Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure/some Disney; part 1; 7/15/12-7/22/12

Monday, July 23, 2012 1:59 PM

I am going to break this up into parts because there is a week of trip reports and rides and hotel stuff to cover, so it really requires a long report.

I'm actually going to start off with some stuff about Portofino Bay Hotel and the Universal partnership. I did not find anywhere on the websites that any of the Universal hotels had a service that would pick you up from the airport like the Disney hotels do. I booked through hotels.com, but I did go on the websites for Loews and for Universal, and I didn't find any information on that. The Loews website is not great though, and I found myself distracted on the Universal website quite often. I heard a rumor that the service was available, but I never did find out if there is anything actually out there.

Portofino Bay Hotel is a beautiful hotel. I have never been to Italy, but this is exactly how I picture it. Aesthetically, it doesn't disappoint. It also gives the impression of being a large hotel, but it really isn't. Everything in the hotel is a quite manageable walk. The food, while not wide in variety (everything is some form of Italian), is delicious. Our room had a little patio with a veranda door, and we were absolutely surrounded with foliage and wildlife (our first venture out onto the patio, a frog jumped on my husband's leg). For people that don't like amphibians and insects and reptiles, this may not be the place to stay. We had a family of three frogs living behind our patio shutters, little skinks crawling everywhere, and during the wet weather, a swarm of gigantic snails (I stepped on a few of the baby snails by accident because there were so many that it couldn't be avoided).

Service in the hotel is lovely. People are friendly, unobtrusive, and always willing to give directions, answer questions, and give recommendations. There are easy to use kiosks in the hotel lobby to get your Universal Unlimited Fastpass, although the pictures are so terrible that they make everyone look like zombies (the pics are in black and white and every shadow around the eyes and mouth looks like black makeup. We're so glad we got to keep the pics because they're hysterical). Room service breakfast costs an arm and a leg, but the portions are gigantic and delicious. They actually have Starbucks coffee and some basic signature Starbucks drinks available at the restaurants and for room service.

This is by no means a five star experience though. Some of the property looks old (not on purpose old either) and in need of maintenance. Some people got tables and chairs on their patios, and others did not (we were sharing our little end table with our next door neighbors). There was a Keurig coffee maker in the room with free coffees and creamers, but the Fiji bottle of water RIGHT NEXT TO the free coffees was 7 dollars. I didn't realize this the first day because the coffees were free, and I was irritated by the tricky little maneuver. Also, the parking is ridiculous, at 20 dollars a day. I have had to pay for parking before at a hotel, but I couldn't tell you the last time. Parking at the Universal parking deck would have been cheaper, at 14 dollars a day. There is no consistency to the shops and entertainment either. They're supposed to have opera music and entertainment every evening, and I only heard the live opera music twice the whole time we were there (we were usually in our rooms or at the harbor by the time the music was supposed to be playing). There is a Universal shop at the hotel that was supposed to be open until I forget what time, but it usually closed by 2 or 3 and wouldn't reopen until the following day. I don't care if the shops close early if it is posted that they're supposed to close early, but they don't post it anywhere. There was no vent or fan system in the bathroom, and the shower door leaked everywhere every time. Also, the wifi is ten bucks a night. A hotel that is supposed to be of such a caliber shouldn't be charging for wifi. It feels petty and like a nickel and diming scenario. All these things are little, and I wouldn't mind staying there again, but I would like to try other Loews Universal hotels first. The bedding also was an issue. The pillows were AWESOME, and the sheets were very soft, but the cotton blanket in between the two sheets was extremely itchy and coarse and was poking through the sheets all night. There was some kind of weird little throw blanket that they put on the beds, but we always discarded it and the cotton blanket and just used the sheets. Thanks to Coasterbuzz, I was paranoid about bedbugs the whole time too, although I saw no evidence to indicate any of the foul little creatures. We got bitten up by SOMETHING, but it seemed like the bites were always when we were outside on the patio, so hopefully no buggers.

On to the parks, right?

We actually decided to do some Disney the first day. We got up nice and early and drove over to Animal Kingdom. This was both our first times at a Disney park without the benefit of being an actual Disney guest. Animal Kingdom on a Monday morning is DEAD. The crowds are either all over at Magic Kingdom first thing on a Monday, or we just got extremely lucky. Our parking spot was in the first lot, although this is still a pretty hefty hike on blinding white walkways. There are apparently trams, but we didn't see any trams from this section of the parking lot. Perhaps they weren't running yet, or perhaps they don't come out to that parking lot because they feel it is an acceptable walking distance for the average guest. Parking was 14 dollars, but no one told us that this parking expense was good for all the parks all day. Score! We got to the ticket booth and waited in NO LINE to buy a ticket. Our ticket lady was extremely nice and put us in an even better mood (Animal Kingdom had some of our best memories from our honeymoon), and we were on our way. We had wanted to do Animal Kingdom because we thought perhaps we had missed stuff in our haste to do everything before and still make our Jikos reservation later that evening.

It turns out that we really didn't miss anything. In a few years, when Pandorum is finished, I would really really like to go back and see what they've done.

We went to the Dinosaur section first, and since my husband just could not remember the Dinosaur ride, he wanted to ride it again. We liked the pre-show, and the theming on the ride is great, but there were some definite problems with the ride. First, the dinosaurs look incredibly fake. They look plasticky, rubbery, and completely animatronic. I don't remember most of the ride being in the dark before, so I don't know if they had damage to the ride electronics or what, but it was just a spinning, bouncing car in the dark kinda ride. Plus, there were some audio cues on the ride that could have benefitted from a visual coordination (like a meteor is going to hit and there are no flashes of light or shaking ground or anything). There was nothing like that. Really a shame. The ride has great potential. 5/10.

Expedition Everest was next because the husband hates Wild Mice, and I've already got the credit, so we skipped Primeval Whirl. The last time we were at Animal Kingdom, we waited for at least 45 minutes to ride Everest. This time, all we had to do was walk through the buildings (heavily themed ride cues with Yeti artifacts and shredded tents and hiking gear/climbing gear). Everest is a great ride, filled with fake outs, a surprisingly forceful drop and backwards section, and awesome scenery. While it still holds back with the thrills a little bit to make it a nearly total family ride, it definitely has a special place in my heart. 7.5/10.

Now for my favorite part: The drive through safari. The last time we visited Animal Kingdom, a baby giraffe stuck its head in the vehicle and got eyeball to eyeball with my husband. I have a picture where the giraffe is so close to my husband's head that you can count the eyelashes. No encounters like that on this safari ride, but we DID sit in the EXACT same seat as last time, and I swear one of the giraffes was eyeing my husband up. Last time though, we saw no lions or cheetahs, so it was pretty neat to see these beautiful cats this time. I think the safari is the best ride in the place, and I wouldn't call it a thrill ride, but it is still thrilling. 9/10.

We wanted to go to Magic Kingdom as well to see the fireworks at the castle (best fireworks we've ever seen), so we went to downtown Disney for a little while to kill time and to check out the Disney art gallery. We had been absolutely enamored with the paintings there on our last visit five years ago, and I was determined to buy one this time around, no matter the cost. However, I was actually disappointed with the selection, and we left without purchasing anything. Perhaps next trip. We plan on maybe going next April or even March with some of the rest of the family. Anyway, for those in the area on a visit, check out the Babycakes cupcakes. I had a chocolate chip cupcake with chocolate icing. These cupcakes are famous in New York, and while they tasted more like muffins to me, they were still delicious. Plus, they're gluten free, so dietary restrictions are not an issue for the tasty treats.

Magic Kingdom was a nightmare. I knew it was going to be a nightmare, but I had hopes that because it was supposed to thunderstorm all evening off and on, people would be discouraged. I should have known better. Who is going to just give up on their vacation to DISNEY? We were parked all the way in the Zurg (sp?) Villains lot, two spots before hitting the highway. It took a tram AND a ferry ride just to get to Magic Kingdom. Being a Disney guest definitely has its perks. Blech. We were determined to ride Haunted Mansion (my husband's favorite ride. It was closed for our honeymoon). They were setting up for a big parade through Disney at that time, somewhere around 3:30. I know their parades are great and a lot of fun, but it seems like every 30 seconds, there is a new parade at the Magic Kingdom. It gets really difficult to navigate the park and the crowds with so many parades, and it is annoying. Enough with the parades already!!

Anyway, Haunted Mansion was another mixed bag. The line was roped off into the middle of the walkways, and it was hard to tell who was waiting in line and who was just cluelessly milling about near the entrance. We went through the graveyard tour because neither of us had done it before (I remember that being there, I think, but I'm honestly not sure. Is it new?). The graveyard is pretty cool, with funny little tombstones with rhymes on them, areas where you can make musical instruments play funeral dirges with a touch of your hand, and even some tombstones with faces that move or eyes that pop open. I'm glad we experienced it at least once.

Haunted Mansion itself looks great with the updated visuals. The ghosts at the end do some really cool, innovative stuff. Everything looks sharper, and there is a LOT going on. However, the audio on the cars (at least our car) was horrible. We couldn't hear any of the narrator's little quips and jokes. I'd catch a word here and there if I listened really carefully, but it took so much concentration to listen to it that I gave up so I could look at the awesome visuals. All the work they did on that ride, and you still can't hear a damn thing in the cars? Come on! Still a brilliant, fun, not so scary haunted mansion. I love it. 8.5/10.

I wanted to ride the teacups, but we couldn't find them. I don't know if they are not operational right now (Disney is doing a huge construction project of some sort in Fantasyland, so I don't know if the teacups were a part of the area being redone), but the crowds were SO BAD. We decided to do Pirates next because we also have memories of riding Pirates over and over and over again at 1 in the morning because it was close to where we had been for the fireworks and it was nice and cool inside the ride building. The wait time said approximately 20 minutes, but the ride kept breaking down, so we waited for over an hour.

Now, I never noticed this on all our rides previously: The ride voice at the beginning kept saying over and over again "Dead men tell no tales". I mean, it had to have been at least 10 times we heard this. It got to the point where we were saying, "Hey, honey, do you think dead men tell tales?" "No, I don't think they do." It was beyond ridiculous. The audio is pretty bad on this as well, although not as bad as Haunted Mansion. We probably got 80% of the story. This ride could use another update, although some of the quaintness is what makes this ride so great. Plus, for what it IS, it is a great ride. And the Johnny Depp mannequin looks pretty good. I still like the ride a lot, although it does show its age. 6.5/10.

After we got out of Pirates, we were treated to a torrential downpour while we were trying to smoke. Disneyphiles are not discouraged by this in the slightest, even with thunder and lightning. The storm passed just quickly enough for us to get a nice cooling soak and to make our way to Tomorrowland. Hubby does not like Space Mountain (makes him sick), so I didn't know what to do over there. We were not impressed with the Stitch ride/show last time, so we were going to do the Buzz Lightyear shooting ride. However, the line was extremely long, and we didn't want to wait for it. I have never been on the Peoplemover, believe it or not, so we decided to on that. There was no line, and we got right on it. Then it started to pour again. That was nice, staying out of the rain, and I had no idea that the Peoplemover went through Space Mountain next to the lift hills. That was cool. Peoplemover actually ended up being the nicest surprise of the day! We also did the progress theater with the rotating room, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it (while I was awake. I did nod off a little bit). It struck me that while some of these rides are so completely dated, Walt Disney had SUCH a vision. It never really hit me before how ahead of his time he was. No wonder this park blew people away when it first started up.

There was a dance show with Chip and Dale and Stitch by the Peoplemover and in front of the progress theater. Stitch is my favorite Disney character (my dog is named Stitch, and if he could hold a ray gun and chug coffee, he would, so the name is perfect), and I wanted to get a picture of him. Stitch has more groupies than Jesus. It took me nearly 20 minutes to get a picture of him because young children and teenage girls alike were chasing him around. He needed three "handlers"! It was a little irritating, but he was so funny and adorable, and I eventually got a picture where he got right up in the face of my camera.

We finally found the entrance to Buzz Lightyear, and the line had died way down to a 20 minute wait, so we decided to do that. Had I not already ridden Men in Black, this ride would have been pretty good. However, having already done MIB, the ride seemed kind of flat. The ride vehicles felt cheesy and flimsy as well. Perhaps I am just too hard on Disney, or I'm just too much of a "thrill seeker" to appreciate the tamer Disney version of much more intense Universal rides, but I didn't get the "blown away" feeling I got from MIB. It was still a nice ride, but I honestly feel Disney could have done better. 6/10.

After Buzz Lightyear, we had had enough of the heat and the crowds. We really only had a few more hours to the fireworks, but we just couldn't do it. Maybe next year! So, we made our way back to our rental car and got the heck out of there. Next up, IOA and Harry Potter!!

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Monday, July 23, 2012 4:47 PM

Do you need something different now than your room key to do the Express pass at UO?

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Monday, July 23, 2012 5:36 PM

You only need your room key to get the actual Express pass at the beginning of your stay, and then again at the gates the first time you get it scanned. Other than that, you get a little cardboard pass with a picture and a barcode, and they just either glance at that or they scan it at each ride entrance.

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Monday, July 23, 2012 10:09 PM

Weird. You used to just flash your room key and they'd check the date.

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Monday, July 23, 2012 10:57 PM

Maybe people were losing too many room keys, so they decided to do away with that. Or maybe Portofino has an old system or a newer system or...I dunno. I am actually glad they changed to the scannable cards because I would definitely be one of those people that would lose their room key. We used those lanyards you see everywhere in the park, but the plastic envelopes that come with the lanyards don't hold more than a thin piece of paper and a couple of bucks for lockers, so the keys might get lost pretty easily, thus creating security problems? That is my guess.

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Monday, July 23, 2012 11:16 PM

Wen I worked there a decade ago, people would only have to flash their card, but the problem was that employees sometimes failed to look at the date, and let people in with expired passes. It was a really big problem. I assume that is why it was changed.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 9:06 AM

Ah-ha! That makes much more sense. They would probably lose a ton of money that way if the general public realized they could sneak into the Express lines without a pass.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 10:49 AM

If it was a problem, it went on for ten years.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 11:01 AM

That actually reminded me, Jeff. I forgot to mention I saw no one with QBots. Not a single soul. I can't figure out exactly how they're gonna work that, either. Since there is a line in place for Express users, it would make sense to put the QBots users in the same line, but I don't see why they would keep both systems in place, or I don't see MUCH of a need for it. The hotels would still benefit from the paper passes so they don't have to get in line for a QBot when being admitted early, but other than that, I'm kind of confused as to all the different systems they have in place.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 11:28 AM

Last summer, we were given fast passes (cannot remember if they were cardboard/paper or like room keys) when we checked into our hotel. Most of the lines had someone with a scanner checking fast passes but sometimes they just looked at it an waved you through. Not sure the scanners were doing anything in any event. Sometimes they would beep. Sometimes nothing.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 11:57 AM

The scanners always beeped for me, but sometimes they took forever. I didn't notice anyone using their room keys, although we did utilize the free bags-to-hotel service, and for that, you needed to have a room key.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 12:29 PM

Since when is Universal using Qbots?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 12:34 PM

Very recently. I wonder if the long term plan is to phase out the room keys and Express thing in favor of the Lo-Q system?

Pricing

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 12:55 PM

I thought there was actually already this discussion about QBots in Universal, and we couldn't figure out what was going on with the bots versus the Express system. I love the idea of getting the QBots, but I hope they still allow the passes or bots for hotel guests. I can't see that happening for some reason. I wonder if they will no longer allow the hotel guests the unlimited line jumping option. Should be interesting to see what they do with it.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 1:23 PM

I don't mean to imply that they'll phase out the hotel guest perk, just that it doesn't make a lot of sense to have multiple systems in place.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 3:36 PM

Oh, I know you didn't mean to imply that, Gonch. My line of thinking was this though: if they decide to get rid of Express Unlimited in favor of QBots, what are they going to do with the hotel guests? Make them wait in a line and dispense QBots during early admission? Seems like a clustereff for hotel guests. Or would they just keep paper passes for hotel guests and do LoQ for everyone else? Or would they just dispense with early admission for hotel guests but guarantee each guest LoQ for every ride, including Harry Potter? Or would they just take the perk away? There are many questions to this, and it is something I was thinking about it. I think they'd be fools to get rid of the best perk of staying at a Universal hotel because I am quite sure there are hotels that do not nickel and dime people at every turn and are close enough to Universal to make staying at Universal hotels irrelevant.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 7:03 PM

Have a Q-Bot stand in every hotel lobby and offer it as free perk for staying at the hotel.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012 7:31 PM

See, I thought about that or have them give you the Qbot on check in, but aren't they wired to only work while in the park? I mean, don't they shut down once you go out of the park? That's what I've been told when I tried to keep my Flashpass Gold at Great Adventure. Hehehehe...

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Sunday, July 29, 2012 11:50 AM

Re: express pass credentials

We were there the last week of June, and used just our RPH hotel keys. Apparently they are moving to a photo-based pass, presumably to prevent "sharing" of room keys. Sounds like they finally made the switch. Some background here:

http://www.orlandoinformer.com/2012/universal-implementing-photo-ex...te-guests/

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Sunday, July 29, 2012 12:51 PM

I keep forgetting about the fact that they check your fingerprint and scan your ticket at the gate, AND they scan your photo pass. Guess this would really cut down on sneaks getting in on someone else's dime early, but what I AM confused about is that I don't understand how this helps security in the grand scheme of things? If the pictures actually got looked at, that would be one thing, or if they had scanners on all the rides that might even be a little better, but no one ever looks at the pictures (and it wouldn't really help all that much because the pictures, as I mentioned, are atrocious). Why couldn't you give your ticket and picture pass to someone else? Of course, this WOULD eliminate some of the expired keys as Travis was saying, but I think they'd be much better secured if they just used consistency at each ride and made every ride be a scanned ride. Problem solved.

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