- Apr 2, 2008
Lebeau Family Trip Report 2018: Universal Orlando Resort Part 1
It’s that time of year again. The Lebeaus have recently returned from what has become a quasi-annual pilgrimage to the theme park capital of the world, Orlando. This year’s trip was essentially a do-over of last year’s vacation at Universal which was plagued with bad weather, injuries and illness. Despite a run of bad luck, Mindy and the kids enjoyed our time at Universal and wanted to give it another shot. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to make a return trip so soon, but after finding a really good deal on Universal’s flagship hotel, we decided to go back for more.
If you are reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you know the clan. But I will go ahead and introduce new readers to the members of my family and bring regular readers up to speed on what’s been going on since last year. You guys know me. I’m your friendly blogger Lebeau. Prior to this trip I had been busy with work and family stuff so I was really looking forward to getting away for a while.
My wife, Mindy, goes through this pretty much annually. In the winter, she gets the urge to travel to warmer climates. This usually means Florida partially because Mindy’s claustrophobia makes traveling long distances challenging. Every year, she sets her sites on a Spring Break get-away and every year we balk at the price tag. So this year, we decided to take an early summer trip again with an eye towards a Spring Break trip next year.
Josie is our oldest daughter. Both of the kids have Spring birthdays. This year, Josie became a teenager. Time definitely flies which is one of the reasons these kinds of family trips are important. For her birthday, Josie wanted a puppy. I reluctantly agreed on a couple of conditions. One, this had to be the last family pet as we already have two dogs. And two, we wouldn’t look for a new dog until after we returned from vacation. While Josie was excited for our trip, she was even more excited about getting a puppy. If she could have skipped the whole thing and gotten the dog right away, I’m pretty sure she would have.
Kara is our youngest and she recently turned nine years old. She’s honestly not much for theme park rides. Kara and Mindy enjoy the parks up to a point, but I have learned over the years that they need to be able to spend time in the hotel enjoying the amenities. Kara was looking forward to the motion simulator rides like Minion Mayhem and Race Through New York as well as the wave pool at Volcano Bay. She was also pretty excited about that puppy.
The challenge that we face with family vacations is that our family’s interests are split in half. Mindy and Kara prefer a much more relaxing trip whereas Josie and I get bored with hanging around a hotel no matter how nice it may be. What appeals to us about Universal is the ease with which we can get from the hotel to the attractions and back. We were able to get back to the hotel for a dip in the pool during the hottest hours of the day. Other times when Mindy and Kara needed a break from the parks, Josie and I could go off on our own with relative ease.
Our travel day was pretty mundane. In the past, I have picked early morning flights into Orlando in order to allow for some park time in the afternoon or evening. But this year, I decided on an afternoon flight. This allowed for a more leisurely approach to the always-stressful arrival day. We were also renting a car for the week which is not something we typically do on theme park vacations. While it was nice to have the freedom to come and go as we pleased, I don’t think we used the car enough to justify the expense. So this was probably a one-time experiment.
The decision to rent a car lead to the first snafu of our trip. Mindy was looking forward to driving a nice, new car whereas I am not a car guy and all and frankly she’s a better driver than I am. So, it was a foregone conclusion that Mindy would drive us from the airport to the hotel. I started getting directions from Google Maps, but Mindy wanted to use an app called Waze instead. Since I didn’t have Waze on my phone, Mindy entered the information herself and long story short we ended up driving about a half hour out of our way. What should have been a twenty minute drive ended up taking almost an hour instead.
It was an oopsie, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. The kids were napping in the backseat and Kara slept through most of the drive. I really should have noticed before I did. I knew from previous trips that the drive in is filled with billboards advertising Orlando attractions. The absence of those billboards was my first tip that we weren’t going in the right direction but I didn’t want to be a backseat driver so I didn’t speak up right away. After what seemed like too much time in the car, I pulled up Google Maps and realized we were 40 minutes away from the hotel.
Mindy was upset with herself over the mistake, but there was nothing to do but turn around. It really wasn’t a big deal. We got to the hotel a little later than expected and everyone was pretty worn out. Maybe even a bit crabby. I had planned to take the kids to the pool if the weather allowed, but it was raining lightly when we arrived. All anyone wanted to do was unpack and grab a bite to eat.
As I mentioned in the introduction, one of the reasons that this particular trip came together was that I was able to get a really good deal on a room at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. It included a discount on parking which is part of the reason we rented the car. For the price, I was expecting the worst room in the hotel with a view of the parking lot. But we were pleasantly surprised with a bay view room on the first floor. I really couldn’t believe our luck. The room was close to everything and a door opened to the bay which in addition to being beautiful was also the hub of all activity.
The first order of business was getting the kids something to eat. It was past the kids’ usual dinner time and they were low on energy from the flight and drive in. With the light rain, no one wanted to venture into CityWalk, so we were limited to the restaurants in the hotel. The best option to my mind was Sal’s Market Deli, a quick service restaurant serving Italian food. I had read about their yummy brick-fired pizzas before the trip. The only problem was, Kara didn’t want pizza.
Kara gets moody when she’s hungry. She can reach a point where she is impossible to please. We were in danger of that happening. So I pulled up the menu for Sal’s and reviewed the non-pizza options. The menu is admittedly limited and Kara wasn’t overly excited by what they offered. Aside from pizzas, the menu included salads and sandwiches. Josie wanted a meatball sub, but Kara said the ones she knew from school were “gross”. So I pulled up Yelp to show her some pictures of the food. The picture of the meatball sub included homemade chips which did not appeal to Kara at all. I checked the menu and saw that she could substitute french fries for the chips and that turned things around. Her mood brightened at the prospect of a familiar side dish.
Once everyone knew what they wanted, I walked down to the restaurant. I had read that you could place an order from the comfort of your room and they would call you back when your food was ready, but I kind of wanted to explore. The girls had no such desire, so the plan was for me to bring the food back to the room. Sal’s was a very short walk from our room and the food was ready a few minutes after I placed the order. So it all worked out nicely.
By the time I got back to the room, Mindy had finished unpacking most of the bags and the girls were settling in. Their moods brightened at the prospect of a hot meal which smelled fantastic. Mindy had her eye on a margherita pizza. If you have read previous trip reports, you may know that she gravitates towards fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil. The crust was thin and cracker-like. If you like a crispy crust, Sal’s is your kind of pizza.
A large pie is $18.00 which isn’t bad at all for theme park prices. Louie’s inside the parks charges nearly $40 for whole pie and I guarantee you it is not as good as Sal’s. If the kids had not opted out of pizza, I could have fed the whole family for $20. Instead, the kids each ordered meatball subs which were ginormous.
I don’t think the picture conveys just how big the meatballs on this sandwich are. The girls could have split this order. The subs were a little hard to eat. The tomato sauce made the bread soggy at the bottom and if you weren’t careful the giant meatballs would rip through. For me, the meat to bread ratio was off, but the meatballs were delicious. They ended up deconstructing the sandwiches and eating the meatballs with a fork. The fries were the main attraction anyway.
As you can see, Sal’s got two thumbs up from the kids. They really liked that instead of ketchup packets they each got a small bottle of Heinz. Kara dipped her fries directly in the bottle. It’s the little things, I tell you.
I didn’t order any food for myself. That was going to be a common practice this trip. The portions at Universal are huge and a lot of food ends up going to waste. So more often than not, I just ate whatever the girls didn’t finish. In this case, I helped out with the pizza and sampled the meatballs. There were still a couple of slices of pizza left over which I ate cold for breakfast later in the trip. I had read that Portofino Bay did not include a complimentary refrigerator. In years past, there was an expensive mini-bar instead. I am happy to report that our room included a fridge.
After dinner, we settled in and got to bed. We didn’t have any solid plans for the first full day of our trip beyond that we would go to the parks weather permitting. But I figured I would let everyone sleep in so we didn’t set an alarm. I’m an early riser anyway, so I figured I would get up and try not to disturb anyone. Sure enough, I woke up around seven and the rest of the family was sound asleep. So I decided to hop on a boat to CityWalk and see what I could do about breakfast.
Prior to the trip, we were all looking forward to trying out the newest addition to CityWalk, Voodoo Donuts. Several years ago, I had seen the original location in Portland covered on both the Travel Channel and Food Network. I made a mental note to check them out if I ever found myself out that way. Since then, the bakery has been expanding including a location at Universal Hollywood. So I suppose it was just a matter of time before they set up shop at the Orlando Resort.
After the new shop was announced, I showed the girls pictures of the donuts and followed the progress of the building. We were all pleased once it was confirmed that Voodoo Donuts would be open for business during our stay. I had read that long lines were common, so I warned the girls that might be an issue. No matter how good the donuts might be, I didn’t want to wait in line for an hour. Since everyone else was still asleep and I had time on my hands, I figured I would hop a water taxi over to CityWalk and check out the situation.
I didn’t have a set plan when I boarded the boat. There were too many variables. I didn’t know how long it would take to get donuts and I couldn’t when the girls would wake up. I left them a note telling them I had gone for dounts and to call me. If the girls were up before I got donuts, I figured they could meet me there. I would at least have a place in line if it was long. If there wasn’t much of a line or the girls slept in late, I would bring donuts back to the room.
As it turns out, I ended up bringing a big pink box of donuts back to the room. The water taxi was waiting for me at the dock on both ends of my trip so I didn’t waste any time waiting for transportation. The line for donuts was outside the store, but it moved quickly. I only waited about ten minutes before it was my turn to order.
In the center of the shop is a big wheel which turns slowly displaying all of the donuts. The line winds around the spinning wheel giving customers a chance to check out the goods while they wait. Given the variety of donuts offered, this is an extremely good idea. Even though I had been looking at the menu for months before the trip, I wasn’t sure what to get when I reached the front of the line.
Josie had decided before we left that she needed to try the signature voodoo doll donut. It’s a jelly donut shaped like a voodoo doll with a pretzel rod you can use to poke it. Theoretically, the oozing jelly represents blood although unless you squeeze the pastry the jelly will likely stay within the donut. I ordered a couple of these in order to prevent any fights.
Mindy wanted the bacon maple bar. She typically seeks out this sweet and salty flavor profile when we can find it locally. The varieties offered by our local bakeries are good, but they tend to use bacon crumbles instead of actual strips of bacon. It’s just not the same. As you can see from the picture above, the Voodoo Donuts version features two thick, crisp pieces of salty meat. It’s a bit hard to eat but it really packs a flavor wallop.
I wasn’t sure what to get for Kara, so I filled out the rest of the box with a sampling of donuts I thought might appeal to her. I had read that the Memphis Mafia was a must try and it lived up to its reputation. The fritter is roughly the size of a hubcap and its topped with bananas, peanut butter and chocolate. Without hesitation, I can call it the best donut I have ever tasted. I wish I had one now.
My other selections included Dirt (topped with crushed Oreo cookies), ODB (same as Dirt but with a peanut butter drizzle), Grape Ape (with “grape dust”), Little Pink ( a small version of the Simpsons donut offered in the parks), Portland Cream (a cream-filled donut with a smiley face), the 8 Mile (a cake donut covered in M&M’s) and the Neapolitan (a chocolate cake donut with strawberry dust and marshmallows).
The donuts were huge. They were more expensive than I am used to paying for donuts, but with our annual pass discount I think I paid around $35 for a dozen. It’s not something I would do every day, but as a vacation treat I felt like it was worth it. We cut the donuts up so everyone could sample them and they ended up lasting us a few days. Any time someone wanted something sweet, we could dig into the pink box. After a few days of snacking, there were still donuts left but we threw them out. Now that we know what we like, I would make a smaller more targeted order in the future.
The only disappointment for me was the Neapolitan. For one, I prefer yeast donuts to the cake variety. The 8-Mile was covered in so much candy, the base donut was a non-factor but the Neapolitan’s toppings didn’t have the same wow factor. The strawberry dust was overpowered by the chocolate donut and the marshmallows didn’t have any flavor at all. So what you were left with was a pretty standard chocolate cake donut. The purple dust on the Grape Ape, on the other hand, was packed with flavor. If a donut that tastes like grape soda appeals to you, it’s worth checking out.
As a peanut butter fan, the Memphis Mafia and the ODB were my favorites. The kids really liked the voodoo dolls. Part of the appeal was the fun of poking them. But they also liked the thick, fudgey frosting and the raspberry jelly. Ultimately, it’s a jelly donut but if you like chocolate and raspberries it’s the best darn jelly donut around.
By this point, I had been in Orlando for roughly 12 hours without visiting a theme park. That needed to be rectified. As the girls got ready, I polled them to try to figure out which park to visit first. Everything they expressed an interest in riding was in Universal Studios, so we decided to start our day there and see what happened. Last year, our days were cut short by frequent thunderstorms and it had rained steadily on our arrival day so we were very mindful of the weather. The forecast for this week wasn’t promising.
Beyond picking a park to visit, we didn’t have much of a plan. In terms of efficient touring, we were doing a lot of things “wrong”. First of all we didn’t take advantage of Early Park Admission. Then we went so far as to sleep in. We had given up the early morning hours when lines would be the shortest. I was counting on Express Pass to compensate for our “mistakes”.
The first ride the girls wanted to experience was Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. This is a popular attraction right in the front of the park, so lines can get very long. If I were giving someone advice on touring the park properly, I would tell them to skip Minion Mayhem early in the morning and come back later. But part of the reason we were staying on property at a deluxe resort that included EP was so we wouldn’t have to worry about that sort of thing. So we queued up with everybody else despite the fact the EP line was a little on the long side.
We ended up waiting around 15 minutes for our chance to be turned into minions. That’s a pretty long wait for EP, but we were still riding high on first day excitement not to mention the sugar rush from our donut breakfast. It was hot in the outside portions of the queue, but there were fans set up that kept it from being unbearable. I did feel bad for the people who were going to be standing in line for forty minutes or more.
Minion Mayhem is a fun motion simulator with an enjoyable preshow. It’s something we can all ride together without pushing anyone out of their comfort zone. There were minions out in the dance party room without much of a line so I asked the kids if they wanted to see them. Last year, Kara was on a mission to hug a minion. But this time, she said she was okay having done in last year so we went ahead and exited through the gift shop.
Our next stop was Race Through New York also known as The Jimmy Fallon ride. This motion simulator is not a favorite of the fan community, but last year Kara picked it as her favorite ride over even Minion Mayhem. I think a big part of the appeal for her is the virtual queue which has guests hanging out in a lobby as opposed to a traditional line. The waiting area has various forms of entertainment including some Tonight Show themed video games. The games are less sophisticated than the apps you probably have installed on your phone but they are installed on large tables which makes them more appealing to kids.
The last time we visited, Race Through New York was brand new and it seemed like they were still working out some of the operational issues with the waiting area. Guests didn’t seem to understand the concept and the flow was chaotic with logjams building up around the stage area. This year, there was a team member directing guests to various areas in the lobby. It seemed to improve the general flow of traffic at the cost of allowing guests to explore the entertainment as they see fit.
As soon as we got upstairs, we were instructed to enter the stage area where the Ragtime Gals were about to start their show. We never saw the live show last year. Both times, the performance started after we had moved out of the lobby. So it was nice to finally see the show in person instead of on monitors down the hall. The actual wait time for the ride was shorter as well which suggests to me that the operations have become more efficient since last year.
Next up was Revenge of the Mummy. This was one of Josie’s favorite attractions last year, but Mindy and Kara had yet to experience it. I showed Kara some ride videos to gauge whether or not she could handle the dark ride-coaster hybrid. With encouragement from Josie, she decided she would give it a try. I also had some concerns about the darkness triggering Mindy’s claustrophobia, but The Mummy is a relatively short ride so I figured even if they hated it, it would be over soon.
I quickly stowed our bags in the free lockers nearby and we headed into the EP queue. Once again, the EP line was a little longer than I was used to and I worried a bit that this was how the trip was going to be. Maybe it was just that busy. Our wait was still less than ten minutes, so it was very manageable.
When I posted our ride photo on Facebook, all of our friends and family thought Kara was crying. She’s clutching Mindy’s hand for dear life, but she’s actually laughing and screaming. I know it sure doesn’t look like Kara was enjoying herself, but she said she liked it and would ride again. I asked again weeks later as I was preparing this trip report and she confirmed she was having fun. So, there you go. Josie was a lot less impressed this time around. I think she had built the ride up in her head and it failed to live up to her expectations this year. It probably didn’t help that the fire effects were turned off. The rumor I heard was that this was related to nearby construction.
It was definitely hot and the kids were getting hungry for something more substantial than donuts. Kara wanted a proper lunch but she wasn’t entirely certain what she was in the mood for. I ran through a few nearby options, but ultimately our indecisiveness lead us to the conclusion that Fast Food Blvd was our best bet due to the variety of the food court. We always seem to end up eating there. I had intended to mix things up a little more on this trip, but it was what the kids wanted so we started walking that way.
As we passed Transformers, I realized that something was missing. I had forgotten to retrieve our bag from the lockers by The Mummy. Since my pants had the most pockets, I was generally in charge of keeping track of everyone’s passes, devices, etc. Just about every ten minutes or so, I would do a mental check to make sure I had everything I was supposed to be carrying. This was a rare misstep on my part, but it was easily remedied. We still had another hour or so before we would be charged for the locker. I told the girls to go on ahead to Springfield and I would catch up with them after retrieving our bag.
That’s essentially what happened. I ran back to The Mummy and got our stuff while the girls continued on their way. When I caught up with them, they were getting ready to place their orders at Krusty Burger. The place was packed, but Mindy commented that they were directing traffic more efficiently than they have in the past. Sometimes, the food court can be a bit chaotic. Kara had decided she wanted a burger so that lead them to queue up in that line. Josie wanted tater tots, but those were served in the next line over at Cletus’ Chicken Shack. I asked if she wanted me to jump in that line, but she said curly fries were fine.
I got Kara the Krusty Burger meal with sauce on the side in case she didn’t like it. Mindy and Josie just wanted fries so I got two side orders. I suspected one would be more than enough and it turns out I was right. But I didn’t want to hear complaints about having to share food. I was still pretty full from our donut breakfast, so I just got a diet drink and grazed on the massive piles of curly fries. Since we had a side order of sauce, I dipped some of my fries in that. It was not unlike a Bloomin’ Onion from Outback. Our meal was expensive for what it was, but the girls were refueled and happy.
We milled around Springfield a bit trying to decide what to do next. Josie and I hopped on The Simpsons Ride, but Kara and Mindy opted out of that one. As motion simulators go, the Simpsons is one of the rougher ones at Universal. It didn’t take us long to survive our encounter with Sideshow Bob. While we were riding, Kara listened to phone messages outside of the Quick*E*Mart.
The weather forecast called for thunderstorms and the sky was beginning to cloud over so we thought about heading back to the hotel. Last year had been exceptionally rainy and we were a bit gun shy about having the water taxis shut down due to storms. We started to head back towards the front of the park. If we saw something we wanted to do, we would stop. But the primary objective was to avoid getting caught in the rain.
As we were crossing a bridge, we spotted Doc Brown from Back to the Future. He was walking over to the Delorean in Springfield where he typically holds meet and greets. As it so happens, I ran into the wacky inventor at this exact spot almost exactly one year ago. When I pointed this out to him, he asked if he was wearing the same outfit. I confirmed that to be the case and he said that for us a year had passed but for him it had only been seconds. Doc spent a lot of time talking to us and we promised to meet up again next year in this same spot. As character interactions go, this was a memorable encounter.
The Monster Make-Up Show was getting ready to start and I considered stopping to catch it. We had never seen it before, but it’s the one show in Universal that draws unanimous praise. I thought there was a chance we might ride out the coming storm during the show, but ultimately we decided not to risk it. It was the first day of a week-long stay, so we would have ample opportunities to catch the show later.
On our way to the front of the park, we came across the Despicable Me parade float. The entire parade ran at 5:00 every day, but individual floats seemed to be out on a nearly constant rotation. They were fun and don’t disrupt traffic like a full parade does. This is pretty typical of Universal’s approach. Less spectacle, but also a lot less hassle than at that other place. We also ran into Lucile Ball and Betty Boop before we exited the park. I didn’t bother taking pictures because they were quick interactions but I am sure we could have posed with them if we had wanted to stop.
By the time we got to the water taxis, the skies were getting pretty dark. We were glad we hadn’t taken any chances with the weather and enjoyed a pleasant cruise back to the hotel.
When we got back, we explored Portofino Bay a little. The pool was shut down due to rain, but we checked out the location. The girls also made note of the nearby arcade. I personally hate going to the arcade, but Mindy and the girls had fun at the one in Royal Pacific last year. It’s kind of a game we play that they make secret plans to go without telling me what they are doing. Everyone knows I know what they are up to, but we all pretend it’s some kind of secret.
Sure enough, a storm settled in. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the thunderstorms we were dealing with last year. If we wanted to, we could have gone back to the parks or gone to CityWalk for dinner, but Kara was more interested in ordering room service. She really had her mind set on chicken wings. I looked at some menus and realized I could pick up chicken wings at the lobby bar and bring them back to the room rather than pay extra for them to be delivered. So Josie and I went to the Bar American to get some food.
The bar was nicer than I was expecting and it was basically empty this early in the evening. The bartender was exceptionally nice and very accommodating about our to-go order. I got two orders of wings. One for Kara and one for Mindy. They ended up being huge so once again we had lots of leftovers. I ate what I could, but stored at least half an order of wings in the fridge. Josie got a grilled chicken and brie sandwich without the cheese. It had a cranberry compote which would have complimented the brie nicely I am sure, but Josie’s not big on cheese.
After dinner, we settled in and called it a night. It had been a relatively light day, but we were pacing ourselves. We had an entire week, so there was no reason to wear ourselves out on the first day. The plan for tomorrow was to get up early and beat the crowds to Volcano Bay.
Next: Volcano Bay