The First Photos: Universal Studios Florida, 2011 – 2015

Obviously Universal Studios isn’t held as highly in my esteem as any Disney park. Clearly. No question. BUT. It’s still a good time. So, it too gets the First Photos treatment.

Once again, apologies for photo quality; 2/3 of these are really old.


The year: 2011
The companion(s): Elizabeth
The title of the album: CONSTANT VIGILANCE!
The why: Ha, so, I actually had to skip over a bunch of photos at the beginning of this album, ’cause… We totally went to Downtown Disney first. And while I love a good picture of a Grand Floridian tea cozy as much as the next gal, it hardly qualifies as Universal Studios. Instead, please accept this first photo within Universal’s walls, featuring breakfast from the Three Broomsticks. Question: What makes the best accompaniment to pancakes, which are essentially bread? If you answered “a croissant, which is essentially bread,” YOU ARE CORRECT.


The year: 2012
The companion(s): My cousin and his best friend
The title of the album: Mischief managed
The why: In MY day, there was no Diagon Alley. There was only Hogsmeade to qualify as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We had to make do with what we had. And we ALWAYS respected the spell limits.


The year: 2015
The companion(s): Sometimes coworkers; sometimes just myself
The title of the album: I solemnly swear I am up to no good
The why: Hey, remember when I showed you what it looks like when you approach Universal CityWalk at night? Well, this is what it looks like in the daytime. YOU ARE WELCOME.

We’ll finish up this park photo album exploration with a dive into my favorite photo of each album. Should be fun!

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

The Most Universal Trip Report Of All: Food Reviews

Shall we talk food? I thought so.

My Universal Studios trip was brief and not particularly food-filled, but I made time to try some things. Lunch on day one was of course accomplished at The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley. The offerings are extremely British and rather heavy, but I found a good option in The Ploughman’s Lunch. It’s advertised as for two but they can split the portion and sell it for one if you ask.

The Ploughman’s Lunch for One comes with half a Scotch egg, half a roasted tomato, salad, bread, cheese, and some random jelly stuff which sucked so we’ll ignore it. This was… okay. The bread was not toasted and the Scotch egg was lukewarm. The tomato and salad were fine. The cheese was pretty good but I would’ve liked it to be separated from the dressed salad; it had developed some moisture. But cheese and bread are never a bad plan and from a nutritional standpoint this is reasonably sound. I wouldn’t steer anyone away from ordering this one, but don’t go in expecting anything special.
Butterbeer was also to be had, because duh. I have had it before it both the regular soda and frozen versions. Almost everyone prefers the frozen version, but not me – CARBONATION IS MY GOD. HAIL TO THEE, SODASTREAM! … Anyway. Butterbeer is basically cream soda if you replace the cream with a bit more of a butterscotch thing and add some rather amazing toasty vanilla foam to the top. Also, when unfrozen, bubbles. BUBBLES!
Dinner that day was at CityWalk’s Antojitos (I wanted to go to the place that sold sushi AND burgers but was overruled). I had a large and tasty salad but it wasn’t anything to write home about. In fact, I only really mention this mini-review to say that Antojitos is a standard Mexican restaurant and if you want to be wowed I’d say pass. That being said, I didn’t have any margaritas and anything – who knows, they could be astounding. Try it and report back, soldier.

I did finally get my sushi! I ate twice at the sushi place on the second level of CityWalk – Sushi Fusion according to the receipt, but the sign just says “Sushi.” Apologies for the lack of photos; don’t know how I spaced on that one.
I tried the rainbow and dragon rolls along with avocado rolls. To be honest, the rainbow roll was not the best – serviceable, but the fish topping was just okay; disappointing when you expect the salmon and tuna to be the star. The dragon roll (eel) was better but nothing memorable.
Surprisingly, however, the avocado roll was quite excellent, larger than you expect from a veggie roll advertised on the side and full of ripe avocado. If you’re a raw fish person, I might give Sushi Fusion a pass, but if you’re in it for the veggie stuff, take a shot. (And if you’re a person whose significant other hates sushi, you take it where you find it. *raises hand*) 
And now for the real star of the show – Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, the new place in Diagon Alley. I went twice for a grand total of four flavors.

I’m not gonna lie – flavor selection was tough. They have a million interesting options – strawberry and peanut butter, how did I leave you behind?! But for my first round I settled on what I found to be a logical combination: Earl Grey & Lavender and Clotted Cream.
The Earl Grey is nice – sort of a vanilla base with the tea flavor mixed in. I don’t remember a strong lavender element but then I couldn’t describe with certainty what that’s like so who knows. If you’re into tea, try it. If you’re not, don’t.
The clotted cream though. OH MAN, THE CLOTTED CREAM. It’s like… it’s like cheesecake ice cream, kind of, only BETTER. It’s like when you have afternoon tea at the Grand Floridian and there’s Devonshire cream and you spread it on a scone and it’s awesome only instead of Devonshire cream it’s now ICE CREAM. (No scone, though; hey, Florean, can we get on that?) Highly recommended if you’re into tangy sweet almost-cheesy dairy goodness.

Apparently they ran out of the cute pink cups. 🙁

For my second go round, I got sticky toffee pudding and chocolate chili (“That one is spicy. Is that okay?” said the CM. Sounds like some customers haven’t been paying attention). I was frankly disappointed by these two. The sticky toffee pudding was good but the toffee pudding chunks were insufficiently frequent and indistinct. But the chocolate chili hurt me the most: it was BORING. It tasted like regular chocolate ice cream only there’s a bit of heat in your mouth after you swallow. I don’t know what I expected, but I certainly expected more than that. Should’ve gotten more clotted cream.*

* New life motto

And that’s it! Thing I Am Bummed To Have Missed: breakfast in the Harry Potter places. Oh well. Just have to go back!

Jenn is running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon for the Diabetes Action Team. Will you help her earn her bib while fighting diabetes? Click here to make your tax-deductible donation.


Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

The Most Universal Trip Report Of All: 8/20

It’s the briefest trip report of all! While on a recent conference trip to Orlando, I carved out a bit of time to visit Universal Studios Florida. Click here to read all the entries in this report. Onward!

I had purchased a three-day park hopper, but in truth I didn’t really need it; I’d pretty much knocked out the stuff that mattered to me in the previous two days. Mind you, I did NOT take a completist approach to park touring – I skipped a lot of stuff that I’d already done on previous visits. A first-timer would doubtless need more days. As for me, I was kind of over it, but I had that last day and figured I might as well use it.

The hotel shuttle dropped me off at the park a little before 1PM, which didn’t leave me a lot of time. I booked it directly to Diagon Alley, where I once again enjoyed a ride through Gringotts courtesy of the singler rider line. I still think I prefer the Hogwarts ride just because I like the increased swooshiness of the mechanics, but Gringotts definitely grew on me over the course of my four trips. Good job, Bill Weasley!

I had skipped the conference’s final lunch, and the only natural replacement at that point was Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlour (note the very British u). More on the result in my upcoming Universal food post.

I wandered around Diagon Alley with my ice cream, soaking in the atmosphere. As I said above, I prefer the headline ride in Hogsmeade, but I find I must give the ambiance edge to Diagon Alley. It’s much more contained and built up higher, for starters, which makes you feel unbelievably immerse. I noted on Twitter that while in line for the Hogwarts ride I could hear sounds from the nearby Jurassic Park area, which drags you back to the real world. Diagon Alley sucks you in; as long as you remain within its confines you can see nothing but the wizard world. I dig it.

Post ice cream I headed over to Men In Black Alien Attack and took the single rider line for a quick spin. My score was pretty good – certainly better than anyone else in my car that I saw – but somehow I completely missed the instruction to press the red button. If I remember correctly that would’ve netted me like 100,000 points. FAIL.

From there I walked around through the remaining lands; I pondered doing the Terminator show but the next one wasn’t for 20 minutes and I wanted to get over to Islands of Adventure. I booked it over to the opposite gate and went straight to Hogsmeade for one last ride on the Hogwarts ride (this trip was brought to you by the single rider line).

Time was getting short, so I backtracked to the front of the park and the main gift shop where I had been promised a coupon book. I collected it from a very nice cashier but the book turned out to be basically useless; all restaurants and waived club covers, no tickets or gift shop discounts. Oh well. I had already decided to buy a stuffed animal of Hagrid’s dog for Pat’s niece, so I went ahead and did that and left the park.

I had time for one last trip to the sushi place at CityWalk (Pat doesn’t like sushi so I take it where I can find it) before I caught a cab back to my hotel, grabbed my bags, and headed to the airport. Thanks to storms in Baltimore and then storms in Orlando, my flight took off 2.5 hours late and I could’ve stayed at the park for longer, but hey. Better safe than sorry and all that.

And there you have it! My trip to Universal Studios Florida. The summer crowds weren’t conducive to getting a ton done, but I knocked out everything that was important to me. I very much enjoyed the experience and there are particular rides that I would love to have another go at.

But.

I just didn’t get that feeling, you know?

You know. The feeling you get when you’re at a Disney park. You don’t have to be doing anything, really. You just stand there and look at the castle, or Spaceship Earth, or hell, all of World Showcase, or the prayer flags outside Expedition Everest…

Maybe it’s a matter of familiarity. After all, I’ve made enough trips to WDW that I know what to do and where to go when it’s raining or crowded or hot or cold. I know my favorite things. I’ve been to Universal before, but I’ve never given it the same attention Disney gets.

I came closest to the feeling at Universal in Diagon Alley. Even as a lukewarm Harry Potter fan, the attention to detail and immersive environment was beautifully done. But aside from that – even in Hogsmeade – nothing at Universal touches Disney for me. Is it nostalgia? Prejudice? I don’t know. But I know that while I CAN. NOT. WAIT. For my next Disney trip in November, I’m cool to wait on Universal. I’ll definitely jump on it if a trip falls in my lap, but I don’t have the same Disney need.

Who else has been to both? What are your thoughts on the matter?

Anyway. That completes this trip report. MOSTLY. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for food reviews!

Jenn is running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon for the Diabetes Action Team. Will you help her earn her bib while fighting diabetes? Click here to make your tax-deductible donation.

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

The Most Universal Trip Report Of All: 8/18

It’s the briefest trip report of all! While on a recent conference trip to Orlando, I carved out a bit of time to visit Universal Studios Florida. Click here to read all the entries in this report. Onward!

Day two at Universal Studios was buddy-less; I was the only one who had bought a multi-day ticket. And so, after two and half days of conferencing, I gallivanted off back to the park.

My cab dropped me off at the park around 4pm, and I spent the entire walk from the drop-off spot to the entrance formulating my plane. One of the perks of solo travel is that you only need to consult with yourself, after all.

Item one was to go right back to Diagon Alley for some ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s – but I got distracted. First by the Blues Brothers show, then Revenge of the Mummy for some single rider action.

At that point I figured, well, I’m here and it’s not raining, so I backtracked to the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit single rider liner and hopped on that. Like the Dragon Challenge coaster, this now requires that you completely empty your pockets and then walk through a metal detector before you’re cleared to ride. I considered using one of the secret song codes for my ride soundtrack, but ultimately just went with Daft Punk since I didn’t have my phone to confirm the numbers. I was lucky enough to get the VERY back seat, which I totally deserved after listening to the pre-ride instruction video so many times (“AWESOMMMMMME!!!!!”).

Then it was time for Diagon Alley, really, although I prioritized a trip through Gringotts over the ice cream. The single rider line was available here as well, so I took it – and found a truncated experience. No photo (fine by me), but more importantly no elevators. If you hadn’t gone through the regular line you never would have known, which is kind of a bummer since the fake elevator effects are kinda part of the ride. But that’s the price with pay for efficiency, I suppose.

Finally ice cream time! I got two flavors in my cup and will detail them more closely in my upcoming Universal food post. I wandered through Knockturn Alley while eating, which is air conditioned and very very dark. There isn’t much in there – a single gift shop and some displays – but it’s a nice extension of the area and a great place to escape the crowds.

I was thirsty post-ice cream, so I hit up the bar, The Hopping Pot, for some club soda – which I was given for free! Score! I didn’t need anymore food, but I saw “pasties” on the menu; if those were pumpkin pasties I will be very sad I missed them. Also I understand they have some exclusive beers, so clearly I’ll have to go back.

From there I exited Diagon Alley and circled around to Springfield to look for a present for Pat, who had informed me that his favorite Simpsons character is Disco Stu. Let it be known that there is nothing Disco Stu in Springfield as far as I can tell. Let it also be known that this will become a pattern…

I passed back by Men In Black Alien Attack and pondered riding, but ultimately decided to just hop the Hogwarts Express. Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve yet addressed the interesting tiered system Universal has inadvertently created by allowing people to ride the Express ONLY if they have park hoppers. Can’t afford it? Too bad; you’re not riding. An interesting approach and I wonder: has there been backlash? Will they loosen this policy at any point, perhaps if attendance drops?

No more Harry Potter for me just then, thanks – I was on a Pat Present Finding Mission. He had named Yertle the Turtle as his favorite Suess character (good choice, Pat!), so I wandered through all the gift shops in Suess Landing… and came up empty. Didn’t they formerly have a giant Suess book selection? I swear they did. And it’s gone. BOO.

ME.

Next Up: Marvel Island, where I hopped in the Hulk coaster’s single rider line (after another pocket-emptying and metal detector-scanning). While I was in line, a guy in a standby row called out to tell me I was “very pretty,” so that was nice except we ended up in the same train and he was looking at me still so I was a little worried he might start following me. #SoloGirlProblems But he didn’t so that was fine and I can say: thanks dude! Also I got to be in the VERY FRONT so ultimately it was a successful endeavor.

And now for another episode of Try To Find Pat Presents That Don’t Exist. Pat’s favorite Marvel character? Gambit. Things Universal carries featuring Gambit? ……… Nothing. At all. I almost got him a Silver Surfer comic since Pat’s a surfer but decided that the commonality of a single word wasn’t enough to justify the purchase (and Pat now informs me he was never a huge fan anyway, so that worked out).

Ah well. I decided to take a walk and complete my park tour, walking through the comic area, the toon area, and the Jurassic Park area, just kinda looking around. I wound up back in Hogsmeade, where I enjoyed the single rider line through Hogwarts.

It was getting late in the evening, but I still had time to jam a few things in there. I took the Hogwarts Express back to USF with some loud people (why are there always loud people?) but I had already experienced the effects so it was okay.

Upon arrival in Diagon Alley I discovered the Gringotts single rider line was closed and the regular wait time was listed at 20 minutes. I asked the attendant if he thought it was a REAL 20 minutes or a vanity 20 minutes, and he guessed vanity so I went in. I think ultimately it probably was closer to 20 minutes but I got to do the elevator thing again so that was nice for a complete experience.

The park was closed upon exiting the ride, which meant it was time to turn my attention to such practical matters as dinner. I fought through a SEA of people exiting the park to the counter service sushi place at CityWalk. I barely got my sushi and booked it to the hotel bus in time, but I would just like to point out that if anyone can power walk from the second floor of CityWalk to a bus waiting at the drop-off point in under 4 minutes it is ME and I did. HORNBERGER!

And so I returned to the hotel and sat outside on my balcony eating my to-go sushi because it was one hell of a view.

One more day of Universal to go!

Jenn is running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon for the Diabetes Action Team. Will you help her earn her bib while fighting diabetes? Click here to make your tax-deductible donation.

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

The Most Universal Trip Report Of All: 8/15

No trip to brief for a trip report, right? Last week I was in Orlando for a conference, and I figured while there I may as well schedule in a little playtime. So I headed down a day early for some Universal Studios Florido time (don’t worry, WDW, you’re next!).

There was a long luggage check line at the airport, I barely made my boarding group, I had hardly eaten anything, and I was frankly exhausted by the time I made it to Orlando, but there’s nothing like the promise of a theme park to fuel the old adrenaline. I met my old boss (at the conference with a different organization) at the Starbucks right outside security, picked up her coworker, checked in at the conference hotel, and then we were cabbing it to USF!

We hit the original park first and headed straight to the new Harry Potter section, Diagon Alley. The Gringotts ride – officially Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, I believe – posted a 45 minute wait, which was frankly good enough for us at 2 in the afternoon in the summer, so we hopped in line.

DAGRON

The queue was pretty good but VERY extended. First you walk through the main bank area with the various audio-animatronic goblins doing, I don’t know, ledgers or math problems or something. Then you look at nothing but stone walls for awhile until you reach a section where they want to take your picture in front of more stone wall (maybe they magic it up in post; we didn’t check). Then you get on a fake, but well-faked, elevator, which takes you down into the bowels of the bank. THEN you go up a flight of stairs and THEN you’re finally in a position to get on the ride.

Iconoclast Goblin wears a bowtie.

As for the ride itself? [SPOILER ALERT] It’s kind of like Revenge of the Mummy, only a bit milder in force. “Dark ride” scenes – in this case often holograms and large-screen projections enhanced with some real-life set dressing, similar to the Hogwarts ride – are interspersed with fairly gentle roller coaster action. If you can handle Big Thunder, I’d say you can handle this.

The basic plot line is that you’re looking to open up an account, so Bill Weasely is showing you around. The main Potter group shows up for some reason and hijinks ensue, naturally. It’s fun, and it definitely grew on me with subsequent rides, but I think I prefer the original Hogwarts ride in Islands of Adventure. Interested to hear any opinions you guys might have.

Our next stop was the Leaky Cauldron for lunch, which has NO INTEREST in nutritional balance. Not that I was necessarily looking for a kale salad, but everything had a meat-and-potatoes-hot-stuff bent. I went with the Ploughman’s Lunch, which I will detail further in an upcoming food review.

After lunch we wandered through a gift shop or two and then Knockturn Alley, just checking out the details. At this point there was a 30 minute posted wait for the Hogwarts Express, so we decided to take a shot. The queue area is kinda cute, set up to look first like an actual London train station (complete with snack stop full of English stuff like Mars bars), plus a transitional trick mirror that makes it look like the people in front of you in line are disappearing into the wall. We were able to skip a significant portion of the line by virtue of being a party of three.

[SPOILER ALERT] The Hogwarts Express looks like a regular European train with compartments and whatnot, but the windows are actually screens that project the England-to-Hogwarts countryside, or vice versa. The frosted glass pane between you and the train corridor is also some sort of screen that shows silhouettes of characters as they pass by in the hall. The trip TO Hogwarts is much darker and features an attack by the Dementors, so that’s fun.

Upon arrival in Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade, we immediately encountered a mere 15 minute wait for the Dragon Challenge. Despite impending rain we jumped in line. After, of course, stowing ALLLLLL our stuff in lockers. Universal has long had a policy of making you stick bags and stuff in lockers before you can even get in line, but they’ve gotten MUCH more hardcore lately on some of the more intense roller coasters. Now they don’t even permit you to carry your phone or anything in a zippered pocket, which I had included in my attire for this specific purpose. You have to walk through a metal detector to make sure there’s nothing in your pockets.

But anyway, we made it through the line and rode the Chinese Crested before the rain started. From there we hightailed it to the Hogwarts ride (Official Name As I Remember It: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), where the posted wait was 45 minutes. Unfortunately it was probably longer at that point because everyone could see rain was coming and wanted to do something indoors. Still, we made it eventually and it was a super fun ride as always.

We exited the ride to discover that it was now positively POURING outside. Everyone was coming off the ride but no one was leaving the gift shop, so it was getting increasingly insane. We decided to make a break for it and wound up in line at Poseidon’s Fury, which I knew was a) relatively nearby; b) inside; and c) inside for a good 15 minutes worth of show at LEAST. The line was weirdly long (I suspect there may have been technical difficulties) but our Taylor did a good job. I do rather wonder, though, how they convinced Christina Pickles to be in this thing. Also, it is WAAAAAY dated. But kinda fun therefore!

It was still raining when we got out, but not nearly as hard. We wandered back to the Hogwarts Express, where there was pretty much no line at all. [SPOILER ALERT] The trip back to London featured nothing but safe and happy scenes, my favorite being Ron and Harry peering into our compartment and declaring that we looked like a bunch of first years. Oh, and Buckbeak. Always Buckbeak!

On our way out of Diagon Alley we passed the new Transformers ride and, seeing a 30 minute posted wait time, decided to go for it. Guys, this ride is EXACTLY THE SAME as the Spider-Man ride in IoA. In terms of mechanics, sure, but I also felt very seriously that the scenes and sets were basically just re-skins. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but I had some serious glitch-in-the-Matrix deja vu. AUTOBOTS, ROLL OUT. (That’s right, right?)

BATTLE GLASSES

Up next was Revenge of the Mummy, which is one of if not my absolutely favorite ride at Universal. I love the reasonably thrilling coaster combined with the dark ride scenes, plus Brendan Fraser is awesome of course. “I would’ve enjoyed this interview a lot more if I had GOTTEN MY CUP OF COFFEE!”

We had about enough time for one more ride, so we headed for the Despicable Me motion simulator – which boasted an hour wait. Pass. Instead we headed across the way to Shrek 4D, which I had never really had much interest in… and my instincts were totally spot on. I found most of the humor pretty unsophisticated. But then plenty of people just love Shrek so YMMV, as the kids acronym.

Real subtle, guys.

From there we headed out to CityWalk, where we got dinner at a Mexican place that I will talk more about in my Universal food post. And there you have it: my first day at Universal. More to come!

Jenn is running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon for the Diabetes Action Team. Will you help her earn her bib while fighting diabetes? Click here to make your tax-deductible donation.

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

In Which Jenn Is Headed To Universal Studios Florida

Just because I have made my decision doesn’t mean I have to like it.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a conference in Orlando next week that will include a little bit of downtime. Hardcore WDW girl that I am, I decided I’m going to spend that downtime at Universal Studios Orlando so I can check out the new Harry Potter expansion.

But then of course I was listening to Main Street background music on YouTube and that made me all sad and I miss WDW and wouldn’t it be silly to go to Orlando and not at least swing by? And then my Twitter buddies were all GO TO BOTH YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TO BOTH and I was like YEAH I TOTALLY SHOULD.

Only Universal tickets are not as cheap as they used to be, and Disney tickets have never been cheap. Oh, and naturally Universal is cleverly forcing me to upgrade to a park hopper since you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express between parks without it. From a fiscal standpoint, I have to make a choice. Since I’ll be expensing hotels and food and not have that much time anyway, Universal it shall be.

I am sad. I am sad not to be going to WDW. Still, I’ll be there in November for the Wine & Dine Half Marathon. Yay! And I really am excited to check out this Diagon Alley thing at Universal. I’ve been to the Hogsmeade section in Islands of Adventure and even as a lukewarm Potter fan I was VERY impressed. I hear great things about the new Gringotts ride and the Hogwarts Express train, and of course drinking butterbeer is always glorious. It’s gonna be a good time!

I’ll be traipsing around USF at various points this Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Who’s already been to Diagon Alley? Have any tips or recommendations? What should I eat?!

Jenn is running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon for the Diabetes Action Team. Will you help her earn her bib while fighting diabetes? Click here to make your tax-deductible donation.

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

In Which Jenn’s Disney Loyalties Are Tested

The rather mundane element is this: I am going to a conference in August. This is my fourth year attending said conference, and while it is not without elements of fun (or not; I’m looking at you, San Francisco), the trip is not in and of itself something to get all worked up over.

Only the exciting element is this: this year it’s in… wait for it… ORLANDO, FLORIDA.

I’m not so lucky that the conference is on Disney property, and I’ll of course spend most of my time at, y’know, the actual conference, but still – there will be some free time, so it’s time for a piecemeal Disney trip with hotel expenses paid, right?

Well… maybe. Guys, I’m thinking of defecting.

Not permanently! NEVER permanently. Disney parks are hands down my favorite ever, and I’ve been to lots of others. But here are some thoughts:

  • I am not a huge Harry Potter fan, but I’ve been to the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Florida and it was a pretty awesome experience.
  • I am therefore curious about the new Diagon Alley portion. I hear great things about the Hogwarts Express and the Gringotts ride. 
  • The hotel where I’m staying is equidistant from Disney and Universal…
  • …except on the final night, when the wrap-up party takes place at the Hard Rock Cafe Orlando. There’s only one of those, right? The one at Universal. I could totally skip some of the party for some butterbeer action.

I dunno, guys. I <3 Disney SO MUCH, but I’m leaning toward snapping up a Universal ticket and doing the Harry Potter thing this time around. It kinda feels like a gimme, y’know? I’ll mostly be attending conference sessions and I won’t have a ton of time at any park. It being such an afterthought, why not make that afterthought Universal?

Thoughts? Am I a terrible turncoat here? DON’T WORRY WDW YOU’RE STILL MY FAVORITE I’LL SEE YOU IN NOVEMBER!!!

Jenn is running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon for the Diabetes Action Team. Will you help her earn her bib while fighting diabetes? Click here to make your tax-deductible donation.

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us at fairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!

In Which Jenn & Elizabeth Expose the Dementors

JENN: Let’s welcome back the one, the only, Perfect Traveling Companion, Elizabeth!

ELIZABETH: Ta-da! You’ll spoil me with those comments. My ego is getting so inflated.

JENN: She is vital to today’s discussion, which is: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. We want to get our thoughts down before Diagon Alley opens and The Wizarding World goes all old-school-retro. And since Elizabeth not only accompanied me on a Universal trip in January of 2010, but also actually remembers what happened in all the books (whereas I briefly forgot what Gringott’s was), we NEED her.

 

ELIZABETH: I have my uses. I was actually surprised they built Hogsmeade first, but I guess that was the only way to include Hogwarts.

So, where shall we start?

JENN: I’m thinking I’m going to throw out an attraction, and you’re going to tell me, from a literary perspective, if it was any good. And then I will provide the philistine’s perspective.

A philistine’s favorite perspective.

ELIZABETH: LOL, okay. I hope I can remember enough.

JENN: Let’s start with an easy one: butterbeer.

ELIZABETH: It was very tasty! Although not alcoholic, which means it fails the “exactly like the books” test. I remember it being essentially cream soda with a toffee-flavored cream topping.

JENN: I thought it was fantastic. We got the non-frozen version where everyone raves about the frozen, but I had the frozen later and prefer the regular kind. What can I say? I love bubbles.

ELIZABETH: I didn’t have the frozen either, but then I think it was January and not very hot. As for authenticity, though, I remember the place where we ate breakfast had a pretty good English Breakfast. I thought blood sausage was kind of gross, though. But delicious!

JENN: Yes, you went authentic. Me, I got pancakes. They came with a croissant, which I thought was kind of redundant. But the pumpkin juice was nice.

ELIZABETH: Yes, I think the pumpkin juice was probably the best part.

JENN: And the themeing of The Three Broomsticks? Assuming I’m getting the name right? That’s the one in Hogsmeade, right?

ELIZABETH: That’s what it was! It was well done, I thought, although I haven’t been in many real English pubs. I remember beams being visible in the ceiling.

JENN: If I’d known it would be important, I would’ve taken notes while I was reading… I swear to God I read all the books at least once! I didn’t necessarily like all of them, but I swear I read them, honest.

Okay, let’s jump to the candy shop. I completely forget what this is called.

ELIZABETH: Honeydukes, I think.

JENN: THAT’S IT!

ELIZABETH: I’m a genius!

JENN: All I know if that I bought my dad and brother chocolate frogs, and they were just milk chocolate in a frog shape. BOOOOOORING. They liked the trading cards, though.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, I got one too! I can’t remember who was on the card I got…maybe Dumbledore? I still have the jar of peppermints I got there (minus the mints); and I mean, if you want a semi-useful souvenir, the glass jars are reusable and have the “Honeydukes” logo on them.

JENN: Yeah, I have one of those too. Pretty cute, even for a barely-casual fan such as myself. I seem to recall they had a few other things from the books. Those hellacious jellybeans, for starters.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, nice idea but I didn’t want to actually eat them. And they had some other old-timey candy like lemon drops and ribbon candy. And I feel like there were cockroach clusters….

JENN: There was I think a joke shop next to it? I don’t remember what this was called either. This is why I brought you in.

ELIZABETH: Zonkos! That’s the one they just closed so they could open the Weasleys’ shop in Diagon Alley! (I DO read the articles you send me! 😉 I don’t remember a whole lot about that one… hmmm.

JENN: Well, if you don’t remember then it can’t have been that good. I shall mourn it not. But I faintly recall that it, too, featured items from the books, although I believe a lot of them didn’t really do anything.

ELIZABETH: Probably why I don’t remember much, except looking around briefly. Well, they just can’t live up to the magical pranks in the books. I want an ACTUAL nose-biting teacup.

JENN: Let’s see. Ollivander’s. We did the walk-through for this one.

ELIZABETH: Oh yes! The wands were pretty cool. And there was a bit where kids could “find their own wand” as it were. I remember wanting to buy a wand, but they were a bit pricey.

JENN: It was actually a nice set up – you walk through the shop and a wizard chooses a kid to help select a wand. <cynicism>Then he sells the kid the wand.</cynicism>

I mean, the guy playing the wizard was actually really good… but unless you were the kid in question, it was kind of like watching someone else buy a car, except you don’t know that person so you’ll never get to ride in it.

ELIZABETH: Can you imagine being the parent? “No Timmy, you can’t have the wand that chose you, it’s a scam!” Although if you’re a parent, you should be resigned to shelling out for a wand.

JENN: Ah well. That conveniently fed directly into the largest gift shop, I believe. Which admittedly had some nifty stuff. I succumbed to the siren song of a Ravenclaw scarf and a stuffed barn owl and I’m not even that into the Potterverse.

ELIZABETH: I still have my scarf! I remember there being all kinds of jerseys and such, especially for Griffindor and Slytherin, of course. Oh, and I got some stamps and post cards too. I still have a few of the stamps, although now they’re not enough to actually send anything.

JENN: Okay, I think that about covers the merchandise angle. Moving on to the rides. Let’s start with the simplest: Flight of the Hippogriff.

ELIZABETH: Let’s see…that was the rather tame roller coaster, right? The kiddie one?

JENN: Yeah. There was a cute animatronic hippogriff nodding to you as you went up the first lift. (See? I remember the thing about the nodding. I totally read these books.) Other than that it was a pretty run-of-the-mill kiddie coaster.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, not very exciting for us seasoned pros.

JENN: We hopped in line because it was short for once, but I remember the average wait time being around 50 minutes. Not worth it if you ask me.

ELIZABETH: Bleh, no.

JENN: The Dueling Dragons coaster was more our speed, although the queue was a thousand times more well-themed than the ride itself.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, I remember being kind of disappointed by the coaster itself. But then, it also can’t live up to the description in the books.

JENN: 
It’s fun, but it’s just a re-themed roller coaster with dual tracks. Once you’ve picked your side – Hungarian Horntail or Chinese Crested – you could be riding any ol’ dragon-themed coaster.

But the queue WAS impressive. They had various scenes from the Triwizard Tournament, and the crashed Ford… Anglia? Was that it?

ELIZABETH: Yes! I wish the car had come back for the later books… They should make a ride based on THAT adventure (are they?).

JENN: I don’t think so. I think it’s just Gringott’s and the Hogwarts Express.

ELIZABETH: Bah! It totally needs to be an alternate, high-impact coaster way to get to Hogsmeade.

JENN: Now for the big one – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

ELIZABETH: How many times did we ride that again?

JENN: I don’t know. Sixty-three? Seventy-five? First give us a quick rundown on authenticity and then we can talk terror and Dementors.

ELIZABETH: Right! Well, they did a good job immersing you in the scenes. I give it high marks for authenticity – just about everything was taken from the books (albeit with some embellishment). They did a pretty cool mix of screen and animatronic effects.

JENN: Let’s see… I believe it went: dragon, giant spider whose name I forget, Whomping Willow, brief Quidditch scene before you’re attacked by Dementors, escape. Please note that just about everything in that list is TRYING TO KILL YOU.

ELIZABETH: True… and the Dementors were legitimately creepy. I’d forgotten about the spider.

JENN: I almost said “Was the spider named Agrajag?” and then I realized that’s the multi-lived creature Arthur Dent keeps accidentally killing in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. I am really no good at this Harry Potter thing.

ELIZABETH: Aragog, so you were close!

JENN: Anyway, the first time I rode the ride I was TERRIFIED. Those fancy cars take you WAAAAY up close to the scenes so it often feels like something might touch you at any moment. I don’t do touching. I can’t even ride Stitch’s Great Escape at the Magic Kingdom, that’s how much I don’t do touching. Luckily nothing does and by the time we’d ridden for the umpteenth time I was pretty desensitized, but I’m surprised more little kids don’t come off traumatized.

ELIZABETH: There definitely needs to be some personal space. I think I closed my eyes for the dragon and Dementors bits… Oh oh! Can we talk about the time the ride shut down?

JENN: YES! It was supposed to be the very last time we rode before we went home.

ELIZABETH: And then, right when we’re getting to the SUPER creepy bit with the Dementors and it’s really dark… everything stops. We sat in the dark for a little bit, which was unnerving, because I had a Dementor RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE. But they eventually turned on the lights, which was AWESOME, because you could see all the equipment making everything work.

JENN: Also, it revealed that the Dementors are basically extremely large potato sacks artfully draped.

ELIZABETH: Yep, they were just big arms attached to the wall they didn’t seem so scary after that, LOL.

We were pretty lucky in that the cars didn’t have us at a particularly weird angle, but some people were leaning towards the ground or angled up to the ceiling. And you can’t move in those things: the straps are tight.

JENN: At least they let us skip the line and hop back on the ride for one last unadulterated run!

ELIZABETH: Haha, yes! So we got to end on a good note. Although that was the most awesome ride interruption I’ve ever had.

JENN: I agree!

ELIZABETH: Oh wait, and was that the one where the line took you through Hogwarts?

JENN: Yes! How did it look to your expert eye?

ELIZABETH: It was good! Very similar to the movie depictions (I mean, everything was) there were some cool effects there that are probably worth seeing on their own. I think if *I* had been designing the attraction, I would have made Hogwarts the life-size part instead of Hogsmeade. Although i guess that would have been more expensive.

JENN: Campus grounds, you mean?

ELIZABETH: Yeah, and dungeons to explore, and the classrooms, and the north tower…

JENN: That would indeed be pretty nifty.

ELIZABETH: And tunnels! They should have included the tunnels to Hogsmeade. They should make a ride based on the challenges for the sorcerer’s stone from the first book. Giant chess match, anyone? They clearly can’t keep up with my imagination!

JENN: I think you should take over.

ELIZABETH: Hahaha, I would spend ALL their money.

JENN: The only other feature of the current Wizarding World I can remember is that show they had, with the Beauxbatons and Durmstramgs or whatever you call them. If I recall, we watched this for like two minutes and then wandered off.

ELIZABETH: Ah, yeah, I vaguely remember that. Not particularly impressive. But then, in the movie they literally shot fire and live birds, and that’s hard to duplicate live.

JENN: I’ve only seen one of the movies and it wasn’t The Goblet of Fire so I have no idea how authentic it was, but if I were them I’d keep the ribbons on sticks for rhythmic gymnasts.

ELIZABETH: HAH! now THAT’S something I would pay to see. I actually thought GoF was one of the better movies. It contained my favorite line:  “Oh my god. I’ve killed Harry Potter!”

JENN: Ha!

ELIZABETH: It’s even better in context!

JENN: I just like yelling CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

ELIZABETH: That’s *definitely* the best catchphrase.

JENN: Let’s see, am I forgetting anything?

ELIZABETH: There was a Hogwarts Express train that you could take your picture with.

JENN: Oh, yes! The conductor was pretty funny.

ELIZABETH: Other than that I think we’ve hit everything.

JENN: So, to end our Potter post: I’ve been sending you a lot of articles about the new Diagon Alley/Knockturn Alley/Hogwarts Express expansion at Universal. As an established Potterite or Potterhead or Pottermouth or whatever you want to call yourself, what is your opinion?

ELIZABETH: It does sound very exciting. They definitely did a very good job with atmosphere for Hogsmeade, so I think having the expansion will make it feel like you’ve walked on set, which should be pretty awesome. And I’m intrigued by this Hogwarts Express ride. I just hope they add some more exciting rides and not just places to buy merchandise. But that’s the cynicism talking.

JENN: I hear there will be strawberry peanut butter ice cream, so they have my attention..

ELIZABETH: Ooooh.

JENN: In conclusion: we’ll definitely have to go. But next year. Once the furor has died down. Late January was just about perfect.

ELIZABETH: I agree!

JENN: Thanks for providing the actual knowledge portion of the program!

ELIZABETH: I did what I could. I wish I remembered more details to compare, but ah well. Thanks for inviting me onto your blog!

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Twitter @fairestrunofall. To see how our training is going, check out Jenn’s dailymile here and Moon’s dailymile here. If you have any questions for us, leave a comment or email us atfairestrunofall@gmail.comSee ya real soon!