Florida Getaway: Universal Studios and Space Coast

Amusement parks are for kids? I don't think so. Or perhaps I'm a kid at heart because I love visiting a good amusement park once in a while, especially one like Universal, with great state-of-the-art rides with special effects and high quality sets and acting. 

This year, for Larisa's 24th birthday, I decided to surprise her with a surprise getaway, so I told her that I'm getting her a weekend vacation to an undisclosed location. As the date approached, she kept trying to guess where I was taking her, and somehow I slipped and said that it was Florida. As frustrating as her finding out was for me, all wasn't lost, since there are countless possible destinations in Florida and countless things one can do. 

When we got to Logan and went through security, Larisa still had no clue where we were headed. There were 3 different Florida flights departing around the same time - I tried to mask any clues by going to a different gate to wait. 

When boarding time came, we walked onto the plane and Larisa plugged her ears with headphones and kept them in until the end of the announcements, and we took off - on a plane to an unknown for Larisa destination.

airplane-window-iphone-photo-hands

Surprise factor - successful. 

Universal Studios

I've been to Universal Studios a couple of times before, once in 2004, once in 2010, and just last year in Hollywood. I didn't like the California park as much. 

The awesome thing about Universal is that every couple of years, a new ride gets added to the lineup of ever more awesome and high tech rides at the park. This year's novelty - The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. 

Consisting of two separate mini-parks - the Diagon Alley at Universal Studios and Hogsmeade and Hogwards at Islands of Adventure, the Harry Potter experience was pretty much the reason why I decided to bring Larisa here for the weekend. She loves Harry Potter. 

We enjoyed the parks and went on most of the rides. One of my personal favorites - the Hollywood Rip Ride Rock It Coaster. This ride is one of the newer parts of the park and gives you some ultimate thrills after a straight up vertical ascent to the sound of music that you can customize for the ride. 

universal-orlando-sign-palm-trees

And we might have gotten just a little soaked in the warm Florida rain storm. No big deal.

universal-studio-larisa-wet-in-the-rain

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Diagon Alley, located in the Universal Studios park, offers one main attraction - Escape from Grignotts. It's a 3D simulator roller coaster that combines awesome graphics with actual roller coaster motion. The first time we went on the ride, we took the singles line, which as it turns out, skips a lot of interesting things inside Grignotts and a major part of the ride experience, so on the second try, we got to experience it all. 

We've tried some food at the Leaky Cauldron, and tasted a butter beer in line with the Harry Potter tradition - I'll stick with my regular beer. Lukewarm sugary drinks aren't for me. 

universal-studios-orlando-diagon-alley-telephone
universal-studios-orlando-diagon-alley

Visiting the Harry Potter areas of the park at night is probably the best option - there are fewer crowds, and the night time vibe makes the town look very real. Oh, and that dragon on top of the building? It breathes fire every few minutes. 

The Wizarding World is truly for Harry Potter fanatics, there are kids (and grown ups) dressed in Harry Potter outfits, carrying wands, and fake tattoos of a scar on their forehead. As someone who never really for into Harry Potter, I still had a blast. The experience is truly captivating and made me feel like I was there, in the magical world alongside all the characters. 

One of the coolest souvenirs that you can buy at Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a magic wand. While the piece itself isn't really fascinating, especially at $30-40 or more for a piece of plastic made in China, for true Harry Potter fanatics, it's a cool toy that activates a little magic via a built in "magical" microchip. So if you're into that kind of stuff, you can buy a wand and walk around, activating various spells that make things move or light up.

After checking out the Diagon Alley, we headed over to Hogsmeade and Hogwards - located in the Islands of Adventure park, there's a train, a full-size replica of Hogwards Express that takes you there. The train ride itself is an attraction - you get to experience the kind of a train ride that Harry and his friends would have had in one of the movies. 

In Hogsmeade, the old Dueling Dragons coaster has been renamed Dragon Challenge and incorporated into the Harry Potter part of the park. Aside from the absolutely stunning snowed in village of Hogsmeade full of gift shops and snack options, the main attraction is the Hogwards Castle. Here, once again, the singles line skips much of the decor and goes straight to the simulator ride.

The full line, while very long, took us through the halls of the castle, which has been miraculously modeled very closely to what we've seen in the Harry Potter movies. The pieces which I found particularly interesting were the talking art on the walls and the moving newspaper photos. The integration of modern LCD panels has been done so perfectly that the moving artwork on the walls and photos on newspapers really do seem magical. 

The ride in the castle isn't 3D, but does feature a cinematic and motion simulation of a quiddich match - a ride similar to Soarin' at Epcot. 

Dining

The entire weekend, we've been trying out various dining options around the area. The first night, we went to a highly-recommended Latin American cuisine restaurant Pio Pio, just outside the park. This little family restaurant doesn't have the glamour of the fancy restaurants at some of the resorts, but with a 4.5 star review on Yelp, it was full of absolutely delicious options that make your mouth water. 

The second day, we decided to spend more time in the parks, so our dinner was a quick grab to eat at a restaurant on the City Walk near the parks. There, I've gotten really good seared tuna salad. 

And on our final day just before departure, we stopped by yet another small family restaurant, this time, a Hawaiian cuisine Fat Kahunas, once again, with a 4.5 star Yelp review. Here, Larisa and I went practically for the same meal - Mahi Mahi. Larisa had hers served as fish tacos, and I had mine as a sandwich with fries on the side. Delicious. 

Kennedy Space Center and Space Coast

The place from where America first ventured into space, a place from where mankind departed to the moon. The place that has served to hundreds of rocket launches over the past several decades. I've long wanted to visit Kennedy Space Center, and with a day to spare after visting the parks, Larisa and I decided to head in that direction and explore Cape Canaveral, learning a little bit more about our country's space history. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a free visitor center or any free activities in at the Kennedy Space Center. A $60 ($10 + $50) admission covers parking, a bus tour of the complex, IMAX admission, and various exhibitions within the visitor complex. 

The short version of the bus tour of the Kennedy Space Center takes about 45 minutes and brings visitors close to the Vehicle Assemble Building, one of the largest buildings in the world, by volume. Somewhat close to the VAB, there is launch complex 39, used for the Apollo and Shuttle Missions and currently under renovations for use by SpaceX Falcon rockets. 

Aside from the infrastucture at Kennedy Space center, one of the most impressive things is just how much space there is between buildings and launchpads to allow for rocket exhaust. The sound within 800 feet of a launching rocket can actually kill you.  There are also a lot of alligators in the numerous ditches and swamps on the space complex property. 

One of the most memorable experiences for me at the complex was the brand new space shuttle museum, hosting Atlantis, suspended in the middle of a large hall with its cargo doors open. Atlantis is a beauty. There's something remarkable about standing near a giant spacecraft that traveled millions of miles through space. 

Another interesting highlight of the Kennedy Space Center Experience is the Apollo museum that hosts a full size Saturn V rocket used on apollo missions. There, is also the original capsule that returned Apollo 14 astronauts back to the Earth. 

After spending some time at the space center, we headed down the coast to Cocoa Beach. A site of a recent shark attack, there weren't too many people in the water, but the Atlantic was warm, and the sand was white. If only we could spend a couple days there, laying on the beach, swimming in the warm waters. One of these times, I will plan a beach vacation, just maybe.