We arrived in Orlando on day 19, and after spending an afternoon of updating our photos and blogs (yes, this is an intensive process!) we decided that we needed to find some cheap food.
One of the to-do items on our list was to eat at a roadside diner. I felt that Steak ‘n’ Shake was cheating a little, as it’s a large chain and I had eaten at one in Illinois a few years earlier. However, it’s still a diner, and they had a huge sign offering meals for $4 and under so we decided to go for it. I got some kind of garlic burger, which disintegrated as I ate it and I have to admit was actually delicious.
As we walked in, I said to Anna: “Last time I ate at Steak ‘n’ Shake, I got sick. But that’s because I ordered this massive milkshake. Don’t let me order a milkshake.” Cut to 5 minutes later and we each have a ridiculously massive milkshake in front of us. I got Butterfinger and Anna got cookie dough. Oops. Didn’t get sick though, so that’s a win – I think three weeks of corn syrup and plastic cheese has started to harden my stomach. We finished off the evening by watching Thelma and Louise, our road trip anthem (or whatever the movie equivalent of that is.)
The next day was Universal Studios day. Since I was 10 years old, I’ve had a small obsession with Orlando. This started when I got my hands on a promotional video for Disneyworld Florida, and I played that damn thing over and over. Magic Kindgom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom… it all looked amazing. But then there was Universal Studios, too. I pestered the shit out of my family but obviously it was too expensive. I told myself that when I had money and was in my 20’s (the combination never really happened) I would go to Orlando and spend two weeks at the theme parks there. So, there was no way I could be in Orlando without going to one of them. Having actually been to Disneyland Paris and Tokyo since age 10, I decided to opt for Universal Studios (I have also been to Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan – but most of the rides are totally different).
Universal Studios has two parks – the original, and Islands of Adventure. The latest, Volcano Bay, is opening on May 25th. We spent some time researching which one to go to, and what I concluded was this: Islands of Adventure has more roller-coasters and ‘thrill’ rides, while Universal Studios, the original, has more of the 4D rides. You can buy an entry pass for both if you want to spend an extra $50 or so. Of course, the more days you spend at any of these theme parks, the cheaper it works out per day – and, at the moment, they have a deal that gives you 4 days for the price of 2. Keep a look out for that sort of thing! Also, Harry Potter World is opportunistically spread out over the two parks; more of the Harry Potter rides are at Islands of Adventure, while Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios. We opted for the original, Universal Studios, because I thought the rides might be more original (you can get coasters in a lot of places) and also because I’d screwed up my neck and was afraid of aggravating it with too much harsh jerking!
We spent a traumatising $124 (PLUS TAX) each on our entrance tickets, but fuck it – if you’re in Orlando and you DON’T go to one of these parks in order to save some cash, when are you ever going to be there again? Hands down, it was the most expensive day of the trip (and, perhaps my life, with the possible exception of my wedding), but we started the day at Steak ‘n’ Shake again with all-you-can-eat pancakes for $3.99 (all “one” of us could eat, muahaha).
Here’s something we didn’t find out online – parking for Universal Studios costs an extra $20…. that’s twenty bloody dollars!!! Can you believe that!? The woman who took our cash tried to joke that they were out of spaces because it was April Fool’s. With prices like that you don’t need to make jokes. By the time you find out, it’s impossible to turn back… just like on a toll road… you hurtle forward into the abyss, knowing your fate but powerless to escape it.
Ah, well – in for a penny, in for a pound (nothing has ever gone wrong with that logic, eh?). At least they let you bring in your own bottles of water and snacks; we had crammed our bags full of cereal bars for sustenance, hoping they would get us through the day. We arrived at the gates for around 9, queued for around 15 minutes to get our tickets, and were in… oh, and they take your fingerprint at the gate. A little creepy.
One of the things that always impressed me about Universal Studios’ rides was the 4D nature of them. The Spiderman ride (in Osaka) was really immersive, and redefined for me what rides could really be. I was excited to see a few more.
The first ride we went on was Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York, which wasn’t officially opening for a few more days. In the ride, you “race” Jimmy around New York – which is pretty cool if you can ignore his unbearable “Sara” character who pops up sometimes. It’s pretty cool, especially as an introduction to this kind of 4D, immersive ride. But, honestly I think the best part about it was the queueing system – you were given a colour card and waited in the lobby until the lights switched to your colour. But while you waited, there was live entertainment – and we were treated to a very amusing barbershop quintet who sang adapted versions of rap songs! It was really adorable, trust me. We were “waiting” for 15 minutes or so but we didn’t notice.
There are a bunch of good rides, and although it was a Saturday in Spring, we didn’t queue for more than 15 minutes for most rides. We went on Revenge of the Mummy, E.T., The Simpsons Ride, Men in Black, and watched the Horror Make-Up show (which is quite funny but ultimately not much more than a slideshow of horror images from films you may have already seen). The Simpsons area was perhaps the coolest thing going on, just for the novelty of seen Krusty Burger, Kwik-E-Mart and Moe’s (although they all just serve generic fast food inside).
Harry Potter world was pretty cool; at first, you see what looks like a miniature version of London, with Piccadilly Circus, King’s Cross Station and a version of the Knight Bus. You can ride the Hogwarts’ Express to the other park, if you have a ticket for both. Otherwise, look for a small entrance that suddenly throws you into Diagon Alley. It looks pretty cool, with gift shops hiding behind antiquated looking facades of lots of the shops you might remember from the Potter books.
At the Leaky Cauldron you can try “British food” – it was mostly really stereotypically British things that I have never in my life eaten, like Bangers and Mash, Toad in the Hole etc. There was a big queue to get in and all we really wanted was to try Butterbeer! So, we queued at one of the other places that serves it. In winter, you can get hot butterbeer as well as the standard, and there was also an option for frozen or for butterbeer ice-cream. As one cup was $6.99 plus tax we opted to share one.
I had tried “Butterbeer” once before, in a random place in Stratford-on-Avon that claims to use the original recipe, so I thought I knew what it tasted like. Not so! I took one sip of this and I was actually astounded. It was delicious! I can’t quite describe it, but something about the mild fizziness, cream soda flavours, and the way the foam hits you at a slightly different level with its hints of caramel makes for quite an exciting combination. There was a party happening in my mouth and I would have happily downed a few of the things if I wasn’t concerned about money (and diabetes).
Diagon Alley takes a while to wander around, and at the end of the main street you’ll find Gringott’s bank, with a huge flaming dragon sitting on top. Escape from Gringott’s is the one actual ride in Universal Studios’ Harry Potter World – the rest is in Islands of Adventure. As you wait in line, you can watch some very realistic animatronic goblins at work at the bank. The ride itself follows the main format of almost every ride there: “Welcome to the – oh, shit, we’ve been discovered! We have to escape! / Oh no, something went wrong, we have to get out of here fast!” I don’t remember much about it – it was fun, but most rides start to blur into each other after a while.
When hunger finally set in, we found ourselves at Luigi’s Pizza – one of the “cheap” dining establishments in Universal Studios, where a slice of pizza will set you back around $8. With a small Caesar salad and a pretty limp breadstick, it comes to around $13. We shared one of these meals and continued to feast on cereal bars.
A few times a day, there are some live performances and parades at Universal Studios. We managed to catch the Blues Brothers show, which was pretty cool – Jake and Elwood drive up to the stage, Mrs Murphy rolls up to tell them to keep the noise down, and all the most famous songs (e.g. Respect, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, Shake your Tail Feather) are played live while the audience gets dancing. Well, we danced, as did perhaps 3-4 other enthusiastic customers. (Anna: at one point one of the Blues Brothers got down from the stage and started dancing with me!)
Around 5pm, there was a parade promised, with lots of Universal Studios characters. Now, I’ve seen Disney parades in Paris and Tokyo, and they were pretty impressive. We spent 10 minutes looking for a good parade spot and finally settled for sitting in shade on the ‘sidewalk’ while we waited. Out came Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, and.. well… maybe 2-3 other characters. Then, suddenly, it stopped. “Is that it?” we asked ourselves. And yes, yes it was.
There was a “cinematic spectacular” with fireworks promised for 9pm, but that’s when the park closes so we decided not to bother as it would probably take years to get out of the car park. We decided to check out the rides we’d missed, so we went to the Shrek 4D cinema experience and ended with the Rip Ride Rockit, an invigorating roller coaster where you can choose your own music. You don’t have much time to decide, though – better think fast!
We noticed a model chair before you entered the ride, which advised customers to try it out because “the ride is not suitable for people with certain body dimensions”. That’s one very politically correct way to say “make sure you ain’t too fat to ride!” We wondered how many people had queued for an hour just to be turned away because they were too big to ride…
After that, we decided to skip the few rides we’d missed – Terminator and Despicable Me – because, actually, 9 hours is a long time to spend in a theme park, even without having to deal with kids. We headed back to our Airbnb and met up later with a guy I know from back in Prague, who had literally just moved to Orlando that day! We grabbed some food somewhere (I forget where, sorry) and prepared for our next day.