Sunday, March 22, 2015

ORLANDO: Universal IOA Hogsmeade

We opted out of Disney while in Orlando for the Disney Princess Half and instead took in a day at each Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. We purchased the buy 2 day Park Hopper get a 3rd day free option but just spent 2 days at the parks. I had never been to Universal Studios but I had visited IOA about 8 years ago, before the Harry Potter World addition.

Harry Potter World was the center of our visit so we headed to Hogsmeade when we first arrived at IOA. It was a Monday so the park wasn't too crowded but it was definitely busier in the HPW sections of both parks. We went to the Three Broomsticks to eat and of course to try a Butter Beer! The Butter Beer reminded me a lot of cream soda. It was good but not something I wanted more than one of.

Next stop was Olivanders, my boyfriend wanted to get one of the interactive wands that could be used to perform spells throughout HPW. They only let a small number of people into the shop at a time, about 15-20. They go through a small skit and then you are taken to the shop to choose from souvenirs and of course wands. A non interactive wand cost about $40 while an interactive one cost $50.How do you tell the difference in the shop? Wands with the gold label (see below) are interactive wands. You can select from a variety of characters wands, each coming in interactive and non interactive. Each interactive wand comes with a map showing the spell locations throughout both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.

Follow the map to areas on the ground (mostly in front of shop windows) with gold letters and numbers as seen below. You wave your wand following the spell and usually something in the window moves. For what it is worth, some (read most) of the spell areas were congested. It takes more than once and sometimes about 10 times before the spell you "cast" works. You have to be in just the right spot and follow the spell to the T. There were HPW cast members at most of these areas to help out with your technique but it was somewhat frustrating getting it exactly right. None of the spots do anything spectacular except for one in Diagon Alley in which your spell makes rain come out of an umbrella.

Wanting to get in line for the rides before the lines got really long we headed to the Forbidden Journey ride. Once you enter the castle there is an area for you to rent a locker for free until an extended period of time(these can be found throughout the park and were extremely beneficial). Once all bags and loose belongings are locked up you can proceed to the line area which weaves around the back of the castle and then into the castle. Once inside the castle, the line moves throughout different areas which are sections you would recognize from the book, including the famous moving/ talking portraits in the hallways. The way Universal does their themes for both parks is very well thought out and makes standing in line much more enjoyable.

The Forbidden Journey is a 4D experience which starts as soon as you hop on the moving sidewalk of sorts to hurriedly get to your seat (4 people per car). The ride whisks you along inside and along the outside of the castle as you follow the characters through different adventures.  I do have to mention that some portions of the ride had me a little jumpy so keep that in mind if you have younger kids and maybe consider an alternative ride if you think it may freak them out. If alternate reality is hard for you to enjoy, I would also recommend skipping the ride. With that being said, it was one of my favorite rides in both parks as I prefer these type of rides to actual roller coasters.

After walking around the stores and doing some spells, we headed to the Dragon Challenge. This ride is not new to the park and used to be called the Dueling Dragons. I had rode this on my last visit and enjoyed it so we rode it again. The ride no longer races the red and blue dragon against each other. The ride was still fun, a little fast and a little high for me but I am no roller coaster fanatic.

We moved on throughout IOA later coming back to take the Hogswarts Express over to Diagon Alley. Overall I liked Hogsmeade but it is very congested. There are some areas with carts, lots of people practicing their spells in front of shops and a lot of people stopping to take plenty of photos (like me). The decor is amazing and as mentioned early Universal does a great job of making the different park themes come to life.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Orlando: Grande Villas Resort

While in Orlando for the Disney Princess Half Marathon last month, we stayed at the Grande Villas Resort. This resort is part of the Diamond Resort International Properties and is a time share type hotel. We booked through a 3rd party site and did not feel pressured by the staff to go to any time share presentations.

We stayed on the 5th floor (the top) in a renovated unit. As described on their site, the resort is under going renovations to update all of the units. The site warns of construction noise but we did not encounter this at all.  In fact, the resort was very quiet the entire duration of our stay. 

Our room was a 1 bedroom suite with a pull out couch in the living area as well as a kitchenette. The suite area was large and the bed/ pillows were very very comfy! There was a decent sized dresser for a couple, though too small for a family as well as a closet in the bathroom.The bathroom is connected to the bedroom with both a bath and shower with a large 2 sink vanity area. Through the suite was also the screened in porch which was very nice. My sister stayed in the living area and opted to just sleep on the couch instead of pulling it out and putting it together everyday. She said that this was comfortable for the duration of our stay.

Suite (separated from living area with pocket doors)

The property is beautiful and well maintained. We spent 3 nights at one of the hot tub areas (the resort has two pools) and enjoyed that very much. While staying at the resort you also have access to the property across the street. This resort has a 3rd pool/ hot tubs as well a mini golf course! We did not use this facility but it seems to be a great option for families. The hotel office/ lobby also had a schedule of family friendly events including a movie on a blow up screen at the pool, very nice touch!
Pool area behind Building B

The convenience factor may have been my favorite thing about staying at the Grande Villas Resort. We were a short 10-15 minutes to all Disney has to offer, 20-25 minutes to the Universal Parks, a quarter mile to the Winn-Dixie and 5 minutes from tons of dining options. Also on the property was a convenience store with everything from coffee & snacks to playing cards and souvenirs. The Food Mart also delivers food, the lobby gives you a menu at check in.

 The Food Mart

The room, property, location and price were all winning points of our stay and I have no complaints. For future trips to Orlando, we will definitely consider staying at Grande Villas again. I also will consider Diamond Resorts International properties in all my travels. To book a stay at Grande Villas Resort or for more information on additional DRI properties, please visit their website .

Pool Towels (under sink)

Extra bath towels, TP and Tissue (under sink)