Although Dan has frequently vacationed in Orlando, he had never been to either Universal Park: Islands of Adventure (IOA) and Universal Studios Florida (USF). The last time that I had visited, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was still under construction at IOA. The land has since grown to span both IOA and USF, connected through the Hogwarts Express, although each park still requires a separate admission.
Visiting during the week between Christmas and New Years, I knew that it would be extremely crowded. Dan does not do crowds. To keep us both happy, I went ahead and purchased the Universal Express Pass, which includes unlimited front-of-the-line access for all attractions, except anything Harry Potter. The ticket prices are raised during peak times, so our two, one-day park hoppers, plus express passes came to approximately six hundred dollars. Sticker shock! This was nearly as much as we spent on our five day Disney World hopper passes, which included three pre-booked fast passes a day. Universal's ticket value didn't seem great, however, knowing we had only one day to do it all, and I wanted that day to be perfect, I went for it. As a former Universal Studios Hollywood employee, this was the first time that I had paid for Universal tickets. It was painful.
We arrived early, about an hour before the parks opened and headed for IOA.
Although we purchased the tickets online, we still had to exchange them at a ticket kiosk to get our Universal Express Pass. This was chaos. Each ticket kiosk has a mini queue and we picked poorly. The queue took nearly forty-five minutes. They simply didn't have enough ticket kiosks open, and I'm fairly certain that the employee was new for the holidays, making service exceptionally slow. You know the sloth scene in Zootopia? Yup.
Strategically, I thought it would be best to do IOA first and head immediately to the signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Every single person in the park had the same strategy. I suspected it, but I still think that it was the right play, as the queue only got longer later in the day.
Here are some snaps as we entered the park and quickly walked to the Hogsmeade in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
My first impression, actually my entire impression, of both Potter sections in both parks was overwhelming. "Wow" doesn't begin to describe it. It really does look just like I pictured it from the books. The creativity and details are dazzling. It's stunning.
We followed the crowd and got in the queue at Hogwarts for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Hogwarts looked magnificent. Universal really brought the books to life.
The queue was about two hours and it was absolutely worth the wait. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is one of the best, if not the very best, rides I've ridden. I was blown away. It's a visceral experience. I wish that I had been able to ride it more than once, as I kept closing my eyes during the spider scene!
We did encounter a frustrating issue that set the tone for the day, Dan is very tall. and at the last minute, he was told that he couldn't ride. This was after employees at the entrance and in the queue, told him that he was fine. At the entrance, employees were ushering guest past the area where you can test out the ride vehicle to make sure you safely fit. Since we spoke with the employees, we didn't think there was reason to worry or get out of line.
I used to work at the Jurassic Park River Adventure, I get that sometimes people ( usually little kids) make it through the queue and are turned away prior to riding, but it isn't so much that a mistake was made, but how it was handled: no apology, the rush to push people into the queue. There were plenty of employees working in the queue, how did none of them assess and mention the possibility? As much as I wanted to go on the ride, I would not have gone, if I didn't think that Dan would be able to ride too. To save time, we decided to do single ride ( which was the two hour wait, much shorter than the regular queue), so I was already on the ride vehicle, while Dan was being pulled aside. He was not the only person either, we saw other guests being turned away last minute. Many other guests, angry and frustrated. Safety is always the priority, however it was clear that the park was both understaffed and staffed with new hires during our visit. This was not our only disappointment during our visit.
Hogsmeade was unbearably crowded by the time we finished with the ride. We decided to skip the other attractions in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and see the rest of the park. I did get a quick picture with the train conductor, who was very funny.
We went on the Jurassic Park River Adventure, with ponchos. I'm all about the ponchos.
In Toon Lagoon, the ponchos were little help for the water rides - Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls ( log flume ride) and Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges (raft ride). These two rides get you soaked, right through the poncho. Like the rest of IOA, Toon Lagoon has such creative and fun theming.
One of my all-time favorite attractions is The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. An attraction ahead of its time that still holds up,
The Incredible Hulk steel coaster, which I'm terrified of and have only ridden twice, was torn apart, down for a major refurbishment. I dodged having to ride it this trip!
Suess Landing is adorable. I can never resist a picture under the stack of books. This is my life!
It's totally dated and cheesy, but I made sure that we saw Poseidon's Fury, an indoor show. The show is pretty awful, but I like the special effects and grand theming. Just the exterior alone is fabulous.
And then we were done with everything that we wanted to see at IOA. At this point, we were starting to realize that the Universal Express Pass was useless. We did not need it for any attraction at IOA, as the only rides with a queue, were in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where our passes were no good. Everything else was a straight walk-on.
It was lunch time, so we headed to Margaritaville on City Walk for food and umbrella drinks, before heading to USF. Lunch was relaxing,with pretty views of a lake. We were fortified and ready for the chaos that was about to assault us at USF. We had no clue what was coming.