Monday, April 18, 2011

Gotta get back to Hogwarts!

     I know it has been a while since I've updated but with Spring Break and such, well it has been crazy! I will tell you a bit about our Spring Break vacation because it was such a special time for us.
     First of all we cheated. We left Riley (3) and Bella (1) at home with Nana and Grandma. I felt really guilty about this but Syd (12) and Ryan (10) really had to take one for the team last year and do Disney World with a 2 yr old and a 7 week old infant.  They had to ride little kiddie rides, stand in line to meet characters, and go back to room often for naps and rest time. I was determined that this vacation was just for them.  OK maybe for me too, it was nice to take off with only two suitcases, not use the topper to the car, and be able to drive as far as we could without meltdowns. OK maybe one or two from me and Greg.
     We left on Saturday and made it to Jacksonville, on Sunday we stopped in St. Augustine and did the Ripley's red train city tour, fountain of youth and then ate at our favorite sea side spot at Flaggler Beach. It's called High Tides at Snack Jacks and it is a fabulous little dive right on the beach. The crab cakes and steamed crab legs are an absolute fav of mine. After that we headed into Orlando to get the party started.  Now we are die hard Disney fanatics but this time stayed at a Universal Hotel.  Ok it was actually Comfort Suites which is a partner hotel. They had a special for 4 nights and 3 day passes to Universal it also gets you into the park an hour early which is KEY with Wizarding World of Harry Potter open. We had a free breakfast at the three broomsticks included in that deal and that breakfast was wonderful! The biggest disappointment with this hotel is online they advertise free shuttle service to Universal.  However, they do not have a shuttle service. You must to walk to another partnering hotel and wait in line behind their guests who are allowed to "book" times to leave. Some fellow Kentuckians we met at the pool tried to do the shuttle and were told it was booked until 7:00 pm, yes I said PM 2 hours before park closes.  Not to mention you cannot get into the park early using the shuttle because they don't run until after the park opens. Even though the hotel was fairly nice I will not plan to stay there again simply because I felt they were dishonest in their dealings. Now we were only 1/2 mile from park entrance and we could have easily walked it but I was concerned about carrying packages back and also the actual park is probably another 1/2 mi to mile past the front entrance. After all of us walking all day I just wasn't sure we'd want to hoof it back to hotel at closing after walking miles in the park. Plus parking was only $15.00 per day and honestly as I told my hubby, "is $45.00 for the entire 3 days really the breaking point on our funds" we spent more than that on Harry Potter t-shirts. It was however disappointing to be told one thing and have it changed and I will look into staying on property next time.
     The key to doing WWof HP is to get there early and head straight back, you can't get lost everyone heads back there.  Get in line for the "castle ride" (called the Forbidden Journey) first thing. Even being there early it was still a 20 min wait but considering we checked about two hours later and it was a 140 min long ride, I felt very accomplished. After coming out of there head for flight of hippogriff. This is a kiddie coaster and it is kinda cool but it you don't have kids I wouldn't wait  for it and even with kids I wouldn't wait more than 20 min for this ride.  Luckily the Dragon Challenge ride ( dueling hanging coasters) was at the most a 20 min wait time and Syd and I walked on to the ride 3 or 4 times in a row at one point with no wait. This was our second vacation to WWof HP so we did not do the Olivander's wand shop presentation.  It is very nice but we did it when hardly no one was there  last year. Currently it is a 2 sometimes 3 hour wait for a 5 min presentation. Very cool to do, but something you might get there early to do and then you'd never do it again.
     Universal has really got a hot ticket item here! if you wait more than an hour or two after the park opens you have to follow the hoard of people heading back to Hogsmeade and get "return tickets" to even get into that section of the park, it is THAT crazy.  When you come back you have to que to get into hogsmeade. I have never heard so many British accents in one place (OK I'm exaggerating a little, when I've actually been to Europe but you get my meaning)  Europeans are hopping the pond in droves to come check it out.  The butter beer alone (and yes it's non- alcoholic) is worth the trip in my opinion. All kidding aside if you are a Harry Potter fan this place is for you. I can not describe the tiny details they put into this (they even have moaning Myrtle talking in the bathrooms). At a time when Disney's white glove service is starting to slack off Universal is stepping up with incredible service that rivals the Disney of old.  It says something when you have to que to get into the guest shops to buy t- shirts and movie props. Yes people actually stand in long lines to spend money here.  Even more exciting is the news that they are planning to expand and make that section of the park almost twice as big :) Team Epley will be going back!
     A few side notes to help fellow first year Wizards. First of all their dining plan is worth the money (all you can eat food all day) however, the places you can eat are limited and the food is not that great. We only bought this option the first day.  The second day we ate breakfast at hotel and then had lunch at Mythos in the park (it's near Hogsmeade) and then ate fast food on way back to the hotel.  Mythos has been voted best theme park restaurant 6 years in a row and I can see why, the food was FABULOUS and we spent the same amount for lunch there that we did for burgers and fries the day before. Make reservations their diner service is almost always sold out and we were very lucky we ate an early lunch and got right in. As we were leaving,  the crowd hit and people were waiting 40 min to an hour for tables. Another thing  to do is take advantage of the free lockers that they provide while you are in line. Universal has lockers at each "thrill ride" use them.  You get entry with a fingerprint and the amt of time you can leave your belongings changes as the wait time changes.   After the time has passed they charge fees, but that is just to keep people from abusing lockers all day. So as long as you collect belongings after each ride you should be fine.  I heard people in line worrying about having a 25 min lockers but wait time jumped to 40 min - I explained that the locker time would jump also and that you have a grace period.  Believe me we used the lockers all three days and never had to pay! PLEASE use the lockers!!! The only Hogwarts casualty we had was Syd's phone. She took it on the dragon challenge and lost it out of her pocket. (USE LOCKERS :) ) Universal staff was helpful and said they would look for it after the park closed but since 90% of the ride was over water they weren't too hopeful. I was fully expecting to be buying a new phone. Greg checked with guest services the next day and Hallelujah they found it and it was in one piece. Their guest services staff were so helpful and nice ..well I just can't say enough nice things about them.  Finally take advantage of their package services .  If you stay on site they will deliver anything you buy to your room.  If you stay off site like us they deliver it to the front of the park and give you pick up tickets to collect your belongings as you head out of the park for the day.  I sincerely hope this convinces people on the proverbial fence to go ahead and book that trip.  Team Epley had a great time and we would love to see our friends and family enjoy the park as much as we did! OH and I almost forgot Universal has front of the line passes that work like Disney's fast passes. They are free if you stay on property but they are a $60.00 upgrade for everyone else. Unless you are only there for one day and are rushed DO NOT get these. Universal is great but it is not the size of Disney even with wait times we did entire park in about 6 hours.  We spent 2 days in Islands of Adventure which is where WWof HP is and one day in Universal and did everything we wanted many times over. Plus the only ridiculous ride times were the HP stuff and the front of the line passes cannot be used at Forbidden Journey. I'm sure it saved a bit of time for those who had them but honestly Jaws was a 10 min wait, Hulk was 30, Spiderman 25.... Just keep checking wait times and adjusting schedules accordingly and it's not a problem. And as the song goes "I gotta get back to Hogwarts, I got get back to school, I gotta get back to Hogwarts where everything is magic-cool" :) Have Fun All

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