Yule at Universal Studios

Devon and I are Universal Studios season pass holders, 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.

As season pass holders, we were able to get some extremely discounted hotel rates that came out to about $99 a night for a standard room. We chose Sapphire Falls, one of the newer resorts. The atmosphere was a warm, Caribbean theme with lots of rich wood textures and tropical colors.

Our season passes have holiday blackout dates on early park admission, but fortunately all Universal Studios resort hotels provide early admission to guests, and complementary transportation to the parks. You’ve got your choice of water taxi, shuttle bus, or a walking path. You’ll also find some fairly standard hotel amenities like a fitness center and swimming pool (with a water slide!), gift shop, children’s play area, and private cabanas available to rent. We didn’t use any of it, lol.

There wasn’t a whole lot of time spent 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 required making reservations and looked like a ‘prix fixe’ kinda deal. I don’t usually mess with fixed menus, so we went to Citywalk instead.

At the end of each day, we’d stop for a drink (or two, or six) at Strong Water Tavern before going to bed. Our bartender was really fun and we had a great time just chatting with him while drinking our way down the menu.

I’m a sucker for drinks with fruit & flowers in them.

Our plan of attack for christmas eve was to start at Islands of Adventure with early admission to hopefully avoid the crowds in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Then we would just do as many attractions as we could cram in before our feet got tired. The weather was perfect for walking around. When we returned to the parks on christmas day, the number of guests had tripled — almost as bad as midsummer crowds.

This is my third time visiting the Wizarding Worlds, and I anticipated larger than average swarms of people because of the holiday weekend. We got into Universal Studios at 7 am, 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.

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, but by that time we were ready to move on to something else. 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.

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.

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. Hard pass.

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 teen years.

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

The main attraction in the Jurassic Park area is a water ride, so with the weather being on the chilly side (below 80F is chilly for Florida), we skipped it this time.

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.)

My favorite ride in the main Universal Studios park is probably Rip Ride Rockit, since I still prefer actual roller coasters over 4D screen-based rides. Revenge of The Mummy is another I enjoy; it’s an indoor coaster with practical “stage effects” (creatures, glowing hieroglyphs, fire, etc.) built in. 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.

This is my first visit to the parks since going vegan, and the choices were better than I expected them to be.

First, the disappointments: Poor dining options are where the Wizarding World stops being so magical for me. I couldn’t find a single meal I wanted to eat. Also, I’m still not sure what the deal is with butterbeer… nobody at the park is allowed to divulge the ingredients, but the internet seems pretty sure that it contains whey. All the other drinks appear to be vegan, as far as I can tell, but… seriously, who goes to the Wizarding World to drink a pumpkin juice? :| Yuck.

On the other hand, both candy stores (Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade and Sugarplum’s in Diagon Alley) sell a few vegan treats, including these villain-themed lollipops, quite appropriate for us sassy Slytherins.

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.

I think the best dining options are the restaurants in Citywalk. Our server at Antojitos took special care to ensure that my veggie fajitas were made vegan. Of course, guacamole is a must because it’s always vegan!

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

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 Margaritaville. It’s purple, y’all. Also, lime juice helps fight scurvy, and it’s got antioxidants. Practically a health food!

(Confession: I actually like Jimmy Buffett’s music. Just look at this giant blender and try to tell me it doesn’t make you wanna sing a sea shanty-inspired song about getting drunk during a hurricane.)

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 go-to holiday tradition.

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