|Big Thunder Mountain
|Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
When my alarm went off around 7am, the last thing I wanted to do was to extricate myself from my gloriously restful bed. But… then a single word swirled through my mind: BUTTERBEER! And ultimately the lure of the new Diagon Alley section of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter was enough to incentive to get moving.
There are more affordable ways to get from Disney to Universal, but I decided to take a cab for convenience. I didn't want to have to rush to get ready in the morning, and I also wanted to be able to leave Universal at a moment's notice when I felt I was ready. The choice I made probably wouldn't be the best for most travelers, but it worked for me. A cast member at my hotel tried to be helpful by suggesting that I take a shuttle, but I was adamant.
I ended up arriving at Universal at around 8:30am, about a half hour before opening. I was amazed to arrive that early considering how lethargic I'd been about getting out of bed. Since the only thing I was really interested in was the new Harry Potter area, I followed the herds that were lining up in that direction. It wasn't actually as crowded as I'd feared, and the crowd control was brilliant: every few minutes, they'd move the line a little closer to the entrance which made it feel like we were making progress.
I was one of the first day guests to enter Diagon Alley, but it was already crowded because guests at the official hotels were able to get in an hour earlier. I followed the masses to the new marquee ride: Escape from Gringotts. As I walked steadily up the street, part of me was tempted by all the marvelously whimsical touches that I could see in all directions. But I summoned up all my willpower and reminded myself that I'd have plenty of time to linger later on in the day. When I reached the ride building, I stuffed my camera and bag in a (complimentary) locker because you aren't allowed carry anything on the ride. I initially put the camera in separately but then decided to put it inside my backpack to be safe. Then I got in the single rider line.
When I'd planned my trip, I hadn’t been sure I'd actually get to ride Gringotts. There were reports that the ride was breaking down a lot, and a 90 minute wait time was one of the lowest times I'd seen. Ah, the problems of trying to ride a top attraction within months of its opening! I simply don't do waits longer than 60 minutes- and prefer 30-45 minutes tops. I mean, there was no way I could see myself waiting in a line that was longer than the longest Harry Potter film! I was therefore delighted to see the single rider line was listed at 45 minutes and even happier that it ended up being closer to 30.
The queue weaved around narrow corridors, so I had no way of knowing how close I was to the front. Since the single riders only filled unoccupied seats (when parties of odd numbers were seated), the movement wasn't very steady. But when I could see the ride vehicles, I knew I was almost there. And as I was ready to board, it felt like such a momentous occasion that part of me wondered if I should say a shehecheyanu
(Jewish prayer said on super special occasions) despite the fact that I am not at all religious.
The ride was a lot of fun- truly unique. It uses the same 3D technology as the Spiderman and Transformers rides, but the track was very different. And of course the Harry Potter theming was cool. I've read that the normal queue has amazing details, and I'd like to see it someday… but it's not worth over an hour of my life. I was able to catch just a glimpse of the Gringotts lobby from the single rider line- it looked just like the film.
After picking up my stuff from the locker, my next stop was the most important destination of the day: Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour which features a variety of flavors, the most important of which is Butterbeer soft serve. As soon as I read about that flavor, I knew that I must
try it. 9:45am isn't too early for ice cream- especially since the line was way shorter than it would be at peak times in the afternoon. Butterbeer ice cream was everything I'd hoped it would be- an absolutely scrumptious treat!
Having accomplished my top 2 goals, I was able to take some time to explore Diagon Alley, which is probably one of the most intricately themed lands in any theme park I've visited. Not only did it include the iconic sites you might expect such as Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes, but even minute details such as signs and window displays were amazing.
After a brief saunter, I headed to a replica of Kings Cross station to take a ride on the Hogwarts Express. In a brilliant marketing scheme, Universal created a ride that requires guests to have a park-to-park ticket (their version of a park hopper)- you can't ride it if you only have a single park ticket. Since the train actually transport guests between their 2 theme parks, this strategy makes sense. Although part of me wonders if it would make more sense for Universal to combine their 2 parks into a single super duper sized theme park. In any case, I needed
to ride the Hogwarts Express so I'd splurged on the park-to-park feature.
There was absolutely no wait as I breezed through the queue area, which included details such as the poster displayed at the beginning of the "Half Blood Prince" movie. There was even a special effect where it looked like the people ahead of you in line were going through the brick wall to track 9 ¾. When you board the train, you enter a compartment just like in the movies, with 2 sets of 4 seats facing each other. During the ride, you can see video effects both outside the window and outside the corridor door. It was short, but extremely cool.
Upon arriving at Hogsmeade, I had to have my photo taken in front of Hogwarts castle because I was wearing a "Hogwarts Alumni" T-shirt; later in the day, another woman high fived me because she was in the same awesome shirt. The queue for Forbidden Journey was only 20 minutes so of course I decided to ride- the newness of Diagon Alley was really drawing crowds away. Since I'd seen the queue twice last year, I entered the single rider line which was a walk on. Forbidden Journey always makes me a bit motion sick but I ride it anyway because it's amazing and unique. And it's Harry Potter.
It had been an hour since my ice cream, so clearly it was time to get a Butterbeer classic. As always, I decided to go to the Hog's Head tavern because it's air conditioned and has a short line. Plus, there's an area with tables in the back that's never crowded because a lot of people probably don't realize it's there.
Not being interested in anything else at Islands of Adventure, I boarded the Hogwarts Express back to London and Universal Studios Florida. The on ride entertainment was slightly different in this direction. I was really hungry and somehow forgot about the Simpsons food court (D'oh!) so I ended up ordering spaghetti and meatballs at Louie's Italian Restaurant. I wouldn't recommend doing that- I'm not picky about theme park food, but this was truly mediocre.
I rode the one non-Harry Potter ride that I wanted to revisit from last year- The Mummy which is an excellent hybrid of a dark ride and a mild coaster. And then I returned to The Wizarding World to meander at my leisure.
But first I went back to Gringott's because I hadn't been able to find my lens cap after I'd removed my belongings from the locker there. It's pretty cheap to replace, but I didn't relish the idea of having nothing to protect my lens for the rest of the trip (at the time, I still even didn't have a lens hood) By some stroke of luck, I actually remembered my locker number. The team member checked her computer and informed me that someone had just
put their belongings in the locker so they couldn't open it. But she told me to come back in a couple hours because she'd put the locker out of service so that no one could be assigned to it once the current owners claimed their belongings.
There wasn't a line to go into Ollivander's to see the little show where the wand chooses the wizard so I went in. During my experience, the shop keeper was played by a woman which I think I'd read was a new thing. She was excellent and the show was cute. I don't like to buy a lot when I travel anymore, but I still enjoyed browsing the various shops in the Wizarding World.
Among my wanderings, I wanted to make sure to see the 2 stage shows. Since the Universal app said that the Celestina Warbeck show would be at 1:30pm, I hung out in that area and waited for something to happen. And… nothing! Clearly this was a sign that it was time for another Butterbeer. The show finally started at 2, and the Tales of Beedle The Bard was pushed from 2 to 2:30. There are no signs anywhere in the area with show times… this glitch struck me as something that just wouldn't happen at Disney. Anyway, both shows were very well done and worth catching… if you can figure out when they are playing.
After the shows, I headed back to the Gringotts locker area, with a faint hope that maybe I could retrieve my lens cap. Wouldn't you know- the owners of the locker had just found my lens cap and turned it into the attendant?!? The timing, and the fact that I was even able to be reunited with my lens cap, was something truly out of the book of Disney magic.
I considered riding Gringotts again, but the line was still long and I was starting to feel cranky. It was also starting to rain, although that wouldn't have bothered me in and of itself. Having done all that I set out to do and wanting to be able to enjoy late night extra magic hours at Magic Kingdom, I decided to take a taxi back to my hotel for a rest. By any rational calculation, I spent way too much money on my relatively short jaunt to Universal (I was there for about 6 hours) but it was worth it to me.
On the way back to my hotel room, I finally spotted the King cupcake that was exclusive to Pop Century. This pastry is described as a chocolate cupcake "filled with Banana Custard, Peanut Butter Icing, topped with Candied Bacon and drizzled with Chocolate." It was… interesting.
Well rested, I headed out for the Magic Kingdom at 7:30pm and braved the huge line for the bus. I left my big camera at the hotel because I wanted to travel more lightly and didn't need to take a lot of photos. Magic Kingdom has always been my favorite Florida park so I was excited to walk through the gates.
After using my Big Thunder Mountain Fastpass as soon as it was eligible at 8:30, I headed across the way to one of my favorite rides, Splash Mountain. I felt way overdue to ride it- no trip is really official until I ride Splash, and fortunately the standby line was only 15 minutes. This ride was full of joy, especially because after the drop I found out that one of the fun people on my log was someone's 83 year old mother who'd insisted on riding. I decided it was one of my life's goals to ride it when I'm in my 80's; when I texted this to my nieces, they said they'd take me. So now I have it in writing so that if I get senile, I won't forget!
After exiting Splash… I looped back and got in line again. No, this ride never gets old! By some freak of timing, when my log got back to the loading area, the line was non existent. My mind was all about "occupy log", something I thought wouldn't happen during a summer holiday weekend. Even before the cast member finished asking if anyone wanted to ride again, I was all "hell, yeah!" You don't need to ask me twice! This time, I was able to see some of the Main Street Electric Parade from my log. So much awesome!
Since I still had a Fastpass Plus, I looped back in line for a 4th ride. (Occupy Log was not possible this time since there were people waiting) I saw some of the fireworks this time, but unfortunately they were over right before the big drop. By now it was after 10pm, and I was getting hungry so I figured I'd head to Pinocchio's Haus (of silliness) for some nostalgia by way of the Rapunzel Restroom area (yes, I was ridiculously excited to stop there; the area is way too awesome looking to just be a restroom). Unfortunately, Pinocchio's had already closed for the night- don't they know that there are hungry people at 10:30pm?!? Especially when the park is open until 2am for extra magic hours.
So instead of eating, I took my first journey on the new Seven Dwarfs mine train ride since the ride was nearby and my Fastpass window had just opened. It was definitely cute, but I was a little underwhelmed even after hearing the lack of hype. I think that if it had been a little longer, it could have been great.
Since the queue seemed empty, I headed over to the Enchanted Tales with Belle, which I hadn't been able to see my last trip. Even though I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan, I wasn't expecting much. But it was really cute! The concept of the show was that audience members surprise Belle by re-enacting the story of when she met the Beast as Lumiere narrates. I was slightly disappointed not to be chosen to participate; if I'd known that participants get their photo taken with Belle, I probably would have tried to volunteer for one of the last parts.
After getting a delicious, refreshing Lefou's Brew (frozen apple juice with toasted marshmallow foam), I finally headed to one of the very few places where you could still order something resembling a meal which was Cosmic Ray's in Tomorrowland. I wasn't too thrilled with the choices (they had a limited menu that late), but I decided to get a kid sized chicken nuggets. When I went to place my order, the CM asked me if I wanted a child or adult sized. I was confused since there was no adult size on the menu… But apparently, they just changed the kids nuggets to use the same chicken as the adult so they could offer an adult sized meal at that hour even though it wasn't on the menu yet. Score!
By the time I was done eating, it was officially extra magic hours- this means that guests at Disney resorts could experience select attractions for 2 hours after the park is closed to the public (it used to be 3, and even before that there was a different program that was even better but that's irrelevant). I started out in Tomorrowland: getting a pathetic score of 25,300 on Buzz Lightyear and then riding the classic Space Mountain.
And then… it was time for me to be a kid and partake of the wonders of Fantasyland while most little ones were in bed. After riding Pooh, I headed over to "It's a Small World". It was a walk on and there was absolutely no one waiting when I got off so I suppose I could have theoretically stayed on my boat. But "Occupy Small World" is definitely not
a thing. I mean, I don't hate the ride or the song like many do- I actually think it's quite cute and it has a high level of nostalgia. But… once is definitely enough! So I headed to Peter Pan.
If meeting princesses after 1am is your thing, there is no better place to be than at the Magic Kingdom. There was no line for Cinderella and Rapunzel so I got in line. I always feel a little awkward at meets for face characters, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. Then I checked "Ride Dumbo at a ridiculous hour" off my bucket list- not that it was really on there to begin with. Wheeeee!
I went back on Space Mountain for a few last thrills. When exiting, the moving platform wasn't working, so when the recording asked us to please not sit on the moving handrails, someone blurted out something about how maybe they wouldn't if it was actually moving.
There were only a few more minutes before the lines closed at 2am so I decided to book it back to the Princess area to see if the line for Anna and Elsa was reasonable. The meet with the Frozen princesses is currently the
hottest attraction at Disney World, with waits that are sometimes reported to be in the absurd range where they are measured in hours and not minutes. Getting Fastpasses to meet them is like winning the lottery; and while I already had a Fastpass for the next day, I figured that if I met them at 2am, I could swap that for a different attraction. I ended up being the 2nd to the last person in line; there was a man behind me carrying a baby who wanted to get the CM's to let in his wife and daughter when they were done with another attraction, but when the line is closed, it is CLOSED. So they'd just have to be jealous of him.
On the way out of the park, I was surprised that the stores along Main Street were already closed. I'm so used to them being open for an hour or 2 after the park closes- except for in Tokyo Disney. So there was no reason to linger and I headed out the gates at around 2:30am, as I received a high 5 from a cast member wearing a Mickey glove.
The good news was that a bus to my resort was waiting. The bad news was that I had to stand- and my feet were killing me! The worse news was that I was being crowded by someone's backpack. I carry a backpack myself, but I try to at least be cognizant of people around me when in crowded situations.
Finally, I got back to my hotel room at 3am and wrote down a single word in my notes: "Collapse" What a day! But it was all amazing, and I especially enjoyed my whimsical tour of Magic Kingdom kiddie attractions at ridiculous hours. Thank goodness I'd taken a mid-day break or I don't think I'd have made it to 2am.