During the holidays Tom decided that we should go back to Universal Studios this year. They had recently opened the new portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and his brother had recently moved to the Tampa area. We were both more than done with the cold weather and decided some Florida sunshine was in order.
We actually flew out of BWI a few hours before a really ugly storm dropping 6+ inches of snow on the Baltimore area arrived. The weather app on my phone was a bit of a joke in predicting the temperatures since they frequently were at least 10 degrees higher before factoring in humidity. So, we landed, ooh'd and ahh'd over palm trees and the lack of below freezing temperatures and then went to my nephew's baseball game. I wore flip flops and felt like a cat parked in a patch of sun. It was wonderful.
That night we went to a BBQ/Sushi place which I unfortunately forgot the name of. You'd never think sushi at a BBQ place would be good, but the availability of fresh seafood in FL really overshadows any thoughts you might have about that.
The next day we visited the Clearwater area and had some drinks in the sand at the beach bar of a hotel.
Coconut mojitos quickly became one of my favorite drinks while visiting.
Last time we went to Universal, we only had one day to visit both parks. This time, we had 3 days because they had a deal going on where if you purchased two days, you got the third one free. I highly recommend visiting during a deal like that.
We also had early park admission all three days. The only thing open in the Islands of Adventure is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We got there as soon as early admission folks were being let in and joined the crowds there. We managed to get on all of the rides we wanted and walk through the stores before they became unbearably crowded all before the general public was allowed into the park. It made for some great picture taking.
Aside from the entirely new park they added for Harry Potter, they also added in interactive wands. We stood in a small line at Olivander's and watched how a wand chooses a wizard before entering the gift shop where you could purchase your own. Since we both had wands from our last visit, I had no intentions of purchasing another one, but Tom convinced me otherwise.
Throughout the Hogsmeade section and also in Diagon and Knockturn alley, there were emblems on the floor where you could stand and wave your interactive wand to make something happen. I should have taken video instead of pictures, but I didn't think of that at the time.
Since we had more than enough time to explore both sides of the park, we decided to have a sit-down breakfast in The Three Broomsticks. Of course now I can't remember the names of the meals, but my breakfast was full of fruit and scones and Tom's was a more traditional American breakfast with bacon, eggs and home fries. Not wanting to overdose on butterbeer so early in the morning, we opted for apple juice.
My brother and sister in law joined us at the park on the original Universal side and did some of the rides over there. We didn't really get to do that last time we visited, as we spent the majority of our time in WWOHP and Seuss Landing.
You have two choices to get from the Islands of Adventure park to the Universal Studios park. One is to exit IoA and walk past the Hard Rock Cafe to get US and the other is to take the Hogwarts Express. The first day we opted to walk. The continuation of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the US park includes King's Cross station, Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley, the Knight Bus and Grimmauld Place.
King's Cross is huge and set up to be just like an actual train station. There are even advertisements on the walls of the station.
You can hardly see the 12, but this is the front stoop of 12 Grimmauld Place. Standing back, you're able to see the different colors in the bricks where the headquarters for the Orders resided. Of course, I didn't get a good picture of that. I won't ruin it for you, but if you visit, make sure to stand in front of the house and look up at the windows for a few minutes. You'll get a surprise!
I was not expecting there to be an actual Knight Bus, but there is was, complete with Stan hanging out outside. You couldn't go on the bus, but you could take pictures in front of it.
You could actually go inside the phone book that transports you to the Ministry of Magic. Of course, I couldn't remember what you were supposed to do while in there, so we didn't get to test it out to see if it was simply just a photo prop or if it made noises or something.
Diagon Alley was amazing. I really don't want to ruin it with too many pictures. One of the coolest things was the dragon that sits atop Gringott's and breathes fire down on the people ever so often.
Diagon and Knockturn Alley are mainly shops, but one of the best things there is the Gringott's money exchange. You go inside the small bank and you can exchange either a $10 or $20 bill into Gringrott's money. The money is accepted anywhere throughout the parks, but I opted to just take it home as a souvineer. The goblins in Gringott's are incredibly realistic. Can you tell from the above picture that's not a man with a mask? Because it's totally not.
We spent the rest of our first day on the US side of the park. The Transformers ride was just being built when we visited last time, so we made sure to get on it. It was by far one of the best 3-D rides I've ever been on. We also did the classic Men in Black ride and the Simpson's ride as well. We ate lunch at the street taco cart which had impressively good Korean beef tacos. Pretty much the only ride we didn't end up getting on was the Despicable Me minions ride because, as the first ride when you enter the park, the lines were ridiculous. It had no less than an hour wait for the entire day.
Something else I was incredibly excited for was to eat dinner at Cowfish at Universal Citywalk. There is another location in NC and one of the ladies on the message board I frequent had talked about how incredible the restaurant was. It's a combination of Burgers and Sushi hence the Cowfish. I got a Fusion Specialty Bento Box which is like the best combination of both worlds -- a burger slider, 4 pieces of sushi and some sides that are really incredible.
Ruby Panther drink.
Cheeseburger slider, Mark's specialty sushi roll, cucumber salad, sweet potato fries and edamame.
Exhausted from our nearly 10 mile hike around the parks, after dinner we went back to our hotel and crashed. Our second day at the park, we took advantage of the early admission and went immediately to the Hogwarts Express so we could be first in line to get on the Escape from Gringott's ride. Taking the train over was really neat, I wasn't expecting it to be as interactive as it was, but let's just say that they covered every single detail you could think of.
Make sure you take the train from Hogsmeade to King's Cross and then back the other way. The ride is entirely different.
And this is where our trip hit a bit of a snag. We put our stuff in the ride lockers and got in line for the Escape to Gringott's, the main Harry Potter attraction on this side of the park. We made it through the entire part of the ride, right up to where we got to sit down in the seats. And then we had to get back up and go stand in line again. There was a lap bar on the other side that wasn't staying down as far as it should. We waited 20 minutes while they let all the previous riders off and then finally they decided that the delay would be longer than anticipated. We were told it should be open within an hour and were given a fast pass.
Disappointed, we got off the ride and found that during our wait, the Diagon Alley portion of the park had become so crowded it was nearly impossible to walk around without tripping over people. We decided to be good adults and have ice cream from Florean's Forescue for breakfast. It's a little pricey for ice cream, but totally worth it. You get two scoops on a waffle cone and I opted for clotted cream and salted caramel brownie. Seriously, they were amazing.
We did some of the rides on the US side of the park again, constantly checking back in to see if the Escape to Gringott's was open. Figuring we might as well make the most of our experience with what was available to us, we had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron.
I had the Ploughman's lunch, which prior to this my experience with it was seeing Ina Garten eat one on an episode of the Barefoot Contessa. It was all really good, but never something you would want to eat on a date. The vinegar-garlic-onion components were rather strong. It was the first time either of us ever tried a Scotch Egg, which I am pleased to say I will figure out how to make in the near future. The real accomplishment with that is Tom hates hard boiled eggs but liked the Scotch Egg. Never would have imagined that one.
He had the classic fish and chips. I'm not a big fan of fish, especially fried but for a quick service restaurant in an amusement park, this had great flavor to it.
Never one to turn down chocolate, we figured if we weren't getting on a roller coaster we might as well have fun with food. Tom didn't like the clotted cream ice cream so I wasn't expecting him to like the chocolate version of the dish, but he proved me wrong again. I guess you really can't go wrong with chocolate, ever.
It started to rain after lunch and was supposed to only last for an hour or two. Instead of trying to find somewhere to stay dry within the park or pay outrageous prices for ponchos, we decided to head back to the hotel for a little while. But first, we might as well get our souvenir shopping done.
Which is a really dangerous thing for two people who love all things Grinch. And when there is a store entirely dedicated to Christmas near the exit of the park. We could have easily spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in there if we bought one of everything we wanted.
It was nothing short of a miracle that we reined in our Grinch purchasing tendencies and managed to get out of there only $120 poorer than when we entered.
It ended up raining the rest of the day so we didn't return to the park and instead decided to just go to one of the restaurants near the hotel for dinner.
(We didn't stay at a hotel on site, which in hindsight turned out to be a mistake. It was $110 more to stay on site and I figured a hotel less than a mile away didn't justify that cost. I forgot that it's $17 a day to park and the on-site hotels all offer free shuttles to the parks. $59 was not a worthwhile savings.)
At this point we had walked nearly 20 miles in two days and I'm pretty sure my legs were just operating on auto pilot. Earlier in the day Tom had mentioned steak and we figured some protein for dinner surely wouldn't hurt us and headed on over to Longhorn. And here's where I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed or proud.
Above is a Porterhouse for Two and is somewhere near 20 ounces of meat. It comes with two sides and two side salads. Having eaten well both days, we only opted to get this simply because it covered both cuts of steak we wanted to eat and was cheaper than purchasing them individually. And here's the embarrassing or proud part. I had a slice of the free bread with butter, a side salad with dressing, grilled asparagus and the entire filet portion shown above. Tom had 3 pieces of the bread with butter and a double serving of french fries along with the entire t-bone steak shown above. And, we both were full, but not the uncomfortable full you'd expect from eating that much food.
The plus side, the large quantity of protein got rid of our aching legs and feet overnight, making the third day of walking around the park a breeze.
We started off our first day by waiting to get on the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade. The staff let us know that the Gringott's ride did open for an hour or so the previous afternoon and they expected it to be open. But in the fifteen minutes we sat there waiting for the Express to begin boarding, they said it was closed. The Diagon Alley section of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the entire reason we planned this trip, especially this ride.
Tom decided to enjoy a breakfast worthy of putting anyone in a diabetic coma with a incredibly large sugary donut from the Simpsons area.
Not dead yet from sugar consumption, we wandered back and forth between both parks, getting on rides multiple times and stopping to take pictures with The Lorax and the Grinch.
A message board friend of mine was coming to the park that day and we ended up hanging out with her and her husband for the majority of the day. We kept checking in with the staff at the Gringott's ride and they kept saying it wouldn't be closed all day. At nearly six, when the park was scheduled to close in an hour, we gave up and visited guest services. They gave us a fast-pass with no expiration date so whenever we can manage to return to Universal, we can get on the Gringott's ride.
That night we drove back to Tampa to spend the remainder of the week with my brother and sister in law. The next day, we went back to the Clearwater area and ate at the Pierogi Grill. Months before our visit, my brother in law had checked in there on Facebook and I told him we definitely wanted to go.
The restaurant is not much on the outside or even on the inside, but the food more than makes up for it. I opted to have a combination meal of 6 pierogi (I went with potato and cheddar cheese filling) along with a link of kielbasa and some sauerkraut.
I was so excited to eat it, I forgot to take a picture before cutting everything up. It was incredible and if you even barely like pierogi and live in or are visiting that area of Florida, it's totally worth going there. The restaurant also has a deli/store attached with all Polish foods. We had fun looking at the different types of chocolates and candies they sell as well as trying to figure out what some of the other items were.
They had a honey liqueur listed on their menu that I couldn't pass up trying. Okay, so I've had a few different types of honey whiskey, but this stuff was amazing. It was thick and sweet with the perfect amount of alcohol burn. I was seriously considering how much room we had in our suitcases so I could bring a bottle home. Eventually I decided I would find a recipe instead and make some, or see if my aunt who drives from Florida to Delaware and back every year would be interested in picking me up a bottle to avoid all of the TSA related non-sense of traveling with alcohol.
Apparently this stuff is referred to as Krupnik and I've found a recipe here that I intend to follow. (Assuming I can find a decent replacement for Everclear that Maryland no longer sells.)
The next day we visited the Dunedin area of Florida which I am simply incapable of pronouncing. They call it Dun-Edin and my brain refuses to see it as anything other than Dune-din. While there we visited a place called the Draught Haus and I had an awesome drink.
In Maryland, we're known for a drink called the Orange Crush which was supposedly created by a bar on the Eastern Shore. It includes freshly squeezed orange juice a few different liquors. In Florida, they had their own version with a Peach Crush that contained an actual half a peach.
Never one to really go against the culinary offerings of my home state, I must admit this peach crush blew an orange crush entirely out of the water. We wandered around the town, visiting a few more bars and trying out their drinks before returning back and eating a few appetizers which were also incredible.
I didn't intend for our trip to Florida to really be all that food-focused (aside from the fact that I knew I'd be taking pictures of what I was eating, like I always do when we go somewhere) but it definitely ended up as a foodie filled vacation. We were not disappointed by any single restaurant we visited and that even includes the $4 meal from Steak N Shake and the eggs benedict that sat in a warmer at a restaurant we attended for brunch.
Mother Nature was kind to us and decided to drop the temperatures and bring in the rain for the day we left. It still didn't make up for the barely above freezing temperatures we were going to return to, but it surely helped out not to be leaving the sunshine state during a hot and sunny day. (We did torture ourselves by looking at the forecast after returning home, only to find the temperatures were going to soar into the 80's and we were going to get snow. Lame.)
So there's my Florida/Universal vacation recap!