Trip Report

Universal Orlando

September 14-21, 2013

A (mostly) Universal Orlando trip report and photo highlight from September 14-21, 2013.

A few days ago my girlfriend and I returned from our week-long vacation to Orlando, Florida.

Instead of focusing on the Walt Disney World theme parks, this time around we spent four days in Universal Orlando, hopping back and forth between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.  Why Universal this time and not Disney?  The main reason is that we scored an awesome ticket deal for the Universal parks.  I haven't been to Universal since July of 2009, and my girlfriend's one and only visit to Universal was in June of 2010.  Unfortunately, her visit lasted for only a couple of hours.

Despite being die-hard Disney fans, my family and I have done a couple of non-Disney trips to Florida in the past.  Granted, those trips were only a couple of days at the most, and they involved visiting Downtown Disney and the Disney resorts, but it still worked.  Barely.  This week-long trip to Orlando without stepping foot inside of the Disney theme parks was actually going to be more challenging than originally believed.

Anyway, we left Atlanta, GA extremely early on Saturday morning.  The drive down to Florida was relatively easy, and there weren't any speed traps.  The only snag during the drive was a MASSIVE traffic jam on I-75 south between Ocala and the Florida Turnpike.  It turns out that the traffic was the result of a very nasty wreck that occurred earlier that morning.  One of the moments in traffic had us next to a semi truck carrying what looked like a hundred bee hives.  It was . . . interesting watching the bees flying around the truck while we triple checked that our windows were fully secured.

After an hour in traffic we finally passed the site of the wreck, and the police and fire department were still clearing away some of the wreckage.  Once we were past that spot, the rest of the drive on I-75, the Florida Turnpike, and toll road 429 went smoothly.  We stopped for lunch, went to a car wash to clean the thousand or so number of dead love bugs plastered on the front of the car, and then checked into our condo.

The general plan for this trip was to spend Sunday cruising Downtown Disney and some resorts, being in Universal Orlando for Monday and Tuesday, taking a break on Wednesday, and then more Universal Orlando on Thursday and Friday.  As fans of Universal know, this past Friday was the first day of the annual Halloween Horror Nights festival.  If my planning was correct, during that week we'd have nice and warm weather and very low crowds in the theme parks.

Downtown Disney - Halloween items for sale

Daytime highs were in the upper 80s, lows were in the low 70s, and the longest of wait times barely touched the thirty-minute mark.  The majority of rides had little to no wait times.  On top of that, Halloween decorations were already on display.  One could say that it was perfect.  Hooray!

Let's take a look at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, and see what's new in those areas.


Walt Disney World - Downtown Disney

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Our first stop in Downtown Disney is The Art of Disney store.

The store itself is still the same old art store as it has been for many years now.  What's different this time is that there are a few cool pieces of artwork and figurines for Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room.  The classic Audio-Animatronic bird show is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its opening in Disneyland in 1963.

Downtown Disney - Bodie's All-American

Pollo Campero now has a roommate.  Visitors can now order American-style food at Bodie's All-American.

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The Characters In Flight observation balloon has a new design.  This design looks somewhat like the hot air balloon in that Oz the Great and Powerful disaster of a film that was released earlier this year.

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Construction walls are still plentiful around the Pleasure Island area of Downtown Disney.  This massive refurbishment program will convert Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, an even larger shopping and dining complex at Walt Disney World.  According to the workers, the construction for Disney Springs should be complete by 2017.

Downtown Disney - LEGO Store - LEGO family

The LEGO family is still on display outside of the LEGO Store.  This time around the father is wearing a Goofy hat, the wife is wearing a set of Minnie Mouse ears, and the children are both wearing costumes.

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Inside the LEGO Store are large displays in the shapes of the Incredible Hulk, Buzz Lightyear and Woody.  I do miss the older days of that store when they would have intricate LEGO displays from time to time.  These days the interior of the store is bright, noisy, busy, and sadly, pretty bland.

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Outside of the LEGO Store are massive displays showing scenes from Toy Story to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Sleeping Beauty.  The scenes themselves are fantastic.  What stinks is the way that they handle the night lighting.  Instead of having lights shining upwards onto the structures, or having lights inside of the structures and making them look really cool, the lights are positioned around and above the structures.  In other words, it COMPLETELY RUINS THE EFFECT!  These night lights are absolutely horrible, and nothing is enhanced at night.  The lights themselves also look terrible in photos.

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In the summer of 2012, the Rainforest Cafe went through an extensive refurbishment.  The restaurant and store remained open while the outside of the structure had a massive facelift.  The final result is a much cooler looking volcano that vents steam and periodically erupts fireballs into the sky.

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Over in the West Side the new Splitsville Luxury Lanes bowling alley is now open.  The building itself looks absolutely fantastic with its retro-style design dating back to the 1960s and early 70s.  On some of the walls you may even find vintage artwork showing the early days of Walt Disney World.  On the lower floor is a Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machine (you can buy a souvenir cup that's good at the machine for a day at a time --- refills are allowed once every five minutes), and upstairs are more bowling lanes, a restaurant, and a bar.

Despite the concept of a bowling alley sounding kind of silly for Downtown Disney, I really hope that Splitsville survives and remains in the West Side.  This is a really cool addition to the shopping and dining complex.

Downtown Disney - Disney Truck Shop

Our last photo update for Downtown Disney is a small truck shop located at the bridge between Pleasure Island and the West Side.  The Disney Truck Shop is normally open during the busier times in the late afternoons and evenings.

Walt Disney World - Disney Resorts

On one of our days we had lunch at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.  The resort itself was great except for the steady rain during our visit.  At least the rain was on that day and not during our theme park days in Universal Orlando.

Anyway, lunch itself was a bit of a shock at the AKL.  Disney has turned to the dark side with its drink machines.  Ordinarily, one would purchase a cup and be able to freely refill your drink while dining at the restaurant in the resort.  That's how it and most of the counter-service restaurants in the Disney resorts have operated since the dawn of time.  But now things are different.  The drink machines are still there, but to use it you need a special Disney cup with a sensor on the bottom of it to activate the machine.  A single-day (a calender day, not 24 hours) cup costs like $8, and a cup that's good for your length of stay at the resort can cost upwards of $20-22.  There are NO fountain drink cups good for a single meal.

It's an outrage, but this was brought about by the countless number of people who have been abusing the system for years.  I hate it but it finally stops the cheapskates from stealing drinks.  Now if only the Earl of Sandwich at Downtown Disney will enforce its drink machine and stop those jerks who ask for a water cup and proceed to fill it with lemonade or Sprite . . .

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Over at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, construction is going smoothly for its Disney Vacation Club (DVC) expansion.  Disney's Polynesian Resort is the next resort slated for the DVC expansion.

Speaking of the DVC, it's quite noticeable that the QUALITY of guests at the luxury DVC resorts have dropped, primarily because of the time share program.  Guests with the manners and consideration commonly found at the value resorts (a.k.a. All-Star and Pop Century), are now roaming luxurious resorts such as the Beach Club Resort, Wilderness Lodge, Animal Kingdom Lodge, and now the Contemporary Resort.  Unfortunately to the guests spending top dollar to stay there, this trend is going to continue with the Grand Floridian and ultimately the Polynesian Resort, the pinnacle of most-wanted resorts at Walt Disney World.

I wish that Disney would keep the DVC to separate resorts such as Old Key West and Saratoga Springs, resorts that were designed around the Disney time share concept.  Adding the DVC to high-quality resorts may be a great way to get more people to buy into the program, but when people buy time shares through other companies and trade their time to stay at the Disney DVC resorts, this seriously degrades the Disney luxury resorts.

Disney's Yacht Club Resort - store

Speaking of bad parents ruining the experience for others, take a look at the main store at Disney's Yacht Club Resort.  Notice anything missing?  There in the middle of the store SHOULD be a large display with Mickey Mouse driving a speed boat.  It's been there since the resort opened back in 1990.  Now the space has a rack of clothes and a few small tables.  One of the cast members explained that stupid parents would allow their children to climb onto the boat despite being told not to.  Since the idiotic parents couldn't follow safety rules, Disney solved the problem by removing the cool display.  This is why we cannot have nice things.  Idiots!

Walt Disney World - miscellaneous

Epcot - Test Track

The new version of Test Track over at Epcot looks slick and pretty awesome.  Unfortunately, the view from the monorail was as close as we came to riding Test Track (or stepping inside of Epcot) on this trip.

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Guests staying at Disney resorts get to use the new MagicBand system.  Each person can wear a special wrist band that functions as a room key, your admission ticket into the park, a quick way to get FastPass tickets, and a way to charge food and merchandise purchases to your room.  Naturally, you can also purchase accessories to make your MagicBand more personal and stylish.  As to the t-shirts, I really don't know why on Earth anybody would want to purchase clothes advertising the MagicBand of all things.  As you'll see in just a moment, some of the newer Disney shirts are rather hilarious.

Magic Kingdom - Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

Over at the Magic Kingdom, the exterior of the park was already decorated for the annual Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.  The decorations are rather simple and nothing to get too excited about.

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When you look closer at the entrance area to the Magic Kingdom, you can get a glimpse at the new turnstiles.  The turnstiles on the left side are still being converted to the newer version.  As far as the turnstiles on the right side . . . .  No more physical barriers into the park?  Interesting.

Walt Disney World - T-Shirts of Disney

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We'll conclude the Walt Disney World section of this trip report with a look at some of the t-shirts available for sale.  Some of them are retro and bring back classic memories, others are amusing, and two of them involving Darth Vader are simply hilarious.  Let's hope that Disney continues this trend with retro and hilariously funny shirts.


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.

Islands of Adventure - tech store - 01 Islands of Adventure - tech store - 02 Islands of Adventure - tech store - 03 Islands of Adventure - tech store - 04 Islands of Adventure - tech store - 05

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.


The Engagement

visiting Universal Orlando - 01 visiting Universal Orlando - 02

My girlfriend and I began planning this Universal Orlando vacation back in March when she discovered an awesome deal for the admission tickets.

This was a theme park vacation from the beginning.  What she didn't know was that I was going to use this trip to ask her the question of a lifetime.

We had been in a serious relationship for over two years, and her and I have lived together for over a year now.  We've been through some very tough and tiring times over the past couple of years.  But we've stuck with it and made things work.  Her and I are a fantastic team and we're continually growing a stronger relationship.  It was time to take things to the next level.

My aunt helped me acquire a wedding ring back in May, and by July both her parents and my parents knew that I was going to ask her to marry me when we were down in Florida.  It seemed like everybody was in on the big secret.  The only question was how I was planning on doing it.

Right off the bat I knew that I was going to ask her in a semi-secluded location.  I wasn't going to make it a public event and put extra pressure on her.  Granted, I was confident in knowing her answer ahead of time, but I'm more of a private person.  Now that the event has passed I don't mind sharing the story behind it.

Ever since I was young, I've always been a fan of two Disney resorts in particular --- Disney's Polynesian Resort and Disney's Contemporary Resort.  Both are Magic Kingdom resorts on the monorail line, and they are both original resorts dating back to Walt Disney World's opening in October of 1971.  They're both classic, they are luxurious, and they have their own distinctive theming and romantic spots.

My first choice for popping the question is a semi-secluded place in the Polynesian Resort known as Luau Point.  Luau Point is a small path that climbs up a short hill and overlooks Seven Seas Lagoon, the Contemporary and Grand Floridian resorts, and the Magic Kingdom off in the distance.  It's a great spot that's overlooked by many of the resort's guests.

That was my first choice.  My second choice was asking her on top of the Contemporary Resort while looking down at the Magic Kingdom.  It's a really spectacular view from on top of the hotel.

As the vacation's departure date rapidly approached, suddenly I was having second thoughts about using the Polynesian, especially that exact location at the resort.  I switched the locations and decided to make the Contemp my primary location and Luau Point at the Poly the alternate location.

On Saturday the 14th, we took a bus from Downtown Disney to the Contemporary Resort.  I was going to take her to the top of the resort and see how things looked from there.  If we were good then I was going to ask her the question.  If not, then it was a short monorail ride to the Polynesian and then proceeding with that location.  The bottom line though was that I wanted the event to take place on that exact day.  I'll explain that part in a moment.

We went to the top of the Contemporary and, as expected, she was thrilled with the views.  This was her first time seeing those sights.  Unfortunately for me, there were other people up there as well.  Just as the people were leaving and heading back indoors, more people walked out.  Grrrr.  Time was ticking and I knew that if we stayed there any longer, she'd see me start to get anxious.  We quickly descended down a stairwell to a secluded view one floor down from the top.  It was our own private viewing area.  While my girlfriend was distracted by looking at the Magic Kingdom and Bay Lake Tower, I removed the ring, dropped to a knee, and asked her to marry me.

A dramatic re-creation of that magical moment (taken several days later as my original photo stunk).

She was literally speechless when she saw me with the ring.  We had frequently joked about getting married and lately she was threatening to drag me to the local courthouse so we could do a Justice of the Peace marriage.  The ring showed my serious intentions, and of course she said yes.  I'll always remember that look of absolute joy on her face when she first saw me holding out the ring.

That happened on our first day of the vacation.  Talk about starting things on a high note.

Why was September 14th so important?

Three years ago my parents and I were sitting in a funeral home on that day for my brother.  The viewing was on the 14th and the funeral was carried out on the 15th.  Ever since that point I've strongly hated those few days in September.  So why would I choose that day of all days to ask my steady girlfriend to marry me?

September 14th also happens to be my mother's birthday.  We've been through a long grieving process since the loss of my brother, and I really wanted to give her a very positive thing to celebrate on her birthday.  My gift to her was carrying out the proposal to my girlfriend.  My parents love her, and they're thrilled to have her as part of our family.  We also picked up some Disney and Universal souvenirs for my mom, so she still had some other gifts to enjoy when we returned home.

That ends one chapter of my life.  The next phase, marriage, will begin some time in the near future.  We will have a Justice of the Peace ceremony and not an actual wedding.  That was already decided some time ago.  As far as when that event occurs, we really haven't started talking about it.  Yet.  :-)