting the Chamber of Secrets, and participating in a Quidditch match. So fun! When we finished this ride, we went right onto Flight of the Hippogriff (no line), which is a smaller, not-too-scary roller coaster.

We still had time before the park closed, so Clay and Brian rode Pteranodon Flyers. As this brief, two-person ride is really geared towards the smaller set, they only allow an adult on if they are flying with a child. While they went through the ride, I cooled my heels and explored the Camp Jurassic play area a bit, making a mental note to return here before we left Universal.

After a looooong day, it was back to the hotel for a little grub at Bayliner Diner and a soft bed!

More to come . . .

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