I Went to a Universal Orlando After-Hours Event; Here’s What It Was Like

As part of their “Passholder Appreciation Days” season (August 14 to September 30) Universal Orlando has held a couple of special events for Annual Passholders in the past couple of weeks and we were able to go last week. Here’s what it was like.
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The Absolute Least Expensive Way to Travel Off Disney/Universal Property (Or Nearly Anywhere in Central Florida)

Going to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios Florida is expensive. Airline prices are high (although you can look for cheaper prices if you check out this post), park tickets run over $100 per person per day (but you may get some small legitimate discounts through the links on this page), hotels are quite a bit of money (check out the hints on this page for some better prices), food costs a lot, and that’s all before you even think of souvenirs. If you intend to stay on Disney property for your entire trip, you can travel around for free, between Disney’s Magical Express transporting you between the airport and your Disney hotel, and then Disney’s onsite transportation system of buses, monorails and boats to get you to and from the parks and other Disney-run areas. And if you stay on Universal property, you have use of buses, boats and walkways to and from the parks, once you get onto property. But if you’re staying off site, or want to venture out to, say, another theme park, or I-Drive or the outlet malls, you’re looking at even more expense with the use of a taxi, Uber, rental car, etc., right? Well, not necessarily. There’s one more option that’s cheaper than all of those…
Continue reading “The Absolute Least Expensive Way to Travel Off Disney/Universal Property (Or Nearly Anywhere in Central Florida)”

Man Accidentally Shoots Self At Orlando Airport

There’s a list of things you are NOT supposed to do at the airport. You are not allowed to bring liquids larger than 3 oz. in your carry on bags. You should not talk about bombs, explosives or any similar topics around the secure area. Well, can now add to that list:
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How To Get the Most Reward Points When Buying Amusement Park Tickets

It’s well into summer vacation season and that may mean it’s time to make a trip to your local amusement or water park, or it may be the time of year you pack up the family and head to Walt Disney World for the week. Finding discounts for some places can be easy, such as saving on admission for Six Flags parks by bringing a Coke can (They’ve been doing this promotion since I was a kid). Finding discounts for the Disney parks can be much more difficult and here are some hints of where to look (and where not to).

Wherever you decide to go, you can also maximize the points you earn for the tickets by paying with the right credit card. Here’s how:

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Our Favorite Central FL Restaurants Off Disney/Universal Property

We know that lots of theme park fans don’t like to go off theme park property when they vacation in Central Florida. We used to be like that, too. Eating at a theme park is usually faster than traveling off property to dine, it keeps you immersed in the theme park experience, etc. And we get it – there are indeed some really nice places “on property” that give you awesome food and/or theming, and you get to maximize your time in the parks. But if you limit yourself to just eating on property, you are denying yourself some incredibly good eats that usually cost a fraction of Disney’s and Universal’s prices and often taste even better than anything you can get in the parks or on property.

These are some of our most favorite “off property” restaurants. We’ve listed them in alphabetical order, since it would be almost impossible to put them in order of which is
best, second best, etc., and they run the gamut in terms of price point, food type, dress requirements and distance from the parks. Many offer meals throughout the day (i.e. breakfast, lunch, brunch, high tea), although we’re specifying our experiences with them for dinner. Most are places you can’t find anywhere else (or at least have only limited locations), they’re all “not to be missed” and some, we admit, are really just for adults (we’ve included level of “kid friendliness,” based on our observations, in each of the narratives). Continue reading “Our Favorite Central FL Restaurants Off Disney/Universal Property”

What It’s Like To Throw Beads From A Mardi Gras Float at Universal Orlando

One really cool, albeit obvious thing about living in Central Florida is that you can sometimes take advantage of what Orlando-area theme parks have to offer. Case in point: Joe and I have been Universal Orlando annual passholders since around 2009 or so. Besides the fact that we can go to the parks pretty much whenever we want (which was particularly WONDERFUL when each of the two Harry Potter lands were in previews and then opened), we also occasionally have some access to some benefits and experiences that people who are “just visiting” might not get. Case in point: being able to throw beads from one of the floats at Universal Studios Florida’s (USF) Mardi Gras parade.

MGRouteMap
Universal Studios Florida’s Parade Route – it starts and ends next to Horror Makeup Show and travels clockwise

USF has been hosting an evening Mardi Gras since 1994. The number of nights they host it has changed over time, as has the amount of floats (they have added 6 more floats this year, all designed by Kern Studios in Louisiana, and all based on mythical creatures, which brings the total up to 12) and, of course, the exact dates of their Mardi Gras celebration varies from year to year (this year it’s running from February 4 through March 25. And yes, they know Mardi Gras officially ends on Fat Tuesday, which this year was February 28, but I guess it’s a good way to get people to come to the theme park, so they extend the celebration a few weeks). One of the current perks of being an Annual or Seasonal Passholder at USF is the ability to sign up to try to be on a float and throw beads. All of the rules and regulations are spelled out on this page of Universal’s website (the webpage was up-to-date as of the posting of this article. If the link no longer works, please let us know and we’ll update as possible). For the past 2 or 3 years, I have applied both Joe and I for every day that Joe is off but we had never been picked before. So, of course, when it rains it pours – the day after Annual Passholder friends of ours invited us to be their guests to throw beads, Joe got an email from Universal, inviting him and a guest to ride a float and throw them.

YIPPEE!!!!!!!

We arrived at our designated meeting place around 5:30pm, near the entry to the Barney show, but were told the person with the wristbands that would identify us as float riders wasn’t there yet. However the guy arrived a few minutes later and once he got there, we were able to check in. With hot pink wristbands in hand and then on wrists, our next step was to fill out waivers that said we wouldn’t hold USF responsible if we were hurt while throwing beads, they had the right to photograph us without compensation, etc. From there we had about 45-60 minutes until they would need us.

MGGuy
We dubbed him “Mardi Gras Guy”

We spent a few minutes just taking it all in – we saw there were 12 different signs attached to poles, fences, etc., with words like Sold Green, Multicolor, Solid Yellow, etc.  These corresponded with the color of wristband people were wearing and would eventually identify which float we were to board. There were people from all different demographics in terms of age, gender, race, etc. And although most people were dressed for a day at the parks, at least one appeared to be dressed specifically for Mardi Gras.

Joe and I came back at our designated time of 6:30pm and after we were all asked to stand by the sign that had the color of our wristband, one of the Team Members went over the Official Rules of Throwing Beads At Universal Studios:

  • Only throw 1 necklace at a time
  • Throw them high and far
  • Only throw them underhand or like the beads were a frisbee – NOT overhand
  • We would have about 30 minutes to throw as many beads as we could on the parade route, so it was suggested we pace ourselves
  • Make eye contact with who you planned to throw to, so they would know to expect the beads coming and not get bonked in the head/eye/camera, etc.
  • We could take as many photos and as much video as we wanted once we were on stage, but there was to be absolutely no camera (still or video)  use backstage

It was then time to be led backstage to our respective floats. With our solid hot pink wristbands, we were scheduled to be on the “Riverboat” float, which is the very first float in the parade (I’m told from a friend that the front (Riverboat) and rear (Alligator) floats are the ones reserved for Annual Passholders. They’re also the two largest floats in the parade). Other wristband color designations included Purple = Garuba, Solid Red = Gator, Blue Pattern = Pegasus, etc.

As each group went towards backstage, they went in different directions, based on where in the parade their float was (read: if their designated float was towards the back of the parade, they entered backstage by the Curious George water play area). Since we were in the very front, we entered backstage just to the right of the KidZone Pizza Company. But before we went backstage, our leader, Scott, said he needed some volunteers – first 6 adults, then 9 people of any age, then 6 more adults. Joe and I managed to get into the group of 9 and as it turned out, that meant we got to be on the top tier of our float! COOL!!!

So we went backstage and we had only a short walk to the Riverboat float. Our group was introduced to the people who would be helping us, as well as some of the drivers. They once again reiterated NO PHOTOGRAPHY BACKSTAGE (as in, “Sir, we said there is to be no photography or video backstage. Please put your phone away.”) and then we were fitted for our costumes (each Krewe member wears what is essentially a tunic, which ties behind him/her at the neck and small of the back, over his/her clothes. Each tunic, which appears to be color chosen for its respective float, has a differently color sequined Fleur De Lis emblem which is Velcroed onto the tunic). The tunics were thick polyester and HOT after more than a few minutes on what was that warm evening.

Once everyone had their tunic on, we were instructed to climb aboard our float, based on where we were going to be placed. The bottom row had to just go up a few stairs  on either side of the float but those of us in the top row had to go up the same stairs, then climb an 8-step ladder that was securely attached to the float (no worries about falling – we had already signed Universal’s “We won’t sue you if we get hurt” liability form).

MGBeads
Dozens upon dozens of beads, bundled by color and separated out by small pieces of paper, 10 per pack

Once up on top, we still had about 30 minutes until the parade started. Our allotment of beads was already hung on the float, ready for us. Our leader, Scott, went over all the Official Rules of Throwing Beads at Universal Studios again, this time with some anecdotes (i.e. Jimmy Fallon is the halfway point so you can use that to help  judge if you need to start throwing beads slower or faster; throw far because it gives people more of a chance to realize some beads are coming at them – especially the darker-colored green and purple ones; they used to throw plastic coins as well but they stopped that a few years ago because getting bonked in the head with a plastic coin hurts; you get 10 points if you ring beads onto a selfie stick [just kidding], etc.). The 9 of us were a quick study and still had plenty of time so we started asking Scott about what else he did at Universal (it sounded like he only works special events. Oh, and his wife was the leader directly below us on the Riverboat float!), who cleans up after us when everything is done (he did, so make sure to throw as many beads as possible!), etc.

It was finally 7:45pm and the parade started! And oh, what fun it was! I mean, I’ve been a spectator at Universal’s Mardi Gras parade lots of times (and have LOTS of beads to prove it) but that is NOTHING compared to being a Krewe member and throwing them! I didn’t ring any selfie sticks but I wound up with more than a few beads in trees, and I think a few landed on some awnings, too (my aim really sucks). Most got into peoples’ hands, thankfully. And every once in a while I established eye contact with whoever had caught my beads – I could see how happy they were, which made me feel happier. It was very, VERY cool.

Here’s a quick, 30-second video of what it’s like to throw beads on the float. I took it just as we were approaching The Mummy ride:

And here are the floats, as seen from the ground:

All too soon, we were backstage again. We were encouraged to take some of the beads that had fallen onto the floor as a souvenir (yay, Scott would have less to clean up!) and once we were back to our spot, we were instructed to remove the Velcroed “bib” from our costumes and hand the costume and bib to Scott (I’m guessing the tunics get washed but the bibs, MGTReewhich have the sequin decoration but never touches skin, do not – or at least get washed separately or a different way). We climbed down the ladder and once we got the all clear, we were allowed to exit the float and go back into the park – we wound up next to Monster Sound Show.

As an Annual or Seasonal Passholder, getting picked to throw beads at Mardi Gras is really just the luck of the draw. I hope either my or Joe’s name is picked again one of these days – it was LOADS of fun and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

By the way, if you’re at Universal Orlando Resort through the end of March and have an extra set of beads, make sure to add to the “Mardi Gras tree” – it’s on the right, right after the first set of moving walkways when you’re on the way back to the parking garages.

J&SMG

I Went On The New Jimmy Fallon Ride & Here’s What I Thought (has opinions of queue experience but no ride spoilers!)

photo-mar-04-3-42-34-pmThe brand new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon attraction at Universal Studios Florida has been soft opened for a few days now. A “soft opening” (or what Universal calls a “technical rehearsal”) is when the attraction is open and guests/customers are allowed to ride, but with the caveat that the attraction may not be open all the time, it could suddenly close for technical reasons, not every aspect may be working correctly, the attraction workers are still learning their roles, etc., so there’s no guarantee that everything will run 100% smoothly. In fact, it’s generally not even officially announced when an attraction is going through technical rehearsal – you just show up one day and voila, it’s open! Potential minor mishaps set aside, it’s still the first time that regular park guests get to see a new attraction, so it’s always fun, if you get a chance.

I had read on Twitter that the ride was in technical rehearsals and since I have an Annual Pass to the park, and some free time this past Saturday, I stopped by Universal and see if Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon was soft opened (because remember, it’s always a hit or miss with a technical rehearsal) and luckily enough, it was. So I got on line, excited to experience this brand new attraction.

The building takes the space of where the old Twister attraction had been. They’ve totally redone the building from the ground up though, and what had been themed as a back lot studio stage building now resembles the exterior of the NBC Building (30 Rockefeller Plaza) in New York City. The only difference is that the “real” 30 Rock is a seventy story high skyscraper (14th tallest building in NYC) and this one is made to look like it has about eight stories (thanks to the forced perspective of small windows) but is actually only three or so.
Photo Mar 04, 4 47 34 PM.jpg

photo-mar-04-4-45-42-pmI approached the building and saw that what you would expect to be the front entrance of the attraction (where the overhang and logo for the attraction were) has a sign pointing you to enter a few dozen feet to the right and as the line got longer, there was a Team Member standing with a LINE STARTS HERE sign at the very far end of the line. Just before you went inside, there was an empty area with 2 red seats with photo-mar-04-4-46-21-pmno signage – turned out they were mock ups of the seats used in the attraction. I would guess these were to ensure proper fit for guests who may have concerns about such things, but I thought it was weird for them to be (A) out in the open and cordoned off in a crowd-free area, where everyone could see and (B) uncovered (shade is a wonderful commodity in Florida, especially in the summertime but on top of that, it rains nearly every afternoon from late spring to early autumn – I wouldn’t want to sit in one of those seats while it was raining or had just finished doing so, would you?).

Once we got inside, I saw that the theming continued and the inside of the building looked VERY much like the art deco style of inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza (I’ve been in that building before). After going through a long hallway, each guest was given a colored plastic ticket with instructions (in English on one side, and Spanish on the other) of what to expect and do next. My card, as was the card of many people before and after me, was green.

We were invited to wait in an area that looked like 30 Rock’s main lobby. The walls had windows with montages of each past host of The Tonight Show, from Steve Allen in the 50s to Jack Paar in the 50s and 60s, to Johnny Carson and Jay Leno (their tenure was so long that they each got double windows), to Conan O’Brien and, of course, Jimmy Fallon.


photo-mar-04-3-48-41-pmEvery 10 minutes or so, the 3-note “NBC” tune would play and some of the some lights in the room would turn a solid color that would correspond to the guests who had be issued ticket with that same color (i.e. as seen by the blue tint of the ceiling light in the 2 photos above, the people with blue cards were being called). When the peacock turned green, that was our notification to go upstairs to the next holding area via steps or elevator.

Whereas the downstairs “lobby” area didn’t get crowded until the very end of my wait there, holding room #2 was already filled with 250-300 people when I arrived (that number remained a constant – as X number of people were allowed to leave to go to the next waiting area, that number of people were invited in). Upon entering, I could see there were 12 love seats seats to the right, along with a half dozen of interactive screens to play with. The love seats would hold less than 10% of the people in the room, but they appeared to have USB and electrical plugs attached to them, so those lucky 24 people had that going for them. There were some TV screens throughout the room, showing Jimmy Fallon clips. Finally, at the very far end of this long room was a small stage with an a cappella singing group, The Ragtime Gals, to keep people entertained in sets that seemed to follow a 5-minutes on, 5-minutes-off pattern (when they weren’t singing, they played more Jimmy Fallon chips on the screen behind them).


Just like clockwork, every 10 minutes, the NBC chime would ring and select lights in the room would change color. This again indicated that people holding “that” color card were invited to go into the next holding room. I waited through red, yellow, purple and blue before the lights turned green. When they finally did, us “green card holding people” were photo-mar-04-4-23-36-pminvited to hand our tickets in, walk a short hallway, grab a pair of 3D glasses (because yep, this attraction is yet another 3D experience), tell a woman with a clipboard how many were in our party and she then told us what row to stand in as we entered into the next room. This was the pre-show area where The Roots rapped in a video about safety procedures for the ride, with a special guest appearance from Sara. Unfortunately, I was in the back row and (A) with only one TV screen to watch and (B) lots of people taller than me in front of me and (C) where I was in my row placed me behind a beam, so I couldn’t really see the TV very well at all. Fortunately, “keep your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the ride at all times and be attentive of your loose objects” doesn’t change much from attraction to attraction.

After 10 minutes in the pre-show room, we were finally brought into the attraction room. In the interest of spoilers, I won’t tell you anything about the attraction details. I will say that it’s pretty much the same type of ride as Minions, Shrek 4D and The Simpsons rides, but with a better (read: not as cartoony) video capacity, similar to what you see in Transformers 3D. If you like those kinds of rides, I guess you’ll probably like this one, too. If you think something more innovative would have been nice, well, I guess you’ll be as underwhelmed and disappointed as I was. The ride lasts about 3 minutes.

At the end of the ride we walked down a set of stairs and into, of course, a gift shop. So if you’ve ever wanted a  The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon phone case or a T-shirt with Hashtag the Panda, you know where to go.

photo-mar-04-4-43-27-pm

My overall thoughts:

  • The theming of the lobby and waiting areas are wonderful. They obviously did a lot of research and work to get all that detail and I was duly impressed.
  • Between the plastic tickets and the interactive screens, consider bringing a small container of hand sanitizer with you. I saw one young woman with her card in her mouth and I don’t even want to think what kind of cooties are on those screens (the same goes for the interactive queues at The Haunted Mansion and The Seven Dwarves Mine Train at Magic Kingdom).
  • The Ragtime Gals were VERY talented. I just love all the entertainment that Universal brings to the table. While Walt Disney World seems to cut more and more live entertainers every year, Universal seems to find more and more reasons to showcase them. Kudos for that!
  • The plugs and USB inputs were a nice touch but I didn’t see anyone using them. I don’t know if the seated people didn’t realize they were there, didn’t need a charge, didn’t have charging equipment with them, or what (I also considered the thought that the chargers don’t actually work, but a friend of mine has confirmed that they do).
  • I can see using the plastic cards instead of people having to stand in a queue. However once we were in holding room #2, we were roughly 250-300 people standing in a room for about 30 or 40 minutes. There were not nearly enough seats, no more than a half dozen interactive screens, and the space to watch the Ragtime Gals was pretty limited. That left lots and lots of people standing against walls (if they could finds wall space), with a bottleneck at the area where we eventually went through to go to the pre-show are (much like an airport where people crowd around waiting to hear when “their” number could board, it was filled with people waiting for “their” color to come up).
  • I wish they had more TV screens in the pre-show room that were more accessible for viewing by their shorter guests.
  • If you are in the back row of the attraction, you can easily see the left and right edges of the convex movie screen, which sort of ruins the illusion of “racing through New York” in the movie.
  • The attraction held 6 rows with 12 people across each row. That’s a max of 72 people at a time. Perhaps it was just because of the soft opening and everything and everyone being new, but each group of people with whatever colored ticket took 10 minutes to load, ride and unload. That averages out to be just 432 people per hour (as a comparison, Shrek 4D is said to have the capacity of 2400 people per hour, The Simpsons Ride can go through 2000 people per hour and Despicable Me can only do about 857 per hour, but that last one is also about 14 minutes long [and now you know why the line for Despicable Me is almost always 90+ minutes]). If there is a second room with the same ride so the two can be run concurrently (UPDATE: I’ve heard that may be the case), that would double capacity to 864 people, which is still not a whole lot. I’m going to cross my fingers that they just get the load/unload perfected and they can shave the time of each group to 7 minutes or so.
  • My overall Score: Queue: A+, Ride: C-. I’ll go on it if I have friends in town who want to experience it, but it will definitely not be on my list of “must rides.”

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