Monday, March 3, 2014

Road Trip!

Last time I was in Florida (for the funeral), I made myself a promise that the next time I was out here, I'd drive up to Orlando and go to Harry Potter World at Universal.  So, I booked myself a package deal -- which was, I should add, way way way cheaper than Disney World would have been -- for a hotel and a multi-day pass at the Universal parks (three days for the price of two).

Which was why I spent quite a lot of today on the Florida Turnpike, one of the most boring roads in all of motoring.  Honestly, it's two lanes in each direction, going straight ahead.  Few exits.  I stopped at a rest stop which said it was the last stop for 41 miles; then I stopped at the next one which was the last stop for another 41.  It was a lot of road and nothing else.  I kept myself amused by trying to keep a consistent speed in the right lane, passing anyone who was going slower than my target.

Oh, and an aside to the nice people who manage Florida's toll roads:  If I can actually go North or South from a particular "Cash" lane, maybe you should write "North/South" on the big flashy board above it, rather than writing "South" on all the cash lanes, making me think I had to take the "SunPass" lane to go North.  

(Because, yeah, the rental car company charges me an administrative fee to process those tolls on my credit card.  And I bet the toll rate is higher this way, too.)

ANYWAY, I made it to my hotel (after making use of the lovely rest stops -- that's not sarcasm, the Florida Turnpike rest areas are pretty spiffy -- I guess they're making good use of the tolls) which is located kind of near Universal.  They have a shuttle, though, so it's cool.

Well, it wasn't today.  The shuttle only runs in the mornings (well, it returns in the evenings, but there doesn't seem to be a way to make a reservation to go against the flow of traffic).  Besides, you have to have a Boarding Pass for the shuttle, which you can only get from the hotel concierge, who is only there from 7:15 to noon.  At it was, like, about 5:00.

Universal's two theme parks closed at 7:00.  But CityWalk was open late, so I figured I'd go over to CityWalk and get some dinner.  Also scope out the area and make a battle plan for tomorrow; find where I'd be going, that sort of thing.

The internet cheerfully told me I could park at Universal for $16.  The nice people at the hotel reception desk told me I could actually just walk there in about 15 minutes.  Said it was about a mile.  This seemed like a good idea, although I hadn't really thought through the whole that's-a-mile-going-back-too, thing.

I walked over to Universal, which was a decent walk, somewhat clearly marked.  Strolled around CityWalk (not all that impressive compared to the one in LA, unless you're looking for a nightclub, which I wasn't), and found the two Universal parks -- Islands of Adventure to your left and regular Universal Studios to your right.  I figured I'd go over to the ticket kiosk and get my tickets printed out, to save myself a line tomorrow.  The tickets printed out -- and it looked like one was missing.  My paperwork said I was supposed to get a three-day pass, a free breakfast pass, a pass to the clubs at CityWalk, and an early admission to the Harry Potter stuff at the Islands of Adventure park.  Three things printed out -- the one that was missing was the early admission.  There was a Customer Service desk, so I thought I'd straighten this out.  The process took longer than I'd anticipated (one of the two people on duty decided to close his window when it was my turn) but I eventually got everything together by about just after 6:00.  The guy in line behind me was trying to buy a ticket to get in right then.  The park was only open for another hour, but that was apparently all the time he had to check out the Harry Potter thing, and he was going to do it, damn the cost.

I started to walk back toward CityWalk for dinner, and then I turned back.  I have a three day pass.  I'm using it Tuesday and Wednesday and ... I either have an hour tonight or a few hours Thursday morning before I leave for the airport.  But it's supposed to rain on Thursday.  A lot.  Possible severe thunderstorms.  I look at my watch again.  50 minutes in the park right now in glorious weather or a couple pretty miserable hours in severe thunderstorms.  Screw it, I'm going in.  I figured I could at least do some Harry Potter shopping today, if nothing else.

It took another ten minutes to get to Harry Potter World.  You have to walk through the entirety of Dr. Seuss land, and something called the Lost Continent, and even though the map tells you that you should be able to enter Harry Potter World (actually "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" -- WTF is a "Wizarding World?") through the Lost Continent, someone put up little temporary signs sending everyone on a detour through Jurassic Park first.  

(I take a moment to think about how awesome Disney is to have you just walk up Main Street and be in the center of four different lands.  Universal has a lake in the middle of its park, so you have to walk all the way around it to get to the lands on the other side.  Sigh.)

I ultimately find myself in the "Hogsmeade" area.  It is about half a block long (and I'm talking little blocks here).  There are long lines for everything -- Ollivander's Wand Shop in particular has several switchbacks in front of it, and way too many people are lining up for mug of Butterbeer.  There is no way I can do any shopping here in 40 minutes.

But I do see there's a ride open.  The sign says the wait is five minutes, and the long list of warnings on the sign in front suggests that it should be fun.  (Seriously, it damn near said you needed a note from your doctor to ride it.)  OK then, new plan.  Shop tomorrow, ride NOW.  

It wasn't a five minute wait.  There was no wait at all; it was just five minutes of paths and switchbacks to get to the ride.  And it was really, genuinely fun.  One of those suspended roller coasters (where the track is above you, so your feet dangle over ... nothing).

I finished with that, continued on, saw the Hogwarts Castle, and noticed that it had a sign with an even higher number of warnings.  And the wait time said 10 minutes.  OK, I'm in.  This, as it turns out (I did my research on the park after I spent an hour there) is the signature attraction of the place, the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" thing.  It has a very, very, very impressive line, in which you're walking through various rooms in Hogwarts, and then you get on the ride which is that new high-tech, car-on-the-end-of-a-robotic-arm-synced-to-the-movie-that's-all-around-you thing.  Honestly, I think I would have been genuinely disappointed if I'd waited a couple hours (as is apparently possible, at times) for this thing.  The biggest problem, I think, is that the film looked pale and distant compared to the real set pieces which the robotic arm also waved you past.  If they're aiming for a realistic experience, they should probably have a really vivid film.

When I finished, it was actually 6:59.  The park was still going.  Indeed, I heard some screams on roller-coasters for at least another ten minutes.  And the shops remained open until probably 8:00 or beyond (I think "until all of the guests are finished buying stuff" is the official line).  I ultimately did buy some Harry Potter crap.

Came back; sat down with a map and the internet; discovered that, in the course of an hour, I rode the only two rides in  Harry Potter World worth riding, and really the only stuff left to do there tomorrow is enjoy my free breakfast and dump money on some more crap.  (And then ride some of the less-crowded rides in the rest of the Islands of Adventure park.)

The dude behind me at the Customer Service line was right -- an hour at Harry Potter World is enough to get a lot done, as long as it's the right hour.

No comments: