Universal Orlando Resort Trip Report, December 2015

Hello everyone,

Last week Jon and I visited Universal Orlando Resort for the first time in over three years, and so I wanted to of course share with you our adventures there!

The last time we visited Universal Orlando (UO) was in September 2012, and so we really badly wanted to go back. Life and circumstances always get in the way, and it ended up being over three years before we would be able to return again.

We had originally planned two days at the parks, but due to reasons you'll find out later in this report, we ended up having an extra half day there.

Like with my other trip reports, it'll be easier if I group things together into themes and areas rather than jumping around in the random order in which we explored the parks; that way I don't miss anything out.

Being December, the parks were of course celebrating the holiday season. Universal Studios had a lot of decorations all around, including some giant inflatable character balloons that had come from past Macy's parades in NYC. There was also a large Christmas tree in the New York area of the park.

In addition to the giant inflatable character balloons direct from the Macy's parade, there was actually a Macy's Holiday Parade in the park, too! At 5pm everyday, performers, characters and balloons filled the parade route. It was a fun parade to watch, even if it was a little corny. If you expect a Disney style parade then you'll be disappointed, but if you take it for what it is - which is a cheesy copy of a cheesy parade from NYC - then it serves a purpose, and you'll enjoy it.

Universal's Islands of Adventure was less overt in their Christmas decorating, and tended to keep it all to Seuss Landing, which was celebrating Grinchmas. There was the Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, which was a stage show musical which retold the story of Dr Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. You could also meet the Grinch in Seuss Landing, and there were many wandering Whoville citizens around the land, singing carols and interacting with guests.

One of the main things that we dying to see at Universal since our last visit was the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. We had previously seen Hogsmeade during the first phase. I don't think enough photographs or descriptions can accurately describe how awesome the new Diagon Alley area is. Universal did a superb job of it all. The Hogwarts Express train between the two different areas is nothing short of genius.

We rode Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts first thing one morning, with virtually no line, which was a relief as I had been worried about the crazy lines for it. The queue area was amazing, filled with so many details. While the actual attraction was really cool, it actually wasn't what I expected at all. The way that Universal builds it up is to be some deathly thrilling roller coaster that hurls you around, but actually, it's rather tame, utilising 3D screen technology and very little in the way of careening around the underground depths. Don't get me wrong, it's neat, but it just isn't what I thought it was going to be.

The Hogwarts Express had very short lines in both directions from King's Cross and Hogsmeade, which again was a relief. Again, the detailing was good, and while I wasn't fully convinced I was in King's Cross (especially being from London originally), it was pretty well done. I won't spoil the surprises for anyone, but I do think the journey to Hogwarts was more interesting than the journey to King's Cross. If you haven't rode it already, when you do, be sure to look all around you in the cabins! Not all the action happens just out the main window!

Outside of King's Cross Station we met one of the Knight Bus Conductors who was hanging out with the Shrunken Head.

Throughout the Wizarding World (both parts) there are numerous shows that take place, but due to time constraints we only got to see one of them on this trip. Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees were really talented, and I have to give an honourable mention to the guy who was picked from the audience - his performance deserves an award alone! I just wish I had video recorded him!

Although I don't have any photos, we did go into Ollivanders to experience the choosing of a wand. The lines for this can get pretty long, and if you're a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I can see that the opportunity to be "chosen" is pretty cool (if you do it, you'll know what I mean - I don't want to spoil anything), but overall it wasn't worth the hours-long wait I know it can attract. We waited about five minutes one day, and I admit, it was neat, and a fun idea, but I won't claim it's the best thing about the Wizarding World. One thing that I didn't know, is that the choosing ceremony is only for one person in the whole room, and they let in a bunch of people all at once. So be warned: you have to be in the right place at the right time - probably after tens of attempts - to get chosen.

One of the things we go to theme parks like Disney and Universal for is the character greetings. Anyone who knows us should know about our work on Character Central, and how much we love meeting characters. So, of course, this trip was filled with a lot of character hunting - and we weren't left disappointed! One thing that I really love about Universal is the amount of characters they have out all the time, all day, every day. The sheer variety and volume is astounding when compared to how Disney have been going with their greetings in recent months. I can't imagine Disney, on any given regular day in the park, having out, for example, five characters from one show or movie greeting all at once. Universal on the other hand aren't afraid to have out all five "Scooby-Doo Where Are You?" characters at once. It's simply incredible as a character hunter to meet such awesome characters in a group all together, with a minimal wait, and have a really great interaction with them all. On top of that, the character hosts are always friendly and willing to help. Numerous times we had questions about when specific characters would be appearing, and never once came up against the typical Disney answer of, "I don't know" or, "It's a random appearance", which happened to us several times days later at Walt Disney World. I cannot praise enough the character greetings at both Universal parks. The characters and their hosts are all exceptional.

Both parks had a multitude of greeting locations, so I'll go through them section by section.

Let's start with Production Central, where we met Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, Shrek, Fiona and Donkey. Donkey was really funny and seemed to be especially intrigued by the fact we are from Maryland! If you're at Universal Orlando, Donkey alone is worth a visit.

In Hollywood we met the Mystery Inc gang, Woody and Winnie Woodpecker, Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, Diego, Lucille Ball, and Homer and Bart. Popeye and Marilyn Monroe were not appearing the days we visited. I have put three photos from three occasions we met Mystery Inc below as, quite honestly, they are awesome and I feel they need showcasing!

Hollywood is the home to the Character Party Zone, which is one of our favourite things at Universal. The characters, performers and floats from the Universal's Superstar Parade come out at intervals throughout the day and do a brief song and dance before greeting guests. It is a fantastic opportunity to meet a whole load of different characters. There are four sets: Dora and Diego, Hop, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Despicable Me. The only characters we missed this time, for some reason, are Edith from Despicable Me, SpongeBob SquarePants and the fishes of Bikini Bottom, although we have met them all before anyway. Sandy and some of the other underwater characters from SpongeBob, Vector and Agnes from Despicable Me were not appearing when we visited.

In World Expo we met Doc Brown, Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob. Anyone who knows me, knows how much I loathe Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons TV show, so it was really funny to meet him. I have put two photos of Doc Brown below because the first time we met him he was in his regular clothes, but the second time we saw him, he was actually wearing a Christmas hat and Christmas lights! I thought it was worth noting the difference. We didn't get to meet the Simpsons in World Expo, although as mentioned above we did meet Homer and Bart in Hollywood; so the only ones we were missing this trip were Marge and Lisa (we have met them before though).

At Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone we met Squidward, Patrick, Curious George, Barney and BJ. Baby Bop was not appearing the day we visited. I like that the Barney characters were wearing winter clothes!

At Islands of Adventure at the Port of Entry, we met Woody Woodpecker and some performers who were wandering around. Winnie Woodpecker was not appearing when we were there.

At Marvel Super Hero Island we met Captain America, Spider-Man, Green Goblin, Dr Doom, Storm, Wolverine, Cyclops and Rogue. We have met a few of them there before, but others we had not. We always think it is funny now that Disney own Marvel that you can meet the Marvel characters at Islands of Adventure - especially the ones who appear at Disney such as Spider-Man and Captain America.

We walked through Toon Lagoon, but did not come across Popeye or Olive Oyl greeting while we were there.

At Jurassic Park we met the raptor at the Raptor Encounter. The raptor was a lot more fierce than I anticipated, and it is actually a pretty hair raising experience! It's a lot of fun though, and worth trying.

At Seuss landing we watched the "Oh! The Stories You'll Hear!" show, and afterwards the characters come down for greetings. The day we visited the story was about the Lorax, and the characters in attendance were the Lorax, the Cat in the Hat, Things 1 and 2 and Sam-I-Am. As I mentioned earlier, we also met the Grinch, and saw Whoville citizens out and about (of which we got our photo with two of them - just not on their own).

On our last afternoon, when we were leaving we came across Shrimp Louie meeting outside Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, which I thought was amusing.

Universal Studios has a lot of street entertainment, but sadly due to time constraints we didn't get chance to stop and listen to most of it; I did get a photo of the Studio Brass Band though.

In Hollywood, when the Mystery Inc gang were appearing, the Mystery Machine would also be out. As you may have noticed in one of the three photos I posted of them earlier, they did pose in front of it one day, but it was pretty random as to whether they would or not.

Being vegetarian we can sometimes come against obstacles while dining out, and despite theme parks in Orlando being major international tourist destinations, they aren't immune to the problem. While the food at Universal wasn't amazing, I do think that they made some effort, and where they failed they were more than willing to accept that they were wrong. We had a few minor complaints which we addressed at guest relations (really, it was nothing serious, but we feel that if you don't provide feedback, then nothing will ever improve). The way in which we were treated though was really above and beyond what we usually get from Disney, and I felt that at least the cast members at Universal were trying, within the limited authority they had. One location we found ourselves at a couple of times was Mel's Drive-In, pictured below.

Aside from the Harry Potter attractions, which I talked about above, we also experienced The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Transformers: The Ride 3-D, Poseidon's Fury, The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!, and The Cat in The Hat.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man truly is that - amazing! It is one of the best attractions I have ever been on. We have rode it before, and I just cannot come to Universal without experiencing it. If you haven't tried it, then you should know that it uses 3D technology (you wear glasses), and ride in a car that takes you through scenes filled with the characters from the Spider-Man universe. Excellent from start to end.

Utilising the exact same technology (even down to the interior ride layout), the Transformers attraction actually blows even Spider-Man away - and that is a hard feat to accomplish. As much as I want to immerse myself in the theme parks, ultimately we all know that they are just that - theme parks, however, Transformers did something for me that is pretty difficult to do: for a moment during the attraction I really lost all sense of where I was and in an instant I could have truly believed I was in that moment. Transformers is probably my top theme park attraction of all time, closely followed by Spider-Man (in case you're interested, Ratatouille and Mystic Manor at Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland, respectively, are my other all-time top favourites).

The Seuss Trolley and the Cat in the Hat attractions are very simple and not all too thrilling, but they had no wait one evening, so we decided to ride them.

At the Lost Continent, Poseidon's Fury is a very different theme park attraction. It's a guided tour through an ancient temple, filled with surprises along the way. If the wait is less than fifteen minutes, and you have the time, I would recommend it, not because it is absolutely amazing, but it is pleasantly surprising and unlike anything else I've ever experienced at a theme park - the finale is especially neat!

As I said at the start, we had planned two whole days at the resort, but we loved our time there so much, that we actually upgraded our tickets to annual passes! We went back for a half day near the end of our trip to Walt Disney World, and intend to spend time there in May when we are on an extended visit to the Orlando area. The fact that we were so impressed that we were willing to spend money to upgrade to annual passes is a testament to the excellent job Universal do with their parks. The cast, the entertainment and characters all really made our visit truly magical, and we can't wait to return!

Have a great week everyone,