Day 4 – IoA and DTD

Okay, so here it is. On my 18th trip to WDW/DL, this will be my very first non-Disney Park. Those of you who couldn’t care less about Universal should feel free to stop reading. Or at least to skip down to where you see “Downtown Disney” below. (4th paragraph from the bottom)

We woke up earlier than normal, about 6:15am, and had breakfast at Pop Century. We ate a “real” breakfast this time (ie, not just a bagel or fruit), as I had no idea when or where we’d be eating lunch. Then we went out to the front of the resort to wait for Mears to pick us up. They were pretty close to ontime, maybe 2 or 3 minutes late. I was somewhat annoyed that there was no checklist, they didn’t ask our names or anything like that. What’s to stop anyone from taking “my” reservation?

In any event, we were the last pickup, so it was straight from Pop to Universal’s bus drop off lot. First you go up a huge escalator to a large pedestrian bridge with moving sidewalks. This leads you into CityWalk. After walking down CityWalk for 5-10 minutes, you eventually get to a fork where you go left for Islands of Adventure, right for Universal Studios. We continued on to IoA.

My surprise for Amanda today was that I had bought, in addition to our park tickets, the Express pass. This would grant us front-of-the-line access to each attraction, once each. (With the exception of the big Harry Potter ride). Well, having never been here before, I figured we were probably going to want to ride some attractions more than once. So we went over to Guest Services, to apply the tickets we’d bought to the cost of VIP tickets instead. These would allow us to use the Express line at every attraction as many times as we wanted.

The transaction seemed smooth enough – he rang in two two-day VIP tickets, then took all our park tickets and express tickets, and applied their cost, and asked for my credit card to charge the difference. And then he told me “hang on, for some reason it voided the transaction”. What followed was us standing there at the window for another 25-30 minutes while he and his supervisor tried to figure out why it was voided, and how to undo the void. It also involved phonecalls (to whom, I have no idea). I don’t fault the guy – technology sometimes fails, I get that. But seriously, at that point, he or his supervisor should have been offering an alternate solution for us. Something like “here, use these, and we’ll figure it out and get back to you later today”. I don’t know, *something* other than us just standing there.

In any event, they eventually resolved the issue and I ended up with two charges and one credit on my credit card bill. And we had our VIP tickets. So now we walk through the IOA turnstiles, and pick up a park map. And I’m already annoyed, as the map is on one side, with rides numbered and restaurants lettered, but the key to knowing what the numbers and letters mean are on the flipside of the map. Very annoying.

So it’s about 8:40am or so by this point, and the park officially opens at 9am. We’re walking forward, following the crowd. And we’re shouted at by a SixFlags-esque photographer “HiEveryoneCanYouGetTogetherForAQuickPhotoPlease!!!!”. No. I *hate* that. Do not shout at me to do something for you because you want me to buy something. Really, REALLY hate that. Besides which, why would I want a photo there? So I can have the turnstiles behind me? How does that make sense?

Okay, we keep going, and now the crowd is dividing up. Universal Hotel Guests and some other group (Annual Passholders, maybe?) go to the right, for early entry to Harry Potter. Everyone else, stay to the left. Just for the heck of it, I ask the guy at the rope, “Hey, VIP tickets don’t entitle us to Early Entry, do they?”. Nope, he says. Not at all. Remember that for my Day 8 trip report…

So we go to the left, and start walking around this gigantic lake. This is already an annoying layout. It’s like the complete opposite of the Magic Kingdom’s hub-and-spoke system. It takes forever to get from one are of the park to the other side of the park. We walk through Marvel Superhero land, Toon Lagoon, up to Jurassic Park. And here we’re forming a very loose queue. I assume they’re keeping us waiting until official park entry time of 9am before we can get into Harry Potterland. That makes sense, I suppose.

As we’re now pretty close to the Harry Potter area, we can actually see Hogwarts. And it looks cool – from one angle. From another angle, you can completely see the back of the castle, and how they didn’t bother theming the back at all. You see the big square grey box of a building that houses the major attraction. Bad show. Very very bad show.

An employee (are they called “Cast Members” at Universal? I have no idea) now comes through the line and gives everyone a tiny little paper ticket. The same kind you’d get at a charity 50/50 raffle, with “keep this Coupon”. He claims this will tell them who waited in line and make sure we get in. Uh. Okay? The queue now starts moving up in batches. An employee takes one group of about a hundred to the left, and then the next group (us) to the right, through the Lost Continent. Why? No idea.

Halfway through Lost Continent, another employee is holding a trash bag and asks us to deposit the raffle tickets. Why? No idea. We’re not at Harry Potter yet, there’s other people still wandering around. What purpose did these tickets serve? None, as far as I can tell. We’re finally led up to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And they have employees there standing guard, I guess making sure no one who’s not supposed to get in, gets in? But again, how do they know who’s supposed to be there and who’s not? And between the cast members are the little police a-frame barriers. Again with the bad show.

Okay, FINALLY, we’re now in Hogsmeade. And I gotta admit, it looks pretty cool. All the buildings are bent and twisted and leaning. It’s apparently winter in Hogsmeade village, as there is “snow” on top of all the buildings. I ask a random employee “So which way to the Forbidden Journey attraction?”. He snarks at me “just go that way, trust me you’ll see it”. Okay, thanks, jackass. Have I mentioned I am massively NOT liking the attitude of these employees?

We get up to the attraction’s queue. Now mind you, we were in line to enter the area a good 20 minutes before the park opened (would have been 45 if not for the nonsense at Guest Services, but I digress). The posted wait time for the attraction is 75 minutes. Yup. YEESH. Well, I’d already told Amanda we should expect insanity here, and this was why we were spending two days at Universal in the first place. So regardless of anything else, we *were* going to ride this first thing.

We approach the queue area and we see some sort of faded carving on the wall that looks like maybe it’s supposed to be an emblem of Hogwarts. Okay, kinda cool. But significantly NOT cool is that this is where they have sample ride seats set up, asking those with “certain body types” to try them out before getting in line. What the hey? Can you think of a more humiliating way to do this? Literally EVERYONE coming or going from the attraction gets to see every overweight person try these seats out and be told whether or not they are too fat. What on *earth* were they thinking?

We enter the queue area, and it’s complete chaos. There are people going every which way, with no one directing traffic (at least, not efficiently). There is a large line. I figure this is the start of the queue, and we get in the line. Five minutes later, I’m hearing an employee up above talk about renting a locker to store our belongings, because you can’t take anything on the ride. Finally I find a stray employee and ask “if we don’t need the lockers, do we need to be in this line?”. “Oh, no, just go on a head and bare to your left”. Well gee, thanks for that. Would have been good to know five minutes ago. Arg.

So we walk up past this locker line, and now FINALLY we’re in the real queue. We’re in Hogwarts castle. Okay, I know I’ve been complaining non-stop in this TR so far, but honestly, at this point I was geeking out at least as much as my 15 year old sister. Probably more, in fact. We’re walking through these dim corridors, seeing statues of the first Hogwarts Headmaster, and tapestries, the Mirror of Erised (!!!!), a door marked “Potions Classroom”, and all sorts of great stuff. It was truly a “wow” moment.

And then we finally catch up with the rest of the people in the queue. And we’re back outside. Ugh. (Have I mentioned it’s no less oppressively hot here than it has been on the other end of I-4 the past few days?) So now we’re supposedly in the Herbology class’s greenhouse. Uh…huh. It’s an outdoor area with ramps, with a glass ceiling, and some plants. That’s it. The only thing remotely “Harry Potterish” about it was that toward the end, some of the plants are labeled “Mandrakes”. And no, they weren’t even any kind of animatronic Mandrakes that could wail or at least rise up and down out of their plots. Just static things, sitting there. And they were behind a mesh cage, making taking pictures of them somewhere between impossible and pointless. This portion of the queue lasted about 20 minutes.

Leaving the greenhouse, we’re back inside the Castle. And the geek-out resumes, finally. More castle corridors, but this time lined with moving portraits. They did a very good job with these. They look like paintings, not like photographs. Some of them are just moving on their own, others are interacting with each other. Specifically, we hear the four founders talking to each other. Apparently the Quidditch Cup is going to be defended today, and it’s Gryffindor and Slytherin in the finals. Oh, and by the way, did you hear that Hagrid seems to have lost a dragon? (Salizar, for what it’s worth, was simply pissed that all these muggles had been let in the castle….)

Now we go into Dumbledore’s office. Very cool. Dumbledore actually appears up on a balcony. It doesn’t look perfect, but it does look very good. Unfortunately, I have no idea what he was saying, because the employee in this part of the queue is SCREAMING at us to move along, don’t stop, don’t take pictures, keep going, hurry up. I wanted to shout back at her “I’ve been waiting for this for 6 months, I’m going to get the full experience, damnit!”. But of course I didn’t.

The next part of the queue appears to be another classroom, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione are talking to us. The queue is backed up to here, so the employee can’t scream at us this time, and I can hear what they’re saying. Apparently Dumbledore has invited us Muggles to listen to Prof. Bins give us a lecture on the history of Hogwarts (which, Hermione makes sure we know, *is* a very fascinating topic….). But Ron and Harry think we might enjoy coming to watch the Quidditch match instead. It’ll involve sneaking us out, and some spell work. Ron assures us that Hermione is great at doing all these spells – and accidentally makes it snow while talking about it. Pretty cool effect.

In the next part of the queue, some more moving portraits introduce us to the enchanted benches we’ll be riding. And up ahead is another test seat, in case not enough people were humiliated by the first one outside. Just before the front of the queue, we see the Sorting Hat, and it sings us some song that I couldn’t understand.

All the employees at this point are just frazzled beyond belief. They’re shouting at each other, at the guests, they’re sweating, fidgiting. It was just not remotely a happy environment. We finally get up to the front and we’re placed with another pair and walk over to our Enchanted Bench (four seats per bench, all side-by-side). We’re on a moving platform as we take our seats on them and the employees strap us in. It was VERY tight. I’m 5’10½”, about 235lbs. I know I’m overweight, but I’m not obese. These were NOT designed for comfort of a large majority of the American public. I guess maybe I should have suffered the humiliation of trying one of the test seats first, so I’d know what to expect….

Okay, now the attraction finally starts (holy crap look how big this TR is, and we’re just now starting the first attraction!? Oy!). Hermione casts a spell and throws some green powder at us, and our bench takes off. Did we just travel through Floo Powder? I’m not sure, but that was pretty cool. Our bench is swaying in all three dimensions through the castle. We hear Harry say “Hermione did it! They’re flying!”. Our bench moves all over the place, up, down, left, tilting and swaying. The attraction goes back and forth between moving through the physical castle and putting us in front of huge video screens making it look like we’re flying outside with Harry and Ron. Somewhere along the way, we run into Hagrid, who holds up an empty dragon leash. He asks us if we’ve seen a dragon…

As we keep following Ron and Harry, of course we find Hagrid’s dragon. He starts chasing us, and we take refuge back inside the castle (ie, no more video screen, now moving past physical effects and structures). The dragon is attacking from the outside, and we escape again. We make it to the Quidditch Pitch. Harry spots the Snitch – but so does Draco. And we all go chasing it. Until the Dementors arrive. Now we have to escape them too – but this time we end up in the Forbidden Forest. And it’s full of acromantulas. (I immediately thought of Ron’s line – “Spiders! Why does it always have to be ‘Follow the Spiders’? Why can’t it be ‘Follow the Butterflies?!'”). We eventually escape the forest, dodge the Whomping Willow, and Harry takes care of the Dementors with “Expecto Patronum!”.

We fly back into the Castle, and we see pretty much everyone from the movies celebrating and congratulating us. It seems that Harry caught the snitch in there somewhere. And it also seems that we did… something good? Whatever it was, we seem to be heroes, and Dumbledore tells us that due to our bravery, we’re welcome back at Hogwarts anytime. Okayyyyy, I have no idea what we were supposed to have done. But it was cool nonetheless! I mean, seriously, truly, honest-to-god a *GREAT* attraction. Quite possibly better than anything I’ve been on at Disney’s parks. Great storyline, awesome effects, spectacular technology. In every respect, the attraction itself is two giant thumbs way way up.

Now we get to the gift shop exit. There are monitors overhead advertising the on-ride photo, but they’re *RIGHT* at the exit, so they’re causing a giant traffic jam. And apparently they’re just *advertising* the on-ride photo, not actually showing us ours. An employee is trying (and failing) to direct traffic away from the monitors, to the far end of the store, to purchase ours. Except that it takes forever to find your photo. Apparently the employee at the monitors was supposed to give you an approximate number, an then an employee at the purchase area uses that number as a starting point, and starts scrolling back or forward until you find yours. We stood there for 10 minutes waiting for a purchase monitor to become available, but we eventually decided it wasn’t worth it (especially since we didn’t even get one of these numbers from the first employee).

So we left Hogwarts, both raving about what an incredible attraction it was. We head over to the next Harry Potter attraction, the Flight of the Hippogriff. We used our VIP tickets to go into the Express queue, though there was no need because there was no line for it. This is entirely outdoors, and when we finally get up to the front and get in, it becomes apparent that this thing was not built for adults. And indeed, once the coaster starts, I realize we’re actually on a kiddie coaster. It’s basically Goofy’s Barnstormer. But at least it was over in about 30 seconds.

Next up was the Triwizard Dragon Challenge. This used to be Dueling Dragons. The queue area takes us up a path lined with banners supporting Hogwarts, Durmstrang, and Beauxbaton. We get up to the queue proper and go to the Express entrance. Okay now this is a REAL coaster. A very good one in fact. I just which they’d done something to it when they rethemed it for Harry Potter. Seriously, they renamed the tracks and put up the banners along the queue. I don’t even think they gave it a new paint job. I don’t even remember which of the two tracks we chose. I do remember that I saw a sign advertising “modified seating” in rows 3 and 6. But having no idea what “modified seating” meant, I didn’t pay attention to which row we chose. The queue ends far too soon, and becomes a free-for-all, with everyone choosing their own row and forming a mob-like gathering behind that row’s gate. But the ride itself is great, with lots of hills and twists and inversions. Very very good coaster.

On our way out of the Wizarding World, we stopped at Zonkos and Honeydukes. Kinda cool, with most of the candy and toys being themed and Harry Potter specific, not selling generic candy or anything like that. But they’re TINY. It’s hard to move within them. So we go back outside, and we take a look at Olivander’s – but the line is just enormous. It goes all the way up down and around all of Hogsmeade. I couldn’t even tell you where it started. So we didn’t bother with that. Amanda did take a couple pictures of the Hogwarts Express, but then we left the Harry Potter land.

We went allllll the way back to the Marvel Superhero area, and to the Incredible Hulk. Again with the “come be humiliated!” test seats, but this time I decided to try them. The employee there said I was fine, but make sure I choose row 3 or 6. Apparently “modified seating” means “for fat people”. Good to know, I guess. The queue here is very cool, explaining the story of Bruce Banner and the Hulk, and telling us how Bruce thinks he may have finally this time figured out how to stop the transformations.

The coaster is great too, as it launches into an inversion on like the first descent. And the take off – it starts ascending slowly, and you think it’s going to be “normal” in that respect, but then suddenly blasts forward/up like RnRC or California Screamin’. Very very cool. As for what the coaster itself has to do with the Incredible Hulk? Uhm, well, it’s green. Beyond that, nothing. It’s an awesomely themed queue leading up to a completely non-themed but thrilling coaster.

Next we went over to Spiderman. Again with the awesomely themed queue, as you start off taking a tour of the Daily Planet, and see J. Jonah Jameson telling us all how incredibly great he is, and what a menace that Spiderman guy is. But this time, the ride itself continues to be both awesomely themed and awesome in general. A combination fast dark ride and 3D movie. Actually, come to think of it, the technology is a precursor to Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey, as your ride vehicle stays on the ground the whole time. But you’re seeing projections of Spiderman and his villains jumping around and interacting both with our ride vehicle and the surroundings. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to avoid it, however. I know that I didn’t want to do it again immediately after riding, as cool as it was.

In fact, my stomach is so not-well at this point that we decide to sit for a minute and figure out lunch. We look at the map, and decide to try this counter service place in the Toon Lagoon area. It’s standard theme park food, burgers and chicken nuggets. Nothing special, but doesn’t fail to meet the standards either. While here, we plot out the rest of the day, and realize we’re not going to be here until 11pm like I’d initially planned. So we called up Mears and had our pick up time changed to something like 6pm. Maybe earlier. I don’t really remember.

After lunch, we hung around Toon Lagoon for a while and did the water attractions – first Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, and then Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges. I’d heard Ripsaw Falls compared favorably to Splash Mountain in the past. Uhm. No. Don’t get me wrong, it was *okay*, but no where near as good as Splash. The storyline was conveyed not by animatronics, but by what appear to be statues on rockers, that just move back and forth over and over. And the drop itself wasn’t anything special. Again, it was perfectly fine, it just wasn’t *great*.

Bilge-Rat Barges, on the other hand, was pretty good. The only reason to go on this attraction, however, is to get soaked. Not soaked like on Kali River Rapids. Soaked like in the pool. You *will not* come off of it dry. We did this attraction I think three times in a row (hooray, I didn’t waste my money on the VIP tickets!). Because really, once you’ve done it once, you’re already soaked to the bone, so there’s no reason *not* to do it a second time.

Leaving Toon Lagoon, we wandered on into Jurassic Park, and over to the main attraction there. We got into the Express line fine, but while we were waiting, it broke down. Grumble. I just sat down in the queue area, and literally took a nap. I woke up when I heard people cheer becaues it had started again. Overhead are videos talking about Jurassic Park, calling the events of the first two movies “minor setbacks”, which was amusing. And telling us that Jurassic Park’s founder hopes we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mosquito, which was not amusing. (Have you ever noticed that the second-best company always makes references to the first-best company, but the opposite never happens? Pepsi has Coke salesmen in their ads, Burger King is constantly talking about the Big Mac, etc. I wonder if they realize that referring to the competition only makes you look even more like second-best).

Anyway. We finally got on the Jurassic Park adventure. I’d watched a YouTube video of it a month or so prior. After watching it, I left the comment that it looked to me like 5:20 of boredom followed by 10 seconds of excitement. And that’s exactly what it was. Except that the 10 seconds weren’t really very exciting at all. Seriously, this attraction is a complete klunker, in my opinion. You go along a river cruise continuing the story of Jurassic park, until one of the Dinos gets loose and accidentally causes your boat to go off course. Then you continue maddeningly slowly going along in your boat, up a conveyor belt, and back down. That’s pretty much it. I wouldn’t even consider it worth the wait in the Express line, let alone the normal line.

By this point, we’d pretty much done everything we wanted to do. I had no interest in Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, because it looks too much like the Six Flags ride that some poor girl lost her feet on a couple years ago. And neither of us thought any of the shows sounded overly exciting. So we went back to Incredible Hulk first, and did that one again. Then we went back to the Wizarding World to see about trying to do Forbidden Journey again. The wait time was insane, so we decided to try the single rider line and see what happens. (More confusion at the queue entrance, as the employees themselves didn’t even know where the single rider queue was supposed to start. We eventually found it, but still… sheesh. Time to get it together, folks. This isn’t testing anymore, the attraction is live now.)

While we were in the single rider queue, at the area where the moving portraits are explaining the benches to us, the ride broke down. Ugh, again. In total, we waited probably about half an hour here, including break-down time. As I’ve said, it’s a phenomenally great attraction, but I do worry that it’s going to suffer a lot of downtime, simply because there’s so many different points of failure. When the attraction ended this time, my restraint didn’t unlock. The employees were struggling to manually unlock them, as we were about to restart the attraction (it’s continuously moving, if that’s not already clear). By the time they finally got it unlocked – by getting down on their backs and fiddling with something underneath the benches), we’d long missed the unload area, and were told to follow an employee through a backstage area back to the gift shop. The employee leading the four of us through this area had the same attitude as most of the others we’d encountered – which is to say, bad. As though we were the inconvenience to him. Just gives me a bad overall feel about the entire park.

On the way out of Wizarding World this time, we purchased the frozen “butterbeers”, which I do have to say, were delicious. Very very sweet, almost like a frozen version of creamy caramel. We made our way back to the Port of Entry, and exited the park. Back through City Walk, back across the footbridge and down the escalator to the bus pick up area.

The Mears folks took forever to get to us. Several Mears vans did arrive, but none going back to WDW. And it quickly became apparent that there were more people waiting to go back than would fit into one of the shared-ride vans to begin with. Eventually one Mears guy sympathized and called in to the dispatch to find out what was going on. He told us they were sending a full sized bus and it would be here “soon”. It finally arrived maybe 30-40 minutes after our scheduled pick up. And it didn’t go right back. First it went to Sea World. Then it went to four different WDW hotels before finally dropping us off at Pop. I’m pretty sure that’s not what I agreed to when I paid for this, but whatever, it wasn’t worth my time or energy to argue with anyone.

We got back to the hotel. Amanda went to the gift shop to reload her gift card and make some purchases. We decided to go to Downtown Disney and find some food while we were there. The Disney buses were much more reliable than Mears. I decided to try Paradiso 37, for the first time. It was very crowded, but they had walk-up availability at the upstairs bar (there were two other bars, one downstairs, one outside). Other than being sat at the corner of the bar and therefore having very little room, I thought it was overall very good. Food was decent, waitresses were friendly. The family next to us had a worse time, however, as it seemed to take forever to get their peanut butter sandwiches and salads. Not sure what was up with that. I actually just read on Lou Mongello’s Facebook wall that their parent company recently followed for Chapter 11, so who knows if this place will be there much longer.

After dinner, we went over to World of Disney for a while. I bought a pair of mugs that my sister (not Amanda) had seen on her last trip to Disney with her b/f and asked me to buy for her. I don’t remember if Amanda bought anything. We went back to the bus stops, saw a bus for Pop already there waiting for us, got back to the hotel, and went to sleep.

My overall review of Islands of Adventure – I was impressed with some of the attractions. I was impressed with some of the story and theming. I was not remotely impressed with Guest Services or the employees. I was not impressed with some of the rides that were completely not-themed but preceded by well-themed queues. It just didn’t have the same feel as being in a Disney park. I didn’t feel like a “guest”. I felt like someone from whom they wanted money and then wanted me to get the hell out to make room for the next person.

My overall review of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – the Forbidden Journey attraction is AWESOME (except for that bit of the queue in the “greenhouse”. Dragon Challenge is a good coaster. Flight of the Hippogriff is pointless and should be removed. Hogsmeade looks cool but was massively NOT designed to handle the insane number of people they have coming through right now. Maybe it will be better in a couple years when the mania dies down.

The Good: Dinner at Paradiso 37
The Bad: Rudeness and Ride Breakdowns at IoA
The Magical: Geeking out with Amanda about the Harry Potter attraction

Thanks for reading. (Especially, in this case, if you actually managed to read the whole thing.

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