Alright, time for part 2 from Universal Orlando!
Going into Gringots I was HIGHLY skeptical that they would be able to top Forbidden Journey. Since our very first ride on it I had always considered Forbidden Journey to be the single greatest themed ride I had ever experienced. I don't think I've ever gone into a ride with expectations quite this high before.
Generally when I hype a ride up I end up being a little let down initially. When we were sitting in that car I couldn't help but think about my first rides on Intimidator 305 and Wicked Cyclone, 2 rides that I had hyped up to be so unimaginably great that I was initially a little underwhelmed despite the fact that they're completely awesome rides. Those rides have both grown on me and I'm at the point now where I absolutely love them, but I wanted this ride to be different, I wanted it to blow me away right off the bat. My expectations were completely unreasonable and I knew that but as we got the all clear and began our journey to Gringotts. I was completely unable to talk any sense into myself. I was all in, ready to experience a ride that I had already decided was going to be the greatest ride ever built.
Ho... ly... sh*t
Despite my ridiculous expectations that seemed impossible to meet, this ride absolutely met and even exceeded them. I've never ridden anything like Gringotts. The effects were unbelievable, the coaster sections were great, the technology was awesome, everything was perfect! Despite the overwhelming temptation I had never watched a POV of the ride, never read any spoilers and did my best to avoid any in-depth discussions about it and I'm so glad I did. (on that note... spoiler alert even though the ride has been around forever now) I thought it was awesome to see Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort make an appearance, that Dragon scene is out of this world and not knowing anything about the ride really served to make it even better. They were faced with the task of topping what I consider to be the single greatest dark ride in the country and they absolutely pulled it off. Wow. All I have to say is wow.
When we got off the ride it was impossible to fight the urge to ride again and keep riding it until park close but we figured we should see what else the park had to offer. While the temptation was also there to start exploring Diagon Alley, we figured it made more sense to hop on the train and ride Forbidden Journey so we could knock out the 3 rides that we didn't have Express Passes for before the park got too crowded and then come back to do that later.
The train was also new for us, and I was completely blown away by Kings Cross station. They really do an incredible job of making you feel like you're in a train station. Everywhere you look they have great little details like fake advertisements and flipping old school signs with arrival and departure information (by flipping I mean literally flipping, I didn't stop dropping F bombs, don't worry).
On our way to the train we stopped to shoot dorky videos of us walking through Platform 9 3/4 and actually let some people pass us in line so we could check out the details but within a few minutes we made our way up to the platform and waited for our train to arrive.
I have to say, this ride was really cool. I may have hyped it up a bit too much but I really grew to like it. The crazy thing is that the coolest parts about it don't have much to do with the actual ride experience. The things that really stand out to me are the awesome queue / fake Kings Cross station, cool theming everywhere and authentic looking train cars. The ride was cool, but the best part about it is everything that leads up to it. Awesome job Universal. While it's obviously not on the level of their other Potter rides, Hogwarts Express gets a big thumbs up from me and we decided we had to come back later and ride in the opposite direction (since we knew it was different depending on which way you went).
Despite the snow theming, the first thing we noticed when we got off in Hogsmeade was that it had officially reached "Hot as balls" status. Lucky for us, we had the perfect way to combat that... frozen butterbeer! Despite the fact that we hadn't had it in years, this stuff is so good that I often find myself thinking about it and craving it. For those who haven't had it, it's made with a special recipe consisting of high fructose corn syrup, water, sunshine, rainbows, happiness and of course a few teaspoons of diabetes. The park hasn't officially confirmed the ingredients but I have it on good authority that that's the recipe.
After downing our butterbeers and knocking a good 7-10 years off our lives in the process, it was time for Forbidden Journey. Despite the fact that it's no longer the new hotness I can confidently say that it's still just as mind-blowingly well... mind-blowing as I had remembered it. Universal has an absolutely ridiculous 1-2 punch with these 2 rides. The line actually wasn't so bad so we went right back around and rode twice knowing that later on we may not be so lucky. Holy crap I love this ride!
At the end of our second ride we checked out a few things in the gift shop and dorked out a little more on Harry Potter before we finally realized we should probably leave the Potterverse to see what else Universal had to offer. Since we had Express passes we planned to follow the loop and ride whatever we wanted to ride in the order we came to it with no real plan. Initially we had come up with a plan of rides that we considered to be "Must Rides", then selected some other rides that we had hoped to ride but knew we might have to cut out. While we did finally get down to a realistic list I was really relieved that we were now in a position that we could ride whatever we wanted with no stress whatsoever.
Upon (reluctantly) leaving Hogwarts we made a right and headed over to Jurrasic Park. I was always a big fan of this area and it's flagship attraction and I was really excited to finally get another ride on River Adventure. I'm normally not a fan of these types of rides but the insane theming actually makes it one of my favorite rides at Universal Orlando. While Brit doesn't have the same affinity for water rides that I do she loves basically anything that includes Dinosaurs (yes, even Dinosaurs Alive) so between that and the oppressive heat it didn't take much convincing to get her to ride it. The ride was posting almost a 60 minute wait (which made sense because of the ridiculous heat) but we were on in 5 minutes with the Express Passes.
The ride was just as awesome as I remembered it and while it was wetter than I remembered we didn't really mind since we knew the Florida heat would take care of that within 10 minutes. Big thumbs up to River Adventure!
After River Adventure, our next stop was Kong. This was another new one for us and despite the fact that it generates a lot of b*tching due to it's dependence on screens we were excited to try it out. The facade on this thing is ridiculous... it's so awesome looking that it almost doesn't even look real. Even with Express Passes we still had a little bit of a wait but since the ride was posting an absurd 150 minute wait time (the longest of any ride in either park) we couldn't really complain about waiting 20.
The ride itself was honestly pretty exceptional. The technology with the trucks was super cool, the physical sets were great and the screens were so convincing that we really didn't mind them at all. We absolutely loved this ride and I actually thought it struck a pretty good balance between screens and physical sets with that great outdoor section and insane animatronic at the end. I guess I'm in the minority but we really loved Kong.
After Kong, we continued on our circle of IOA and that led us to (my f*cking favorite...) the log flume! I'll be honest, I don't have as much of a hardon for Ripsaw Falls as I do for most flumes because of it's ridiculously drenching nature but every flume is a great flume so I was more than happy to drag Brit on the ride and hope she forgot how ridiculously soaking it was. What this ride loses by being FAR too wet, it makes up for by having awesome theming. We had a great ride as always but when we exited we couldn't help but notice some dark clouds moving in. The park announced that some rides would soon be closing for weather in the area (not surprising in the Florida summer) but we figured we'd see if we could hit Spider-Man quick and then the 2 remaining outdoor rides that we had planned to hit at Islands of Adventure before heading back to the other park where there were tons of indoor attractions we could hit while riding out the storm.
Despite the long wait time, Spider-Man was a complete walk on with the Express passes and delivered an awesome ride like always. Our next stop was Dr. Doom, a ride that we had somehow never ridden before. I have to say, I was really impressed with the theming of this (otherwise very basic) ride and even more impressed with the insane pop of air up top. I know this is really just an S&S tower but it's a REALLY good S&S tower and it really doesn't get enough praise for that. Cheers Dr. Doom! You're alright!
Unfortunately once we got off Dr. Doom it had started drizzling with a few rumbles of thunder and the next ride on our hit list (Hulk) would have to wait until later. Feeling brave we decided to park hop once again, this time walking through CityWalk and hoping we could get over there before we got caught out in the storm. We had already ridden all of the indoor attractions we wanted to ride at Island's of Adventure but we hadn't ridden anything at the other park aside from the two Potter attractions so it seemed like the obvious thing to do.
We DEFINITELY got lucky as we just made it to the Studios park when the sky opened up (then again if it had happened while we were at CityWalk we would have been forced to take shelter in Margaritaville so I guess it was sort of a win-win situation no matter what). As it was, we figured we'd dip into one of the rides right up front. We thought Shrek was okay, but not really all that amazing so we decided to go with Minions instead. The ride itself is pretty unimpressive with the same 3d theater technology that used to be all over Six Flags and Paramount parks but I won't lie, I like this thing.
The pre-show is actually very funny and well done (it may be my favorite part of the ride) but the ride itself was actually really fun (and funny) too. What this ride lacks in technology it makes up for by being incredibly entertaining and having a great IP to work with. I joke that this is the "Peter Fan's Flight" of Universal Studios because of the fact that it's location and capacity means it always gets obscenely excessive wait times that it doesn't deserve but that's probably not entirely fair. While neither ride is worth the wait, at least this ride is actually a good ride. Lucky for us wait times were a non issue anyway. Thanks Amex! So far the only purchase I've ever made with that card is a $10 beer at a Mets game just to keep it open so I'd say this transaction is working out swimmingly for you guys
While the storm was definitely still going strong the rain had died down a lot so after leaving Minion Mayhem we headed past the asinine Fallon ride (that we had no interest in riding) and over to a ride I was really excited to re-ride, Mummy!
Aside from the Potter attractions I think I can confidently say that Mummy is my favorite ride on Universal Orlando property. The coaster sections are great on their own but the theming and "fake ending" really put it over the top for me. I love this thing, I could ride it all day. I was actually really hoping to get back to it again later even though we'd have to stand in line (since we had the Express Pass that was one-use per ride) but sadly that wasn't to be. Still I was really happy to get one ride in and happy to see that it was just as awesome as I remembered it being.
The rain was clearly starting to let up but the rides were yet to re-open so we figured this was a perfect opportunity to cut back into Diagon Alley and grab some lunch at the Leaky Cauldron.
While British food was never my favorite thing in the world I enjoyed Leaky Cauldron. I ended up with the bangers and mash and it was definitely quite flavorful and the fact that I washed it down with another ice cold Butterbeer only served to make it better. The building itself was also really cool, though it's large cafeteria nature means there weren't as many cool details to explore as there were with a lot of the other shops and eateries in Diagon Alley. Leaky Cauldron gets a thumbs up from me, it's not quite "kabob place over in Lost Continent" good, but it's good.
When we left Leaky Cauldron we were pleased to see that the rain had stopped and saw a Rip Ride Rockit train cresting the hill so we figured we'd head back that way and then finish our loop of Islands of Adventure.
We had only ridden Rockit once before and back then we didn't know about the secret song list so on our way over I pulled it up and we each decided what we wanted to listen to and memorized the codes. I of course picked the stupidest song I could which ended up being "Float on" by Modest Mouse (come on, you know you secretly love it). I won't lie though, I felt bad picking anything other than Kenny Chesney's "Living in Fast Forward" which is really the ultimate Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit song if I do say so myself. Damn, between this and our annual visits to the Punkin' Chunkin' World Championships in Delaware I feel like I was a redneck in a past life.
Anyway since we caught Rockit just as it reopened it only had about a 20 minute wait and no wait at all for us so within minutes we were strapping in. The ride was it's usual, rough-as-sh*t self but for some reason I still enjoy it. I honestly don't know why I enjoy this thing, it's rough, the layout sucks, it should really be called "mid course brake runs, the ride and it's not really anything special but for some reason I really like it anyway. Who knows... maybe it was the song. It's impossible to hate anything with a Modest Mouse soundbed behind it.
After that bit of Rip Ride Rockin' mediocrity we figured we'd kick it up a notch and head back to Islands of Adventure to ride a good coaster, the new Hulk!
I'll be honest. If you hadn't told me that they updated this coaster I would never have noticed aside from the new entrance (which looks amazing by the way) and launch tunnel. That sounds like a knock, but I loved the ride before so I'm thrilled to see that it's still running like it always has. The elements are actually sort of forceful and snappy which is nice to see from a B&M sit down and the layout is unique and that great launch tunnel and barrel roll out of the tunnel really take this ride to the next level. While it's not like I'll be confusing it with Kumba any time soon it's a solid ride and I'm glad to see it running so well.
At that point we had really ridden everything we "needed" to ride at IOA. We knew we wanted to take the train back towards Diagon Alley to see the other video and we knew we wanted to ride Forbidden Journey again but at that point in our day we were really pretty happy with all we had accomplished and really slowed our pace quite a bit.
We walked through Seuss Landing and Lost Continent, admiring all of the impressive theming but not really stopping to ride anything since there wasn't anything that appealed to us from a ride standpoint in either area. I still marvel at Seuss landing. Whoever had the idea to use trees that had been warped by a hurricane to create a Dr. Seuss area is a genius. While there wasn't anything there we wanted to ride, we were perfectly happy just walking around and taking in the atmosphere.
As we kept walking I couldn't help but be a little distracted by Dragon Challenge. I had the heard the rumors (which have since been confirmed) and while the ride was never really a priority for us we figured we should probably give them a ride just in-case.
I've got to be honest (god, I say that a lot don't I? I guess that's my crutch.
), I don't know why we didn't really see Dragons as a priority during our visit. I've said elsewhere that I don't really go to Universal and spend $179 per day to ride un-themed coasters but for some reason I did consider Hulk and Rockit (which isn't nearly as good of a ride) as higher priorities than Dragons.
I don't know why that is, maybe it was the annoying and cramped fluffy, fluffy bunny filled with medicine and goo area where we actually had to wait for a fluffy, fluffy bunny filled with medicine and goo, maybe it was the absurdly long walk to the ride, maybe it was the fact that it's a shadow of what it once was, maybe it was the knowledge that 2 days later we were going to ride the best invert in America... I really don't know and I can't make sense of it because despite all that it IS objectively a great ride.
We rode the fire Dragon (or whatever it's called now) since I remember being underwhelmed by ice and we really did enjoy the coaster. It's fast, snappy, fun and is actually running smoother and better than any other coaster at Universal despite it's age. We really liked Dragons but we did pass up a short wait for ice (knowing it could be our last chance to ever ride it) for our third ride of the day on Forbidden Journey even after that awesome ride on fire dragon so I guess that says a lot about my stance on all of this. Is it a great ride? Of course. Would I rather they remove the Sinbad sh*t or basically anything in Lost Continent that's not my awesome kabob place for the new Potter thing? Sure. But the unthemed coasters are really a one-and-done for us at this park anyway because as good as they are, the unique dark rides and themed rides / coasters are a much bigger draw for us.
After Dragons we decided we'd head over to Forbidden Journey for one more ride and then take the train back to the studios park for the rest of the night. Forbidden Journey was as awesome as ever and as an added bonus it had absolutely no wait thanks to it's ridiculous capacity... score!
Keeping with the theme we were pleased to see that the train was also a walk-on. It seemed like the storms really helped clear the parks out which was great news for us. This station is definitely a little strange and not nearly as impressive as King's Cross. It's cool but it's really shoehorned in around Dragons and you can definitely tell when walking through it. Again the ride was fun, though I definitely prefer riding it To Hogwarts as the animation is a little more eventful that way.
When we got back to the Studios park we were a little light on time, but since we had the Express Passes we managed to score some quick rides on Men in Black, Simpsons and ET before giving ourselves about an hour in a half to end our night in Diagon Alley.
There's not too much to report on with any of those rides, they're all a lot of fun... probably skippable on a busy day but still great rides and thanks to the Express Pass we got to ride them. Like Minions, the Simpsons ride is more about being funny and creative than it is about impressive technology. Still, it's one of the only theme park attractions that legitimately makes me laugh with it's jokes and I think that counts for quite a bit. E.T. was actually a lot better than I remember it. Funny enough it would probably be my fourth favorite non-coaster ride at Magic Kingdom but at Universal it's really all but forgotten about. Because I'm a f*cking child I told them my name was "Dick" but E.T. didn't say goodbye to me. He sees right through my sh*t. F*ck you E.T. ... go home
Once we left E.T.'s planet (which we saved by... um... I really don't know what we did to save it actually, wtf this ride makes no god damn sense?!?!?!?!) and landed back on earth we decided to spend the rest of our night in Diagon Alley.
I don't really know what's left to say that hasn't been said. I legitimately think I could spend an entire day in Diagon Alley without even riding everything and there would still be things I didn't get to see. There are awesome little details absolutely everywhere and things to discover around every corner. Knockturn Alley was a great suprise for us, it's really well hidden but absolutely awesome. They really made it feel like it was somewhere you weren't supposed to be and it had an incredible creepy vibe to it. Everything about this area was amazing.
Finally at about 5 minutes to close we decided to pry ourselves away from all the awesome things in Diagon alley and get one last ride on Gringotts. There was almost no line at this point and we ended up being on one of the last cars of the night. The ride host was initially loading front to back and assigned us to row 3, but when he realized there was nobody behind us he quickly changed his tune and told us to go to row 6 because "it was the best". I have to say, he wasn't lying. The dragon effect from that row was so vivid and so awesome that it's all I think about whenever I think of this ride. Once again, our ride was absolutely awesome and it was the perfect way to end a perfect night in the park.
I know the place gets a lot of hate, but in our mind Universal Studios is absolutely amazing in every possible way. I can confidently say that that was one of the best days we had ever spent in a theme park and I can't wait until we get to go back there. I really couldn't recommend it enough.