The week before last we went on a vacation. Woo! We hardly ever go on far-away trips so this was a treat we were looking forward to for awhile.
We booked through a local travel agent and we were so happy with their service! I called one day before they opened in the morning and left a voicemail and within a few hours, they emailed me a number of potential itineraries that suited the various options we wanted to look at. I love this kind of thing! Getting to see the full details of each option is important to me for decision-making and every time I asked them a question it was answered right away. I highly recommend Valley Travel!
We ended up with a very early flight on Monday, so we got a park-and-ride deal at a hotel in Grand Rapids, which was nice. It was handy to have the car taken care of while we were gone and to not have to get up in the middle of the night to drive over an hour to the airport. I’m so glad that our travel agent recommended it. Since we had Sunday night booked for this, we ended up heading to GR a little early and visiting a few of our favorite spots. We checked out Meijer Gardens to see the ArtPrize entries and happened to see a way cool bonsai show that was happening that day. I totally want to grow bonsai! I had seen something on instagram the day before about the Grand Rapids Symphony playing a series of ArtPrize concerts, and when I texted our pal Michael he confirmed that they’d be doing three that afternoon at a space downtown. We were so happy to get to see him and listen to the concert, even if some of the music was a little cheesy. Part of the concept of these mini concerts is to get people interested who might not otherwise think about the symphony, so some of the pieces were adaptations of famous works with more of a contemporary feel (eg: add electric bass and trap set). I’d rather hear the originals, but it was still a really fun show and the audience was super receptive which was neat to hear. We then played some pinball at the Pyramid Scheme and had a very filling dinner and beers at Hopcat. I sometimes forget how many fun things there are to do in GR, so I’m glad that we had an impetus to take advantage at the last minute.
We stayed on-property at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. Part of the deal with staying on-property is that we each got a free Express Pass, as well as complimentary water taxi service to and from the Universal CityWalk (which is connected to both of the parks). The hotel is very nice, but we did not have a great experience staying there. Virtually all of the time we were in our room, we could hear dogs barking. And not just in the distance, but loudly enough to wake us up. We don’t spend a lot of time in luxury hotels, but to me, it seems unacceptable to have this kind of noise happening, especially to have it happening repeatedly for days on end. We had to call the front desk a number of times because the barking just would not stop. I’m really surprised that they don’t have better soundproofing to avoid this being a problem. I’m all about seeing cute dogs, but if I’m paying a room rate of over $300 per night, I shouldn’t have to hear them from inside my room. (Note: This was BEFORE the hurricane happened, so there’s no special circumstances. More on the hurricane later.)
Our flight to Orlando was really early, so we ended up having almost a full day more at Universal than we originally thought. We spent most of Monday and all of Tuesday and Wednesday at the Universal parks. Our original plan was for two days and that really would have been enough. We ended up feeling like we had done everything we wanted to with time left to spare, so I’d definitely recommend just two days – one day per park is plenty.
Our package included breakfasts at the two quick-service restaurants in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. We ate at the Leaky Cauldron first, and then at the Three Broomsticks the day after, and I found it very interesting to see the differences. The two restaurants are almost exactly the same – the decor is slightly different according to what we know about the two establishments according to canon, but you can really tell that the Leaky Cauldron was built later (along with the rest of Diagon Alley) because it has some definite improvements in terms of the experience. The Three Broomsticks has a pretty typical quick-service counter setup – you approach the counter in queues and behind the checkout registers is the window pass-through to the kitchen. This means that you can see into the kitchen – seeing the chef in his whites and workers dumping pillows of preconstituted scrambled eggs into warming pans definitely makes the experience a little less than authentic. The Leaky Cauldron, on the other hand, has a much more immersive experience. You still queue to place orders at counters that look strikingly similar, but then you take an oversized candlestick (featuring a number) to another queue where you’re seated, and then someone brings your order to your table (located by that number on the candlestick). This definitely felt more like a fully-realized experience than the older restaurant. The breakfast menu was almost identical at these two places, so I feel like it would be possible to skip the Three Broomsticks and not really miss much. The Leaky Cauldron for sure has what I consider to be more of a Disney level of experience.
Speaking of which, it is very interesting to see the differences between Universal and Disney. At Disney, you NEVER see someone in costume en route to or from work in an area of the park where they don’t belong. At Universal, we felt like we were constantly near someone who was out of place as far as their costume/uniform was concerned. At one of the post-ride Harry Potter gift shops, two of the workers were having a loud conversation about something on pay per view – talk about removing you from the experience!
And speaking of the post-ride HP shops, they were all SO DARK! Customers were seriously using the flashlight app on their phones to even see the merchandise on some racks. It was atmospheric, sure, but it definitely discouraged shopping, which seems counterproductive.
We did buy the wands and play with them ‘doing magic’ at the preappointed spots in both HP parks, but there was pretty much always a line of kids waiting to do them and most of them are in direct sun where I didn’t feel like standing around waiting, so we didn’t make it a point to do all of them. They also work less well when it’s sunny, so it took forever to get some of the sensors to pick up the motion.
Another thought: when we visited Disney before, we found the meal plan to be a really good deal, but the Universal one was definitely not as good a deal. For one, it turned out that the only full-service restaurants that participate in the plan are in Citywalk. Not one of the restaurants in our (on-resort) hotel participated! And there just are none in the parks that are open for dinner (they’re LISTED as being open for dinner on the literature, but in reality closed at 3 or 4pm). So that was kind of annoying. We also ended up with more snacks and drinks than we really needed – we used them up, but it felt a bit wasteful. I’d recommend skipping the meal plan at Universal.
The rest of the Universal Parks were fine, but nothing was as much fun for me as the HP stuff. Hearing other guests exclaim with excitement as they entered Diagon Alley or see the Hogwarts Express was pretty magical. My favorite rides were also in the HP parks.
We had planned to spend Thursday at Epcot to experience the Food and Wine Festival, and we did – until they closed the park early at 5pm because of the impending hurricane! It had been sort of mildly gross all day, but not impossible to walk around in, and in the morning we got a call from Delta that our flight the following day had been canceled. I was able to rebook us for Sunday (everything was preemptively closed on Friday and there were no flights to be had on Saturday) after we got off the Living with the Land ride (side note: how do they manage not to mention indigenous peoples at all in this ride?! How did I not notice that the last time we rode it?!), as well as extend our stay at our hotel for another two nights. Hooray for smartphones! I can’t even imagine how much time I would have had to spend on that rigamarole if I didn’t have everything I needed right in my phone. By the time 5pm rolled around, the rain was coming down pretty steadily, and then, just as we bolted from under the overhang to get to our hotel car, it started bucketing down. It was raining as heavily as I’ve ever seen it, or at least it felt like it. We got safely back to our hotel and tucked in for a night of watching the local weather and checking in with family and friends on facebook.
Friday we were stuck in the hotel all day – everything in the Orlando area was closed, and almost everything in our hotel was also closed. None of the restaurants were open and the one singular option we had for food was a buffet set up in one of the ballrooms. This buffet was $25 per person per meal no matter what you ate. The food was just okay – typical conference food, which is not a compliment. It felt ridiculous to have to pay so much for a meal that wasn’t great, and to have absolutely no choice. We overheard another guest saying that she had food intolerances and couldn’t eat any of the buffet options (everything was sauced within an inch of its life – woe be to any kids or other picky eaters who aren’t into sauces) and the hotel staff was like, this is all we have. I totally get that options were limited and they only had limited staff on-site, but it really felt like the hotel was taking advantage of being the only food option. We ate breakfast, grabbed a couple of extra bagels so we could skip lunch, and then ate dinner. $100 for one day’s food that wasn’t even very good, bleh. The storm pretty much blew through overnight (early Friday morning, technically) and we saw some dead palm fronds blown down, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be damage to where we were. Despite all my complaining, we did feel very lucky that no truly severe weather hit us and as far as we know all our family and friends also stayed safe. We know that we are lucky to be whining about overpaying for food.
Friday’s house arrest was made slightly easier by a ST:TNG marathon on BBC America (why they’re airing that show is beyond me, but I’ll take it) and by planning for Saturday. We decided that we couldn’t handle another day of just sitting around and might as well take advantage of our proximity to other entertainment, so we got tickets to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for our last day. It turned out to be one of the most fun days of our vacation! There’s a lot of new Star Wars stuff at this park and it was really fun to see it all. We also got tickets to the Galactic Spectacular Dessert Party, which includes not just zerts, but also apps, an open bar and VIP viewing for the Star Wars fireworks show. It was SUPER worth it! Everything edible was Star Wars themed and really cute as well as tasty. The apps and zerts were close enough to being dinner for us. We also got a complimentary bottle of water during the fireworks and we each got a plastic Chewbacca mug to take home. The fireworks show involves a lot of movie footage shown on the sides of the big buildings in the center of the park. It was so great! I would not have expected to enjoy it as much as I did, but it almost brought me to tears! I super mega recommend doing this if you visit this park.
Overall I think that slightly less than one full day at DHS is enough – we had plenty of time for sitting and catching our breath throughout the day and managed to ride the Toy Story game twice, all before the relatively early start time of the Dessert Party. One thing that Universal has a better deal with than Disney is the Express Pass. During our day at Epcot, there were ZERO Fast Passes available for any rides. None! (We didn’t even attempt to ride the new Frozen ride in Norway.) At DHS, there were some fast passes, but it seemed like the ones that we got weren’t even really needed as the lines weren’t terribly long to begin with. Being able to just jump in a fast line EVERY TIME at Universal was really nice.
Then we flew home on Sunday and felt like we never wanted to leave the house again. I think that our original timeline of Monday-Friday was good for us and having it extended was just more time than we wanted to be away. We’re such homebodies!