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June 27, 2013

DadCentric Travel: Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Whit Honea

It wasn't until we were ready to load that I realized the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit did not offer the storage luxuries of other roller coasters in other parks. There was no cubby along the wall in which riders could stow their belongings. The lockers were far below us, where my 7-year-old son, less than an inch shy of making the cut, sat crying and waiting with a friend. There wasn't even a pocket in each car to place sunglasses, phones, or assorted trinkets from the day. I boarded the roller coaster with too many things and pockets too shallow to hold them, and for the first time in years a roller coaster was intimidating me.

Earlier that day we had wandered through Hogsmeade and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, enjoying butterbeer and bits of magic. We had spent a good portion of two days in the Islands of Adventure park at Universal Orlando Resort, hiding from rain and dementors, and still buzzing from our turn on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (which is firmly ranked in the top three rides I have ever experienced). The magical land, which will be joined in 2014 by Harry Potter's London and Diagon Alley in the Universal Studios park (guests will be able to travel between the two areas on the Hogwarts Express!), is as finely crafted of a space as you are likely to find in the theme park world. It it simply wonderful. And crowded.

Harry Potter Universal Whit Honea

Hogsmeade Universal Studios Whit Honea

Butterbeer Universal Studios Whit Honea

Truth be told, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, alone, is worth the price of admission.

The Rip Ride Rockit doesn't stop. I suppose it's got to keep rockin'. The coaster just slows to a crawl and you step into your seat. My 9-year-old, mere days before his double-digit birthday, was glowing with excitement. I sat next to him and then things got blurry.

The Jurassic Park River Adventure had put us in real faux danger. The boat ride had quickly taken a turn for the worse when the dinosaurs escaped, and what had been intended as a informative tour became a wild and wet experience in which we were almost eaten—several times. Hopefully they'll fix that before you go on it.

Jurassic Park Universal Studios Whit Honea
Then the boys discovered the Jurassic Park Discovery Center where they could learn about dinosaurs, examine various eggs, and even watch a baby dinosaur being born. IN. REAL. LIFE. The air-conditioning was a nice touch.


It was hot and humid, just two of Orlando's greatest charms, and the boys were still soaked from three spins on the Ripshaw Falls ride, which they wanted to do a fourth time, in the Toon Lagoon—an area that puts a new spin on "I'll see you in the funny papers." The entire land is themed with some of your grandmother's favorite comic strip characters, so be prepared to answer "who is that?" repeatedly, which only means that a) there is something for everyone, and b) it's educational!

When you sit down in your seat there is a touchpad in front of you that allows riders to pick the song of their choice to play during the experience. I was struggling with my hat, sunglasses, and iPhone, holding all in one hand and trying to help my son with the other. We were literally sitting at a 90-degree angle, going straight into the sky beneath a harness that didn't feel quite snug enough, when I realized that my soundtrack defaulted to Limp Bizkit. There was no way to stop the ride.

Marvel Super Hero Island was crawling with villains. We saw Dr. Doom yelling on a street corner. The Green Goblin, to his credit, stopped his evil plan long enough to chat with the boys. The bad guys where everywhere. Luckily, Captain America, Spider-Man, and assorted X-Men made an appearance and saved the day. Also, the Spider-Man ride is incredible, spectacular, and amazing.

Marvel Island Whit Honea
There was a time, back before the t-shirts were everywhere and dad blogs were small and unread, that I referred to the boys as Thing 1 and Thing 2, but then it became a thing so my wife and I decided to name them. We've never looked back. However, when the boys and I entered Seuss Landing we looked all over the place.

It was just like being dropped into a movie that had been dropped into a book—and therein lies the thematic difference between the two parks at Universal Orlando Resort, the original park, Universal Studios Florida, is based on movies and television, whereas the Islands of Adventure park is inspired by literary works (most of which subsequently became TV shows and movies).

No, I didn't figure that out on my own. We took a VIP tour through both parks that was half incredible backstory (per the example) and skipping lines on the biggest attractions, and half sitting in the Shrek theater waiting for the rain to stop while an employee ran through every fairy tale joke he could make up. The tour guide was very knowledgable and friendly, and I would consider doing the VIP experience again (especially for the skipping lines part).

We spent two days in the parks. The first consisted of quality time with the minions (we were there to celebrate the launch of Despicable Me 2, which is very funny) and riding the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride before splitting into groups and competing in a two park scavenger hunt. I think we did okay.

The first hill was fast and furious, and each one afterward was somehow even more so. Fred Durst was yelling in my ear, and my personal belongings were pinned awkwardly against my leg. My eyes were watering and the wind was gusting through where my hair should be. I looked over at my son, and his smile seemed far too wide under the circumstances.

We rode Transformers: The Ride-3D, The Simpsons, ET (which includes a firsthand look at "home"), Men in Black Alien Attack, and Revenge of the Mummy, all in a row. Our stomachs were solid thanks to a dinner of pretzels and french fries (vegetarian options were hard to find), and we would have gone on the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit then, but the park was closing and we were exhausted.

Our day in the parks had started before they even opened, and the night before had ended late with the Blue Man Group. The boys were in awe, and when one of the Blue Men walked across the theater to pat my youngest on the head, well, the look on Thing 2's face is etched forever in my brain bucket.

Blue Man Group Whit Honea
The Blue Man Group feeds high-concept performance art to the masses, and the masses are hungry. I cannot recommend the show enough. Take the kids.

We went back to our room at the beautiful Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in a boat, ordered a pizza from room service, and made plans to hit the pool as time allowed. We would only get to it once during our visit, but we made brunch twice, so you know, math.

Portifino Bay Hotel Whit Honea
 

Portifino Hotel Whit Honea


Portifino Hotel Whit Honea

 

Portifino Hotel Whit Honea

We had an absolutely fantastic time. The rides were a ton of fun, the employees were welcoming, the hotel inviting, and the minions—you know how they are. In my honest and humble opion, you cannot take a family vacation to Orlando without visiting the Universal Orlando Resort. It's a blast.

When you get off the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit there is a line of video screens where you can watch the experience you just had. Apparently there is a camera in each car, and it captures every scream, every eye pressed shut, and, in my opinion, adds about forty years to the face. My son, however, never looked happier.

His camera must have been broken.

Our flight home was quiet and full of fresh-made memories.

***********

Photos by Whit Honea and Universal Studios

My boys and I were guests of Universal Pictures and Universal Orlando Resort for their Despicable Me 2 Orlando Event which included airfare, lodging, dining, and official merchandise. Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds. Thank you, Universal!



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