Experiencing a theme park for the first time is an eye opening experience. If there is any downside at all to being a frequent theme park visitor it is that the excitement and thrill of the first time quickly gives way to the comfort of the familiar. But really, that’s not actually a problem is it? This weekend I had the privilege of taking my mother to Universal Orlando for her first visit in 20 years. This day in the parks together is one of the best days I ever had in a theme park in my entire life, especially now that Universal Holidays have begun!
Good morning, Universal Studios Florida
It is a rare occasion in which I find myself in a theme park in the morning, but since this would be my mom’s one and only visit to Universal Orlando I wanted to make sure we got as much done as possible. When we arrived to CityWalk something told me to check at the Concierge booth across from Cinnabon to see if they could print my mother’s will call ticket.
I’ve found that the services provided at this Concierge booth depend on the specific skill set and willingness of the team member working at this location. On this occasion the team member kindly obliged and printed off my mom’s ticket, and explained that the ticket system was down at the parks so the lines at the ticket windows and Guest Services were quite long. Sure enough when we made it to the entrance we saw such sights.
My mother’s excitement began the minute we walked into CityWalk, but once we entered Universal Studios Florida it escalated. As soon as we entered I noticed Cabbie, a character I’ve personally never seen before. He had a New York attitude and lovable charm about him.
Hogwarts Express Kings Cross station was our goal, so I led us through the Hollywood area. It was alive with energy. The jazz band performing on the corner put a pep in everyone’s step. Characters from Scooby Doo greeted excited guests. Christmas decorations seemed to drip from every façade and lamppost, even the vehicles along the street had decorations.
When we reached the end of the boulevard I intended to guide us over to the London Waterfront so we could board Hogwarts Express. However, that silly guy who lives in a pineapple under the sea made a grand entrance. Mom snapped a few pictures and videos to send to my nieces and nephews.
We arrived at Kings Cross station to a glorious 10 minute wait, at 10:45 AM on a Saturday. I enjoyed pointing out the luggage pieces and the magical effect of going through the brick wall to Platform 9 ¾ in order to board the awe inspiring Hogwarts Express train.
The depth of the scenery outside the window impressed my mother. I still thrill at the level of detail inside the cabins. Of course the annoying voice of the Hermoine character still frustrates me, but that’s besides the point. The landscaping and the rooftops of Hogsmeade Village are a beautiful sight to take in when arriving from Hogsmeade station.
Photo opportunities that I normally pass by became important to me again now that I had someone who had never visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before. I broke out my wand and posed for a few pictures with the Hogwarts Express Conductor. I pointed out a few of the spell effects to my mom and attempted the Aresto Momentum spell to no avail.
The holiday decorations that adorn Hogsmeade Village are simple and match the theme of the area very well. However, it is frustrating that Hot Butterbeer is only available inside The Three Broomsticks and no where else in the village. Still, we enjoyed our stroll as we headed for Hogwarts Castle.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is going through a refurbishment until December 19, 2016. But don’t be too disappointed because Hogwarts Castle is still welcoming muggles to walk through the entire castle’s queue. A few Hogwarts students (aka Universal Team Members) were staffed throughout the queue and some even offered to take unique photos for us. I applaud the helpfulness of these team members!
After an exciting journey through Hogwarts Castle, we headed to Seuss Landing for a little whimsy and lots of holiday cheer. A coworker friend of mine met up with mom and I, and we immediately entered the queue for one of my favorite little rides in Universal Orlando. The High-in-the-Sky Seuss Trolley Train is a fairly simple ride, but it holds as much endearment to me as Tomorrowland’s beloved TTA / Peoplemover.
We practically walked right onto the ride because both tracks were open. Each track takes you on a different path and has different narration. The views on either track are impossible to beat and I love the use of practical sets and figures throughout the attraction, especially the rooftop village at the end of the left side track.
Now in full Seuss mode we went for a spin on the Cat in the Hat ride (though the spinning is all but eliminated in this ride now). At 12:30PM we merely waited 10 minutes. This ride could do with a little TLC, a few scenes here and there have seen better days. Still, this is a classic, family friendly ride that matches classic dark ride effects with a few modern effects as well.
One of my favorite parts of Universal Holidays is Grinchmas, and not just the stage show. There are decorations nearly everywhere you turn in Seuss Landing. As soon as we exited the ride I caught sight of the Whos of Whoville out in their Christmasy best. I made a mad dash towards them. One of the Whos invited me to help decorate one of the trees! Even though I only got to place one ornament on the tree I felt gleeful. What a fun way to get guests into the spirit of the season.
Good afternoon, Islands of Adventure
So that my mom could get the Hogwarts Express experience in its entirety we backtracked a little and headed for Hogmeade Station. Ten minutes later, cozy in our train cabin, we headed back to Kings Cross station. I longed to show my mother around Diagon Alley, but our stomachs growled louder than the Hungarian Ironbelly dragon atop Gringotts Bank, so we headed to Finnegan’s to check in for our lunch reservations a bit early.
You can make reservations for restaurants inside the Universal Orlando theme parks here. Reservations are rarely needed, however, on peak days they are a great idea. I figured with Finnegan’s ideal location on the Macy’s Holiday Parade on route reservations would come in handy, especially on the opening day of Universal Holidays.
We were seated immediately and soon laid out before me, the glorious sight of a pint of Guinness and a basket of Irish soda bread with delectable apple butter. Finnegan’s is one of best values of theme parks dining in all of Orlando. Many of the prices are on par with counter service locations in Universal Orlando, and even cost less than many counter service locations at Walt Disney World. My absolute favorite thing on the menu is the Irish Cobb Salad ($11.99), but this time I decided to try the Pork Loin ($12.99).
The Pork Loin is a generous serving, however, the pork was dry and tough. The vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes made for the perfect accompaniment and worth me cheating on my desire to limit carbs in my diet. Overall, a satisfying entree, but I’ll stick to my beloved Irish Cobb Salad.
After a satisfying meal the time finally arrived for me to share the glories of Diagon Alley with my mom. It never fails. The minute someone passes through the brick wall and sets eyes on Diagon Alley for the first time, the expression on their face is priceless. My mother became transformed, she was a kid again. We browsed the many magical window displays, cast a few spells of our own, and entered Ollivander’s Wand Shop.
I know the newness has worn off, but I am still so happy they made such improvements with this Olivander’s location versus the Hogsmeade location. It’s a much more enjoyable experience, I implore you to select the Diagon Alley location (that’s where Ollivander’s is in the books and movies anyway). It’s bigger, better themed, and immerses you in the entire experience. I’m a big mushball so I got a little misty eyed when during our visit a young girl was selected by the Wand Master and her parents beamed.
As we departed Ollivander’s I remembered Celestina Warbeck took the stage at 3:00 PM. It doesn’t feel like a complete trip to Diagon Alley without seeing the glamorous Celeistina grace the stage with her Banshees. They did not disappoint as per usual.
I felt like I would have not done my mother justice if we departed Diagon Alley without a visit to Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor. Thankfully the line wasn’t near as bad as I’ve seen it on peak days, we waited less than 10 minutes. I cannot resist the Toffee Apple soft serve in a cone. It’s my favorite! Mom went with Clotted Cream because it reminded her of her childhood when she would sneak behind my grandmother’s back to indulge in the cream at the top of the milk bottle (back when milk was still delivered to your doorstep). What a sweet way to end our time in Diagon Alley. Now it was time for the ultimate Universal Holidays finale.
Macy’s Holiday Parade
I adore the Macy’s Holiday Parade. It is impressive to me that nearly every single element of the parade, each float and balloon, has traveled the streets of Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day. Many floats and balloons were used in past Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades while a lucky few were used this year.
We arrived to the New York area just slightly after 4:00 PM. Parade time is 5:00 PM and most of the street’s spots were already taken. The New York area is my favorite spot to watch the parade since the actual Macy’s parade takes place in actual New York.
At about 4:15 PM we heard the short Marilyn Monroe show begin. A member of our party stayed to save our spots while I escorted mom down to in front of the tree so we could catch a few moments of the show.
The beginning of this parade, as well as the Mardi Gras Parade, is actually my favorite part. A small motorcade from the Orlando Police Department leads off the parade, performing precise maneuvers as a squad. It fills me with hometown pride to see the OPD starting off the parade.
I delighted in seeing familiar favorites of mine like the purple hippo balloon (a tribute to the adorable Christmas song “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas”) and the Central Park ice skating float (which has appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade for many years, including this year). Plus there are a few new elements like the Yes, Virginia balloon and the rocking horse style flamingo float. My mom beamed with joy and said she felt like she was in New York City itself.
The finale of the parade is the arrival of Santa Claus. Right in front of the Macy’s storefront façade is the gigantic Christmas tree and Santa leads a countdown to light the tree. The parade stops for this moment and that countdown concludes with the tree aglow and confetti in the air. Yet another reason I love watching the parade in the New York area of the park.
Goodnight, Universal Orlando
After the parade we practically floated as we strolled over to Springfield USA. I just had to show my mom this area since she knows what a huge The Simpsons fan I am. We wrapped our extraordinary day with a spin on Kang and Kodos’ Twirl and Hurl. I pointed out all the fun names on each of the flying saucers, my favorite being the Mai Tai Fighter. The views on this ride are fantastic; it was a fun way to end our day.
As we departed, heading back through the Hollywood area, my mother repeatedly remarked on how wonderful of a day we had together. As though Universal had just a little more holiday magic to share with us, Mrs. Claus and her greeter appeared before us and walked alongside us for a few moments as they headed over to the New York area for pictures by the Christmas tree. We shared with her what a great day we had together and in as warm and genuine a tone as you would expect from Mrs. Claus she said “Oh I’m so pleased you’ve had a lovely day. Merry Christmas to you both.” A lovely day is an understatement, it was one of the best days ever!