Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Universally Awesome! April 2016 Trip Report, Introduction and Pre-Trip

Greetings, all, and welcome to another Mushfam trip report!  As this is a trip report to a new location and might bring in some new readers/followers, I’ll let you in on a little hint on how these work.  I tend to write these reports with a TON of detail.  I want it to seem like you, Dear Reader, are walking along next to us during our trip.  As this is our first trip to Universal, I anticipate that I’ll describe things even more, since the experiences are all new for us.  Oh, and, yes, I do hope to make you laugh once or twice as you read of the crazy antics of the Mushfam.  Enjoy!!!

For those unfamiliar with us, I’m going to do an introduction of our traveling party:

Me: Chris (codename: “Mush”).  43 years young; new travel agent/consultant; stressed-out Economics professor/advisor; mind of a 12-year-old and the body of a 72 year-old.

Sheri (codename: “Wifey”): less than 43…let’s just keep it at that; married to Mush for almost 19 years (some question her sanity); accountant (which defaults at “stressed-out”); fashion consultant.

Aaron: (no codename...just Aaron): 13 years old, going on 10; typical teen, tallest one in the family; wears size 14 shoes; eats his own weight in food every hour.

Eric (just Eric): 11 years old; the prankster of the bunch; waiting for the growth spurt to send him to 7’6”;  adrenaline junkie.

Libby (codename: “Hellcat”).  Pet; rescued at 1.5 weeks old; loves Wifey and bites Mush at every opportunity; hates everything except foil balls, milk jug rings, and catnip.

This trip kind of sprung up out of nowhere.  As a newer travel agent (just over a year in business as I write this), I’ve spent a LOT of the past 12 months researching where my “niche” was going to be.  As an affiliate of Starfish Travel, LLC, I decided to rely on the expertise of the co-owners, Michelle Hohmann and Cathy McConnell, and set my focus on two areas: cruises and theme parks.  The bulk of my business for the first year had been in the Disney arena, with 67% of my supplier revenue coming from Walt Disney World bookings, 13% Disneyland and 13% Disney Cruise Line.  I had completed the courses for most of the major cruise lines (Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean).  While I can book these lines, I want to offer more than just booking services, and I want to get full experiences with these lines to help match people up with the right cruise lines/ships/itineraries.

This same idea applies to the theme parks.  I’ve been to Walt Disney World and Disneyland more times than I can remember, and Sheri and I experienced our first Disney Cruise in the Fall of 2015.  Universal Orlando was a destination that I have read up on, and Sheri and I did visit City Walk back in 2001 for a meal at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville (FINS UP, PARROTHEADS!).  I had completed the agent training; however, I wanted to immerse myself in the resort so I could provide a better service to clients.  With the boys entering the teen/tween years, the timing seemed right to try some place other than the Mouse.

As for when we would be able to fit the trip in, though…well, with kids in school, we try not to take them out.  After our October 2015 weekend at Disney World, we figured we’d be pretty much done with trips for a while; however, in January, we started getting antsy again, as Sheri and I were holding annual passes for WDW.  We also had a timeshare with a lot of points available.  After looking around at Spring Break week and deciding that the insane crowds weren’t worth it, we looked at the school calendar and found a weekend in April that had no school on a Friday (or so we thought…more on this in a minute).  I priced out what it would cost to visit Mickey again and then started looking at alternatives (I’m a travel planner AND an economist…it’s in my blood).  On occasion, I’ll test myself on the various booking engines that the suppliers use so I can get a feel for how to make a booking.  This seemed like an opportune time to quote out a Universal stay for a client that I’m currently sleeping with (mind out of the gutter, folks…we’re talking about Sheri).

I ran the numbers and was actually a bit surprised at what I found.  I confirmed the figures with the lovely ladies that run Starfish, and I sent them to Sheri.  I turned on my best sales pitch and showed here the options for three packages (including air options), fully expecting to be shot down.

Her reply was full of questions, so that meant that it wasn’t being shot down!

Being a huge fan of the Unofficial Guide books for the theme parks, I immediately started looking for the Universal Orlando version of the books.  I recognized the author, Seth Kubursky, from his work on the Disneyland version, and I immediately bought it and started reading feverishly.

Wifey and I did a massive Q/A session throughout the day, dealing such things as the cost differential of hotels vs. the added on-site amenities/benefits with the higher-level options; pricing a car rental vs using a car service (which I wanted to test out anyways for cruise clients); and which flight option was the best match for us.  When we started watching videos and looking at pictures of the various on-site resorts, I knew we were booking!

Based on the combination of price and on-site benefits (specifically, early entry AND Universal’s Express Unlimited pass…For Disney folks, think of it as FastPass for 80% of the attractions), I had Loews Royal Pacific Resort as my target for the one to stay at.  Cabana Bay offered a lower price, even with a suite option (to keep the boys separated a bit) and the early entry benefit, the Express Unlimited pass wasn’t included.  Granted, we were going during a quieter time of the year, so the Express pass might not have been as big of an issue, but I wanted to test it out to see how it worked. That had us homing on Royal Pacific even more.

Enter the Flagship hotel at Universal Orlando: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

For only around $170 more total, we could stay at Portofino Bay.  I triple-checked the numbers, and it came out the same every time.

That made the decision a no-brainer…Portofino Bay it was, with an upgrade to a water view room!

Let’s see…hotel and theme park tickets…check!  Up next was the flight.  After a series of events that plagued Allegiant Air’s corporate image, I was a little leery considering them for our air transportation.  In the end, though, we did decide to book with them and enjoy another quiet, peaceful experience of Orlando’s Sanford airport, where it only takes about 5 minutes to get through security and where the crowds are essentially non-existent.

Next item – the transportation between the airport and the hotel.  I know that most of my readers of this blog at the time I’m writing this are more Disney-centric and are probably thinking, “Dear, dear Mush…you do know that flying into Orlando International Airport gives you access to Disney’s Magical Express, correct?”  Ahhhh, but I’m flying into Sanford; besides, Magical Express is Disney World only.  I gave serious consideration to renting a car for this trip, as that is what we typically do when flying into Sanford.  With two of us holding WDW annual passes and with the knowledge that we were going to have several friends at WDW at the same time, it was hard not to get a car and sneak down to Lake Buena Vista on our last day.  We also had to take into consideration, though, that there was a parking fee of $22 plus tax per night at the Universal resorts (Cabana Bay’s fees were about half that).  Toss in the gas and having to drive ourselves to an area that we weren’t too familiar with yet, coupled with the fact that I wanted to test out a car service anyways…after running some numbers (economist, remember?), the price of a car rental vs a car service was really close.  We went with the car service   Boom…transportation…done!

Dining reservations were next on the list.  Since we were within 180 days of arrival, the pickings would be slim for getting a reservation at most plac….waaiiitttt aaaaa mmmmmmiiiiinnnuuutte!  I’m still in Disney planning mode.  As you read this, I think you’ll discover that planning a trip to Universal Orlando is MUCH less structured than planning a trip to Disney World.  I’m used to being up at 4:45 am for my clients to book their dining at the 180-day mark…at the 60-day mark, I’m up at 5:45 am to get FastPass+ bookings made for them.  With Universal?  No worries at all!  We looked over all the options, brought in the boys for consultation, and came up with our game plan for the dining.  We all wanted to try The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, and we wanted to try something a bit more upscale without being too stuffy – the natural fit for us was Mama Della’s Ristorante at the resort we were staying at.  Since this was also a research trip, I wanted to explore the Royal Pacific, and they had a restaurant on-site that had good reviews for breakfast: Islands Dining Room!

Okay…how to get reservations for these places…Mama Della’s was a quick booking using my OpenTable app on my phone.  Islands was also on OpenTable, but only for Dinner.  No worries, though, as we were planning on getting there right around opening time.  Cowfish, though, didn’t take reservations.  They did have their own app, though, where you could check in before you arrived and get placed into a virtual seating queue.  I downloaded the app and planned on trying to eat there a little before the dinner rush would set in.

Okay…hotel, done.  Tickets…done.  Flights…done.  Transportation…done.  Dining…done.  What was left?  Oh yeah…the itinerary!  There was only one source that I was going to for this:!  This is the site that I always use for my clients who would like help with their daily planning (just look at my blog posts preceding this entry for a fairly in-depth look at what touringplans/Lines can do).  Utilizing the Express Pass, taking the family’s desires to see every square inch of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, making sure we’re taking breaks, and taking advantage of a couple of early entry days, I came up with a plan to do pretty much everything we wanted to see in two days, with a third morning to repeat favorite attractions.

Yes, folks…this is definitely not Disney World.

In an effort to grab a little more research, I also started looking for any podcasts that were Universal-centric.  Disney?  There are TONs out there, and, in a former life, I actually used to chronicle some of those podcasts on this blog.  Universal, though?  I had to do a bit of searching, but I found one: The Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast, hosted by Lee, Tracey, Darren, and Hunter.  This one has rapidly jumped to one of the first ones I listen to when a new episode is released!  I really like the segments, which, as of this writing include a debate on ice cream flavors inside the parks (MUCH more on this later), an “autism in the parks” segment, news, and a featured topic.  Check them out over on Itunes or HERE!

Sheri felt compelled to continue the tradition of wearing matching shirts to Universal.  Initially, she only had us wearing one set of shirts…initially; we all had matching Hogwarts shirts.  She had one day with a Simpson’s theme, but the boys had Bart while the adults had the entire family.  I stupidly opened up my big mouth and said that I really liked the Bart shirts.  5 days later, guess what arrived?

Yep…two more Bart shirts.


Sheri had a little more up her sleeve, though, too, and this one comes with a little advice from your friendly travel planner.  Universal has a paper-style ticket for admission.  It has a separate ticket for the Express Pass, and, if you get a photo package (called PhotoConnect), there’s a third “Star Card” ticket; and, yes, all of them are printed on a thick(ish) paper).  When it comes to touring at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, lanyards are most definitely the way to go!  There’s even a way to set up the tickets inside the lanyards for efficiency.  You’ll definitely want the ticket with the code facing forward on one side of the lanyard.  On the other side of the lanyard, assuming you’re staying on site, have your Universal Express Pass with the code side facing out.  This minimizes the need to pull those tickets out.  In between those two cards should be your room key (needed for early entry admission at checkpoints).  You’ll only show it once or twice near the front of the park, so it’s fine nested in between the park ticket and the Express Pass.  If you order the 3-day PhotoConnect package, you get a special lanyard.  With this, you can put your Star Card and your resort room key. If you don’t get the lanyard, then I’d recommend putting the star card over the park admission after you’re inside the park.  Confused yet?  It will make more sense once you experience it.

About one month out from the trip, we realized that we decided on a day that had been changed on the school calendar.  The Friday that we were going to be gone was originally set up as a teacher’s institute day; however, that was changed around to accommodate for a moving day in the fall (while we were on our cruise).  We were still looking at an older calendar when we picked the time frame, so the boys would be missing a day of school.


Sheri had never been a big fan of the Simpsons television show, but I not-so-subtly had it on the TV more and more as the trip got closer.  After the third or fourth time, she didn’t immediately change the channel, and, though she will never admit it, I caught her laughing quite a bit at the episodes.  The boys also got into the show, as they’re both old enough to get some of the adult humor.  I was looking forward to seeing how the Simpsons was integrated into the parks.

Next: The Final Planning and Arrival Day!!!!

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