Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Universal Orlando and Seaworld Travel Tips

For those of you planning or thinking of planning a trip to Universal and / or Sea World, I thought I'd compile a short list of dos and don'ts for you.

  • Spring for the higher-end resort. Staying at Loews Royal Pacific over Cabana Bay gave us all free Universal Express Passes. Had we added them onto our reservation for Cabana Bay, we would have ended up spending a few hundred more. (BTW, the Express Passes are nothing like Disney's Fast Passes. The Express Pass is a ticket in hand that allows you to join a separate line at an attraction that offers the Express Pass advantage. Workers scan the pass as you first enter the line and again up at the front just before you ride.)
  • Staying at Loews Royal Pacific or Loews Sapphire Falls gives you the option of taking a water taxi to CityWalk. Because of the chance of having to wait on a boat, you won't necessarily save any time over walking, but it is a an enjoyable and relaxing experience. Extra points if you have a captain who entertains the audience!
  • You are allowed to bring bags and food into the park. We even saw a few families with coolers. If this is something you don't mind, you can skip a meal plan entirely. Because larger bags won't fit in the lockers though, not everyone will be able to ride together. Someone will have to stay back with the larger bags.
  • That said, even in the fine dining restaurants, dinner at CityWalk and in the parks is not terribly expensive. Entrees run between $14-$20. Less for kids' meals. If that's too much for your budget, there are a variety of quick service restaurants with hearty servings in the $6-$8 range.
  • Dining reservations are not required but they are helpful. It works more like advanced seating, but during peak hours can trim up to 20 minutes off your wait time. Bookings open 30 days prior.
  • If you do any shopping in the parks, you can ask for free delivery to a designated point to collect before leaving. So no need to backtrack halfway across the park for a special souvenir you saw earlier in the day.
  • If you book a 3-day ticket like we did, and have school-aged children, spend a second day at Islands of Adventure. Both parks are fun and no matter their age, children will be enamored for hours. However, Islands of Adventure has more thrills that older children will like. There was more to do in the Hogsmeade section that Diagon Alley (although if we talk about more to see, then its the reverse).
  • Also with school-aged children, you won't see everything each park has to offer in one day. It's just not possible. Therefore park hopping seems like an additional stress to me, trying to squeeze in more than one day will allow, ending up with tired, cranky kids the next day. So we skipped the park hopper, which meant that we didn't get to ride Hogwarts Express from one park to the other. But you know what, the kids didn't even notice. The DH and I just steered their attention to something else Potter as we passed the stations. When they're older, sure we'll spring for the upgrade, but for now, it wasn't necessary.
  • If you lost anything in the parks, and it ends up in the lost and found, Universal will ship it free of charge anywhere in the United States.
  • Download a park map and look up the ride details for the younger members in your family. Some may be too intense or the kids may not be tall enough to ride. And don't be like me, actually remember to refer to your notes!
Sea World
  • Universal has a free shuttle to and from Sea World. You must book it 24 hours prior but it was pretty hassle free.
  • If the One World show with Shamu and Friends is top of your list, make note of the time you want to go and get there early. Especially for the evening shows as the stadium fills up quickly.
  • If you sit just off center, on either side, even in the splash zone, likely you will not get wet. Dead center (behind the platform) or further left or right will get you what you seek.
  • Try to avoid the playground. It is enormous with multiple exits!! It will likely be overcrowded and you will lose sight of your kid within minutes!
  • If you plan to spend the entire day, pack a lunch. Like Universal, there is no restriction on bringing food into the park. Food is incredibly expensive at Sea World, even quick service. If you don't want to lug food along, your next best option is to spring for the All-Day Dining Deal, which starts at $35 for adults and $20 for kids. Not bad for lunch and dinner.
  • We didn't opt for the Front of the Line Access Pass but truthfully didn't need it. We didn't ride Manta, Kraken or Mako so we avoided those wait times. We moved around the park a lot so if one attraction was too crowded, we simply moved on to something else and back tracked when the line slowed (like during a One World show). The exception was Journey to Atlantis. It was one of those hour long waits, without the scenery, but we entertained ourselves best we could.
  • Lastly, research the rides before you go for intensity, height requirements, etc.
Happy travels!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Universal Orlando and Sea World Thanksgiving

For the last few years, we spent Thanksgiving Day in the country with elderly friends and their family. Sadly, the patriarch passed away a few months ago and I decided my little family of four needed our own Thanksgiving tradition. That's when the idea for a Thanksgiving vacation was born.

We hit the road first thing Sunday morning and made it to Orlando by dinner. After checking in to the luxurious Lowes Royal Pacific, we took a water taxi to CityWalk to dine at Margaritaville. The food was divine and the atmosphere could not have been more festive. Jimmy Buffet music videos played on screens shaped like sails until it was time for the live band to take over. Then in the middle of dinner we were greeted by a balloon animal maker, dressed as a lifeguard on stilts, who made treats for the kids. That was a big hit! We spent a little time exploring more of CityWalk before taking a water taxi back to the resort.

On Monday, we went to Islands of Adventure. The big draw was Jurassic Park and Hogsmeade so we raced past everything else and spent most of our day in these two areas. In Jurassic Park, we had a close encounter with an animatronic raptor. (We still flinched when it rubbed its head against us.) Attraction highlights included the Jurassic Park River Adventure featuring an 85-ft plunge into the river below and the Pteranodon Flyers which gave us a bird's eye view of the park. In the Discovery Center we handled dinosaur eggs and met a newly hatched T-Rex. Awesome sauce!

Over in Hogsmeade, the attraction to end all attractions was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I don't think any attractions in Hogsmeade accepted the Express Pass, which meant we had to wait more than an hour for our turn. But in the words of Stinky, "The wait was so worth it!!!" Another favorite was Flight of the Hippogriff, which did not have a line so the kids were able to ride multiple times.

Next we headed over to The Lost Continent where the kids were intrigued by the talking Mystic Fountain.We never did figure out if there was someone in there or close by with a microphone. Afterward, we went to see Sinbad which was a little cheesy but entertaining for the kids.

Lunch was quick service ribs and turkey legs, followed by dinner at Mythos. Mythos is rated one of the top theme park restaurants in the world, and while the décor and service were delightful, after a full day walking, I was ready for more then nouvelle cuisine. Especially since we were prepared to close to park and on track to hit almost 13,500 steps!

Tuesday we went to Sea World. The park was all decorated for Christmas (Islands of Adventure was not quite dressed yet the day before) which was super exciting. Our favorite attraction was Journey to Atlantis. That's me below in the poncho, head down, screaming my lungs out. The kids begged and begged to ride Mako and Manta but weren't quite tall enough. Not sure I would have let them anyway, little dare devils!

We also enjoyed the One Ocean show with Shamu and Friends. So much in fact that we saw it twice. Well that and during the first show, even though we sat up front in the Splash Zone, we didn't get a drop of water. Blinky was devastated! The second time however, on the advice of an employee, we sat in a section guaranteed to get wet. That did it. We were soaked through! #sevenyearoldbucketlist

I was also impressed with Sea World's dedication to conservation. The killer whale show has been under intense criticism the last few years. However in a video before the show, the trainers explained the efforts Sea World is making to improve the habitat for the whales, educating its visitors and shedding its sullied reputation, thereby continuing to collect admission tickets (let's face it, we could have gone on a roller coaster anywhere, we wanted to see the whales), a portion of which continues the conservation effort for a number of sea creatures.

Serendipitously we stumbled across an animal show and scored reserved seating up front as the theatre was packed. This was a super cute show featuring dogs, cats, bird, a pig, skunk and mouse. Afterward, we got to meet several of the dogs on stage.

We then spent some time on the enormous playground, which by the way has multiple exits and is therefore a complete nightmare for helicopter moms. I watched a little girl wander out of the play area obviously disoriented and immediately started crying for her mom. I was about to ask her if she needed help when another Mom beat me to it. Having witnessed that, the DH and I corralled the kids and moved on to peruse the Christmas lights.

My only complaint was the cost of food at Sea World. Lunch was ridiculously expensive. While we had a Universal Meal Plan, we were on our own for Sea World. Three chicken finger plates (fingers and fries), one hot dog sandwich with grapes, and three bottles of water was an astounding $51!! Still, it was a wonderful experience! And who would have guessed we'd close this park too!!

On Wednesday, we visited Universal Studios. Here we saw  a myriad of Universal characters including Gru and company, Shrek, Beetlejuice, The Blues Brothers, Transformers, The Terminator, Dora and SpongeBob.

The kids were anxious to visit Diagon Alley but we managed to hold them off long enough to ride Minion Mayhem, Shrek 4-D and Transformers 3-D. Stinky and the DH even scored a picture with a Decepticon. Blinky was terrified of its size and wouldn't go within 20 feet of it.

The DH, who by Day 4 had enough of motion simulated rides said goodbye to the kids and myself as we headed off to Revenge of the Mummy. Stinky chickened out while on the line because of the room's ominous sounds and lights but Blinky hung tight. Not for long though. As soon as the ride ended, she broke down into tears and vowed never to go on that "dumb ride" again. When I checked my notes, I had marked it as possibly intense for her, but seemed to have forgotten that. #badmommy

She wasn't down for long though as we headed to Diagon Alley next. First thing you see as you enter is Gringotts Bank protected by a roaring, fire-breathing dragon atop. Again, Express Passes could not be used in Potterland so we had another hour long wait for Escape From Gringotts Bank. The wait however was mostly inside the bank, taking in the animatronic goblins and exquisite décor. The lure must have been greater than I imagined because even the DH joined us on this one. And it did not disappoint!

We visited Ollivanders where a lucky girl was chosen by a wand, then led into a wand room where you could hear a pin drop. Wands were being sold faster than you could say Accio Wand, but at $48 a pop, this was one activity we had to forego, much to the dismay of Stinky and Blinky. (Don't worry, I hear Santa has the great deal with Amazon where licensed Ollivander wands are sold at a discount.)

Following Gringotts, we enjoyed a proper English meal at the Leaky Cauldron of bangers and mash and shepherd's pie. Not my favorite but the atmosphere could not be beat. Following this, we explored a few gift shops and left the area via Knockturn Alley. Luckily, we got out of there quickly before we got into trouble with the less than savory characters who roam there.

We lounged a little, taking in a Blue Man-type construction music group and the Superstar Parade, then backtracked to the Rip Ride Rocket which the kids had been drying to ride. They were on their own for this one as the DH was afraid he would get motion sick and I can't do any roller coasters that go upside down. Seriously, in the time it took for me to walk from where I was waiting in line with them to the non-rider section, they were done. The DH and I estimated no longer than 45 seconds. But apparently it was worth it. They squealed with delight the entire time.

Dinner was at Lombard's Seafood Grille. This was one of my favorite meals the entire trip. With our reservation, we were able to go back at 9 to watch the firework show, Cinematic Spectacular, but declined as the late nights were starting to catch up with us. And by us, I mean the grown ups.

Before leaving, we went to watch the Terminator 3-D show. This was new to the kids of course, but brought back great movie memories for the DH and myself. (We plan on binge watching all the Terminator movies with the kids one weekend over Christmas break.)

As we were getting ready to leave the park around 8, we thought about staying an extra hour to take in the firework show but eventually decided against it. Maybe next time.

On Thursday, we headed back to Islands of Adventure. This time I warned the kids we were going to visit some of the other sections of the park. First we tackled The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man. (Fun fact...the DH and I did this very same ride some 12 years ago when we were dating!) Blinky wasn't crazy about this one because she found the villains threatening.

Next came Ripsaw Falls and Bilge Rat Barges. Our ponchos held up great on the falls, but we were soaked through on the barges from head to foot!

We ventured over the Skull Island to see King Kong. The line meandered into a cave-like structure adorned with skulls and an animatronic witch warning us to stay away in a strange language. There were also rhythmic drums. The kids were petrified! As we moved deeper into a cave, strange creatures reached out of holes in the walls to grab us. Well that did it for the kids. They opted to stay in the family room while the DH I and rode. The build up to the safari ride in the jungle was huge and while the ride was satisfying, I kinda enjoyed the wait in line more. Weird right?

Lunch was quick serve buffalo chicken fingers. Dinner was supposed to be at Mythos again, but we made a last minute switch. More on that in a bit.

Later we ventured over to Seuss Landing. Initially Stinky protested the "baby section" but you would have never known it. The Cat in the Hat was a nice throwback, we got a little more wet on the One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish ride (which the kids rode multiple times) and transformed into Sneetches on the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride.


We eventually ended up at Hogsmeade where Stinky and I did the Forbidden Journey attraction again (its truly incredible what you see your second go round with your eyes open), while the DH and Blinky hunted down Dippin Dots and took in a Harry Potter stage show. After meeting up, the kids and I rode Flight of the Hippogriff, followed by the kids riding over and over and over again. Then we went in search of Butterbeer which was described as a cross between butterscotch and shortbread. I opted for the original over the frozen. It was a nice treat and I'm happy I tried it but its not worth a snack credit in my opinion. A beverage credit sure, but a snack? Really Universal??

We then headed to the Jurassic Park Discovery Center for the kids to indulge in their pseudo-science games. Stinky loved the interactive game that blended his DNA with that of a dinosaur to produce an entirely new species. He especially loved the facial recognition scan. I remember telling him not to press his lips to the scan, never thinking to mention he shouldn't take off his glasses!

Eventually we exited the park in favor of dinner at CityWalk. We celebrated our Thanksgiving meal at Bob Mary's Tribute to Freedom. It was as close as I could get to Bahamian food. The DH had curried shrimp, while I had jerk chicken with rice and peas. The kids had Jamacarooni and cheese. See what they did there? Ha Ha!!

After dinner, the plan was to cash in our remaining beverage credits at City Walk and take the water taxi back to the shuttle. As luck would have it, the booths there don't accept the meal plan. So with the park closing in 15 minutes, we went back in to get our drinks. Yeah, I'm cheap like that. LOL!

After a good night's sleep, we reluctantly prepared to leave. As we're literally about to walk out to door I tell Stinky to grab his glasses. Wouldn't you know it, they were no where to be found. After some panic, and semi-destroying the hotel room, I went through the camera to figure out when last he had it. Have you guessed yet? The facial recognition scanner at the Juriassic Park Discovery Center! A call to Islands of Adventure lost and found was disappointing. We loaded up the car and headed back to the park to beg our way in to search ourselves.

While on the Guest Services Line, we cornered a very nice and super helpful rep. While he wouldn't let us back in the park (although I suspect he was close to) a few calls did determine the Discovery Center didn't turn in their lost and found the night before. Someone was checking the box. In the meantime, the rep told us if the glasses turn up, Universal would ship them to us free of charge. While grateful for that option, I preferred to wait, not trusting glasses being shipped in the mail.

Because God smiled on us that morning, the glasses were found and were en route to the front Guest Services office. It was a bit of a wait, but as Stinky would say, "well worth it." The glasses were in tact and back on Stinky's face. We thanked the rep repeatedly and met with his supervisor to leave a formal note of thanks on his file.

Back to the resort to get the car, we headed over to the world's largest Mcdonald's to meet with sweet friends who moved to Orlando two summers ago. Our time was much shorter than planned but it was so nice seeing them and watching the kids play together. Just like old times.

We made it home late Friday night and spent the rest of the weekend trying to catch up on sleep and return to some sort of post-vacation normalcy. My neighbor saved a full southern Thanksgiving meal for us which we gladly ate Saturday.

So that was our new family Thanksgiving. No, its not a traditional but I here's why I think we'll continue doing it this way. We gain a week of stress-free family bonding filled with excitement and memories to last a lifetime. And isn't exactly that the point? Whatever you did and however you celebrated, I hope yours was the same way.