Universal Studios Orlando Sucks – My Vacation Report

by JDH on March 19, 2011

The purpose of this blog is to disseminate my thoughts on the stock market. Since I have just returned from a week’s vacation in Orlando, Florida, I will divert from that mission for one post and give you my thoughts. If you aren’t interested, stop reading, and go to my weekly commentary on the markets.

Air Canada

Last year we flew from Buffalo to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines. You can read my thoughts on Southwest here, but suffice to say flying in a flying bus is not my idea of how to travel, and I will never fly Southwest again (which is why I wrote my Southwest Airlines Sucks post last year). This year, instead of making the drive to Buffalo, we decided to fly Air Canada out of Toronto International Airport. And, we decided to fly Executive Class.

It was a great decision.

Yes, flying first class costs more, but it’s worth it. In our case, to keep the cost down, we flew out at 7:00 am, and returned on an 8:00 pm flight, which saved us significantly off the full fare price. In return, we were able to wait in the Air Canada lounge in Toronto. It was great. Lots of food to munch on, free Wifi, and a great experience. The service on the plane was great, and you board first and leave first, which is also nice.

On the return trip we got to wait in the United lounge in Orlando. It was fine, but not as nice as the Air Canada lounge.

Epcot at Disney

I’m not a Disney guy, and my sons are not into princesses or Mickey Mouse, so our one day at Disney was spent at Epcot. I enjoyed it. The first ride where you create your own future is very cool.

Soarin’, which is a virtual reality ride, is also very cool.

The rest of the Disney experience is fine. The park is clean, the restrooms are clean and plentiful, and the food is fine. We had a meal at a Moroccan restaurant where I discovered the secret to a great Disney experience: drink a lot. I think I polished off an entire bottle of red wine myself, and the rest of the day was great. The fireworks were fantastic. Fortunately my wife drove home, so it was all good.

Universal Studios Orlando

Universal Studios Orlando is a waste of money, so don’t bother.

Universal Studios Orlando is a complete waste of time and money, so if you are considering a trip there, don’t bother. One of my sons is a Harry Potter fan; he has read all of the books four times. So yesterday, on the last day of our trip, we made a stop at Universal Studios Orlando to see the Harry Potter exhibit. What a disaster.

Earlier in the week we had visited Epcot at Disney. Say what you will about Disney, they know how to run a theme park. At Disney there are signs telling you where to go, and attendants there to direct you. It’s easy, and simple. At Universal, it’s awkward and complicated. At Disney you enter their massive parking lot, and attendants wave you into the nearest parking spot. At Universal you enter a massive parking garage, and wait in line until the attendants, gradually, show everyone to their assigned spot.

You then follow the signs until eventually you get to the ticket window, and that’s where the fun begins. Given the lack of signage, you have no idea what each package costs, and how it works. In contrast, at Disney, you go to the ticket window, pay the admission, and walk in. At Universal you get to the ticket window and the ticket lady has to explain to you the different pricing options (one theme park or two, express pass for the rides or not, etc.). As a result, at Disney each person spends one minute at the ticket counter; at Universal each person spends four minutes, so the lines, obviously, are much longer and slower moving.

Then, after paying almost $100 per person just to get into the park, you walk towards to Harry Potter exhibit, and when you arrive they tell you to get in line and get your guaranteed return time ticket. The tickets are free, but because the place is so crowded you can’t get in right away. Our return tickets were for three hours later.

Here’s my beef: why don’t they tell you all of this up front? Instead you get there, stand in line, only to realize that you have another long wait to get in.

Disney is different. At each attraction there is an electronic sign that tells you how long the wait will be. You can wait, or you can push a button on a machine and get an Express Pass, which gives you a guaranteed entry time. So at Disney the strategy is simple: go to each of the attractions you want, get your Express Pass, and then plan your day based on the times you are given. There’s lots to do, so it’s a good system.

At Universal Orlando, you can pay extra for an Express Pass, or whatever they call it, and that’s the difference between Universal and Disney. Obviously both companies exist to make money, and sell you merchandise, and that’s fine. At Universal, however, the park is designed to delay you, in the hopes that you will spend more money. If you want to get on the rides quicker, you pay more. Unfortunately that doesn’t work to get in to the Harry Potter area; you have to wait until your Guaranteed Return Time comes up. So while you wait around you are inundated with gift shops and other places designed to part you from your money.

And then, when you finally get in to the Harry Potter area, you say to yourself: this is it? If you are a Harry Potter fan the buildings are cool. They have replicas of Hogwarts and all of the other buildings, and they look cool. But that’s it; the buildings are cool. For everything else you get to line up and wait, and with an average wait time of 90 minutes for the good rides, what’s the point?

The gift shop in the Harry Potter area was designed to look just like the store in the book; very dark. So dark, in fact, that you can’t see anything in it. As I stood by the door I watched dozens of people leave, all without making any purchases.

Universal, here’s my advice: Sell your park to Disney and let them run it. They know how to run a park. If you really want to run it, put up some signs so people know where they are going, and have guides at the start telling people what to do, so that we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves.

And for my readers, if you are thinking about a visit to Universal Studios Orlando, don’t bother.

Airport Security

I’ve long believed that airport security is really just a show, and accomplishes very little. Making grandmothers take off their shoes may make everyone feel better, but since no grandmother (or anyone else) has ever blown up a plane with their shoes, it’s silly.

While we were waiting to check in at Orlando airport, we were sitting in a large waiting area. Every five minutes a recorded voice comes over the loud speaker telling us to not leave bags unattended, and to call 911 if you see any unattended bags. in the next section over from us was a family, and they left a knapsack on the chair and left to get some food. They were gone for almost half an hour. The bag was left unattended.

During that time I counted ten TSA agents that walked by. Most of them looked at the unattended duffle bag sitting on the chair, and kept walking. Not one person stopped. No action was taken.

I’m not worried about unattended bags, but it does prove the point that most of security is for show. They believe it’s more important to scan my shoes that to look at unattended bags.

US and Canada Customs

Finally, my report on customs. This trip, we had no problems. Flying from Toronto to Orlando you can clear U.S. customs in Toronto. We were in line for about 25 minutes, the line moved quickly, and the border agent was in a cheerful mood. She seemed to understand that Canadians going to spend money in the U.S. are a good thing, so whatever can be done to speed the trip along, the better.

The airport security in Orlando for the return flight was also easy and quick. We were in line for about 12 minutes, and passed through without a hitch. Good job. It’s still stupid that we all have to take off our shoes, but hey, that’s the way it goes.

As for clearing Canadian customs on our return to Toronto (they don’t have Canadian customs in Orlando), I was worried. On Wednesday night some travelers had to wait up to three hours in line to clear customs. We got lucky. We waited in line for about 30 seconds on Friday at 11:00 pm. Apparently the you-no-what hit the fan, and every booth was manned, and we were through customs in about two minutes. We had to wait longer than that for our bags to arrive.

In summary:

Disney is fine.

Universal Studios Orlando is a waste of time and money.

I dislike traveling. I don’t like waiting in lines. Airport security is just a show, so I dislike it as well.

However, we did like the 80 degree weather in Florida; as I write this in my home office it’s minus one Celsius, so it’s definitely warmer down south.

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