Universal Orlando Firsts
Frequent theme park travelers are always on the look-out for new experiences. These have become something of a rarity for my family after regular visits to Walt Disney World which is one of the reasons we have been exploring other options in recent years. In 2015, on our way to a Disney cruise, we spent a day on a whirlwind tour of both Universal theme parks. We hit a lot of the resort’s highlights, but there is only so much you can do in a day. After sampling what Universal had to offer, we’re going back this summer for a more in-depth excursion. Let’s review some of this trip’s potential firsts.
LOEWS ROYAL PACIFIC HOTEL
On vacation, your hotel is your base of operations. Some tourists use it as a place to rest their heads at night and nothing more. My family includes two kids and a wife who isn’t a theme park commando, so we tend to spend a fair amount of time at the hotel. As such, it’s worth it to spend a little more for a place that offers nicer amenities since we will be making use of them.
On our previous visit, we stayed at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. For a hotel in its price range, Cabana Bay was an unparalleled experience. It’s theming transported guests to another time. We would gladly go back, but for this trip I wanted to move up to a higher tier. When we stayed at Cabana Bay, we shelled out extra for Universal’s Express Pass option, but since we will be staying at one of the deluxe resorts, that benefit is included in the cost of our stay. When you consider that Express Pass is typically upwards of $70 per person per day, that makes the cost of a room at Royal Pacific seem like a pretty good deal for a family of four.
For comparison, a single night at Disney’s Polynesian Resort in June will run you $560. No Express Pass included although the Poly is on the monorail line which is nice if you’re spending the day at the Magic Kingdom. But still, that’s a lot of money for a hotel room. Meanwhile, depending on the day, prices at Royal Pacific hover around $300/night with Express Pass thrown in. For a long time, I dreamt of staying at the similarly themed Polynesian. But as Disney’s prices continued to climb year after year, I eventually abandoned any such plans. While the Royal Pacific isn’t as immersive as Disney’s Poly, at roughly half the expense I’m willing to make that trade-off.
The hotel is close enough to the parks that you can walk to the entry in roughly the same amount of time it would take to get to the food court at one of Disney’s moderate resorts. They also offer transportation by shuttle and water taxi. I am hoping during some of our down time to make my way over to some of the other hotels on property like Portofino Bay or the new Sapphire Falls Resort partially to see if these are places we’d like to visit on future trips.
I’m not really a water park kind of guy, but Universal’s Volcano Bay seems like something I need to check out. Universal’s marketing department is being somewhat deceptive when they refer to the new gate as their third “theme park”. By most definitions of a theme park, Volcano Bay won’t qualify. But it promises to be the coolest water park in Orlando.
The new park has a tropical theme that will compliment our choice of hotel (although Cabana Bay is the closest and most convenient place to stay if Volcano Bay is a priority). At the center of the park is a giant volcano which houses several water slides. At night, the lights will change to make the water look like lava erupting from and running down the side of the volcano.
I won’t do a complete rundown of the park’s offerings here. I’ll save that for the inevitable trip report after we have experienced Volcano Bay for ourselves. All the usual water park attractions are included ranging from daredevil slides to lazy rivers. That’s probably where you’ll find me more often than not.
A big selling point of the new park is a virtual queue that holds your place in line. One of the things I hate about most water parks is shivering in line while holding an inflatable raft and slowly marching up a flight of stairs. Universal is keeping that to a minimum by allowing guests to schedule their rides similar to Disney’s FastPass. They also say the rafts will be waiting for you, so there’s no need for you to drag them around.
This and other features are controlled with a watch-like device called Tapu Tapu. Guests will be able to wave their hand to trigger certain special effects around the park or charge purchases to their credit cards. It’s very much like Disney’s Magic Bands although there is also a digital display to let you know when you can arrive at your scheduled ride.
RACE THROUGH NEW YORK STARRING JIMMY FALLON
Race Through New York, the latest addition to Universal Studios, replaces the old Twister attraction. Despite the new ride smell, I’m not all that excited for this race. For one thing, it’s yet another 3-D motion simulator in a resort that is already heavy on this type of experience. Additionally, I’m ambivalent on Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show. I haven’t watched regularly since Johnny retired. I was always more of a Letterman guy (I still marvel that people apparently found Jay Leno funny).
While this attraction isn’t a slam dunk for me, I’ll still be checking it out. Twister was long past its expiration date, so it’s not surprising Universal wanted to make a change. And in the space available, a motion simulator makes sense. Word on the street is that the new ride has proven to be very popular with guests. I’m sure it will be a lot of fun, but I hope Universal mixes things up in the future (it’s not happening in the immediate future. The next new ride is another motion simulator based on the Fast and Furious franchise.)
Perhaps the most intriguing element of this attraction is its queue. As with Volcano Bay, Universal is experimenting with a virtual queue system for Race Through New York. Guests can schedule their ride time in advance and then either explore the park or spend time hanging out in a lounge inside a replica of 30 Rockefeller where the Tonight Show is taped. The lounge includes museum-like exhibits on the show’s history plus games and live entertainment to distract guests from their wait. Universal has stated that they are looking to roll this sort of system out site-wide.
TABLE SERVICE DINING
During our previous trip, we stuck to quick service meals in the parks as well as the hotel food court. While we enjoyed lunch in Springfield well enough that we might try it again, I’m looking forward to sampling some of the sit-down restaurants the resort has to offer. At the top of our list is the steampunk themed Toothsome Chocolate Emporium which has been winning over guests with elaborate desserts and decadent chocolate-dusted entrees. Based on some reviews I have read, the savory dishes actually out do the ice cream treats. This is one place we will definitely be checking out.
Universal’s City Walk is loaded with promising places to eat. I have been reading up on places like the Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar which fuses Eastern and Western cuisine in inventive and delicious ways. Antojitos has received rave reviews for it’s authentic Mexican dishes and Emeril’s Orlando offers the opportunity to dine at a celebrity chef’s restaurant. Our hotel includes a second restaurant from Emeril Lagasse; the Tchoup Chop offers the chef’s take on Polynesian fare.
Universal also offers what is considered by many to be the best in-park restaurant in Orlando, Mythos. Our own Daffy Stardust was a bit underwhelmed by his experiences at this dining establishment, but I’m looking forward to trying it for myself.
Dining in Universal has a few advantages over eating a meal with the Mouse. Disney’s advance reservation system practically demands that guests book their dinner months in advance if they want a chance at any of the popular restaurants, but walk-ins are welcome at Universal. This allows for a less structured vacation that isn’t based around the availability of tables booked several months before you are hungry.
Additionally, the menu prices, while high, are nowhere near as steep as what you will find at Disney World. For example, the most expensive menu item at Cowfish, Sashimi – Chef’s Deluxe 15 Piece – will run you $28.00. A Sashimi platter at Wolfgang Puck’s will run you $35.00. At Morimoto Asia in Disney Spring, it goes for $50.00! Perhaps the sushi at Morimoto is better than what is served at Cowfish, but I have my doubt’s it is roughly twice as good.
We spent a fair amount of time exploring Diagon Alley during our 2015 visit. By the time we got to Hogsmeade, we were pretty worn out. So a lot of that will be new to us this time around. As we make our way around the Wizarding World, we intend to arm the kids with pricey interactive wands which are sold in shops like Olivander’s.
Last time, Josie was chosen to participate in the show that takes place in Olivander’s. It was a fun experience and I’m hoping Kara might be able to get her turn this year. Since we were only spending a day in the parks during that trip, it didn’t make a lot of sense to buy the $40 trinkets. But this time around, we will have plenty of time to search out the locations at both parks and dabble in casting theme-park assisted spells. Expensive? Sure, but I expect it will provide hours of entertainment without height restrictions or motion sickness.
While we’re in Harry Potter land, we’re also looking forward to a deeper dive into some of the things we missed the last time around. Topping the list would be Florean Fortesue’s Ice Cream Parlour which features unusual flavors like sticky toffee pudding and salted carmel blondie. Beyond the wands, I expect to spend a fair amount of time just hanging out in J K Rowling’s corner of the parks.
SKULL ISLAND: REIGN OF KONG
The other attraction to open up at Universal since our last trip is Skull Island: Reign of Kong. This spooky ride through a monster-filled jungle has been a tough sell with the girls. I will likely have to ride it alone or bribe someone to ride it with me. (How badly do the kids really want those wands?)
The ride itself relies heavily on video screens which has disappointed some guests. There is a big Kong animatronic at the end of the ride, but some complain that the big ape is too passive. The queue is filled with haunted-house style thrills, but we will likely bypass these with Express Pass. I may be able to entice my oldest to get on the ride, but I don’t think she’ll be willing to wait it out in a long line just to experience extra scares. If time permits and the line isn’t too daunting, I may try the queue solo just so I can report back to you readers. But I wouldn’t hold out too much hope of that happening.
We are very familiar with the character meet and greets at Disney World. We have hugged all the major princesses multiple times (Pocahontas and Mulan have eluded us). We’ve gotten our pictures taken with Mickey in multiple outfits, dined at several character meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and listened to Gaston boast about the size of his muscles. But at Universal, we have yet to meet with a single character. We’ve seen them, but only from a distance.
Some of this is due to the fact that my kids are less familiar with the characters at Universal. The Minions are the most sought-after characters for them and they were no-shows last time. Although my oldest watches The Simpsons just about every day, she was a little reluctant to actually approach Homer and Bart when we saw them in the parks. I’m hoping this time, things will be different.
For myself, I want to catch the Marvel superheroes as they make their grand entrance on whatever those vehicles are they ride in on. And I definitely want to meet with my favorite Marvel character, Captain America. That’s long overdue. With a little luck, maybe I can talk him into letting me hold his shield…
One character experience that differs from the others is the raptor encounter in the Jurassic Park section of Islands of Adventure. We had fun watching from a distance as the dino startled guests for our amusement. Time permitting, I would like to get up close with a raptor this year. This will probably be another hard sell with the kids, so we’ll see how that goes.
One area in which Universal trails its competition is stage shows. Disney World has several productions that are worth checking out. Universal has fewer. Shows like Fear Factor Live and The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad are notoriously lame. And yet, we might just check them out to break up the day. That’s kind of the point of shows.
Last time, we took time out from our schedule for both of the stage shows in Diagon Alley, but we haven’t seen much beyond those two. This year, I wouldn’t mind checking out the Blues Brothers. And I hear great things about Universal’s Horror Make-Up Show although I’m not sure that one will work for everyone. The Animal Actors Show will probably be more the girls’ speed. And we’ll probably look for the Frog Choir in Hogsmeade.
We’re getting into some of Universal’s weak spots here. No one does parade like Disney. A few years ago, Universal put forth the Superstar Parade featuring characters from Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer and Despicable Me. The Secret Life of Pets is a more recent addition. By Disney standards, Universal’s parade is modest. Some say boring. I won’t go to any great lengths to see it, but my youngest has always been captivated by parades so we may just give this one a look.
One day during our trip, we will be joined by a couple of Mindy’s friends. They are locals who won’t have access to Express Pass like us. They are also seniors who won’t be looking to ride a lot of attractions. During their visit, I’m planning to focus on shows and attractions where Express Pass won’t be much of factor. The virtual queue of Jimmy Fallon may come into play as will the attractions in Diagon Alley that don’t accept Express Pass. And of course Express Pass is of no use during the parade, which makes this a good fit.
If we’re still in the park around closing time, we might hang around for Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular – the nighttime show that has drawn unfavorable comparisons to all of the fireworks shows at Disney. That’s another experience we may seek out primarily to check a box and say we did it. Or we may skip it without much fear of missing out. Gotta leave something for next time, right?
Perhaps I am burying the lead here, but there are still several rides at Universal I have not gotten around to. Chief among them is the Incredible Hulk roller coaster which underwent a lengthy refurbishment last year as the track was completely rebuilt. This twisty-green monster ranks high on my must-do list. Another coaster I have yet to experience is the musically themed Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, but I have heard mixed things about this attraction. I’ll probably try to squeeze it in but I won’t be too disappointed if I don’t get around to it.
In the past, we have skipped the water rides. But this time, I want to go ahead and get soaked on attractions like Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges. We’ll plan ahead and do them on a hot day or when we can easily get back to our hotel room to dry off.
The kids are looking forward to the simple pleasures of Storm Force Accelatron (Disney’s Marvel-themed version of Disney’s teacups). We will also check out some of the more family-friendly rides like Flight of the Hippogriff and Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster.
Ideally, at the end of the trip, I’d like to say I have experienced all of Universal’s rides and attractions. With nearly a week on property and Express Passes in our pockets, I think that’s doable even if it means riding Doctor Doom’s Fearfall by myself.