The last time I visited a Universal Studios I was 10 and on a family holiday to California and I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to make it to the Florida parks – especially since the addition of the Wizarding World I love so much.
The Florida site seems bigger for sure, and there are some new additions worth a mention (like the 4D King Kong ride) as well as some nostalgic favourites (e.g. the Jurassic Park log flume) which are starting to show their age against newer areas:
Universal Studios is actually comprised of two parks and the Wizarding World is split across both – with Hogsmeade and Hogwarts in the main park, while Diagon Alley and Gringotts are in the Islands of Adventure Park. It’s an entirely profit-driven move by Universal as you have to purchase tickets which get you into both parks to get the full experience.
Apparently there was a bidding war with Disney for the Wizarding World and Universal won. I can only assume they are still trying to recoup their expenditure because our visit was not cheap. But was it worth it…?
There are two Owl Posts – one in each park and while this one is purely decorative, you can actually use the one in Diagon Alley to send mail (including Wizarding World purchases).
For a small fortune you can also buy a wand which will make certain objects in the village windows move when you wave it at them.
There is something very unsettling about experiencing a supposedly snow-capped village in warm sunshine, while wearing tropical print shorts (ASOS Tall – Old).
But it’s even more unsettling when you’re making your way from the village to Hogwarts and you bump into a T-Rex. Don’t worry though, he calmed down after a Butterbeer (or several).
Hagrids Hut marks the entrance to the “Flight of the Hippogriff Ride” which is a smaller ride in the shadow of Hogwarts. Worth a go but by no means the main attraction in this part of the park.
The Hogwarts ride itself is like the majority of the rides in Universal Studios – a simulation coaster. You join Harry flying on a broomstick through the castle and grounds and while it’s not a patch on the Avatar Ride at Disney, it’s certainly good fun.
What Universal have done exceptionally well here and on other newer rides is to enhance the experience of queueing for the ride. Here, you wind your way through the Hogwarts grounds, via the herbology greenhouses, through corridors lined with talking portraits, passed Dumbledores office (above) and eventually into a classroom where you meet the famous 3 (Harry, Ron & Hermione) and get to experience a little magic with some more special effects.
When night falls Hogwarts is put under a new spell and it’s fabulous to watch it light up.
I had to get a picture of it in my house colours…
Part two and our second day: We entered via Universal Studios but boarded a train at Hogsmeade Station to make our way over to Diagon Alley in the Islands of Adventure park.
For me this was where the park could use some improvement as the story starts to vere away from the books and even the films. The story that plays out on the train ride throws together characters who had little to no interaction in the stories and I found it frustrating that the park and ride developers hadn’t done as much research as they maybe should have given the scale the story plays out on. And don’t even get me started on what passed for “Toad in the Hole” at the Leaky Cauldron…
Diagon Alley itself is true to fiction. It’s dominated by Gringotts (the main attraction in this part of the wizarding world) and the dragon from the seventh book spews out flames over the street sporadically.
Much like the Hogwarts ride, they’ve tried to make the queue an equal part of the attraction and it’s certainly a visual feast – but only once you get indoors.
The ride itself is thrilling – you take a runaway cart on a ride through Gringotts which will leave your stomach lurching. But again, it fell down on story for me and I found the inaccuracies too distracting from the overall experience.
Back on the Alley, you can visit Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Florean Fortescue’s or, if you’re feeling brave, Knockturn Alley.
There’s no show in this part of the park after dark (instead a light show plays out on the lagoon) but it’s worth taking a quick detour back to Diagon Alley before closing to see it lit up at night.
There’s a wide variety of restaurants outside the theme park and we rounded off our magical excursion with a trip to the Hard Rock Cafe.
After I had lived out my childhood dream at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it was time to let my Dad live out his.
[Bit of background if you are new around here… I work for my Dad and unbelievably, this was a work trip!]
My Dad was 9 when his family gathered around a black and white television set to watch man land on the moon. I don’t think he’s ever dreamed of travelling to space, but he loves all forms of transport – be it cars, boats or planes. And yes, rockets too.
I had imagined this was going to be a day of smiling politely and feigning interest while he ran around like a kid in a sweetshop, but after an hour, I was finding it all quite exciting as well.
Space travel doesn’t need any glamourisation, but NASA certainly know how to put on a show. If I had children, and I wanted to spark an interest in science or STEM fields – this is where I would take them.
I don’t think anyone could ever convince me to board a rocket, but I have a new found respect for those who do.
There are many educational resources at the Kennedy Space Centre but I found the film on their planned mission to Mars especially interesting. I’m not sure I see a need to push the boundaries of what the human body can endure, but for those who do want to venture further from earth, the work they are doing to support life in space is fascinating.
And if you aren’t able to venture to Florida yet, I would definitely recommend the film ‘Hidden Figures‘ in the meantime.
A couple of days after our trip to the Kennedy Space Centre, we headed south for our conference. It seemed wrong to bypass Cocoa Beach on the way so we made a slight detour for lunch.
This area is where the families of the astronauts lived in the 1960s, and the beach is where they gathered to watch their loved ones take off for the moon.
It’s relatively quiet compared to other tourist spots in Florida and we had a lovely peaceful lunch at the end of the pier, overlooking the ocean.
When I was 10, my Aunt won a Safari Trip in a photography competition. When she and my uncle arrived home they brought us souvenirs. I was given a necklace featuring “The Big 5” (Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros, Elephant and Buffalo). I’ve never worn it but the symbolism is something that has always stayed with me: You are an exceptionally lucky person if you get to view The Big Five (or any endangered creature) in the wild.
Not long after I got my necklace, Walt Disney World announced it was opening Animal Kingdom. I knew I might not ever get the chance to experience the real thing, but a Disney safari seemed like the next best thing to 10-year-old me.
Fast forward a couple of decades and (through hard work and some very good fortune) I found myself in Florida on a work trip. So as you can imagine, Animal Kingdom was the first park I wanted to visit.
I made a beeline for “Kilimanjaro Safaris” as soon as we were through the park gates.
I have to be honest, visiting as a 30-something, the safari area was a little smaller than my childhood memory had led me to believe, but of course I was much smaller back then…
Some animal rights campaigners don’t support zoos, for obvious reasons (lack of space, enrichment, animal welfare, etc) but most reputable keepers of big game will off-set that by directing some of their profits toward conservation. I also think parks such as this have a vital role to play in educating children and adults alike about the magic of the natural world and the need to protect and conserve it.
Looking at the wildlife documentaries and films available on Disney+ it certainly feels like this attraction is more than just an amusement park to the corporation. For honesty’s sake though I will say it would have been nice to see some more mental enrichment in this area of the park (which wasn’t overly large).
These guys in particular seemed a bit bored of their enclosure…
The safari itself is certainly educational and there are other resources dotted around for visitors too.
I had to share this as (being tall) I have a certain affinity with the Giraffe.
Back out in the main park there’s colour and life, everywhere you look. It’s classic Disneyland and makes you feel like you are wandering through one of their live-action remakes.
The street acts were just as impressive as the rides and attractions too.
Everest is a ride with a twist. I loved every second on that runaway cart.
We saved the best for last though. The Avatar Flight of Passage is billed as an immersive 3D ride through the world of Pandora (from James Cameron’s Avatar). Personally, I would have described it as 4D. It’s the best theme park ride I have been on to date. It’s that good. Get there early because naturally, everyone wants to ride the Banshee!
Visiting in February (2019) meant that nightfall came early so we finished our day with the Rivers of Light show on the lagoon.
Maybe it was the magic of Disney, or maybe it was the jet lag, but I found this show and it’s message very moving. Visually, it was stunning, and a real feat of aquatic engineering.