Newest Review: ... for) which is a nice touch. There is also an E.T gift shop at the exit, for all of your E.T needs! In my opinion this is a classic U... more
The Second Happiest Place on Earth (or maybe the third or fourth)
Universal Studios (Florida)
Member Name: Renza_e
Universal Studios (Florida)
Date: 29/08/12, updated on 20/09/12 (41 review reads)
Advantages: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! What a park!
Disadvantages: A few disappointing rides, expensive gift shops and long summer queues.
A visit to Universal Studios, Florida had long been an ambition of mine ever since my gran went there in the 90s. She had told me at length about some of the rides. One in particular caught my imagination: 'The E.T Adventure'. She said that when she entered the attraction she was asked her name by one of the ride assistants. 'Roberta', the man repeated back to her, 'That's a very SCAT-ish name' (Oh, I do love it when Americans treat us Scots like a novelty). She told me that the ride itself involved sitting on a bike and flying through the night sky, just as Elliott does in the film, over tree tops and teenie tiny little buildings. She described her astonishment as the ride neared its end and a life-sized E.T thanked her and each rider individually by name (hence why she was asked her name before she went on the ride). It all sounded very fantastical to my nine year old self. I would just have to go to this place one day...
Back in the summer of 2009 I worked at a Girl Scout camp in Ohio. Well, I would hardly call it work. It was a hell of a lot of fun, I made some new friends and when I was done being camp counsellor I spent two weeks touring the east coast with Trek America. On this trek stayed over in Orlando for a night but we were only given enough time to visit Disney before heading down to the Florida Keys. I never did get to visit Universal. However, fast forward to this year and I was attending the wedding of one of the lovely girls I met at summer camp. After the wedding in Ohio my boyfriend and I both headed down to Florida and I made a personal point of going to Universal not just for one day, but for two days. Universal Studios, you see, is made up of two different parks - the original Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure. If you really want to make the most of your time there it really is best to get a two day ticket and visit both parks separately on two different days. I wouldn't even bother trying to visit both on the same day - it's one or the other...
*~A VERY UN-SCOTTISH HOGSMEADE: HOGWARTS IN 100 FAHRENHEIT HEAT~*
On our first day to Universal Studios, there was no question about which park we would visit first. I have always been a massive Harry Potter fan (yes, I know, just like everyone else) and I was desperate to go to the 'Wizarding World of Harry Potter'. So off to the Islands of Adventure we went. We had barely stopped in the park for ten minutes before I had whisked Daz, my boyfriend off to Hogsmeade. And what a sight. It's very strange but rather brilliant to find something quite so British bang in the middle of Florida. Entering the gates of Hogsmeade you are politely reminded to 'Respect the Spell Limits' and are greeted by the strange sight of a snow-topped village in the heat of the Floridian sunshine. Look to your right, and there's a wonderful replica of the Hogwarts Express. Look straight ahead and you'll see a whole host of shops recognisable from the books: Honeydukes, Zonkos, Ollivanders and many more. On a summer day like this one you will also no doubt be faced by throngs and masses of people. Damn Muggles, you were not meant to be there. Shoo! Back from whence you came...
If you can ignore the peculiar heat, then the streets of Hogsmeade seem like they have been lifted right from the pages of a Potter novel. As delighted as I was by this, I still felt a little unsettled by the idea of it all. It was like when I went to see a Queen and Paul Rodgers gig back in 2008. I applauded Rodger's gravelly vocals and watched in awe as Brian May delved into his signature guitar solos just feet away from me. However, the whole time I was there I thought this sad, unpleasant thought: 'Ach, I want Freddie. It's not the same without him.' It was the same with Universal's Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. As much as I enjoyed my butterbeer and the fake snow on the rustic-style buildings, it all felt wrong in the 100 degree fahrenheit heat. I wanted the real Hogwarts in its Northern Scottish setting and its British eccentricities. I wanted a few more magical-looking people wandering about in long capes, maybe the odd individual rushing home as if they had just remembered they had left the cauldron on. Yes, you are probably thinking - You can't have that Sarah. Freddie is long gone and Hogwarts is a fictional place which sprung up from the recesses of J.K Rowling's fabulous imagination. Don't remind me. I'm still waiting on my letter from Hogwarts...
Ach well, a girl can dream and whilst I was in Hogsmeade I found myself spending a lot of time visiting the shops, admiring the Potter-themed goodies but not admiring the prices (see rant later in this write-up if you want to know about the prices). I bought myself a frozen Butterbeer in a souvenir mug and it was much tastier than expected. It is a very sweet drink with a foamy top which is quite difficult to describe. Probably the closest description came from an American friend who described as being like a combination of root beer or cream soda with butterscotch. I really didn't think I would like it. Even with my sweet tooth, I thought it would be too sickly and that I wouldn't have been able to manage more than a few gulps before downing some water. However, it is surprisingly refreshing and delicious. Not too sweet at all. Whoever crafted this recipe is worthy of an award from the Ministry of Magic itself.
As for the rides, the Dragon Challenge rollercoaster and Flight of the Hippogriff are great for a bit of a thrill but it is the 'Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey' that is the crowning jewel - not only of this park but of the whole of Universal Studios. It is a long wait but when you get inside the Hogwarts castle there is lots to see. Portraits move and talk to you. You bypass Godric Gryffindor, Rowena Ravenclaw, Helga Hufflepuff and Salazar Slytherin deep in conversation and well, argument (I was especially thrilled to hear Rowena's Scottish accent). You get to walk through Dumbledore's office, a replica of the film set and are addressed by the man himself. You even come across Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. At one point Ron even casts a spell which misfires causing a real amount of magical fluff to fall upon the waiting crowds. Hermione of course fixes this for him and it is not long before the trio disappear again underneath their invisibility cloak. The ride itself is stunning. It is the finest simulation ride I have ever been through. It takes you through Harry Potter's world, playing Quidditch and soaring above Hogwarts castle. I don't think I could even do justice describing it. You really have to experience it. As a fan I found it to be jaw-droppingly astonishing in the way that it immerses you in the Harry Potter world. I can even unashamedly admit I felt a little bit teary by the end I enjoyed it so much. Even my boyfriend, who has very little to do with Harry Potter thought that it was the best ride in the park. Absolutely magical.
*~EXPLORING THE REST OF THE ISLAND OF ADVENTURE~*
It took me a few hours before I could tear myself away from Hogsmeade to explore other parts of the park. We pretty much bypassed the Dr Seuss themed area of the park. I have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. I much prefer British children's fiction such as Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl. I tried to read some Dr Seuss when I was a kid but it just wasn't my thing and I found the'Cat in the Hat' film quite ghastly.
There are four other parts of the park that we did set to explore: The Marvel Superhero Island, the Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park and the Lost Continent. Superhero Island was a lot of fun particularly as I have been a fan of superhero films and TV series since I was a little girl, spending many afternoons watching the dodgy 90s Spiderman animations on Fox Cartoons. This part of the park looks like it was lifted right from one of the older Marvel comic books. There is none of the gloss and stylish panache of some of the newer superhero creations (think Nolan's 'Dark Knight' and Andrew Garfield's Spiderman). The sets look like they were lifted straight from an 1960s comic book and when you do come across some individuals dressed up like characters from the X-men they all look a little bit silly. Let's say that Wolverine is no Hugh Jackman. It is all big, bold and cheesy primary colours. The true American comic book hero.
For the thrill seekers on Superhero Island, there is the Incredible Hulk Coaster and Doctor Doom's Fearfall. As a bit of an adrenalin junkie, I really wanted to go on the Hulk Coaster but I am unfortunate to have a boyfriend who I can lovingly refer to as a bit of a wuss. He still hasn't forgiven me for dragging him on all the rides at Alton Towers (although I would have blamed his queasiness on the Naga curry he had the night before). I therefore settled myself with the Spiderman ride which was pretty fun. Universal are very good at simulation rides and 3D shows and in this 3D simulation ride you find yourself following Spiderman round New York as he fights various super-villains.
The rest of this park is pretty ho-hum in comparison to the Harry Potter and superhero part of the parks but still rather fun. My complaint about Jurassic Park was that there just wasn't enough animatronic dinosaurs and not enough rides. However, after being soaked in Bluto's Barges in Toon Town we did miss out on the Jurassic Park River Adventure for fear of being soaked again. In hindsight, I really wish we had gone on it as I think it may have given us the additional serving of the animatronic dinosaurs that I so desired.
After going around all the parks, we found ourselves heading back to Hogsmeade as it began to approach nightfall. I had to see Hogwarts at night and couldn't resist going back on the Forbidden Journey ride again. For us, the Islands of Adventure would have been nothing without this part of the park and I am really glad I didn't go to Universal in 2009 as it wouldn't quite have been worth my money without the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I even think they should expand it, build upon it and make it even bigger and more magical. Just as Cinderella's Castle has its own night show and fireworks display, I think that Hogwarts Castle should get its own one day....
*~15 years of anticipation: Was the Original Universal Studios all it was cracked up to be?~*
After our first day spent at the Islands of Adventure we decided to postpone our return to the original Universal Studios for another day, choosing to head over to the Kennedy Space Centre instead. That was the great thing about our 2 day pass. It didn't force us to visit the parks two days running and gave us the leisurely and more relaxing option of going to the Space Centre between visits.
Refreshed after a days break, we headed over the Studios. After my years of waiting, I had high hopes for this park. Possibly a little too high...
When I first got into the park I loved its focus on movie making and not just movie subject matter, which I suppose is something you would hope to expect from a studio theme park. The majority of the park looks like a classic film set and in some parts of the park you may expect some retro-looking 'broads' and 'gangsters' to step out on to the sidewalk. Sadly, this was not the case.
One of the first things that I did see at the park was an 'I Love Lucy' exhibition. Now, I've heard about 'I Love Lucy' but I'm not overly familiar with the show. I think that most Brits are probably the same. Ask us about Dad's army and Only Fools and Horses and you'd get quite a reaction. Ask us about I Love Lucy and from most of us you'll probably just draw blank stares. Nevertheless, I found the exhibition very interesting and charming. I felt I was getting a small history lesson about one of America's popular culture heroes.
As for the rides, it was a bit of a mixed bag. On one end of the spectrum, there is the brilliance of the more modern Simpsons, Men in Black, Mummy, Terminator and Shrek rides. I have already mentioned that Universal Studios excels in its simulation rides. The Simpsons ride was no exception. What I particularly loved about this simulation was the creativity and humour which reflects what you would find in an episode of the Simpsons. Another highlight of the park was the indoor Mummy ride which I found quite thrilling. Indoor roller coasters I particularly love as I enjoy the sense of the unexpected when you are plunged into darkness with unseen dips and jerks.
On the other end of the spectrum, a few of the older rides really seem to be showing their age. In the Twister ride, for example, you can see a lot of strings amongst its very rickety special effects. A cow flying through the area looked like it was suspended on rope. I guess this could be part of the joke and also part of the charm. Is it really that wrong to hold on to a few beloved retro rides? I recall my gran telling me all about how she jumped out of her skin when she went on the Jaws ride. Others have said that Jaws was a bit crap and looked ridiculously plastic when it rose up out of the water. Whatever the case, there were quite a few people who missed that plastic shark when they got rid of it in January this year. It has long been deemed an iconic Universal ride. Like E.T, it was there since the park's inception.
However, none of this sentiment will be able to diminish my disappointment at finally getting to ride the 'E.T. Adventure'. My boyfriend and I waited in the queue for quite a considerable time, we gave our names to the ride assistant who very impersonally touch typed it into a computer at the speed of light and we were given out 'Interplanetary Passports' (no friendly remarks upon my Scottishness). The room you enter before the ride was quite beautiful - a dark forest setting with various props from the film. Sadly, the ride was extremely underwhelming. I had hoped that you would get to rise up and swoop over towns as if you really were on a bike flying through the air. Instead it just felt you were driving through a rather pretty but not very remarkable set piece. To add insult to injury, I didn't hear E.T. saying my name. Maybe I wasn't listening hard enough. All I know is that after years of anticipation, I felt rather deflated.
Other than the rides, there are a few shows that run in the main park. Being a fan of Tim Burton, I thought I would catch the Beetlejuice show. I really wish I hadn't. The idea is that Beetlejuice had summoned Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein and the Wolfman and has transformed them into all-singing, all-dancing versions of themselves. Such a cringeworthy spectacle of cheesy rock and pop tunes, it churned up more bile within me than watching a particularly sentimental episode of Glee. I did have to laugh, however, when they played some Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Daz hates them with a passion and I could see that he wanted a pair of ear plugs when they belted out those tunes. Being British we were too impolite to leave...
Having entered the park at about 10 o'clock in the morning, we had had enough of the park by around 6 o'clock. A theme park really should make you want for more and encourage you to stay till closing time. This was not the case. We may have stayed for the Cinematic Spectacular show and firework display later in the evening had we not had to return a rental car...
*~Dining in the Park~*
I can't really provide much information on dining in the park as we really didn't eat much when we were there. The prices weren't too extravagant (about $11.99 for Fish and Chips at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade) but we made a decision that it would be better value to eat outside the park before and after we spent the day there. We did have one snack of chilli cheese fries on our second day at the park. It was probably priced over and above what we would have paid outside the park but it wasn't too expensive. Moreover, we filled up on a hearty portion of free salad and gherkins at the nearby burger salad bar...
*~UNIVERSAL GIFTS FOR THE UNIVERSALLY RIPPED OFF~*
Whilst the food wasn't too badly priced it was the gift pricing that really pissed me off. I had hoped to buy a few gifts and keepsakes from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but the prices were completely out of my budget. I know that theme parks inflate prices because park retailers fully expect people to buy the stuff but the prices at Universal Studios left me exceptionally disgusted. In the end, all I could really allow myself to buy was a frozen Butterbeer in a souvenir cup (just under $11), a Chocolate frog (just under $10) and several postcards for my friends (a dollar each). There's no denying that all of these items were rather special. The Butterbeer was very tasty. The chocolate frog was made of thick beautiful chocolate, came in beautiful packaging with a wizard card inside. All of the postcards I bought were stamped with a special owl post stamp outside the post office. The gifts on offer were terrific. However, when I wanted to buy myself a Marauders Map I had to draw the line as you were effectively spending twenty dollars on a piece of polythene wrapped illustrated paper. As tempting as the gifts may be for any Potter fan, if you don't have a great amount of money, you will probably balk at the prices...
*~BUYING YOUR TICKETS: MAKE SURE YOU SHOP AROUND~*
One thing that I would recommend doing when you purchase your tickets for Universal, is to shop around a bit. By no means, should you buy them from the Universal website. For example, you can get an adult 2 day pass for the park for $139.99 on the website but we paid around $20 less per ticket for our discounted tickets. We paid around £70 to £80 each for our tickets which, at around £30 to £40 per day you could argue is good value for a park as big and extravagant as Universal Studios. However, I do think we could have actually received an even better deal. Walking down International Drive we found several discount ticket booths and I got the sneaky and somewhat unpleasant suspicion that I could have purchased cheaper tickets there. Bottom line is, you really need to shop around at as many places as you can in places like International Drive and never settle for buying tickets from the website unless they suddenly start offering the deal of the century.
All in all, I ended my experience at Universal Studios with rather mixed feelings. I absolutely adored the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and thought it was one of the best attractions I have ever been to. I would rate it four stars and the reason it is one star short of five is because I wanted more of it. Here's to a bigger, better version of this in future incarnations of the park.
The rest of the park, unfortunately, just left me feeling a touch disappointed. The rides and shows, on the whole, didn't live up to my expectations...
I have considered that my slightly negative experience of Universal Studios could have been contributed to by the fact we visited during the height of summer. I had gone to the USA to attend my friend's wedding and I did wish that she hadn't chosen to schedule her wedding in the middle of July. As a couple without kids, we probably would have chosen a less popular and less expensive time to visit the States. By visiting in July we were probably visiting when the park was at its busiest. Had we visited during the off-peak season we may actually have been able to go on more rides and wouldn't have had to deal with queuing in the ridiculous Florida heat when a ride was busy.
Deep down I know that I would have enjoyed it more in a month like February. Last time I was in Florida we visited Disney at the start of September and it was gloriously quiet. Had we visited Universal when it was quietest I am quite sure that we would have had a much more enjoyable time.
We did have the option to buy an Express pass which costs from around twenty to fourty-odd dollars. However, I entirely resented the idea of paying additional money just so we could get on the rides more quickly. Disney have a free system where you can get a fast pass ticket and visit more popular rides at a later allocated time. At Universal they did away with this system to introduce a money-grabbing paid system. All this does is creates a sort of 'under class' of those who cannot afford to buy Express passes and those who grudge paying for them having already paid a lot for their park ticket.
Whilst I was at Universal Studios I heard an enthusiastic employee mockingly refer to the park as the second happiest place on earth. With a ticketing system like that, I am not surprised. Disney clearly wins and I do know that I had a much more favourable experience visiting Disney back in 2009. Whether this was due to the timing of my visit or because the attractions are just superior, I am somewhat undecided.
I fully realise that you should avoid theme parks during the summer holidays but I cannot hide my disappointment with a few of the rides and the ridiculous gift shop pricing. Had it not been for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it would have been easy to feel entirely disappointed with the trip. However, Hogsmeade and Hogwarts was a real treat and I would definitely go back just for that. I would just make sure there were a few less Muggles about...
*~Thank you for reading my review. Nice to be reviewing again. You will also find this review on Ciao under Renza - August 2012~*
Edited in September: I can't believe no one pointed out the massive editing mistakes I made e.g. bad spelling, duplicated paragraphs, etc. Oh dear....
Summary: Universally Overrated!