Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Vacation! (part 2)

Universal Studios!

Sorry it took so long to finish this update- we had a lot going on! More on that later... in the meantime, let's talk about Universal Studios! **Pretty much all of my pictures of Universal Studios are in the camera. We recently moved and I have not unpacked the camera yet, so more pictures will follow!

Universal Studios was a place I never cared to visit. I always saw it as Disney's weirdo fourth cousin or something. I just felt like it would pale in comparison, so why bother visiting? As a child I was never a huge fan of most of the Universal characters or experiences anyway, so as an adult I didn't think twice. But then... the game changer happened.... Hogwarts! (Dooo de de dooo deeee dooooo doooooooooooo, dooo de de doooo de doooooooooo- you totally just sang that, didn't you... it's okay, embrace it!)

Ah yes, Hogwarts. Hogwarts was the ONE and only place my mother requested to stop. That was totally cool with us, because we all wanted to visit too! Carter started reading Harry Potter right away, and we started to plan our trip!

Planning a Multi-Disney-Multi-Universal week was a lot of fun. As a child I would watch my father pour over guides, maps, and even catch a program or two (generally Rick Steves- love that guy!) and spend hours upon hours planning a trip, so for me it felt like a torch and some big shoes were passed!

One of the first things we planned was where we would visit each day. Some parks close early on some days or during some events of the season- it is really important to check the hours! We had to work around Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween (where additional purchases are required to stay and ride the rides in Disneyworld park), a few random early close days (some parks would close as early as 6 on certain days), and factor in our personal endurance (5 days, 4 parks, 3 kids) to come up with our perfect schedule. I also looked online to find trackers that estimated park attendance on various days, based on several factors (such as advanced ticket sales, local events, past history of business that week, etc) for each individual park, as to maximize our time spent on rides rather than in lines. Cross checked that with days that offered shows, theater events, parades, or park-closing entertainment we wanted to see. I put into account parks we wanted to close (Disneyworld fireworks are a MUST SEE for us!), and what parks open the latest the next day (I knew if we stayed at Disney until 10pm we wouldn't want to be up super early the next morning). I read blogs on what time was best to be at the gate, and what order to do the fastpasses and rides, what time of day to see each show, etc....Overkill, you say? Well, we rode everything, multiple times, and saw everything we wanted to see. So I would say the planning was well worth it. I also loved the planning, and grew more excited with every day- so for me (and hopefully the family!) it worked great! This was the most research and planning I had ever done, and it was the best of the park trips we have ever experienced. So- I highly suggest pre-planning. A little homework now can save you a lot of hours later!!!

We opened the Universal Studios park. We had planned on doing a bell-to-bell at this park, so we had a full day planned. Universal Studios now has two different parks, and we planned on visiting the original park first because ... I won't get into the factors (did you not see the algorithm logic above?)... but there was a method. Anyway, we opened the park, and this was the day we decided to test out Universal's drink and meal plans.

The Universal drink plan is awesome. While none of our party are huge soda drinkers, the selection at the park was great and there were many stops for us to choose to refill. It was a good value, and we ended up doing it again at the other park on our other Universal day.

The Universal meal plan is hit-or-miss. We weren't sure how it would work for us because so many of us are gluten or dairy-free, but decided to give it a try after reading favorable reviews online. Basically, a select number of restaurants offer a select menu for those on the meal plan- and there are GF and dairy-free options available. We calculated costs and this plan did end up saving us money, and none of us were hungry during the day- so it was a good value. *HOWEVER* it is so close, that if you are itching for off-menu items, it could end up costing more than it was worth. That said- we only ate one lunch and one dinner- and it is unlimited, so if you are super hungry it would have saved you a lot more! Just something to consider. The servers were super nice and careful about our GF needs, and none of us experienced symptoms of contamination- so that was EXCELLENT!

Before entering the parks we all looked over the maps and listed things we wanted to see and do. We always made sure to do those first, so that we didn't have to worry about missing anything. Minions, Transformers, Men in Black- we did it all! We ended up seeing and doing everything at the park, and some multiple times! The park services offered Harrison and Fina birthday buttons, and many ride attendants waved us to the shorter line and wished them a happy birthday. If you have a birthday in your party, take the extra few minutes and get a button!

Universal offers a pass that allows riders to go on shorter lines. We debated getting the pass, but because all of our readings speculated a low turnout we did not pick one up. It worked out well because the only thing we actually waited in line for was Minions, and sailed onto rides the rest of the time because of birthday buttons, or lack of crowds! (If you go in the summer, consider picking up the Unlimited Express addition if you hate lines!)

We stayed for the show. It was pretty neat: water, lights, movie clips, etc. If we are being honest I would say it was the least impressive show of the trip- HOWEVER- it is hard to compare clips of ET to a half hour of fireworks and a flying Tinkerbell- you know? So the show was good- and worth it I think- but was not something I would consider necessary. (Just my personal opinion.)

Here are my overall take-aways:

I will probably never skip this park again. Seriously, it was that amazing! The rides were fabulous! Thrilling, exciting, amazing! There was an excellent mix of roller coasters, themed rides, and children's rides. No one was bored!!! The park was much larger than I realized, and I was pretty tired in the middle of the day, but MY DAD (grandpa of the kiddos!) practically skipped us from ride to ride! Men In Black? SO fun!

The fact that we had a 1 year old with us was a non-issue! Universal Studios was AMAZING with littles. Dare I say it- it was actually BETTER for the adults than Disney! Allow me to explain: Disney is cute, and wonderful, and has lots of stuff for kids. (I ADORE Disney!) However, Universal Studios rides were amazing for ADULTS too (the graphics, the quality of the rides themselves- just felt better... almost sorry to say it- but it is true!)- and they have this unique way of handling littles: Most of the themed rides that did not allow littles had a special system. Families could all be in line together (no more waiting outside with baby!), chatting in the lines, seeing the neat sights along the way (lots of neat things to see in the line area- we didn't spend much time there because we went on a day with low crowds- but still! I would have hated to miss seeing a lot of those things!), and then at the end there was often a special room where someone could stay with the littles while the rest of the group rode - there might be movies playing, there may be interactive decorations on the walls- they were all different! AND THE BEST PART: The family members who rode leave the ride- swap guardians of the littles- and then EVERYONE gets to reride (I think they said up to 5 people?!). So in our family- I would sit with Fina, Grandpa and Grandma would ride with the boys, and then Grandma would stay with Fina while I rode with Grandpa and the boys AGAIN! The boys LOVED riding everything twice without waiting in line again!!!! It was SO awesome!!!

Yeah- so... Universal is not Disney's weirdo fourth cousin. Universal is also not Disney's twin. I would say Universal is Disney's sibling- and they are different, but they are both fantastic. I will not be skipping this again!

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