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Awesome Vacation of Awesomeness

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Awesome Vacation of Awesomeness

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As I might have mentioned before, due to the extreme generosity of my parents, my teenager and I got to visit Universal Studios Orlando this past weekend over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Short trip report: it was great.

We left on a 6:05 AM flight on Thursday morning. This meant leaving for the airport not long after 4. The kid got a few hours' nap in there. I just didn't bother sleeping.

We got through the TSA security theater nonsense with probably the minimum of hassle. I fly so rarely (hadn't been on an airplane for two years, much longer for the kid) that I wasn't fussed about backscatter radiation, and didn't request the optional groping. We changed planes in Atlanta, for reasons beyond my comprehension, but that meant that on the Atlanta-Orlando segment, we got a new seatmate, who turned out to be a fellow geek, and who'd worked at the Universal park. He had all sorts of useful advice, like "ride the blue dragon from the front, ride the red dragon from the back," and we also had a grand old time talking about Firefly and zombies and that sort of thing.

My parents had encouraged me to book the trip with all possible conveniences, so not only were we staying at the Loews Royal Pacific, which is one of the three in-park hotels, we had a driver actually meeting us at the airport to take us to the hotel. Since I don't think Universal is big enough to operate its own fleet of shuttle buses from the airport the way that Disney does, this was probably the best equivalent. It was convenient.

We got to the hotel around noon, and check-in was nominally at 4, but they give you your key cards that work as line passes right away, and they have a baggage check. Of course, what with no sleep and minimal breakfast, we were in no shape to go right to the park. I had a hard enough time navigating the hotel map just to find the pool bar. But find it we did, and after a turkey sandwich for me, an ENORMOUS platter of loaded veggie nachos for the kid, and one very friendly waiter's help, we were feeling much revived. The call that our room was ready came while we were eating, so when we finished, we went upstairs, unpacked, and headed out for the park.

Naturally the first place we wanted to go was Hogwarts. That was the POINT of the trip, after all. And it was so, so worth it.
I'm not sure if you need to be sleep-deprived and travel-fatigued to get the full effect, but when we walked in? The teenager, who learned to read on the books and so can be counted a lifelong fan? Broke into tears. It was that perfect-looking. See?

We did all of the expected stuff: a picture with the Conductor of the Hogwarts Express (sorry, it's on the kid's phone, I don't have it right now), a mug of Butterbeer... which is essentially cream soda with butterscotch-laced Cool Whip on top, but they've added a couple of notes of yeast and hops to the cream soda to make it more beer-like. It was necessary to get it once. I don't think I'd do it again. The one attraction where the Express Plus "line-jumper" passes that were included with our hotel stay didn't count were for the Forbidden Journey ride, so after we took a quick look through Zonko's and Honeydukes' and maybe a couple of the other stores, we lined up for that.

It's a well-designed queue; they give you a good sense of making progress, even though the wait is long. Once you get into the castle proper from the greenhouse section, there are a lot of charming things, like talking portraits -- did you know Rowena Ravenclaw was Scottish? and unicorn tapestries, and the gems for House points -- Ravenclaw was lowest! They must have acquired a student fond of MIT-style hacks, to get so many points off, I think -- and all sorts of Stuff. When you get into the loading area, it's the Great Hall itself. I have to admit I teared up at the floating candles.

The ride is great. I think it's better-done than the ones like that I rode at Disney; it beats Mission: Space all hollow. Note to arachnophobes: after the dragon breathes hot steam on you, CLOSE YOUR EYES and don't open them until you feel cold water droplets. The entire segment between those two events is full of Aragog and assorted smaller spiders, modeled in hideous, loving detail. Or, as I said at the time: AUUUGH SPIDER!

The Flight of the Hippogriff coaster is a nice family coaster, not unlike the Catwoman's Whip at Six Flags. It's got a couple of decent airtime drops and some very appealing banked turns. The Dragon Challenge (which used to be Dueling Dragons) is terrific. Our seatmate was right: ride the blue one from the front, ride the red one from the back. We liked the blue Hungarian Horntail better. I should note that we are coaster nerds and I was texting eternaleponine to see if she could tell us if that coaster was a Werner Stengel design. If this means anything to you, you're as much of a nerd as I am and I love you. It wasn't. But the Hulk coaster in the Marvel area was.

The Ollivander's Wand Shop Demo had an enormous line as well. Even knowing that it was all animatronics, it was still pretty charming. No, we didn't get picked. I still approve. Then we got wands, and a Cauldron Cake and a Chocolate Frog and a sugar quill.

If you are a vegetarian and wish to eat at the Three Broomsticks, you had better like potato. I'm just sayin'. Kid didn't want potato leek soup or a roasted potato or fish and chips without the fish, so we didn't eat there. We opted for Jake's American Grill at the hotel. Kid polished off an entire 10" thin crust pizza, and they served me a Cobb salad (no, I'm not a vegetarian) on something that looked like a Thanksgiving turkey platter, and I ate all of that too. Then we collapsed.

As we'd already done all of the Hogwarts things once, we opted not to go for early admission at the park the next day. We had breakfast in the lobby, and I used the hotel wifi to send an email to my parents explaining how much it had meant to the kid, and asking if they'd go for a Slytherin sweater as a Hanukkah present, since the kid coveted one beyond all coveting but I didn't have $85 to commit to it. Then we took the water taxi to the park. We rode the Dragon Challenge a couple more times, and then scouted meal plan options on the way to the Marvel Superheroes area. The Burger Dig in the Jurassic Park area had veggie burgers, so that was a relief. And the Comic Strip Cafe had pizza and pasta. The Comic Strip area also had some irresistible photo spots. Here I am with Boris and Natasha:

And here I am with the Perfesser from Shoe, whose desk is a twin to my own:

But the photo opportunities REALLY picked up when we got to Marvel, where there were superheroes RIGHT THERE.

We bought a greenscreened photo of M with Spiderman. I have not yet scanned it in, because, as you might guess from that desk up there, there are a lot of papers stacked on top of my scanner. But this is my candid of the official snap:

And here's M with Wolverine:

I got one with Rogue and Storm:

And you've already seen the picture of me with Wolverine. ;-) But I love it, so here it is again.

We rode the Hulk coaster, the Storm Accelatron -- which was Spinning Teacups, only with flashy lights and loud guitar -- and the Spiderman 3D ride. I liked it a lot. Not only was the simulator stuff really well done (again, I think they've improved on Disney in this respect) the queue theming was the offices of the Daily Bugle, and the darkroom had all the right equipment (even if it failed to smell of developer, which made me sad, because I loved darkroom work) and the LABELS ON THE FILE CABINETS were both appropriate and hilarious. No, I didn't take pictures. My iPod which was being my camera was shut safely in the ride lockers.

A word about the ride lockers. THEY ARE GENIUS. Touchscreen station with a biometric fingerprint capture, and the free rental period is typically a bit longer than a trip through the ride would take if you don't have a line-jumper pass. Touch the options to "rent" a locker, scan your finger, and it opens a locker for you; put your stuff in, close the door, and push a button to lock it. When you come back, touch the options to re-open a locker, enter the locker number, scan your finger, and click! It opens, and you get your stuff back. Theoretically, if you go overtime, there's a rental fee; in practice, there's usually an attendant around who'll override for you if you look even slightly worried. I wish Six Flags had those lockers. They were the Best Thing Ever.

After we did the Marvel stuff, we decided we should play a little bit in Seuss-land, because M had been the Cat in the Hat in Seussical, couple of summers ago. So we went on the journey through the book, and on the trolley, and we took some more pictures to please my parents. Here:

Then we went back to the hotel. We had hoped to get some swimming time in, but by the time we got back, it had cooled off enough not to be that attractive. M had a nap, I lounged by the pool with a drink and one of charliecochrane's Cambridge Fellows books on my iPod, and I checked my email, where my parents authorized the sweater for M. So after our break, we went back to the park for dinner (at Circus McGurkus Cafe in Seussland), the sweater, and, what the hell, another trip through the Forbidden Journey because the line had died down to under an hour by then. The sweater was at Dervish and Banges, where they also had the Monster Book of Monsters:

Very dangerous! It spun around in its cage and tried VERY hard to get out from its restraints.

We also had some pumpkin juice (mostly it tastes like spiced cider) and caught a little bit of the Frog Choir.

The Ravenclaw tenor really, really wanted to be Darren Criss, but wasn't. The Gryffindor boy was a mad beatboxer. He was also a pretty respectable puppeteer -- his frog had personality as well as rhythm! Maybe the Hufflepuff girl's frog wasn't feeling so well.

The next day we spent in the Universal park proper, instead of the Islands of Adventure. Here, let me give it to you in quick form:

Revenge of the Mummy dark coaster ride: Awesome. We did it twice.
Universal Horror Makeup Show: Disappointing - the jokes were wince-worthy, it's possible to run a show without making the volunteers the butts but they didn't, we already knew how they did most of what they showed us, but it WAS cool to see the hydraulic model they used to make the American Werewolf in London's face elongate during the transformation. Something like that has a lot more artistry than just computer effects, I think. If you go, skip the show and just look at the lobby displays, which are museum-quality and aces.
Terminator 2 3-D attraction: Not bad. The 3D was less headache-inducing than most recent movies that have used it, and it was entertaining. The thing is, young Edward Furlong is eternaleponine's played-by for young Evan Rosier, so I just had a head full of Severus saying "what is Evan doing with that golem? It looks dangerous. Was SkyNet something Voldemort came up with that I missed?" This may actually have enhanced it, I don't know.
Blues Brothers show: Possibly the high point of the day. The singers could really sing and the crowd was having fun. Here, picture:

Yes, that's my "Suicide, Homicide, Regicide, Riverside" T-shirt. The security guy outside the Terminator attraction was intrigued. I tried to tell him a little about ellen_kushner's Swordspoint. He sounded like he might actually go look for it.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster: AVOID, AVOID, AVOID. The gimmick is that there are speakers in your seat, you get to choose a song from some music selections, and they film you so you can "make a music video." Except it's got a vertical lift hill that's NOT induction-launched, but a chain drive, it's bumpier than the Cyclone and the Mind Eraser put together, AND the music choices were, shall we say, uninspired. VERY BAD DESIGN. Not worth waiting over an hour. Needed painkillers after.
Men In Black alien-zapping ride: Okay, but no Toy Story. Targeting hard to figure out even with red dots. Meh.
ET ride: Why is it that the allegedly un-frightening stuff meant for little kids is often the creepiest? Oh yeah, Uncanny Valley effect. Meh.
Beetlejuice Rock Revue: disappointingly cheesy, although the singers had decent voices.
Mel's Diner: DON'T. Bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a root beer float, right? Except that it was one of those pitiful park excuses for a burger, and the root beer tasted like plastic. WOE. I need the REAL versions thereof, SOON.

Generally, I would recommend against getting the park's Meal Deal. It's only good at the "quick service" places, and the pricing doesn't work out cheaper unless you intend to eat more than two meals a day there, and it's not like they serve breakfast, and the drinks are either extra or get a refill cup that is ALSO not economically sensible. If I had to do it again I'd do hot dog stand / cheese pizza slice for lunch, and eat dinner at one of the better park places, or else back at the hotel. That Cobb salad at Jake's American wasn't priced much higher than you'd find it at, say, Boston Brewing, and it was huge, and it was really good.

Sunday was just getting checked out of the hotel and going back to the airport and so home. Tired, but so worth it.

Quite possibly the Best Thanksgiving Ever.
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