Pros: Awesome attractions, minimal crowds in September.
Cons: Expensive for a one-day visit.
Cautionary tales about 8 hour waits be darned, Mama Chelledun and I recently planned a trip to Universal Islands of Adventure with a primary goal of checking out the much hyped Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As it turns out, September is "off-season" at all the Orlando area theme parks and we enjoyed very fun and surprisingly uncrowded visit to the village of Hogsmeade and as well as all the park's other "islands."
Know Before You Go
Islands of Adventure is a part of the Universal Orlando Resort, consisting of three upscale hotels, two theme parks, and a dining and entertainment complex known as Citywalk.
Universal tickets make for a great deal when bought for multiple days, and a poor one when bought individually. Due to a tight travel schedule, we opted for the most insanely priced option of all - the 1 day, 2 park ticket with the front-of-the line pass (AKA Express Plus). Fortunately, the Express Plus price was at its lowest rate of $25.00, as prices exceed $50.00 per person during busy times. Still, the whole single-day package cost around $250.00 for two people.
As it turned out, while the front-of-the line pass was a virtual necessity during my last visit over the Christmas holiday, it probably wouldn't have been necessary on the sparse September day we visited. I now only recommend paying extra for this perk if you are bound and determined to ride every single roller coaster or if you are visiting during a peak time.
The Universal Orlando Resort has an excellent parking garage, with regular daily rates of $15.00 per vehicle. This time we paid a few bucks extra for the VIP parking but I probably wouldn't bother in the future because even the farthest parking spots don't seem that far thanks to the well-designed system of moving walkways. Those arriving after 6:00 p.m. to visit Citywalk pay just $3.00.
Hours for Islands of Adventure vary depending on the season, with this park typically closing earlier than the main studios. In September when we visited, hours of operation were only from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.! Fortunately, we had time to do nearly everything we wanted thanks to minimal crowds, although we had effectively run out of steam by the time we made it to the last island.
Islands of Adventure is neatly divided into six islands that circle a lake. Visitors enter the park through Port of Entry, an exotic-feeling Main Street of sorts, and can either head right into Suess Landing or left into Marvel Super Hero Island. For serious souvenir shopping, I recommend Port of Entry's huge Islands of Adventure Trading Company which sells items that refer to pretty much all of the park's islands. Port of Entry Christmas Shoppe, on the other hand, seems like a huge waste of opportunity due to the unfortunate lack of themed ornaments.
Because most IOA patrons rush straight to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal's current recommendation is to tour other areas of the park and/or visit Universal Studios first and leave Hogsmeade for the afternoon. We found this advice solid and spent a couple of hours at Universal Studios in the morning before heading into Islands of Adventure at lunch time to be greeted by only minimal crowds.
This whimsical island was our first taste of Islands of Adventure, and the immersive theming made a great impression. The Suessical theming looks exactly like the popular children's books have come to life, with a wild hodge podge of colors and curvy lines. Visitors can enjoy green eggs and ham, or pick up something cool at the Hop on Pop Ice Cream Shop. There are also several gift stores, all of which are heavy on the Thing 1 and Thing 2 merchandise.
As far as rides go, I highly recommend The Cat in the Hat, a fairly basic dark ride that is elevated by its use of the charming text of the book by the same name. The frantic fish is by far the funniest part, with its increasingly shrill exclamations. By the end of the ride, you'll feel like you got your daily dose of classic children's literature. Less interesting but still worth a trip if the line is short is the High In the Sky Suess Trolley Train Ride, which offers great views of several different islands. No park would be complete without a carousel, and the Caro-Seuss-el is IOA's take on this popular attraction. Finally, the kid-friendly One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is like Dumbo, but with water. You get the idea.
I liked the theming in this area, primarily because it reminded me of Nickelodeon's classic game show "Legends of the Hidden Temple" meets Disney's "Aladdin." However, not a lot is currently happening on the Lost Continent. Part of the island has been subsumed by Harry Potter and one of the remaining two attractions, Poseidon's Fury, was closed for renovations during our visit. While we were interested in checking out the other attraction, The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, there are only a couple of shows daily and we just couldn't work it into our day. So, Lost Continent ultimately turned out to be little more than a walk-through for us.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Now we come to the primary purpose of our visit. Mama Chelledun and I hit the front gate of Hogsmeade at about 2:00 p.m. and encountered no wait whatsoever to enter the "land." I was immediately impressed by the fabulous theming, from the snow-covered roofs of the town's shops to the huge and realistic Hogwarts Castle looming in the distance. The end result is so immersive and magical I truly didn't want to leave.
We immediately jumped in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the land's signature attraction. Advertised as just 40 minutes, the actual wait was probably closer to an hour but it went fast as we wound through the Hogwarts greenhouse, several rooms full of talking portraits, and the Defense against the Dark Arts classroom where the plot is set for the ride by projections of Ron, Harry, and Hermoine. Also, the sorting hat! Hooray! The ride itself is really something, with a wild combination of motion simulation and traditional dark ride elements. The ride stopped for about a minute when we were lying on our backs, which was a little unfortunate, and the subsequent video segment did not get appropriately "rebooted," which was very unfortunate. After doing some online research it turns out we missed the segment involving the Quidditch game, which explains why I got off the ride feeling like the ride itself didn't exactly follow the story given by the characters before we boarded. These things happen, and I'll definitely give this ride another shot on my next trip.
With Forbidden Journey off our checklist, we settled in to enjoy the magical world around us. We started at the Three Broomsticks Inn, where I enjoyed a delicious baked apple pie (for only $3.50!) and the magical concoction that is frozen butterbeer. The butterbeer was not in the least disappointing, and tasted like the most delicious cream soda I've ever had. Don't worry - regular beer is also available. Those looking to escape from the crowds for a moment should check out the balcony out back behind Three Broomsticks, which is only accessible through the restaurant. Only a couple of the 10 or so tables were occupied, perhaps because no one knows it's there.
We also had the opportunity to check out a few of Hogsmeade's stores. Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods, located on the way out of Forbidden Journey, offers various "house" merchandise including scarves, pins, and clothing as well as toys and collectible items based on the films. Zonko's is an attractive, well-designed novelty store selling joke items in vintage packaging. This store was the emptiest of the lot during our visit. Honeydukes is a candy store selling traditional and Potter-inspired candy, including Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans.
Finally, we ended our time in Hogsmeade by taking in a live performance of the Hogwarts Frog Choir and checked out a photo opportunity involving the girls from Beauxbatons and the guys from Durmstrang. I'm amazed Universal is paying eleven employees to pose for pictures!
Sadly, we didn't make it in to Ollivander's Wand Shop, because the line stretched around the block. In the interest of time we also passed on Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippograth, which are two repurposed roller coasters that were not especially created for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
While a bit light on theming elements, I like the concept of an "island" devoted to one of my favorite movies. Jurassic Park River Adventure is a fabulously fun water ride, if a bit cheesy in the special effects department. It's kind of like "Jaws" with dinosaurs, and I loved the blind drop at the end. While probably more fun for kids than grown-ups, the Jurassic Park Discovery Center provided a great place to get out of the heat for a minute and was pretty empty during our visit. There's a pretty nice gift store in here too, called Dinostore.
Unfortunately, most of the other stuff in this area is truly just for kids. Camp Jurassic is an extensive children's play area, while the low-speed roller coaster Pteradon Flyers actually requires adult guests to be accompanied by a child 36 to 56 inches in height.
While I wasn't inspecting much from this island inspired by vintage TV shows and comics, Toon Lagoon actually turned out to be the most fun part of my day at Islands of Adventure! This island is chock-full of "hey, I remember that!" cartoon shout outs, from Blondie to Mark Trail to Cathy to Popeye to Healthcliff. Mama_Chelledun and I spent a good half our just walking around and checking out all the oversized comic strips that cover the front of shops and restaurants. Speaking of which, there are some fun options here for food, including Blondie's ("Home of the Dagwood") and Wimpies (serving, predictably, hamburgers).
Better yet, Toon Lagoon boasts not one but two fabulously fun water rides. Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls is the best log ride I've ever been on, with tons of large and small drops, and zany sound/visual effects. Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges is the best river rapids ride I've ever been on, with tons of twists and turns and lots of sprays and showers from overhead. After these two rides, I was absolutely soaked but didn't mind a bit thanks to having the foresight to pack a dry outfit.
Marvel Super Hero Island
We rounded out our day with a quick stop at this island which, quite frankly, was my least favorite. The brightly colored buildings and scenery seemed a bit more well-worn than anywhere else at IOA, and the island was very, very loud. It was made louder by Meet the Superheroes, a combination show/meet and greet where popular characters including Spiderman, Storm, and Wolverine ride into town and then disperse to various stations for autograph signing.
We tried to stop into the island's Ben & Jerry's but were thwarted by the slow-moving line. By that point, the 6:00 p.m. hour was fast-approaching and we were beat from a full day of spinning, splashing, and screaming and decided to call it a day. In doing so, we passed up Marvel Super Hero Island's thrill rides which include the Incredible Hunk Coaster, a 3-D simulator called The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and one of those "drop towers," Doctor Doom's Fearfall.
Overall . . .
Despite not being huge "thrill ride people," Mama Chelledun and I had an awesome day at Islands of Adventure. The park is well-designed, feels new, and offers truly creative theming throughout its various islands. While guests are coming in droves for Harry Potter, I hope they are staying to enjoy the rest of the offerings here, as well as at neighboring Universal Studios. This is good stuff!
*You will, of course, want to check out my review of Universal Studios as well!