Winter Vacation: Universal Studios

Devon and I are Universal Studios season pass holders, but since we’ve been so busy with the house this year, we haven’t been able to visit the parks. So when we were brainstorming a relatively inexpensive way to spend the long christmas weekend without being stuck at home, we decided to pay Orlando a long-overdue visit.

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels

When we visited, this hotel had only been open for 4 months.  It definitely feels very new, with modern upgrades like NFC room entry, Keurigs in each room, and USB plugs in the wall outlets. I really loved the atmosphere of this resort. Everything had a warm, Caribbean feeling with lots of rich wood tones and tropical colors; not the cheesy “themed” environment I was expecting. (It was almost as nice as being back in Nassau!)

room

As season pass holders, we were able to get some extremely discounted holiday rates that came out to about $99 a night for a standard queen room. I really liked the bed, which is a lot coming from me — Devon and I have a Tempurpedic and pretty much nothing beats it. This bed was a dang close second.

Amenities

Our passes have holiday blackout dates on early park admission, but fortunately all Universal Studios resort hotels provide early admission to guests. (Workin’ the system!) Along with the other resorts, Sapphire Falls provides complementary transportation to the parks as well. You’ve got your choice of water taxi, shuttle bus, or a walking path. The water taxi was amazing. We didn’t have to move our car all weekend (or deal with that gawdforsaken parking deck). On foot, from Sapphire Falls to Citywalk was about 10 minutes.

Aside from these, you’ll find some fairly standard hotel inclusions like a fitness center and a (very impressive) swimming pool (with a water slide). In addition, there is a gift shop, children’s play area, and private cabanas available to rent. We didn’t use any of it. lol.

dining

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time at Sapphire Falls, so I didn’t get a chance to sample all the food options the hotel had to offer.  On christmas day, the main dining room does a special brunch, but it requires making reservations and looked like a ‘prix fixe’ kinda deal. I don’t usually fuck with fixed menus, so we went to Citywalk instead.

The New Dutch Trading Company coffee stand opens at 6am, making it perfect for a grab-and-go breakfast if you’re hitting the parks for early admission. No vegan sandwich options for me, but I did find plenty of fresh fruit, and got a soy latte.

At the end of each day, we’d stop for a drink (or two, or… many) at Strong Water Tavern before going to bed. Our bartender was really fun and we had a great time just shootin’ the shit with him while drinking our way down the menu. My favorite was the cuba libre, with house-made cola syrup, fresh lime, and Cana Brava rum. The food menu was very meat heavy, but we did speak to one of the chefs, who mentioned that they are working on an authentic Rastafarian vegetarian stew to offer in the coming months. 

I’m also a sucker for drinks with fruit & flowers in ’em…

The Parks

Our plan of attack for christmas eve was to get in with early admission to hopefully avoid the crowds of people that occupy Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Then we would just do as many attractions as we could cram in before the end of the day. The high temperatures were in the low 80’s and it was cloudy all weekend; perfect weather for walking around (and avoiding sunburns).

When we returned to the parks on christmas day, the number of guests had tripled — almost like midsummer crowds. The wait for Reign of Kong was 75 minutes instead of the probably 90 seconds we experienced the day prior. (From my past experiences, 60-75 minutes is an average summertime wait.)

the wizarding worlds of harry potter

If you’re not aware already: in order to get the entire Wizarding World experience, you need access to Universal Studios AND Islands of Adventure. For non-season pass holders, you will have to purchase tickets to both. Otherwise, you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express, and you miss out on half the experience. (Honestly, this was one of the deciding factors for us in buying season passes, because with how much a single day pass costs, if you visit more than twice in a year, you’re basically going for free every time after that. Florida residents also get a discount, which helps sweeten the deal too.)

This is my third time visiting the Wizarding Worlds and for me the only turn-off is the crowds… I think probably at least half of the people who come to Universal are doing so as fans of Harry Potter. I anticipated even larger than average crowds because of the holiday weekend. To my amazement, this was not the case at all! We got into Universal Studios at 7, made a beeline for Diagon Alley, and were waiting in line for the Escape from Gringotts ride by 7:15. This is probably my favorite of the Harry Potter themed attractions. (The animatronic goblins in the foyer are especially creepy to me now since I just finished watching Westworld. These violent delights have violent ends!)

Afterward, we hopped on the Hogwarts Express, then got in line for The Forbidden Journey ride — which was the longest “wait” we experienced, maybe all of 5 minutes. Even when the queue is longer, it’s actually not horrible, especially in the summer when it’s nice to spend some time in a dark, air-conditioned area. There are also bits of entertainment scattered throughout, such as one room where the Hogwarts portraits talk to each other, and another where you’re eavesdropping on Harry & company.

For the other attractions, we were able to walk right up. It was refreshing to be able to really explore and look around without being pushed and shoved in a crowd of sweaty muggles. People started really flooding into Hogsmeade after the parks officially opened at 9:00 am, but by that time we were ready to move on to something else. When you’re not waiting in long lines, it becomes really apparent how short most of the rides actually are. I think we rode everything in less than an hour. This is NOT a typical experience. 

I didn’t “grow up” with Harry Potter since I was already halfway through high school when the first novel came to the States, but I love the stories just the same, and I’m really impressed with the attention to detail in these sections of the parks. Everything looks ancient and weathered, and some buildings (like Gringotts) appear to defy the laws of physics.

Diagon Alley

As a graphic designer, I find the hand-painted looking signs and overall application of typography really compelling and just fun to look at… everything right down to the packaging on the candies in Honeyduke’s and trinkets inside Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. The park designers really managed to capture the slightly off-kilter whimsy of J.K. Rowling’s magical world.

Fun details from Diagon Alley

This time around I finally had a chance to go inside Ollivander’s, but was disappointed that the wands are not actually made from wood?! You’re literally paying $40 for a stick of plastic. Nah, man.

islands of adventure

As I’d suspected, most people were there for Harry Potter, so everywhere else was absolutely deserted! Not a single wait took more than 5 minutes. It was absolutely glorious.

Similar to the Harry Potter series, Jurassic Park is another much-beloved movie/book from my ‘young adult’ years… check this out:

Myself & my brother, circa 1995 — If this photo was a person, it’s now old enough to buy a beer.

However, the main attraction in the Jurassic Park area is a water ride, so with the weather being on the chilly side (FOR ME, okay! Below 80F is chilly for Florida!), we skipped it this time.

The Marvel area could stand to be updated a little, but I love the Hulk coaster and am glad they renovated it. I was not super interested in seeing the new Reign of Kong 4D attraction. To be honest, my first reaction was incredulity at the idea of trying to reboot King Kong yet AGAIN… Like, whose bright idea was that? My second reaction was dismay at yet another screen-focused “ride” — usually that the physical components just do not interact smoothly with the on-screen elements. (Even a difference is clearly evident between the newer Gringotts ride and the slightly older Forbidden Journey ride.) However, with Reign of Kong I thought the blend of digital and practical effects was incredibly successful. For this ride you’re sitting in a trackless, self-driving bus, which creates a more immersive, 360-degree experience. The only aspects I didn’t like as much were 1. still having to put on 3D glasses, and 2. the animatronic at the end was a bit clunky and anticlimactic.

There are also entire sections of this park that I avoid because they don’t appeal to me. Seuss Landing is obviously for children, so that’s an instant nope. And there’s a whole area based around reheating cartoon leftovers from World War 2. I mean, are the “Sunday funnies” still relevant? Do today’s kids even know who Beetle Bailey is? I would not mind seeing this transformed into something else entirely.

universal studios

Many of the rides from my childhood like Jaws and Back to the Future are now gone, having long since been replaced by Men in Black, The Simpsons, and Diagon Alley. (The ET ride is currently still there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes away soon.)

Other than Diagon Alley, my favorite area in this park is Springfield, since I’ve always loved the misadventures of everyone’s favorite dysfunctional cartoon family. (True story: in 3rd grade I made friends because I was the only one who could draw, and I doodled Bart and Homer on everyone’s notebooks.) The Simpsons “coaster” is kind of a misnomer since it isn’t an actual roller coaster, it’s a motion simulator (albeit a pretty good one). It’s enjoyable for the nostalgia factor, but I wouldn’t bother waiting in line for it, as it’s not anything mind-blowing. Same for the Transformers ride — it’s fun, but it’s what we’ve all come to expect from 4D rides, so not remotely life-changing.

My favorite ride in this park is probably Rip Ride Rockit, since I still prefer actual roller coasters. Revenge of The Mummy is another I like a lot; it’s an indoor coaster with practical “stage effects” (creatures, glowing hieroglyphs, fire, etc.) built into the ride, which I tend to prefer over 4D. What I would really like to see happen with this park is a full reboot of the classic monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.) since they already have The Mummy going on. My other wish is for another Harry Potter expansion, perhaps to reinvigorate the “New York” area with an attraction involving the Ilvermorny school and North American wizarding world.

dining

Okay, if you’re not a vegan then you will in no way be faced with anything less than a cornucopia of options to shove down your gullet. But if you are, then finding something to eat can be hit or miss. This is my first visit to the parks since going vegan, and I’m pleased to report that the choices were better than I expected them to be.

First, the not-so-great:

Poor dining options are where the Wizarding World stops being so magical for me. If you’re in the park for early admission, then this is your only choice for breakfast. Everything I saw at both the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron was platters of meat, eggs, meat, buttery pastries, and more meat. The lunch and dinner menus appeared to be a bit more flexible, where a tenacious vegan could make a “meal” by ordering sides, but there are plenty of other places to eat where you’re not stuck with side salads and the like.

Nobody at the park is allowed to divulge the ingredients for butterbeer, but the internet rumor mill seems to speculate that it contains whey. Whatever the reason, pretty much everyone says for vegans to avoid it. However, all of the other drinks appear to be vegan, as far as I can tell, but… seriously, who goes to the Wizarding World to drink a damn pumpkin juice? Yuck.

Now, for the great:

Both candy stores (Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade and Sugarplum’s in Diagon Alley) sell a few vegan treats, including these goth-appropriate lollipops for us sassy Slytherins.

The Magic Neep cart in Hogsmeade sells a variety of fresh fruit for wizards on the go.

Outside of the Wizarding Worlds, in the “New York” section of Universal Studios, there is a full-service Ben & Jerry’s counter where you can find their amazing almond milk ice cream! They only had the PB & Cookies flavor in stock at the time, but that was enough to make me happy after not being able to join Devon in drinking a butterbeer.

Yes, it’s vegan!

There are also many food kiosks scattered around both parks, where I found a few vegan choices, including: Lemonade / lemon slush, all Coca-Cola products (including Icees! THE BEST on a hot day), and Auntie Anne’s plain pretzels.

I was told by a very helpful employee that Mythos Restaurant in Islands of Adventure has vegan options, but we did not get a chance to eat there.

Citywalk

Let me tell y’all, the best dining options by far are in the restaurants outside the parks. 

Our server at Antojitos took special care to ensure that my veggie fajitas were made vegan: leaving off the cheese and sour cream, substituting flour tortillas with corn (their flour ones contain dairy), and asking the chefs to omit the butter they add at the end. (Ugh, now I wonder how many times I’ve ordered vegetable fajitas and someone sneaked butter in at the end… sigh.)

It was delicious, and ended up being way too much for me to eat, especially after starting off with tableside-made guacamole. I almost forgot to snap a photo before it was all gone!

At a New York deli inspired restaurant called Sandwich Box, I ordered the veggie melt (minus cheese or pesto) and the result was fantastic. Plus, it’s physically impossible to go wrong with tater tots. That’s just science.

Of course, if you’re looking to imbibe a few adult beverages, don’t forget about a vegan’s best friend: tequila! I first had a blood orange margarita at Antojitos and then a “mood ring” margarita at (where else?) Margaritaville. It’s purple, y’all. Also, lime juice helps fight scurvy, and it’s got antioxidants and… stuff…

Ungoth confessions: I actually like Jimmy Buffett’s music. Just look at this giant-ass blender and try to tell me it don’t make you wanna sing a sea shanty-inspired song about getting drunk during a hurricane. Hey, tropical depressions are like the most gothic weather there is.

On christmas day, we slept in and ventured out late, deciding to grab an early lunch before hitting the parks. I didn’t think a place called The Cowfish would have anything I remotely wanted to eat, but I was pleasantly surprised by their take on a basic vegetable roll, and I loved the “Treehugger” maki roll: shiitake mushrooms, fried portobellos, red peppers, cucumbers, red onions, and basil, with a wasabi yuzu dipping sauce. Sushi on christmas? Why the heck not?!


This trip was such a relaxing, low-stress way to enjoy a long weekend — Devon and I don’t celebrate christmas, but I gotta admit, I would not be upset if this became our first/only christmas “tradition!”

If a vegan wins the Game of Thorns, they sit on the cactus throne!

 

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