Spring is always a busy time of year at the Lebeau household. As the kids wrap up the school year (which typically includes heavy duty extracurricular activities), we’re juggling two birthdays, Easter, Mother’s Day, etc. It seems like every weekend in April and May is a busy one and that’s on top of an annual spike in overtime at my day job. What I am getting at is that we are ready for a vacation. Fortunately for us, we have one scheduled. Yep, we’re going back to Universal Orlando. Let me tell you why and what we have planned for the trip.
Our first visit to Universal as a family was a quick day trip prior to disembarking on a Disney Cruise in 2014. It served to whet our appetites for what the resort has to offer. Last summer, we dedicated an entire vacation to Universal for the first time. At the time, I floated the idea that we could buy annual passes and use them for a Spring Break trip before they expired the following year. We did not take that path largely because we had our doubts that we could spend an entire week at Universal without getting bored. Committing to two trips up front was a bit of a gamble and we decided to play it safe.
It turns out, Mindy was a big fan of Universal. She liked the compact layout and the fact that you didn’t have to plan every step of your trip months in advance. We were also very impressed with Universal Express Pass which was included in the cost of our stay at Royal Pacific. When Spring Break rolled around this year, Mindy wished we had picked up the passes because she was ready to go back. I shopped around and found a fantastic hotel rate and very reasonable flights this summer. So we decided to commit to the annual pass plan this year with a Spring Break trip in 2019.
Three weeks at Universal in three years is more than a lot of people would recommend. Compared to their more famous neighbor down the road, the Universal resort is not that big. It’s growing, but for the typical Orlando Commando Universal is more of a side-trip than a full destination for now. That’s part of the appeal for us. With less to do, there’s no pressure to see everything. Last summer, we were slowed down by a sprained ankle and unseasonably (even for Orlando) rainy weather. But we were still able to squeeze in all our must-see attractions. This year, with more time and hopefully better luck, I am looking forward to taking in some of the resort’s minor offerings.
Universal has made a point of updating their attractions on a regular basis. Last year the resort unveiled their new water park, Volcano Bay, and a motion simulator ride themed to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. Despite some pretty serious operational issues early on, Volcano Bay has been a fantastic addition to Universal greatly increasing its potential as a destination vacation. Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon, not so much. This year’s new additions are more along the lines of the latter than the former.
The big new ride is Fast & Furious: Supercharged which was transported over from Universal Studios Hollywood where the original version of the attraction was met with scorn. Expectations for the Orlando incarnation were low from the moment the ride was announced, but early reviews indicate that Fast & Furious is among the worst rides in all of Orlando. Out West, the attraction was part of the park’s tram tour. In Florida, it is its own separate entity with ride vehicles similar to those used in Skull Island.
There are a number of similarities between Supercharged and the Kong ride. Both have elaborately themed queues and both are primarily film-based. Perhaps responding to complaints that Universal Orlando has too many 3-D attractions, the film for Fast & Furious is shown in two flat dimensions. Skull Island ends with a massive King Kong animatronic, but the new ride lacks a similar finale. It’s just a ride through a room with screens. A slow ride on a bus.
Am I looking forward to checking out Supercharged? No. In fact, I can’t think of a new ride in Orlando that has ever interested me less. I am not a fan of the franchise this attraction is based on, but that doesn’t prevent me from mostly enjoying Transformers: The Ride. The main problem is that the Fast & Furious movies scream out for a thrill ride. Universal should have built a souped-up Test Track. Instead, they cloned the Hollywood tram with Skull Island’s ride vehicles. They also revisited the virtual queue system which debut last year with Race Through New York. That’s nice if you are waiting in standby, but for guests with Express Pass it can mean longer waits than usual.
What am I excited about? I’m pretty jazzed to visit City Walk’s latest tenant, Voodoo Donuts. The bakery chain started in Portland, OR where their eccentric donuts created a lot of buzz. Years ago, I saw the original location featured on both the Travel Channel and Food Network. I made a mental note that if I was ever in Portland, I would have to drop in, but my patience has paid off. Now I will pass the newly opened store on my way to and from the parks. So, that’s a win.
Depending on who you ask, Voodoo Donuts are either deep fried nirvana or over-priced and over-rated. I intend to try them and make up my mind for myself, but we will have to see how things play out. Word is that people are waiting in long lines for their chance to try the Bacon Maple Bar and the Memphis Mafia. As much as I want to sample these sugary treats, I’m not willing to wait in long lines for a donut. If push comes to shove, Lard Lad Donuts in the Springfield section of the park will do the trick. We’ll be back next year if we don’t get to try Voodoo Donuts on this trip.
Speaking of which, Universal will debut a new nighttime show sometime this summer. Rumor has it that the new show will be similar in nature to Disneyland’s popular World of Color. Odds are the show won’t be ready for us to take it in this year, but if we miss it we can check it out next time. There is a new projection show over at Hogwart’s castle in Islands of Adventure. Typical of Universal, the show is much more modest than the extravaganza Disney puts on in the Magic Kingdom. But the crowds are also lighter and there are multiple showings a night, so there is no need to fight for a decent spot.
Last and definitely least, Universal has opened up a new cotton candy store in Seuss Landing. Honk Honkers serves the biggest cotton candy you have ever seen with the option to mix in “toppings” like crushed Oreos. I’m not a fan of spun sugar myself, but the girls will likely want to get their Honk on. Mindy has declared that mix-in toppings are a crime against nature, but she has been known to scarf down some cotton candy from time to time.
What’s New to Us?
Despite having spent nearly a full week at Universal last summer, there are still plenty of things my family has yet to experience. Perhaps most significantly, we will be staying at Universal’s flagship hotel, Portofino Bay. The resort is themed after an Italian fishing village and from what I have seen it appears to be the most immersive of Universal’s deluxe hotels. This is typically, but not always, the most expensive hotel on property. But I have discovered that the hotel rates fluctuate with demand and it is possible to find deluxe rooms for 40-50% off the most expensive rates.
We thoroughly enjoyed the deluxe hotel experience last summer at Royal Pacific to the point where I don’t think we would ever stay at one of the cheaper resorts. I can recommend Cabana Bay Beach without reservation, but for a family of four the free Express Pass and the deluxe hotels is just too big of an enticement to pass up. Also, the water taxis to and from City Walk and the parks were a much more enjoyable form of transportation than the usual buses. Portofino Bay is more secluded than the other hotels which means we’ll have a slightly longer commute to the parks, but that’s okay when you’re taking a scenic boat ride.
The dining options at the hotel are on the pricey side. That’s something we ran into at Royal Pacific as well, but at least Portofino Bay has a quick service option. Sal’s Market Deli serves reasonably priced (by theme park standards) pizzas, sandwiches, calzones and salads. If the reviews are to be believed, they are quite good, so that will probably be a fall back for quick meals. We’re also going to have a rental car this time. We usually avoid this because the Universal hotels charge a pretty steep self-parking fee, but the hotel rate we’re using included a parking discount as well so we figured why not?
We plan to take advantage of our added mobility to grab save some money with some groceries and off-site meals. We’re also planning to take a detour off property to experience indoor skydiving at iFly. This is one of these deals where you get in a tube and they blow wind at you to keep you suspended midair. It’s something Mindy has wanted to do for years. They have a facility for this at CityWalk in Hollywood, but not in Florida. So she was pretty psyched when I found a place in Orlando where we could give this a shot.
Back on property, there are lots of minor attractions we have yet to experience. We haven’t made time for a lot of shows. Generally speaking, most of the shows at Universal are fairly unimpressive from what I hear. But I have heard universal (pun intended) praise for the Horror Make-Up Show so I plan to give that a look. I also want to stop and watch the Blues Brothers from start to finish. I have heard their show from a distance but never taken in the whole thing. The kids want to see the cute critters in Animal Actors On Location! (the exclamation point is part of the name).
There are also a few rides we have yet to experience. The big one if the Hulk roller coaster in Islands of Adventure. Last year, Josie was supposed to ride with me but she bailed. She promises that this year will be different. If it’s not, I plan to make a quick solo excursion to ride it myself if I have to. Doctor Doom’s Fearfall is nearby. It’s a stripped down Tower of Terror which I want to check out at least once. Also in Islands of Adventure is Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges. This ride is notorious for soaking riders so we will only queue up if we don’t mind getting wet. At Universal Studios, Mindy has been wanting to give Rip Ride Rockit a spin but we have not yet gotten around to it.
As is usually the case for a theme park trip, dining offers the most potential for new experiences. Last summer, the rain kept us confined to the hotel restaurants a lot of the time. Since this is our first time at Portofino Bay, all of the restaurants there will be new to us. But I am definitely looking forward to checking out some of the offerings at CityWalk that we didn’t get around to last time. I have heard good things about Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and Vivo Italian Kitchen. In the parks, our meals have been limited to Fast Food Blvd in Springfield. So pretty much any meals we eat in the parks will be a new experiences.
The last time we visited, Kara and I spent a day at Volcano Bay. Josie wasn’t feeling up to it, so Mindy stayed behind with her. This year, we’re hoping everyone will be able to enjoy the water park. We’re not typically a water park family per se, but I find that Volcano Bay helps break up the regular theme park touring. If a nice, relaxing place to unwind in between motion simulators and thrill rides. Kara and I spent most of our time at Volcano Bay hanging out in the wave pool, so there are still plenty of new experiences for us to try.
The whole family enjoys Men in Black: Alien Attack and Escape From Gringotts. For reasons I do not fully comprehend, Race Through New York was Kara’s favorite ride last summer. Josie and I enjoyed Revenge of the Mummy which has become one of my favorite rides in all of Orlando. I am hoping to coax Mindy and Kara to try it out this year. Of course Spider-Man is a favorite of mine. The girls will ride it, but they don’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. Mindy doesn’t do well on the motion simulator rides unfortunately.
To date, I am the only member of the family who has ridden the Jurassic Park River Adventure. Josie is fighting me hard on this one because she says she doesn’t like boats or dinosaurs, but I am hoping to get the family on board for at least one ride. It’s been ten years since I rode it and I want to see if the big finish is as thrilling as I remember it. I would also like to reappraise Skull Island which I found to be under-rated last summer. Kara has expressed some willingness to give Forbidden Journey a try, but we’ll have to see how her courage holds up. We’ll probably start her off on Flight of the Hippogriff and go from there.
Last summer, we bought the kids interactive wands. We’ll bring the expensive souvenirs back with us for some more spell casting. Time will be spent hanging out in the Harry Potter themed lands just taking in the atmosphere. There are still elements we haven’t fully explored. For example, we have yet to interact with the Night Bus driver.
Mindy and the kids fell in love with the Cowfish restaurant this year. I suspect that their burgerooshi is at least 30% responsible for us going back to Universal this year. If Mindy has her way, we may eat there daily. I can say with certainty that we will be visiting more than once. While I want to get out and try some other dining options, the menu at Cowfish is varied enough that I don’t mind repeat visits.
That’s the plan such as it is. With a whole week to spend and Express Pass included, we will mostly just wing it. In a few weeks, I’ll have a proper trip report to let you guys know how it went.