Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Islands of Adventure
Written by Robert Niles
ORLANDO, Florida - Greetings from the Universal Orlando Resort.Tweet
Universal's Islands of Adventure is the place to be in the theme park world this summer, with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter drawing hundreds of thousands of extra fans to the park in the two months it's been open.
Knowing this, I planned to attack IOA by booking a room at one of Universal's on-site hotels the night before our visit, even though we are staying with the kids' grandparents in Celebration. Staying on-site at Universal not only gets you what I consider the best perk in the theme park business, free front-of-line access at almost all Universal Orlando attractions, it also gives you a one-hour early entry to the Wizarding World. (Front-of-line access does not apply to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, nor does it apply to Pteranodon Flyers or Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit at the Studios theme park.)
We chose the Loews Royal Pacific Hotel, which at $280/night, was the least expensive option. We've stayed at the Royal Pacific before and loved it. This trip, we found it the most comfortable bed we've slept in all trip.
And the kids loved the Royal Pacific's pool and grounds, where they played Monday evening before our planned Tuesday trip to Islands of Adventure.
Given the extra access within the parks, plus the quality of the room and hotel grounds, I consider the Royal Pacific the best value of any hotel we've stayed in all summer, despite the price. Sure, you choose from plenty rooms in Orlando for under $100, but I'd rather take a short, scenic walk from my room to the park, skip the lines while I'm there, and enjoy an overall four-star experience on my vacation, thankyouverymuch.
So how was the Wizarding World? Well, I'll take this excuse to re-run my video tour of the land, taken during its premiere in June, and refer you to my review of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey:
We arrived at Hogwarts Castle at 8 am yesterday, to find that the ride wasn't operating. But we queued in the castle anyway, figuring that we'd at least be among the first to ride when it did open.
The ride started running around 9:15, so we ended up waiting the same amount of time as folks later in the day. (Forbidden Journey posted wait times between 60-90 minutes throughout the day.) But we spent most of our time not winding through the queue, but sacked out in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. The kids joked that now we can say we've slept through a class at Hogwarts, just like Harry and Ron. (Though not Hermione, of course.) I countered that I would have preferred to just go ahead with the first hour of Professor Binn's lecture, while we were waiting. (That's an inside joke for those who've gone on the ride.)
The ride stalled for a moment just before we reached the dragon scene, but otherwise proceeded without problems. I found all the effects working, including the Whomping Willow, though the Dementor's Kiss scene picked up only my face and Laurie's, missing the kids'.
After Forbidden Journey, we walked over to the Hog's Head, so that Laurie and the kids could have their first Butterbeers.
Big thumbs up all around, though I disagreed with the kids with my preference for the regular Butterbeer over the frozen. I found the frozen way too sweet ("That's a problem?" my daughter responded, incredulously) and preferred the temperature and consistency of the warmer brew.
We then toured the shops in the Wizarding World, before rides on Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, then lunch at the Three Broomsticks. We ordered fish n' chips, shepards pie and chicken for the table, and unanimously voted for the fish n' chips as the best of the lot. Be sure to eat early, though, as we did, to avoid the lines that queue up by noon.
After lunch, we were ready to move on and experience the rest of the park, starting with Seuss Landing and working our way clockwise. With our room keys working as Universal Express passes, we rode Poseidon's Fury (*added), High In The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride, Cat in the Hat, the Incredible Hulk Coaster, Doctor Doom's Fearfall, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and Jurassic Park River Adventure, walking past lines of guests who were waiting up to two hours for those rides. Having visited Universal Orlando during summer twice now with this plan, I can't imagine visiting these theme parks during a busy season any other way.
By four, we were back in the Wizarding World, which we walked through on our way to an early dinner at Mythos. We didn't see any queue to get into the land from either direction at that point, but lines had formed outside each of the shops and the Three Broomsticks, which persisted until at least early evening, when we left for the night.
I'll post my review of Mythos tomorrow, but I'll tease it here by noting my surprise at the prices on the menu. No, they weren't high: what shocked me was how low they were. A kids' hand-tossed pizza for $5.99? Steak for $16? I'll have more to say tomorrow, but let's say for now that I'm even more frustrated with the ridiculous food prices we found earlier this summer at Six Flags.
Later this week, I'll also write more about the south side of Islands of Adventure, on the opposite side of the park from the Wizarding World, and some of the challenges that Universal faces there.
And, for what it's worth, I've never heard such a high percentage of English accents when visiting a theme park before. It seems that Harry Potter's drawing the whole lot of the British Isles to Orlando this summer. The Wizarding World is beginning to draw back some of the millions of potential visitors who'd postponed a trip to Universal Orlando over the past few years, waiting for Harry Potter's debut. And it's bringing in thousands of visitors who'd never visited Universal before, as well. That adds up to huge crowds, but ones that you can easily avoid... if stay at the right place.
* Update: I forgot to add that we visited Poseidon's Fury. I hadn't seen that show since Universal revamped it a while back. We all loved the actor who played the tour guide - the narration was a hoot, and much easier to follow than the muddled sound and storyline I remember before. The performer played his part well, really selling it to the audience.
That said, without the water vortex, too many effects in the show disappoint. There's one great effect toward the end of the show (which is repeated, in reverse), but the climatic battle reminded my kids of a bad Power Rangers episode. With an Express Pass, it's great way to get out of the heat (well, until the fire effects start!), but Universal would need to restore the water vortex and reshoot a higher-def version of the final battle scene to bring this show up to its potential.
Which brings up a larger point. With HD video and Blu-Ray, not to mention James Cameron redefining the 3D film experience with Avatar, what looked great in theme park films 10 years ago looks almost amateurish now. Even Spider-Man's video elements look clunky, even cheesy, after watching Avatar on Blu-Ray and the sharp imagery of Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World. This is presenting a substantial challenge for theme parks that have invested in attractions with filmed elements, and want to continuing wowing audiences with them in the future.
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