Universal Orlando: New Experiences & an Island-Inspired Hotel
By Liliane Opsomer
There is a lot to enjoy right now at Universal Orlando, and the upcoming shoulder season comes with great deals and lower park attendance, which allow for a more leisurely visit.
If you have not experienced the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, at both Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, then you are in for a treat. Make sure to purchase park-to-park tickets and enjoy a seamless experience, riding the Hogwarts Express between the two parks.
At Islands of Adventure, the Incredible Hulk Coaster is roaring again after the green giant underwent a major rebuild. The new ride vehicles have a sleek, modern design; the queue has been completely redesigned; and the music produced by Patrick Stump, the front man for the Fall Out Boy rock band, completes the experience. The ride is smooth and, even though I am not a rollercoaster fan, I totally get the thrill of the loops and turns. The best effect, however, is being catapulted with g-force out of the giant tunnel. I’m not sure if the loops, turns, and drops really register with me. I do know that the first exhilarating rush out of the tube, followed by the realization that I’m helplessly strapped, has me screaming into a total stranger’s ears. Note to myself: If you really like g-force, consider Space Camp.
It is somewhat reassuring to know that the next ride, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, keeps your feet securely on the ground. Little did I know before riding that braving ancient temple ruins on foot, while encountering hostile, Kong-worshipping natives, would not be my usual walk in the park. Known for Halloween Horror Nights, Universal has spared no effort to convey a sense of doom right from the moment you enter the queue. There are skeletons everywhere, it’s dark, and live actors jump out and scare you. Protected by a friend, I managed to brave the ride four times, always trying to stay on the side that I deemed safely away from the live actors. I actually rode once on my own, but I admit that I used the single-rider line, which spares guests the frights of the queuing line. It, of course, diminishes the experience, but it’s a good option if you ride with younger children. Single-rider access is currently not always offered.
The 72-seat, 40-foot-long, 17-ton expedition vehicle is open-sided and operates on a completely trackless ride system. Once you enter Skull Island, you find yourself in the midst of a brutal struggle between beasts of unimaginable size and ferocity. In the beginning, one does not know if Kong is friend or foe, but eventually the three-stories-tall ape comes to your rescue. He is larger than life, and when he beats his chest, roaring, you know that Skull Island is his island, and that he is the King!
After so much excitement, I looked forward to exploring my very own island and checked into Sapphire Falls, Universal’s fifth on-site Loews hotel and the second resort aimed at the moderate market.
Rooms are equipped with everything you need, such as a 49-inch flat-panel HDTV, a mini-fridge, a safe, an iron with ironing board, and a coffeemaker. There is free Wi-Fi for up to four devices per room, plenty of electrical outlets with dual integrated USB charging ports, and an iHome clock radio on the nightstand.
The entire resort exudes the colors and the feel of the Caribbean, and the rooms are no exception. Hues of blue are everywhere, from the bedspread to the mirror and the tiles in the bathroom.
I wish I could have had more time to just sit back and relax at the hotel. I rarely enjoy spending time in a hotel lobby, but the one at Sapphire Falls is welcoming and has nicely appointed seating areas with beautiful orchid arrangements. Another winner was Strong Water Tavern. After a long day in the parks, the tapas menu and great drinks are absolutely perfect.
For the big hunger, Amatista Cookhouse offers table-service Caribbean dining with an open kitchen and waterfront views for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For anything in between, visit the grab-and-go New Dutch Trading Co.
Make sure to fit in some pool time. The 16,000-square-foot, zero-entry pool is the largest pool of any of the Universal Orlando properties and features white-sand beaches, a hot tub, and Drhum Club Kantine, by far one of the best pool bars ever.
And there is more to come soon, with Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando’s third theme park, opening in the summer of next year. The park will be an entirely new kind of water experience. Volcano Bay will offer 18 unique attractions, ranging from daring to serene. They’ll be divided across four primary park areas where there’s something for everyone, including a multi-directional wave pool with sandy beaches, a peaceful winding river, twisting multi-rider raft rides, speeding body slides that drop from the top of the volcano into the waters below–and a state-of-the-art marquee attraction for which details have yet to be revealed.
I can’t wait for Volcano Bay to open, so I can return to Sapphire Falls. A stay at Sapphire Falls starts at $179, plus tax, per night. Check out the seasonal rates here. Want to know all about the rides and shows at Universal Orlando? Start planning your visit with The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando by Seth Kubersky.
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