Seth Kubersky’s Best Week Ever September 3, 2015: Universal Orlando Update

by on September 2, 2015 4 Comments

Filed under: Best Week Ever, Halloween, Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort

In case you hadn’t heard, a little project I’ve been working on for most of the past year was finally published recently. Ironically, I’ve been so busy writing about Universal Orlando, and giving interviews about the book, that I haven’t had time to actually enjoy the resort in weeks. So, on the eve of my extended absence from Florida, I took one last Best Week Ever look at some Universal Orlando updates, including a couple attractions that won’t be around by the time I get back.

Universal Orlando is currently offering Early Park Admission to all Annual Passholders on weekdays in September. So my day started bright and early, before Islands of Adventure’s 8 a.m. opening. There’s no time at the parks quite as peaceful as pre-opening on a beautiful morning!

 

 

Only IOA is currently opening early entry, so the iconic lighthouse was my first destination.

 


Guests must show their Universal annual pass or hotel key card inside Port of Entry to take advantage of Early Park Admission. The usual route towards the Wizarding World was blocked off this morning to maintenance work on the seldom-open Green Eggs and Ham eatery.

 

 

Once upon a time, Cat in the Hat was open during Early Park Admission. Lately, it and other Seuss Landing attractions have been opening a few minutes before the rest of the park, but not for the full hour.

 

 

I love the smell of Hogsmeade in the morning. It smells like…Butterbeer. (with apologies to Robert Duvall)

 

The primary destination during EPA at IOA is Hogwarts Castle. By the time I arrived at 8:05 a.m., Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey had a 20 minute posted wait.

 

It turns out that there was no wait whatsoever to walk through the queue, but once your reached the loading area the line ground to a halt. Approximately 4 out every five of 5 “enchanted bench” ride vehicles were disabled, reducing the attraction’s capacity to a fraction of what it is capable of. As a result the wait for Forbidden Journey during early entry was actually longer than it was a mid-day.

Some insiders have told me that the benches are not used in order to reduce wear and tear, but employees working the attraction explicitly said that capacity was being intentionally constrained in order to “build the queue,” artificially inflating the wait time. Whatever the reason, it is frustrating for guests paying to stay on-site primarily (or at least in large part) for the perk of early park entry, only to waste half their hour in an unnecessarily slow line.

As for the ride itself, Forbidden Journey has seen a number of controversial tweaks to its programming lately, with the movement apparently toned down or smoothed out in some sections. More recently, lighting levels have increased throughout the dark ride portions (presumably in preparation for 3-D glasses), and the animatronic dragon is currently missing altogether.

Even with all my complaints and quibbles, Forbidden Journey is still among the best rides in the world. By the time I’d survived my Dementor encounter, it was time to hop the first Hogwarts Express of the day to Diagon Alley!

 

 

Diagon Alley was still dead quiet when I entered, a few minutes before Universal Studios Florida officially opened.

 

The actual wait to ride Escape from Gringotts (including the preshow and elevator) was under 10 minutes, and I got to sit in my favorite seat (row 4, far right). All the effects were working great, including the troublesome fog and door in the finale dome.

 

The Eeylops Owl Emporium storefront used to be an overflow queue for the robe shop next door, but it was rarely if ever needed. Now the windows are blacked out, and construction permits tell us something is being built inside. Intel conflicts as to whether it will be a much-needed extended queue for Florean’s ice cream shop, or a new candy store.

 

Speaking of Florean’s, rope drop is the only time you’ll see it this empty. In case you liked the pastries that were sold here, they’ve been taken off the menu.

 

I dashed from Diagon back to the front of the park to hit Despicable Me before the crowds arrived. At 10 minutes after park opening, people were starting to stream in…

 

…but the wait for Minion Mayhem was still only 10 minutes. Trust me, it won’t stay that way for long.

 

A mostly empty Minion Mayhem queue: a very rare sight!

 

The simulator technology in this ride is merely meh, but the writing and voice-over work still makes me laugh every time. Minions, or farts?

 

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit was not operating this morning. I never saw it start running before I left for the day, so I was spared the spontaneous chiropractic realignment.

 

The Film Vault in New York is one of my favorite theme park stores. Lots of retro merchandise here to spend way too much money!

 

Time to face the Revenge of the Mummy. I love it when these stilt actors are out in front of the attraction.

 

If you left your heart in San Francisco, better go back and get it now, because Universal’s SanFran section will soon be going behind construction walls for a massive revamp. By 2017, Disaster! and Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue will be long gone, and a new ride based on the Fast & Furious film franchise will have taken over the area.

While no closing date has been announced, fans of Beetlejuice and the Classic Universal Monsters should enjoy the show while they still can. However, there have been whispers of it relocating to another venue, most likely Fear Factor Live.

 

An early draft of Unversal’s Fast & Furious announcement said the new ride would also be set in San Francisco, but subsequent released removed that language. Will this Ghirardelli facade still be around in a year? Time will tell…

 

Time to bid farewell to Disaster! Though the special effects finale has long outlasted its useful lifespan (it was originally part of the opening-day Earthquake ride), I will miss Christopher Walken’s certifiable insane embodiment of Frank Kincaid (You’re welcome!), and the talented actors who brought “Lonnie” the host to life.

I lucked into a particularly lively Lonnie for my last ever Disaster show.

When Disaster goes, so will the last of the behind-the-scenes infotainment that Universal Studios Florida was founded on.

 

While I have some fond memories of Disaster, the sad state of the finale’s effects (and especially the creaky train guests ride in) shows that it’s high time for The Rock to leave, so Dwayne Johnson can come in.

 

Thanks for everything, Disaster! And we are…moving on.

 

We’ve looped around back to London. Time for one last peek into the Alley.

 

Alcohol sales at the Leaky Cauldron start at 10:30 a.m., which means it’s time for my favorite wizarding breakfast. I ordered a warm Butterbeer and a shot of firewhisky. Rumors were circling that this combination was suddenly forbidden, and I was fully prepared to shout “Look, it’s Voldemort!” as a diversion, but it proved unnecessary. As I proudly poured my firewhisky into the Butterbeer, the only reaction from the servers was a big smile and “Neat!”

 

Drink in hand, I paused to drink in a performance of The Fountain of Fair Fortune, my favorite Tale from Beedle the Bard. The actress playing the troupe leader is also one of the best hosts at the Horror Makeup Show.

 

This black tarp means that Fear Factor Live is currently closed — yay! — and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is on its way — double ya!!

 

New digital wait time signs for standby and single riders have been installed above the MEN IN BLACK entrance. Take the singles wait with a grain of salt, since as far as I know they have no exact way of measuring it.

 

I’ve maxed out before on MIB, but not this time. So close, yet so far…

 

Here’s a minor annoyance: the self-service Photo Connect kiosk at the MIB exit is inoperable, and has been during my last few visits. The same is true of the one at the Mummy. I used to be a big fan of Photo Connect, but since they raised their annual passholder rate by over 50% without adding any new benefits, I’m reluctant to renew my pass.

 

According to permit filings, this Coke kiosk will see some major changes soon, though what new form it will take I can’t yet say…

 

Less than a 10 minute wait for The Simpsons Ride. The digital projections in the right side dome seemed a bit brighter than I remembered from my last visit (maybe new bulbs?) but the images are still far fuzzier than those in 4K rides like Transformers or Gringotts.

Is it too much to hope for a Back to the Future tribute on October 21? We can dream…

 

If you enjoy posing for Simpsons couch gags at this PhotoConnect location, get your pictures now. I hear it’s not going to be around too much longer.

 

Also on the list of things that should be going away: the entire KidZone area. This is the likeliest landing spot for Super Mario and his Nintendo pals.

 

E.T. seems to be safe, at least until his alien pals (a.k.a. Steven Spielberg) hears his jury-rigged space telephone and spirits him away.

 

The ride is the last remaining link to the original USF attraction lineup, but the less said about the state of the animatronics, the better.

For the record, E.T.’s floppy-faced pal Magdoll is the scariest AA in any park, even outdoing a working Expedition Everest Yeti or old Alien Encounter antagonist on the nightmare food scale.

 

Say kids, you wanna see something really scary? Here’s some Halloween Horror Nights decor that’s popped up around the park.

The pumpkins are back in Central Park! The original version of these was one of my favorite HHN designs of all time.

 

This stage has been erected new Mel’s Drive-In for Jack the Clown’s live (or dead) show.

 

While we are on the subject of Halloween, I have some bad news to share. In years past, I’ve advised readers to buy a Rush of Fear pass and upgraded it to Frequent Fear before it expired, allowing me to attend the most event nights possible for the lowest price. This was always allowed previously, and should still be possible according to the terms and conditions on Universal’s tickets and website.

However, Universal’s Twitter account and guest service representatives have given conflicting responses to questions about whether upgrades were still allowed. After a long conversation with guest service supervisors, I am no longer confident you will be able to upgrade from Rush of Fear to Frequent Fear as before. Unfortunately, there appears to be no clear and consistent written policy to refer to, so you may find a ticketing or guest service representative willing to perform the upgrade, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 

On a happier note, here’s something new to me: I’m used to seeing the Minions parade float doing midday street parties in Hollywood, but this is the first time I’ve seen them meeting and greeting in New York. I’m getting HHN decor in their usual area might have something to do with it.

 

Also new: these scaffoldings, which appear to be for the new percussion street show that Universal recently held auditions for.

 

Oh no! The Hogwarts Express is experiencing technical difficulties. Maybe a Muggle stopped their car on the tracks, like they keep doing to SunRail?

 

 

While walking back to the other park I popped into The Darkroom, which has gone from a photo print developing lab (remember developing photos?) to a media preview center to a Betty Boop store.

 

The stencils on the wall are a nice touch, considering how quickly the store was converted from its former tenant.

 

Sadly, Lucy’s memorabilia did not get a new location (though some of her DVDs are now found in The Film Vault) and her museum is all boarded up. Only her awnings remain.

 

Remember that 10 minute wait for Minion Mayhem? Look at the line now!

 

A small construction project is going on near USF’s side exit.

 

NBA City has closed down, and the smart money says an upscale chocolate-based restaurant will take its place.

 

The interior is being renovated, not razed, so don’t expect radical changes to the architecture when it reopens.

 

Back inside IOA, the exterior of Confisco has been behind refurbishment tarps for several weeks now.

 

Lunch time! I’d been looking forward for a while to trying new head chef Haim Asher’s revamped menu. Mythos never had much of an ethnic identity, so it’s exciting (and appropriate) to see Greek and Mediterranean items finally being offered.

 

As always, every Mythos meal must start with molded logo butter and warm bread.

Since it was approximately 278 degrees out, I cooled off with this month’s featured drink. If you like melon, you’ll get more than your $6 worth.

 

For my entree, I ordered the new lamb burger with onions and feta-olive aioli. While I had high hopes, it was a miss for me.

 

Though I requested it be cooked medium, my first burger came out so rare it was bleating (and bleeding); the second was overdone until dry and grey. The one bite I took of each both tasted excessively gamey, as lamb tends to get if left in contact with oxygen too long after being ground.

 

My server was excellent, and he and the manager were most apologetic and accommodating. I’m hoping the kitchen was just having an off day, and am willing to give Mythos another shot…but I probably won’t order the lamb.

 

Another more enjoyable new experience was right around the corner. The former magic trick demonstration has been transformed into an eclectic shop full of folk art, funky gifts, vintage clothes, and even artists creating new works live in the store.

While I’m not sure many people think of bringing stuff like this home from the theme parks, it’s wonderful to have unique shops that add atmosphere and originality (not to mention support local artists and craftspeople) instead of selling the same old souvenirs.

 

Over in Jurassic Park, the Raptor Encounter is still packing them in, and pulling crowds of spectators.

 

This is my last look at Kongstruction until October. It’s amazing to see how fast the Skull Island project has moved forward, so I can’t imagine what it will look like in another month.

 

Jurassic Park hasn’t been turned into Jurassic World just yet (don’t hold your breath) but there are some modest sigs and banners around Thunder Falls Terrace to tie in with the blockbuster film.

 

I can’t say goodbye to Universal without riding Spider-Man, still arguably the #1 ride in Orlando. The posted wait was 20 minutes but I walked on through single riders. I’m happy to report that Spidey’s ride is looking great!

 

The mural on the meteor impact sculpture still hasn’t been repainted. If it ever is, it will give us a strong sense of how Marvel Super Hero Island will be themed when the The Incredible Hulk Coaster‘s massive refurbishment is complete next summer.

 

Yup, I said next summer! Hulk is closing after September 7, and won’t run again for 10 months. Look for track, trains, queue, and load station to all be radically revamped. The only thing that isn’t changing is the character — the Incredible Hulk and his Marvel pals are here to stay at IOA.

Of course, riding the Hulk these days requires a TSA-style inspection, in order to prevent the scourge of unsecured articles. To the lockers we go!

 

On a slow day like today, it only took a minute or two to get a locker, and there was no wait whatsoever for the metal detectors. In under five minutes, my head was being rattled back and forth from the back left seat (my favorite for the initial rollover).

Goodnight, sweet Hulk, and may you reawaken with a smoother disposition and less cartoonish countenance. Until then, adieu!

 

Are you excited about all the new changes coming to Universal Orlando? Are you angry about the changed Rush of Fear upgrade policy? Are you elated because you just got your copy of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando? Let us know in the comments!

 

Posted on September 2, 2015

4 Responses to “Seth Kubersky’s Best Week Ever September 3, 2015: Universal Orlando Update”

  • Hi Seth! I got your book and really enjoyed it! Our first trip to Universal will hopefully be in summer 2016!
    Can I ask a couple of questions?
    I was looking at the touring plans — to do each park in one day, avoiding the extra charge for hopping between the two. Pages 368 and 371. I don’t see a number for riding the Hogwarts Express. Is that because you can only do it as a means of transportation between the two parks?
    Second question: Motion sickness — someday when you are bored (ha ha) you could do a blog feature about the different kinds. For some people, it really is about movement. For others (like me) it’s a weird combination of messed up equilibrium and vision. The 3D rides scare me for this reason. I’m really nervous about most of the highly rated rides, like Forbidden Journey and Simpsons, for example. We would like to try them, but are worried that our ticket cost will be wasted if we are lying on a bench, moaning and groaning with a motion migraine. Would dramamine help avoid it?
    Now that I think of it — have any of the other Touring Plans authors covered this in detail? Maybe it’s a topic for Erin Foster!!!!!! She is the Queen of the Comprehensive! (But I think she only does Disney.)
    Anyway — loved the book and can’t wait to use all the helpful hints. This was a great blog article — so fun to see all the pictures. Thank you!

    • I am not Seth but I can answer your questions and leave it to the man himself to give you a better reply later!

      To your first question, yes you need a park to park ticket to travel on hogwarts express. They physically scan your tickets as if you are entering the park, because you are! They have ticket selling booths in hogsmead and diagon alley to upgrade if you choose to ride. It is worth the ride!

      As to motion sickness, I too have issues with the motion plus 3d visuals. They just don’t line up correctly and throw me for a loop! But not all universal rides affect me the same. Yes, forbidden journey and Simpsons take me down for the count. Literally on a bench huffing and puffing and hoping for the world to go away. Transformers, spider man , and minions all make me sick but able to carry on. The biggest surprise is gringots! I can ride that all day every day- with my eyes open even- and not feel sick! This past month I came prepared with Dramamine, motion sickness wrist bands, and pepto pills. Forbidden was still a one and done and Simpson was a no thank you! Everything else I was able to do without a problem! Hope that helps but all tummy are different and only you know if you can handle it our not. Some of the theater like experiences do have stationary benches so just ask a team member before getting in a long line or giving up on a ride all-together! Good luck and no matter what you will have fun and many other things to do and see!

  • Wait… where is the rice krispie sushi on the kids menu at Mythos? We always get 3 plates of that for dessert when we go! They took it away? Noooooo!

  • I had the UG with me on my trip last week and got a lot of value out of it. However, there was one error in respect to the parking fee “rollover” at the on-site hotels. The book states that another parking fee will be due after 11:00 a.m. (I think this is on Page 75). Last Saturday, I checked out of CBBR and did some final rides at USF. I was able to activate the hotel lot’s gate with my room keycard after 12 noon for the trip back to the airport. Several people have informed me that the keycard will release the parking lot gate until midnight on checkout day, so if 11:00 a.m. was ever the cutoff, it isn’t any more.

    On the other hand, you were spot-on as to the fate of Lucy. Her “Tribute” was closed on the same day I received the book! Haha.