A Weekend at the 2016 Grand Prix of St Pete

Last week I took a few days off and headed down to Florida to hang out with the kid. This wasn’t just any random trip, however, it’s one we’ve been planning for a few months now. Her school is about 10 minutes from the location of the IndyCar season opener, the Grand Prix of St Petersburg, and being big IndyCar fans, seemed like the perfect location to blow my annual racing budget. There’s nothing better than a street race, and mid-March in St Pete seemed about perfect.

Since she already had a place to stay, I just needed somewhere for me to sleep. Looking at the hotel situation back in early January, I could see I was going to have to get creative. Many of the downtown hotels were near capacity, and the cheapest rates I was finding started at ~$200/night for what are normally low budget hotels, climbing to over $400/night for the 3 and 4 star stuff. That just wasn’t going to work. After a quick search on Airbnb, I found a perfect little studio-ish apartment for 1 that was easily within walking distance from the track. Great, quiet little place with parking that wasn’t more than a 10min walk to the track’s gates, all for a total cost of what the average one night hotel stay in downtown would be.

I drove down Wednesday, with an overnight stop in Ocala so I could arrive in downtown St Pete on Thursday morning. My timing was intentional, as (with a huge amount of help from someone at IndyCar) I’d managed to secure an early birthday present for Bayley, a ride around the track in one of the two-seaters on Thursday at noon. I got in around 10am Thursday just to scout things out, and quickly realized that St Pete doesn’t do things like Baltimore did. At those races, the track and paddock areas weren’t closed in on Thursday, you could walk around pretty freely and check out the activity as the IndyCar and support series teams were unloading the transporters. At St Pete, the track is totally enclosed by Thursday morning, and unless you’ve got a reason to be in there, it’s not happening. A shame if you ask me, as we saw a lot of locals in Baltimore walking around and checking things out. It’s the kind of thing that could possibly draw interest from people who hadn’t planned on buying tickets, if you ask me.

Bayley got in to downtown about 11am and met up with me at a parking garage near the track. After a short walk back to the entrance gate, we presented her IndyCar Experience ticket and walked back to the area near pit exit where the IndyCar Experience haulers were located. Check-in was pretty quick, and gave us a few minutes to relax while we waited for the event to start. While walking around right there, we saw both Mario Andretti and Davey Hamilton come over, both of whom were drivers for the experience. A few shots from prior to her ride:

IMG_6595 IMG_6598 IMG_6599 IMG_6601 IMG_6605 IMG_6606 IMG_6613

After everyone was ready, they walked them across pit exit to where the 3 two-seaters were set up between turns 1 and 2. Everyone already had their fire suits on, but were given headsocks and helmets. Bayley went out in the first group of three, with Davey Hamilton driving her car. Being in that first group proved to be a lucky thing, as for whatever reason, they did two laps, not the usual one lap the groups behind them got. After getting back and hopping out of the car, I could see by the look on her face she had an absolute blast. Again, I can’t thank IndyCar enough for setting this up for us at the last minute. Without giving anything away, I’d like to send a huge thank you to a few key people over there (you know who you are :)). A really special gesture that neither of us will soon forget.

IMG_6618 IMG_6620 IMG_6622 IMG_6624 IMG_6628

Friday morning started with me walking the track alone as soon as the gates opened. A good friend of Bayley’s had been in town all week, heading back to her school early afternoon that day, so it gave me a chance to check things out, having never been to this race. For this one, I’d bought grandstand seats near the top of GS 23, which is in turn 10 (here’s the track map for reference), and had also purchased both pit and paddock passes for us. To me, paddock passes are a must for any race, as it gives you closer access to the teams and drivers. We’ve had it for every race (both IndyCar and IMSA) we’ve been to, but this was the first time she was old enough for actual pit passes (generally have to be 18), so I spent the extra money on those, too. Well worth the added cost in my opinion, but more on that later.

Walking around, I found the atmosphere to be pretty much what I expected, sort of a street carnival setup on the inside of the track, with a lot of food, drink, and other vendors all over the track. Plenty of race viewing areas for general admission ticket holders, too. I walked up to our grandstands to see how good the seats were, and was pleasantly surprised at the view, as GS23 provides a great look at the straight coming in to turn 10 and on to Dan Wheldon Way:


After watching some of the USF200 and Pro Mazda practice, I headed across the pedestrian bridge to the paddock area for the Pirelli World Challenge and Indy Lights teams. Both had track time coming up, and as I got over there, the Lights teams were already heading to pit lane for morning practice. All of the Pirelli teams were hard at work, however, as they had GT, GTA, and GT Cup qualifying after Lights was done with practice.

IMG_6659 IMG_6660 IMG_6662 IMG_6665 IMG_6669 IMG_6672 IMG_6675

After a short walk through the pits during Pirelli qualifying, I headed out to meet Bayley and her friend for a late breakfast. They were headed to the airport after that, so I ended up getting a little more track time by myself before Bayley made it over a little after noon. We spent the day enjoying the pits, walking the various paddock areas, and even taking in something we’d never seen live before, the practice session for the Stadium Super Truck series. Wow. Those things are so cool to watch in person. We hung out near our grandstands for them, as they had a ramp set up just outside of turn 10, in full view of our seats. They raced both Saturday and Sunday, and we made sure to catch both races, those things are cool, just hit play on the video below to check em out:



The weekend was pretty much the same activity on our part both Saturday and Sunday, meaning we spent a lot of time walking the paddock, pits and enjoying some activity from our seats, but the highlights pretty much revolved around those pit passes. They weren’t cheap (especially since they required purchasing grandstand seats), but they were worth every penny in our opinion. They give you access to the pits pretty much any time other than the actual IndyCar race on Sunday. We watched practice and portions of races for the various support series from pit lane, as well as all IndyCar practices and qualifying. It’s so much fun to be standing right there watching the teams work. The walkway between the team equipment areas and front-straight grandstands is pretty narrow, too, so you really have to be cognizant of what’s going on around you, too. Teams have a job to do, and need to be able to get up and down that lane on their carts to shuttle parts and equipment between the pits and transporters.

IMG_6687 IMG_6689 IMG_6693 IMG_6707 IMG_6824 IMG_6960 IMG_6964 IMG_6977 IMG_7042 IMG_7055 IMG_7070 IMG_7089 IMG_7093 IMG_7357 IMG_7368

One cool thing were the pit lane monitors they put up every few pit stalls. During practice and qualifying, it allowed us an easy way to keep current on how things were going on track. We were also constantly running in to drivers and owners walking around down there. The highlight of our time in the pits had to be during the IndyCar pre-race, however. For those with pit access, you can go out on to pit road for the grid walk, checking out all the last minute activity going on, this time from the other side of pit wall. It was pretty cool, and we even ended up on camera during pre-race. We’re standing on the left hand side over Allen Bestwick’s shoulder. Next to that screenshot is a pic I took of them a second before:


Here are a few grid -walk pictures, as well:

IMG_7480 IMG_7481 IMG_7490 IMG_7494 IMG_7496 IMG_7499 IMG_7503 IMG_7511 IMG_7515 IMG_7516 IMG_7522 IMG_7534

After all of the drivers have arrived following introductions, they start to move out anyone who doesn’t have a team related hard card or a “race mode” tag on their pit pass. Even though we had neither, we did manage to hang out on pit lane for the start of the race and the first few laps before they finally noticed and sent us on our way. Here are a few shots I got prior to getting kicked out of the pits, including one of an early stop by Hinchcliffe after he suffered a cut tire:

IMG_7539 IMG_7552 IMG_7556 IMG_7558

We did head to our grandstand after that, watching the rest of the race from our seats. We had a great view from GS23, but next time we have to figure out how to get hot-passes, as I think we’d have both preferred the excitement of watching all the activity from pit lane!

This is the 3rd different street course we’ve been to together for an IndyCar race (having done Long Beach and Baltimore as well) and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The city and race organizers definitely know how to put on a good show, and should we get the chance next year, we’ll definitely be back. I’d hoped to make the inaugural Boston Grand Prix in September, but I’m pretty sure I’ve blown my racing budget for the year. It was all money well spent though, a truly amazing weekend hanging out with Bayley watching something we both love 🙂

Here are a few shots of Bayley with some of our favorite drivers. For more, including a few video clips, check out my personal Instagram feed and all of the pictures I’ve posted on our SmugMug site, they’re both full of stuff from the weekend.

Oh, and congrats to JPM, heck of a drive to win that race!

IMG_7029 IMG_7035 IMG_7037 IMG_7172 IMG_7426 IMG_7432

Hotel Review – Staybridge Suites St. Petersburg

We spent last weekend in St Petersburg attending family weekend at Eckerd College. In an uncharacteristic move for us, we waited until the last minute to get a hotel, not actually booking anything until a couple of days before the trip. Being so close to the trip, not a lot was available near the school, and nothing along the beach (gulf-side) that fit in to our budget looked all that appealing. After a bit of hunting, we finally found something in downtown St Pete that looked promising, and more importantly was in our budget, Staybridge Suites. Oh, and it had one other requirement we needed since we were taking our dog, it was pet friendly.

Upon arrival late Thursday night, my wife got us checked in and we headed to the room. One of the first things I noticed was the use of NFC-based room keys, and not the usual problematic swipe cards that most hotels use. I loved this. Just tap the card on the pad, and the door unlocks. It was easy and reliable the entire time, regardless of where I kept my key in my wallet. I actually didn’t take it out of my wallet until we checked out, I just tapped my wallet against the reader. Hopefully more hotels (and cruise lines) embrace technology like this to get rid of the frustration of key cards failing during a guest’s stay.

The room itself was nice, good sized for the most part, and clean. We’d asked for a room with a sleeper sofa when we booked just in case Bayley wanted to come hang out for a night, but the room we ended up with didn’t have one. No matter, when we asked the next day, the staff gave us a rollaway at no extra charge. Problem solved!

WP_20150219_23_37_26_Pro WP_20150219_23_37_39_Pro WP_20150219_23_38_13_Pro WP_20150219_23_38_44_Pro WP_20150219_23_56_36_Pro WP_20150219_23_58_48_ProWP_20150219_23_38_03_ProWP_20150219_23_37_56_ProWP_20150219_23_44_51_ProV__2FFFWP_20150220_08_17_10_Pro

In a couple of the pics above, you’ll see something I take with me wherever I go, our Belkin mini power strips. We first bought these for cruising, since many rooms only have two outlets and cruise lines aren’t fans of corded power strips, but hotels oftentimes don’t have a lot of open outlets either, so bringing these allows us to be able to charge as many devices as we need to.

Back to the hotel: As mentioned, the room was nice. The beds are pretty stiff, so be aware of that if you prefer a softer mattress. We sleep on a fairly firm memory foam mattress at home, so this felt good to me. What I wasn’t a fan of were the pillows. They were really soft, which I like, but they were at least partially down, which I’m allergic to. As long as I take some OTC allergy medication I’m generally fine, but I’d totally forgotten it on this trip, so we hit up a drug store the next day to rectify that. I’m sure I probably could have asked the desk for replacements, but they were soft to my liking, so I was fine dealing with it. My only other issue is that the walls seemed a bit thin. On one side of us we had someone who we could hear pretty clearly whenever he talked, and on the other side we had someone who had a nasty coughing condition that kicked in every morning around 8 or so. It wasn’t a huge issue though, and pretty much matches my experiences at other hotels in class. As far as the bathroom, it was pretty small, and having a door that opened in to it was a bit of a pain (see the pictures above). Also, for those that prefer a bath to a shower, our room did not have a tub. No complaints about that here, neither of us would have used a tub, and I was happy to see that I wasn’t going to have to step in an out of one to take a shower.

The hotel’s location was pretty good for us, although I’d have preferred to be closer to the water. The hotel is off of 175 right when you enter downtown. It was an easy 5min drive to and from Eckerd. There was plenty of food around there, too, as the downtown restaurants are generally only 5-10min away by car. There’s also a little park next door (between the hotel and school) that provided a great place to walk the dog. The hotel did have a pet waste disposal stand or two on property, but the one we checked never had baggies in it. No matter, we had our own.

WP_20150220_10_45_23_Pro WP_20150222_10_11_10_Pro

For those looking for accessibility, Staybridge seems to have you well covered here. There didn’t appear to be any stairs/steps to deal with anywhere in the lobby or breakfast areas, and the pool had a lift, too, as shown in the first picture here:

WP_20150220_10_51_17_Pro WP_20150220_10_51_24_Pro

Frankly, the outside area seemed kinda cool as shown above in the second picture, with a fire pit and seating to hang out there day or night.

Food-wise, the only time we ate there outside of me grabbing complimentary cookies, was breakfast. It was included with the room, and they had a decent selection of warm food. On the first morning, I had an omlette, bacon, and a waffle. They had three waffle makers, more than I’m used to seeing at a hotel, and we never saw a wait to make them while we were there. The quality of the pre-made stuff (omelettes, bacon, eggs, etc) was good, and pretty much on-par with other properties I’ve stayed at that offer complimentary hot breakfasts.

The staff was great the entire time we were there, very friendly and helpful. Considering the quality of the service, cleanliness of the hotel, and proximity to Eckerd, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again.



Turkey Day on a Ship

One year ago today, we were boarding a ship to enjoy our third straight Thanksgiving on a cruise. As I sit here and look back on that today, I realize just how much I’ll miss not spending Thanksgiving on board this year. Couldn’t be helped, though, with our daughter Bayley at college this year, we didn’t really figure her schedule would cooperate, and this isn’t grade school anymore, you can’t just pull a kid out of college classes for a few days and expect the professors to let her make that work up. The education comes first. Thankfully, we’ll still be spending the holiday with her, as we’re driving down Tuesday evening to spend a few days with her. More on that at a later date, for now let’s head back to last year.

Thanksgiving on a cruise ship is a blast, no cooking or cleaning to worry about, no stress of hosting family, just a week of relaxation and fun. On this trip, my mother and step-father were with us, as they wanted to take us all on one last family vacation before Bayley started college. Frankly, without them paying most of our fare, our string of Thanksgiving cruises would have been broken, as we simply weren’t in a position to do a cruise last year. So let’s look back on that week:

The Ship

The Breeze is the largest ship we’ve been on to date, and we were all interested to see how that played out. It also represented a departure from the normal decor that adorns most of the contemporary lines (gaudy chic? :)). The breeze’s decorum is definitely one of my favorites to date:


The ship was very easy to navigate, and offered plenty of food choices. I enjoy a good burger, and definitely liked being on a ship with Guy’s Burger Joint. The Pig Patty was a winner for me. Additionally, BlueIguana offers a delicious steak burrito. Another yummy stop was Fat Jimmy’s C-Side BBQ, which is only open on sea days. We tried it on day one, and overall wasn’t bad. The line’s generally kinda long right when it opens, so if you go, wait until it’s been open an hour or so. Frankly, Guy’s and Blue Iguana are the same the first day or two. Regardless of th wait, it was nice to have more than just the buffet and pool grill to eat at. My only complaint was the pizza station, as it takes way too long to get a slice of pizza on a Carnival ship. We experienced that on our previous two Thanksgiving cruises (both on Carnival too). Minor annoyance most of the time, but after skipping dinner to spend extra time in Curacao, pizza was one of the only things open when we got back on board, and if I recall, I waited 45 min for two slices. Yikes. Eh, we were on a ship, so one little thing like that’s not going to ruin my day.

Activities on the Breeze were in abundance. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, we love to stay active on sea days, especially if there’s a trivia event, which there were plenty of on the Breeze. We attended several, and even managed to win a couple. It is amusing to watch the people who take trivia on board way too seriously, too. Arguing with the person running trivia over whether an answer is right or not (especially when you’re blindingly wrong) seems a bit ridiculous when you’re on vacation, but to each his own. It’s all in good fun, and it’s not like the prize is super valuable, although I admit we enjoy winning them, and have at least one from each of the four Carnival cruises we’ve been on.


The ship has several things to do outside of scheduled activities, and we took advantage of two of them. The water slides were an absolute blast, as was the ropes course. The course is situated up high and provides a great view of the ocean on a sea day. I’ve got GoPro footage of my trek around it, definitely a highlight of our time on board.

The Stops

We broke one of our rules on this one, as all four of our stops were back to back. Normally we like an itinerary that breaks it up, but for this trip it was a no-brainer. We went easy with activity scheduling to avoid getting all stressed about planning. I’ll lay out what we did stop by stop. Some of this is probably a repeat from my ‘Choosing Cruise Excursions‘ post, so I won’t go too deep, but we had a blast in every port!

Grand Turk: This was our planned beach day. It’s a tiny strip of sand with little to do, and served as an excellent choice for hanging out on the beach since you basically walk off the ship and right to the beach. We did walk through the shops, picked a couple of things up, etc, but overall just planned to lay on the beach or snorkel. While we were hanging out on the beach, someone came by selling helicopter tours. After he walked by, we discussed it and decided to spend a little money and have some fun. My wife stayed behind, concerned about her motion sickness, so it was just four of us. Since we had a group, they cut $10/pp off the price for the 8-ish minute ride, for a cost of $40/pp. We had an absolute blast, and had a great view of our ship and the beach where my wife was waiting for us. Well worth the money in our opinion, and frankly I think my wife would have been fine, it was a very smooth ride.


Dominican Republic: For our second stop, we’d booked a dune buggy tour ahead of time with Pro Excursions. While the port experience was one of the worst we’ve had (covered in that past post I mentioned above), the dune buggies were an absolute blast, one of my favorite excursions, and any stress getting the correct taxi was worth it. We were covered in mud when we were done, and smiling the whole time. I think the pictures say it all 🙂


Curacao: We got off the ship with no plan whatsoever. We figured if there were tour guides offering island tours at a good price, we’d grab one, but if not, we’d just walk around and shop. As we got off, we found the tour operator stand, and grabbed a cheap tour. It was a little over two hours, if I recall, and half of that was probably spent in traffic :). Beautiful island, but they definitely share some of the traffic problems cities in the US have. Our time in port was 2pm -11pm local time, and by the time we got back from the tour, most of the shops were starting to close up. We were able to do a little shopping, and did walk around the area a bit.


Aruba: We had a blast here. My wife had set up a private tour before we went, so it was just the 5 of us in a van with the guides. The tour took us all over the island, and included stops at Philip’s Animal Garden and a local donkey sanctuary (among regular scenic stops). Our guide had lived on the island most of his life, and obviously knew his stuff. This was a 5 hour tour, and we enjoyed every minute of it, as it basically took us from one end to the other. When we got back, we walked around the shops for a while, picked up a few things, and headed back to the ship not long before departure. Aruba is a very beautiful island, and is on my short list of ones I want to go back to.

Aruba8Aruba6Aruba5Aruba4 Aruba3Aruba2Aruba

We also bought Faster to the Fun passes for trip, which I know some people don’t think Carnival should sell. For those who aren’t familiar, they sell a limited amount per cruise, and a single FTTF pass covers everyone in the cabin. Benefits of the pass include priority boarding, priority tendering (which we didn’t need on this trip), stateroom available as soon as you get on, priority line access at guest services, and priority debark. My main reasons for getting it were priority embarkation and debarkation, as being Gold level we wouldn’t otherwise get priority there. We treat boarding day as an extra sea day, and like getting on as soon as we can. For debarkation, Charlotte’s an 11 hour drive from Miami, so getting off as early as possible helps me get home in time to some sleep before I have to go back to work the next day. We bought a pass for my parents cabin, too, and we all found it worth the cost ($50 per cabin). For the first time in a long time, I had to use guest services for a couple of things, and not having to wait in the long regular line was a huge benefit.

Overall, this was one of our best cruises to date. A great crew, plenty of activities, and some great stops made for yet another awesome Thanksgiving on board a Carnival ship. I highly recommend cruising over turkey day at least once!

Another Trip to Florida, Part 1

Even with our daughter away at college, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy. My wife and I are starting a new business, and the prep work (combined with my existing job) has kept me otherwise occupied. We’re actually down in Florida for the final training on it as I type, but I’ll hold off on posting any info on just what it is that we’re doing until after the week is over and we return home.

This trip requires us to be in Fort Lauderdale for 6 days of training that started on Monday. We decided to leave early Saturday morning and stop in St Pete for a day to see our daughter. With everything else going on, we didn’t get around to booking a hotel until a couple of days before we left, and thanks to Hotwire’s Hot Rates, ended up getting a pretty good deal on the Holiday Inn Harbourside in Indian Rocks Beach. For those afraid of booking a hotel you can’t see until you pay (Hotwire Hot Deals, Priceline, etc), there’s a good site you can use to narrow down the possibilities – betterbidding.com (no, I’m not affiliated in any way). Through the local information in the Hotwire forum, I was able to determine what hotel it was before we bought the deal.

Upon checking in, they upgraded us to a suite at no additional cost, which was a bit of a surprise considering I’ve never had that happen when using a Hotwire or Priceline fare. When we saw where the room was, I admit I was concerned. We were in 143, which was a first floor suite near the outdoor bar. We were on the waterfront side, so not right next to the music, but close enough. Fortunately it wasn’t an issue. The band shuts down by 10pm, so even on a Saturday night it was never a bother. It also gave us (well, me) a great spot to watch the sunrise the next morning:

St Pete Sunrise


Anyway, on Saturday night, we took her and a couple of her friends out to dinner, and let her pick the place. She absolutely loves a good Japanese steakhouse, and chose Tsunami in St Petersburg. We’d made reservations for the hibachi side, so when we got there were seated pretty quick. The meal was very good, definitely one of the better Japanese steakhouses we’ve been to, and we had a great chef. Can’t say the same for the group at the table next to us, as they had all kinds of issues (improperly cooked chicken, people not getting what they ordered, etc). We were glad we got the chef we did, as he got everything right from the start, and all items were cooked to perfection. I always get filet mignon at places like this, and was very happy with the quality of the meat. We’d definitely stop again.

Sunday was spent mostly at a local beach on Treasure Island. The weather was great, water was warm, and the beach wasn’t busy at all. We hung out in the water most of the time, until a whole lot of small fish started swimming past us trying to escape the ever-growing flock of birds trying to eat them. At that point it was almost time for us to go, so we hopped out and watched the birds dive-bombing the fish for a bit, then packed up our stuff and headed back to our daughter’s dorm. The plan at that point was to pick up her best friend (who she’s been in school with since 3rd grade) and grab some dinner before my wife and I headed across the state for our week of training.

For dinner, we’d decided on Tijuana Flats, which is sort of a guilty pleasure for us due to the cookie dough flautas. The food’s pretty good for a chain, too, but it’s really the desserts that make the place. Her friend had never been there before, and fell in love with the desserts, too. Probably a bad idea to take him there when we did, as he had a flag football game not long after, and frankly I can’t even imagine the sugar crash that must have hit him during that game. Sorry 😉

After dinner, we dropped the kids back at school, said our goodbyes, and headed out. I always hate leaving her, but she’s been busting her butt so far this semester, and shown that she was ready for the challenge and to live on her own. I couldn’t be more proud :).

As we get further along in the week, I’ll post more on the places we’ve eaten here, along with the hotel we’re in. After we get home, I’ll cover what exactly we were doing down here, as it directly pertains to the theme of my blog, and represents a new and exciting chapter in our lives.

More to come!


Four days in Florida

Mid last week, we headed down to Florida to drop our daughter off at Eckerd College to start her freshman year (if you’re interested, more on that here). Being that her best friend of 10 years is also going to Eckerd, we decided to caravan down there with their family a little early and spend a day at Universal Studios. Before we get to that, however, I’ll mention a little about where we stayed.

Thanks to my daughter’s competitive cheer schedule over the years, we’ve stayed in several hotels in Orlando over the years, usually ones associated with Disney. With this trip not including a Disney stop, we decided to go with a house my wife found on AirBnB. We’ve used AirBnB in the past, most notably last summer when we spend a couple of weeks in SoCal touring colleges, and have never had an issue. This trip was no different. The house is located in a gated community in Haines City, and fit the bill perfectly. We aimed for something outside of Orlando in the direction of St Petersburg on purpose, knowing we’d be making a couple of trips between the house and her college. In hindsight, we probably should have booked something a little closer to St Pete, but considering we paid $500 for 4 nights in a 4 bedroom house that had a pool and hot tub, and were splitting the cost with another family, we were pretty happy.

Back to the trip itself. We spent last Thursday at Universal, and it pretty much lived up to our last trip there. The last visit was right after the Harry Potter section first opened in Islands of Adventure, and suffice it to say the park was way too crowded that day. So much so that it took 20 minutes to walk from the Hogsmeade entrance back to the Forbidden Journey ride. For anyone who’s been there, you know that walk should take closer to 2 minutes, if that. On that day, I think we maybe got 3 rides in across the entire park due to the lines. This time around wasn’t much different.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Universal, but we all had one day left on our passes from that previous visit, and had to use them before the end of the year. For the money, I’d rather spend the day at Disney. At $136/pp for one day, it’s a pretty steep ticket. Yes, that single day price gets you in to both parks, but even with that, I think we only managed to get in 5 rides this time around (total, in both parks) due to lines. We never did try out the new Gringotts rode, as the wait was 240 minutes. None of us were interested in waiting 4 hours for any ride (an employee told us the longest she’d seen so far was 7 hours. Yikes). We did jump in the single riders line, but in the 20 minutes we were in it we never moved, so we cut our losses and headed for the Hogwarts Express to have some fun over in Islands of Adventure.

The positives for us when it comes to Universal:

  • Butterbeer. Yum 🙂
  • The Harry Potter sections themselves are pretty cool. Very well done on Universal’s part:

Castle Diagon Diagon2 Dragon Hogsmeade

The negatives:

  • The lines. At Disney you can deal with this by utilizing the fast pass. At Universal, they do have an express pass, which brings me to the next negative:
  • The express pass: When we first got to the park, I asked about this, and was quoted $89/pp for a one-time pass, or $109/pp for an unlimited pass for the day we were there (apparently this price fluctuates). Uh, you have to be insane. Not a chance. I know certain hotel guests have that included, but I’m not going to pay more to stay at the Hard Rock just to get an express pass. I made my choice and voted with my wallet, and the likelihood of me going back to Universal is slim in part because of this.
  • The staff. We live close to Carowinds, and rarely go in large part because the employees just don’t seem to have their heads in the game. Universal seems to be approaching that same level of employee discontent. As an example, we ate lunch in the park at Mythos. The wait was about 40min right at lunch rush, no biggie, but as our waitress was walking us to our table, our waiter saw he was getting someone new seated in his area, and very vocally said “you’ve got to be kidding me!”. I get that you very easily could have been overloaded with customers, but as someone who’s in front of customers all day, there’s simply no excuse for complaining like that in front of them. Just one example of what seemed to be a huge difference between the staff at Disney and those at Universal.

All in all we spent around 12 hours at Universal that day, minus heading out to the City Walk area to meet up with a few other people for dinner. Wasn’t a bad way to spend our last day together as a family before dropping my daughter off at college, but as mentioned, I think we all would have preferred Disney 🙂

%d bloggers like this: