Friday, December 11, 2015

Let the Adventure Begin!

Entrance to Islands of Adventure
My birthday trip didn’t have a propitious beginning. We were an hour delayed leaving DFW airport and all the kids waiting were far beyond restless; so was I. The parents seemed to have bulging jaw muscles and rictus smiles. Once in the air calm was restored, especially when ‘Frozen’ began playing on the drop-down screens.

Goofy Golf
Since this was a short trip we decided to let Universal Studios manage our ground transportation. Not having a rental car meant that we didn’t have to fight through the traffic that surrounds Orlando, nor did we have to find our way through the maze that is the Orlando International Airport. In passenger traffic, MCO is the second busiest airport in Florida, the 13th busiest the US and the 29th busiest airport in the world. It began in 1942 when McCoy AFB was built to house U.S. Army Air Forces and military operations. By the 1950s, MCO was hosting the SAC's annual Bombing and Navigation Competition, paving the way for its use as a temporary forward operating base for F-100 Super Sabre and F-105 Thunderchief fighter bombers, and the primary base for U-2 reconnaissance aircraft during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. By the 1960s it was also the airfield for jets coming to Orlando and was eventually designated as a Space Shuttle emergency landing site. One of the runways is ‘an emergency divert site’ for Shuttle Transport Aircraft when relocating orbiters. Although I would like to see the Space Shuttle land, I was very glad that it wasn’t inbound on the day we traveled.

The Universal Studio shuttle transport to the hotel (which is on park property) from the airport took about half of the ‘Despicable Me’ movie the driver played, which made it a
Antique Cars
pleasant trip even with several twitchy kids on board. Dave and I watched the darkening sky, wondered just how much it was going to rain, and looked for alligators in the swampy areas along the highway until we reached our destination. Cabana Bay Beach Resort is a trip back to the 50s and 60s. Tables topped in Formica, color schemes that run to orange, green, turquoise, and pink, and irregular geometric designs reminded me of my teenage years. There are televisions scattered throughout the hotel playing cartoons and TV programs from this era, as well. The best decorations, however, were outside: prominently parked in front were a 1961 Thunderbird, a 1958 Imperial, and a 1961 Chevrolet Bel-Air. We were already having fun and we hadn’t even gotten into a park!

Hogwarts School
Our main reason for going to Universal Studios, Florida was to ride the Hogwarts Express (Kingscross and Hotsmeade Stations), and again to see ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade’ and ‘Diagon Alley’. This theme park opened in 1989 as a place for audiences to go watch movies being made, but in 1990 it actually opened rides that put visitors into the movies. It was a rough start, but by juggling offerings and changing attractions to match current movies, the park has flourished. One of the few rides left from the 1990s is E.T. Adventure – after 30 years that little extra-terrestrial is still drawing the crowds with his message of saving the planet from pollution.

The amount of work that has gone into building Wizarding Worlds is amazing. The facades
Diagon Alley Store
are believable; I fully expect to walk into any of the storefronts and encounter characters 
from the Harry Potter books. This year, since it was chillier than people expected, many of the visitors were wearing school robes (Gryffindor was still the most popular, but Ravenclaw, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff were all apparent) making it hard to tell the difference between the actors and the audience. There were also more wand-wavers than in our previous visits. Someone had the brilliant idea of including a location guide to places where gesturing with a wand made things happen. Children and adults could be seen standing on markers wielding their wands in a prescribed pattern to make water squirt, suits of armor stand, and Cornish pixies reveal themselves. Dave’s favorite place was Diagon Alley; once you walk through a wall, the scene is dominated by a white dragon that sits atop Gringotts. This year
Gringotts Dragon
we were able to venture into this bank and see the goblins at work balancing their books and giving us reproving looks. Once past these guardians, we were smuggled inside the vaults; unfortunately we set off some alarms and had to be rescued from the dragon by Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Bill Weasley was also there to lead us to safety while the three young wizards continued their search for the horcrux. Diagon Alley is also a good place to hear the Tales of Beedle the Bard. All children of wizards know these stories as well as muggle children know Mother Goose rhymes, bit if you are a muggle you may not be familiar with these accounts. The actors have movable sets and puppets to help them tell the stories; it’s enthralling, even for adults. Near Diagon Alley is Kings Cross Station and platform 9 ¾ where we boarded the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade. Out the window we saw parts of London, but in the
Goblin Bank Teller
distance were black streaks of smoke that seemed to be tracking the train as we moved through the English countryside; could those have been Death Eaters? A Dementor drifted down the hallway of the train, but passed our cabin, leaving only a frozen handprint on the glass; Harry’s Patronus Charm chased it away. We were all glad to see that Rubeus Hagrid was in Hogsmeade to meet the train.

My favorite place to hang out is Hogsmeade. I still haven’t brought home ‘The Monster Book
of Monsters
’ textbook with its furry cover, sharp teeth and nasty temperament, but maybe one day I’ll add that to my library. I also liked Honeydukes for their selection of candies including Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans (I’ve yet to find a flavor I didn’t like) and the Chocolate Frogs (although mine didn’t have even one good hop in them). It’s a short walk from this little town to the school with its winged hog statues that flank the path to the main door. As you go through the passages, you encounter pictures that move and talk to you, as well as the sorting hat. Farther along Harry, Hermione, and Ron told us that something was lurking in the castle and encouraged us to hurry along to see if we could find what it was. It turned out that we had to jump on our brooms and follow Harry as he helped us escape the dragon by flying through the castle, quidditch field, and down the river. We escaped unharmed, and made our way back into the Hogwarts where Headmaster Dumbledore welcomed us. After leaving the castle, I had to return to Hogsmeade one more time for a Butterbeer before boarding the Hogwarts Express to return to London. Again we were treated to scenes of the countryside around Hogwarts, including the centaurs, and fireworks (courtesy of Fred and George Weasley). Mad-eye Moody met us at the London station with a roll of his mad-eye and a smile.

Hogwarts Express

There’s more to do at Universal Studios, Florida. To find out what else we did as well as more about the hotel and dining, see Spiders, Dinos and Aliens…Oh My!

Islands of Adventure Lagoon

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