The Orlando Adventure Begins

In August, I had the pleasure of hosting my younger sister Michelle in Orlando. She visited once before, back in 2013, and I’ve been pestering her to make a comeback ever since. Her impending mission trip (and departure for 18 months) is what finally spurred one last hurrah, and with one month’s notice, the trip was officially in motion!

Meeting the Cat in the Hat and his Things
Meeting the Cat in the Hat, Thing One, and Thing Two at Islands of Adventure in 2013.

Michelle arrived at the end of August, when the sun and the crowds were still out in full force. With just a few days to get re-acquainted with Orlando, we opted to skip the beach and substitute one night’s stay at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Resort.

I plan on doing a full review of this hotel in a few weeks, because it is stunning. When I first told Michelle we could stay at one of four hotels on Universal property, I suspected she would pick Portofino Bay, which is designed to look like the Italian seaside town of (you guessed it!) Portofino. It was an easy choice for my fellow lover of all things European.

(Side note: why is there no word for Europe-lovers!? Sure, there are Anglophiles and Francophiles…but what about those who just long to be in Europe as a whole? If such a word exists, please enlighten me so I can add it to my vocabulary immediately.)

Michelle at the Portofino Bay Hotel

Anyway. Michelle has been to Italy herself, back in high school. She paid for the trip herself, so there’s really no reason for me to be jealous. Like that stops me. I was super excited to share one of my favorite hotels with my dear sister; so excited, in fact, that we checked in the same night she landed!

After oohing over the beautifully-decorated room, we hopped on a water taxi into CityWalk, Universal’s own dining, shopping and entertainment complex. We caught up over a sausage, ricotta and fennel pizza at Red Oven, one of my favorite places to grab a cheap, tasty bite, then did a bit of exploring around the hotel before drifting off to sleep.

We woke early the next day, checked out of the hotel, and headed out to our first theme park of the vacation: Islands of Adventure, one of two parks that make up Universal Orlando. As guests of an onsite hotel, we had special access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade one full hour before it officially opened to all guests. Another perk? We got free Express passes as part of our hotel stay, meaning we had access to much shorter lines throughout the day.

Visit Hogwarts Castle at Islands of Adventure

It’s a good thing, too, because the park was packed! Getting there early definitely helped, but even when the park was open exclusively to hotel guests, the wait time for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey had already reached 40 minutes! Yikes! This is one of the very few rides that does not accept Express passes, so be prepared to wait!

Would you believe the Wizarding World is actually what convinced me to make my Orlando move permanent? I was a huge Potter nerd in high school. All my random Potter knowledge paid off when I was selected to help open Hogsmeade in 2010!

I love showing it off, too! The star attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, is a simulator ride housed within an impressive facade of Hogwarts Castle.

The interior of Hogwarts Castle in Orlando FL features moving portraits

The elaborately-themed queue winds through the Greenhouses, a Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and even Dumbledore’s office, offering plenty of distraction for waiting guests! Harry Potter fans will thrill in seeing all the little details plucked straight from the books and brought to life before their eyes. Ever wanted to go to Hogwarts? Now you can.

We took a quick spin on the Flight of the Hippogriff, a fun family coaster that never fails to elicit hysterical laughter as I try (and fail) to capture an on-ride group selfie. With bellies grumbling, we decided to explore the rest of the area later in the afternoon, and grab breakfast in the other park, Universal Studios.

Here’s where it gets really fun. Last summer, Universal Orlando unveiled The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, an all-new expansion of the original concept, located in Universal Studios. How does one move between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley?


By taking the Hogwarts Express.

The Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 and 3 Quarters

Be still my beating heart. As if visiting Hogwarts Castle wasn’t enough of a dream come true, you can now board the iconic red steam locomotive and ride it straight into Platform 9 3/4! You may even see a few familiar faces along the way…

Staying true to the story, guests exit the legendary wizarding platform and find themselves in King’s Cross Station. There are plenty of details to be discovered here, including the entrance from London into the heart of Diagon Alley.

12 Grimmauld Place at Universal Studios Diagon Alley
Any Potter fans out there recognize this one?

I could dedicate an entire post to the wonders of Diagon Alley (and I plan on it!), but for now, I’ll just list a few highlights:

Butterbeer. Butterbeer Ice Cream. HOT Butterbeer.

Breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron in Universal Studios Diagon Alley
There’s the hot butterbeer now! Yummm. It’s so rich and sweet, I can’t even finish an entire cup without help from my friends!

We had breakfast at The Leaky Cauldron. It seemed a little pricey at first (almost $15 for bacon, eggs, and potatoes!?), but I calmed down when I realized that the adult breakfast meals came with a beverage. And you can guess what we chose…BUTTERBEER! There are three kinds of Butterbeer, by the way (hot, frozen, and on tap). I recommend the hot version! The line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the newest ride to hit Universal Orlando, was already snaking through Diagon Alley by the time we were done eating, so we decided to come back later. Yep, no Express access for this one, either!

Street View of Diagon Alley and Gringotts Bank at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We went back to Islands of Adventure via the Hogwarts Express. This is where (in my opinion), the bulk of the thrill rides are. Theme parks like this are constantly being revamped and re-imagined, and while Universal Studios is starting to catch up in the thrills department, most of our favorite rides are in the Islands. I worried that afternoon storms and lightning might close the attractions, many of which are located outdoors, so we decided to see them first and then go back to Universal Studios in the afternoon.

Michelle in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade
My pretty sister!

As fate would have it, it didn’t rain that day. By the time we got to the Islands, it was already ridiculously hot and humid outside, and we trudged from ride to ride, grateful for the Express Passes that kept our wait times relatively short. If I had visited the park alone that day, I probably would have called it quits by 10 AM. Luckily, I was in good company, and we kept each others’ spirits up as the sun got higher and higher in the sky. It helped that we came prepared with plenty of snacks and water bottles, which we refilled every half hour or so. I probably drank more water that day than I did during the entire week leading up to Michelle’s visit.

There are sixteen rides at Islands of Adventure, as well as several shows. I won’t lie and say we did them all, but with the Express passes, I’m sure we could have! Because this was Michelle’s second time visiting the parks, we took it easy and focused on just a few of the rides.

Islands of Adventure Park Map 2015
Image from the official Islands of Adventure park map. Michelle is one lucky girl…she got to ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster just a couple of weeks before it was scheduled to close! Jared was not so lucky on his visit.

We cooled off at Jurassic Park River Adventure, re-rode Dragon Challenge’s dual coasters over and over, and spent some time in Marvel Super Hero Island. There are a few rides and play areas that are designed for younger children, but in my own opinion, Universal is geared primarily toward teenagers and adults. We sought out the rides designed to thrill and amaze, and skipped over the slow-moving, brightly-colored rides in Seuss Landing.

Wet Selfie of Dan, Michelle and I on Jurassic Park River Adventure
Post River Adventure (yes, you WILL get wet). Michelle’s face kills me!

One highlight of our visit was getting up close and personal with a raptor in Jurassic Park. I initially thought this was a gimmicky, somewhat silly idea. Who in their right mind would propose a cheery little meet and greet with a deadly, carnivorous raptor!? Clearly, this is just capitalizing on the success of Jurassic World, but I was willing to give it a shot.

A Velociraptor in its pen at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Let me tell you, that raptor is LOUD. I was actually impressed when we saw the damn thing. How does it move that fast!? I laughed as it snapped and screamed at unwitting tourists, and was more than a little unnerved when our time came. I just hoped it wouldn’t do that horrible raptor scream…

Velociraptor Meet and Greet at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Nope. It got me. Thanks to the photographer who captured endless shots of my discomfort!

By the time we left Islands of Adventure and returned to Universal Studios, we were exhausted. Beef jerky, cashews, and plenty of fresh water can only take one person so far. We jumped in line for the new Gringotts ride, which was not much shorter than it had been a few hours ago. But things are never too bad when I’m with family. Instead of whining about the long lines and humid air, we snapped a photo of the line to send to Dad, who I’ve been pestering to come visit Orlando for years. Since I live in Orlando and can visit Universal any time, I generally avoid it during the summer. It’s way too busy, not to mention hot, for my liking. One of the benefits of visiting during a busy time, however, is that I got to see a few new-to-me details while shuffling through the extended ride queue.

A sign at Gringotts Bank reads, do not approach a security troll without the authorisation of a Gringotts goblin

After exiting the ride, we left Diagon Alley and grabbed a quick snack from one of the food carts. Ever since booking her flight to Orlando, Michelle was dying to try one of those horrible turkey legs. She and Dan got one apiece, while I took the safer road and bought a hot soft pretzel with mustard. Yummm.

Michelle and Dan eating turkey legs in the Fisherman's Wharf area of Universal Studios Florida
Adding insult to injury, these atrocities cost nearly $12 apiece! Welcome to Orlando, mwahaha.

Their glee over the turkey legs didn’t last long. Dan’s squirted hot grease all over his clothes, sending him home to change into fresh clothes, while Michelle admitted she could only eat a little bit before it lost its novelty.

The wonderful thing about Universal Studios is that most of the rides and shows are housed indoors…a welcome change from Islands of Adventure!

November 2015 Universal Studios Florida Park Map
Compare this to the Islands of Adventure map above, and the difference becomes very clear.

Michelle and I hit up a few of her favorite rides, including Men in Black: Alien Attack and the relatively new Transformers ride. We both agreed that we had to stop at The ET Adventure, where Michelle came to the shocking realization that Drew Barrymore was in fact in the movie ET! I adore that ride. Here’s hoping it’s never replaced with something newer and shinier! Michelle and I did just one quick loop of the park, but the crowds and the heat proved to be too much for us. We left before Dan even had the chance to re-enter the park.

Good thing, too! With aching feet and slightly sun-burnt cheeks, we spent a lazy evening at home. We introduced Michelle to Tijuana Flats and their fantastic Taco Tuesday special, and cozied up on the couch, inspired by the day’s adventures to re-watch ET!

We might have missed a few rides at Universal Orlando, and I definitely would have liked to spend more time in Diagon Alley, but ultimately, I think we made the right choice by coming home early. Theme parks are fun, but I loved just lounging on the couch with two of my favorite people and eating junk. It gave us a chance to rest our feet, rinse off the day’s grime, and get to bed early for the next day’s adventures.

Next up, Walt Disney World!

Disclaimer: As an employee of Universal Orlando, we visited the parks free of charge. The views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Universal Orlando and its affiliates. I am in no way being compensated for this post.

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