8.28.2014

universal moments: ethan does universal studios & islands of adventure orlando

I'm unsure of where exactly to begin in telling you about our trip to Universal Studios Orlando. There is so much to say (and an awful lot of photos because I just couldn't narrow them down!) about what a truly amazing time it was. Most alarming to me is that before our trip, I had several people tell me that Universal Studios had little to nothing for young children or toddlers and because of that, once we arrived I wasn't sure what to expect. Well, remember when I mentioned that we were taking this trip to try to find some magic that our family so desperately needed? We found it at Universal Studios. There was magic around every corner and in every moment of our day at the park. I'm going on record to say that there is so much for children Ethan's age at Universal Studios! Every minute of our stay at the park was spent watching Ethan's face light up and we watched him have the time of his life which, in turn, gave us the time of ours. From the moment we stepped foot on the Universal Studios property (which boasts organized, shaded parking garages versus chaotic parking lots -- this was so appreciated from a grown-up standpoint), it was universally (see what I did there?) the best day ever.

Within five minutes of entering the park, we ran into Curious George strolling down the sidewalks! Aside from being Ethan's absolute favorite character, oh, ever (he was a little overwhelmed by it all when this photo was snapped!), it was awesome to see him just hanging out and walking around the park. It really made Ethan believe that this was the home to all of his favorites and he actually got to visit them! George would be the first of many characters that got to come to life for Ethan as he explored Universal Studios that day. There were no lines, no astronomical wait times in the heat, no stress or chaos at all, just a bunch of beloved characters seemingly as eager to meet you as you are to meet them! The accessibility of the characters was part of Universal Studios immediate charm and as we watched Woody Woodpecker walk by minutes after we met George, we just knew it was going to be a pretty special day.

When we arrived to Universal Studios, we got to take a special tour of the new Diagon Alley area at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Ethan was still overwhelmed by the travel time and crowds so we got to enjoy the tour for him while he kept busy with his new plush Minion and worked on warming up (toddlers!). Even if you're not a Harry Potter fan, Diagon Alley is worth checking out. It's absolutely breathtaking to see the detail that goes into making every aspect of the park match the books and films. The fire breathing dragon atop the buildings is awesome and I loved that everything was so interactive with the guests.

At the Gringott's Money Exchange, park guests could exchange their US currency for Wizarding Bank Notes which can be used throughout the Universal Studios park! Another cool part about the Money Exchange is that the bank tellers are interactive which, yes, means you can speak to them and they will answer!

Park guests can also meet the Knight Bus conductor and see the Knight Bus up close. My favorite part of this was the also interative shrunken head that is awfully good at holding a conversation with you. Ethan is still deciding how he felt about this but I know he was secretly intrigued!

It was awesome seeing how Universal was committed to bringing the magic to life for the park visitors as I just mentioned. Wizards got to choose their own magic wands at Ollivander's and whenever they saw these little spots marked on the ground, got to wave their wands and make actual magic happen! During our tour, we watched a young wizard excitedly wave her magic wand and make things move inside the storefront window. Speaking of storefronts, there was tons of shopping to do down the streets of Diagon Alley at familiar shops like Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Magical Menagerie (Ethan's favorite), Quality Quiddich Supplies and several more.

We also got to take a tour of Gringotts. Even Ethan was intrigued by the interactive goblins who move (and may as well be real!) as you wait in line. During our tour, we got to see a clip from the Harry Potter & The Escape From Gringotts film and truly compare the Gringotts that Universal Studios has created. Every last detail was impeccable and it was understandable why people travel from all over to visit the magical world that Universal has created for Harry Potter fans!

During your visit to Gringotts, you're able to get your photo taken for authentic badges and take in every detail of the attraction. Sightseeing aside, the main attraction is the new Escape From Gringotts ride. I'm not a ride person (that's putting it mildly -- I think carousels are scary enough!) so my husband got to review the ride for me. While Ethan and I waited for him to finish the ride, we got to try out the awesome Child Swap area. Child Swap is an area towards the front of the line where kids can hang out safely, comfortably (and air-conditioned-ly!) with one parent or guardian while the other is on the ride. Ethan and I spent this time playing with his new Hogwarts Express train toy but the other Child Swap guests were sucked into a showing of one of the Harry Potter films. Now, if I was a ride person, when my husband was finished with the ride he would swap places with me and take over Ethan duties while I jumped onto the ride. It's a pretty cool system that Universal Studios has set up to ensure that the entire family enjoys the trip and no one has to miss out on anything!

As for the ride, my husband thought it was awesome! I don't want to give away all of the secrets since it's a new ride, but it's the perfect mix of groundbreaking 3D technology as well as rollercoaster. No thrill-seeking ride lover is going to want to miss this one, even if you're not a diehard Harry Potter fan!

Something else that is unique to Universal Studios and a truly fantastic idea are their Height Certificates. When a child isn't tall enough to ride one of the rides, instead of simply turning away disappointed, they're given a Height Certificate with their name on it. On a future visit, when the child is taller, they can bring the Height Certificate and use it to hop right on the ride -- no waiting in line necessary. I thought this was adorable and such a kind gesture to alleviate the disappointment of little ones. Ethan has his very first Height Certificate for the Escape From Gringotts ride!

The temperatures have been above 100 degrees lately and our day at Universal Studios was no exception. It was hot to the point where it truly felt like your flesh would melt off. The frequent appearance of misting opportunities Universal Studios offers throughout the park were like answered prayers and the the constant shaded coverage and fans blowing as we passed by deserve a shout-out, too. It was surprisingly easy to stay out of direct sunlight while walking through the park which was very much appreciated by us all (especially me because I was wracked with guilt that I had left Ethan's hat at home).

I had mentioned initially how Universal Studios has something for everyone and I wanted to reiterate just what I meant. My husband had been very much looking forward to The Simpsons ride which, of course, Ethan was too small to go on. After he took Ethan on the smaller alien ride in The Simpsons area, he went to go give the big ride a shot while Ethan and I explored the more toddler-friendly areas in the carnival-like set-up. Each part of the park has something for all ages so that no matter where you go, there is something that even the tiniest member of the family can enjoy. It isn't easy to make The Simpsons enjoyable for both three year olds and adults alike, but Universal Studios nailed it and it was just as much fun for Ethan as it was for my husband! This isn't just limited to The Simpsons area, but all of the areas throughout the park. I noticed even in other park goers, everyone was relieved to be able to keep the family together while still having something for everyone to do.

Before my husband finished his ride, a sign for a Barney area caught Ethan's eye and so we went to go play in the Barney's Backyard exhibit. A few months ago, Ethan went to a Barney themed birthday party and he's been totally in love with that purple dinosaur since then -- so imagine his surprise when none other than "the real Barney" walked by to say hello!

From there, Ethan spotted my sister's favorite character hanging out and shaking hands and, naturally, he couldn't pass up an opportunity to go say hello to Spongebob himself!

Again, it was such an out of this world experience for Ethan to be able to see these characters walking around and waiting to meet him. It made the magic come alive immediately and set Universal Studios apart from other theme parks.

I mentioned earlier that Curious George is Ethan's favorite storybook character and I wish I could accurately describe the look on his face when he saw that Curious George's town was right there in front of him! Curious George's town was the perfect opportunity to get wet and cool down. The cartoon-like design of the town was so bright and fun and I loved the classic H.A. Rey elements thrown in for true authenticity, like the nod to Cecily the giraffe! Though it looks like it's just a backdrop, Curious George's town was very much real and accessible. You got to enter every different building and explore it from the inside, too. You could even visit George's Ball Factory inside one of the buildings which took you to an amazing two-story foam ball adventure, complete with ball poppers and blasters!

After drying off from our curiously fun adventure with George, we happened to run right into one of the Universal Studios street parades! We got to watch the characters from Hop and their friends put on a fun show filled with music, singing, dancing and (you guessed it) more character meet and greets!

Ethan quickly caught a glimpse of some silly looking creatures across the street and so we went to check it out. They were characters from the upcoming film The Boxtrolls ready to introduce themselves to passerby. Ethan stared skeptically at first but before long he fell in love. He's still saying that Shoe, the shorter Boxtroll, was his favorite part of our trip.

After mingling with the Boxtrolls, we popped into Mel's for a shake break. True story: always the old soul, I was so obsessed with American Graffiti growing up that I forced my friends to watch it at my 10th birthday party sleepover. I'm not so sure everyone else was as into it as I was. Story of my life, right? Anyway, it was still really cool even as an adult to pop into Mel's. Even when you're a grown up, the magic can still get you!

After our milkshakes, we were walking around sightseeing around the park when we saw a couple more familiar faces! Ethan has been completely obsessed with this Scooby Doo storybook lately and seeing the real Scooby Doo made his day! Although, always the skeptic, Ethan wasn't so sure he bought that this wasn't some kind of Shaggy imposter!

We continued to make our way around the park. Ethan loved watching the bigger rollercoasters zoom by overhead and taking in all of the little details. When I say "little details," I do mean little details: it was crazy how authentic each part of Universal Studios was. Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco is one of my favorite places to visit and it was so cool to see how much Universal Studios was able to replicate each detail that I remembered. Every tiny part of the park stuck to it's theme perfectly and it was really fun to see what was around every corner.

By the time the late afternoon crept up, we decided we wanted to go pay Islands of Adventure a visit, too. In my mind, I was admittedly moaning and groaning a little bit because, let's face it, the journey from one park to another is usually filled with a whole lot of hiking plus multiple buses or trolleys just to put you at another parking lot you'll need to hike through in the heat. Universal Studios solved that problem and magically so. Upon entering a strikingly realistic train station, park hoppers got to ride the Hogwarts Express from one park to the other.

Aside from the realism involved for Harry Potter fans and the thrill of a real train ride for little guys like Ethan, the experience of going from park to park was completely enjoyable. Magical, even. Thrilling, I'll go on and say. There was no blood, sweat or tears involved in entering a new park, just more of that Universal Studios magic. As we climbed into our train cabin, the doors closed and, thanks to Universal's amazing technology, we got to experience a journey complete with silhouettes of the Harry Potter characters speaking right outside our train car. By peering out the window, Ethan got to see us travel from London to the countryside -- and eventually (four or so minutes later) pulling into the station at our next stop, Islands of Adventure (or Hogsmeade Station).

Islands Of Adventure definitely has a lot more for the older crowd than the little ones, so we spent a lot of time admiring the rides and exhibits from afar. There was a lot to admire on our journey through comic books and magical superhero lands! While maybe there isn't as much to do for little ones at Islands of Adventure, what there is is worth visiting, without a doubt.

After seeing some dinosaurs and dinosaur bones up close and personal at Jurassic Park, we made our way to our next destination...

Seuss Landing is like a theme park in itself. It is a world as magical as Dr. Seuss' books themselves and Ethan was completely overjoyed and amazed from the moment we stepped foot into Seuss Landing.

After he finished the One Fish, Two Fish ride, Ethan ran into some of his favorite characters. Watching him meet his storybook idols is so awesome for me as a parent. It's equal parts disbelief, shyness and complete excitement and I loved watching all of this magic come alive for him.

It was an amazing day filled with all sorts of magic and smiles. I couldn't wait to get back home and set the record straight that Universal Studios not only has tons of things for smaller children, but it truly has something for everybody. We can't wait for our next visit!

Our family received park tickets to Universal Studios Orlando and Islands Of Adventure to facilitate a review. No compensation was provided and all photographs and opinions expressed are completely my own.

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