TR: Universal Orlando (9/1-9/3/2012)

TR: Universal Orlando (9/1-9/3/2012)

Post by GodsOnSafar » Fri, 07 Sep 2012 23:02:52

(a version with some pictures will be up soon at

It has been another busy summer. Lots of amu***t park and fairgrounds going has occurred, but like all things, it comes to an end. Summer is over and fall is approaching with great speed, and with the calendar shifting into September, we've traditionally left the US. Twice that meant Scandinavia, once that entailed a visit to the South Pacific. This year, again, the Pacific is named as a destination...sorta. Loews Royal Pacific at Universal Orlando has housed us twice previously. Once again, it would be our home for a short time, this just a weekend trip thanks to an AMEX promotion earlier in the year where we scored a weekend stay for $240. After having not visited between 2007 and 2010, this is our third visit to Universal Orlando since January of 2011. Obviously, we're pretty happy with the product they're serving.

Since our last visit, the most significant change in terms of rides have been the addition of HD projectors on Spiderman, the opening of Despicable Me, and the closing and razing of Jaws. Spidey looks better than ever with the new goggles and video, and it probably still ranks as my all time favorite dark ride attraction in any park. Meanwhile, the new Despicable Me attraction trumps the previous Jimmy Neutron ride with a much more substantial pre-show, really gorgeous looking CGI and a bigger screen for the ride, and the entertaining as hell "Minion Dance Party" at exit. Universal has really outdone themselves here, in my opinion.

The parks are currently undergoing a pretty substantial transformation, both in terms of operations and new builds. Oft closed restaurants like Green Eggs And Ham have finally opened for regular business rather than just operating during holiday periods. The Mythos menu that was so briefly dumbed down has returned to what it was of years past. There are still areas that are used sparingly/not at all which seem to be good candidates for something to happen - the old Island Skipper Tours locations or the Toon Lagoon Theater, for instance.

Right now Universal is clearly more concerned with building giant E-ticket level attractions. The rush on the mysterious site expected to be Transformers was evident to us given that cranes were in action throughout the entire Labor Day weekend. Over at both IOA and Universal, lots of earth has been moved in preparation for the new Harry Potter areas, and there was even steel going up for the frame of some sot of building. This kind of monster expansion at Universal (and at Sea World, where the gigantic Antarctica is being built) contrasts greatly with the somewhat anemic Fantasyland expansion that is taking an astonishingly long period of time out in Reedy Creek. That isn't to say that Little Mermaid probably won't be good or that Disney's knockoff of Butterbeer won't be tasty, but there's nothing going there that e***s me. Antarctica e***s me. Transformers (crappy IP as I think it is) e***s me. A Gringott's coaster e***s me. Magical Dining Experience filled with screaming children? Not terribly exciting. Disney World may always be playing from the lead in terms of attendance, but creatively they're clearly being outflanked in every way.

Speaking of dining experiences, that's one of our favorite things about Universal. It is very much unlike Disney World's dining, which for any sizable trip becomes a morass of advanced planning and meal credit calculus. Instead we simply show up to restaurants and get tables, then eat very good food. This was a trip for gorging on the good stuff; we ate sit down meals more often than counter service. On the grounds of the Royal Pacific, we had meals at Jake's American Bar And Grill our first day, which serves good though somewhat unexciting continental cuisine. Dessert there was actually very good, as they had some of the most mammoth cake pops we've seen. It isn't necessarily amazing in and of itself, but it is certainly good quality.

Elsewhere in the resort is the more exciting Tchoup Chop. It's a Emeril Lagasse restaurant that fits in well with the overarching theme of the hotel/resort by offering his interpretations of southeast asian inspired dishes. Both of our meals were exceptionally good. My wife enjoyed the vegetarian entree and a salad while I had the escargot followed by the yellow fin tuna. Dessert there is always a treat - I have finally reached the point where I feel satisfied about the Banana Creme Pie at the Emeril's restaurants and can branch out. My wife's had the guava/creme cheese dumplings and I admit being a little jealous of them.

We found ourselves at more new to us restaurants in the parks themselves. Over in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we made a stop in at Three Broomsticks for breakfast. My wife Porridge breakfast was a little plain. Some brown sugar would have been nice, but perhaps it isn't Harry Potter canon? I went the adventurous route and ordered the traditional english breakfast. I considered it somewhat of an apology to the British for not having eaten more during my time at a B&B in Skegness out of shookness to other cultures. The items seem strange to an American palate for breakfast, so I can see why people wouldn't be rushing to get black pudding (aka *** sausage) unless they had a passport from within the Commonwealth, but the items put in there are pretty darn good. Compared to the usual sweet breakfast I'd be eating I was happy to have such a change of pace.

Not far away at Universal Studios proper, we enjoyed dinner at Lombard's in anticipation of seeing the new Universal night show, "Universal Cinematic Spectacular". Much like was the case with the World of Color dinner package at California Adventure, you eat off the menu, you enjoy a large number of desserts, and then watch the show from a specially cordoned off area. That is where the similarities end.

First, the meal. As far as comparing the meal we had at Ariel's Grotto, I keep in mind that the package has since been moved to Wine Country Trattoria and is no longer seafood oriented. I will admit that the cippino I had at Disney was better than the snapper I ate at Universal. Then again, you can't order the cippino anymore and I can order the snapper (which was delicious), so maybe that is in favor of Universal. As best I could tell, my wife was about equal on enjoying her pasta dish as from either, and that we could order an individual appetizer for each of us rather than simply command the existence of a veggie plate/antipasti tower was kinda nice, TBH. I got to enjoy shrimp***tail for myself, and since I like shrimp, that's a win in my book.

Second; the restaurants. Ariel's Grotto was elaborately themed inside, probably because it is intended to be a character dining experience first and foremost. To that end, it is a bit tacky compared to Lombard's. Lombard's has an impressive bronze fountain and glass block floor in the entry way, a large aquarium in the main dining room, lots of really cool nautical touches throughout, and basically just looks cool. Ariel's Grotto was designed for kids and kids at hear. Lombard's looks like a place ***s would eat, probably because it is.

Next - dessert. Well, let's tie this into location for the show as well. I might as well, because the two are so intimately intertwined at Universal. With the World of Color dinner package, an enormous dessert presentation is brought to the table, regardless of the size of the table. It is very good. Following that, you are handed a ticket which allows you entry to the World of Color dining area out in the masses at the waterfront. For the show, you stand in a crowd of people who exist in a maze of ropes and barriers. Universal does this completely differently. Lombard's is on the waterfront where the night show takes place, so you simply walk onto the deck after eating (or present your ticket from purchase of the dinner package). There you find a dessert buffet of all you can eat sweets in a vast variety of kinds, all of which are delicious, as well as coffee and tea to enjoy as well. You proceed to find a table or take one of the Adirondack chairs facing the screens/fountains, and watch in unhurried, relaxed, uncrowded fashion. Meredith indicated that this was a bit like the Fantasmic dessert grouping of yore in how it operated, and since she raves about that to this day, that's high praise.

The shows themselves are similar in nature; Disney and Universal have combed over their IPs for clips from movies to project onto water with dancing fountains and pyro accompanying. Sitting in a chair, not having baby carriages pushed into my legs or needing to try and shift my body around to see over or around people to see the show probably helped me to appreciate Universal's show more to some degree. I feel as though that admission is fake and intended to lessen the blow that ardent WOC fans will feel by me saying I liked the Universal one more, but I said it anyways with the expectation that this sentence will not be read. But anyways, the Universal show is, IMO, better. If I'm going to watch video collage, and I have to compare to who hits me more emotionally effective bad ass villian, Scar and Jafar will not get the same emotional response as Hannibal Lector. Maybe when Scar's rising to king of the Serengeti was a good thing? Perhaps he reduced spending among lions and ended years of cronyism.

Ultimately Disney's laser light spectacular is based almost entirely around children's movies and while the good ones tackle important themes, they are simple themes because they are for kids. Universal generally employed clips from movies for ***s that I actually watch with characters I care much more about because being in *** movies, they are often more fleshed out. If anything, it came across less as a promotional victory lap than World of Color did. I will admit that the scale of World of ...

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TR: Universal Orlando (9/1-9/3/2012)

Post by markscottr.. » Sat, 08 Sep 2012 04:55:54

Great write-up.

Like anything in life, what we do and do not like/appreciate tends to often be influenced by what we personally value.  You hit on a lot of key points as reason for recent direction that Universal Orlando has taken.  They are clearly the park resort in Orlando for the older set (both ***s sans kids and kids ages 10 and up).

Taken as a whole, Universal Orlando has some of the best all-time rides in their respective genres.  Spiderman and Men in Black are (to me) the two best dark rides in Orlando.  Coaster-wise, I really dig Dragon Challenge (despite hardly anyone else remembering it still exists including a notable absence in your TR).  Mummy is entertaining and hella fun, worthy of many re-rides.  As you mentioned, Popeye is also an all time great water ride and easily the best raft ride in existence.

Attraction density is where Universal Orlando wins.  Hopping is as easy as at Disneyland, and filling a day is never an issue and comes without having to plan logistics of driving 4 miles to the next park, or hoping you don't have to wait 30 minutes for the next bus or monorail.

And yet, I still far and away prefer WDW to Universal Orlando.  No matter how many trips I take to Orlando, there is always something new to do, see, or eat at WDW that I never contemplated before.  And while you do have to plan months in advance to eat in the more popular restaurants like the Canada Steakhouse, Ohana, or Brown Derby, there are so many amazing sleeper restaurants that get overlooked and are hardly ever booked solid (mostly the high end deluxe resort restaurants like Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge or Citricos at Grand Floridian).  Even mid-level restaurants like Contemporary's "The Wave" are fantastic getaways out of the park gates while the suckers wait for an eternity to eat shitty Italian food at Tony's Town Square.  Last year we rented a boat.  Two years ago we went parasailing.  We also really like their well-balanced Waterparks.

I know given my current family situation with a 37" tall toddler, WDW works in ways that Universal does not.  There is simply not enough toddler-friendly stuff to do at Universal (Seuss Landing and the Woody Woodpecker areas).  That, and there are plenty of amazing attractions and shows to keep me occupied at WDW while Syd plays in the boneyard at DAK or Honey I Shrunk the Kids at DHS.  Plus, a majority of the major attractions she can ride with us (i.e. Toy Story Mania, Pirates, Mansion, Spaceship Earth, Living With the Land, Safaris, Movie Ride, etc.) even if she doesn't have a clue what the hell is going on.

So to close, there is no right or wrong- just what works for your needs/tastes at that given time.  I credit Universal for becoming the "Disney" of thrill park resorts, as that was a niche needing to be filled in Orlando from 1971-1998.  IOA did the trick, and much like DCA, took the better part of a decade to organically change people's perceptions of their formally respective one park properties to multi-day resorts.


TR: Universal Orlando (9/1-9/3/2012)

Post by skiguy77 » Sat, 08 Sep 2012 07:46:45


> Like anything in life, what we do and do not like/appreciate tends to often be influenced by what we personally value.  You hit on a lot of key points as reason for recent direction that Universal Orlando has taken.  They are clearly the park resort in Orlando for the older set (both ***s sans kids and kids ages 10 and up).

Good point about the kids in Orlando.    I made the mistake of flying from South Florida to Hartford, stopping in Orlando.    The 1st flight to Orlando only had 25 people on it.   The flight to Hartford was full, with a bunch of kids from Disney.   The parents egg the kids on, talking to them the entire time.

"Who did you see at the parks?
"Did you see Minnie?"
"Who else did you see?"
"Did you see Pluto?"
"The Princess?"

Bla bla bla, it goes on the ENTIRE FLIGHT.   The parents never shut up, neither does the kid.   Note to self, never fly through Orlando again, even if it means arriving my destination later.   Next time I'll fly to Tampa as the hub.  


TR: Universal Orlando (9/1-9/3/2012)

Post by ansle » Mon, 10 Sep 2012 05:50:21

Grat post, I really agree with " .. I tend to think that no park gets me relaxed and in a vacation mode as quickly as Universal though,...."   Of all the parks we've visited, when I look back I think our overall best experiences were at Universal Florida, especially since the resorts opened.  Gone are the deep discounts we got the first few stays on Universal property, but still, with a family of 5 the room key Universal Express program simply makes park visits VERY enjoyable!  Low stress, much less planning involved to have a low wait day, and their quality of the visit is one of the best.  Too bad we missed Orlando this summer, it might be quite a few years before we make it back as we just arrived in the UK.  

Great Trip Report!