Day Four: Universal Studios

Today was the day I’d been slightly stressed about – Universal Studios! Because this is the one day that we wouldn’t be with Laura’s family, and I would have to get my family around Universal Studios all on my own. It turned out totally fine, though now I see that a few of our family drama sessions probably would have been avoided if I followed Laura and Jessica’s rule of making sure everyone is well fed and consistently off their feet for some periods of time.

But that’s getting ahead – today we woke up around 6ish in order to get out the door by 7:30am. Strangely, I felt like I was in a weird time warp for this entire trip. I could wake up at 6am and be ok. I could go to bed at 1:30am and still be ok. Magic! Actually, I think the afternoon naps we could have in the hotels made all the difference.

Breakfast was dinner leftovers, since we had to change hotels and we didn’t want dinner to go to waste. So to be specific, dinner consisted of cous cous, broccoli and salmon – YUM!!! I actually am glad I had such a hardy breakfast because of the long day ahead.

Then I called a car and the Uber arrived within 5 minutes. We had a very quiet driver driving a minivan (it seems like the norm for rideshare people in Orlando to drive minivans) who was very nice in helping us get to the Universal Citywalk. I’d set the destination to Universal Studios Florida, it led him to the employee administration building, and lucky for us, he didn’t just dump us there. I can’t possibly be the first person that happened to!

I knew that the rule of theme parks is to do everything that’s popular first thing in the morning. Jessica had been like, DO NOT stop for pictures or anything other than Harry Potter! Well, we’d ended up stopping almost immediately for doughnuts at VooDoo Doughnuts and just stood around eating them. Everyone was in a MOOD because my dad couldn’t find his sunglasses, blew up and blamed my mom, then as I was calling the hotel to check for them while they were cleaning out our room, he found them in his backpack. AND had the nerve to be like “WHO PUT THESE IN MY BACKPACK!” Dealing with my dad is the epitome of “it’s not even worth it.” We finished our donuts at 8:45am and by then I had a pretty defeatist attitude and felt like there was no point in rushing then. So when we entered and made our way towards the Harry Potter stuff, I was pretty leisurely about it and didn’t mind taking tons of photos in the Simpsonsland.

I don’t think I would have changed much of what we did – I guess it would have been nice to get there even earlier to take better morning shots of Diagon Alley without the crowds, but generally it seems kind of meaningless to get beautiful, people-less shots of these sorts of places that are trafficked by so many people every day.

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Meanwhile, Simpsonland was practically empty!

Well, we took our Simpsons pictures, which probably confused everyone because I had started the morning with “DO NOT STOP FOR ANYTHING UNTIL WE GET TO HARRY POTTER!” The strange thing was, I had assumed that from the entrance, you’d see a ton of signs pointing towards the Harry Potter worlds, but there was truly no signage ANYWHERE. I kept thinking maybe we were lost, but I left the maps with my brother, and he was like “well … this whole park is a circle and we’re here and that’s there so we can’t possibly be going the wrong way.” Also, there were very few people in the park (I made the assumption that everyone had already arrived and was in the Harry Potter worlds but the more likely situation is that it was just a quieter day) and I had thought all we had to do was follow the crowds … but there was no one to follow! We eventually came across the King’s Cross Station, but it really DOES feel like … if you didn’t know about the entry into Diagon Alley, I could totally see some people just heading straight into King’s Cross and thinking, welp I guess all that’s here is a train!

I don’t know how non-Harry Potter readers do it – there is no way I would have realized there was the Diagon Alley area, or known what the point of certain things were. It is done REALLY well here, but I guess maybe only readers would really appreciate all the details in Diagon Alley. As someone who usually isn’t too impressed by these sorts of things – I WAS IMPRESSED and kind of wanted to just pause to take it all in.

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This made me think we entered Hogsmeade but it was Diagon Alley!

Well I couldn’t do that because I had three people with me who had no concept of what we were looking at and probably had not interest in waiting around for me to inspect every detail. So we headed to the Gringotts ride – one of my favorites. We did Child Swap, and I’m surprised to see that almost NO ONE else did. I seriously couldn’t figure out the locker situation so Child Swap seemed easiest, especially with two parents who didn’t mind being the swaps. (Child Swap is when you could have at least one person sit out – theoretically to hold a child who can’t ride the ride, but in our case, that person would hold onto everyone’s bags which weren’t allowed on rides. Then when the first group finishes their ride, the person sitting out can head straight to the ride and can bring up other people with them. So essentially, at least two people in our group got to ride things twice with Child Swap)

I loveeee the queue decor for Gringotts, it’s so well done. Now that I know that Diagon Alley came after Hogsmeade, I can really tell the difference in quality in the rides and walking areas. The ride was fun, though like every other ride at Universal Studios, it relies a LOT on screens, which I kind of hate. But it’s cheap!

From here, we just walked around a ton of the Diagon Alley stores. I’m sad not but too sad that it never worked out for us to get a wacky ice cream flavor at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. The merchandise throughout the Harry Potter worlds was surprisingly good quality, but I didn’t buy anything. Jessica had lent us her wand, which was a really fun idea, and my mom loved trying it out (she achieved two water spells with significant help from nearby adults and children). My favorite store was probably Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes because of the bright colors and unique products. We didn’t even bother with Ollivander’s since I wouldn’t be buying a wand anyhow. It was a strange disappointment to go into the Magical Menagerie and see that it was just stuffed animals. I mean, I don’t know what I would have expected from a shop of magical creatures, but I was a little deflated. I wonder how many families miss Knockturn Alley – there’s nothing critical to see there, but the entrance REALLY looks like a corridor to an employee area. Finally I led us back out to take the train to Hogsmeade/Islands of Adventure … SO COOL!

My brother and I noticed that Kings Cross is FAR MORE better air conditioned than the Hogsmeade station. An intensely noticeable difference. I guess that’s what a few years buys you, though you’d think they would have known the importance of AC even when they were building out Hogsmeade!!!

So we crossed into Hogsmeade, took a TON of pictures in the crazy hot sun, then went under the shade of the Owl Post for a while to eat our foods and recoup from the sunlight. We didn’t really even explore the shops here, just took a lot of photos of the exteriors (by now this area was really crowded) then headed to the Forbidden Journey ride. Cool concept, it’s almost like a quick summary of all the main Harry Potter settings, love the length of the ride. At this point, I thought maybe we’d forgotten an important area of Hogsmeade and completely bypassed it – but it turns out Hogsmeade is just that small!!!

Our first non-HP ride was Kong, HORRIBLE! I’m not a fan of Universal’s strategy of just using screens to stimulate the roller coaster. However, it’s always super fun to witness my mom experiencing these rides. SO much reaction!!! Excitement, fear, amazement. The one thing I’ll definitely give to Universal Studios is that nearly all their rides have indoor, air conditioned lines, which makes such a huge difference.

We passed the Jurassic Park area but didn’t do any rides (they just had the water ride, which had a HUGE wait, and a fun looking hang glider kind of ride, but it was mainly for kids). Skull Island basically just had the Kong ride – again, terrible, but the ride queue felt like it look up a ton of real estate. Then came Toon Lagoon, which was pretty cute. We ended up eating at the first place we could find with indoor, air conditioned seating. The place was called Blondie’s and they served a Dagwood sandwich. I didn’t understand the significance of this, but Laura later said that this is some sort of comic book sandwich – supposed to represent a huge sandwich. Well the sandwich wasn’t that huge, and I mistakenly read their menu and assumed that $1 would give us chips AND a drink with free refills. Turns out $1 gave us chips but no drink. And we ended up paying extra for the soda, which I CHUGGED because I thought we had free refills, which we weren’t given!!! Truly upsetting.

Next up was Marvel’s Super Hero Island. We rode the Incredible Hulk coaster (my dad sat out). Surprisingly my mom really enjoyed it! I can’t tell if what she’s responding to is feeling like she’s gotten her money’s worth by riding every ride, or if she actually enjoys roller coasters. I think it’s possible that she actually just enjoys roller coasters! I remember it feeling EXTREMELY hot at this time. We also did the Spiderman ride, which was a fun, inside conveyor belt kind of ride where the Spiderman was the classic TV style. We skipped Doctor Doom’s Freefall (I had mistakenly thought the whole time that this ride was associated with Doctor Strange – I still have no idea who Doctor Doom is).

Then, my favorite part of the whole trip, Seuss Landing! I loved the decor here, it was very whimsical. It was, however, EXTREMELY hot with very little trees for shade. We might have taken the most photos in this area, and I think everyone – even my brother! – really enjoyed it. Also, my favorite ride of the trip was here – the Cat in the Hat! It was a VERY long ride, air conditioned, and kind of like the Alice in Wonderland ride at Disneyland if you multiplied the length by 3. As much as we loved it, Jessica later was like, Seuss Landing hasn’t been repainted regularly, it looks so dumpy! Meanwhile, I was like, I assumed they were going for a pastel look!

We still hadn’t really explored Universal Studios Florida, so we made our way back to the Hogwarts Express, and it was already some time past 4pm. I actually had no concept of time at this point in the day, and thought it was like 2pm, until I told my brother we should try to catch a 5:30 show and he was like “uh … it’s 5:30 now.” Whoops. Anyway, back on the Hogwarts Express. Again, this is where we realized that Hogsmeade’s station is NOT properly air conditioned, if at all. It was a noticeable difference when we got off the train and were walking back in King’s Cross.

I think we ended up back on the other side around 5:30pm. My brother contemplated riding the MIB ride on his own and skipping the shows I wanted our parents to watch (a chance to sit and relax!) but in the end he didn’t separate from us. I decided we’d watch a 6pm showing of Animal Actors on Location, then that’d give us time to go watch a 6:45pm showing of the Horror Make Up Show. Since we had a little extra time, and were passing through Simpsonsland (haha I just checked the map, and quite sensibly, what I termed “Simpsonland” is just called Springfield), my brother and I were like, hm this Simpsons ride is only a 10 minute wait, why not! WELL it ended up taking FOREVER to load up the ride and I started to freak out. To the point that any time I looked at my brother, he’d tell me the time without my asking. I hadn’t told my parents I was trying to make it in time for a show, so they were blissfully unaware of my slow building panic. We ended up coming out of the ride at like 5:58 and I RACED to the show.

Turns out my panic was completely unwarranted because the show was in an outdoor area, so people could join at any time. This show has a ton of animals doing tricks – the number of animals that came out was ASTOUNDING. Dogs, birds, cats, but also things like OTTERS and pigs!!! I can’t even remember them all. But it was a great show, I think everyone enjoyed it, even though there was very little air flow and it was HOT.

From here then we walked over to the Horror Make Up show. We ended up rushing again, a little unnecessarily, but we spent that extra time soaking in the AC. This show was ok, more of a funny look at the special effects that go into a horror movie.

After the show, my brother and I looked at the map to figure out what we wanted to do with the last few hours at the park. We decided to skip San Francisco, since that would require us walking all the way back toward Harry Potter, and the only ride in that side was the Fast and Furious ride (Jessica later told us we made the right decision). He really wanted to ride The Mummy Returns, and as much as I HATE Jimmy Fallon, I thought a “ride” through NY sounded fun. So we ended up doing our last little loop (everything was much closer than I was imagining) starting with The Mummy Returns, which our dad skipped out on. By this time of the day, he just wasn’t in the mood for rides, and I was more than happy to have him sit, relax, and watch over our bags. I don’t even remember what happened in that ride – maybe it was similar to Indiana Jones.

Then our whole family went to the Jimmy Fallon ride. The line queue is curiously large – they made it feel like you were actually in the 30 Rock studio, going to watch his show, and I can’t imagine who would find this level of detail interesting. The ride itself was like a HUGE platform that felt like a Back to the Future car but many times larger. The ride operators here were much more stringent than I’d ever seen in the entire park – I got yelled at for having part of my backpack sticking out from under my seat!

While Jimmy Fallon was, as always, insufferable, the end of it became a little more like a Mario Kart ride which made it kind of fun. Jessica says they are building out a Mario land! So that sounds like a slam dunk ride.

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Rip Ride Rockit coaster in the back

Finally, last ride of the night, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit which is a loud, near vertical up and down with lots of twists and loops. I guess their cool niche thing is that you get to choose what song you listen to during the ride. Which I was really excited by, until realizing that you could really only choose from like 25 songs, and they had clearly not been updated since the ride was first opened. My mom later said, this ride is terrible, and they probably added the music component to distract people from how terrible the ride is. HA. It wasn’t fun, and the ride really hurt my body. And that’s my old lady perspective!

And that concluded our day! When we lined up, the sun was just setting and when we got off the ride, it was dark. I think we left the park around 8:15pm and the park was going to close at 9pm. I kind of can’t believe we finished EVERYTHING even without fastpasses! I briefly debated walking around the entire City Walk just to see it, even though we were all probably at the end of our string and just wanted to get home, AND none of the restaurants looked exciting anyway. So my brother made the very good call to just head back the way we came. I called a Lyft and set the destination for Disney Springs. My brother wanted to eat at Murimoto, the express area (as opposed to the more expensive dine-in option where you could get food like sushi and peking duck).

Our Lyft driver was super nice, obviously a talkative driver but a great conversationalist because his rating was REALLY high and it people gave him compliments “great conversation.” He had previously worked at Disney and was clearly a fan. He showed me his Thanos magic band, which apparently lights up with the colors of the infinity stone and makes sound when it connects to readers. Which, as someone who doesn’t care at all about the avengers, even I find that very cool! He also knew a lot about all the restaurants at Disney Springs, and gave us a ton of recs, though he mistakenly assumed we were going to the dine-in Morimoto so all his recs were a level above our price range.

Anyway, he dropped us off in the parking garage, clearly he knew the area so well that he could bypass the Lyft drop off zone. Then we walked over to Murimoto. This is one of those instances where it was very difficult to make EVERYONE happy. One, everyone was already kind of ready to snap, because it’d been a long day, and the only thing keeping us from our wonderful hotel room was a meal. Two, my brother LOVES cooking shows, and he’d been really excited to try Murimoto, I guess he’s an Iron Chef? I could tell this was his first choice restaurant, but I also could tell that he felt like he was compromising by having the family eat the express food, when he would have rather had the dine in option. BUT, I could also tell that for my parents, having to order, pay and wait for a $12 ramen was not their ideal choice, especially when we had TONS of ramen in the hotel room that they’d brought from home. ANYWAY, combine all these forces and find yourself … sitting outside on tables that have had tons of turnover throughout the day, and a grumpy dad who is upset at having to eat on “dirty” tables when he can see other diners sitting in very nice tables inside, but doesn’t understand that the menu they’re eating from is like 4x the price of the food he’s eating.

We ended up ordering two different ramen bowls and bbq ribs to split. I NEARLY got a $6 boba because my better sense came to me and I was like “NO do NOT buy $6 boba, I refuse to buy a $6 boba in ORLANDO.” What was stupid was, I ordered a dan dan ramen for myself but I got the sense that my dad didn’t particularly love his ginger chicken ramen, so I let him try mine. I think we mistakenly believed the other person preferred the other’s ramen, so I let him eat all my dan dan ramen before realizing he probably enjoyed the ginger chicken ramen more than I hated it. It was too late though, so I ended up eating VERY little at this restaurant. We originally had the plan that my mom wouldn’t order anything here (she explicitly had no interest in anything on this menu) and preferred to just get an order at Chicken Guy later. I was like, great! I’ll split a sandwich with you! WELL she ended up eating just enough at Murimoto that she was like, I don’t need a sandwich anymore. While I was like UH I gave dad all my ramen, I am VERY HUNGRY!

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Unfortunately, I don’t think my parents were craving asian food in Orlando

Well in the end, even though our family all got kind of upset at each other because everyone had gotten into ANOTHER MOOD, I said “the last thing I need to do is walk to Chicken Guy and then decide if I need to order a sandwich or not.” For whatever reason, no one was directly mad at me, so everyone quietly followed behind me, everyone in a FUME! Once I stood in front of the menu though, my heart and stomach told me, no! So we walked back to the shuttle area. I think I made the right choice because a sandwich really would have been too much food. And I think everyone else was just ready to go home.

Funnily, the Kuos had a completely different day from us – they hadn’t gone to Universal Studios but instead went to … I think Magic Kingdom for a food tour or something. They’d had a much more relaxing day, but had also ended up going to Disney Springs at night for dinner/drinks, and I suspect they actually headed back to the hotel just one shuttle before us! Our unexpected shared experience though, was that both of our families arrived at the shuttle stop to the Grand Floridian right as the bus was about to pull away. And both families had someone run to the bus, and some employee managing all the buses yelled at all of us “you’ve missed the bus! stay behind the yellow line!!!” but both our bus drivers kindly stopped for us and let us in. We found this out when I was like “omg we almost missed our shuttle because of this mean bus manager guy but thank goodness for our driver!” and Laura was like US TOO!

So during the day, our hotel stay had changed from the Animal Kingdom to the Grand Floridian. Sadly I have NO pictures of the Grand Floridian room!!! Bummer. On the flip side, Laura took a video tour of the Grand Floridian room, but not of the Animal Kingdom room. I never took photos because when we arrived at the Grand Floridian, I was SO exhausted, and just glad that I had been able to find the room based off Laura’s directions. Delightfully, Laura had ordered a cake styled like Mary Poppins Hat, for Jessica’s birthday, and we all got a little slice to enjoy before turning in for the night. What a day!

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