Saturday, December 1, 2012

1MB Travels: Orlando: Disney Universal Adventure Part 2

Part 1 of the recap of my Orlando theme park adventure with ever awesome friend 'Curses' covered  Walt Disney World.  Part 2 of course, as a huge Harry Potter geek, is all about Universal Studios Orlando - or rather, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.

First challenge: getting there.  With all the convenience of free shuttles within and between Walt Disney World properties, the major disadvantage of staying at a Disney resort for those who want to visit other theme parks - is there is no easy way to get to other venues via public transportation.  It would take hours with lots of walking and several different bus routes.  Luckily, after some research, I found a shuttle service (Mears) that picks up at any Disney hotel and takes you to Universal Studios for $19 a person roundtrip.  You just have to make a reservation the night before your visit - we took the 8:10am shuttle and it was about an hour and a half ride door to door in a tour bus, including all the stops at the various Disney hotels for pickups. (When you get on the bus, they give you a voucher for the return trip.  You can either make a reservation in advance for the return, or call at least 1 hour before you want to hop on one of the hourly buses conveniently running til 2am).

The Harry Potter attraction is located at the far end of Islands of Adventure - past Seuss land, which looked like fun, but we were on a mission. The magic (of a more...'gritty'?...variety than that at WDW) began as soon as we spotted the entrance to Hogsmeade, and its unmistakable snow-capped jagged rooftops beyond.  Loved the iconic Hogwarts Express right by the entrance...

The entire area was built for a very immersive experience - there wasn't any visible 'Harry Potter' branding, they built this village as if it was a real place from that world, with careful attention to detail.  Unavoidable throngs of tourists in warm temperature garb aside, we could fancy ourselves Hogwarts students on a field trip to Hogsmeade for the first time, checking out all the stores...  
Our heads whipped taking it all in - loved Honeydukes candy shop, which looks exactly as it did in the movies, and is a dream in itself for kids with shelves of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, Fizzing Whizbees and many other fun sweets...
There was the cauldron shop, a must stop for any budding witch or wizard (this one was just a facade, not an actual store)...

And the lovely Zonko's Joke Shop where you can find trick and joke products from the books and movies including extendable ears...

But of course, the thing that I was most excited about, and had been dying to try for years...butterbeer.  There was a wooden 'kegger' shaped cart in the middle of the 'street', serving butter beer on tap.  You can get it two ways, cold or frozen (all butterbeer is non-alcoholic).  Cold was like handcrafted cream soda (think Henry Weinhardt) but a deeper amber color and caramel/butterscotch flavor, topped with butterscotch infused whipped cream that is so thick it's almost a melted marshmallow consistency.  Frozen is the same thing but like a slushee - frozen is preferred by almost everyone I know who's tried this, as it's a bit less sweet. 
You can also choose to have it in a plastic cup or a souvenir mug!  The mug is refillable with soda and other drinks elsewhere inside Universal for $0.50 (butterbeer refills are still full price).  Besides the texture and flavor, the other reason they only serve butter beer on tap, in open cups/mugs is because you can only drink it in the park - they don't sell any bottles 'to go'.  While I was sad about not being able to bring any home, I also appreciate that this makes it more of a special thing to experience only at the park, in that lovely Hogsmeade setting.  What they did sell 'to go', were bottles of pumpkin ale with a cute pumpkin shaped bottle top.

With that bucket list item checked off, we made our way towards the castle up the hill - Hogwarts!!! The scale model looks just like it does in the movies, and houses the featured ride in the area.

We loved gazing up at the towers...The castle actually houses a state of the art ride, Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, and that they take the care to have free lockers before you enter the queue, so you can store your bags for an hour while you're on the ride. 

All the lovely details in the waiting areas, the hallways and classrooms at Hogwarts, were fantastic and almost an attraction in themselves.  Highlights include mandrakes in the Herbology themed displays outside, Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom with a giant dragon skeleton displayed, that 'snows' on the invocation of a spell by Harry, Ron and Hermione, Dumbledore's office, talking moving portraits, and of course the Sorting Hat!  

The ride itself was possibly the best theme park ride I've ever been on!!! The ride had the speed of a roller coaster, combined with giant IMAX screens strategically placed along with animatronic figures to give us the closest experience to hurtling through the air over a Quidditch pitch, dodging soul-sucking Dementors, facing down a fiery-breathed Hungarian Horntail dragon...because we were there during off-season, and on a weekday, there weren't as many people in line and we were able to go on the ride twice!!  Loved it!!

Another ride in the area is just by Hagrid's Hut. 
Buckbeak also makes an appearance, albeit from his nest, at this Flight of the Hippogriff ride, which is more of a traditional coaster with the magical creature theme.  

For lunch, we were super excited to be able to eat at Three Broomsticks - a working eatery with British tavern decor, Harry Potter style of course.    

The menu consists of rustic fare, Chargrilled Ribs with choice of sides like corn on the cob, potatoes, fries or roasted veggies, Turkey Leg, and more signature British offerings like Shepherd's Pie and Cornish Pasties...

...Rotisserie-Smoked Chicken with corn on the cob and roasted potatoes ($10.99), or Fish and Chips ($12.99).  The coolest thing we didn't get, was The Great Feast for four or more people, which has chicken and ribs, corn and potatoes served communal style on a cast iron platter (a fairly good deal at $49.99 for 4, $12.99 for each additional person).  There are also soups, salads (Curses got a Garden Salad for $3.49) and kids' menu items.  The food was not something we craved once we got home, like I did very badly with the butterbeer (the mere word brings tears to my eyes as I write...yes, total geek over here).  Butterbeer is of course also served at Three Broomsticks and is actually cheaper than at the cart outside! $3.99 for 'cold' and $4.29 for 'frozen' (extra for the souvenir mug).  We brought in our mugs from earlier - and the server was super nice, washing them for us before refilling with more deliciousness.
We pretty much spent all day blissfully in Harry Potter-land.  It was great as evening approached to see the 'stores' in Hogsmeade light up.  We stopped by the Dervish and Banges store beyond the 'Owl Post' windows, and picked up some souvenir bound journals, Hogwarts luggage tag etc. The coolest thing about the journals?  You can get it stamped with a Hogsmeade owl post stamp by a staffer outside the store - the stamp is exclusive to the park, a nice touch to make the souvenir feel even more of a keepsake for our experience there.

We couldn't resist taking shots of Hogwarts at night.

Though I love themed rides, I'm not a fan of 'real' rollercoasters (those built for speed with crazy dips and swirls) - motion sickness is what gets me, not fear.  So I resisted the Dragon Challenge ride at first, but decided last minute that we couldn't leave without trying it.  Curses had already ridden several times since there was no line.  But alas the ride broke down just as I returned with her!! And then magically, it got fixed literally minutes before the park was to close - so we made a run in time to hop on the last ride for the night. Those who like rollercoasters would love this - there were two tracks going simultaneously as different 'dragons' - and your feet dangle free as the 'dragon' dips and rolls including an upside down loop.  I didn't love the motion but was glad I got to experience it.

I could have spent another day there just to soak up more butterbeer and repeat the Hogwarts ride!!  Or just to eat/drink and hang out at Three Broomsticks or Hog's Head tavern attached to it.  Some say there aren't enough rides here, and it would be great to have a whole theme park based on all the key places in the world of HP, but I personally just love the environment of Hogsmeade and what's been done to make it feel 'authentic to the fiction', and can't wait til they build out a version at Universal Studios Hollywood!!!!

[To see more photos from our visit, see the album on my Facebook page.]

After Harry Potter, we stayed for Halloween Horror Nights (for Curses), a separately ticketed event at the other part of Universal Studios.  I kind of turned into Grumpy Smurf at that point - as in 'I hate haunted houses'...'I hate it when people jump out at me...with half their face 'eaten' away' - but did enjoy the general theatrical atmosphere: fog was pumped into the whole area with blue/black backlighting and horror fx music, to create a truly eerie backdrop even when you're walking between attractions.  Regular guests turned into zombie-like silhouettes in the fog, and actors dressed as 'real' zombies and other monsters creeped up from seemingly nowhere the whole time.  The 'best' of the costumed actors, which freaked me out on a primal level - were those dressed in orange jumpsuits with hocky masks and 'chainsaws' that they ran at you with!  I of course know in my head they're actors and those are fake props - but they did a 'fantastic' job of making them give off scary chainsaw sounds, a gasoline smell and 'smoke' - so that it triggers some primitive fear response in you, a fight or flight leaning way more towards flight.  I had warned Curses that if she made me go to this, she may end up with a severe fingernail marks on her arm and torn eardrums - and I pretty much delivered.  I did enjoy the Despicable Me and The Simpsons rides, which were a blast (probably because they weren't designed to terrorize).  Sorry I didn't take any pics of this event - I was too busy screaming and my phone battery was dead after shooting all day at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  One tip that I'll leave you with though, for those who plan to go to this event in future: if you're going to go, consider paying extra for the Express line option - the lines are insanely long at this event, and if we hadn't shelled out for the Express line passes we would have spent all night in lines and probably only get to experience 2-3 attractions versus pretty much doing them all.


Universal Studios Orlando

6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando, FL 32819
Ph: 407.224.4233

Mears Shuttle Service
$19 per person: any Disney hotel to Universal Studios Orlando and back
Reservations required: call the night before your visit

The Three Broomsticks / Hog Head
Universal Studios Orlando - Islands of Adventure - Wizarding World of Harry Potter
 Three Broomsticks on Urbanspoon



  1. Ah, you should have told me you were going! I could have hooked you up with my sister, who works there. :)

    But it sounds like you navigated it all well and had an awesome time. Jealous!

  2. Great photos of the Harry Potter attraction. It's fantastic that they've made it so immersive!

    Best wishes, Alex

  3. I love Orlando Disneyland/World. Disney World is obviously the best of all the parks. I so much enjoy to see your great pictures!orlando villas



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