Monday, July 22, 2013

7/20/13 The Harry Potter Adventure: or, how used tickets, wrong park entry, and torrential rain wouldn't stop us

So, two hours after checking out of the dorm, we're approaching Orlando and try not to sigh too much as we pass the exit for Disney World. For years now, since Universal opened across town, we've talked about visiting, but always can't give up any days at Disney to do it. The Harry Potter addition a couple of years ago was one of the real pulls and, with two free two-day/two park tickets given to us in April, we decided Sammi needed to use them this summer and check it out. 

The first plan was for her to go with our friends on a weekend during the program who had picked her up at the airport and gotten her checked in to Ringling. But she learned that all of their weekends had been planned for them, and they were pretty much not going anywhere for that month. We also discovered that her check out date was one day before our friends were back from their trip to London, which put us in a bind in terms of getting her out of the dorm on Saturday by 3:00 and to the airport at 7:00 Sunday morning. 

So the change of plans including me going down, getting to see the campus, getting her out and over to Harry Potter for Saturday afternoon until close, back to Tampa, and fly home Sunday. 

We pulled into the massive covered parking garage at Universal that holds thousands upon thousands of cars. ($16 to park!) We snapped a picture of our section and row to be sure we could get back. 

After a mile's walk, we approach the shopping mall area outside the parks. At this point, it's about 3:00 and the heat is atrocious. The humidity is 110% and it's that cusp of waiting for it to rain so you can breathe again. 

So we get up to the gates and Sammi takes the tickets out of her wallet that Bob brought her. This is the first time I've really examined them. And... they look really old. The expiration date is 2030, but the copyright date? 2003, the year the park was built. Sure enough, they won't scan at the turnstiles. We're directed to Guest Services, with the explanation that they'll need to reissue newer tickets to get through the newest computer system. But somehow, I just know, right then: these tickets aren't any good. 

We go around to the line at Guest Services and wait in the heat, every passing minute making me more sure these tickets aren't going to work. When we get to the front, I pose my question with exactly what I know to be the problem. "Can you tell me if there are any unused days on these?"

It takes him a good while to even be able to bring up the program that can read them. And, sure enough, they were both used way back in 2004. 

I purchased one day/one park tickets, because we've just driven across Florida and aren't giving up now. (That's about $90 each and it's 3:30 in the afternoon. Think there's a half-price option for half a day? Hell no.)

So we go back and get through the turnstiles and start walking back and to the right, where the Harry Potter section is supposed to be. Along the way, I snap some photos of the newest addition, Minion Mayhem, with its 100 minute wait. 

 Now, if you're reading this and have been to Universal, you've already spotted the problem. 

But we haven't yet. We are still looking for Harry Potter, but also a bathroom, because I need to drench myself in the sink to be able to continue functioning. Here was the bathroom and the last picture I took for the next half hour:

Because, you see, after this, we stopped in at the store nearby and asked for a map, certain we'd taken a wrong turn. 

But no.

What we had done was enter the WRONG PARK. 

There is no Harry Potter section in Universal Studios. 

It's over in the other park Universal Islands of Adventure. The one we can not get into because we used our one park tickets at the WRONG TURNSTILES.

I'm not sure I can adequately begin to convey that precise moment when it hit me. Sam clicked to it about 10 seconds ahead of me. At that point I was pretty much incapable of all forms of communication. 

I just started marching back through the hellish concrete jungle of masses of people under the heat that was turning my brain to mush, without a word. 

Back at the turnstiles, I was directed back to Guest Relations, thankfully the one inside the park which happened to be freezingly air conditioned. A very nice man listed to our insane story, from driving from Sarasota to bum tickets, to one park tickets, to wrong park and was able to see that, indeed, we had only been through the gates about 15 minutes before that, so we weren't trying to score free tickets to the second park off of him. He very kindly escorted us out of the wrong park to the gates and gave us instructions on getting to the right turnstiles. Turn left, walk towards the lighthouse, but not all the way to it and you'll see them on your right. My main question: "And there is NO OTHER WRONG PARK we could possibly get into from here, correct?"

We got into the park and the first requirement was to find a hat, because all the bobby pins in the world weren't going to keep my hair from frizzing wildly. We popped into the store and when we walked out? It was pouring rain.  

And so, we started laughing hysterically at this:

And this. We agreed it was pretty much the face we both made when we realized we'd gone into the wrong park. 

 So Sammi pulled out her umbrella to protect the camera, we both kicked off our shoes, and laughed all the way to the back of the park, skipping in the rain. 

Finally . . . there was the entrance to Hogsmeade

It is perpetually pre-Christmas, if you can ignore the Florida weather. Luckily, the heavy rain cooled things down very quickly. 

The crane is part of the expansion they are already working on to add to the Potter  area of the park. 

We approached the castle to discover that all cameras, bags, anything that won't fit into your pocket can't be taken on the main ride. This was pretty disappointing, since the queue through the castle is said to be spectacularly detailed, but also very dark. 

You place your finger on a keypad, it snaps a shot of your fingerprint, and opens a locker for you to stow your stuff. Not quite as magical as it sounds, but more on that later. 

The entry is through the dungeons of Hogwarts, where the mirror of Erised is stowed away, the statue of the one-eyed witch that guards the secret tunnel out, and Snape's Potion class is held.


From the dungeon, you end up in the slowest part of the queue through the greenhouse. Your goal is to reach that backdoor entry way you see on the far side.

After half an hour. . . 

Once inside, the rest of the queue is fantastic. You don't feel like you're in line at all. 

The architect of of Hogwarts holding the model of the castle and the scrolls. 

House points

The entrance to Dumbledore's Office

Every hallway was covered in moving, talking framed portraits. 

The pensieve in Dumbledore's office

Dumbledore appears to talk to you as you're going through. (If only it were Richard Harris.)

And into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom

Where Harry, Ron, and Herminone appear from underneath the invisibility cloak to suggest they might have something more exciting in store for you, if you follow their instructions. 

The Fat Lady who guards the entrance to the Gryffindor common room

So dark, but so many little details everywhere

The Sorting Hat talking

 And then, it was onto the ride itself, which is a seriously amped up motion coaster that pitches you all over the place as you glide through, following Harry and Ron on brooomsticks, soaring over the castle, being chased by dragons and dementors, playing quidditch, getting whomped by the Whomping Willow, etc. The signs about motion sickness should not be taken lightly. It is intense. 

So, after we survive it all and get waved away by the entire Hogwarts castle, we end up exiting through, of course, the gift shop, adjacent to the magical lockers. 

And, of course, the magical locker turns muggle. It wouldn't recognize my finger scan. The area is also ten sizes too small for the crowds it draws, so maneuvering around to find someone to help us was maddening. When we finally did, she wrote down my license information and opened it up for us. Now, I ask you, if you're a good grifter, why wouldn't you hang out in this madness, watch for the best camera equipment to get put away, and claim it was your locker with a fake ID? 

So we got our stuff and, still feeling woozy from the motion simulation and hunger, decided to bypass the short wait showing for the kiddie coaster Flight of the Hippogriff and go get dinner. Big mistake. But more on that later.

We passed the Hogwarts quartet, complete with singing toads on the way. 

At the Three Broomsticks, we found a cozy corner to rest our feet and enjoy some fish and chips with frozen butterbeer. 

On the patio of the eatery

The interior 

Adjacent to the Three Broomsticks was the pub, the Boar's Head, complete with animatronic grunting and wiggling boar. 

The shop windows are also great fun to peruse if you're familiar with the books. Here, a moving, screaming mandrake. 

We made our way into the Owl Post, bookshop, and Ollivander's Wand shops. 

Me with my favorite wand, Severus Snape's. 

Sammi showing off Narcissa Malfoy's pretty wand.

 The Monster Book of Monsters also growled and lunged at you from its cage. 

Across the street was Honeydukes and Zonko's Joke Shop

Sammi picking out her chocolate frog (she got the Dumbledore card.)

With the Puffs

The entrance sign to the ladies' bathroom

And then we decided to try the second of the three rides, the Dragon Challenge, formerly known as Dueling Dragons and made over into Potter themes. Now, I assumed Sammi knew about this ride beforehand and had also seen the thing flying around while we were in Hogsmeade. I was gamely going to ride everything with her. As it turned out, she had no idea. Ooops. 

The queue is made over with banners for each of the Goblet of Fire champions

And, of course, my proud Hufflepuff is all about Cedric pride. 

There's also some great elevated angles of the castle along the queue. There was no one around and the ride was a complete walk on, but I had to stow my stuff in another magical locker the first time through. When we recovered, I asked if it was possible to walk back with the camera and skip the ride, which is when I took these shots. 

Because, you see, THIS is the ride. 360° corkscrews galore, as you dangle. In both the Hogwarts Castle Ride and this one, we sat on our flipflops and rode barefoot. If you want to take your shoes home with you, I'd highly advise it. 

Also along the queue is the Ford Anglia crashed into a decidedly less dangerous tree than the Whomping Willow.

And the back of Hagrid's hut. 

When we got off the ride, we were actually bumping into one another trying to walk straight, if that tells you anything. Sam wanted to know why I hadn't warned her. I wanted to know how on earth she didn't notice the thing for the hours we'd already been there. We need to work on our communication skills. 

We missed spotting this our first time through, but the quill magically writes and erases the name of the big castle ride on the walls. 

The last of the three rides was the Hippogriff coaster, which we'd skipped earlier when it was showing a 15 minute wait time. Now it was 60 minutes, which typically is overstated by half. But not this time. We stood every painful 60 of those minutes. There is only one train, that carries only about 20 people at a time. To make matters worse, there is no free fast pass system like Disney. But there are front of the line privileges you can pay for. Cough up another $50 and you cut in front of everyone. So we watched tons  of people walk on while we stood, line not moving. 

Along the queue you are pretty much just winding back and forth in front of Hagrid's hut. 

Watching the one train loading from the interminable line. Awful, awful planning on this one. 

The animatronic Buckbeak speaks to you as you pass. We heard him about a million times from the line. 

The lights started coming on as night fell. Still in line. 

There they go. again. 

Finally, we made it. 

and went sailing over the rooftops for about 60 seconds, which is how long the ride lasts. 

We'd seen everything, made it through almost constant rain and were very aware of the long drive back to Tampa, so we called it a night, snapping pictures on the way out. 

 and wandered through the big shop one last time. 

Our trip back to Tampa was only an hour and twenty minutes, since we had left from Sarasota further south and was a straight shot down I-4. The rain wasn't too bad, and other than wanting to throw the useless Garmin out the window and figuring out how to turn on the lights and wipers on a rental car, we didn't have much trouble. Luckily, I'd printed out old school "read them" directions before we left and with Sammi as my copilot we only got turned around once getting out of Orlando. 

My plan was to find the gas station near the airport, pay the higher price just to be sure we were close enough not to get dinged for an un-full tank, and drop the car off. Sadly, there is no gas station to spot from I-4 into the airport, so we had to get to the rental drop off and ask for directions, go back out, and come back around. You know it's a racket with the guy telling you where the nearest gas station is and who has lived and worked here needs 1000 words to tell you how to get to it. And then even those directions didn't pan out, but we still found a place. 

Then, all proud that I remembered that the gas flap was on the right side of the car instead of the left, I hop out at 10:30 at night, plug my card in, read the instructions to "Lift nozzle and push fuel grade button" and hit the wall. 

There is no fuel button. I'm mashing on everything around. No button. Sammi gets out and does the same thing. We have to walk into the gas station, get the attendant, who was thankfully very nice, and have him walk back out to show us how to pump the gas. There was no button. Great instructions, guys. 

So. I did have the presence of mind to ask him the quickest way back to the airport and his directions DID pan out, so we were back to turn over the car at 11:00. Except the guy was gone. We stood around for ten minutes before hauling off to try and find someone. "Oh, no, there's no guy out there. (Who in the heck gave us those directions 30 minutes ago then?). Wouldn't it be nice to have a sign that said "Please see attendant in glass both 50 yards away and out of sight after hours"??

Sigh. Managed to get that signed over and limp into the airport where, thankfully, the hotel was only steps away. We fell into bed exhausted but happy to have shared another adventure after being apart all summer long. 

The alarm rang far too early, but we dragged ourselves out of bed and got down to the check-in counter. I had checked online and not seen anyway for us to sit together, but the attendant was very nice and upgraded us together on row 5 in the stretch section. He also said, since it was a full flight, we could check out carry on bags for no fee with the one large suitcase (that initially weighed 57 pounds and was over the limit.) So not only did we get to sit at the front of the plane, but we also got express boarding because we weren't using any of the overhead cabin bin space that's at such a premium. 

The flight crew was the same as I had Friday night, but they were in the Hector the Otter plane this time. 

Between flying Frontier in June and now, they've done away with free beverage service for everyone. If you buy their more expensive classic ticket, you get a drink. Otherwise, you pay. And, amazingly, both going and coming, I saw people ponying up for water and coffee! No thanks. 

My artist sketching on the way home

We made it to Denver 10:30 Mountain time, with the rest of the day to collapse.  

And eat Chocolate Frogs. 


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