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Exploring Harry Potter’s Wizarding World

Universal HP Ride lead pixIf there really had been a fire-breathing dragon at this part of the Forbidden Journey, do you think we’d really be looking away from it?  Or appear so calm?  Universal Orlando Resort Photo. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Universal Orlando Hotels Provide Pleasant Surprises

Part 1 explained how Universal Orlando Resort  and Royal Caribbean  offer a resort/cruise combo. In Part 2, I  detail why we decided to stay at Universal Orlando instead of commute from home, just 45-minutes away.

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We recently drove our 3 Virginia grandkids from Richmond to Orlando for a much anticipated visit to Universal Orlando Resort. Although we live just outside Orlando, our grandkids never have visited any of Orlando’s famous theme parks except SeaWorld, many years ago and just for a single day. Anytime since when in Florida, their father (who hates crowds and refuses to wait in long lines) always has vetoed another theme park visit. Well, Linda and I have the same long line phobia but know of ways to avoid them. And since the 3 grandkids are ages 15 and 11 (twins, boy and girl), it seemed they were overdue for an in-depth theme park visit.

So we kidnap them for a week (with parental permission) for a theme park excursion involving only truly “grand” people as kid or parent. The grandkids have free reign to choose which park to visit when. Their only interest is Universal Orlando Resort, something of a surprise since they watch the Disney Channel all the time. Harry Potter, not Mickey Mouse, is foremost on their minds. Although the grandkids are aware from friends that Harry Potter makes up only a small part of the Islands of Adventure, Universal is where they want to go.

As Orlando area residents, the obvious choice for us is to overnight at home and commute to the park. Universal, however, sometimes offers surprisingly good hotel discounts for Florida residents, although I don’t expect to find any deals during the peak summer period. Universal’s 3 on-site themed hotels are all AAA Four Diamond Award-winning properties: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort and the Hard Rock Hotel. Doing my advance research online in Virginia, the best offer for the 5 of us appears to be the Hard Rock Hotel. However, it’s a good thing I call to check the online rates with a Universal reservationist who tells me that because I am an annual passholder as well as a local resident, she can save me another $120 a night at Portofino Bay vs. the Hard Rock.

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            Loews Portofino Bat Hotel                                      Famed Hogwarts Castle

The room rate comes to just over $300 a night for the 5 of us, a rate that makes staying at home a poor option. Besides the convenience of staying on-site and not having daily to fight I-4 traffic to and from Universal, the hotel perks will make it cheaper to stay there. Each of us will receive a free Universal Express ride pass, which normally costs around $87 per person per day. Multiply the value of the Express ride pass by 5 and they’re worth $100 more per day than the room we stay in. The Universal Express ride passes turn out to have an extended bonus. For instance, by staying for 3 nights, the passes actually are valid for 4 days. They are valid the day we check-in, starting at whatever time we pick up them. It could be as early as 7 a.m. even though the official check-in time is 4 p.m. In the meantime, the hotel holds the luggage until a room is ready. Our check-out time will be 11 a.m., but the Universal express ride passes remains valid for us that day until the park closes. Not what Linda or I expected: that’s a lot of bonus ride time. All of us have 4 days of front-of-the-line rides for the price of a 3-day hotel stay and a 3-day park pass for the grandkids.

In addition, the hotel stay includes an hour’s early entrance to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for 4 days, which means we can ride the rides for an hour before the general public shows up; one morning 90 minutes after opening time we dine at the Three Broomsticks restaurant  for the highly coveted Harry Potter Breakfast. Hotel guests can make priority reservations anywhere. (Although Florida residents do get a price break on the rooms, every hotel guest receives the free Express ride pass and early admission bonuses.)

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            Three Broomsticks breakfast                                   City Walk celebrates

Arriving at the Islands of Adventure, we put the Universal Express ride pass to the test. Supposedly, just showing a hotel room key card would get us into a special express lane that bypasses the often long waits. Besides jumping to the front of the line, the 5 of us would be able to re-ride the same attraction immediately, over and over. No need to make ride reservations, as at Disney World (which also has many more visitors waiting for a ride).

Linda and I decide to initiate roller-coaster loving grandkids to Universal with the Incredible Hulk  roller coaster (we’re bad!). Living in Richmond and frequent visitors to Bush Gardens in Williamsburg, the grandkids all agree the Hulk is indeed incredible. Twins Emily and Andrew brave a second go-round, which includes 7 inversions and accelerates to 40 mph. Next, the 5 of us ride Spiderman 3 times in a row within about 20 minutes.

The grandkids love the no-wait express pass. They have no idea of the wait times the typical visitor endures on a theme park visit. The Universal Express ride pass spoils them by the end of our trip. Most of all, us too.

Part 3: What the grandkids think of their Universal experience. And more reasons why anyone planning a Royal Caribbean cruise from Port Canaveral should seriously consider bringing their youngsters to Universal Orlando.

Universal Orlando & Royal Caribbean Vacation Connection

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Tim and I are not fans of roller coasters. But after 3 days at Universal Orlando Resort, we’ve considered retesting our old fear factors. And thought about combining a stay at Universal with a Bahamas or Eastern Caribbean cruise from nearby Port Canaveral the next time the grandkids are in town.

Universal Orlando Resort and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line have a partnership that brings together two of the world’s most popular vacation providers with a variety of getaway packages. And with the world’s only Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park located at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the theme park/cruise combo is more enticing than ever.

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For the cruise portion, the choices are a 3- or 4-nights aboard Monarch of the Seas or Jewel of the Seas and a longer voyage on their much larger sister ship, Freedom of the Seas. All ships offer the complimentary Adventure Ocean  youth program for ages 3-17 with separate activities for designated age groups and their own dedicated spaces. The daily programs start at 9am for younger children, while for those 15-17 their true party time begins in their own night club at 10pm and ends well after midnight. With all of the Adventure Ocean activities supervised by the ship’s trained personnel, parents actually do have the opportunity to relax and enjoy some adult time without worrying whether their kids are bored or getting in trouble.

The Monarch and Jewel calls in Nassau, Bahamas, and at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas. CocoCay offers the usual water sports options as well as an Aqua-Park for children, beautiful beaches, shaded hammocks, a beachfront barbeque, and a straw market.

Shipboard life on the Monarch and Jewel include Broadway-style musical revues; Vegas-style gaming in Casino Royale; a rock climbing wall and the opportunity to just plain relax in the Day Spa. Don’t worry whether your kids will miss you. They have more varied on-board fun opportunities than adults.

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For a longer cruise, Freedom of the Seas has alternating week-long itineraries  in the Eastern and Western Caribbean. The Eastern Caribbean option includes 3 days at sea with stops at St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and CocoCay, RCCL’s private island. On Freedom’s Western Caribbean sojourn, passengers spend only 2 days at sea and stop at Ocho Rios, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; and Labadee, a private resort on the north coast of Haiti. Since 1986, RCCL’s Labadee stops have provided largest proportion of tourist revenue to the impoverished island’s economy. Although often described as an island, Labadee  is not an island but a peninsula adjoining Haiti.

Because of its large size, Freedom of the Seas can offer many activities not available on Monarch of the Seas. Facilities like the FlowRider surf simulator; the H20 Zone water park; Studio B ice-skating rink; a full-size boxing ring; cantilevered whirlpools suspended 112 ft. above the ocean; Chefmakers Cooking Academy; Karaoke Superstar and more. The recently added Dreamworks Experience allows youngsters to interact with popular Dreamworks characters such as Shrek and the Penguins of Madagascar. For dining, there’s a choice of eight onboard restaurants, including Royal Caribbean’s signature specialty Chops Grille steakhouse, Portofino Italian restaurant and a Johnny Rockets 50’s-style eatery; you can be sure no one will go hungry.

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These cruises (see sample of all itineraries) are exciting by themselves but coupled with the fun of Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure plus the entertainment/dining at CityWalk , your trip really could fall into a one-of-kind vacationalooza.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about the experience with our grandkids at Universal Orlando and why Florida residents (like us) with visiting guests may be foolishly throwing money away by staying at home and not moving everyone into one of Universal’s hotels. The theme park extras you receive for staying on-property are likely to dwarf the hotel room costs.

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All photos taken aboard Freedom of the Seas.

By Linda & Tim O’Keefe