I’ve never participated in the running of the bulls in Spain, nor rung in the New Year in New York’s Times Square, because I don’t need to: I’ve been engulfed by the Christmas week crowd in Orlando’s theme parks. In the spirit of “taking one for the team,” I took on the challenge of visiting Universal Orlando Resort’s Islands of Adventure on two of the busiest days of the year — Christmas Eve (December 24, 2013) and the Friday after Christmas (December 27, 2013) — to give you idea of what guests face during 8 to 10 days on our crowd index.
We maintain our Crowd Calendar to help you avoid days like these, and Tourimg Plans to help you navigate should you be meshuggenah enough to ignore the following photos. These Islands of Adventure Christmas week crowd photos should also serve as great advertisement for the unlimited Universal Express access included with an on-site hotel room. And remember, these mob scenes are just a hint of hordes certain to swarm when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley opens at Universal Studios Florida next summer.
Christmas Eve (12/24/2013)
We’ll start with my mid-afternoon stroll around Islands of Adventure on Christmas Eve:
Wait times are substantial with Forbidden Journey posted at 100 minutes.
The the streets of Marvel Super Hero Island are fairly congested.
A couple dozen people are in line to meet the X-Men’s Storm:
Spider-Man maintained waits between one and two hours, and was stopped for “technical difficulties” more than once during my visits.
The water rides around Toon Lagoon are about the only “walk-ons” in the park, thanks to cool temperatures.
Moreover, it sports new digital menu boards, like most of the resort’s quick service eateries. Could this be a sign of more regular operations for Wimpy’s in the future?
…and approaching the entrance to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Forbidden Journey can handle over 2000 riders per hour, but the wait is posted at 75 minutes.
The locker queue alone looks like it could be 75 minutes. Save yourself time by stowing bags elsewhere, and asking for the “no bags” entry.
Unfortunately, crowd management once inside Hogwarts’ entryway isn’t exactly ideal:
If you managed to survive this madhouse of a merge point and stay to the left, the singe rider line was only about 15 minutes, or approximately 20% of the standby queue.
Exiting the castle, the snowy streets of Hogsmeade are just as claustrophobic and crowded this Christmastime as described in the books.
The Grinch is of course the big draw in this area. His meet and greet had a healthy wait:
And a few people were already lining up for the next performance of his show:
By the time I left around sundown, crowds at Islands of Adventure were becoming more moderate, as guests were possibly shifting towards Universal Studios Florida for the evening’s parades and fireworks.
December 27, 2013
Seventy-odd hours later I was back at Islands of Adventures, and crowd levels had increased from “James Cameron” (8) to “Charlie Sheen” (10) on the Crowd Calendar crazy meter.
Wait times when I arrived at sunset ranged from yawn (10 min for Dragon Challenge) to yikes (two hours for Forbidden Journey)
The Hulk’s interior queue was packed, making Universal Express access actually useful at this ride for a a change.
Spider-Man was a popular destination with a 100 minute posted standby, and a full exterior queue. So it’s a shame it shut down shortly after I took this shot. It reopened, and I was able to ride before the park closed, but it seems to be having some operational issues lately.
Heading into Jurassic Park, I stopped into Thunder Falls Terrace, one of my favorite quick service restaurants in any park.
I’ve heard rumors of changes on the way to this venue. Since it was abandoned at dinner hour while the rest of the park was packed, I’m saddened but not exactly surprised.
The Thunder Falls menu is slightly more sophisticated than the usual theme park fast food, and also a little more expensive (through the ubiquitous bacon cheeseburger is omnipresent).
The chicken and ribs stand up against any served at the resort (including Three Broomsticks) with a pleasant balance of smokiness and char-grilled carmelization from the open flame grill.
The mango BBQ sauce on the meaty three-bone slab is especially noteworthy for not being overpoweringly sweet. The chicken is at least as good as the rotisserie birds from Publix or Pollo Tropical, with a distinct tropical seasoning rub.
But the real standout here are the sides. The whole ear of corn is roasted with the husk still attached, and the potatoes are coated in onions, rosemary, and savory herbs.
Interestingly, the rib dishes here are among the most expensive quick-service entrees that are eligible for the Universal Dining Plan. If you aren’t eligible for an annual pass discount, and you will drink two soft drinks during your day, ask for the UDP when checking out and you’ll essentially get a snack for free.
Since this day was a 10 out of 10 on our crowd calendar, it wasn’t unexpected that Universal implemented its “return time ticket” system for managing Wizarding World admission. Timed entry passes (similar to FastPasses) are distributed from machines in Jurassic Park. Entry is only permitted through the Lost Continent, and the bridge from Hogsmeade to Jurassic Park becomes exit-only.
By night time, crowds dispersed enough for Universal to stop requiring tickets, which is why we recommend visiting Harry Potter in the evening if you don’t have early entry. But even then, there was still a steady flow of guests queuing to enter near the Wizarding World near the Sindbad stadium.
The Wizarding World appears to be just below maximum capacity.
The Forbidden Journey queue was longer, but actually better organized during the evening. I think at night guests move quicker through the entryway, because their eyes aren’t adjusting from sunlight to darkness.
Outside the castle, the long line for Butterbeer.
Smart TouringPlans readers know the Hog’s Head tavern is always quicker, and you can get annual pass discounts inside.