Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Islands of Adventure

August 11, 2010, 7:50 AM · ORLANDO, Florida - Greetings from the Universal Orlando Resort.

Islands of Adventure

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.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando

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.

Inside the Royal Pacific

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.

Lagoon pool at the Royal Pacific

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.

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.

Replies (26)

August 11, 2010 at 8:18 AM · 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.

They also seem to love Halloween Horror Nights. Although I've never been, it seems that every second guest they interview at the event is from the U.K. Can anyone comment on this?

I can't imagine visiting IOA at a busy time of year. I'm so used to visiting in late April, early May, and early September when virtually all the rides are walk-ons and I don't need to pay $280/night for a hotel room. IOA has some terrific rides, but unlike its neighbour at Universal, the queues are uninteresting (save for a couple).

Good report! Can't wait to hear your opinions on Mythos and the south side.

August 11, 2010 at 8:33 AM · I'm wondering how Harry Potter will affect Universal's attendance during the rest of the year - if crowds will increase during those periods to the point where rides won't be a walk-on anymore.

Remember that Harry Potter depressed Universal's attendance for the past two-plus years, making the park an easy visit for most of the year. But Potter's here now, so I think that Universal's days with ultra-short wait times will be much harder to find going forward.

With students returning to school over the next month, we'll soon see.

August 11, 2010 at 8:39 AM · Interesting. You said, "The ride stalled for a moment just before we reached the dragon scene". Early on I had read that due to the complex, timed system used to control the ride that even a small glitch that stopped the ride required everything on the ride to be reset and the ride to be evacuated and restarted. Maybe they've ironed out some of the problems that caused mass failure.
August 11, 2010 at 8:43 AM · It reminded me of when the cars stop on Haunted Mansion to let a wheelchair party off or on. The ride paused, we heard a spiel, the video reset, then we restarted and went along our way. I'd say we were stopped for less than a minute. No big deal.
August 11, 2010 at 9:00 AM · I love the Royal Pacific. When we arrive we like to drop the bags in the room and get ourselves down to Jack's for a beer and a pu-pu platter while we plan our day. The staff are great, the rooms good and you have the option of either walking along the scenic waterway to the Parks or taking the complimentary boat. Both are good. Did I say I loved it here ?

Also it wasn't so long ago that people in the US would ask me to repeat something I'd said because they found my english accent so unusual/ funny / different.
But nowadays we Brits are with you in ever increasing numbers which, apart from the revenue bonus, probably isn't such a good thing................
That may change though with the charge for ESTA ( US Visa ) and a departure tax by our own Govt too just to leave the UK.
We might become a rarity again because we won't be able to afford the trip.

August 11, 2010 at 9:59 AM · I will be there sometime during the week of 9/3 - 9/11. I know I will be going, I just am not sure on the order of how we will do things down there.

I went during this week last year and walked on everything everywhere I went.

August 11, 2010 at 10:40 AM · Same Thing Happened to Me When I Went But Still Worth It
August 11, 2010 at 10:41 AM · OK Robert, I am truly jealous…. Nice Video….. Maybe you could get a job on the travel channel narrating or the History channel..

I have two new ideas for your site… I will send them in an e-mail…

August 11, 2010 at 12:49 PM · Hi Robert Just watched your report on Wizarding world of Harry Potter and it looks great Good Job! But as a Brit I feel I must point out one minor error, your pronunciation of Cornish Pasties We don't have Cornish Paste -ies we have Cornish Pass - ties. Lots of love to you and the family from Samantha in Engalnd
August 11, 2010 at 1:27 PM · Ugh. Yeah, I know about that one. I recorded the voice-over reading from my script rather, uh, late in the evening, and didn't catch it until I watched the piece after sleeping, the next day. My bad. Apologies to my friends in the UK for butchering their (our?) language.
August 11, 2010 at 2:38 PM · I am glad you enjoyed it. Did yhou try out the single riders line on HPFJ?
August 11, 2010 at 2:40 PM · Also, I have to disagree on the butterbeer. I found the non-frozen way too sweet!
August 11, 2010 at 3:48 PM · I enjoyed your note about Poseidon. For me, it has quickly become a campy attraction, so bad in its presentation that it's funny and, therefore, worth visiting. The ending battle scene is so unbelievably cheesy that it puts a smile on my face. I feel like they should embrace the self-referential humor and have Poseidon finish with, "It is done! Now go, quickly, to the gift shop - you are under the protection of Poseidon!"

People these days are used to seeing raw action, whether it's MMA fighting or 3D CGI planets being destroyed. A couple of bad actors slowly swinging swords on a screen is not going to impress many people.

August 11, 2010 at 6:44 PM · Robert:

Your mention about the quality of film/video for Poseidon is not unlike what I experienced today at Kings Dominion. We went on the SpongeBob attraction. Not only was the 3D technology outdated, but the right half of the screen was darker than the left.

Trip report coming soon.

August 11, 2010 at 7:39 PM · One more benefit of off-season travel: cheaper room rates. Wow, $280/night for Royal Pacific... TPI must have made you a rich man, Mr. Niles. ;)

Anyway, thanks for the report!

August 11, 2010 at 8:28 PM · I wish I had run into you at IOA. Tuesday we started at Universal, and just hopped over to IOA after the 8pm close.

And we did one thing only -- HPFJ. It was a 90-minute ride, partly because it broke down while we were in the castle. We decided since we were tired, and knew we wanted to walk through the castle at least once, that we'd do the regular line rather then single-rider. We started at 8:40, and finished just after 10pm, but the ride was way cool.

I will say that we are having no problem with USF/IOA without room keys or fast passes. We've waited in some long lines, waited in some short lines, done the single-rider thing, and almost had a hookup for a quick trip to the front of one ride because we were Dr. Who geeks (ride broke when we came to partake of that offer).

Sure, it's annoying to see people just moving up to the front, but we had 4 days to enjoy the park and the queues seem to be part of the fun.

We did ride Mummy several times in a row in single-rider, and another time today, and RRRocket was also a quick trip.

But my trip would have been perfect if I had run into you at HP. (BTW, we also waited in line and ate at 3pm at 3 broomsticks, and I agree the fish and chips was the best).

August 11, 2010 at 8:33 PM · Wealthy indeed. I know he paid at least a couple hundy a night for the Breakers at Cedar Point...not including the tickets and everything else of course.

Good to know that Universal is taking it easy on their food prices. Have they maintained the quality of their food? Last time I was there it was some of the best I'd ever had at a theme park.

August 12, 2010 at 6:38 AM · Let's not forget that we're doing this trip in a Prius. No airfare, no bag fees and great gas mileage. Plus, we're staying with friends and relatives for the most part, with a few hotel nights scattered in between - which I write about here.

Point is, you can splurge on a few special things on a vacation if you economize effectively elsewhere. Mix one night at a Universal hotel with other nights in El Cheapo Motel, for example, and you can get two days of front-of-line access for a family of four while not breaking the bank on hotel costs.

And, believe me, plenty of other people are paying $280-plus to stay at the Universal hotels. WWoHP was packed with hotel guests in that first hour.

Let's look at this from another direction, too. At $70 per person for the Universal Express passes, we got the front-of-line and early Potter access for four for $280... and one night in a four-star hotel for free.

August 12, 2010 at 8:42 AM · Excellent review and excellent little tour! You got a voice for television!

I was very suprised to read that you can't use the front of the line pass for some attractions, including Harry Potter. I think that is a huge misstep because it would cause, in my opinion, more people staying at the Universal resorts. Maybe they are already packed. However, you did get to enter early.

August 12, 2010 at 10:00 AM · I am not arguing with your logic, Robert, you make a sound point about the added value of the Express Pass with your resort reservation.

However, that same room (w/ that same Express Pass) in the off-season will run at least $60 - $80 less (rack rates), and if you utilize the "Stay More, Save More" option, you can get an insanely low rate of about $130/night.

Time to start home schooling, then you can travel in early May and September when prices are low, and crowds a non-factor!

August 12, 2010 at 10:26 AM · I won't be surprised to see the "single rider" line for FJ become the Express line next year, after the initial buzz subsides. I'm guessing that Rip, Ride, Rockit will get an Express line around the same time.

Flyers won't ever go Express due to the insanely low capacity for that ride.

I'll be interested in seeing how attendance patterns change at Universal Orlando over the next year. I suspect that some periods that saw little or no crowds before will see significant lines now that Potter's bringing crowds back to the resort. But which periods and for how long remains to be seen.

August 12, 2010 at 8:52 PM · Nice review. We went on Tuesday and this afternoon. The Forbidden Journey was incredible- though, and I haven't seen this anywhere, it could make you queezy like simulator rides (a little to me the first time and a lot to my wife). On Tuesday, by mid-day there was an hour plus line just to enter the Harry Potter "land" and long lines just to enter some of the shops. For some reason we were charged a whopping $6.25 for Pumpkin Juice for a vendor, though only $2.99 in the Hog's Head restaurant (which does a pretty nice job). The trifle was excellent and not unreasonably priced. At night the detail of Hogsmeade really comes alive. The steam from the Hogwart Express, the shop windows, castle details, etc. I would strongly recommend coming when school is in session as I can't see the crowds letting up for at least two years (the attraction is so good, word of mouth will drive the next set of visitors).

Also, agree with the benefit from staying at an on-site hotel. If you are on a short trip, the time saved not waiting in line makes the cost worthwhile (though, I'm talking more about $100-$150/night, not the $280 mentioned). Last year I took my son (pre-HP), and we dodged big lines and did almost every ride in both parks in one day thanks to the pass (and didn't feel like we rushed).


August 12, 2010 at 9:00 PM · We were at the WWOHP on Tuesday, 8/10. I agree with all of your points, with one addition. Wait times at Ollivanders were stated at a "hard 1 1/2 - 2 hours" by the staff member standing in front of the queue. She added that "the wait is for a 1 in 30 chance of being chosen by a wand." We had visited the park on Monday as well and ridden FJ & Dragon Challenge, ate at The Three Broomsticks, etc; all that was left was Ollivanders, so we got in line. Much to our surprise, we were through the line, saw the 10 minute wand selection skit inside the shop, and purchased our wands in 70 minutes total! If the line ends inside of the gated area, definitely ignore the time warning and get in line. You'll be in the shop in 35-45 minutes. Overall my family loved the park, although the extra touches that only Disney could offer (mainly staff "in character") were missing. However, in the end, we were too busy gawking at the castle and sipping frozen Butterbeer (our collective favorite!) to really care! Safe travels...
August 13, 2010 at 5:44 AM · HPFJ actually already has a built-in Express line, it's just not being used yet. Its behind the start to the regular queue, has its own Portrait Gallery scene, and then comes up into Dumbledore's office (did you notice the second queue row in there? that's it).

Question: Robert, you said you wandered through the shops in the morning. So they didn't have lines yet? If those didn't materialize until midday, then that's a change. I was there opening week and everything had about an hour wait all day long. Ollivander's was more like two hours.

August 14, 2010 at 2:29 AM · Well as a brit who has been over the universal 3 times in the last few years, yes, you will hear a lot of british accents. However, the travel companies have pushed wizarding world to ridiculous levels here, it has been on every news channel, every kids show and every holiday programme, so if you didn't know about it, you probably do now.

As the exchange rate is still not as good as it once was for us brits, I think that's an amazing achievement to fill out the parks with the current recession and a sign that universal really does know how to make great theme parks.

Now all we need is a Universal UK resort. We have some great space around Pinewood, great theming to go off and if they can create a lot of indoor attractions, this could be an all year, all weather resort - c'mon universal, I know you have considered it before, but perhaps its time for a fresh look?

August 16, 2010 at 4:52 PM · We were at IOA last Monday and Tuesday as well.Based on a friend's recommendation we too stayed at the Royal Pacific. Paid $325 for 5 adults for one night-room could not really accomodate 5 but we arrived Monday morning at 7:15 and were at Harry Potter by 8-were able to return to the room and rest during the heat of the afternoon before returning to the park-used the large pool late at night and then back to the parks by 8 Tuesday morning-using Express both days we were able to ride everything we wanted plus any attractions we wanted-multiple times if we decided. We finally left the parks in the early evening and were charged for just one day of parking-$15. I was reluctant to spend the money for the room until I called and discovered that we would get 2 days of early entry and Express for both days-this made it worthwhile. Only 3 of us actually used the room at night but I was able to provide my sister with the 2 extra keys so she could receive the perks. We were also able to dine at HRC and Margaritaville at CityWalk the 2 nights. Also enjoyed the fish and chips at 3 Broomsticks. Later in the week we visited Epcot and really enjoyed the new pizzeria-read about the opening on your website the day we were flying out. The pizza was very light and not greasy-1 large fed the three of us.

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