Universal Orlando

In previous visits, it was common to lower your expectations when visiting the Universal Orlando theme parks.

The rides tend to have technical problems or maintenance issues more frequently than at Disney, the workers have more of an attitude problem and inability to be as polite or helpful, and many of the park guests tend to be more rude and annoying.  On top of that, it was common to encounter infrequent policies when visiting attractions with a wheelchair.  Sometimes workers would tell you to do one thing, and other times different workers at the same ride would counter it and give different instructions.  When you point out the differences in instructions, this would commonly anger the workers and just degrade the experience.

Universal Studios Florida - evening

On this visit things were different.

While we still encountered the occasional bad worker, most of the workers at Universal Orlando were significantly friendlier, politer and more helpful.  The instructions for using a wheelchair were also more consistent.  Unfortunately, the workers at the Pteranodon Flyers in Islands of Adventure were also more consistent, and in the mornings when the park was empty we still were NOT allowed to board the ride without a kid.  On previous visits we could ride the kiddie coaster in the mornings.  Not any longer.

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Throughout Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure you'll notice Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machines in some of the counter-service restaurants.  For those unaware of Coke's awesome concept, the Coke Freestyle machines offer the standard selection of Coca-Cola drink products along with a wide variety of additional flavors.  For example, you can get a Barq's root beer with vanilla, a raspberry flavored Coke, or even an orange flavored Sprite Zero.  The machines advertise something like a hundred different drink options.

Anyway, for an initial cost of like $10, you can purchase a Universal Orlando Coke Freestyle souvenir cup.  The cups have a sensor on the bottom and give you free refills (once every ten minutes) for that day.  You can then bring your cup back with you on other days and pay an $8.99 fee to reactivate the cup for another day of drinking.

Speaking of the sensors on the cups and Coke Freestyle machines, one day while eating at Richter's Burger Co. in USF, we saw somebody attempt to outsmart the system.  A guy saw the Coke Freestyle machines and tried to cheat the system.  He purchased a large drink from the counter and got a handful of water cups for the other people in his group.  He then poured the drink from the large cup into the water cups and then tried to refill his cup at the Coke Freestyle machine.  Whoops.  That didn't work as you need the sensor on the bottom of the souvenir cup to activate the machine.  The guy then went up to the counter and tried to ask for a refill, but like Disney, Universal Orlando does NOT refill drinks at the fast food stands and counter-service restaurants.  Doh!  At least the guy's companions all had a share of his drink.  ;-)

Universal Orlando - souvenir refill cup

If you're looking for a cheaper option than the Coke Freestyle cups, Universal Orlando still offers their traditional souvenir cup.  The regular souvenir cup costs $8.99, and each refill is only $0.99.

When deciding whether or not to purchase a refillable souvenir cup, remember two things:

1) As of this writing, drinks at Universal Orlando cost $2.69 for a regular and $2.99 for a large drink.  On a hot summer day, think about how many drinks you think you'll be needing each day.

2) Many of the rides at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are hostile about you carrying ANYTHING on to the rides.  Some of the rides offer storage lockers that are free for the first thirty minutes or so (longer on the busier days), but you're at the mercy of the system.  Is it worth it carrying around a cup without an easy way to store it on rides?

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Like Disney, Universal Orlando tries to offer humorous t-shirts.  Only in this case Universal Orlando clearly doesn't have the selection that Disney does.  But there were a few shirts that stood out from the rest.

Universal Orlando - Universal Studios Florida

Universal Studios Florida almost felt like visiting a completely different theme park than my last visit in July of 2009.

The Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt roller coaster was FINALLY open, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem replaced Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast, all of Jaws and Amity is under construction and well on its way of being the next expansion in the world of Harry Potter, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D has been added to the park, and a large area around The Simpsons Ride has been further converted into Krustyland and the town of Springfield.  This includes the Krusty Burger and Moe's Tavern restaurants as well as the brand new Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl ride.

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Universal's annual Halloween Horror Nights event began the last day of our vacation.  Throughout the week we saw a variety of spooky decorations and promotions for the event.  Unfortunately, since the event didn't officially begin until the evening of the 21st, most of the cool Halloween decorations were NOT out and on display.  There were a few props here and there for this year's zombie theme, but it wasn't that impressive.

Universal Studios Florida - Back to the Future

The time traveling DeLorean and steam train from Back to the Future Parts 2 and 3 have been relocated to a new home back in the World Expo.  These two vehicles were originally on both sides of the old Back to the Future: The Ride simulator attraction in World Expo.  When that ride closed and was converted to The Simpsons Ride, the DeLorean and steam train were relocated across the lagoon to the Production Central area.  When that spot was converted into the new TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D, the vehicles were moved back across the lagoon and close to their original locations.  This new spot is great and we can now walk all the way around both the car and train.

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Speaking of relocating items from the past, the Great White shark that used to be on display in front of the Jaws ride is now on display in the San Francisco section of the park.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

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As it's been mentioned, the former Amity area and Jaws boat ride is being converted into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, one of many fictional places in the magical world of Harry Potter.

Construction has gone vertical and the buildings are really taking shape.  Several Universal workers have revealed that Diagon Alley will include an indoor roller coaster themed to Gringotts Bank.  Train stations are also under construction in both USF and IOA, and guests will be able to use the Hogwarts Express trains to park hop between the two theme parks.  Take note that park hopping on the trains will require you to have a park-hopping admission ticket.

Diagon Alley is slated to open in July of 2014.  Within the next month or two, Universal will begin the hiring process for those people interested in working in the new section of the park.

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All along the construction walls are a variety of movie and advertisement posters for Universal Studios films and attractions.  This is actually part of an interactive attraction called Universal ScreenPlay.  You need to download a free app to your tablet or smart phone to use it.  When you use the app, allegedly the movie posters will come to life on your device and you'll get to see special experiences and answer trivia questions.

Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt roller coaster

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The Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt roller coaster is the oldest "new" ride for me in Universal Studios Florida.  On my last trip to USF in July of 2009, this roller coaster was finished but still undergoing rigorous testing to work out all of the bugs in the system.  The ride was originally supposed to open in the spring of 2009, but by the mid summer it still wasn't open.  It was very frustrating being in the park and watching the test trains making laps around the coaster track, watching but not being allowed to board the ride.

The coaster finally opened in August of 2009, and in September of 2013 I was finally able to ride this roller coaster.

And it was awesome!

The first drop is great, the non-inverting loop is brilliant, and the way the coaster track stays low to the ground and zips around the park is fantastic.  On top of that, as soon as you board the coaster you get to select music to listen to while riding.  I tried to access the secret menu and listen to alternate songs, but I couldn't get that part to work.  For each ride I chose to rock along with Motley Crue's "Kickstart My Heart," an awesome song for this ride.

My only problem with this ride was that you felt some pretty intense g-forces in the second half of the ride.  My lower back was sore after a couple of the rides.  Otherwise, this is a great roller coaster and a must-ride for the thrill lovers.

Springfield, Krusty Burger, Moe's Tavern, Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl & Krustyland

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As you approach The Simpsons Ride, you'll now find yourself passing familiar sights from the town of Springfield.  This is now a massive themed area of Universal Studios Florida, and it includes familiar locations such as Lard Lad Donuts, Duff Beer brewery, and a statue for Jebediah Springfield, the town's founder.

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Located in the town of Springfield is Fast Food Boulevard, a counter-service restaurant themed right out of The Simpsons.  Of course, nobody is going to call it by its official name, so we're going to join the crowd and just refer to this restaurant as Krusty Burger.  The food options at Krusty Burger include Flaming Moe's, Krusty Burger, Cletus' Chicken Shack, The Frying Dutchman, Luigi's, and Lisa's Teahouse of Horror.

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Also located inside of Krusty Burger is Moe's Tavern, a bar featured in The Simpsons.  You can access Moe's Tavern from inside of Krusty Burger or the streets of Springfield.

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Next to The Simpsons Ride is the newest ride at Universal Studios Florida --- Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl.  Everybody's favorite human-eating space aliens from The Simpsons have arrived at USF.  Here the aliens have a kiddie ride where they keep assuring us that they really aren't going to eat us.  Unfortunately, their talk just doesn't sound that convincing.  The signs and audio comments from Kang and Kodos are hilarious as they try to appear to be normal creatures and not horrible monsters from outer space.

When The Simpsons Ride opened in 2008, the outside of the attraction had a bunch of stalls that looked like carnival games.  But all of the stalls were empty.  You could walk right behind them while standing in the line queue.

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This has now changed and Krustyland has expanded into the streets around The Simpsons Ride.  Now all of the carnival games are staffed with workers and you can try a variety of games of skill to win prizes.

So why would Universal suddenly expand The Simpsons theming, add a bunch of carnival games, and throw in the Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl ride?  The Simpsons Ride opened five years ago.  Why are we just now seeing these small but amusing additions?

I'm guessing that Universal threw in a bunch of small upgrades in preparation for the massive crowds that are expected when Diagon Alley opens next summer.  That section of the park is going to have tons of families with small kids visiting the park, and these small add-ons will help give them other experiences to enjoy.  Add in the new TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D for the thrill seekers, and there you go.  The park is preparing itself for the future guests to not only enjoy the new Harry Potter section, but also giving them other new options throughout the park as well.

TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D

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The last part of the Universal Studios Florida section of this trip report involves TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D.

TRANSOFRMERS is a brand new thrill ride that just opened a few months ago in the Production Central area of the theme park.  The ride is identical to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man next door in Islands of Adventure, just differently themed.  You still use 3-D glasses while riding a full motion simulator vehicle and seeing dazzling high-definition images in a surreal blend between live sets and computer animation.

TRANSFORMERS takes us into the never-ending battle between the Autobots and Decepticons.  The story here is that Optimus Prime and the Autobots are trying to protect the AllSpark from Megatron and the Decepticons.  The ride starts inside of a military base as the Decepticons launch an attack and try to steal the AllSpark.  The Autobots fight back and a massive fight and chase through the city erupts.  We're right in the middle of the action as Megatron tries to steal the AllSpark multiple times, and Optimus Prime protects it and fights him.

If you love Spider-Man in Islands of Adventure, then you'll love TRANSFORMERS.  It's an extremely similar experience with realistic theming right out of the movies.  The details on the screen are sharp, the action scenes are fantastic, and the ride itself is a blast.  TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D is a worthy addition to Universal Studios Florida.

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Outside of TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D is a place to meet the two main stars of the ride --- Optimus Prime and Megatron.  While Optimus Prime is sympathetic and thankful for us humans, Megatron taunts us and continually asks if we'll surrender.

Universal Orlando - Islands of Adventure

Since my last visit in July of 2009, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened and significantly boosted the theme park's attendance levels.  That section of the theme park has some fantastic theming right out of the Harry Potter films.  The main ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, is an amazing experience.  I was able to ride that attraction about eight or nine times on this trip.

In case you're wondering, I'm not going to include the Harry Potter stuff in this trip report.  Doing so would add another fifty or so pictures and a thousand words.  At this point the trip report is long enough without adding a subject that most theme park fans are already knowledgeable about.

Islands of Adventure - Harry Potter construction

Believe it or not, but the Harry Potter area is expanding even more.  Construction is well under way for the Hogsmede train station that will link this section of Islands of Adventure with the Diagon Alley area currently under construction in USF.  There's a great view of this construction when you're sitting on the right side of the Hungarian Horntail (Ice Dragon) and climbing the lift hill on the Dragon Challenge (Dueling Dragons) roller coaster.

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I don't know how "new" this is, but one of the stores in Toon Lagoon offers a variety of services from Internet and Wi-Fi access to phone charging and transferring photos to CDs.  What makes this so amusing are the outrageously high prices for such services.  When we saw the advertising on the side of the building, we thought that this was a free access point for Wi-Fi.  After all, the Disney theme parks now provide free Wi-Fi.  Why not Universal as well?

As you can see, it's a long way from being a free service in Universal.  What's also amusing is that while this store is charging people for the service of recharging cell phones, right outside of the door is a power outlet.  We saw people standing there and recharging their cell phones for free.

Welcome to Universal.