Universal Orlando Trip Report - June 2012

Universal Orlando: Our family of six visit Universal Orlando for three days. Here's our feedback on the park and rides.

From Don Neal
Posted June 20, 2012 at 2:29 PM
My wife and I surprised our kids with a trip to Orlando this past week. We've done Disney several years in a row and took a break due to some other travel commitments this year but through a series of Hotwire deals and a generous condo deal we made the trip down. We decided to visit Universal as we hadn't been there since 2007 and the kids were older now (13, 11, and 9) and have been watching all the Harry Potter movies and reading the books again. My sister (16) was also with us so in total we had six in our party.

We bought a three day pass and headed to IOA on day one, USO on day two, and back to IOA on day three. Rather than give you a daily trip report, I am going to sum it up into topics (Food, Park, and Rides).

For context, this is my fourth visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (2000, 2005, and 2007).

The first day we ate lunch at Burger Digs and the burgers were decent. Nothing to complain about but nothing spectacular. I have to admit I often really enjoy a burger at Disney's counter service so I was a little disappointed. For dinner we had the family platter at the three broomsticks and it was delicious. The ribs and chicken were perfectly cooked. It was a great value as it came with salad, two sides, and the two meats and fed four for only $49.99. Definitely recommend it. Great for being just a counter service option.

On day's two and three we elected for the meal deal ($20/person). This was a great value to us as we could eat however often we liked and could stop to get a cookie or fruit as a snack without any additional cost. However we quickly realized it was the same food options at almost every restaurant and fresh fruit or a good salad was only an option at a few places. The quality of this "meal deal only" food was sub par. Definitely won't purchase it again.

Aside from Three Broomsticks, the food was barely above Amusement park fare. I remember Mythos being very good but we didn't get to eat there this time.

Overall the park was in pretty good shape except for the bathrooms. They were usually messy and smelled pretty bad. I was really shocked. The crowds weren't very big so I don't see why they were in such bad shape. I only saw one attendant the entire three days so maybe they are understaffed at the moment. On several occasions, there were very strong smells of garbage. It was very heavy in the Jurassic Park area and a few others. We smelt is several times on both visits to IOA. It was unfortunate and hopefully something they can fix.

Speaking of understaffed. That seemed to be a recurring theme though out our visit. Several times we were in lines that were longer than they needed to be because they were only loading on one side of a ride instead of using both loading zones. We saw more cast members show up eventually and then they opened up the other sides.

This was our first time visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hogwarts and the surrounding area is quite brilliant. The theming is amazing. Even better than I imagined or had seen in any pictures prior to the visit. Kudos to Universal for handling it all so well. My only critique would be the size of the shops. They were far too small to accomodate decent crowds. I think this was short sighted of them. There are shops in Seuss landing that are far larger to sell goods for a far less popular brand.

FORBIDDEN JOURNEY - The ride was great and was an experience like nothing I had seen before. I enjoyed it and rode it 3-4 times while we were there. I still found Hulk and Spiderman to be just a bit more enjoyable but give HPFJ a definite thumbs up. My kids loved it and the queue is amazing. The only critiques I have are one, the video wasn't very bright therefore not as clear as I would have hoped and two, there was very little build up to the story. It went straight to flying. Spider-man's opening scenes in the alley with Jameson talking and then Spiderman warning you are great opportunities for you to get used to the ride mechanics and such. The FJ could have benefited from this IMO. Definitely a strong 9/10 regardless.

HULK - Love this coaster. It has aged really well. I expected it to be more jerky and not as smooth but no complaints here. Broke down once while we were there but was running most of the time. Still a 9/10 for me.

SPIDER-MAN - Spider man's new video is brilliant and very vivid. Definitely a nice upgrade. Unfortunately the ride had issues all four times I road it. Got stopped in the ride after the car in front of us had issues. They unloaded those people and took the car to maintenance. The next two had audio issues and then blank screens with audio. The cast members offered for us to cut the line and ride again which we did a few times but eventually it was just frustrating to not have a complete ride without problems. A great ride when it works and still one of my favorites. 9.5/10 when it works.

DRAGON CHALLENGE - Still a great smooth coaster. Rode both sides. Orange was my favorite. Front row is the way to go for sure. I was excited for my 11 and 13 year old. They rode this, Hulk, Mummy, and Rip, Ride, Rocket. Added some big coasters to their list. Hasn't changed other than the re-branding. 8/10

RIP, RIDE, ROCKET - First time riding this coaster. It had problems while we waited inline. A 25 minute wait turned into closer to an hour. We hung tough only to have it break down on us. We were stuck for about 20 minutes in the sun on one of the second to last break/release area before you come into the station. They unloaded us and shut down the ride for a while. I didn't really care for the coaster all that much and it breaking down only made it worse. It broke down several times throughout the day on each day of our visit. The one maintenance guy I saw said they have a lot of problems with the sensors. Who knows if that's true or not but they are definitely having some issues. Only a 6/10 for me.

OTHERS - Dudley Doo-Right Falls was broke down 1/2 days we were at IOA. They emptied the water and were working behind the scenes. We enjoyed Men in Black, Simpsons, Mummy, Seuss Landing, Jurassic Park, Shek and others. All were in good working order.

Overall we had a good time but for the money, I didn't feel like we got our money's worth. To charge the same amount as Disney but not offer the same level of quality of food, cleanliness, number of rides, and consistency of the ride experience, I felt like Universal needs to do a lot more than just bring in newer technology and thrills to really compete. Sure there are some unique thrills, technology, and rides there but the other things mean just as much, especially keeping their rides operational. I used to love Universal and preferred it over Disney but for my money and enjoyment I have to give the edge to Disney at the moment when I look across all categories.

While in Orlando we also visited the Rock Springs at Kelly Park and Wekiwa Springs up in Apopka. Both are state parks with natural springs you can explore. Beautiful parks that you can swim, fish, hike, canoe, camp, float in tubes, and dive. Great value and a lot of fun.

We also visited Cocoa Beach and had dinner at our favorite restaurant, Grill's Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar. Great place to relax after a day at the beach. Great food, service, and drinks. Pretty busy so be sure to call ahead an hour before you get there.

I went to Gatorland as a kid and hadn't been back since so I took my kids and we had a blast. It's only a 3-4 hour attraction but really cool. We love zoos, especially lizards, reptiles, turtles, snakes, etc so it was a good match for us. Great way to kill half a day before heading to the airport and home.

From James Rao
Posted June 20, 2012 at 3:53 PM
Great trip report, Don! Thanks for sharing. Your assessment was tough but fair. If Universal wants to charge prices equal to the #1 theme park company in the world, then they have to deal with (and try to exceed) a visitor's inflated expectations as well. Matching Disney's high quality customer service, upkeep (excluding the Yeti!), food, and line mgmt is not easy or cheap. And there is nothing worse than bad line mgmt! One benefit of Universal over Disney is smaller crowds, but having shorter lines doesn't matter if the line mgmt is a choke.

Your comments about the subpar food are interesting. Did you eat at any of the CityWalk establishments? I've enjoyed NBA City in the past, and with the NBA Finals in full swing that would seem to be the place to go!

Did you get to experience the new Despicable Me attraction? Also, you mentioned that you enjoyed the Mummy...what did the rest of the family think about it? My wife and oldest son like it better than even Spider-Man, which is blasphemy at my house!

From David L.
Posted June 21, 2012 at 7:30 AM
Nice Trip Report! On Spiderman, did the problems happen on the final drop? When I was there earlier this year, the final drop happened without the motion, only the video. Then the video went blank and the motion happened in the dark. My first ride was fine, and I thought that the second ride was experience was just incredibly rare. Does anyone know if this happens often on Spiderman?

From Melanie Howe
Posted June 21, 2012 at 9:03 AM
Hey, David, that EXACT same thing happened when I road Spidey back in late April. It didn't really bother me at the time, since I figured they were still working the glitches out of the new system. Actually, it was quite hilarious to watch the reactions of the other people in the car who'd never ridden Spidey before and had no idea what was happening when the car started moving without the video :-)

From Dominick D
Posted June 21, 2012 at 9:22 AM
That happened to me in Late April. Everyone in the car was like "We're getting free Express passes!" Didn't happen :(

From Skipper Adam
Posted June 22, 2012 at 12:43 PM
I share your sentiments on Universal exactly. Smaller crowds, but they don't move them. I don't mind waiting in a line as long as I know there's an effort to move it as fast as possible, and that's never the case at Universal. At Disney, many of the rides break down if vehicles are loaded or unloaded fast enough. Universal rides can take as much time unloading and loading.

Universal is clean in the mornings. But it doesn't stay that way as the day goes on.

There are top notch rides. But they often have problems. All the other rides are underwhelming. I can't spend nearly as much time in one of the USFR parks than I can a Disney park.

Overall, it's just not worth the prices. For many years I've bought many annual passes and would go. But now I have trouble justifying the cost. It's not that I don't like what's there, it's just not worth the price yet.

On another note, I shouldn't have to leave a park and eat at CityWalk to get a decent meal. It's a fact, even with quick service, Universal's culinary abilities (with the *one* exception of Mythos) isn't as sharp and wide as Disney's.

From Don Neal
Posted June 22, 2012 at 7:12 PM
@James: the fam loved it. We rode 3-4 times that day. Its shorter than i remember but still fun. The food in City Walk is good, i was more directly comparing Counter Service in the parks. Dispicable Me was only open here and there throughout the day and the wait was 90 mins when it was open so we were unable to see it.

@ David: we had problems on Spiderman three times, once at the beginning with no audio where Jameson talks, second part was at the end where the audio and video were out of sync and then the video stopped where Spidey takes your pic. Third time the ride vehicle stopped as they moved a broken "Scoop" off the tracks.

@Skipper: my observation and sentiments exactly.

From N B
Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:10 AM
Holy crap Don, you had some bad luck with breakdowns... we just arrived home today (two days early and a long story), but we only had one hiccup on one ride, which was MIB.

It turned into an unplanned behind the scenes tour of the MIB streets and the two cast members were ponting out all sorts of hidden gems on the ride....

I am going to write a full trip report on Friday.

From Kelly Muggleton
Posted June 27, 2012 at 1:03 AM
I have to agree with the food issues at Universal.
What we often tend to do (when there have been no evening shows) is snack for lunch, whether its bakery/funnel cake/pizza slice/fruit etc, then leave and get dinner offsite on the way back to hotel.
Have had a decent experience in the past at Finnegans but last time (2 years ago) it was awful, food on the floor, wrong food brought etc... I know we should give it another try but thats offputting.

I agree - why should you have to leave a park to go back to Citywalk for good food? (depending on which park and where you want to eat - that can be a long walk too)

Good trip report though, I love the Hulk too, it definitely has maintained its edge as its got older.

From James Rao
Posted June 27, 2012 at 3:51 AM
@Skipper and @Kelly, I did not mean you should have to leave the parks to eat, I just wanted to know if Don had. Mainly because I wanted to know if NBA City was rockin' as King James tore down the house!

Having written that comment, however, CityWalk is not THAT far from the parks, and you can definitely get some decent grub there if you are willing to pony up the cash.

From Rob Pastor
Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:09 AM
Like NB, we basically had the same lack of breakdowns when we were at Universal for 12 days in May. The only partial breakdown was Harry Potter, and that was kind of cool. We were stalled for apx. 5 minutes in front of the dragon head shooting the smoke (mist) at the vehicle constantly. We rode Spider Man 14 times with no problems. We actually had more partial breakdowns at Disney, but they were minor also. Both Disney & Universal, on the whole, were excellent in terms of ride dependability. In fact, we've rarely experienced any problems with either park system. I would think that some people greatly exaggerate problems with the attractions. Disney & Universal both do a fine job maintaining their theme parks.

From Dominick D
Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:01 AM
In April I had a breakdown on Simpsons and issues with the skyscraper battle and special effects on Spidey.

From Rob Pastor
Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:47 AM
Dom: How many times did you ride attractions at Disney & Universal without a breakdown, major or partial? My point is, the number of breakdowns, and they are usually actually just very minor delays, is extremely small compared to the number of rides one does. Some people posting here often accentuate the negative, and make it sound like the parks are falling apart. When I vacation at the parks, nearly everyone I meet is having fun, are positive and rarely have problems with anything. It appears that a lot of posters on this site nitpick and criticize way above the "normal" public's perception of Disney & Universal. Many of these comments do not reflect reality. And that detracts from the credibility of this site. I'd wager a healthy bet that the Universal & Disney marketing surveys post a more optimistic view of the parks then you hear from many of the Insider posters.

From Kelly Muggleton
Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:56 AM
I getcha @James.
I think our train of thought goes that we are walking back that way so may as well go to the car and head off elsewhere for food. (And it really is an amazing excuse to hit the bakery during the day...and before you leave for takeout!)
However - the minigolf courses may change that this year!!

Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:06 AM
I must say I hate the pizza that Disney offers. If I ever have to eat that hard pre-made round personal pizza, it would be a cold day in H@ll. Universal's pizza is great at both parks. Fresh made dough and hand tossed. I really think Disney's food quality has gotten terrible the last couple of years. As far as value people are talking about in annual passes. Universal is the best--always giving you %15 off your food and merchandise at all stations, as with Disney it's pick and choose and not accross the board.

From Dominick D
Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Rob, this year I also had a breakdown on Haunted Mansion, but that's it.

Troy, I suggest you look up Via Napoli, it's hand tossed pizza.

From Rob Pastor
Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Dom: Delays & breakdowns don't seem out of the ordinary. As you've described, three delays of all the attractions you have been on. But to listen to some posters, it sounds like Armageddon.To keep this site relevent, some people need to be more positive and less critical of minor issues. The normal theme park vacationer doesn't dwell on nitpicking. Two great park systems. Let's appreciate them & be supportive of their status instead of making them sound like a street carnival. Sure, there are sometimes issues, but let's deal with the realities of bigger issues in a positive vein. Theme Park Insider is a forum that the industry will be interested in if it reflects the actual consensus, and is not dominated by a minority of negativity.

From Skipper Adam
Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:56 PM
Rob I half agree with you. I don't think people who actively seek sites likes this and discuss the parks in details as we do are meant to reflect the general population of theme park visiters, and much less so to the industry itself. We are hobbyist here. We love theme parks, break them down and analyze them. We debate, and argue and we try to predict what is coming next. We are a hardcore audience that has a right to be nitpicky.

Theme parks do a massive amount of their own surveys and polling that are a scientifically better sample of the general guest populations that any theme park fan site can represent.

From Doug Jenkins
Posted June 28, 2012 at 3:44 PM
Was at Disney last January and May and was very disappointed in the counter service meals and actually had to return one as it was cold and the place was PACKED. Which they took care of immediately. Numerous rides were down for maintenance, which I understand, but they did not charge me less because 4 rides were down. Universals counter food is not anything to get excited about, Mel's has always been good, but the counter food is adequate. I have always had excellent meals at Mythos, Finnegan's(always sit at bar), Lombardi's and Three Broomsticks. In other words depends on when you get there and what you are looking for. I love Disney and Universal as they are totally different, but as an annual passholder to both, Universal has the edge for me.

From Doug Jenkins
Posted June 28, 2012 at 3:45 PM
P.S. Going this weekend to Universal, so will report back afterwards.

From Mark Fairleigh
Posted June 29, 2012 at 6:49 AM
Don, thanks for the trip report and glad you and your family had the opportunity to hit Universal. Hate that it wasn't a seamless trip. We haven't experienced the restroom issues you mentioned on our trips, so that has me worried that Universal is spending so much time and money on new attractions it's starting to neglect the everyday things. Hopefully, it's just a glitch and not the norm.

From James Rao
Posted June 29, 2012 at 8:17 AM
Park upkeep has always been an issue at Universal Orlando, unfortunately. Maybe the influx of Potter Pennies will lead to a change in the company's attitude related to upkeep. We'll see.

From Don Neal
Posted June 29, 2012 at 8:57 AM
@ N B: That's good to hear that your trip went well apart from coming back early. That's neat that you got to see parts of MIB like that. Sometimes its fun to exit a ride that way and see it with the lights on. :)

@ Kelly: Thanks for the response. :)

@ Rob: That's great to hear that you had such a great time with few problems. It makes me feel better to know that what we experienced wasn't the norm. I hope you weren't under the impression that my report exaggerated the problems as I was only reporting factual events that I observed or personally experienced. They are what they are. Regardless, I am again glad to hear that someone had a better experience than we did.

Re: Your second post. I have been to Disney and Universal each four times. This was by the far the worst case of breakdowns I have seen to date at either. I understand technology doesn't work right 100% of the time and that certain abnormalities are to be expected from time to time. It was just shocking to see them all happening at the same time in just a few short days.

@ Troy: I did enjoy the pizza and salad at Louie's in USO. However the pizza we had at Seuss Landing was terrible. Perhaps they are different but if not then something is not consistent in the preparation process.

As for Disney we really enjoy Pinnochio House Pizza (not great, but ok), Cosmic Ray's, Backlot Express, Electric Umbrella, and Flame Tree BBQ and have not had any issues with food quality or service at those Counter Service locations just to name a few.

Also Rob, a lot of my criticism at Universal was more critical in nature due to their directly competing with Disney but at the same cost. It was our experience that the food was less desirable, the park wasn't as clean, the rides were experiencing frequent issues, and overall there are less rides therefore less to do. If Universal wants to charge the same as Disney, they need to provide the same if not more value. In my past three visits to Universal Orlando, ticket prices were significantly less and therefore I may have not been as critical in my observations.

Regardless, we did have a good time and I did not intend to make Universal look like a local poorly run carnival. Just trying to provide an objective and balanced trip report. I did point out the good things as well.

@ Doug: Hope you have fun on your trop. I look forward to reading your trip report. Hopefully things are well and you have a simliar experience to Rob.

@ James & Mark: I have experienced the bathroom issue before at USO but this was definitely worse than before. But the garbage smells throughout the park were really what topped it off.

To summarize: We had fun. Food was ok. Rides were good when working. Not enough rides. Not an all day park. Not as clean as it could be. Not the same value as Disney considering Universal charges as much. :)

From James Rao
Posted June 29, 2012 at 10:02 AM
I say it again, Don, your assessment is tough but fair. Universal wants to charge Disney prices, so Universal better back it up with Disney levels of service, quality, and upkeep. If not, then they should lower the prices back to what they used to be (pre-Potter, when Universal was such a great deal) and be rewarded with lowered expectations and less criticism.

From Brian Emery
Posted July 2, 2012 at 11:12 AM
Thanks Don – I enjoyed reading this… I can never find anything bad while at a theme park Orlando. My brain is like this “garbage smell, who cares I am on vacation in Orlando, bathrooms a bit dirty, who cares I am on vacation on Orlando. Average food and expensive beer, who cares I am on vacation in Orlando..” Repeat if necessary…

I never thought of visiting a state park in Orlando area – thanks for the info..

From Don Neal
Posted July 2, 2012 at 12:52 PM
I hear ya Brian. I am not a critical or picky person by nature. My wife is and through the years I've learned to be a little pickier and she has learned to be a little less picky. :)

I love Orlando and go almost every year. Nothing will change that. Not the traffic, the wierd tasting water, the crowds, the weather, or anything...not even the garbage smell. :)

From Rob Pastor
Posted July 2, 2012 at 1:08 PM
The smell of garbage, 24 hours a day on New Orleans Bourbon Street. But I stll love the place.

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