[AD: our park tickets were kindly provided by Universal Orlando.]
When we touched down in Florida last month, we weren’t planning on visiting any of the theme parks: not because we don’t love them, but purely because… well, Max, basically. Or Max’s nap-times, to be more specific.
At 17 months (Or 16 months, as he was when we arrived…) Max still needs two naps per day, and, as I’ve mentioned before, his main conditions for these naps are that he have them in a cot, in a darkened room somewhere, preferably with white noise of some description. This might be fine for Max, obviously, but it’s pretty restrictive for us, really: we’re no longer able to go out for a full day, for instance, as we did when he was younger, and could be relied on to fall asleep in the car seat or pushchair. No, right now our days out have to be rigorously planned around nap-times, and that, we assumed, pretty much ruled out theme parks, which you really do need either a full day, or multiple visits, in order to see properly.
There are, of course, plenty of ticket options available for Florida’s theme parks which allow you to enter the parks on more than one occasion. The catch? They’re not cheap: and we just couldn’t justify the cost when we knew we still wouldn’t be able to do them justice with Max in tow.
Then Universal Orlando offered us complimentary tickets to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s water park, Volcano Bay. Well, we’d have been mad to have said no, so, us being us, we waited until the very hottest day in a series of very, very hot days, and then we jumped into the car, and headed to Universal Orlando.
The two theme parks are absolutely huge, and packed with things to see. We’ve visited both before, on many occasions, and we knew that this time around, with Max acting as our tiny overlord, there was absolutely no way we’d be able to see everything the parks have to offer. As huge Harry Potter fans, though, we also knew the Potter-themed attractions at Universal are good enough to justify the admission price all on our own, so we decided to concentrate on seeing those: with a few stops along the way at some of the areas of the park likely to be most interesting to a toddler. Here I am, for instance, walking repeatedly through a small doorway in Islands of Adventure’s Seuss Landing:
Max thought this was absolutely hilarious. I, meanwhile… well, I thought it was pretty funny too, to be fair – purely because it made him laugh so much. I know a lot of people would argue that there’s absolutely no point taking a toddler to a theme park, because most of the rides aren’t suitable for them, and those people are partly right: there weren’t many rides here that Max could go on, but it didn’t really matter, because he found the two parks fascinating, anyway. Seuss Landing in particular is – as you’d expect for an area of the park inspired by Dr. Seuss – filled with bright colours, funny characters, and, well, very small doors… all of which which make it a bit like a gigantic baby sensory room. When he’s just a little bit older, he’ll be tall enough to do some of the rides: for now, though, we let him soak in the sights and sounds, before moving on for some more grown-up fun at… er, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Shut up, it is SO for grown ups!
(No, it really is, though: I was already a ‘grown up’ – technically, at least – when I read the Harry Potter books for the first time, and all I can say is that if you don’t love those books, we can’t be friends. So there.)
Where was I? Oh yeah: I was in Universal’s Islands of Adventure – which is, for the benefit of those of you yet to experience the magic – a park based around a collection of ‘themed’ islands. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is just one of these, and, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, I’m going to need you to pack your bags, get on a plane, and head there immediately, because it’s, quite simply, magical.
(Did you see what I did there? Did you? Did you?)
We’ve visited the Wizarding World once before, so I knew exactly what to expect, and I STILL almost burst into tears when I turned a corner and saw the village of Hogsmede spread out before me:
Forbidden Journey is the kind of ride you really wouldn’t expect me to like, given how scared I am of rollercoasters and… well, everything, really. While it’s not technically a rollercoaster (I believe in theme park lingo it’s what’s known as a ‘dark ride’…), you are strapped into your seat in exactly the same way, and it does move you around pretty vigorously – and very fast, too. There are some sections where you’re lying flat on your back, and lots of sudden drops and moves sideways (So it’s a good idea to dress appropriately, and use the lockers provided to stow any loose change and other items that you might otherwise lose: the first time we rode this, I was wearing slip-on shoes, which I spent the duration of the ride desperately trying to keep on my feet, while being thrown around in the dark…). Were this a regular ride, I’d probably find it terrifying: as it is, though, one of the biggest attractions of Forbidden Journey is the way it uses 3D video to make you feel like you truly are inside Hogwarts (Or around it, as the case may be: one particularly thrilling section involves a high-speed chase through the Quidditch pitch…), complete with appearances from Harry, Ron, Hermione, and other characters from the movies. (And, yes, these are the actual actors, which makes it even more awesome…), you’re so distracted by the scenes in front of you that I somehow don’t find it nearly as scary as you’d expect.
(I wasn’t, however, joking when I said I’d probably throw up if I kept on riding it: Terry, who has a tendency to get motion sick, feels a little bit queasy by the end of this, so if you’re particularly sensitive to motion, it might not be for you.)
It is, quite honestly, amazing. We actually left the park during the hottest part of the day, and then came back in the evening, just to ride this: we were kindly given Express passes along with our tickets (If you can fit these into your budget, I highly recommend them: they allow you to skip the queues on some/all of the rides, which will save you a huge amount of time. I’ve been visiting Florida regularly for over 20 years now, but I’ve never seen the parks as busy as they were this year…), and we literally just walked onto the ride, with no wait whatsoever. In some ways, this was actually a bit of a shame, because the queue for Forbidden Journey is an essential part of the ride, snaking all the way through Hogwarts castle, and past some famous scenes and characters. If you have the time, it’s worth slowing down and experiencing it all, whether the ride is busy or not!
On this particular occasion, Terry and I did the ride on our own, with my parents electing to wait with Max. Had all four of us wanted to give it a go, though, it would actually have been much easier than I’d assumed it would, thanks to Universal’s Child Swap programme. Much less sinister than it sounds, this is actually a great way for people with small children to be able to experience the larger rides: we used it for the E.T. ride at Universal Studios, and basically we all stood in line together, then, once we got to the head of the queue, Terry, Max and I were taken to a special waiting area, while my parents went on the ride. Once they were done, they came back to the waiting area, and we switched places: so, they waited with Max while Terry and I were allowed to go straight onto the ride, without having to wait in line again. It worked out really well, and answered a big question I’d had about attempting a theme park with a toddler: namely, how on earth are you actually supposed to go on anything?
There is, however, one ‘ride’ in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that all five of us were able to experience together: the Hogwarts Express. But that, my friends, is another story for another day…