Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure (including Harry Potter!) – Vacation Part 1

Universal Studios Florida has 2 theme parks and 4 hotels. Each theme park features a different area that is part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Islands of Adventure has Hogsmeade, designed as the snowy village with Hogwarts Castle as the focal point. Diagon Alley recently opened at Universal Studios and it’s a busy city street, complete with hidden alleys, storefronts, and Gringotts Bank as the focal point.

While we had visited both parks years ago, we hadn’t been since any of the Harry Potter sections had opened.

Now I’m obviously a huge Disney fan but I gotta give Universal props on these areas. They are nothing short of amazing. Diagon Alley even more than Hogmeade. Everywhere you look is something new, clever, animated. Lifted straight from the pages of the books.

Hogsmeade is beautiful and quiet. Well, as quiet as a theme park is.

Universal is pretty hard core about bags so we went totally hand’s free our 2 days there. Which meant I only my phone to take pics with – and you can tell! ­čÖé You can bring bags in but many rides require you put them in a locker, which is a hassle.┬á

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If you have a park to park ticket, you can actually ride the Hogwarts Express between the two areas!

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Inside Hogwarts Castle is a ride, the Forbidden Journey. And it’s amazing – and hard to describe. We went straight there when we arrived and had little wait. This is both good and bad. Good, obviously, we didn’t have to wait but bad because there is SO MUCH inside the castle that we didn’t get to really see and hear so we were a bit lost as to what we were doing ON the ride.

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I threw my interior shots into Lightroom and tried to blow them out so you can see some of what was going on but it’s still really hard to see. These portraits are talking to you – just like in the movies/books.

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The characters appear, talking to you about your journey, and it snows inside the castle. It’s pretty amazing – and the ride is AWESOME.

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One of the cool features of both areas is Ollivander’s Wand Shop. You can’t buy wands there (anymore) but you can go in as a small group and watch a wand choosing. Someone in the group is randomly chosen to participate and it’s really neat. Here’s another blown out picture from the (teeny tiny) shop:

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It’s really well designed inside and the shopowner is fantastic at his job. We waited about 30 minutes and thought it was worth it. It’s a magical feature of the area.

We had lunch at Three Broomsticks – also, incredibly detailed in it’s design. It’s a quick service and British themed in its menu.

Jason ordered the smoked chicken meal; it was fantastic and a great deal at $10.

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I got the kid’s fish and chips plate for $5 + a Butterbeer for $3.

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Islands of Adventure has several other amazing rides, like Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk. We encountered very short lines and finished the entire park by 2pm!

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Later that week, we returned to do the other park, Universal Studios, which had the new Diagon Alley area.┬áIn all honesty, this park┬áhas more to offer as far as rides. We were able to hit almost everything we wanted to do but it took us until almost 5pm. We rode the new Transformers ride but couldn’t bring ourselves to wait another 60+ minutes for the new Despicable Me ride. The Mummy is still a favorite of ours along with Shrek and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.

It was HOT so we went for an air-conditioned full service restaurant for lunch, Finnegan’s. I had done very little research on Universal dining (shocking, I know!) but we ended up thrilled with our choice. Finnegan’s is┬ádesigned as an Irish pub and has an Irish inspired menu.

You start with Irish Soda Bread and apple butter. Yum and yum!

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I ordered the Celtic Chicken Club Salad with a Mustard Ale Dressing. It was delicious!

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Jason ordered the Dublin Chicken Sandwich, and loved it:

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Mom ordered the Shamrock Steak Sandwich, also happy:

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And Bobby ordered their Shepherd’s Pie, which he said was very good:

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After lunch, we went towards Diagon Alley. As you approach, you’re in the streets of London.

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Behind those walls is an entire world hidden from view. It’s seriously SO COOL. You enter under the station and wind up right on Diagon Alley.

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Crowded bustling streets lined with shops, interactive windows (animated with the magic of the wand you can purchase!) and so many things to look at. It’s twisted around and hard to describe, which is what they wanted. There are a couple of hidden alleys with more cool things (too dark to photograph) and a couple of other streets.

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At the center of it all is Gringotts Bank, which is also the one and only ride in this area. The top of the bank has the dragon that roars, rattles, and blows fire occasionally.

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The ride never had less than a 90 minute wait so we decided to just go for it. It ended up being a tad less, even with a 20 minute ride shut down that left us sitting on the floor in part of the queue. The ride seems to still have some issues staying up but thankfully, by the time we rode it, we got to finish without it shutting down. It stopped right as we were pulling back into the station.

Just like Hogwarts, the queue (minus the long winding outdoor area), is awesome. Pics of the queue – some incredibly blown out:

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The goblins occasionally look up from their work and look at you ­čÖé

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You sorta feel like you’re going over the river and through the woods, which is nice if you have to wait 90 minutes to ride something. Down stairs, through the vaults, down a long hallway, past papers that are animated, into a holding area, “down” an elevator, up some spiral stairs, etc. All incredibly themed. You really feel like you’re in the deep pit of a bank.

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This is a 3D ride, similar to the technology found in Spiderman and Transformers. With a little bit of roller coaster thrown in.

Was it worth the wait? Nah, not really, but we knew we didn’t get to US/IOA often and wanted to say we did it all. We all thought The Forbidden Journey was better. I think they still need to work on it more – the audio, keep it from breaking down all the time, etc – which I think they will.

The Diagon Alley area, though, was WELL worth the crowds. Amazing!!

Really the biggest negative regarding Universal is the walking. No, the park is not bigger than any of the Disney parks – it’s the dadgum parking garages! I kept a pedometer and our 2 Universal days were by far the most we walked, and we were at them a shorter amount of time than any other place. By the time you end up at the gate, you’re sweaty and ready for a nap. At least Disney gives you a tram ride to the gate ­čÖé And then when it’s time to go, and you’re EXHAUSTED, you have to trek back to your car. But really, the rides, food, employees, theming, etc are all top notch. It’s not a Disney replacement, esp since it’s lacking the incredible parades, shows, and fireworks, but their rides are better than anything Disney has churned out in the last 10 years (or more). Esp for people who love thrills like us!

More to come! ­čÖé

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