With our tummies full of Margaritaville yumminess, we headed to Universal Studios Florida.
The park was decked out for the holidays, and although we missed it, they have their own version of the Macy's Day Parade with those famous enormous balloons. Universal Studios Florida, seemed more in the holiday spirit than Island of Adventure.
It was the early afternoon and the crowds were quite a bit heavier than what we had experienced at Islands of Adventure. Most of the attractions had long waits. We were finally able to make use of our Universal Express Passes, to jump ahead in the queues.
First attraction: E.T. Adventure.
I totally miss the E.T. Adventure at Universal Studios Hollywood. Although it wasn't my primary attraction, I was trained there and even led training classes for new hire groups. I always think that every visit to Florida will be my last chance to experience it. Happy to see that it's still running.
Here I am, very shiny, and hoping that E.T. will say "Good-bye Karen", and not "Good-bye friend".
Near the E.T. Adventure, we found this; A mash-up of my two favorite things. Excellent. Immediately, we craved a Dairy Milk bar and missed our cats.
We visited Springfield.
Next, we headed to my favorite USF attraction, Men in Black: Alien Attack. Many of the attractions have a strict policy of not allowing any loose items on the ride. This means cell phones, wallets, purses, hats, et...pretty much anything. It doesn't matter if it's small, they are very firm on this policy. Universal provides free temporary lockers near the rides with the "no-stuff rule", which in theory sounds great, but on a busy day, it's chaos. We spent about ten minutes putting our stuff into a locker, only to walk towards the queue and discover that the attraction was down. No big deal, this happens. As a former theme park employee, I don't get worked up when a ride breaks. We removed our things from the locker and headed to the second part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which includes Leicester Square and Diagon Alley.
Leicester Square really does look like London. It's beautifully done.
We entered Diagon Alley and immediately became part of a slow moving mass of tourists. I've never seen any section of any theme park quite this crowded. Diagon Alley was so magical and wondrous, that I was able to tune out the crowds and just enjoy the spectacle. Everyone around me was in awe as well. It was exactly like I had imagined when reading the books, heck, even better than I had imagined.
My biggest regret of our Universal day is that we didn't go on the attraction in Diagon Alley, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The line was absolutely massive, over three hours, and since we couldn't use our Universal Express Pass, we skipped it. This will be the top priority on our next trip to the park.
The shops were also crowded, many with a queue to get inside. We went inside one, Magical Menagerie. I can't ever resist anything to do with animals. The Magical Menagerie is a Diagon Alley- must do. It's adorable, filled with unusual creatures and many interactive elements. In fact, all of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is full of interactive elements and surprises.
I insisted on waiting thirty minutes for a frozen Butterbeer = totally worth every minute spent in the queue, and every calorie consumed.
We tried to enjoy Diagon Alley, but after the initial awe-factor wore off, the crowds began to take their tole. There were just too many people to really take a good look at everything. We headed back into the main park.
Memories of another favorite, long-gone attraction. I miss you Jaws!
We headed to Revenge of the Mummy and placed our belongings in the lockers. We walked up to the Universal Express Pass queue and we were told that although the ride was operational, the Universal Express Pass queue was temporarily closed. We were welcome to wait in the normal queue ( over an hour wait) or try again later. I don't remember reading about this in the fine print when I spent double our ticket price on the Express Passes? Rather than get upset, we left our stuff in the locker near Mummy and went over to Transformers The Ride 3-D. Same thing happened.
We were now officially frustrated, as were many other pass holders. We've ridden Transformers many times in Hollywood, and we were not going to wait in the massive queue. Heading back to Mummy, we see an employee trying to hard sell the Universal Express Passes. I want to yell, "Don't fall for it people". Based on our experience, I'm guessing the passes were over-sold.
We get back to Mummy and see an angry mob of Universal Express Pass holders about ready to take down the employee guarding the gate. It's still closed, with the regular queue open, wait time rapidly increasing. Seconds after we approach, she gets word that she can reopen the Universal Express Pass queue. Frustration is turning to anger, and I want to ask her why they would open and close it, rather than hold off the regular queue, but I'm afraid that the gate will close as quickly as it had opened, so in we go. I'll take up this concern with guest relations later.
Revenge of the Mummy is a fun coaster. I feel a little like a traitor for admitting this, but the Orlando version is far superior to the Hollywood one. It has a more cohesive story. As we exit, we see that once again, the Universal Express Pass queue has closed. It's like getting past the velvet rope at Studio 51. We paid a premium to be treated like crap. My blood pressure is rising just thinking of this nearly a year later.
We get our stuff, go back to Men in Black: Alien Attack and put our stuff in the lockers there. A bit of advice, if you visit Universal, leave your stuff at home. Or rent a big locker at the front of the park and try not to get your things until you really need them. We played the "locker shuffle game", which on a average-crowd day is annoying, but on a busy day, it's a killer. Add it all up and we probably spent over an hour just dealing with the lockers. I'm a calm person, I handle crowds well, but I was ready to murder someone after all of the locker-shuffling.
We get in the Universal Express Pass queue, which although substantially shorter than the regular queue, is still a forty-five minute wait. Considering Disney's Fast Passes, do not come at an additional cost, and usually cut the queue to a 10-20 min wait, the Universal Express Pass is looking even more like a terrible value. When we hit mid-queue, the ride goes down. Again, as a former theme park employee, I know this happens. I'm frustrated though. We wait it out and finally get on the ride about ninety minutes after entering the queue. It's still one of my favorite attractions, but we are feeling low.
We exited the ride and started walking around the park. It's beautiful at Christmas, but I'm hitting a breaking point.
I started crying. Seriously crying, in the middle of a crowded theme park. We found a quite spot so that I could have my little melt-down. In retrospect, I think this was like a wedding. I had poured so much effort into this one day at Universal. I had planned it out and spent so much money to surprise Dan. I needed this day to be perfect, but it wasn't. I spent nearly fifteen years working for Universal and it's a place I hold dear to my heart, so I was really let-down. Dan didn't care if he ever visited again. It was a disaster.
We needed cheering up and it had to happen fast. We closed out our visit with the Animal Actors Stage. Cute animals always make everything better.
On the way out, we saw a walking candy cane! More cheering up.
And a little bit of home.
When we returned home from our trip, I wrote a letter to Universal guest relations explaining our disappointment with the Universal Express Pass. In the end, we had only used it for two attractions, E.T. Adventure and Men In Black: Alien Attack. I received a call within a week of sending my letter, and had a long chat with a very understanding employee in guest relations. She couldn't/wouldn't explain why they close down the express pass queues when the attraction is operational, but as she could track our pass usage ( It's scanned at every attraction entrance) and knew the park attendance was high, she agreed that we did not get value for money with our passes, and gave us a full refund.
I was satisfied with the resolution, but I would caution people against buying the Universal Express Pass. It's a perk that they also give to guests staying at property hotels, and many years ago when I stayed at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, this was a fabulous bonus. However, paying for it, especially when it does not include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions, is an enormous waste of money.