I was kind of nervous about this day. I can make a Disney park touring plan in my sleep, but I knew next to nothing about Universal Orlando, and I was worried we were gonna make all the rookie mistakes I see people make at WDW. I did do a bunch of research though, using what little’s out there—mainly the Universal/Islands of Adventure board on the DIS and one comprehensive independent guidebook, Universal Orlando 2011 by Seth Kubersky with Kelly Monaghan. (There were things about the writing style that bugged me, but overall it’s a great introduction to both parks and an easy read.)
I also got a lot of helpful info from Nathensey pals Justin & Lu, who’d just been to Wizarding World and brought back a lot of helpful insider info, including a tip about the line at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that I’ll share when we get there.
I’m going to put everything I learned into this installment as a kind of mini-travel guide for Disney fans who just want to do Wizarding World “right” without a lot of research into the whole of Universal Orlando.
I actually considered dropping a night from our reservation at the Beach Club to stay at one of the Universal hotels to get the Universal Express Plus passes (kind of like a FastPass you can use over and over) and an hour of early entry for WWoHP. What eventually dissuaded me (aside from being certain that none of the three resorts could be as fabulous as the Beach Club) was that we were going on a Wednesday in early October and crowds would not be so bad that having UEP would make a big difference. Plus, it doesn’t even work on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. As it turned out, this was the way to go—the only rides we had to wait more than a few minutes for were Forbidden Journey and the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman (about 20 minutes for the latter). Jurassic Park River Adventure said it had a 45-minute wait, but it was more like 10! Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls had a super-long line in the midday heat, but we discovered a single-rider shortcut at the start of the line and ended up getting to ride together anyway.
The next thing I agonized over was what kind of tickets to buy—specifically, whether we should try to see both parks in one day. We did Universal Studios in California once and were so thoroughly unimpressed that we were done in less than half a day. I figured that even if they were better, the Orlando parks were still smaller and less interesting than the Disney parks, so we might be able to just hit all the highlights of both in one day—especially if we had the Universal Express Plus pass. However, Patrick eventually talked me out of it, pointing out that it would be nice not to have to rush through Islands of Adventure to get to Universal Studios even if we did finish WWoHP in just a few hours.
After that, the problem was that Universal had just jacked its prices way up and changed its ticketing structure to more closely match Disney’s—in other words, incredibly unfriendly to single-day visitors. We bit the bullet and bought 1-day, 1-park passes to Islands of Adventure at the gate (because buying 1-day tickets actually costs $2.50 in fees if you do it online—the online discounts only kick in when you buy multiday passes).
Since then I have wondered if it would have been smarter to buy the cheapest annual pass, since our Disney Premier Passes would be bringing us back to Orlando at least once more within the year. But its $230 price tag would only be cheaper than 2 individual visits if we were buying 1-day park hoppers both times—two 1-day, 1-park tickets and the price of parking on both visits was still $36 cheaper than an annual pass we weren’t positive we’d use again. Still, if you are planning to visit at least twice in a year and park hop, you might want to check it out. And if you can get the cheaper Florida resident annual pass, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
Plan of Attack
Since WWoHP was our main interest, we decided to get to Islands of Adventure about an hour before it opened to be at the front of the line, run to WWoHP and do everything once, then take a break for a sit-down lunch at Mythos and see the rest of IOA afterward. In the evening, we planned to go back to WWoHP because we’d heard the crowds die down about an hour before closing. Then we’d finish the night with dinner at one of the Universal hotels. This all went just as well as we’d hoped, so I highly recommend it!
So, without further ado, here’s the story…
Our day started verrrrrrrry early. For some reason, there was no hot water in our room, which got me super-annoyed. If we were morning showerers, I would have been livid. Housekeeping was less than impressed by the gravity of the situation when I called them, which annoyed me even more. I mean, c’mon, this is the Beach Club, not some $50/night motel. No hot water? Really? We survived, though, and staggered out the door to our rental car.
The drive to Universal was easy. The Universal Orlando guidebook devoted three paragraphs to which exit to take from Hwy 4, but all three of them will get you there. I think we took the first one we saw. I don’t know if it was the early hour or just that the Universal parks are less popular than Disney’s, but it was weird to be practically the only people arriving at UO.
We paid the extra $4 (now it’s $5) to park in the Preferred Section—totally unnecessary at that hour cuz there were, like, 3 other cars in the lot.
A waterway separates parking, Universal CityWalk, and the hotels from the theme parks. It’s quite picturesque.
The ticket booths weren’t open yet, so we paid at Guest Services instead. I actually had to ask them if the ticket included in-and-out privileges—what a rube!
Hotel guests were already accessing the park through the turnstiles on the left while we waited at the ones on the right. Even though there were about 30 people already at the gate when we got there an hour early, we still ended up at the front of a line—they didn’t seem to understand that all turnstiles would be open eventually and were crowded around just two of them.
Unlike at Extra Magic Hours at a Disney park, there seemed to be hardly anyone going into the park early, so we didn’t have that panicked feeling you get as people pour past you while the moments drag toward park opening.
When we finally did get in, there wasn’t much time for picture-taking as I charged toward Wizarding World of Harry Potter with my best Disney speed-walk. Just for this one:
Tip #1: It will kill you, but if you get to WWoHP when it opens, do NOT run to join the crowds streaming into Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Instead, get in line for Ollivanders. I have never in my life run from rope-drop directly to a gift shop, but in this case it was worth it. The little “wand chooses you” show they do for about 20 people at a time in Ollivanders is cute, but it is SO not worth waiting an hour in line for. See it first with only a 5- or 10-minute wait and then run to Forbidden Journey. At least that one has a partially shaded queue with interesting things to look at!
The show is cute and the special effects are fun, but, again, I would have been pretty cranky if we’d waited an hour for what it turned out to be.
After the show, they herd you into what I think was the Owl Post shop, or maybe Dervish & Banges. We dashed straight out to get in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and then every time we went back it was so mobbed by people coming out of the wand shop that we never really got a good look at it. Now I wish we’d taken the extra time to see it.
Tip #2: When you get to Forbidden Journey, you will see a huge line all the way back down the path to the castle, and you will freak out. The best tip we learned prior to going was THIS LINE IS NOT FOR THE RIDE. It is for the lockers where you have to stash anything bigger than a point-and-shoot camera! Bypass this line by going up the path to the exit for the ride’s gift shop, passing through the shop, and accessing the nearly empty back section of lockers that the people lining up at the other entrance don’t seem to see.
All the lockers required by the rides at Universal are a real drag. I guess they enable the designers to make rides that do crazy stuff you never see at Disney, but it’s such a hassle to have to try to figure out what you’re willing to take with you that you might possibly lose on the ride, and then go dump and retrieve your stuff. We weren’t sure if Patrick’s camera would be OK, and I ditched my iPhone for fear of it falling out of my pocket, but it later turned out both were fine on Forbidden Journey.
I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books and hadn’t seen any of the movies but the first one, many years ago, so forgive me if I don’t have captions for most of the stuff we saw in line for the ride.
I would say we waited maybe 40 minutes in line. The crazy part was, as soon as we got inside the castle, we discovered HUGE gaps in the line as people stood around, mouths agape at all the details. Once we were inside, the line moved quite quickly.
This is the Sorting Hat. Apparently it is a big deal. It tells you safety instructions for the ride.
It was impossible to take pictures on the ride itself, so I’ll try to tell you my impressions of it: “Whoa. Whoaaaaaaaaaaaa! Whoa! Whoa! Huh… Whoawhoawhoawhoa—ACK! Water in my eye! Oof! Ugh! Whoa! Whoooa! Wait—what? Whoaaaa! Whooaaaa! What’s that floating cheesecloth on a stick supposed to be? Whoa! Whooooooa! Oof! Blaaaarrrrrgh! Whoa! WHOA! Ahhhhh….”
I got in trouble with Jensey for not warning her how scary the ride is, but I honestly didn’t realize it was scary… Maybe if I’d been more familiar with the lore or afraid of bugs or something, but the giant spiders just annoyed me cuz they shot me in the eye with water, and the Dementors looked like high-rent versions of those Kleenex ghosts you make with cotton balls on popsicle sticks. Which is not to say I didn’t like the ride—I did! It was intense and thrilling and fun. I just didn’t get immersed in the story enough to be scared by it.
Universal certainly moves you around the ride in ways Disney doesn’t—not just with the KUKA robotic arm on Forbidden Journey, but with their other thrill coasters too. There’s definitely more of a feeling of jeopardy when you ride (although that could be due to seeing the slackjawed kids they get to run the rides…)
The exit deposits you in Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, which you’ll get a better look at in the pictures we took later in the day.
Flight of the Hippogriff is a lame re-theme of an existing kiddie coaster—don’t wait in line long for this one! The best part was the real-live Hippogriff chained up nearby.
I’m sorry we don’t have any pictures of the ride, though. I’m noticing a bunch of shots that I thought/wished we’d taken to show you guys but somehow overlooked. I think it’s easier to remember to shoot pix when you’re not dashing around experiencing everything for the first time.
Our next stop was Dragon Challenge, which meant another pre-ride detour through a locker room. At least this one was cleverly themed to the train station where you catch the Hogwart’s Express.
Harry Potter fans, get ready for more inside stuff that flew over my head! Like this…
This reference LITERALLY flew over my head: the floating candles of Hogwarts’ great hall.
Dragon Challenge turned out to be an even lamer re-theme of an existing coaster, cuz in this one they stripped out all the things that had made it interesting (namely, skeletons!). Instead it’s just a big dark passage you walk through until you get to a crowded, chaotic room where nobody is telling you where to go—you just walk right up to any ride car and hope you’re in the right place.
I was shocked at how poorly managed this line was. The idea is that you pick one of two kinds of dragons to ride (it’s a double coaster with two intertwined tracks), but with no employees managing the line, people either stood there not sure where to go or formed huge unruly crowds at one loading area but not the other. We learned through a game of telephone going on among the other guests that one side of the ride was having problems, so we all herded over to the other, but there were no announcements or even hollering employees broadcasting this. The first time I encountered a real-live Universal employee was after I’d seated myself and someone on the other side of the ride track checked my shoulder restraint.
The ride itself might be good—I couldn’t tell because it was over so fast. Its claim to fame is the part where cars on the two tracks come so close to each other that the riders’ feet almost touch, but it happened so soon and so quickly that I missed it. This bummed me out cuz I sure as heck wasn’t waiting in line again to ride that thing. Here’s what it looks like:
Having ridden everything once, we finally felt free to wander around Hogsmeade window-shopping (we decided to wait til the end of the day to buy anything so we wouldn’t have to lug it around).
There’s a row of shops that you can’t go inside. I know the budget had to be held down somewhere, and it’s neat how detailed the window displays are, but I couldn’t help being disappointed that they were just façades.
Tip #3: If you want to try Butterbeer, don’t wait in the long, long line at the cart in the middle of the street. Get it from the Hog’s Head pub inside Three Broomsticks, where the line is either shorter or nonexistent. Also, if you skip the souvenir mug, you’ll save $7.75!
This stuff was better than I expected—I thought it would have that sickly sweetness of a butterscotch candy stick, but it wasn’t that bad. I think the non-frozen kind might, though. The foam on top had kind of a chemically aftertaste, but otherwise it was pretty dang good.
Honeydukes was AMAZING! It was hard not to buy all our candy right then. I didn’t get to try most of it til I got home, but I’ll stick my reviews in here…
We got suckered into one of those “Buy 17 and the 18th is free!” fudge deals… They had more interesting-sounding flavors than Disney, but it turned out to be the same kind of dry, artificially flavored stuff….
I had to work hard to talk myself out of these witches’ cauldrons—they were so cute and sounded so good (chocolate cake with a mousse center, as I recall), but I could already almost taste how bland they would be…
Zonko’s toy shop was sooooo appealing! We loved the colors and all the retro packaging.
These little Tribble-like things were another almost-impulse buy for me. So cute! So pink!
It was getting to be lunchtime, and WWoHP was really filling up.
We headed out of WWoHP and back to the Lost Continent for our lunch reservation at Mythos. By all accounts, this place is the Blue Bayou or Le Cellier of Islands of Adventure, and they even have a banner over the door proclaiming their status as “#1 Theme Park Restaurant in the World Six Years in a Row,” courtesy of ThemeParkInsider.com. What they neglect to mention is that Mythos hasn’t won that distinction since 2008. (In fact, Universal’s web site erroneously states that Mythos was the #1 restaurant in 2009 when in fact Chefs de France took the prize that year…which pretty much destroys ThemeParkInsider’s credibility with me right there…)
Maybe it was the self-aggrandizing sign over the door… Or maybe it was the supposedly haute-cuisine menu littered with lowbrow items like wraps, pad thai, and “sushi” made with tempura… Or maybe it was the fact that they made us wait 15 minutes past our reservation time when the cavernous restaurant was more than half empty… But something about this place just set my teeth on edge before I’d even made it past the lobby.
While we waited, we observed another gentleman rocking the villainous moustache Patrick was trying to grow for his Harrison Hightower Halloween costume—and apparently with no sense of irony! So we asked if we could get a picture.
Seeing the dining room raised my hopes again—the theming was fabulous!
Well, the proof is in the pudding, as they say—or, in this case, in the “Cedar Planked Bay of Fundy Salmon,” which was gorgeously plated (while we’re “planking” we might as well start “plating”) but woefully overcooked and fishy. The mashed potatoes were waaaay oversalted, but the worst part was the side of “smokey cheddar macaroni and cheese” we’d lifted from a pork dish on the menu: dry noodles covered in a thin veneer of plasticky orange cheese with crusty corners sharp enough to slice just about anything but our salmon.
For dessert we tried a pair of “dessert shots” — bland, identical-tasting custards in tiny glasses. I think one was supposed to be cookies ‘n’ cream and the other maybe flan? Or creme caramel?
The thing is, if Mythos didn’t try to pass itself off as fine dining, we would have ordered burgers and been perfectly satisfied at getting a decent meal à la the Plaza Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. But when you’re trumpeting your cuisine like it’s the second coming of Thomas Keller, you’d better not be delivering an Applebee’s-quality product. I also suspect that the reason guests rate Mythos so high is that the rest of the food at Universal is so abysmal.
So, for the purposes of this mini-travel guide, I guess I’d say… go to Mythos for a nice air-conditioned break in your day, but do not expect food on par with Le Cellier’s or Blue Bayou’s or SS Columbia Dining Room’s (since we’re considering all the theme park restaurants in the world…). Get a burger or a wrap or one of the ubiquitous Floridian flat breads. Gawk at the magnificent interior decor. Snicker at the unpolished Universal-style service. Keep those expectations low, and you’re sure to have a great time!