Another Day, Another Theme Park. We are starting to get the hang of this living in a theme park thing! Today we would be back at Universal Studios (click the link to read about Universal Day 1: All Aboard the Hogwarts Express to Universal Islands of Adventure… or look at the end of the post for links to every day of our vacation!), which meant our Disneybound outfits continued to not be Disney. Perhaps in this case we should be referring to them as Closet Cosplays? Either way, we were Harry Potter’ed up again, this time drawing inspiration from a few random sources. Justine tried to create a casual look that emulated Hermione’s Yule Ball gown. KG rocked a shocking amount of feathers in her Hedwig inspired outfit. And Kris looked deep inside (not that deep actually, it’s right there beneath the surface) and expressed her blackened soul with a Death Eater look. You can read more about the outfits here: Off to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Disneybound Style.
After getting dressed up for the day (we have gotten into a a fine rhythm as to who uses the shower/bathroom/mirror when – an important aspect of sharing one room between 3 women) we headed to the cafeteria for our normal breakfast. With muffin/danish/banana loaf in hand and armed with our trusty travel mugs & backpacks we went out front to catch a cab. You might be wondering why we chose to stay at a Disney hotel while at the Universal theme park. Well reader, we’re lazy. It was way too much work to change hotels part way through the trip! Plus a waste of our valuable theme park time! Instead we stayed nested in our happy Pop Century! room and taxied to our alternate park. Today’s cab driver was MUCH less incompetent (I might even call him competent!). We arrived at Universal with no notable events, besides the unavoidable traffic, and our fare was less than the day before, even with considerably more cars on the road!
Ascending the stairs to the City Walk, we came to an abrupt stop. A huge throng of people impatiently loitered and jostled towards security. Slowly a single-file line of visitors trickled out the other side. What was taking so long? A bag check had been set up, looking through every backpack, purse, and diaper bag. There would be no liquids allowed through today… randomly. There had been nothing like this the day before when we entered unobstructed. Luckily (?) the long lines gave us time to chug down our coffee & water, allowing us to bring the mugs & bottles in empty. We would be starting this day very hydrated, apparently.
Universal Studios! Upon entry we made a stop to take photos… possibly our favourite activity of the trip. We love having our pictures taken! And at the entrance of the classic Universal park is the big spinning globe that I’m sure you either remember or recognize from pictures. How could you pass up a photo opportunity like that?
As with the day before, we had a clear purpose once we’d gotten into the park: find the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Unlike in Islands of Adventure, we couldn’t see the peak of Hogwarts sticking up as a guide. In the classic Universal park the Harry Potter area is Diagon Alley, accessed through “London”. The problem is that there are multiple cities jumbled together throughout the west part of the park. The park map showed our destination at the back so we meandered through the streets of “New York”, then “San Francisco” looking for glimpses of any British landmarks. It was impressive that you could always tell what “city” you were in, but there wasn’t much actually happening in each city besides well-decorated streets.
Then we saw it! Kings Cross Station! Easily recognizable from the movies… or from real life, in Kris & Justine’s case. We had made it “across the pond” to London! Walking past Kings Cross (which we would visit tomorrow) we spotted the Knight Bus. We stopped for a quick chat with the driver and his shrunken-head companion (watch the 3rd Harry Potter movie if that doesn’t make sense to you). The large, purple, double-decker bus was parked outside of Number 12 Grimmauld Place. We all squealed in delight, being Sirius Black fangirls… let’s be serious (see what I did there?), he’s the only character in the HP series with a proper heart-throb attitude. Knocking, perching, etc, we took turns posing in front of the door. No one tried to interrupt to take photos of their own. Actually no one seemed to even glance at us at all! It might seem like I’m making a clever Harry Potter reference here, seeing as the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix was protected by a Fidelius Charm (meaning only people who had been told the location by the Secret Keeper could see it) …but we were actually flabbergasted by how few people seemed to recognize the significance of this house. Tourists didn’t give it a second glance, even with it having an animatronic Kreacher peaking out of an upper window. Wake up people! This is the one-and-only Black residence! When we’d taken our share of photos we continued on… and exited London…
Wait… What? Wasn’t Diagon Alley supposed to be in London? Wasn’t that the whole reason there is a “London” in the first place? We retraced our steps. Well, actually, we went to the bathroom (something you’re probably catching on to how often we do if you’re reading all of these posts back-to-back). We went to the bathroom, then retraced our steps. This time we saw it. A blank brick wall… wasn’t that how Harry & Hagrid entered Diagon Alley in the book? Sure enough, when you entered the nondescript twist & turn of brick you found it: Diagon Alley, the magical marketplace! Needless to say, we were very impressed by the entrance… so very Harry Potter!
We were also impressed by Diagon Alley. So impressed I can’t even find the proper words to describe it. It was perfect. Just as you would expect Diagon Alley to look. Like you’d just stepped into a page of the book or through the screen into the movie. The colors! The shops! The detailing! But we’ll get to that in a bit…
We started by heading down the street towards Gringotts. It’s the first stop for any wizard or witch on Diagon Alley; how can you shop without first getting some money from the goblin bank? We first stopped to admire the dragon perched atop the white marble building. This was obviously a shout-out to the seventh Harry Potter book, but apparently also our next attraction! Inside Universal’s Gringotts is a ride. After stowing your bags in lockers (too small, in a cramped space, lockers) you twist & turn through the line, which is super involved and interesting. First you enter the lobby of Gringotts, with signs proclaiming it “the safest place for gold, jewels, magical artifacts since 1474.” Travelling through giant marble double doors you get to see goblins at work, weighing money and waiting to be of banking service. Continuing on you travel down stairs past office doors and conference spaces, hearing whispers and bit soft conversations. Then you catch sight of your first vaults, the less secure, not-dragon guarded ones obviously. And finally you come to a room where the intro video begins… and guess who is in it!? Bill Weasley! Ok maybe this isn’t super exciting to most (especially since the golden trio – Harry, Ron & Hermione – show up later) but Kris loves Bill and was ecstatic. The ride was a rollercoaster / 3D screen combo that we found very effective. There were lots of drops and twists that made it a definite thrill ride… and the story was amazing! It fit right in with the 7th book (8th movie) but with a twist so it wasn’t too predictable. Apparently multiple actors came in to shoot the footage for the ride, with Ralph Fiennes getting all done up as Voldemort so we could better enjoy our theme park experience.
There is only the one ride in Diagon Alley but we didn’t find that deterring at all. There were plenty of other things to do – mainly walking around in awe. Diagon Alley is a good-sized area. Hogsmeade had seemed a tad cramped the day before but the full loop you could walk here felt more complete. We systematically inspected every inch. “What’s in that window display? Oh moving posters of Lockhart & his newest book! What is that sign for? A house elf placement agency… how interesting! Look over there! Is that Quality Quidditch Supplies, right next to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes?! And there’s a sign for an Apartment For Rent… can we move in immediately????” There is so much detail put into each shop, sign, and blank wall that it took us hours to make it through the entire “shopping street”. Especially because the shops don’t just have outside facades; they are also real stores on the inside.
We obviously walked through every single shop. This might seem like it would get a bit repetitive, after all, how different can each souvenir shop be? The answer is very (Very different… not very repetitive… just to be clear)! Immediately to your right when entering Diagon Alley is Quality Quidditch Supplies. We stopped to marvel at the Firebolt display in the window. Of course we know it’s not real but you still can’t help but feel a rush of excitement about it being the ‘fastest model yet’! Inside we browsed through their selection of broomstick & snitch toys, beautifully knit quidditch sweaters, and robes in house colors. The walls were dotted with banners from everyone’s favorite teams: Chudley Canons, Puddlemear United, etc. We wouldn’t see this same merchandise again in our lap of Diagon Alley. The quidditch gear was in the quidditch shop, and each shop stayed equally as dedicated to offering the proper goods to its clientele.
Next door was Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Painted in bright orange both the exterior & interior were almost hard to look at! But it was also hard to look away with funny displays and tricks happening in every corner. The shelves were stocked with magic tricks, practical jokes, and sweets modelled after those invented by the entrepreneurial twins in the books. Across the street we could have purchased our very own Hogwarts robes from Madame Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions. Or, had we not already picked wands (or let wands pick us) the day before, we could have grabbed magic wands at either Ollivander’s or Gregorovich’s fine wandmaking establishments. The Magical Menagerie is where you go if you are in the market for a new pet… although at Universal’s Diagon Alley you have to settle for the stuffed toy versions of owls and dragons. Each shop offered a new experience along with its unique array of merchandise.
Around one creepy dark corner is the infamous Knockturn Alley. The key place to visit when looking for anything dark & dangerous. Knockturn Alley really just sounds like a place for police to hang out at and wait to catch wrong-doers. At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter it is the place to look for anything Dark Mark. Dark Mark Shirts. Dark Mark Pencil Cases. And, most importantly, Dark Mark Temporary Tattoos! Kris immediately purchased a pack; this was just what she needed to complete her Death Eater look! Dragging her friends to the bathroom she applied the tattoo and prepared for her life of servitude to the Dark Lord himself.
After pledging her undying loyalty to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Kris thought it was an appropriate time for lunch. Our trio wandered back to the main part of Diagon Alley and the famous Leaky Cauldron. Inside were wooden tables below wooden chandeliers amidst wooden rafters. We ordered bangers and mash (Kris), Shepard’s pie (Justine), and some sort of sausage pie (for KG). Each of us paired our meal with a Hot Butterbeer. Creamy and buttery, hot butterbeer is equally as delicious to the normal & frozen butterbeers we’d tried yesterday. Each of our favourites after trying each option: KG – Hot / Justine – Hot / Kris – Frozen.
Throughout our exploration we took every opportunity for a photo. You are talking to the impromptu photo shoot queens. Although we got more than a few weird looks, he also raised a few chuckles, and definitely made some people smile. Plus we now have awesome/hilarious pictures of us that we can cherish forever:
Eventually, after taking every possible photo and examining every centimetre of the place, we had to put away our wands & venture out into the rest of Universal Studios. I mean, we didn’t HAVE TO but it was about time we did. We’d spent hours exploring an area equivalent in size to a small city block. First stop: The Men in Black ride. None of us were overly concerned about doing this one together so we sped up our wait by taking the single riders line. In our respective cars we shot things (things being aliens) for points. Out of the 3 of us Justine won, although the people next to her had over 3x her score. It was fun but hard to tell what to shoot at… that’s our excuse at least.
Rounding the central lagoon we entered Springfield’s city limits. Justine thought it was neat but KG & Kris were ecstatic. They rushed about pointing out everything Simpsons. “Look! The Kwik-E-Mart!” “And Krusty Burger!” “We could go for a beer at Moes!!!” Unfortunately there was no Leftporium, which Justine could have used as a lefty.
Kris then ushered the others to her childhood favourite: the ET ride. Her companions looked at her skeptically as a video shot around the same time as the movie (aka before we were born) played and we were handed ID cards that looked like they’d been run over several times. But Kris stubbornly assured the others it would get better. And then it did! (Obviously, because Kris is the best & totally always knows what she is talking about!) ET has the BEST line set-up. You are in a dark forest with huge trees & beautiful mossy clearings. Tiny stars sparkle overhead and you feel weighed down by a mugginess that comes from the leafy canopy cover… and yet you’re in a warehouse-style building. The ride was fun too, full of slow-motion dips & dives and animatronics that are somehow both outdated and awesome.
The main attraction we wanted to try, outside of Diagon Alley, was the Rockin’ Roller Coaster. The line was long but the vertical climb & drop was worth it. Soooo fun for a thrill-seeker. The ‘rockin’ theme came into play when you picked your own soundtrack to the ride. We spent our hour in line watching the video play on a loop, showing us our selections. Should we go with rock? Or maybe dance? Would some electronic beats best compliment our adventure? In the end we all came to the same decision: Bring Me To Life by Evanescense. It was perfect. Hard core with killer lyrics you wanted to scream along to. We were psyched… until it wasn’t there! It seemed they had updated the song selection, but not the videos preparing you. You only have a brief period to enter in your choice before the excitement begins & you’re left with a random shuffle pick. KG & Kris managed to rush to their second choices: Daft Punk & No Doubt, respectively, but Justine panicked and had something random. She didn’t even know the name of it. It might have been House music? …although we’re not certain what that is.
By way of recovery from the crazy twists, turns and barrel rolls, we sat on steps of New York Public Library. The library itself was a large piece of painted plywood, but the stairs were ‘real’ (aka 3-dimensional). From here we could see people starting to line the streets. Perhaps a parade was about to begin? After the enjoyment of flirting with Princes during the Magic Kingdom parade we decided to give this one a chance. Let me tell you, there was a massive difference in quality. The Disney parade was beautiful, with intricate costumes, interesting choreography, and an ever-changing array of beloved characters. The Universal parade was a handful of floats that sat in one spot for 10 minutes while a bunch of people in sun-faded costumes, some of which you recognized the characters for, flailed oddly. So weird. The two positives were watching Squidward break it down with the Running Man and the way Sponge Bob’s fish flocked to Justine – seriously, multiple came up and grabbed her hand.
This brought us to the point in the day where KG & Justine needed to be caffeinated, so we hit up a “New York” Starbucks. Cups in hand we settled in to watch the Beetlejuice show. Kris remembered loving it when she was younger, however a lot has changed since then. There are twice as many cast members, including two dancers that seemed to only be there to crowd the stage further. The music was hit or miss. The staging was fun. We’re not sure what it says about the show but the highlight was seeing a group of Beetlejuice Disneybounders leaving the auditorium in front of us.
But no matter what we thought of Beetlejuice, it blew the Transformers ride out of the water. Actually, the ride was awesome. It was the line that was awful. It should have been fun. It was one of the most immersive experiences in the park (excluding the Harry Potter area). But it was sooooo long – one of those experiences where every time you think you’re almost there you get led into another room full of winding railings. And it was sooooooooooooo hot. Ugh. But, like I said, the ride was pretty cool. Another cross between physically moving vehicles & a 3D screen, you found yourself in the middle of a pretty epic Transformer/Decepticon battle. Kris couldn’t get enough, but some of the excitement was lost on KG & Justine who didn’t know who were the good guys & who were the bad guys. “We’re saved! Wait… no… he’s bad???”
Once night had fallen we meandered back to Diagonal Alley. It was a whole new magical experience. Lights sparked and glittered while candles flickered in windows. We couldn’t resist doing another lap, reinspecting everything. We made a few stops to make purchases we’d planned out earlier in the day but didn’t want to haul around while having fun. Kris bought a Slytherin Quidditch sweater which she plans on wearing while pretending to live her dream existence. Justine bought a few Hufflepuff school supplies. And KG bought more Butterbeer… because Butterbeer is the best.
We exited to park not long before closing, but early enough to beat some of the evening rush to the City Walk. Tonight was a night for a nice dinner. We put our names on the list at Bubba Gumps (“We don’t take actual names. Instead give us the name of your favourite singer/band.” “One Direction. Obviously”) and spent the 40 minute wait time exploring the City Walk shops.
When ushered to our table we were delighted to discover the most enjoyable waiter waiting for us. He was cute, charming and full of jokes, recommendations and attention. And we love attention! As a group we (we being Justine, KG, & Kris… not the waiter) split a Caesar salad, the shrimp mac & cheese, and 1-1/3 lbs of garlic shrimp. We were so enthused we forgot to snap a photo! What we did do was spend the entirety of dinner discussing Kris’ future fanfiction novel series (which she is not actually writing but likes to think about in her head anyways) about the next generation in the Harry Potter universe.
The cab ride home was terrifying. Our cabbie wandering out of his lane so often that we were in constant fear for our lives. However he made good time, making it our cheapest cab ride yet! We stopped in the cafeteria for our nightly tea and went back to the room to relax. More fun to come tomorrow!
Love, Luck & Lumos!
Kris … & Justine … & KG!
(February 16, 2015)