by Amy Petulla from Chattanooga Ghost Tours
Visions of summer vacation are dancing through the heads of thousands about to be released from the bonds of school. If you find yourself in thrall to that siren song, read on, as we are so completely under that spell ourselves that we have spent countless hours researching what will surely prove to be the hottest destination of the summer- Universal Orlando.
Why UO? After all, it IS just a theme park, and with only two lands, as opposed to nearby Disney’s four. However, saying Universal Orlando is just a theme park is akin to saying that Buckingham Palace is just a house. Right next to the giant mouse’s dozing form, this conglomerate has managed to sneak in an entire resort packed to the gills with the kind of cutting-edge technology and wonder that was formerly the trademark of The House That Mickey Built. While Walt’s folks have plodded along with revamping old attractions with only the occasional brand-new ride, and the likelihood of a new thrill ride pretty low- let’s face it, Expedition Everest opened 8 years ago, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is likely to be pretty tame- Universal Orlando has upped its game, particularly since Comcast joined its party, to plan a new amazing attraction each year. And 2014 promises to be the most jaw-dropping yet.
Universal Studios Florida’s initial offerings in 1990 could easily be toured in a day, but the attention to detail, right down to the banana-breath as Kong peered into your tram car, made it a worthwhile side trip. In 1999, USF opened its second park, Islands of Adventure, which held thrill elements designed to attract older kids and adults. IA’s Amazing Adventures of Spiderman took its motion simulator technology begun with Back to the Future to a whole new level by setting it on a moving track and adding 3D, a breathtaking combination that became its trademark. A magic wand waved over the mix in 2010 recreated Hogwarts & Hogsmeade in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and made UA the only Orlando entertainment resort to raise the specter of a threat to Disney. WWOHP’s signature ride, Forbidden Journey, took the alchemy of Spiderman, sprinkled in Musion hologram effects, tossed in 3D advances that did not require glasses, & added revolutionary technology by putting the 360 degree motion of a robocoaster on a traveling track.
Now UO is capitalizing on the wild success of WWOHP by opening Diagon Alley, the series’ enchanted London setting, in Universal Studios. This expansion incorporates not one but two new rides- Escape from Gringotts, the crowning jewel in the new land, AND the Hogwarts Express, the iconic train which will connect the two magical areas. The train’s virtual windows feature familiar friends and foes zooming alongside in the passing “countryside”. Gringotts will be a combination of roller coaster & motion simulator, travelling through the wizarding bank in a trip which quickly devolves into a hair-raising journey to escape Bellatrix LeStrange & Voldemort himself, not to mention a dragon that breathes real fire. The ride represents the first appearance of the Dark Lord at the resort. The mechanics of the ride itself are said to be less terrifying than Forbidden Journey, to make it accessible to those for whom the Hogwarts attraction might be too intense.
Escape from Gringotts is far from the only draw in the new land. Thousands of hungry guests swarming a newly themed area cries out for an accompanying restaurant, and the Leaky Cauldron fills the bill admirably. Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes will have the movie storefront, complete with a giant hat-tipping Weasley out front, and magical and joke souvenirs inside. Those looking for the dark side will enjoy Knockturn Alley and Borgin & Burkes. A number of other locations from the books and movies will also delight Potter fans.
But wait, you say- UO hasn’t yet announced the opening date, so how can I book now? This writer predicted a grand opening of June 21- the first day of summer- way back in February, and recently, those in the know have adopted that week in their speculation, as well. The grand opening, however, is NOT the date you want to visit Diagon Alley- lines for the grand opening day of WWOHP 1 were 6-8 hours long. There are a few secrets for planning a vacation that is not 80% waiting in queues.
Universal Orlando offers a benefit to guests at their current onsite hotels that is unmatched elsewhere- your room key acts as a Fastpass for nearly every ride! No running back and forth across the park to get passes that aren’t usable for hours- simply show up, enter the Universal Express line, & show your key. Currently, WWOHP1 does not have this, but some of the best sources have reported that Escape from Gringotts will have Express access right from the start. Furthermore, all the onsite hotels, even the upcoming “budget” Cabana Bay (which will not have Express access), grant guests entry to WWOHP an hour prior to park opening. Finally, two words many don’t know- SOFT OPENING. For a few weeks prior to an official grand opening, UO will open new rides to guests in order to work out any bugs. We visited earlier in the week WWOHP opened in 2010, stayed onsite, arrived a full hour before opening, and literally walked on to Forbidden Journey with no line. Granted, the rooms aren’t cheap, but if you want to maximize your time at the park, these benefits are priceless. Reservations can be made online or by calling 888-273-1311.
Not a Harry Potter fan? Universal Orlando has plenty more to offer. In the last couple of years, they have added Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers 3D, & Kang & Kodos Hurl & Twirl, and an awesome reincarnation of King Kong is planned for 2015. And if that’s not enough to keep your interest, well, we hear there are a FEW other amusements in Orlando, if you look really hard.