On Friday, the day after the Halloween party, we did indeed rest. Sleeping in was GLORIOUS! We took our time puttering around the hotel room before we finally decided we’d make use of the coupons we received as part of our travel package and head to Disney Springs, the newly-renamed Downtown Disney shopping center.
I don’t ever remember going to Downtown Disney, but I obviously have — the Planet Hollywood I ate at last time is in the complex! Still, it was nice to explore a place with Samantha that was new to both of us, even if it was an outdoor mall. They had a lot of cool stores, including the largest Disney Store in the world and a LEGO Store. We ate lunch at the Planet Hollywood (hurray coupon!) and checked out the newly-opened Indiana Jones themed bar. The skies were overcast, which was a first, and our skin was thankful for it. We watched amphibious cars launch into the water, admired the topiary creations (including Lady & The Tramp! Aww!), and had some delicious ice cream at the Ghirardelli store. We didn’t do a whole lot more with our day, though we did order room service for dinner — something Sam had never experienced! We enjoyed our meals while watching Tomorrowland, sleeping early with a plan to visit Universal Studios the next morning.
Our first foray off of Disney property required a cab. Disney Resorts always have cabs standing by, and it was painless. Aside from the fare, that is. It was $50 one way! When we arrived at Universal, about twenty minutes before opening, I was shocked at how FEW people there were. I learned that people who’d stayed at hotels on-site got an automatic hour head start on everyone else, which explained some of that…but not the fact that there were only about 50 people milling about on a Saturday morning. We were allowed entry into the main park to about the halfway point. The streets were desolate.
When we arrived at the mid-park fence, a lone worker greeted us & immediately apologized for not being able to let us in any further. “I don’t know why they won’t let me let you in early, I’m really sorry.” It sat wrong with me; he was talking bad about his employer in an indirect manner. He told us how they opened the gates ten minutes early the previous day and maybe we’d get lucky. They didn’t, and he continued to fret. When another guest came up and said they had Early Access, he didn’t check any passes. He just let them in. He was not invested, except in apologizing…which he continued right up to opening at 8:00 AM. When we did get in, it was clear that EVERYONE was going to the same place: the Harry Potter section at the very back of the park.
Once we entered Diagon Alley, we were relieved to see how well designed the area was. Ollivanders, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, The Leaky Cauldron…it was all there and gloriously realized. At the end of the street stood Gringott’s Bank, the location of the ride everyone told us we must experience. Before we could enter the line, though, attendants informed us that all bags and loose items must be stored in a locker. This confused me a little, as my research hadn’t shown the ride to be that intense. Still, we obliged. Lockers are free for 50 minutes; anything over that carries a cost. That didn’t sit well with me either; what if the wait was an hour, which I’d been told to expect? Tough luck, I guess. The sign had said the wait would be half an hour, but we ended up boarding after maybe ten minutes. The queue experience was fantastic; animatronic goblins, appropriate decor, and an excellent welcome experience. The ride is a mixed media experience; it utilizes 3D film, an indoor coaster-type environment, and environmental effects to simulate a ride through the depths of Gringott’s vaults. It was, as we were told, a great experience. One of our favorite rides of the entire trip, actually. All of the shops on the street were excellent, too…especially the Weasley’s!
Since the sister park (Islands of Adventure) didn’t open until 9:00, we wandered around the rest of Universal. All of the surfaces were wet; not because of rain, but because everything had been drenched just before park opened. Sam and I had to watch our step as we walked. Heck, even the tray we got our breakfast on was wet! My beloved Back to the Future ride had been replaced with a Simpsons experience, which neither of us were passionate about experiencing. I did take some pictures with the DeLorean and Time Train, which were happily still nearby, though relegated to a little park next to the lagoon. I saw a Back to the Future item display in a storefront near the park entrance and excitedly went inside. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find anything, so I asked a lady. “Where is your Back to the Future merchandise?” “We don’t have any of that here,” she said. No explanation, nothing. I walked outside and stood at the window display, confused. Then, I saw a small plaque in the corner of the window talking about the history of the old attraction. It also mentioned some merch was available at another shop further in the park. Why didn’t the lady just tell me that? And why display stuff you can’t buy at that store? Oh well. I did get a fist bump outside from Woody Woodpecker due to my Jaws 19 shirt.
As we wandered back towards the Harry Potter corner, we did find that other shop — with not a lot to offer. I noticed the Ghostbusters firehouse now had a roller coaster punching through their front wall; if you hadn’t known that’s what it used to be, you probably wouldn’t pick up on it now. I also noticed that there were a LOT of covered up booths and cordoned-off areas. Universal Studios does a Halloween Party, too. However, during regular hours, all the Halloween-specific stuff is out on the streets, just tarped. It made the place feel almost abandoned, especially with the light crowds. By the time we could take the Hogwarts Express to the other park and enter Hogsmeade, the crowds HAD picked up a little…though, really, I’ve seen bigger crowds at the First Friday Art Crawl in Tulsa. Once again, the folks working the Harry Potter area were fantastic. Very enthusiastic, happy, and engaging. The train is pretty cool; in each car, the exterior “window” is actually a screen that simulates traveling the English countryside to Hogwarts. The closed door to the cabin has shadows that make it feel like you’re on an active train to the school of witchcraft and wizardry, complete with cameos from the principle characters in the Potter universe.
Hogsmeade, likewise, is well-designed and a delight to experience. The rooftops are all snowy, the castle appropriately looms in the distance, and Butterbeer flows freely at the Three Broomsticks. Sadly, it appeared that all of the rides in that area were coasters, which Sam and I weren’t fans of. After we had toured the shops, we set out to see what else Islands of Adventure had to offer. Short answer: not a lot for us. Each “land” had a jarring transition. I could easily see Hogwarts from Jurassic Park. Although we love the JP franchise, the only major ride we saw was a big water ride where all riders exiting looked like they had been completely submerged. The ride we WERE interested in, the treetop flying ride, required a child to accompany us. No-go there either. The next zone we wandered into was Toon Lagoon, an area featuring rides inspired by a ton of Sunday morning cartoon strips like Popeye, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, etc. Also a ton more water rides. I noticed that one of the shops was faced with Spongebob and Minon gear, even though this part of the park wasn’t related to them at all. Guess they had to get kids in the door SOMEHOW. Once inside, it was all Betty Boop, Marmaduke, and Blondie. The whole segment felt out of place.
Continuing on, we reached Superhero Island, dedicated to Marvel comics. It was installed before Disney bought Marvel, though I don’t imagine it’ll be there forever. The area is focused on the comic book interpretations of the characters and I enjoyed the architecture. Another roller coaster and a tall drop ride were in that area. Though the Spider-Man ride looked interesting, the wait time was already at an hour. How was that possible when the park didn’t seem that busy? Universal does have a Fast Pass service, but it’s limited and costs $60 extra per person. Moving on, we arrived at the main entrance to Islands of Adventure. Seeing that we wouldn’t be spending all day at the park, we went ahead and walked around the rest of the area to take the Hogwarts Express back to Diagon Alley. On our way, we walked through Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent, the latter being an area themed after ancient myths and legends, like the Voyage of Sinbad. Neither held any interest for us. As we walked back to the taxi stand outside of Universal, I reflected on the experience.
We encountered several guests using selfie sticks, all of whom were annoyingly oblivious to their surroundings. I was instantly grateful that Disney had banned the extensions from their parks. All of the pre-ride verbiage was severe. I felt like EVERYTHING was labeled as an intense roller coaster and if you had a quick heartbeat that one time in eighth grade, you shouldn’t ride it! I’m sure we missed out on a few experiences because of that; since there was no Wi-Fi at the park, my data didn’t allow me to do much research in the moment. With the exception of the Harry Potter areas, all of the workers seemed bored/disengaged. Many of the streets were lined with midway-style games, which nobody was playing. Most of the things I loved previously were gone: Back to the Future, King Kong, Hanna-Barbera, the Ghostbusters show, Jaws, Earthquake. It was replaced with a myriad of roller coasters and water rides. I summed it up to Sam like this: Disney felt like church, whereas Universal felt like a shopping mall. We were thankful to arrive back on Disney property after our half-day, I tell you that.
That’s not the whole day; we had an AMAZING dinner I’ll tell you about in my next update. It may be my final post about our honeymoon; we’ll see how wordy I get! This one is my longest one yet for this trip, but as you can see I had a LOT to talk about! Thanks for reading, I’ve received a lot of comments from various folks about this trip report. I’m glad you all are enjoying it!