Florida - September 2011

Day 4 - Islands of Adventure

Thursday 22nd September

Much to our surprise, we got up again at 10:00 this morning and thus had lost a good chunk of the day. Still, that was never really going to be a problem, since we had decided that today was going to be one of our rest/water-park days. Over the course of the two and a half weeks that we have here, we have 11 days of theme park visits planned and another 5 days set aside for what we call rest/water-park days, where we will either visit no theme park at all or we will visit one of the two main Disney water theme parks - Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach - which we would consider relatively restful days also. However, after a bit of debate between us, we decided that if we could get out of the house by 11:00, and make it to the park entrance by 12:00, that we would do a half day at Universal Islands of Adventure instead. This is one of our favourite theme parks and so both Sandy and me were up for it. Accordingly, we swiftly swung into gear. Kids dressed; camera batteries loaded; change of clothes packed; snacks packed; soft toy for each kid chosen; car loaded and of we set. We’re getting very good at this now.

Once in the car, a rather lengthy debate between the entire family played out. We were trying to figure out where to go for breakfast, so we asked the kids what they wanted to do. Big mistake. As if we couldn’t have predicted this, one wanted to go to one place and the other wanted to go to another and neither was willing to budge. Joey elected for the Waffle House again, which I was actually also keen on. I suspect Joey is rather like me in that he knows what he likes and he likes what he knows. If ever I go to a restaurant, I tend to go to the same places and always order the same things - usually to the point that they know exactly what I’ll order as soon as I walk through the door. This way, I know exactly what to expect and I know that I will like it. I have a rather low tolerance for trying new things. If I end up not liking it, I’ve wasted my time and money and I’m still hungry at the end of it. Why bother risking it? And so we found ourselves in the position of having to decide which child would end up least stressed by losing out on their choice. Actually, this was a no-brainer. Joey would be much more stressed about losing out than would Jennifer. Although I might not want to admit it, this is actually an Autism thing. We desperately want to not have to capitulate continually to Joey’s condition when it’s at Jennifer’s expense and this is one such situation where this might be what happens. Doing so from time to time is manageable but it is something that we are conscious about keeping an eye on. In the end, we collectively decided that we would go the the Waffle House this morning but that we would go to Denny’s (Jennifer’s choice) tomorrow morning and this seemed to keep the peace. The truth is that come tomorrow morning, I doubt that Jennifer will remember any of this but we’ll stick to that arrangement anyway. We probably could have simply made an executive decision, and if this hadn’t been a holiday, that’s probably exactly what would have happened, but it’s the kids’ holiday too and we’re intentionally letting lose of the reigns somewhat to allow them both a bit more of a free reign than would be the case at home.

Breakfast was, as I expected, a predictable meal and I enjoyed it immensely. It was exactly what I wanted and exactly the way I liked it. They got my eggs exactly the way I like them today and our waiter will have enjoyed the larger than normal tip I left him. I foresee my eggs being cooked perfectly each time I go back there now.

We weren’t more than a minute out of the Waffle House car park when the SatNav ran out of power and shut itself off. Sadly, although our rental car has not one but two cigarette lighter power sockets up front, neither of them work. There’s a socket in the rear of the car that does work so it must be a blown fuse or something but it means that we cannot charge the SatNav whilst driving. The cable isn’t long enough to reach to the socket at the rear of the car and so we were flying blind as it were. Fortunately, we’re familiar enough with the area that it wasn’t really necessary anyway. I’ve also built up a mental map of where the house is located and getting home isn’t a problem either. We can charge the SatNav via the iPad USB charger so we’ll put it on charge overnight for tomorrow.

We arrived at the Universal multi-story parking complex shortly after noon. Universal felt that we needed to be deprived of $15 for the benefit of parking at their facility. By the time we’re done here, we will have spent nearly $200 on parking just to get into the theme parks. However, it is what it is and it’s a necessary evil and so we handed over the money and felt just that little bit liberated for it (did I say already that money was a burden?). We told them that we have a special needs child with us (although technical true, I suppose, but still just a little bit of a liberty I felt) and they sent us towards the handicap lane, where we ended up parking relatively close to where we needed to be and on the same level as to main walkway into the Universal attraction area.

Even with the car having been parked such as to avoid a little bit of walking and elevator use, we still had to walk half a Kilometre through the Universal Citywalk attraction area before reaching the Islands of Adventure main ticket turnstiles. Shortly before getting that far, we were stopped by one of the photographers to pose for a photo. This we did and we were handed a card with a bar-code to collect (and pay for) the photo at the end of our day. We were curious as to how this was going to turn out, as the photographer asked us to hold our hands out as if holding something so we surmised that it would be photoshopped in some way. As this was our first use of our Universal tickets, we had to get fingerprinted and our cards signed before being allowed in. At the turnstile, we were asked to take part in a quick survey, which I was happy to do. It took the form of a tablet device with a pen that was used to touch the relevant answers to various questions on the screen. It took less than a minute to complete. Once in, we made our way to the guest services building just off to the side to sort out our guest assistance pass. As was the case at Disney, the Universal staff didn’t want to see the letter we brought from the Paediatrician (by the way, thanks Carlos!) confirming Joey’s Asperger Syndrome diagnosis. They were happy to accept us at our word and made absolutely no fuss at all about providing us with a special pass that would grant us express-lane access to any ride that had less than 30 minutes wait time. Where there was a wait time of more than 30 minutes, we would be assigned a time to return for direct access. All throughout the day, we never encountered any attraction that had more than 30 minutes of wait time and were sent directly to the front of the line in every occasion. In many cases, there were so few people waiting, that it made practically no difference which line we would have entered anyway. At any other time of year, we might have spent a good four hours of the day held up in queues.

We planned on visiting Seuss Landing first off and so this is where we headed after completing all the initial formalities, after a brief stop here and there for various photo opportunities. Upon entering, we immediately played ‘spot the straight line’ game. Naturally, nobody could. Our first attraction was the Cat in the Hat ride. The kids absolutely loved it and as there were so few park visitors today, we immediately took another ride. Unfortunately, as the car spun around about half way through the first ride, mine and Joey’s hats were flung from the floor of the car onto the floor of the ride. We noticed this only after getting out of the car and we spotted them inside the ride when we went through the second time. I asked if they could be retrieved but was initially told that they weren’t allowed to wander into the ride whilst it was running and that we would have to check with lost and found at the end of the day. With the blistering heat of the mid-day sun, this would have meant us burning to a crisp - or buying yet another hat, neither of which I was particularly keen on, so I pleaded that they please do what they could. In the event, this turned out to be calling in a technician who would be able to get into the ride but they suggested that we go off and do something else for a few minutes whilst they organised this. And so we wandered over to the Caraseussel for a couple of spins on that and then to the One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish ride, where we all got rather wet and enjoyed every minute of it.

I was fortunately able to collect the hats shortly thereafter and was to meet Sandy and the kids at the People Mover attraction (can’t remember exactly what it’s called but it’s something weird and Dr. Seusse’ish). When I got there, I couldn’t find them so I assumed they had gone through to the ride entrance. When I got there, they were nowhere to be found there either. No worries, I thought, I’ll just wander back to the front entrance to the attraction, as we probably just missed each other in the crowd (although there wasn’t really much of a crowd). Indeed the entire length of the walk-through to the ride starting point was completely empty. I managed to spot Sandy and the kids just as I was about to give her a call on her phone. When I told Sandy this, she smacked her head in exasperation and said that she’d left her phone back at the house. Buggar! Without the ability to call each other, this thought sent my stress levels up a notch. Still, nothing to be done about it now. At least the park is so quiet that it shouldn’t be possible for us to get separated or necessary to need to call each other.

Once reunited again, we did the people mover ride, which is an elevated tram ride around the top of the Seuss Landing section of the park - twice in quick succession. Again, this was something that the kids really enjoyed.

Coming off this ride, we darted into a nearby shop (fortunately, you are never very far from a shop in any of the Orlando theme parks) for some heat relief. Any building you can find is always refreshingly air-conditioned. We were about to finish up with Seusse Landing when we found out that the Cat in the Hat characters were going to be making an appearance momentarily, so we stuck around for a few minutes and, sure enough, out popped the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, and a Sneech, each of whom we were able to get some lovely individual and family shots with. Both kids faces lit up with delight with these characters and that was a lovely sight.

Next up for our half-day tour around the park was the very much anticipated Harry Potter Wizard World. This is the newest section of the park and only relatively recently opened. At the main entrance to this section of the park, you are confronted with a spectacular view of Hogsmead with the Hogswarts castle in the background. The Hogsmead village is very nicely done and made to look like snow has settled on all the odd-shaped roofs and malformed, tall chimney stacks. Compared to the movies, the authenticity is really quite stunning - even up close. It’s been done very well indeed. After taking it all in with a light stroll through the main parade, we stumbled into Olivander’s. From the outside, it looked no different to, or any more special than, the various other shop facades but this one had a line of people standing next to it with a uniformed park staff member at the front of it. Clearly, this was an attraction of some sort but I had just assumed it to be a shop where you could buy wands. Indeed, this was true but to get into the shop, a predetermined number of people in a group would have to first ‘experience’ a wizard or witch selecting their first wand. This is essentially a re-play of Harry’s first encounter at Olivander’s - complete with a very similar looking Olivander, his shop (complete with wand boxes stuffed into every nook and cranny) and a few effects thrown in for good measure. Once the ‘wand had chosen its new owner’, the group was then allowed into the actual shop, where, of course, you could buy anything and everything to do with Harry Potter. Joey picked himself out a wand and Sandy picked up a growling/snapping book. Yes, the Harry Potter merchandising machinery is alive and kicking - and raking in the Dollars to boot (mine, in fact).

One of Joey’s Asperger’s Syndrome traits was revealed here in his insistence that, despite our best efforts to convince him to the contrary, his wand is only make-believe and that it can’t actually perform magic. I’m not sure if I should applaud his sense of understanding of the truth of a given situation (Aspies tend to point out things that are true - even when it’s not necessarily appropriate to do so) or whether I should mourn the loss of innocence. Perhaps a bit of both.

A couple of roller-coasters that were already here previously have been re-themed to fit in with the Harry Potter theme but there is a brand new attraction, which is very similar to the existing Spiderman ride, in that you navigate around in a vehicle that, with the aid of 3D glasses, that sends you on a motion simulation journey. The difference with this new, and really quite exciting, ride is that there are no 3D glasses but the car moves very much more in three dimensional space and through ‘scenery’ that is very much more alive and interactive. It’s kind of like the Spiderman ride but on some serious steroids and NOT for the faint-hearted. Alas, the ride height restrictions, not to mention it’s adrenalin-pumping nature, made it unsuitable for the kids, and so we did the baby-swap thing so that we could both have a go. However, the queue from the entrance to the start of the ride doubles up as a tour through Hogwarts and some of the rooms through which you pass are a fantastic proxy of what you would expect to see if you really were wandering the halls of Hogwarts. As such, the kids got to experience some of the magic even if they could know nothing of the ride itself. As a big fan of Harry Potter AND of the Islands of Adventure them park, I definitely give the new Wizard World a big thumbs up.

As we were wandering away from the new Harry Potter ride, several Hogwarts tri-wizard tournament contestants, in the form of the ‘Sons of Durmstrung’ and the ‘ladies of the Beuxbattons Academy’ walked past. Before our very eyes, an impromptu exhibition of these students’ moves and dances that you would have seen in the third Harry Potter instalment played out and we just happened to be there to claim front and centre position to watch it all. Bonus!

The small roller-coaster that was previously there has been re-themed into a Hippogrif ride and Joey insisted he wanted to do this. Although somewhat hesitant, I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and took him on. Alas, roller-coasters are still not his thing.

We decided that it was time for some late lunch and I had a hankering for some BBQ chicken, which I knew was going to be on offer at the restaurant at the far side of the Jurassic Park section of the park. Although a good five minute walk away in the heat of the afternoon, it was, after all BBQ chicken and it beckoned. Alas, when we got there it was closed. Apparently this particular restaurant closes at 16:00 at this time of the year. We passed the Jurassic Park Discovery Centre on the way and this also had a restaurant inside. It was going to have to be chicken tenders instead of BBQ chicken but it would at least be something hot. The walking back and forth took its toll on Sandy, whose stress levels were elevated as a result. Some food and drink did hit the spot and she was fairly human again within half an hour or so. We let the kids play around in the Discovery Centre for a bit before setting off to the Spiderman ride, which we had decided would be our last stop before going back to Seuss Landing to let the kids run around in the water play area that they enjoyed so much three years ago.

In getting to the Spiderman ride, we would have to pass up much of what the park had to offer but since we were coming back another day for a full day’s visit, this didn’t really bother us that much. We had high hopes for the Spiderman ride, as Joey enjoyed it so much the last time around, we did it several times. Sadly, it wasn’t to be the fun attraction this time around for him, for he seemed quite overwhelmed by it and wasn’t particularly happy about the whole experience. I still have the child-sized fingernail indentations on my right arm to prove it.

There were a few Marvel super-hero characters dotted around this section of the park and this perked Joey up a little but we decided to make full use of the remaining hour or so that the park would remain open by visiting the water play area in Seuss Landing. This turned out to be the big success of the day by far. Both kids had an absolute blast and it was a real pleasure to see them run around, in their element, and getting soaking wet with huge grins on their faces pretty much constantly. We will endeavour to spend a bigger percentage of our time here when we come back the next time also.

As the park closed at 18:00 today, we finished up at Seuss landing at this time, dried off and got everyone into dry clothes again and set off back to the front of the park to partake in a little more retail therapy - Universal needs the money! The afternoon thunderstorm looked ever looming but never actually dropped its load (on us at least) - bonus! Oh, and that photo that the photographer took of us when we entered the park? It was photoshopped as expected but was crap and hugely expensive at $18 for a 5x7 print! We passed.

We stopped off at the Golden Coral buffet for dinner on the way home. It wasn’t particularly appetising and we think we’ll give that one a miss in future.

Back at the house, all chuffed that I made it that far without the aid of the SatNav, we let the kids run off a bit more energy before putting them to bed. Our now familiar routine of offloading the cameras and sitting through the slide-show played out as usual. Additionally, we both spent some time tonight in the hot-tub and I indulged in a bit of ‘skinny dipping’ in the beautifully warm pool.

Tomorrow will be a theme-park-free day and it now looks like we’ll be entertaining a good friend from Palm Coast, which will give Sandy her chance to spend a bit of time off shopping somewhere without having the worry about the kids, so that’ll be a nice bonus for her too, which she’ll find out about when she wakes up.