by Michael LaPaglia | Jan 11, 2017 | Castles, Travel, Universal Studios
Universal Studios Florida and Diagon Alley Trip Report
Since the primary purpose of our visit to the Universal Parks and Resorts was to experience Diagon Alley, the first park we toured was Universal Studios Florida.
Lockers – The Less-than-Magical Way to Enter a Thrill Ride
A word of caution when entering several of the attractions at the Universal Parks: be prepared to stow ALL loose items into lockers provided near the entrances to each of those rides.
The lockers are free, but require patience and some finesse to utilize. These lockers are a significant negative aspect to touring the Universal Theme Parks. Frequent Walt Disney World visitors are accustomed to being able to bring bags, backpacks, cinch sacks, cameras, and cell phones onto most attractions as long as they can be “safely stowed” in the provided compartment. At Universal, these items are not allowed on many attractions.
Additionally, be prepared to walk through metal detectors and then “wanded” upon entering several of the coasters. This ensures that any cell phones or other items you might have safely in your pockets are removed and placed in the lockers as well! While the intention of such security and safety precautions are admirable, they are certainly less than magical when trying to have a fun, carefree day within a theme park.
Attractions with Express Pass and Immersive Queues
Nicolas and I decided to use our Express Pass immediately to ride the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket. It’s a well done speed coaster with some significant drops, inversions, and good G’s. The theming is awful, but the ride is good.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket
Several attractions in addition to Diagon Alley were either under construction or not present when we last visited. One of those was Transformers: The Ride 3-D. Nicolas and I used our Express Pass once again. We felt this was a really solid attraction, especially if you have seen any of the Transformers movies. As is the case with many Universal attractions, the experience is a creative combination of ride vehicles, simulators, and screens.
Transformers: The Ride 3-D
The queue for Transformers: The Ride is really well done, but that is not unusual at Universal. In my opinion, the queues at Universal are significantly more immersive and detailed than most others at Walt Disney World. (Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the one comparable standout at WDW.)
Diagon Alley at Universal Studios
Next stop was the stated purpose of our visit: Diagon Alley.
Any adjectives really can’t do justice to how amazing Diagon Alley really is. It is an astounding and immersive theme park experience that truly transports you into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We arrived at Diagon Alley midmorning. As expected, the area was already crowded and the wait time for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s thrill ride was well over 60 minutes. There is no Express Pass option accepted at this attraction, so arriving early in the morning or riding closer to park closing hours is your best chance of a reduced wait time.
Immerse yourself in Diagon Alley
If the wait time for Gringott’s is too long, go ahead and explore Diagon Alley. It will take some time to discover all the detailed nooks.The Diagon Alley attraction is beyond anything that I have ever seen in a theme park. Universal has taken great care in providing guests with an exceptional experience. It’s a first class attraction on all levels.
At the outset, you are tasked with actually discovering the Diagon Alley by way of several “hidden” passages off the London streets represented near the front of the land.
Diagon Alley is hidden behind the London streets
Once inside Diagon Alley, the use of visually stunning architecture and set design makes you feel as if you are indeed a student or professor at Hogwarts in search of Butterbeer, an owl, or a new wand. I was fascinated with the scope of the area itself; Diagon Alley was much larger than any of us had anticipated. Pathways, doorways, and storefronts are all magnificently detailed. For example, the signage and exterior design of the Potions store is spot on.
Potions Storefront in Diagon Alley
• Purchasing interactive wands at Ollivanders. The interactive wands are marked by a gold label on the box and are not necessarily inexpensive (currently $47.95 each). A map accompanies your wand. Armed with both, you’ll find locations where your wand is used to cast spells. The spells, if cast correctly, demonstrate surprising and delightful visual and physical effects on a variety of items and objects. This is a really well done aspect to the attraction and worthy of the extra expense.
In one area, a careful wave of your interactive wand conjures up a feather pen that writes mysterious messages on parchment in a storefront window. The spells can be difficult and it takes patience and practice; just like students at Hogwarts must practice their magic!
• Enjoying Butterbeer or, even better, Butterbeer ice cream. Butterbeer is an extremely sweet and unique drink that we’ve found in the Universal Parks and at the Harry Potter Studios in London. The Butterbeer ice cream, found at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, was a delectable treat at 10 in the morning! I loved it. My wife said it was too sweet.
Butterbeer Ice Cream
• Exploring the various shops and eateries that are authentic to the Harry Potter films and books. Some of the locations include the Leaky Cauldron, Madam Malkin’s Robes for all Occasions and of course, Quality Quidditch Supplies. During this visit, we invested in wands. I won’t be surprised if we find ourselves donned in robes on our next excursion to Diagon Alley!
• The Gringott’s attraction is a truly remarkable thrill ride experience that complements Universal’s cadre of attractions that combine ride vehicles, live sets, simulators, and 3-D screen technology. We rode this attraction on our second day with very little wait time. This was accomplished by taking advantage of the 1 hour early entry to Diagon Alley provided by staying at Loews Royal Pacific resort.
While exploring Diagon Alley, be prepared to open your wallet or use your debit card frequently. There is Harry Potter merchandise available literally at every turn!
Be sure to experience Diagon Alley both during daylight and at night. The area takes on an intriguing atmosphere in the dark. Specifically, pay attention to the dragon sitting atop of Gringotts Bank.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen is a recent addition to Universal’s CityWalk. Conveniently located, take a break and enjoy a different level of creative detail.
A well executed steam punk theme runs throughout the restaurant. The establishment somehow fits in very well with the level of theming inside both of the theme parks, but is refreshingly different at the same time. While the food was well done, it wasn’t exceptional. Creative milkshakes and sundaes are the highlight of the menu. I had the Chocolate Banana Brain Freeze and it was well worth the calories! (Stay tuned for a more in-depth review soon.)
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen
Up Next: Hogwarts Express, Kong, and Raptors
Share your thoughts about Diagon Alley and/or Universal Studios!
by Michael LaPaglia | Jan 1, 2017 | Castles, Travel, Universal Studios
Universal Studios Orlando Trip Report and Review
We were thrilled to spend a few days (pre-Thanksgiving) at the Universal Studios Orlando Resort. Visiting the second iteration of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley at the Universal Studios Theme Park was our primary objective.
Islands of Adventure
A few year ago, we visited the Hogsmeade area at Islands Of Adventure. At that time, we were impressed and delighted by the first phase of the Harry Potter themed lands. Family vacations to Europe, a Southwest USA road trip, and of course, Walt Disney World excursions had delayed a return to Universal. We were anxious to experience the second phase of the Harry Potter attractions. Guess what? The wait was worth it!
Loews Royal Pacific
Outstanding and beyond my expectations pretty much sums up my impressions of not only Diagon Alley, but the overall experience of our second stay on Universal property. Since I was pleased with our prior stay at the Loews Royal Pacific resort, we chose to stay a second time for a variety of factors: the ability to have the Universal Express Pass included as part of our guest experience at the hotel, the extremely convenient location, and the charm we found there a few years ago.
Loews Royal Pacific
The Royal Pacific has recently undergone refurbishment, and based on some chatter in the Theme Park blogosphere, maybe to mixed reviews. For me, the renovation was more than adequate with clean and comfortable rooms. Certainly, the modern/contemporary decor can be construed as somewhat mismatched to the Pacific Island theme. Although not comparable to the theming at many Walt Disney World resorts, it’s still a nice room in a well-designed and pleasant resort. I would not only recommend the Loews Royal Pacific to others, I would certainly consider staying there again. Twice charmed at this point!
CityWalk at Universal Studios Orlando
The convenience of being able to obtain an Express Pass shortly after checking in might only be second to the incredibly pleasant walk along a beautifully landscaped waterway towards the Theme Parks. In about 10 minutes, the entrance to CityWalk interrupts the path, and then it’s only a short jaunt to Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios, with Islands of Adventure being first along the left-hand side.
The shopping and dining area called CityWalk is cool, but for me, pales in comparison to even the pre-Disney Springs (aka Downtown Disney) area at Walt Disney World. CityWalk is long on food and drink options, but significantly short on charm, with one new exception, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.
Up Next: steampunk theming and Diagon Alley rocks it
Share your thoughts on a Universal Studios Orlando stay!
by Kimberly LaPaglia | Dec 14, 2016 | Castles, Florida, Travel, U.S. Travel, Universal Studios
Why Stay at Universal Studios Florida®?
It’s not as overwhelming as a trip to Walt Disney World. In fact, you can actually have a fun-filled time with only a two night stay at Universal Studios Florida.
Here’s How to Create a Two-Night Stay:
- Plan your getaway. You’ll need to be within easy driving distance the morning that you plan to check in to your hotel. As we had toured Florida Institute of Technology, the night before our stay, we were only about 45 minutes away. Don’t forget to pre-order your tickets and make a reservation at an onsite hotel.
- On your first touring day, arrive early to your resort. We had reservations at Loews Royal Pacific resort. Park, leave your luggage in your vehicle, bring your pre-paid ticket voucher, and Check In. Your room will likely not be ready but that’s okay. Your goal is to get your tickets and head to the parks! Check In is a breeze here. With your admission tickets in hand, your next stop is the Universal Express kiosk in the hotel lobby. Here, you’ll get your picture taken and once your card is in hand, head to a park for early admission.
- Review the early park admission calendar to personalize your plans. This is the best time to get pictures of the intricate details of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley!
Immerse yourself in Diagon Alley
- After Harry Potter, visit other popular attractions like Skull Island: Reign of Kong™ before the crowds begin to pour in. Then start to visit the less visited attractions.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong is an incredible adventure!
- Plan an early lunch to avoid long lines.
- Plan a time for an afternoon break, once you receive a text that your room is ready. When you arrive back at the hotel, bring in your luggage and rest a few minutes. The ease of walking from the parks to Royal Pacific avoids any transportation struggles.
- Plan to dine on your return to the hotel or your way back into one of the parks. The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen™ is a great choice! We’ll be back with a review soon!
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen
- Tour the less visited attractions when crowds are still thick in the early evening. This is a good time to head to Seuss Landing™ as parents are beginning to take their kids to dinner and head out of the park.
Visit Seuss Landing in late afternoon or evening
- About two hours before closing, you can start to watch wait times for the more popular attractions. This is also a great time to visit any of the Harry Potter attractions, especially the Interactive Wand exhibits. We absolutely love hanging out at the Hog’s Head tavern in Hogsmeade and toasting to our vacation with butterbeer!
Even on a crowded day, Hog’s Head is dead at the end of the night.
My favorite beverage at the tavern is Frozen Butterbeer!
- After park closing, visit CityWalk for a snack or return directly to your hotel.
- For your second day, take advantage of early park admission, and repeat the day one tips. You’ll want to get to any attractions that you missed the first day as well as return to your favorites.
Explore the nooks and crannies of Diagon Alley
- Finally, don’t try to see and do everything. Take your time and really savor the attractions, shows, and restaurants that you do visit.
On-Site Theme Park Hotels
The advantage of staying at a hotel onsite is that you’ll get a few benefits that are extremely important towards a stress-free vacation.
All official hotels at Universal Studios Florida offer a one-hour early admission benefit. This is a great way to get ahead of the lines. When you complement that advantage with the Universal Express Pass, you have a strategy that will allow stress-free touring.
Select a “deluxe” hotel –Loews Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews Royal Pacific — and you’ll get the Universal Express Pass free. This saves $89 per person per day so figure that savings into your hotel budget. It worked out cheaper for us to stay at Loews Royal Pacific. A stay at Cabana Bay with the added cost of Universal Express passes was definitely more expensive. Skipping the REGULAR LINES with Universal Express SM Unlimited ride access* in both theme parks is imperative to a relaxing visit, especially if you tour during a crowded time period.
Tip: Crowds will be present any time kids are out of school. And since our son is now in high school, we have to travel when school is closed. Don’t judge – we used to take him out of school from Kindergarten through 8th grade so that we could travel during the off-seasons. If school is in session, then your travel location (especially to Florida) will be cheaper and less crowded!
Loews Royal Pacific Resort
As mentioned above, we once again chose the Loews Royal Pacific Resort for our Universal Studios stay. We were there for a quick visit so familiarity with the resort aided in our plan to have fun at a relaxing pace despite the pre-Thanksgiving crowds.
South Seas Decor
Some of the resort’s highlights:
Beautiful walk from Loews Royal Pacific Resort to the parks and CityWalk
- The Beautiful Walkway to and from the parks
- Convenient Hotel Parking (at a price though)
- Easily Accessible to CityWalk and both parks
- Beautiful South Seas Atmosphere
- Easy Check In and Ticket Redemption
- Friendly Staff
- Nicely appointed rooms
- Proximity to restaurants
- Lagoon Style Pool
- Nice amenities such as free lemon water
I highly recommend a stay at Universal Studios in Florida. And I can’t wait to return. I’ve got our interactive wands at the ready!
What hotel do you stay at when visiting Universal Studios in Florida? Should we try a different hotel on our next stay? It’s your turn to share!