September 18, 2021

August 2021 Disney & Universal Trip

I’ve just returned from a 5-day visit to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. Rather than flood my social media with pictures and stories, I thought I’d write it up here and just share the link. We hadn’t been to WDW since January 2015 and I was the only one who had been to Universal with that trip being in January 1991 (shortly after they opened). So, there was an incredible number of new attractions for us, notably the Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Avatar sections.

To navigate through this long article click on the topic(s) of interest.

Initial Research

The goals for our trip were to visit the attractions that were new to us. We decided that five days was the right duration to allow for two days at Universal to see both parks and do all things Harry Potter, one day at Magic Kingdom to get the Disney mood, one day at Hollywood Studios to see the Star Wars and Toy Story lands, and one day at Animal Kingdom to visit the Avatar section. We skipped Epcot this time due to the current amount of construction.

Our first stop was to look at crowd-prediction calendars. There are several out there with fairly consistent predictions: touringplans.com , undercovertourist.com , wdwprepschool.com .

Then, I spent a lot of time on YouTube. There are a very large number of folks who post very helpful videos about every possible question or activity that you might be interested in.

I found two channels to be particularly helpful:

And here is a curated playlist of videos that I saved for the other folks that we traveled with.

Covid-19

We had wanted to take this trip earlier but the combination of number of Covid cases and the expected crowds had stopped us prior to making reservations. We all got our own vaccinations at the earliest possible opportunities and watched the projected crowd calendar and the infection numbers. With the trend heading rapidly down we made reservations for the last full week in August when crowds would be low.

But then, the numbers, particularly in Florida, started to rise. We discussed it and decided to stick to our plans and be careful. We wore masks much of the time and will be isolating as much as we can for two weeks after returning.

Universal suggested on posters and announcements that its customers wear masks indoors, watch distancing, and wash hands frequently. Disney required masks while indoors or on transportation, encouraged hand washing, and reduced crowds at counter service restaurants by requiring mobile ordering. We had cool, homemade, themed masks that we wore most of the time.

Both parks had hand sanitizer stations everywhere and it was unusual for them to be empty. Character meet-and-greets were all also socially distanced (as you can see in some of our pictures below.) Finally, many of the Disney shows and parades were not running.

So far, so good. We’re home and currently healthy. Florida public schools had resumed before our trip, so the crowds were down. Disney Tourist Blog had a story on just how low the crowds were. We’ll minimize contact with other people, particularly our more at-risk friends and family.

Universal Orlando Resort

Family at Universal Orlando

On our arrival day, we checked in, unloaded, and then took a walk to get the lay of the land. Between the two parks is a free shopping and dining area called CityWalk where we got dinner.

Dinner at CityWalk

There are actually two separate parks at Universal: Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure (plus the Volcano Bay water park.) Universal tickets come with a few interesting options. One is a park-to-park add on that allows you to move between the two theme parks at will on the same day. One ride, the Hogwarts Express train, requires a park-to-park ticket since it is transporting you from one park to the other. The two parks are also close enough to walk between, but the train is more fun, and you’d also need the park-to-park option if you want to walk from one to the other on the same day. We did get park-to-park tickets.

Islands of Adventure and Citywalk shopping area from walking path and boat canal

Another ticket option is the Express Pass which allows you to skip most of the line on most of the rides. The basic pass allows you to skip each line once per ride. The unlimited pass can be used any number of times. Two rides, Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure and VelociCoaster (both at Islands of Adventure), do not allow the use of either type of express pass. The price of the passes are pretty high and varies depending on how busy the park is. We did not pay for express passes.

However, people who stay at the three most expensive (“Premier”) hotels on site get a free unlimited express pass for their entire party for the length of their stay including arrival and departure day. This can be a lot cheaper than paying for a hotel room and buying an express pass separately and is what we did. We stayed at the cheapest of the three Premier hotels: the Lowes Royal Pacific. It was a nice hotel with easy walking access to the parks and a cool pool.

Making a call on arrival day at poolside with a frosty beverage.

Staying at any of the onsite Universal hotels gives you 1 hour of early access to at least one of the parks. A limited number of rides are open and express passes don’t work during this hour, but it is a good opportunity to get in a couple of rides before the bulk of the crowd arrives. Like most of the crowd, we headed to the back of the park to visit the Harry Potter area.

Diagon Alley and the flaming dragon on top of Gringott’s
Trying out the frozen and the regular butterbeer.
The Knightbus in London outside of Diagon Alley. It was fun chatting with the head.
12 Grimmauld Place, hideout of the Order of the Phoenix. The house elf could occasionally be spotted peeking out a window.
Hogwarts School at Hogsmeade
Platform 9 3/4 on the way to…
The Hogwarts Express. The “windows” on the train showed a different adventure depending on which direction the train was going.

We were able to ride the three main Harry Potter rides (Gringott’s, Hagrids’s, and Forbidden Journey) twice each over our two days as well as take the train in both directions (the ladies went back and did another train round trip).

Another feature of both Harry Potter areas (one in each park) are the interactive magic wand spots. If you buy a $60 interactive wand (there are lots of options available and you can even see a wand choosing ceremony like in the movie at Ollivander’s Wand Shop), there are lots of spots where you can use it to cast a spell and a part of the scenery will move in response.

Dana casting a spell
Trying to get Hagrid’s cycle to fly
We had lunch both days at Harry Potter themed spots: The Three Broomsticks…
…and The Leaky Cauldron

Elsewhere in Islands of Adventure, there is a Jurassic Park section with their newest attraction, the VelociCoaster.

Very low crowds meant about a 20 minute wait
Part of the queue
Up close with an animated ‘raptor
Selfie with a baby velociraptor and trainer
A photo with a full grown velociraptor was a hilarious experience
Selfie with Cyclops and Rogue from the X-Men
We met Bumblebee, Optimus, and Megatron
And the Blues Brothers

Some miscellaneous purchases that we recommend

  • Refillable soda cup – $13 to $17 depending on how many you buy. Can be refilled an unlimited number of times from the self-service Coke Freestyle stations around the parks (but not in Harry Potter areas!) with flavored Coke products, Powerade, and water. ICEE slushies can also be put in the cup for free from ICEE stands. There is a 10 minute lockout period between refills. It costs $10 to reactivate a cup for use on a different day. Given that sodas are $4 each and ICEEs are $6, we easily saved money. Butterbeer is not included in the cup. Note that the machines will dispense free ice water into any container.
  • Lanyards and card holders – We had to show our park-to-park tickets and Express Passes (which were also our room keys) fairly frequently. Not having to dig them out of pockets was very nice. You can buy themed lanyards in the park for about $15 each, or get generic ones from Amazon like this 6 pack for $10.
  • Cooling towels – get these wet, wring them out, and put them on the back of your neck for rapid cooling. We got this 6 pack for about $15. We experimented at home with neck fans but didn’t feel they worked much better, had to be charged, were harder to carry and made noise.
  • Disposable ponchos – Florida has short thunderstorms on most afternoons. We got lucky and only had one day with rain and the bulk of it while we were inside eating lunch. Still, buying a pack of very packable disposable ponchos is cheaper than buying just one very similar one in a park. This is the pack we bought.
  • Backpack or fanny pack – On many rides, Universal requires that personal items be left in the small, free, lockers outside the ride. On a few of its more aggressive roller coasters it has metal detectors to enforce this. Being able to quickly remove and reattach your gear is much better than having to load and unload pockets each time. I bought this one on Amazon that you can see in a lot of our pictures. Patty and William used backpacks that they already owned.
  • Portable cell phone batteries and cables – Both Disney and Universal have apps for their parks that show maps and current wait times. A group text channel can keep you synced up with the rest of your party. And in some cases you may have your ticket or room key on your phone. So, having your cell phone charged through the day can be very important. We carried 10,000 mAh batteries that had no problem keeping up with our use as long as we charged while sitting down for lunch. Make sure you have the right cables to charge your phone during the day and recharge the battery overnight.
Fun Steampunk Themed Restaurant

We had dinner after our first day in the parks at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium in CityWalk (reservations recommended!) which features steaks, burgers, salmon etc. for entrees and some extremely sinful desserts.

Cream brulee, mint chocolate shake, and flourless cake
Chocolate bread pudding and ice cream

On our second day in the Universal parks we repeated most of the Harry Potter rides and then focused on the Universal Studios park. We enjoyed the Marvel themed rides and Transformers. Fast and the Furious was silly, but worth doing once. The Bourne Stuntacular show was great and the Horror Makeup show was not. The ET ride was the one ride left from my previous visit (30 years ago) so we rode it for nostalgia sake. Its age was showing. We also watched a couple of short parades.

A Minor Misadventure

As we unloaded, parked, reloaded, and drove from Universal to Disney, we noticed that the car was getting harder to start each time. It was clear that we needed to fix the problem before trying to drive home. We took a short afternoon break on our first day at Disney so that we’d have the energy to stay up to watch fireworks. On the ride back to our hotel, I used the AAA app to report a battery issue. The app then showed a running countdown on when help would arrive. An hour later a repairman showed up, parked in front of our car in the parking lot and got to work diagnosing the issue. Thirty minutes and $150 later we had a new battery and the problem fixed (the old battery was original equipment in our 2015 Honda van.) My stress level went down and we enjoyed the rest of the vacation much more.

Magic Kingdom

We chose the Swan as our Disney hotel. It is not actually run by Disney, but rather Marriott, so I was able to get a AAA discount and Marriott points. The hotel is in easy walking distance of both Epcot and Hollywood Studios. Boat transportation to both parks is also available. Buses are needed to get to Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom parks. The bus to Magic Kingdom doesn’t go all the way to the park, but instead drops you off at the ticket and transportation center where you have to take a ferry or monorail to the park itself. One dodge is to walk to an adjacent Disney hotel (Yacht Club, Beach Club, or Boardwalk Resorts) and take their bus directly to the Magic Kingdom. We ended up walking to the Yacht Club bus in the morning, taking the monorail back to the Swan bus after lunch for a break, using the Swan bus and the ferry to return to the park later, and then taking the Boardwalk bus back in the evening (the three Disney busses had sequential parking spots and we hopped on the first one available).

The Swan is really close to Hollywood Studios (Tower of Terror visible out our window)

Disney Photopass/Memory Maker

On our last trip, I lugged my large 35mm DSLR around to all of the parks for taking pictures. This time, we decided that our cell phones would be good enough in combination with paying Disney to take good pictures of us with their Memory Maker service. This entitles you to unlimited photos from the scores of photographers around the parks plus ride photos and a few cool special photos including SuperZoom photos, spherical shots, and some photoshopped-in small additions. They also throw in some nice scenic shots of some of the places you visited. You can download all of your photos for free or pay to have some printed.

Magic Kingdom SuperZoom photo (click to play, there is also background music)
Animal Kingdom Sphere photo
Bonus scenic shot of Batuu
Digitally added snake

Everyone in your travel group can take pictures on one photopass purchase for the length of your visit. Even though we split up for a fair amount of each day to go to rides or shows that only some of the party were interested in, both groups were able to add pictures to the common collection by scanning their park ticket or magic-band.

Just inside the Magic Kingdom: a shot down Main Street. Note the premature Halloween decorations

One of our favorite rides is the Buzz Lightyear shooting ride in Tomorrowland. We headed there and did two quick rides before splitting to do Space Mountain and Carousel of Progress, then rejoining to take the people mover.

While there we spotted a pair of our favorite YouTube creators hard at work making another video. Since they were working, we didn’t bother them, but it was neat to spot them in person.

Molly and Quincy from AllEars.net making another helpful video
Another celebrity that we did take a selfie with

We headed counterclockwise and rode the new-to-us Little Mermaid ride and the classic carousel. We stopped in at Gaston’s and then headed to Be our Guest for lunch.

Outside the Little Mermaid
Dessert at Be Our Guest

Following lunch, we posed for a few more photos including the SuperZoom shot above then headed back to our hotel for a break and to deal with the dying car battery. When we returned, we worked clockwise and rode Pirates, split to ride Small World and order dinner, visited the Haunted Mansion, then headed to watch fireworks.

William had a thing for large pretzels
Photo from visiting the Haunted Mansion

The amount and quality of projection on the castle as well as the music and fireworks themselves were really good and we’re glad we made the time.

Magic Kingdom Fireworks and Projections

Hollywood Studios

SuperZoom video at Galaxy’s Edge. Click to play

Our day at Hollywood Studios was our busiest day. Due to their popularity, many of the activities require advanced reservations and/or luck clicking to get a virtual boarding group assignment. We had two dining reservations and two building reservations plus a boarding group for the Rise of the Resistance ride. I ended up spending most of my day in the new-to-me Star Wars section of the park but did get to do a little bit outside as well.

I started the day waking up just before 7am in hopes of securing a boarding group for Rise of the Resistance. This ride is extremely popular, so Disney issues virtual tickets for it at 7am and at 1pm via the My Disney Experience app. I was able to get boarding group 19 which would board about 2 hours after the park opened at 9am. I went briefly back to sleep before dressing and walking to the park. On the way, I realized that the boarding group time conflicted with our reservation for Oga’s Cantina in the Star Wars section, but a guest services representative assured me that the RotR cast members would be understanding and still let us on the ride.

We then split up so that the boys and I could ride Tower of Terror.

Outside the Tower of Terror

From there we headed for our first reservation in Batuu, stopping for a few group photos

Arriving in Batuu
Patty found a virtual friend

Oga’s Cantina

Oga’s Cantina is not the cantina from the first Star Wars movie, but it feels very similar. There you can order a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and a few snacks. You’re limited to spending 45 minutes in it and generally need an advanced reservation.

The Bar at Oga’s
There’s no band, but there is a droid as a DJ. This guy used to be the pilot on the Star Tours ride and is voiced by Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman)
Waiting at our table at Oga’s
A “Fuzzy Tauntaun”
More drinks

From Oga’s we headed over to Rise of the Resistance, where we waited through a short line and then dead stopped for an hour shortly before the start of the ride. At that point we were offered a free return fast pass if we wanted to leave. Being very hungry for lunch, we took them up on that offer and left to get food. We had a variety of Star Wars themed food for lunch and then headed back to see if the ride was fixed. It was. After brief confusion about if we needed to wait in the now very long line, we were able to use our fast pass to get around the line and nearly immediately start the ride. It was amazing!

Rise of the Resistance queue decoration
Rey and BB-8 from the preshow
Initial shuttle vehicle
Patty with Poe’s X-wing
Captured by the First Order!
Interrogation Chamber

After our narrow escape, we did a little more exploring and then split up to either watch a Beauty and the Beast show or fly the Millennium Falcon.

Selfie with an A-Wing
Bazaar
There’s something living in the water

Smuggler’s Run is the Millennium Falcon piloting ride.

The Falcon’s engines
Upperside of the Falcon
Smuggler’s Run mission briefing
Inside the Falcon’s cabin
Sitting in Han’s seat

Building a Droid

One of the very popular activities in Batuu is to build your own droid. You can build either an R2 or a BB style droid in a variety of colors and shapes. Then you can add on attachments and additional personalities (sounds).

Picking parts from a conveyer
Assembling the dome
Activating the completed droid

Building a droid starts at $99 with optional upcharges for attachments, personality chips, and a carrying backpack. Advanced reservations are recommended, although walk-ups were being admitted (with a longer line) when we were there. Each paid builder is allowed to bring one guest to assist/watch/take pictures.

Building a Lightsaber

The activity that I was most looking forward to was building my own lightsaber. I had painstakingly researched all of my options and chosen a design. But, I had also very carefully avoided watching any videos of the experience as I wanted to enjoy it fresh and in person. However, if you’d like to see it, here is a pretty good video from YouTube.

Chart showing available parts

You start by choosing one of four possible flavors of lightsaber that you want to build. You will be given a pin that corresponds to that choice and then build only from the parts in that family. For each saber you will choose two of the four possible sleeves, one of two emitters, one of two switches, and one of two pommels. Those choices result in a large number of possible combinations. They will also sell you a limited amount of “scrap metal”, which are additional pieces. I wanted two of the same sleeve on my final design, so had to buy an extra one as “scrap”.

During the build event you will get to choose one of four colored kyber crystals that will determine the color of your blade. Blue, green, purple, and red are available during the build. Yellow and white are only available to purchase separately. Rarely, a separately bought red crystal will actually be black. These are sought after for their rarity, but they function just like a red crystal and give a red blade.

You can also buy accessories like stands, belt hooks, replacement blades of different lengths and holocrons which will give wisdom from a Jedi/Sith corresponding to the crystal color placed into them.

The base experience costs $220 which includes a 15-minute show, a lightsaber, crystal, blade, and carrying bag. Advanced reservations are strongly recommended. As with the droid building, each paid builder can bring one guest observer along.

The lightsaber experience
Green kyber crystal installed into core and tray of parts to be selected
Marshall selecting parts
My initial Protection and Defense lightsaber
Marshall’s Power and Control lightsaber
Igniting the sabers for the first time
My updated lightsaber, with second identical sleeve and yellow crystal

The core, crystal, and blade are plastic. The exterior parts of the lightsaber itself are all cast and painted metal with a few plastic exceptions. They are high quality and have noticeable weight to them. I had a great time building it and modifying it.

As an alternative to the custom lightsabers, you can also buy “legacy” sabers that are reproductions of lightsabers used by characters in the various Star Wars shows. These use the same blades as the custom ones but do not use the kyber crystals and thus their blade colors can’t be changed. They generally don’t come with a blade or carrying case. Prices vary with model but are similar to the custom price when similarly equipped.

After building our lightsabers we headed off to dinner at Hollywood and Vine and then finally took the boat back to the hotel.

Dinner with lightsabers slung across our chests
Beef Tenderloin
Fancy S’more dessert
William and Halloween Mickey
Marshall and Goofy

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom SuperZoom picture – Click to play

The last time we were at Animal Kingdom, the Pandora section (based on the movie Avatar) was under construction and there were barriers up blocking views of about half the park. We didn’t have that problem this time and had much better views.

At Animal Kingdom
Central Tree of Life is carved with scores of animals
On Flight of Passage you ride a banshee through the skies of Pandora
Mural in the Flight of Passage line
Line for the Na’vi River Journey
The Na’vi River Journey is a lowkey boat ride through Pandoran scenery
Outside Pandoran scenery
William got another giant pretzel
There was some rain during lunch but we didn’t break out the disposable ponchos that we had brought

Disney Springs

On our way out of Disney we stopped at Disney Springs (similar to Universal’s CityWalk) where we had an appointment (good for up to four creators) to make custom Lego minifigs. For $12 you get to design the chest and back of a minifig that they will print for you. Then you can add your choice of about 20 different accessories (swords, chickens, pizzas), 20 heads, 20 hat/hair options, and 20 legs.

Inside decorations
Our Custom mini-figs
Decorations outside the store

Final Haul

Wands, lightsabers, magnets, and shirts
Star Wars themed soda and water bottles, a Star Wars spork and a BB droid

The soda bottles hold 13.5 ounces (just larger than a 12 oz can) for $6. They came with diet coke, coke, and sprite (left to right). On the right, rear of the picture is a Dasani water bottle with Star Wars labeling.

Another note: we typically walked 10 miles or so each day. I had spent many months doing nearly daily walks in the neighborhood to build up my stamina. Despite the large meals, sinful desserts, and frequent snacks, my weight upon return was within a pound of when I left. Hopefully I can keep the training up and reduce the food input some and move that dial in the right direction.