In Part 3 of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort, which has special vacation packages with Royal Caribbean Cruises, we share our experiences and offer some pointers for cutting line wait times. Part 2 was quite a while ago—Sept. 11; Part 1 appeared Sept. 5th. Blame Hurricane Irene cleanup in Virginia.
Although it’s a Friday morning and the beginning of a weekend, we’re able to check-into the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel early and move luggage to our room before noon. Unpacking, however, will wait until later. We’re finally off to the Islands of Adventure, taking one of the free water taxis that continually run from Portofino Bay to the landing serving both Universal theme parks and City Walk. Our water taxi travels through a lushly landscaped canal, bypasses the Hard Rock Hotel (each hotel has its own designated shuttles) and goes directly to the theme park dock, a ride of about 10 minutes. Another way to reach the theme parks is to take the sidewalk bordering the waterway. That would be a nice stroll in cooler weather, but with the water taxis starting as early as 6:30 am in summer and running until 2 am when City Walk closes, it’s an avenue we don’t bother to explore.
Both the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Orlando have the landmark rides and shows that have made them so famous: Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and more. Ironically, it’s an unadvertised experience the twins particularly enjoy because it’s a test of their strength and ingenuity. It’s a rock climbing wall near the Jurassic Park River Adventure. Blending in well with the jungle landscape, the rock wall is an extra $5 per person charge but well worth it. Much smaller than the ones on board many RCCL cruise ships, this wall is shaped like a tall cube; it also doesn’t sway from side to side.
Twins Emily and Andrew, equally competitive, are eager to start their climb. Andrew ascends to the top first to ring the bell at the summit. It is kind of an unfair contest since it’s obviously easier for Andrew to ascend on the left side than it is on the right. Emily trades places with Andrew and quickly reaches the summit while Andrew struggles to climb more than three-quarters of the way up. Since both can rightly consider themselves winners, they’re quite happy when we depart for the small but still impressive Harry Potter’s Wizarding World squeezed into a corner of the Islands of Adventure. Count on this expanding soon; it has to, based on Universal’s contract with J.K. Rowling to add 2 more rides from the Deathly Hallows films.
Anyone who started their Harry Potter fandom by reading the books will feel twice the awe they experienced as the film spectacles kept unfolding with one new wonder after another the first time they view the reproduction of J.K . Rowling’s famous books. I still sense a tingle in my spine every time I cross the bridge leading into the Wizarding World with Hogwarts Castle on my left and the permanently snow-covered roofs of Hogsmeade Village in front. Hearing the emblematic film music near the Hogwarts Express makes me feel 10 years old. From the looks and comments from Linda and the kids, it’s obvious they’re reliving Rowling’s magical surroundings as we experience the enchantment of Dervish and Banges, Honeydukes and Hogwarts Castle’s popular gift shop called the Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, named for Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry has made J.K. Rowling the richest woman in Britain and one of the wealthiest authors in history. I say well done, Jo Rowling, and thank you so much for enriching so many lives—and bringing some magic into them. People who can’t believe in magic don’t fully appreciate life’s many wonders, or look forward to the next possibility.
On this afternoon, the Wizarding World lines are long and the Forbidden Journey is not covered by Universal’s Express ride pass. Which is the only reason why the next morning we are up at 5:30 am in order to get ready for the first water taxi departure at 6:30 am for the 7 am opening of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World in the Islands of Adventure. We have an hour to ride the rides before the regular park hours and the 20 minutes it usually takes after that for crowds to start forming in the Wizarding World. (The 1-hour early admission is another on-site hotel stay bonus; opening hours change by season)
Others were ahead of us when we arrive at Hogwarts. We place our cameras and other loose items in the free lockers just inside the entrance (on the right). We join the quick-moving line that abruptly stalls. The complicated Forbidden Journey ride is known to have its tantrums; this must be one of them. After about 5 minutes, the line starts again. We tour the castle and arrive at the ride without delay. The ride stops when we’re about three-fourths through and the lights come on, revealing a surprisingly mundane view of a room that looks like a second-rate haunted house.
That behind-the-scenes view is brief and the technical difficulty is quickly forgotten as the five of us are hastily escorted to the front of the line for a second ride, this time with no hiccups. Afterwards, eating breakfast at the Three Broomsticks, our conversation ranged from what was the coolest part of the ride to whether did-you-notice-this-or-that?
By mid-afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-90s and the humidity closer to 100%, we’re dragging from the early morning wake-up time and return to our hotel . Some of us take a quick nap, others opt for poolside fun. Without being able to take this break, the rest of the day would have been pretty miserable. When we return to the park in the early evening, Austin stays behind because his allergies are bothering him. The twins want to see the Wizarding World when it’s at its most magical, after sunset, and have one more butter beer.
Much to my surprise, the line into Ollivander’s wand shop is only about a 20 minute wait, not the usual 90 minutes or 2 hours. Now spoiled by the instant access provided almost everywhere by the Express ride passes, Emily and Andrew are reluctant at such a “long” wait; talk about oblivious to theme park ways. We convince them to stay and a short time later we are crowded into Ollivander’s tiny shop where wand boxes cover the room from almost floor to ceiling.
Then we experience one of Universal’s best live presentations—also the type of shows the Wizarding World desperately needs more of. Mr. Ollivander, who with his beard and magical robes looks nothing like actor John Hurt, explains how “the wand chooses the wizard” and selects a boy of about 7 to demonstrate in a clever way with things going magically wrong with each wand choice except the final one. The twins are spellbound.
Our exit is through the wand shop (surprise!) where we choose our wands. Then we return to Hogsmeade’s main plaza for another round of butter beer. Standing beside a brightly lit window of Honeydukes sweet shop with his wand raised in his right hand and a butter beer in his left and grinning from ear to ear, Andrew suddenly announces: “This is one of the best days of my life!”
Perfect! That, after all, is what this trip was all about. And it delivered.
Hint: To slash the typical 90-minute ride time at the Forbidden Journey, take the single-rider located on the right just past the Hogwarts locker area. You miss most the castle tour and arrive near the front of the line quite quickly. Although the ride has 4 people to a bench, you’re cut off from everyone once the ride takes flight. This is very much an individual experience; share it with someone else after the ride ends. For more advice on the Wizarding World, see my Orlando Essential Travel Guide iTunes app.