There were several other changes to the Florida vacation formula, as well.
• Instead of four days at Disney World parks and one frantic and exhausting day at Universal Studios, we spent just one day at a Disney park (Epcot, to be exact – my favorite of the four) and four relaxed, easygoing days at Universal.
• Instead of staying at a hotel, we rented a really nice Airbnb house that was only 10-20 minutes from Universal.
• Instead of taking taxis when we didn't want to drive, we hailed an Uber (my first time using the service, and I immediately understood the appeal).
• Instead of having all of our days planned out hour-by-hour in advance, we had a simple checklist of things we knew we wanted to see.
• Most importantly, instead of going during Spring Break with huge crowds and queues everywhere, we went in early February – when the weather was super nice, and the queues for most rides were either relatively short or entirely nonexistent.
This was the day we arrived. Dani and Andy had begun driving to Florida the night before, Steph's mom and niece arrived by plane in the morning, and Steph and I landed late in the evening. Dani checked us into the Airbnb, a very nice two-story house in a gated neighborhood.
Steph's mom and niece, having a different itinerary for the week than the rest of us, spent this day at Dolphin Cove, where they got to get up close and personal with dolphins. The rest of us spent the day relaxing, buying groceries and toiletries, and shopping for inexpensive souvenirs. For lunch, we ate at what was literally the fanciest McDonald's I'd ever been in (it had an arcade, a café with baked pastries, and self-serve touchscreen kiosks for ordering your food); for dinner, we ate at Moonfish a super-ritzy (read: pricey) restaurant in Orlando, where we had crab, sushi, and steak tartare, among other things. Was it tasty? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Probably not, because the $200 our table spent on food could probably have been spent on more fun things instead. Ah well, not a huge deal.
For Steph, D&A, and I, this was our first day at Universal (Steph's mom and niece spent the day in Disney's Animal Kingdom). We beelined to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter section of the park, because we knew we wanted to spend the lion's share of our first day there, since I pretty much knew that Steph would get a huge kick out of it. We rode The Dragon Challenge, HP & The Forbidden Journey, and HP & The Escape From Gringotts, but her favorite ride of the whole trip wound up being the Hogwarts Express. We also tried out the brand-new steampunk-themed Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, the insanely fancy chocolate shop not too far from the park's entrance. Monday was also the day we first rode Transformers 3D, the ride that has firmly cemented itself in first place as my all-time favorite theme park attraction, even beating out everything at Disney World. In the Simpsons-themed area of the park, I finally bought one of the obscenely-huge pink-frosted donuts they have for sale. And for dinner, we had "The Great Feast" at The Three Broomsticks, one of two Harry-Potter-themed restaurants. About $60 for a meal big enough for four people (it was WELL worth the relatively reasonable cost). Finally, we watched the Mardi Gras parade (since we were there in early February), and headed back home.
On Tuesday, all six of us were at Universal. We rode the 3D Spider-man ride (another one of my favorites), and then the five of them went to ride the Jurassic Park ride (NOT one of my favorites) while I rode Spider-man a couple more times (this is where having virtually nonexistent single-rider lines comes in SUPER handy). While heading to meet up with them, I noticed a sign that read 'Have your picture taken with Spider-man!' – and, again, since there were no lines, I figured 'what the hell' and got a Spider-selfie. We headed back through the Harry Potter area to the Men In Black ride (which is also part laser-shooting game, where you're scored on how many aliens you kill). After the ride ended, Dani got to try an 'Easter egg' she had heard about regarding the ride – she pulled an attendant aside and asked for the "Immigration Tour". When you do that, they take you to a room for a short wait, until another attendant comes and brings your party down into the area that looks like the main control room in the Men In Black movies, complete with the two multi-tentacled aliens operating the main computer where the big screen is. This is especially neat, because this area is usually only observed from above as you walk past it to get to the ride itself. After that, we rode The Mummy rollercoaster (my first time for that, since we didn't have time last year), as well as the Minions ride and the Simpsons ride (the latter of which was far too jostling for Steph's tastes, but it's one of my favorites). We also spent some time in the Dr. Seuss -themed portion of the park, which I had skipped on my previous trips. There are a couple neat things about it – first, all of the architecture makes you feel like you're really walking through a Dr. Seuss book, and second, the slow-moving Cat in the Hat animatronics ride had a very 'unintentionally creepy' vibe to it, as if a serial killer was going to burst out from behind the scenes and kill everyone on the ride (a feeling that was reinforced when the ride itself broke down at one point). I was pretty entertained. I also had enough spare time to ride the single-rider line for the Transformers ride about 4-5 times in a row with no wait(!!). And then we bought some more fancy chocolate before leaving for the day.
This was our day in Epcot! All six of us went, and I was the only one who had been before. As I've said, Epcot is my favorite of the Disney World parks. It's split into two sections, the first is themed around showcasing the human development of cutting-edge technologies, and the second is the "World Showcase", with 12 pavilions representing 12 different national cultures from around the world. We started by riding Spaceship Earth, a neat little animatronics ride that gives you the cliff-notes version of all of human history. We also road Soarin' (a flight-simulation ride, and my mom's favorite) and Living with the Land, a slow boat ride that shows off all of the high-tech agricultural techniques that Disney uses (Steph, being interested in fields like hydroponics, really liked that one). We (!!) also (!!!) rode (!!!!) TEST TRACK(!!!!!!!). STILL my favorite Disney World ride - this one has you split into teams of two and use a touchscreen to design a car from scratch, adding elements like engines and aerodynamic shaping. When you get into the actual ride itself (which seats six), it takes you through various "tests" for things like handling, fuel economy, and engine power (it's way, way more fun than it sounds). And after each of the four tests, the car your team designed is scored against the other two teams on the ride with you. A final point total is awarded for overall car design. Steph and I designed a car that didn't win any of the four individual categories, but it was so well-balanced among them that we wound up winning overall (with a total score of 213, I think). This was especially cool, because it was my first time winning the point competition aspect of the ride.
After Test Track we rode Mission: Space, a ride that simulates a trip to Mars. This ride is a little claustrophobic, so Dani in particular was not a fan. But after that we were starving, so we ate at a restaurant in the Italian Pavilion of the World Showcase. The pizza was delicious, and I came to learn that salmon makes a really great pizza topping. Who knew? But after eating, we started on the Drink Around The World challenge [CLICK HERE for my separate blog about that! It was a ton of fun!] There really aren't any rides in the World Showcase area, so aside from DATW, it was mostly a matter of wandering around leisurely and looking at all the neat artwork and architecture and shops at Mexico/Norway/China/Africa/Germany/Italy/America/Japan/Morocco/France/England/Canada (I can almost rattle them off by memory at this point). Feeling thoroughly boozy (well, all of us except Steph's niece, obviously), we watched Epcot's night-ending IllumiNATIONS: Reflections of Earth show (fireworks, light effects, music, yay humanity). Then we hailed an extra-large Uber home.
On Thursday, Steph, D&A, and I were back at Universal, while Steph's mom and niece went to Disney's Magic Kingdom. The first thing we did was eat at Mythos, a restaurant in the Isle of Adventure portion of Universal. This restaurant has a sign out front bragging about being one of the top theme park restaurants in the world for six years in a row, and OH MY GOD THEY ARE NOT KIDDING. This wound up not only being my favorite restaurant at Universal, it's now my all-time favorite restaurant in Florida, period. For starters, just the architecture of the restaurant itself is impressive – it feels like you're eating in a huge, well-lit cave, with EXTREMELY MASSIVE Greek-looking sculptures and man-made waterfalls all over the place. And the food was even better than the décor: we had spinach/artichoke dip as an appetizer, but for lunch Steph and I split a swordfish dish and a huge burger with lots of feta cheese sauce. I can't NOT go back to this place every time I come to Universal, now. After lunch, we saw the Poseidon's Fury show, an immersive special-effects show with lots of awesome water effects, and then rode the Dr. Seuss trolley that goes above a good portion of the IOA side of the park, which was sort of neat. We also saw the Shrek 4D show and the Terminator 2 3D show, the latter of which I had never seen before. Basically we spent the day catching up on anything we hadn't seen yet. (I also was able to single-rider-line the Transformers ride another 4-5 times in a row.) We left Universal and ate dinner at a Caribbean-themed restaurant not far from our Airbnb in Orlando (Steph had a Cuban sandwich and I had steak topped with crab – both of which were really good, although not quite Mythos-good.
This was our last day before leaving. Steph's mom and niece when to Seaworld, and Steph, D&A, and I went back to Universal – but by this point we'd seen pretty much everything the park had to offer, so it was mostly spent casually strolling around to buy souvenirs and ride all our favorite rides again. I finally got to ride the new King Kong ride, which is an interesting new spin on 3D-style rides. By the end of our week at Universal, I had ridden the Transformers ride a grand total of about 11 times. It's amazing how many little details there are hidden in rides like that, which you start to pick up on when you ride them that many times. Since this was our most leisurely day, we also played both of the 18-hole minigolf courses at the Putt-Putt shop near Universal's entrance (I won one!). I also bought a stuffed Optimus Prime and my Quidditch board game. For dinner, we ate at another restaurant not far from our Airbnb. I can't remember the name of it, but this one was in the vein of restaurants like Chili's and Buffalo Wild Wings – I think it was Dani and her bf's second-favorite restaurant, next to the super-pricey one we ate at the prior Sunday.
Dani and her bf began the drive home, and the rest of us caught our return flights. Steph and I ate dinner at In-N-Out in Dallas after landing (it's basically a Florida-trip tradition at this point), and I took a few photos of the souvenirs I had bought. Steph's mom and niece spent the night at our place in OKC, since we all got back pretty late in the evening.
We've already put a little thought into our next Florida vacation (November 2018?). Leaning toward two days at Universal and one day each at Epcot/Magic/Hollywood (and possibly Animal, too).