Thursday, September 29, 2016

Universally Awesome! April 2016 Trip Report, Day 3: Smorgasbord Day! Part 2

The first part of the day can be found HERE.

We stumbled outside from the Forbidden Journey that lasted Forever and felt the sun hit us; it seemed like eons since we had last seen the sun, and we soaked it in.  With the free passes in hand, we all agreed to use it for an attraction that doesn’t offer the Express Pass – yep, we were heading to Gringotts!  Before we headed to the station, though, we stopped to watch the frog choir croak a song.  After we had seen enough, we went through the turnstiles and were queued up for the Hogwarts Express in no time at all.  The lines were small, and we were able to have a compartment to ourselves.  As soon as we sat down, we all started the “it’s such a beautiful wall!!!” talk (check out the previous day's blog posts).  We enjoyed the air conditioning while we saw new hidden “Easter eggs” in the attraction (and again cringed at “Hermione”).  We also saw Voldemo…well…just to be safe…we saw He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in the distance.  I think we all agree that we liked the Islands-to-Studios version a bit better than the other direction's version, though both are really good!

We exited the Express and decided that, since it was right around 11:00, we’d do lunch first before the throngs descended upon the restaurants.  We took a “when in Rome” mentality and went straight for the Leaky Cauldron.  The food was good; nothing to write home about, but we were still glad we ate there and soaked in the atmosphere.  To let the food settle, we opted to hold off a bit before riding Gringotts, so we toured Diagon Alley.

As you could see, we spent quite a bit of time in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes...

All we ask for is an occasional smile from the boys...

Around noon, we went down Knockturn Alley and looked around Borgin & Burkes for a few minutes before exiting out onto Horizont Alley (say it fast…then think about the name of the area.  Yes, this is the actual name of the street). I mapped out a couple of locations for us to visit after we got done with Gringotts.  We made our way over to Gringotts, stored our stuff in a locker, and flew through the queue line which had a posted standby time of 30 minutes.  We were in the very back for this ride through, and there’s one part where the back section seems to tower over everyone else.  I think we all liked the back row the best, though I would still recommend trying to get the front row or two for your first ride.  We exited and grabbed our stuff from the locker – we were experts at the lockers by this time.

After Gringotts, I had an ulterior motive in mind and set a plan in action.  I had us look around a magic shop or two for a couple of minutes, making sure that we had Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor within eyesight.  I was going to lobby the rest of the Mushfam that we were having a great time and that we should celebrate by having some ice cream!  I knew that the only thing I needed to do was mention this to the boys, and they would be on-board.  Sheri would be outnumbered 3-1, and, though her vote usually has a 400% weighting taken into account, I didn’t think she’d put up much of a fight on this one.  As we looked at the flavor choices, I let them in on my ulterior motive: I wanted to get several flavors and have all of us taste and rate them.  My plan was to then record our review and send it to the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast as they had a debate going on regarding the best flavor.  Since the cones had two scoops, we could select two different flavors.  I got the strawberry peanut butter and the apple crumble, while Sheri got the sticky toffee pudding and the salted caramel blondie.  Aaron got a combination of what Sheri and I got (I couldn’t remember), and Eric opted for the soft-serve Butterbeer!

To hear our review, please head to This site...our review is about 3:40 in.  Lee, Tracey, Darren, and Hunter had a little fun at my expense – it was definitely deserved, as, for the life of me, I couldn’t get “salted caramel blondie” out even if my life depended on it, and I ended up calling it the wrong name the entire time – give it a listen for a good laugh.  FYI: the UUOP is a well-done podcast, and it’s my go-to for updated Universal Orlando news every week.  If you're looking to add a little Universal Orlando flavor to your lists of podcasts, I’m sure they’d love to have you subscribe!! They have a really good overview of the Universal Orlando Resort in Episode 212 - for those of you thinking of heading to the resort for the first time, you'll definitely want to download that one and listen to it.

With the ice cream consumed and the debate concluded (GO APPLE CRUMBLE!!), we walked around Diagon Alley for a bit longer. We timed it just right to see some of Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees perform a couple of songs:

I saw that the line at Ollivanders’s was non-existent, so we hopped in and were in a wand room with no wait at all.  I submitted an actual wait of 1 minute to, fully expecting their stats whiz, Fred Hazelton, to consider this and any future time submitted by me to be invalid.  We all really enjoyed the show that we saw; the wizard we had did a great job with the selection!

Apologies for the blurriness...we were in-transit to the show room

After Ollivander’s we grudgingly left Diagon Alley and decided to head back over to Springfield to see if the Simpsons ride was running, since we missed it the previous day.  It was!  We flashed our Express Pass at the entrance, and, while it didn’t get us on the attraction immediately (we merged in with the rest quite a bit before the actual pre-show rooms), it probably knocked the 30 minute wait down to around 15 minutes.  Being a Simpsons fan, I was loving the short clips they had airing on the televisions in the line.

The Back Side of Krusty!!!  (Sorry…I had to)

We all LOVED This ride – the boys are old enough to get most of the jokes now, and Sheri has developed a tolerance for the show, so she had an idea of what was going on.  After yesterday and today, this land is easily my non-Potter favorite land.  I could have spent even longer in there, but Sheri dragged me out – I started to tell her that she had to promise to come back so we could….and she finished my sentence: “so we can have some Duff beer in Moe’s…I already knew that was coming.”

Man, I love that woman!

On our way out, we saw the Optimus Prime photo op going on…that was sooooooo flippin’ cool (I know, it’s not in the traditional travel agent vernacular, but it was really flippin’ cool!) and contemplated getting in line for a pic.  We were heading out of the parks for the day, and it was right at 2:00.  Nice!

We took the boat back to Portofino Bay and decided to chill for a while.  I had some research that I wanted to do – I had visited all of the hotels but one…Cabana Bay!  The boys wanted to swim, so they got ready while I worked on logistics on how to enjoy some family time at the pool, get to Cabana Bay, get back, and ready for our 6:45 reservation at Mama Della’s Ristorante located at our hotel.  Before we got to our room, though, we decided to do a little bit of touring of the resort:

We got everything we needed and headed to the West Wing of Portofino Bay (yes, we made Presidential jokes on the way).  We found a table with an umbrella vacant and grabbed a seat.  We then shooed the boys into the water and grabbed the cocktail menu at the Splendido Bar and Grill!

I went with Pina Colada……….come on…….you know you want to sing it……(“GETTING CAUGHT IN THE RAIN!”), and Sheri – I can’t remember what it was that she got, but she liked it!  We downed our drinks and relaxed for a while.  I knew that there were bocce ball courts nearby, and I tried to convince everyone to trust me and move to another pool area; there was some resistance, but the boys immediately started playing as soon as they saw the open court.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Universally Awesome! April 2016 Trip Report, Day 3: Smorgasbord Day! Part 1

To see the first part of the previous day, please click HERE.

I never go to bed at 9:30, and now I know why…

…for starters, my brain simply never shuts down, and I have to get myself good and tired before going to bed.  I had some school stuff on my mind, but I was able to eventually fall into a restless sleep, even though the bed was great.  Around 1:30, I was woken up to the sound of boys’ arguing over how much of the bed each one was taking.  I put a quick end to it but then couldn’t fall back asleep.  I spent the next 2 hours or so doing school work and crawled back in bed around 4 am…and, of course, was back up at 6:00.

This is going to be a greeeeeaaaaaaat day.

We were going to start the day with a tour of one of the other Loews resorts on-site: the Royal Pacific resort!  With Islands of Adventure opening at 8 that morning and the restaurant we were going to dine at opening at 7:00, it was going to be a tight fit on the schedule, but I thought we could to it.  At 6:45, we headed out and grabbed a quick water pic:

We then headed down to the lobby and successfully were able to get another privilege of staying at a higher-end Loews resort: the free on-site town car service!  We walked up, grabbed a ticket, and were at Royal Pacific in just a few minutes…for nothing more than the gratuity we gave to our driver.

We were just a couple of minutes behind my internal preferred schedule, so all we had to do was rush to the restaurant and get in quicklhhhheeeeeeyyyyyyyyywaitaminute!!!

This place is BEAUTIFUL!!!!!

It evoked essences of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.

I could easily see us staying here!

We found Islands restaurant, and I was pleasantly surprised to see only a 3- to 4-minute wait to get seated.

Sheri and I immediately commented about longing for the 100% kona coffee in a pressed pot from the Kona Café.  I know that it’s not fair to compare the two restaurants (or the two resorts, for that matter), because they’re not the same; however, I think it is hard not to.  Royal Pacific looks to be an absolutely amazing choice for many people who want a taste of South Pacific theming!

I got the closest thing I could find to my beloved Tonga Toast…the Tahitian French Toast a L’Orange.  Sheri opted for the Hawaiian pancakes.  The boys, seeing unlimited food, ran to the buffet.

Our entrees were good – just different from what our palates were expecting.  Again, it’s really hard to NOT compare this place to Kona Café down the road.  They are different restaurants with different experiences and different entrees.  Sheri’s pancakes had a LOT of coconut, which I liked.  The orange flavor of my French toast was good – just different.

We all got a kick out of the condiments…

I really wish I would have suggested that we stay to look around some more, because this truly is an amazing-looking resort!  We had a park to get to, though, so we paid and said our goodbyes to Royal Pacific for this trip and made our way out to the boat launch.  We got a good view of the construction of the Loews Sapphire Falls resort on our ride over to City Walk.

We arrived into Islands of Adventure around 8:10…not a bad time at all, considering we left our room at Portofino Bay less than an hour and a half before.  We got through the turnstiles and found the park to be nice and quiet once we got through the Port of Entry.

We headed left and made our way towards Hogsmeade when we saw a walk-on queue for Spiderman.  We threw the touring plan out the window for a few minutes and hopped in line for this one.

LIKED IT!!!  Loved the Stan Lee cameo, too.  It has its roots in the same format as several of the other attractions (3D glasses, vehicle that careens to different screens, etc.).  Perhaps having a break from similar attractions helped, because I felt completely fine after this one.

We continued on through Toon Lagoon...

...and past Skull Island, listening futilely for a “SOFT OPENING!” announcement (I was about a month or so early) and continued through Jurassic Park to the other entrance into Hogsmeade.  It seemed a little disjointed, with a little bit of whiplash as we transitioned into the new area.   I think that a counter-clockwise touring of this park works better, purely in terms of theming.

We immediately headed to Dragon Challenge and remembered our Express Pass cards this time.  With Sheri with us, we opted for the red coaster and LOVED it!!!  We were still feeling okay and contemplated hopping back in line for the blue coaster again, but we decided to spread things out and do it tomorrow.  We then took our time to do a little touring of Hogsmeade.

After we were done touring Hogsmeade, we headed towards the Lost Continent to check that area out some more.  The fountain wasn’t active, and we weren’t close to a show time for Poseidon’s Fury…okay….we made an executive decision to skip Seuss Landing since we had already walked through it the previous day and still had Potter on our minds.  We turned around and made a beeline for the Forbidden Journey.  The line moved relatively quickly through the greenhouse and into the castle, but we got stuck in Dumbedore’s office for a while and then again for quite a while in the holding room where Harry, Ron, and Hermione talk to the queue (I think we got snowed on 4-5 times).  Finally, we got going again, and, within a couple of minutes of the bottleneck, we were making our way to our seats.  I stopped my TouringPlans timer and did a quick submit…37 minutes on the wait.  I remembered to take my Crocs off before getting in, and I placed them behind me as I sat down.  A Team Member noticed my lack of shoes, and I pointed behind me with a smile.  The approving nod told me that what I did was pretty common.

We got going, and I was looking forward to seeing a lot that I missed the first time we rode it.  As the attraction started, I definitely was thinking that Forbidden Journey was my favorite attraction at Universal…

…and then it became the Forbidden Journey through Hell.

We soared through the first couple of scenes, and the ride was even more awesome than the first time we rode it!  We made it into the Quidditch field and were rocking and rolling, yawing and pitching…and then….

We stopped.

We were all leaning forward in our seats, resting on the restraints.  Sheri was the only one that had her sandals on still, and I was sure that, with the position we were in, she was going to lose them.  I made a joke about one of the beaters knocking the sandals back to her.  We were all in good spirits…No worries – we thought we were going to be back on our way in a minute or two.

…five minutes later, the lights came on, and we got to see the attraction’s guts.

We passed the time having fun with the acoustics of the screen that we were dangling over; one of us could whisper, and the person on the far end could hear it as clear as a bell.  I looked around to see if there were other ride vehicles nearby, and I was able to see a couple of the other Kuka Arms frozen in time.  Luckily, the people in those arms were more upright or slightly leaning back.  I was fully expecting our very first evac as the time ticked away, and I listened for voices behind and below us.  I was also a little concerned about Sheri getting a little claustrophobic, but she endured it with no real lasting damage.

After about 20-25 minutes, we felt the Arm start to move, and, as we transitioned to the next screen, the lights popped off, and the movie and audio kicked back on.  Being stationary in that forward/down position messed all of us up a little bit in terms of balance, and the quick movement back into the attraction had us all feeling a bit wonky.  The on-board pic is definitely worth a thousand words LOL!!!

We made it back to the unloading platform, and we all nearly kissed the ground as we got off of what we feared would be our deathbeds.

It happens – with the technology that goes into that attraction, it’s surprising that it doesn’t happen more often.  We weren’t mad; just a little bummed at the experience.  Universal had a number of Team Members at the exit to greet the guests getting off of the attraction.  As they apologized for what happened, they offered us front of the line access to any attraction.  We thanked them (they seemed appreciative that we did that – my guess is that a number of folks laid into them, though they had nothing to do with the attraction going down) and meandered our way outside.
I was fully expecting to have problems getting our stuff out of the locker, as it had been much, much, MUCH more than the anticipated time that we were supposed to be done with the ride.  The locker opened with no issues at all, though; they have downtime taken into account for the locker timer programming.  Kudos to the tech folks for that!


Monday, August 22, 2016

Universally Awesome! April 2016 Trip Report, Day 2: Wizards and Simpsons and Bilge Rats (Oh My!), Part 7

Need to see Part 6?  HERE IT IS!

At around 6:30, we made our way back to the boat launch, and, just as we arrived, it started sprinkling a little.  After the security check, we grabbed a seat under an awning.

The best part of the Mushfam:

Sheri and I:

The boat arrived, and we were on our way!  I hopped on the Cowfish app and tried again.  I knew I was in range, so I checked in…or, at least, I tried to check in.  Though I had created an account, something was messed up with the app and wouldn’t let me get in.  I expected a wait of 45-60 minutes, and the rain was coming down pretty hard now.  Grrrrrrr.

We docked at City Walk, and we walked at a brisk pace up to Cowfish when the lightning started.  The other three went inside while I put my name in and explained that I wasn’t able to get the app to work; our host said that it almost never works for their Orlando site.  I let it slide when he said it was only going to be 10-15 minutes before we would be seated.  Actually, it was only about 5 minutes before we made our way up to the top floor next to the windows overlooking Islands; the boys hadn’t even gotten their digital fish customized yet (I’ll let you figure that one out).  It was a deluge outside, and City Walk was rapidly becoming deserted.

Our server presented us with menus, and we put in our drink order.  The boys got milkshakes, while Sheri got a Blue Moon and I ordered a Dogfish Head IPA.  We also put in an appetizer order of crab Rangoon dip.

The dip had a panko crust on top, and the wonton chips were drizzled with a sweet chili sauce.  Great start to the meal!!

For the entrée, Eric ordered the Dynamic Duo, which was a burger topped with braised short rib meat.  Sheri, Aaron, and I each got Bento Boxes.  All came with mini burgers, sweet potato fries, edamame, and Thai cucumbers.  Sheri opted for the ½ firecracker roll (tempura shrimp and crab (kani) wrapped up and topped with salmon and yellowtail, which is then topped with two roes (Masago and Tobiko), spicy mayo, and scallions. 

Aaron and I went the Nigiri route: tuna, salmon, and shrimp for me, and Aaron opted for two salmon and one shrimp).

It was good…definitely a bit odd eating a burger with sushi, but it worked!  It was definitely a bit pricey, but, given the uniqueness, and, coupled with beverages and an appetizer in a theme park, I think it’s in-line with expectations.  I had heard of spotty service, but we did not find this to be an issue at all.

If you do decide to eat here, do yourself a favor and hit the restroom.  I nearly died laughing at the audio that was in there.  The best way to describe it is to think of what a “redneck-to-Japanese (or Korean)” audio book would be like!

We were happy to see the rain had subsided by the time we were done eating.  I wanted to do a little bit of research and suggested we take the boat to the Hard Rock Hotel and then walk to Portofino Bay.  The other three just wanted to get back and get off their feet, so we split up and glared at each other in different boat queues.  I made it to the Hard Rock and was able to wave to them as they went by on their way to Portofino.  I hopped onto the grounds of the Hard Rock and started looking around…

When I went around to the front and upstairs to the main entrance, I heard Prince’s I Would Die 4 U …keep in mind that the day was April 22nd, and the artist passed away the previous morning.  This one hit me a little bit, considering I live in 70s-80s music.  I still remember getting so much grief from my friends on the school bus when I thought Nikki started to “cry” instead of “grind”, and I fully expect it to be brought up again at our next high school class reunion (yes, I'm still holding a grudge to Andrea, Debbie, Jill, Aaron, Alan, Crystal, Jeni, Tim, Tracy, Doug, Aaron, and Harold LOL).  Prince’s music was a huge impact on me, and, no matter what people thought of his lyrics and videos, the guy had more musical talent than pretty much anyone I've heard of.  He played everything, sang everything, and produced everything.  Every song was so different yet so well-done.  Hearing one of his song - that song - made me pause for a moment while walking along the corridors of the Hard Rock Hotel.  I don’t think there was any intent in the song (it was probably just in the queue of the music), but man, any other song would have been preferred.

Pictures around the Hard Rock:

I think this would be a good hotel for people like me without the younger kids.  Those who want to take a trip down memory lane from the Classic Rock and 80s-90s eras will find a lot to look at.  I think that a lot of it would be lost on the under-30 crowd.  With the restaurants located throughout the country, it’s not an entirely unique experience.  Still, it’s a cool place, and it’s one that I could see myself staying at.

Cool Guitar Fountain at the Entrance

When I started my way down the path towards Portofino Bay, I heard the fireworks starting for the nighttime show at Studios.  Every couple of minutes, another barrage could be heard as the night-time sky lit up for a brief instant.


Sheri and I texted a bit as I made my way past the boat launch.

I seeeeee yyoooouuuuuuuuuuuuu, Wiiiiiifffeeeeyyyyy!  (center of the picture)

Before going to the room, I stopped by the front desk and asked if they by any chance had a toothbrush for a tween that forgot to pack one.  They said it happens ALL THE TIME and gave me a free one.  When I made it back to the room, I threw the toothbrush at Eric who finally got the grime out of his mouth properly.  It was around 9:30, and we were all in bed, though I should have graded some papers.

It was a fantastic first day in the parks!  We couldn’t wait to see what the next day brought!!