This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Six Great Souvenirs From the Universal Orlando Resort. After two straight years of covering The Disney Outlet Stores each and every month for this fine blog, you can assume that we are pretty big fans of theme park merchandise (that or we did something awfully bad in a previous life). While exiting into a gift shop has become a running gag for many theme park guests, browsing those stores is actually something we here at the SATURDAY SIX offices look forward to almost as much as the rides themselves.
Today we are going to look at great souvenirs found at the Universal Orlando Resort. Until the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in 2010, it was actually rare to see guests walking around with merchandise bags, but today it is more rare NOT to see someone carrying around loads of souvenirs. But how to determine the best theme park souvenir? Sparing no expense, we used the Arnim Zola algorithm (along with such factors such as price point, usage in actual movies/TV, and theme park exclusivity) to break down the best of the best on property. So sit back, relax, and let’s begin our countdown starting with…
# 6 – Bort Keychain (Kwik E Mart, Universal Studios Florida)
No one has mercilessly attacked the world of theme parks with sharper wit than The Simpsons television show. One classic moment when they turned the screws on the parks we all love happened way back in 1994 with the episode “Itchy & Scratchy Land.” One of the more memorable gags from the show was Bart Simpson running into one of the most ubiquitous pieces of merchandise at any theme park, the gift with YOUR name of it. In this instance, Bart was looking at personalized mini-license plates and found the names Bert, and Bort. What happens after is even better but the capper comes later in the episode when it is revealed the park has sold out of Bort license plates. Universal’s own Springfield USA pays tribute to that classic moment with a Bort keychain found in the Kwik E Mart gift shop.
Bort keychain at the Kwik E Mart.
They even have more personalized items with Bort!
Bort, the Kwik E Mart’s employee of the month. (photo by Darren Schmidt of the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast)
This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Six Best Drinks, Snacks, and Food Options at DIAGON ALLEY. We are still celebrating the one year anniversary of Universal’s Diagon Alley, and today we are going to look at the unsung hero of this incredible land. No, not our favorite ride the Hogwart’s Express. No, not the love of our lives Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees. Not even the glorious dragon sitting high atop Gringotts Bank breathing fire. Forget all that stuff, our unsung hero is the new themed food and beverage items Diagon Alley brought into our lives… things we had no idea we were missing but now can’t live without! As themeparkfoodies it’s going to be pretty much impossible to narrow our list down to just the top six, but we’re going to try anyway starting with…
# 6 – Butterbeer Ice Cream
The biggest debate in theme parks right now is not who’s better between Universal and Disney, or the Raptor Experience and Val the Velociraptor, but instead it is the hotly contested debate of which style of Butterbeer is the best? Many will stand by the traditional Butterbeer, while others swear by the Frozen version. Your humble author’s opinion is that hot Butterbeer trumps them all, but there is something to be said about Butterbeer Ice Cream that made it’s debut with Diagon Alley. Available at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor (but the pros know to skip that line and head over to Fountain of Fair Fortune instead) Butterbeer ice cream is mostly vanilla soft-serve with swirls of Butterbeer flavoring. Like the Butterbeer drinks, the ice cream is very sweet, but it certainly feels right eating inside the Wizarding World. Now when exactly will Universal start selling a Butterbeer float?!
This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Six Reasons We Love Universal’s DIAGON ALLEY. Who can believe it was just one year ago that Diagon Alley opened at Universal Studios Florida and changed the way we looked at immersive lands inside a theme park forever? When Hogsmeade Village opened in Islands of Adventure in 2010, it immediately became a gold standard and had industry-changing effects on themed merchandise as well as food and beverage. You can make a case that Butterbeer alone changed the entire future of the Universal parks by becoming such a phenomenon that it helped the $250 Million area pay for itself within six months. That immediate and unqualified success led to a fast tracking of many things, including Diagon Alley.
But could Universal Creative top Hogsmeade Village, with the iconic Hogwarts Castle facade for Forbidden Journey, interactive show stopper Ollivanders, and wonderfully detailed areas like the Hog’s Head pub? SPOILER ALERT: Yes. Yes, they did. Today we are going to look six of the many reasons we love Diagon Alley and to narrow down our list we consulted with an expert in Muggle Studies, Megan Stump. You may remember Meg from last year’s #PotterWatch, where she was on hand for 30 straight days leading up to the grand opening. So grab your favorite Pygmy Puff (or Horcrux, if you’re Voldemort) and settle in for the countdown, starting with….
# 6 – The Entrance
One of the most unforgettable moments of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was Harry’s entrance into Diagon Alley. It was his introduction to the wizarding world, but was also ours. It was something both real and fantastical at the same time. Harry entered Diagon Alley through a magical brick wall, which revealed an entrance after an elaborate shifting of the bricks. In order to accommodate more than 500 Muggles a day into the land, Universal had to be a little creative in recreating this experience. They succeeded by having guests walk through a brick wall which slowly reveals the wonder of Diagon Alley before them.
To get into Diagon Alley, guests enter the London Waterfront area to find a magical brick wall… (photo by Brandon Glover)
Potterheads Amelia Brose and Sasha Atherton enter Diagon Alley for the very first time. An unforgettable experience. (photo by Megan Stump)
On the one hand, it’s extraordinarily easy to pick The Three Broomsticks as the best quick-service restaurant at all of Universal Orlando Resort – it’s one of the best-themed experiences to be had in the entire industry, generally, let alone a culinary one, specifically. (Of course, the accomplishment is only abetted by Harry Potter’s whimsical mythology and engrossing details, which already does much to transform eating into a magical experience [no pun intended].)
On the other hand, however, it’s a rather controversial choice. First, there’s the little matter of Three Broomsticks’s competition at the resort, which is considerable; everything from the quick-service Fast Food Boulevard to CityWalk’s ever-expanding options to, of course, that other Potter establishment, The Leaky Cauldron, offer compelling reasons – especially of the gastronomical kind – to stay away from the first Wizarding World’s dive.
There’s also the little matter of the restaurant’s menu not being the most expansive, and that the quality of its food, while still substantial, isn’t of the same level as, say, Mythos, Islands of Adventure’s flagship eatery just down the path a ways (though the latter is a full-service stop, which might be comparing apples to oranges).
It’s actually a testament to The Three Broomsticks’s wonderfully addictive atmosphere that the restaurant more than manages to make up for its shortcomings, and that the overall experience truly is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The most coveted theme park award of all… The Golden Burgy.
This week’s SATURDAY SIX presents the Inaugural 2015 Theme Park Awards. This weekend, while the rest of the world is preparing for The Oscars and spending hours watching awards given to films they haven’t even heard of, let alone watched (not to mention the outright Best Picture snubs of Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Winter Soldier), readers of this column will be able to see their favorite theme park attractions get the attention they deserve. The Golden Burgy, theme park media’s highest award, is being handed out to the rides, shows, restaurants, and experiences that truly stood out over the past year.
Just as the Academy Awards hand out their lesser prizes before the main show, we’d like to present two of our minor awards before we get to the big ones. First, a Golden Burgy goes to the Holy Land Experience in the category of Best Theme Park Food Pun for their Garden of Eaten Chicken Salad Sandwich. Interestingly enough, Holy Land had all the nominees in this category including JerusaLamb, Land of Milk (no honey,) and My Cup Overflows Souvenir Refillable Cup. The category of Biggest Theme Park Free Fall experience was the tightest race of all the nominees. Falcon’s Fury at Busch Gardens was the favorite to win, but the coveted Golden Burgy instead went to SeaWorld’s stock price. Now that’s a drop.
With those out of the way, allow us to present to you the Inaugural SATURDAY SIX Theme Park Awards, starting with…
# 6 – Best New Ride Experience – Diagon Alley’s Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts
The rotunda inside Gringotts bank includes an incredible view. And this is just the queue! (photo by Tom Bricker)
What else needs to be said about Universal’s newest E-Ticket attraction? The queue for Escape From Gringotts is one of the best in theme park history, loaded with magical details from the Harry Potter films. There are incredible goblin animatronics and million dollar chandeliers hanging above that make the Gringotts Bank lobby almost an attraction by itself.
Unlike IOA’s Forbidden Journey’s “best of” trip through the first four Potter films, Escape From Gringotts places guests directly into events from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. Ingeniously showing a movie scene from another perspective, Escape From Gringotts takes Universal’s motto of Ride The Movies to the next level.
Worst New Ride Experience – Being attacked by bees on Rip Ride Rocket
“Oh the humanity!” Swarms of bees attack riders on Universal Studios Florida’s Rip Ride Rockit. (photo by Mike Sperduto and Matt Cleary.)
While just a minor blip on the radar in 2014, the story of Rip Ride Rockit having a minor problem with bees was enough for us to envision the plot of a new horror film.
A quick recap: IOA offered early entry hours from the time the first Harry Potter land opened in 2010 until last year. Once Diagon Alley opened last summer, both parks opened for early park admission until the summer season ended, at which point only Universal Studios Florida was opened. This made sense, as most guests are primarily interested in the new Diagon Alley, and early park admission was the best time by far to experience Escape from Gringotts without a lengthy wait.
Plan your Celebration of Harry Potter weekend with event schedules and autograph advice.
If Dani’s recent blog post about Universal Orlando‘s upcoming Celebration of Harry Potter event inspired you to attend, you’re probably looking for some hard information on the weekend-long fan convention kicking off at Universal Studios Florida on January 30th. Fear not, muggles, because we’ve found the full details on the Celebration of Harry Potter schedule and autograph session information to help you snag some face time with your favorite wizarding stars.
Celebration of Harry Potter Basic Information
The Celebration of Harry Potter, scheduled for January 30 through February 1, 2015, brings Harry Potter fans together with the actors and artists who helped create the blockbuster franchise. Similar to sci-fi and comic book conventions held around the country, the Celebration features panel discussions and question & answer sessions where guests can see some of the series’ stars in person, and possibly get an autograph. Confirmed participants in 2015 include Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), and James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley). Paul Harris, the choreographer who created “wand combat” for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, will also attend to lead popular masterclasses in wizard dueling.
A Celebration of Harry Potter 2015 is on the horizon. Potterheads, Muggles, and everyone else are anxiously awaiting its arrival much like young little witches and wizards waiting their turn to cross onto platform 9 ¾ for the Hogwarts Express on their first trip to Hogwarts. This event officially debuted last year and seems to be a new annual tradition (we hope). This year’s A Celebration of Harry Potter will take place January 30 – February 1, 2015.
Much in the same vein as Disney’s Star Wars Weekends, A Celebration of Harry Potter brings together celebrities from the movies, special shows and Q&A sessions, and exclusive exhibits. What’s more, it brings in a nice hefty revenue stream for Universal Orlando and Loews Hotels as vacation packages with special benefits are sold at a mind baffling rate. But what if you weren’t able to snatch up one of those enticing packages? You can still find ways to revel in the celebration.
Last year I decided not to purchase any of the packages and went about the whole thing very casually. No planning, no forethought, just showed up…. And I got nothing accomplished (though I still had fun). Here now are my tips, just keep in mind, this is based on my experience last year. Some things may be changing this year, but I am confident the same tips will apply.
Universal Orlando announced a three day Harry Potter themed event today, the Celebration of Harry Potter, for January 30 to February 1, 2015. The fan event will offer appearances from actors of the Harry Potter films and an expo in addition to exclusive access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley for ticket holders.
Guests may choose from a package that includes:
Three nights in a Universal or Universal partner hotel
Three day park-to-park admission to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure
An evening dessert party in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley
Reserved seating for actor appearances and discussions
Early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (one hour)
Annual Passholders may opt for a package that does not include park admission (but does include the hotel stay). The minimum stay for either package is three nights.
Guests who don’t wish to book the full packages may choose admission only, which will include actor appearances and the expo.
The event package for two adults starts at $555 for the partner hotel ($357 AP), $657 for Cabana Bay ($465 AP), and $855 for Royal Pacific Resort ($657 AP). Packages must be booked by phone at 1-888-343-8991 starting Thursday, August 21 at noon Eastern time.
The Universal Crowd Calendar has not yet been updated for this event. This year’s celebration of Harry Potter in late January had low overall park crowd levels, but many fans in the Wizarding World areas.
Today, we’re following up with the first installment of our most frequently requested touring plan: one-day/two-park plans covering both sides of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. These new plans cover both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. They feature all Harry Potter attractions (including rides on the Hogwarts Express in both directions) in a single day, and assume you have a Park-To-Park (Universal lingo for “parkhopper”) ticket.
[Note: If you caught the early edition of this post, you may notice that the touring plans have changed slightly. Using the latest data crunched overnight, we’ve tweaked the morning attraction order to squeeze in one extra attraction! Similar upgrades have already been made to the premium one day USF/Diagon Alley plans we’ve previously published. You’re welcome!]