Trip Report

Universal Orlando

September 13-20, 2014

A (mostly) Universal Orlando trip report and photo highlight from September 13-20, 2014.

A week ago my wife and I returned from another week-long trip to Orlando, Florida.

Like last year's trip, the focus again was on the Universal Orlando theme parks --- Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.  Of course, no visit to central Florida is complete without visiting Downtown Disney and at least some of the Walt Disney World resorts.  Not all of the resorts as that would simply require too much time, but some of them.  This time around we did the usual visit to the Magic Kingdom resorts as well as Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.  We'll talk more about that later.

For most of our days in Florida the temperature flirted with the lower 90s, just as we were hoping.  By travelling in mid September we knew that we would have significantly lower crowds than the summer and holidays, and we would also basically have summertime weather.  It's the best of both worlds.

One quick note before we begin.  I'm still in the Stone Age and this website is best viewed on computers and laptops, especially monitors with a widescreen display.  This website isn't ideal (not yet anyway) for tablets or smartphones.  That problem will be addressed in the near future.

We've got a lot of material to cover in this trip report, including ultra-wide, panorama pictures of some areas.

Ready?

Let's go!

Walt Disney World - just married button - 2014 Universal Orlando - just married button - 2014

On last year's trip, Jess and I had our "just engaged" buttons to help celebrate that event.  Disney had a special button for that occasion while Universal just had a generic button that required the workers to write a special message.  We were married back in June so this time we were looking for the "just married" buttons.  It turns out that Disney stopped doing the "just married" buttons.  As many of you have probably seen over the past few years, the Disney "just married" buttons featured specific buttons for both the bride and the groom.  The company has been doing those buttons since at least 2009 and the Celebrate Today! event.

Anyway, the new version of Disney's "just married" button is now a ". . . Happily Ever After!" button.  It doesn't look bad and it's a lot more discrete than the previous version of the button.  As far as Universal Orlando, as you can see, it's the same generic button as last year.  Universal does have a specific button for people's birthdays, but all other occasions just get to use the generic button.


Walt Disney World - Downtown Disney

Also known as The Construction Zone.

Right now Downtown Disney is going through a MASSIVE construction process that is going to convert the entire area to an even larger complex known as DISNEY SPRINGS.  This includes the addition of two parking decks in the parking lots.

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The construction experience for Downtown Disney begins on Buena Vista Drive as you're trying to get to the shopping center.  While stopping at almost every traffic light (it's heavily suspected that the traffic lights are intentionally timed that way to prevent people from speeding) you'll have plenty of time to admire the nearly endless number of traffic cones as well as the temporary parking lots now on the opposite side of the road.  In fact, at some intersections you'll be stopping for even longer as the crosswalk zones allow for a long amount of time for people to cross the street.

Take note that Buena Vista Drive might resemble more of a parking lot than an actual road during the afternoons and evenings.  This is mainly because one of the entrance to the Marketplace parking lot was closed and people had to use alternate entrances.  You could still park in that lot and exit from it, but to access it you have to enter through the Pleasure Island parking lot and cut around the shopping center.  Regardless, the end result is a huge backlog of traffic as people try to figure out not only where to park, but how to access their preferred parking area.

TIP - If you're driving to Downtown Disney, get there EARLY, especially on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

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The WEST GARAGE being built by the West Side (between the AMC movie theater and Planet Hollywood restaurant) is well under construction.  It's scheduled to open some time in early 2015.  One would imagine that as soon as it's opened, construction will begin on the second parking garage by either the Marketplace or Pleasure Island.

Don't worry though.  There's still plenty more construction to see at Downtown Disney.

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I will give Disney credit for making the mundane construction walls at least a little bit interesting.  On the construction walls at Downtown Disney you'll find some concept artwork for how Disney Springs might look when it's finished.  Of course, a lot of things can happen between now and then, but at least the artwork gives you a general idea of what's in store for the shopping and dining complex.  Some parts of it do look fairly interesting.

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You'll also find a few advertisements on the construction walls pointing the way to stores and restaurants.  With all of those barriers, I'm sure that quite a few people have gotten lost while trying to navigate those areas.

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Right now the majority of the construction is around Pleasure Island.  Almost all of that area is one giant construction zone as Disney is building a new series of buildings on the island and over the water.  There's even a temporary bridge that goes around part of the island, complete with its own temporary boat dock.  The West Side has two construction zones as well --- a small area by Wolfgang Puck and in front of Splitsville, and a second zone in the previously open area across from Disney's Candy Cauldron.  That second zone is going to be a new area with food trucks.  This was supposed to be complete by this summer, but, as you can see, there's still quite a bit of work that still needs to be completed.

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Here's the boat dock for Pleasure Island.  I would imagine that this is merely a temporary boat dock and that this will be either relocated or removed once this area of Disney Springs opens.

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The Marketplace also has a lot of construction as well.  There are construction zones around the LEGO and World of Disney stores as well as around the stage and waterfront area.  They're building a new pedestrian bridge that will go across the harbor and provide a shortcut from the Rainforest Cafe to basically The LEGO Store.  The new bridge will definitely help with crowd control during the busier times.  The construction of this bridge has moved the Marketplace boat dock to the opposite side of Rainforest Cafe (by the bus stop) and along the walkway to Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort.

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Speaking of the Rainforest Cafe, that was also being refurbished during our visit.  Construction scaffolding surrounded the volcano, and, of course, there were no fiery eruptions this time.

Downtown Disney - World of Disney store

There's one last area of construction / refurbishment at Downtown Disney to mention.  Remember those pirates by one of the entrances to the World of Disney store?  Those pirates trapped in jail?  Well, they're gone.  The lone pirate at the ship's wheel is still outside the store, but the interior ones have disappeared.  Maybe they finally caught the dog that was holding the keys . . .

Downtown Disney - New Sights

Not all of Downtown Disney was negative.  Large sections of the Marketplace and West Side still looked and felt normal, complete with the same background music, and there were some new sights as well.

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or starters, there's a new welcome sign for Downtown Disney by the bus stop and new boat dock.  There's also a new topiary elephant also holding a welcome sign.  The elephant is on the walkway next to Disney's Days of Christmas and by The Art of Disney.

There's also the topiary Sorcerer Mickey and the broomsticks from the animated movie Fantasia.  I honestly don't remember if that display was there last year or not.  From what I understand this display was removed from Disney's Hollywood Studios (they were by the arch entryway to Animation Courtyard) and transplanted here at the Marketplace.  The topiary of Lady and the Tramp was previously used in Epcot's annual Flower and Garden Festival.  As far as that giant flower, it looks familiar, but I cannot quite place where I've seen it before.

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There's a new store in the Marketplace called the Marketplace Co-Op.  This space was previously occupied by Ridemakerz, a store where you could build your own custom radio-controlled car.  Ridemakerz is now gone for good at Downtown Disney.  The Marketplace Co-Op is a small collection of small stores, each with different items.  As you can see, one of the more interesting stores was a place that sold classic Disney items from the 1960s.  Technically these are all artifacts from Disneyland as the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World didn't open until 1971, but many of those designs (including the Orange Bird) were still used at Walt Disney World.

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Parked by one of the entrances to the World of Disney store was a food truck.  On our first visit there were two trucks in this location, but that second truck was removed and not seen for the rest of the week.  Some of the concept artwork on the construction walls made it sound like food trucks were going to be parked in both the Marketplace and the West Side, through the place for them at the West Side was still under construction.

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Lovers of coffee will be delighted to know that Starbucks is now in Downtown Disney.  There are two locations, one by the World of Disney store in the Marketplace, and the second location is at the entrance to the West Side over by Pleasure Island.

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A couple of new stores were also spotted in the West Side --- Fit2Run, The Runner's Superstore along with United World Soccer.

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Fans of wine and/or the hit show Once Upon a Time may be interested in these wines offered at Mickey's Pantry.  You have to admit that The Frog Prince stopper looks pretty cool.


Walt Disney World - Disney's Polynesian Resort

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One of the biggest disappointments on the trip was when we visited Disney's Polynesian Resort.  It seemed as if nearly the entire resort was under construction.

The Polynesian dates back to 1971 and the opening of Walt Disney World.  This Magic Kingdom resort located on the monorail line is (or at least it *usually* is) one of the finest resorts in central Florida.  From the tropical theming to the luxurious accommodations to something only described as "the spirit of aloha," this has always been one of our favorite resorts to visit.

We knew ahead of time that part of the resort was under construction and being converted to the Disney Vacation Club time share system (a bad move for the resort, BTW).  What we did not know was that most of the Great Ceremonial House (the main building) was also under construction as well as the volcano swimming pool, part of the beach and luau point, the waterfall outside of the Great Ceremonial House, and even the resort's arcade.

While inside of the Great Ceremonial House and when walking around the resort, there is ZERO feeling of aloha.  Absolutely none.  It's a complete waste of time until the massive construction project is complete.  We felt sorry for the people staying there and could only hope that they still weren't being charged full price.  With most of the resort being refurbished (including the main swimming pool), visitors should be avoiding this resort like the plague.

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Inside of the Great Ceremonial House you're greeted with a huge construction wall that surrounds the central display in the building.  Unfortunately, this is a rather large display and the walls really create an enclosed and claustrophobic atmosphere.  This area used to have a large waterfall.  In the earlier days of the resort this was also where you could find some parrots.

According to the concept artwork on the construction walls, the central waterfall is going to be replaced with a smaller version, one that will also have what looks like a Polynesian tiki god (like in the resort's signs).  That doesn't explain though why the waterfall outside of the resort was turned off and emptied, why one of the stairwells was blocked by walls, or why the former arcade was also behind construction walls.

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Behind the Great Ceremonial House you'll quickly notice the large area of construction in the middle of the resort.  This enclosed area includes the famous volcano pool as well as the entire creek that flowed into the pool.  If you had plans on swimming at the Polynesian, you'll have to instead use the small side pool.

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When it was announced that Disney's Polynesian Resort would be the next resort to feature (more or less) the Disney Vacation Club (DVC), one of the biggest questions was where would they add it?  All of the other resorts had new structures built for the DVC (like at Wilderness Lodge, the Beach Club, Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Contemporary, and most recently the Grand Floridian).  But the Polynesian doesn't have a whole lot of extra space for that kind of an expansion.

It turns out that Disney is taking the three buildings on the west side of the resort and converting them into DVC accommodations.  The three buildings are greyed out on the right side of the resort map.  Considering the size of those buildings, it looks like the Poly might be losing about a third of its total rooms to the DVC.

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All is not lost.

Just off the beach you'll notice a series of buildings at the Polynesian Resort.  These are bungalows, just as you would see at some upscale resorts in the South Pacific.

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This new snack stand was also spotted at the Poly.  Just outside of the rear exit doors of the Great Ceremonial House is the Pineapple Lanai, a small refreshment stand that appears to sell the popular dole whip frozen treats from Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom.

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The best experience at Disney's Polynesian Resort was the monorail station.  Sadly, monorail yellow was the only ray of sunshine this time at the resort.  I know that this resort is going to look outstanding once all of the construction is finished, but there's simply too much construction at the resort right now.  There's zero magic or spirit of aloha for the guests.  It's incredibly bland and depressing.

Once again, I can only hope that Disney still isn't charging the guests full price to stay at the resort during this construction.  Too much of the resort is closed behind the construction walls for it to be anywhere close to being an enjoyable experience.

Walt Disney World - miscellaneous

Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom

Not even the Magic Kingdom was excluded from construction or eyesores.  Here we can see a very large crane obstructing the skyline of the theme park.

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While on board the Epcot monorail we saw that there were two areas of construction in Future World.  A large area by Innoventions was under construction, and a second (and much smaller) area by the American flag was also behind the construction walls.

On a side note, is that a new paint job that I see on Innoventions?  Interesting.

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Throughout Epcot were the decorations and extra facilities for this year's running of the Food and Wine Festival.  We could see only some of the decorations from the monorail.

Walt Disney World - bus system

The Disney buses have slowly been given new paint jobs.  I did see some buses having a paint job specifically advertising the Disney value resorts (All-Star Resorts, Pop Century, etc.).

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It's always a pleasure to visit Disney's Contemporary Resort.  This Magic Kingdom resort is on the monorail line and is one of the original resorts that opened back in 1971.  At the Contemporary, the prestige for most people is staying in the Tower and facing Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom.

This time around we took a walk by the pool and then the South Garden Wing.  The pool was busy as daytime temperatures were reaching the low 90s.  After that we toured the Grand Canyon Concourse and did the obligatory view of the Magic Kingdom from the hotel's balcony.

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Construction is finished at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and the new Disney Vacation Club villas are open for guests.

Walt Disney World - Rapid Fill souvenir drink cup

Just how much does it cost to use Disney's new Rapid Fill souvenir drink refill cup program?

If you only want to use the cup for one day, it's $8.99.  Two days cost $11.99, three days have a fee of $14.99, and four or more days (length of stay) costs $17.99.  Obviously this is a better deal the longer that you plan on using the refill cup at the resorts.

Starting about a year or so ago, Disney changed its drink refill stations throughout the resorts.  The drink stations are still self-service, but now they all have sensors that require a special cup to activate.  It used to be where you could purchase a drink cup for like $2.50 to use with your meal, and then have free refills for the rest of your meal.  That policy has ended and now you need a special souvenir cup with a sensor that will activate the machine.

Personally, I don't like this change, but it was brought about by all of the people abusing the system by using alternate cups to get free drinks out of the machines.

Walt Disney World - 2014 T-Shirts (and Sandals) of Disney

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It looks like Disney has really stepped up with creating new batches of t-shirts each year.  Many of the shirts look good, especially the retro ones.  I hope that Disney continues with this tend.


Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando - 2014

Like last year, the focus of this year's trip was Universal Orlando.  We had four-day, park-to-park tickets that allowed us to park hop each day.  This would be critical for riding the Hogwarts Express train between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

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The main draw for the crowds was the brand new Diagon Alley expansion in Universal Studios Florida.  Diagon Alley is part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience that stretches between both of the Universal theme parks.  Hogsmeade opened in Islands of Adventure back in 2010, and Diagon Alley opened this past summer.  Connecting the two lands (and theme parks) is the Hogwarts Express.  Advertisements for this were all over Universal Orlando.

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We were visiting Universal Orlando in September, and that meant that it was time for the annual Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) at Universal Studios Florida.

This time around there really wasn't a whole lot of Halloween theming in the park.  The New York area had a couple of wrecked vehicles for The Purge, and Production Central had the usual selection of Halloween-themed carnival games.  One of the themes in this year's HHN was Alien vs. Predator, but the only reference we saw for it was a single t-shirt.  It seemed like most of the Halloween theming involved zombies.  Again.  <yawn>

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One of the more amusing new additions to Universal Orlando was actually in the parking deck.  There was an exhibit hosted by American Express, and it used video cameras to put guests' images on a large TV screen along with a series of animations.  This wasn't really an interactive exhibit as the animations did not respond to the people.  Instead, this was something like, "Hey!  I'm on TV with fairy tales, dinosaurs and space aliens!"

Some of the people got into it and played around with the animations.  This wasn't anything major, just some harmless fun.

Universal Orlando - Universal Studios Florida

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This year Universal Studios Florida was significantly busier than previous years.  That is, of course, because of the recent opening of Diagon Alley in the back of the park.  Once you see this new land and all of the detail in it, then you'll also understand why that addition has caused such a huge draw of people back to Universal Studios Florida, especially if you're at least somewhat familiar with the Harry Potter books and movies.

Although the park was busier, many of the rides and shows had low wait times.  Diagon Alley was always busy, Springfield had some crowds, and most of the other people were up front in Production Central.  Rides like Men in Black, ET Adventure, Transformers, and even Revenge of the Mummy had very short wait times, often less than ten minutes.

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The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster was fun as always.  A noticeable change this time were the workers being very aggressive about making sure that riders did not have ANYTHING in their pockets.  One worker questioned every person about this near the start of the line, and another later in line was also looking for violators.  Of course, I still had my camera and cell phone inside of my pockets, but that's because I was prepared and had secure pockets on my shorts.  Plus, I lied when stating that I wasn't carrying anything.  I'm confident that the workers still wouldn't allow me to carry anything even though my pockets were secure.

As you leave the station, the track climbs straight up the lift hill.  That's most likely when stuff is going to fall out of your pockets.  Other parts of the ride are close to being inverted, but the high g-forces keep you pressed against the bottom of the seat, and those forces normally keeps items *inside* of your pockets.  But that lift hill is different, and that's where many people have lost items from their pockets.

Rides like this are easiest if somebody in your group is not riding and just waiting on the outside.  That person can hold your stuff so that you don't have to mess around with the "free" lockers.

Universal Studios Florida - TRANSFORMERS - Bumblebee

Outside of TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D is a place to meet some of the robot stars and get your picture taken with them.  They only have one Transformer out at a time.  This year we saw Bumblebee as one of the Transformers out greeting people.  I don't remember seeing him last year, just Optimus Prime and Megatron.  This year we saw all three of the robots.

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Twister was entertaining as usual, and we had a great view of the tornado from the front row.  Like many other attractions, this one had almost no wait time.

One of the stranger parts of Twister is in the store.  Universal has some strange fascination with not just cows but flying cows.  Twister should win an award for having the most unusual t-shirt.  Check out the shirt with the cows flying around a smiling tornado wearing a bowtie and saying that it loves milkshakes.  I'm a little bit surprised that I didn't see anybody wearing that shirt simply because it's just so wacky.

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Revenge of the Mummy was awesome every single time we rode it.  Fortunately for us this one also had a minimum wait time (five minutes or less), so it was easy to say, "Let's go ride the Mummy!" whenever being near the attraction.

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One of our more common locations to eat was at Richter's Burger Co. in the San Francisco section of the park.  While eating at Richter's you'll encounter either a tremor or an earthquake.  The Earth movements are simulated by a loud and deep rumbling from the speakers.  During the earthquake the scientist in the Richter's Burger Co. sign will pull the lever and signal the "earthquake alarm" (a ringing bell).  Immediately after the earthquake or tremor the radio will play "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" before resuming its normal programming.

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The E.T. Adventure is still one of my favorite rides.  This is a classic dark ride that dates back to the opening day of Universal Studios Florida.  Although parts of the ride are showing some aging, this is still a fun ride with some great theming and an overall fun experience.

During this visit the "Interplanetary Passport" system was down.  We did not need to give our first names (for those who actually give their real name) to the workers, and E.T. did not bid us farewell by name.  The workers claimed that the system was being upgraded with a new database of names.  You would think that this would be a quick upgrade, but this part of the ride was down during the entire week of our visit.

Maybe the new version of the name database will finally include the names of E.T.'s friends on the Green Planet.  Otherwise, I'll have to go back to using "Elliott" or other names.

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Springfield was lively and busy as people got their fill of The Simpsons.  A new addition for us was Chief Wiggum's police car wrecked against the leaking fire hydrant.  That small part of Springfield was still under construction last year.

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Men in Black Alien Attack was yet another ride where the wait time averaged less than ten minutes.  In some cases it took longer waiting for the preshow than it did to wait to board the ride, just like with E.T. Adventure.  That just means more opportunities to continue riding and shooting at the space aliens.  On one of the rides I set what I believe to be a new personal record ---- 300,000 points, and that's *without* pressing the red button at the end.


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

Situated in the back of Universal Studios Florida (USF) and on the former spot of Amity Island and the Jaws ride is Diagon Alley, the latest expansion to the theme park and a continuation of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter established next door at Universal's Islands of Adventure (IOA).

The Harry Potter area in IOA opened in the summer of 2010 and was themed to the town of Hogsmeade.  As we know in the books and movies, the town of Hogsmeade is a village next to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  From 2010 through the end of 2013, that land was simply known as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  When the new expansion in USF was well under construction, Universal renamed the IOA land as Hogsmeade to help differentiate it from Diagon Alley, the expansion at USF.

Diagon Alley is a magical street in downtown London, England, where wizards and witches can socialize, shop for items, eat in restaurants, and even do their banking at Gringotts Wizarding Bank.  In the stories, this is where the students get their school supplies before departing for their year at Hogwarts.  However, Diagon Alley isn't all fun and games.  An expansion of the street is Knockturn Alley, a dark street frequented by Dark Wizards and those practicing the Dark Arts.

That's what Diagon Alley is like in the Harry Potter books and movies.  This area recently opened in Universal Studios Florida, and it looks exactly as you would imagine.

In USF, Diagon Alley begins with a street themed to London, England.  In fact, you cannot even see Diagon Alley until you pass through the brick wall and enter the magical realm.  Anyway, in the London section of Diagon Alley you'll find townhouses (including a rather magical one), a giant fountain, fancy looking buildings, and at the left side of the street is the King's Cross train station.  That train station is where you can access the Hogwarts Express train to travel to Hogsmeade in IOA.

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Also in London is the Knight Bus.  You can pose for pictures with the conductor of the bus and also talk to the wisecracking shrunken head, just like in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

This part of the land is just a preview for the excitement that's about to happen.  As we enter the red building and pass through the opening in the brick wall, waiting for us is DIAGON ALLEY.

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Diagon Alley is a richly detailed land straight from the Harry Potter books and movies.  Your attention is immediately drawn towards the dragon perched on top of Gringotts Wizarding Bank.  About once every ten to fifteen minutes you'll hear the dragon start breathing heavily before it blasts out a breath of fire.  This structure is the entrance to the main attraction --- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

After you stop staring at the dragon and how awesome it looks, you'll see that Diagon Alley is full of places to explore.  On the left side of the street is the Leaky Cauldron restaurant followed by the dark and sinister Knockturn Alley.  On the right side of the street is Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop.  Around the corner from the Weasleys' store is a covered street that includes more shops and restaurants including the money exchange as well as Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment.  It's also in this area where you'll find a stage where street performers tell The Tale of the Three Brothers.

If you happen to have one of the new Interactive Magic Wands (available for purchase in several stores throughout Universal Orlando), you'll discover even more secrets and magical spots throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.

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The Leaky Cauldron offers a place to sit down and have a meal.  Take note that there's a line queue to enter the counter-service restaurant.  If you want to eat here during the busier periods, be cautioned that you won't be the only person with that same idea.

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As you would expect, Knockturn Alley is a dark and mysterious place in Diagon Alley.  Apart from the freaky but quite interesting evil theming, the main part of Knockturn Alley is the store Borgin & Burkes.  If you like the villains and darker material, then this is your place to shop.

Be warned that Knockturn Alley is a bit darker than it appears in the photos.  It appears even darker if you step into the area after being in the bright Florida sunshine.  Some of the workers here tend to play into their roles, and it may be a bit frightening or intimidating to the younger visitors.

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The Money Exchange is a small store where you can exchange your money for currency good in Diagon Alley.  The main feature of this store is an animatronic goblin that oversees the shop and its shoppers.  Don't be surprised if the goblin looks up and actually speaks to you or makes comments about you.  During one of our visits a customer was carrying a drink, and the goblin looked at him and made a comment about being careful with food and drinks while inside of the Money Exchange.

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Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment is yet another store in Diagon Alley.  While most of the Harry Potter-themed merchandise is fairly generic, the theming inside of this store is interesting and quit mystical.  This store also serves as part of the exit for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride.


Diagon Alley - Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

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The main draw for Diagon Alley (and the rest of Universal Orlando at this moment) is the thrilling new ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.  This is a multi-dimensional (part roller coaster, part dark ride, part simulator, and almost entirely 3-D) thrill ride that's basically a combination of Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers / Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

Take note that the story and events for this attraction are from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2.  If you're familiar with that story then you'll better understand this ride.

The Gringotts Wizarding Bank with the dragon perched on top of it is the icon for Diagon Alley.  You'll see people crowding the main street in Diagon Alley, staring at the dragon, taking pictures of it, and waiting for it to breathe fire again.  The dragon looks so impressive and is so lavishly detailed that it steals the show.  You want to go exploring in Diagon Alley, but it's nearly impossible not to stop and gaze at the dragon.  Universal did an unbelievable job with this structure.

When you finally break the curse of the dragon and approach the ride, you'll find the entrance on the right side of the Gringotts building.  The entrance is right next to the golden statue of a goblin standing on top of a tower of gold coins.  These goblins take their banking seriously.

When entering the building we have the option of taking the main line queue (definitely do this if you're a first-time rider), or going to the right side and taking the single-rider line.  Be cautioned that there is no wait time posted for the single-rider line.  While this line should generally be shorter and move faster than the regular line queue, depending on the workers in the loading station, that can backfire.  On my last trip through the single-rider line, the wait took DOUBLE the wait time posted for the regular line queue.

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After entering the regular line queue for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gingotts, guests briefly step outside to the overflow (a.k.a. extended line queue for the really busy days) before returning to the lobby for Gingotts Wizarding Bank.  The bank's lobby has a high vaulted ceiling and several incredible chandeliers.  On both sides of the room are a series of goblins hard at work.  Occasionally the goblins look around at the guests before returning to their banking.  At the end of the room is a goblin who talks about safety requirements to enjoy this ride.

Once we pass the head goblin and round a corner, the line queue goes past a series of bank vaults.  The vault on the right side is open and in front of it is a cart with gold bars.  After that we're assigned to see a photographer to have our photograph taken and grant us permission to access the deeper, more secure bank vaults.  This is really your "on-ride" photo for this attraction.  You'll have a chance to see the photograph and purchase copies when you exit the ride.

After the photograph we go pass through more hallways in Gringotts.  There are several desks with newspapers from the Daily Prophet (with stories such as the death of Professor Dumbledore, and Snape becoming the headmaster at Hogwarts), and offices for various workers at the bank.

The story here is that we're here at Gringotts to open personal bank accounts.  The photo was for our "bank record."  At the end of the hallway is Bill Weasley's office.  Inside of Bill's office we see him and a goblin welcome us to Gringotts, and he assures us that it's the safest bank in the world.  This is basically the preshow for the ride.

At the end of the preshow we're instructed to take an elevator down to the deepest part of the bank so that we can access our bank vault.

We're then assigned to one of two elevators.  A goblin on a video screen gives us another brief reminder of the ride requirements before the elevator's doors open.  The elevator "arrives" at our floor, we step inside of it, and the doors close and we quickly descend nine miles to the deepest of bank vaults at Gringotts.

The elevator ride itself is a neat experience.  The floor shakes, wind blows on you, and the screens at the top of the car give the illusion that we're really descending deep into the Earth.  Don't worry though --- this is a very mild simulation and the elevator car really doesn't go anywhere.

The elevator's doors open and we begin the final part of the line queue.  On the left side are bins where we grab our 3-D glasses for this ride.  The line queue then climbs a spiral staircase and we reach the ride's station.

The loading and unloading station for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts looks really cool.  There are stalactites above us in the ceiling, and the tunnels look like they've been underground for years.  This ride also uses a dual-load station to help increase the speed of the loading and unloading process.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts - ride review (with spoilers)

Each ride set of vehicles for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts consists of two cars, each of them with three rows of four riders.  The rows are slightly staggered in height so that those in the back can see above the people in front of them.  Although the two cars are connected and form a small train, each car is capable of its own simulator movements including spinning 360 degrees.

After our individual lap bars are secure and we're wearing our 3-D glasses, our cars move forward into the bank vaults and we begin our journey.

Our ride vehicles go around a bend and we come to a stop in one of the hallways.  An alarm sounds and a goblin warns us that there's an intruder in Gringotts.  On the right side of the screen Bellatrix appears and accuses us of breaking into her vault.  She zaps us with her magic wand and the ride vehicles suddenly tilt forward.  Actually, it's the whole track that tilts forward and pitches us at a downward angle.

Bellatrix laughs as our vehicles race downward and zip around a few turns while in the dark.  This is the main part of the roller coaster segment of the ride.  Don't expect anything too intense as we're wearing 3D glasses, so it's not like the roller coaster is going to do anything too crazy.  For comparison, this small part of the ride is about half as thrilling as Revenge of the Mummy.  Even though the roller coaster part is fairly tame it's still a lot of fun.

Our vehicles go around another bend and Bill Weasley uses his magic to stop us.  On the screen we see that he's riding with a goblin on one of those Gringotts cars that we see in the movies.  As Bill is apologizing for that incident with Bellatrix, in the back we see Harry Potter riding into the scene on a separate car.  With him are Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

Just as the gang is warning us of approaching trouble, their car is rocked and they fall into the cavern below.  Suddenly a pair of security trolls (dressed in metal suits of armor) attack our ride vehicles.  One of the trolls grabs our car and sends us flying into the next chamber.  As we fly through the caverns there are real set pieces around us (such as the track for other vehicles and the rocky walls), further adding to the perception of reality in the ride.

We go spinning into another cavern only to face three more security trolls.  A troll tries to attack us but he falls off a ledge.  Unfortunately for us, the troll grabs our car and we fall with it down a waterfall further into the cavern.  Before we crash, Bill Weasley uses the "arresto momentum" spell to stop our fall.  Of course, we're not *really* free-falling in this segment.  It's just the illusion of doing so thanks to a simulator along with realistic, 3D images.

Bill makes light of the situation just as a fire-breathing dragon (the same dragon that we saw on top of the building) walks into the scene.  Riding on it are Harry, Ron and Hermione.  They've retrieved the Horcrux from Bellatrix's vault, and they're on their way out of Gringotts.  Suddenly they're attacked by Bellatrix's forces, so they ride on the dragon and begin to climb out of the bank vault.  Meanwhile, Bill Weasley uses a spell to send us into a different bank vault for our own safety.

Our vehicles go flying through the lower chambers of Gringotts and a goblin points the way to safety.  We come to a stop in a nearby vault, but things quickly go from bad to worse.  The wall in front of us breaks and out of the smoke emerges Nagini, the pet snake of Lord Voldemort.

Lord Voldemort appears with Bellatrix.  Voldemort thinks that we know where Harry Potter is hiding as he was recently in Bellatrix's vault.  Bellatrix is still angry with us, so she uses her wand to zap us again.  Our vehicles move away before Voldemort can zap us as well.

We come to a stop inside of a very large cave filled with lava.  The interesting thing with the ride here is that it looks like we're at the end of the tracks.  We're now surrounded by a large screen showing the 3D scene.

Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix fly into the cave and confront us again.  Voldemort is willing to use his magic to torture us so that we'll help him find Harry Potter.  He conjures a huge fireball, but before it can attack us, the fireball is destroyed by the fire-breathing dragon.  The dragon then tries to breathe fire onto Voldemort and Bellatrix, but they use magic to block the blast of fire, and then they quickly flee from the room.  Hermione then casts a quick spell that reveals a secret opening for us to escape.

A secret door opens in the screen and our ride vehicles quickly race forward.  There's a brief thrill as we accelerate into the dark passage and then climb a short hill and make a quick turn.  This part *might* cause a little bit of motion sickness for some riders.  The thrilling segment ends just as quickly as it began.

We're now in a safer part of Gringotts and we see the trio hanging onto the dragon as it climbs back to the surface.  Bill Weasley bids us farewell and reminds us that Gringotts is ". . . the safest place on Earth."  The vehicles then return to the station.

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After climbing out of the ride vehicle, we have to descend a staircase before walking down the hallways to the ride's exit.  On the left side is a place where you can view the picture that was taken in the line queue, and then purchase it if you desire.  Otherwise, the exit hallway continues to the lockers and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment store.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts - final thoughts

This ride is a really cool experience from start to finish, especially if you're familiar with the events in the Deathly Hallows films.  The theming is outstanding, the details are sharp, the music is straight from the films' soundtracks, and the ride itself is a LOT of fun.  Universal Orlando has clearly "upped the ante" with this ride.

One of the better parts of this ride is that it's a little bit tamer than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey next door at Islands of Adventure.  If you can handle Transformers / The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and some minor roller coaster segments, then you should be able to enjoy Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

As it was stated earlier, you'll really want to experience the regular line queue if it's your first time on this ride.  Don't be discouraged if there's a 30-minute wait.  The line tends to move at a decent pace, and it'll take at least 10 minutes to experience parts of the line like the photograph, the preshow with Bill Weasley, and the elevator ride to the depths of Gringotts.  The single-rider line skips almost all of the cool theming and you miss the back story with the ride.  Plus, the single-rider line is NOT guaranteed to have a shorter wait time than the regular line.

If you can handle the simulator and brief roller coaster segments, do NOT pass up a chance to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts!


Universal Orlando - Hogwarts Express

In addition to Diagon Alley, Universal Orlando has also added the Hogwarts Express, a steam train that transports park guests between Diagon Alley (specifically London, England) in Universal Studios Florida and the village of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure.  In order to ride the Hogwarts Express, you MUST have a park-to-park ticket.  Workers WILL scan your ticket and you'll have to pass through turnstyles before entering the ride's line queue.

In Diagon Alley, the entrance to Hogwarts Express is in the London section of the land and at the King's Cross train station, just like in the Harry Potter books and movies.  The first part of the King's Cross train station looks and feels like a realistic train station in England.  (at least, it's what I presume an English train station would feel like).  It's a brightly lit station with advertisements on the walls and train schedule announcements over the P.A. system.  Even the train schedule sign at the entrance periodically changes with new train information.

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After passing through the main part of the terminal and a bunch of luggage along a wall, we climb a staircase and pass through the magical barrier to the alternate station --- Platform 9-3/4.  There's a special glass set up so that people behind you can watch you supposedly walking through a brick wall.  Be cautioned that this part of the line queue tends to get clogged as people want to shoot video of their family & friends walking through the wall ahead of them.  If you choose to follow this pattern, remember to be courteous to the people waiting in line behind you.

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Platform 9-3/4 is where we'll board the Hogwarts Express train.  The line queue takes us past luggage bound for the magic school, and with Harry Potter's luggage is Hedwig sitting in his cage.  The main focus though is the train itself as it rolls in and out of the station.  At the end of the line queue we're set into groups of eight, and then a conductor will escort us into our assigned cabin inside of the train.

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Over at Islands of Adventure, the experience for the Hogsmeade train station is a much simpler procedure.  The train station is already within the magic village, so there's no process to hide it from muggles (unbelievers in magic --- a.k.a. everyday people).

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After passing through the ticket turnstyle, the path to the train station passes by the Dragon Challenge roller coasters before descending a series of ramps to the lower level of the station.  The lower floor is a large and open room.  After that we get to climb a staircase that takes us to the platform with the Hogwarts Express.  Just like at King's Cross, the workers organize the riders into groups of eight, and then they're escorted into their specific cabin on the train.  While the King's Cross station is busy and enclosed, the Hogsmeade station is more relaxed and open.

The cabins on the train are small and cozy.  They seat four people on each side.  At one end is the door and on the opposite side is the window.  It's out the window where most of the action takes place on this train ride.

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The trains themselves look fairly realistic with the appearance and the steam, but these are not real steam trains.  Nor are there any engineers up front driving the machines.  These trains are pulled back and forth by cables, and they are more like sophisticated shuttles rather than real locomotives.  At the King's Cross station the train leaves in a forward direction, and in the Hogsmeade station the train leaves in reverse.  You wouldn't know it though when riding on the train.

As far as the ride goes, the scenes on the ride depend on which way you're traveling.  When traveling from King's Cross to Hogsmeade, the scenery outside of the window changes respectively.  There's a brief encounter with Dementors (a cool effect using silhouettes on the door) before passing through the Forbidden Forest and then arriving at Hogsmeade.  Hagrid is there greeting us at the train station.

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The exit for the Hogsmeade train station leads guests past a horseless carriage that seems to move a little bit by itself.  After that the path leads straight into the village of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure.

When traveling from Hogsmeade to King's Cross, it's basically the same sequence of events on the ride.  The scenery changes respectively, there's activity with more character silhouettes on the door, and then we pass through London.  Through the window we can see the Knight Bus weaving through traffic.  At the end of the ride Mad-Eye Moody is there to greet us at the King's Cross train station.

From start to finish, it's clear that the more enjoyable experience on the Hogwarts Express is when traveling from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade.  The King's Cross train station is much more elaborate, Platform 9-3/4 is more interesting, and there's a better sequence of events on the train ride.  The experience in the opposite direction seems to be a little more bland and less interesting.  Perhaps that's why the books and movies place a much bigger emphasis on the journey TO Hogwarts rather than the characters riding back to London.

When given a choice between taking the Hogwarts Express train from Hogsmeade to King's Cross, or just walk, I think that I'd rather walk between the two theme parks.  The walk isn't that bad and I really like the scenery in the entrance area at Universal Studios Florida.

It's almost a disappointment that the actual ride for the Hogwarts Express is fairly short.  It only takes about four minutes each way once the train starts rolling.  It takes longer to unload and then load the train than it does for the ride itself.

It's also a bit of a shame that you really cannot see the Hogwarts Express trains in motion from other parts of Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure.  The best views of the trains are there in the stations.  Then again, if people saw the trains rolling backwards on the tracks, perhaps it would remove part of the magic of the experience.


Universal Orlando - Islands of Adventure

Universal Orlando - Islands of Adventure

On this visit it felt like Universal's Islands of Adventure was a little bit less busy than it was last year.  Most of the rides (apart from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the water rides in Toon Lagoon) had very short wait times.  Of course, a bit reason for the slightly lower crowds was that more people were next door in Universal Studios Florida enjoying Diagon Alley.

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Like many rides, The Incredible Hulk Coaster had a wait time of less than five minutes.  The worker let me pick my seat and I ended up having an entire row to myself.  That made it a lot easier to hold out my arms and rock out on the Hulk Coaster.  :-)

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Doctor Doom's Fearfall, on the other hand, was a different story.  The wait time advertised 15 minutes, but the actual wait was at least double that.  To make matters worse, AFTER riding it I saw that the single-rider line was open.  With this ride you have to ask the workers about the single-rider line as the entrance to it is through the arcade and the ride's exit.  For pretty much every other ride in both parks the single-rider line is right next to the regular line queue.

The good part was that after I exited the ride Doctor Doom himself was walking down the street.  That was just a case of being in the right place at the right time.

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On this trip the Jurassic Park area had a couple of noticeable changes.  For starters, the Jurassic Park gate from Toon Lagoon into Jurassic Park was missing.  There were also construction walls in this area and quite a bit of activity behind the walls.  Is this area going to see some sort of expansion, possibly in conjunction with the next Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic World, when it's released next summer on June 12, 2015?

Another major change to Jurassic Park was the addition of several carnival-style games of chance.  Across the path from them is still the time-share booth.  Unfortunately this means harassment from the time-share workers on one side of you, and minor harassment from the Jurassic Park game operators on the other.  At least this time around the time-share people weren't nearly as aggressive as they have been in previous years.

Islands of Adventure - Jurassic Park - Discovery Center

The Discovery Center in Jurassic Park was fairly quiet this time.  Downstairs, the wall where you could use the scanners to hunt for fossils was behind a construction wall.  Is this just being refurbished, or are we going to see a new type of activity in the Discovery Center?

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The Jurassic Park River Adventure boat ride was fun as always, but parts of the ride are really showing its age.

On a side note, it would be great if the workers for this ride weren't so hostile against people using cameras.  For some reason they'll let me take all the photos that I want do (except for the Tyrannosaurus rex at the end), but they'll harass me over the P.A. system the moment I start recording video.  They claim that I'm not allowed to use cameras "for my own safety," but that's a load of garbage.  I used a small, hand-held camera that was wrapped to my wrist, and that was when sitting in the back row with space on both sides of me.  Also, 98% of the ride is a slow-moving boat ride.  The moving sidewalk in the parking deck is a more dangerous experience, and you frequently see more people doing stupid stuff on that versus the boat ride.

That's just Universal being anal about people using cameras.  They do that on pretty much all of their rides and shows.  They're also hostile about my hats, too.  The workers will even begin to harass me about not wearing hats even BEFORE I've boarded the ride.  Come on, people.  Let me sit down on the ride first and get situated before you harass me about common sense material.  And no, I'm NOT going to keep my hat between my back and the seat.  I've lost hats that way.  They also get deformed and ruined that way as well.  I'm going to hold my hat securely in my hand as I always do.  I have yet to lose a hat that way, even on the most intense of roller coasters.  My own method has NEVER failed me, and that's with literally decades of experience.

</rant>

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Hogsmeade was pretty busy but not packed like it was last year.  This area still draws a lot of crowds, especially with the opening of the Hogwarts Express train station linking this land to the new Diagon Alley next door in Universal Studios Florida.

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Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was fun as always.  When riding this one in the mornings the wait time was ten minutes or less.  Later in the day we also noticed that this ride just didn't seem to have the bigger crowds like it did last year.

As it was mentioned earlier, if this ride is a little bit too intense for you, you might be able to handle Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts better.  The new ride is a little bit tamer and easier to handle for those people prone to motion sickness or the more aggressive movements here on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

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Fans of the Dragon Challenge roller coasters will be pleased to know that the line queue for the Hogwarts Express train station at Hogsmeade provides a few new views of the red and blue roller coasters.  This helps make up for the fact that the coasters no longer duel like when they were the Dueling Dragons.  It doesn't help by much as the dueling factor was what made the coasters so awesome, but it's a little step towards making it better.

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Finally, The Cat In The Hat ride in Seuss Landing has also seen a *slight* modification.  After over fourteen years of having the cars spin somewhat violently during certain scenes in the ride, the cars no longer spin!  Universal FINALLY changed the ride to make it more appealing to a much wider audience.  Now The Cat In The Hat is a lot more enjoyable and it's more like any other family-friendly dark ride in the Florida theme parks.

Now it'll be so much easier to take pictures on the ride.  Oh, wait a second.  This is Universal.  They're not going to allow any photography on any ride, no exceptions.  At least Disney isn't hostile against cameras and on-ride photography . . .


Souvenirs & Finale

As anybody knows, no trip to Florida is complete without at least some souvenirs.  It's nearly impossible not to find something interesting (and affordable) when browsing through the endless number of stores.

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Back in 2011, Jessica and I "built" a dinosaur when we took our first trip to Florida as a couple.  Before leaving on this trip we decided ahead of time that we would take a look at the options and seriously consider making a second one.  As you can see in the photos, we made a Woolly Mammoth.  This one was named Willie Woolly, and he's dressed for a safari.  The last picture has him posed with Rex, the Spinosaurus that we made in 2011.

vintage Epcot logo bracelet - 2014

This particular item caught my eye because I'm a sucker for vintage souvenirs from Epcot.  Although this is what I suspect to be a charm bracelet, what makes this pretty awesome is that all of the charms are the old logos for the Future World attractions in EPCOT Center.  All of those logos have been removed as the attractions have been upgraded, and some of those rides no longer exist.  To top it off, this bracelet is mounted on a vintage postcard for EPCOT Center as well.

I'm going to find a small frame and hang this on my wall.

In case you're wondering, from left to right the logos are Spaceship Earth, Communicore, Universe of Energy, The Land, EPCOT Center (in this case it's for the 30th anniversary of EPCOT), World of Motion, Horizons, The Living Seas, Wonders of Life, and Journey Into Imagination.

The only weird part is that the charm representing Epcot isn't the classic logo for EPCOT Center.  And just what did the old logo for EPCOT Center look like?

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Here's the classic logo for EPCOT Center on my new shot glass that's now sitting on my desk.

I actually first saw this shot glass in Epcot back in 2011.  They had this logo and style available in a pint glass (or tumbler cup) and the shot glass.  Back then I thought about it but skipped purchasing it, and since that point I regretted it.  When I spotted this on our first day while in a shop in Downtown Disney, I didn't think twice before grabbing it.

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Speaking of drinking and Epcot, that brings us to the next souvenir --- an Epcot World Showcase wine glass.  Recently I've been broadening my horizons and been enjoying a glass of wine with meals, so this wine glass seemed to be a natural choice.  A silhouette of the World Showcase countries lines the glass, and underneath them are alcoholic bottles from those respective countries.

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This hat also caught my attention with that vintage logo for Walt Disney World.  Considering my love affair for those resorts and theme parks, and the fact that I own and maintain this website, Florida-Project.com, how could I say no?  It's vintage.  It's Disney.  It's something that I would actually wear.  'Nuff said.

Mickey Mouse caramel apple - 2014

My wife had the desire for one of the caramel apples shaped like Mickey Mouse.  She decided on this one with the Reese's Pieces, though she didn't enjoy it until after we got home from Florida.  I'm not an apple person myself (mainly because I'm allergic to them), but I tried a small part and it was pretty good.  The candy pieces were excellent, of course.

Were these all of the souvenirs?  No.  I bought my wife a shirt with the Marauder's Map from Harry Potter, I got myself a cool bookmark from Universal Studios Florida (it's still rare for me to find souvenirs at Universal --- most of the items just don't look appealing), and we picked up a few other souvenirs as gifts for family and friends.  The souvenirs mentioned above are the only ones that I bothered to photograph.

Finale

This was another successful trip to Universal Orlando and the Walt Disney World resorts.

The days were long, the Florida sunshine was hot, and many miles were walked each day, but we still had a lot of fun.  As usual, I can't wait until the next Florida vacation.

The new Diagon Alley expansion in Universal Studios Florida is just as impressive as it sounds.  Universal really did a fantastic job with building this expansion.  It's just a shame that adding Diagon Alley meant removing Jaws and Amity Island.  But when you consider the amount of attention that Universal received when adding the first Harry Potter expansion in 2010, and this second one in 2014, the company has definitely made the correct moves.  The extra attention and income has helped provide funding for other expansions throughout the theme parks.

This trip was also more of a learning experience for going on vacations like this with my wife.  We're two different people when it comes to the Florida theme parks.  While she enjoys and appreciates them, she doesn't go all gung-ho like I do.  The next theme park trip will definitely be different and more enjoyable for both of us.

And when is the next trip to Florida?

Right now the crystal ball is still a bit foggy.  This part is known though ---- it's been a while since we've set foot inside of a Disney park.  The itch to do so grows with each passing day.