A quick break in Florida - part 4 Universal Studios

The next two days are spent re visiting all our favourites and making sure we took all our pre booked  Fast Pass options to re ride Flight of the Banshee. Trust me when I say this ride is just as good every single time you ride it - in fact it gets better and better.  Do not miss it.

WDW avatar pandora jackie collison

After an early morning spent riding flight of the Banshee again, it's time to pack the bags and say goodbye to the Disney All Star Resort and head out to Universal's Hard Rock Hotel - A trip we take by Uber, which we can't use at home as we're too rural.

I was impressed with the app and the efficiency with which a ride came. I was less impressed when the bill arrived by email and it was 50% more!  Fortunately there is one good thing with Uber - they know exactly what you did, how, when, where and who with - so they instantly refunded the 100% difference from the original quoted fare in a matter of minutes.

Hard Rock Hotel was chosen because of its proximity to the parks - literally a short walk along the riverside. You can of course take the boat should you wish to save your feet - though the reality is you probably have just as far to then walk from the dockside.

Its been quite a few years since we were last here in Universal. Despite regular visits to WDW we have not actually revisited Universal since The World of Harry Potter was just breaking ground. In some ways I'm glad - its nice to be here now the initial chaos has slightly died down (and more importantly your hotel Express pass can now actually be used in that segment of the park.

So first things first; what did we make of  'The Wizarding World of Harry Potter' - We loved it. It's wonderfully immersive and the smiles on kids (and adults) faces as they wander around (in 100 degree heat) in full Hogwarts student cloaks and scarves is a joy to see.

There's an attention to detail that's more Disney than the usual Universal experience and that is a good thing to see. This section is a much more themed area rather than the rest of Studios/IOA - which I tend to think of more as a ride park than a "themed" theme park.

Knight bus complete with Stan Shunpike!
And the theming on the inside of the rides is just as fantastic as the outside. Gringott's bank lobby is quite literally a breathtaking recreation of the films set - lots of tiny details bringing it all to life.

From the Studio side of the park you pass through the secret wall in to Diagon Alley. Gringotts bank is the key attraction here and is an excellent ride that takes elements of 3D Projection type rides (like Spiderman) but combines them with a coaster style of track and  movement. Quite thrilling and it's definitely worth a few rides.

One of the complaints you often hear regarding WWofHP is that it's a little short on rides but very heavy on shops and up to a point that's true  - though you have to remember its only one land in a huge park. Universal have been (financially) very clever though in splitting the two A class rides across both parks (meaning you will need to pay for a multi park ticket to take the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade and see/ride it all.

One thing I would recommend you do is call into Ollivanders wand shop for the little side show (lets face it it's a sales show in the end - but its great fun and quite touching, especially for students in full gear as they will always get picked to have a wand match)

Its soon time to head to Kings Cross and find our way to platform 9 and 3/4. The whole Kings Cross set up has some great little touches such as the live departure boards. You have to show your ticket at the first entry point to prove you can enter both parks and then you are sent on your way through a quite bland and therefore eerily authentic London brick terminus.

There is a simple but highly effective trick that has you walk through the wall into platform 9 & 3/4 and you emerge with the Hogwarts Express sitting in all its glory ready for boarding. Again everything has been wonderfully recreated, right down to the weathering on the carriages and engine's exterior.

You arrive at Hogsmeade where the theming is now that of the the small winter village near Hogwarts school. The false perspective tricks are really well done given the school the sense of size it needs - though the fake snow does nothing to cool the temperature down unfortunately.

It's at this point that our (quite deliberate) lack of research into this area paid off once again with an hilarious surprise.

We both had it in our heads that on this side of the park the only rides were re themed versions of Dueling Dragons and the other small coaster. So we headed over to Hogwarts and entered the line for 'Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey' (assuming this is the new name for Dueling Dragons) using our express pass :-  as the line was empty we did take our time wandering through as even the quick line has some great theming; the portraits etc (nice to see Dawn French has a prominent placement.

Reaching the front of the line we are suddenly baffled by the fact that the cars are entering the boarding area sideways and you enter them from a moving walkway a la Haunted Mansion. Hmmm this seems odd but we take our seats only for Hermione to cast a spell and throw us onto our backs in the first few seconds to enjoy an absolutely fantastic ride (if rather hilarious as we are both laughing so much at our error) on 'Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey'. This ride uses quite a unique tech which involves a great mix of full scale live animatronic sets and projection screens combined with what's best described as a robot arm on a track that hurls you about in perfect sync. Truly superb.

Later we notice that Dueling Dragons is in fact behind a screened off area and is being demolished (there are two half loops to nowhere left) to make way for the latest new addition to WWoHP.

There's obviously a lot more to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure than Harry Potter but it does seem fitting as this is our first visit to the HP lands to concentrate on them.

Hulk - Islands of Adventure
Jurassic Park - Islands of Adventure
There were some new additions to the actual parks and we really had a great time on Skulls Kong Island which is a great take on the 3D mix of projection and ride - just felt a little short. I can't say the same for Transformers though which was dullsville.

And the Simpsons - not just a great ride - but its actually a good story; though when they built this ride originally as "Back to the Future" who on earth came up with an exterior queue, too hot dude!

mmmm - nice coffee
The hotel was great for our two nights here - luxurious after the budget choice in Disney - though to be honest I actually quite like the motel style of the Disney rooms where your rooms door opens onto fresh (ok lets be honest - fresh hot and humid) air rather than a bland corridor.

Taking the boat directly from the Hotel to Universal Studios
After another leisurely morning in the park we once again use Uber (no problems this time) to take us to the airport and travel back with Virgin directly to Manchester in our favourite seats upstairs in the bubble.

A quick break in Florida - Part 3

Its all aboard for a morning in EPCOT - I decided to pre order breakfast this morning in the food court and went for  the 'breakfast burger'. Now I foolishly assumed that the said burger part would be a sausage patty but it turned out to be a 1/4lb beefburger, egg, bacon and cheese with side of home fries (mmm pass the tabasco). It's all just a little too much food for 7.00am. J has porridge/oatmeal every day which bares a  resemblance to gruel  - however according to Jack adding sultanas and brown sugar makes it yummy.

epcot spaceship earth graveyard

We are here for the rope drop - security here seemed to be the longest line we have have yet encountered. I'm not sure if that was due to the wine and food festival or the holiday weekend effect - one thing they were being strict on was selfie sticks, which are now banned in the parks.

On a side issue - I'll be glad when the 'grave stones' are finally removed, this was hinted at at the D23 Expo conference this year, hoorah - I hate them, they're very ugly. Also announced: Two new EPCOT rides; Guardians of the Galaxy in Future World & Ratatouille in France, World showcase - and with the total rebuild of the central hub, its gonna be a busy few years.

We head right  for an early morning flight on Soarin. There was a lovely side benefit here of trying to avoid too much spoiler research for Pandora. Soarin has finally had a makeover - with new digital projection (no more hairs, tears and flares on the screen), new film & new smells to show it off. Impressive and a nice bonus.

Test Track is having technical issues 😏 so we head over to Mission Space for the hardcore version. This also has had a few tweaks mainly in improved monitor resolution and a new loading room video (well it's the same script - they just replaced Gary Sinise with Gina Torres - who knows why).

There's no longer that opportunity to take either a nap or a pleasant air conditioned ride in 'Ellen's  Universe of Energy' as its destined to go to the same place as  'The Great Movie ride'. Its now closed off ready to make way for (big booming voice) 'Guardians of the Galaxy' (which sounds more like a Universal ride than an EPCOT ride.

After good coffee and that formidable treat of a cinnamon swirl we start to make our way around the World Showcase; as luck would have it just as we arrive at Mexico's pavilion  the country is  opening for business so we head straight for its gentle water ride to escape the sun for a while. The weather has been really weird this October as I mentioned before - at times it can feel like a sticky July day and Accuweather has the real feel at 104 degrees. Historically our normal Florida time is either October through to March; generally nice and warm but pleasant. This year I'm guessing the recent late hurricane has skewed things a little.

Mulan is wandering around China's Pavilion looking for guests as its rather quiet back here in Beijings Temple of Heaven. We have actually been to the Temple of Heaven when we toured China - you can see the photo blog for that here - the pavilion is actually a good scaled down likeness (though it has to be said the original is just as new looking as EPCOT's).  China doesn't seem to have that much issue with rebuilding (rather than restoring) anything that may be getting a little old

Outside the original Temple of Heaven in Beijing
We had considered having lunch in China but of course the food and wine festival is now in full swing and who can resist the lobster brioche rolls (generously loaded) from 'Hops and Barley' located in front of the American Pavilion.

hops and barley epcot lobster roll

In fact we enjoy these so much that second helpings are an instant requisition washed down with a cold, unoaked Chardonnay before we head back to Norway to use our Frozen Fast Pass. I think they did quite a good job in converting Maelstrom to Frozen - each room advances the story well and there are some great touches and light effects.

Let it go.....

Warm Hugs from Olaf, Anna & Elsa.
Then spent a great afternoon watching some of the live acts; In the gardens of the United Kingdom 'British Revolution' put on a great show with a fantastic set list ranging from Simple Minds to Black Sabbath. Most Excellent and a good opportunity to dance some calories away.

After spending some time watching the entertainment in Canada: Bodh'aktan, Celtic rock band, featuring punk,polka & folk, great fun.We then moved on to catch the guest entertainment for today. Unfortunately we missed Chris Cross by a day and today's artist was the Devon Allman band.

He's  not really our cup of tea - after what felt like a 15 minute soft rock (with a capital S) musical intro I got the impression everyone in the theatre seemed ready to sleep. Due to the rather self indulgent opening I think he only managed to perform one Clapton cover version and one new song (which was basically the intro again - but with lyrics) by this time most of the theatre's guests  were heading for the exit..  Yikes

The app buzzed a reminder that Test Track was finally back in action.  We took the boat back over the lake - as walking back that far in this heat was an absolute - "no way dude" and joined the single rider queue which moved nice and quickly.

We spent a little more time riding  over in Future World - a storm is predicted for later in the evening so we decide to stroll back the anti clockwise way to Italy for dinner at 'Via Napoli' catching the Canadian Show  on our way. Our timing is perfect, just as we stroll in the heavens open along with a fierce lightning displays.

gotta love the volcano pizza oven mouths. Stromboli ( we''ve been there!) Vesuvio & Etna.
via napoli half metre pizza
Half metre pizza, woof!

What you havin Dan?
We decide to share a pizza though I think we got the sizes mixed up - much to the amusement of the tables around us. The pizzas here are excellent - super thin base and just a little crispiness from the stone floor of the wood fired ovens (love how one over is called Stromboli - we sailed past last year.) There's nothing I hate more than over thick soggy pizza pastry. A bottle of a cheerful Chianti washes the whole thing down - eventually!!

PS We do enjoy the whole Food and Drink festival but some of the countries seem to be having a laugh.  I'm no expert on Hawaiian Food but Terriyaki - glazed SPAM hash sounds pre war. But the cheesecake was mighty fine.

Click here for part 4