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Old 23 Jun 20, 08:07 PM  
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A Universal Adventure February 2020 - Day 8: Universal Studios, Sweet Tomatoes and Home

Day 8 - Saturday 22nd February 2020

I woke up a few times in the night. The bedding in the Hard Rock is a blanket inside a sheet but the blanket is too small to stretch across two people and I was cold with only the sheet over me. I finally got up around 6 am. I still had quite a few things to pack so decided to get ready and get on with that. We dragged the girls out of bed about 7 am. Freya struggled to get up even with the promise of a donut from the Club Lounge. When she finally got up and made it to the lounge with Mat, she got a glazed donut, a chocolate muffin and cinnamon swirl. Mat and Seren got bagels for breakfast as they had the last few days.





They also found some fresh pineapple chunks for me. The pineapple was really good and I wished I’d been able to get some the previous two mornings but my family assured me there hadn’t been any decent fruit any other days. Mat got himself a manky coffee out of necessity even though he knew it would be grim.

By the time everyone was ready and fed and we were all packed, it was about 7.55 am. Mat kindly suggested the girls and I go into Universal Studios to use the early entry hour for the last time and he would stay behind to sort out the luggage and catch us up as soon as. Bizarrely he had the same guy come up as when we had checked out last year, and the guy recognised him too.

The girls and I headed out and were pleased it was a little bit warmer than yesterday. It was also sunny, which it hadn’t been at all the previous day. I think at this point it was about 12 degrees.





We took the shortcut through the Butterfly Garden as we hadn’t walked through it yet this year. I noticed that the Garden Walk and the Butterfly Garden were looking lovely this trip. We’d seen a lot of garden maintenance and flower planting during our time here this week and the Butterfly Garden actually looked better this February than it had when we’d stayed in August a couple of years ago.





We got to the Universal Studios turnstiles at 8.05 am. The lines to get into the park were a lot shorter than the last couple of days which was a nice surprise. Seren’s fingerprint wouldn’t work and she reset it. However the reset wouldn’t work whenever she used it after that so it was a good job we didn’t have much park time left.





We walked round to Gringotts and the posted wait was 10 or 15 minutes. Unusually for early entry, they were doing the photos in the queue but I asked politely if we could skip them. Firstly we’re never going to buy them so it’s pointless and secondly none of us like the way we end up with white spots in front of our eyes for several minutes after the bright flash. The Team Member was fine with us skipping the photos.

When we got into the pre-show, we were able to move all the way to the doors leading to the elevators as people weren’t moving down, even though the Team Members were asking people to do so. We were first into the lifts and first out, it was all very efficient. We asked for the back row again. Today we didn’t seem to tilt forward very much when the trolls ‘dropped us’ so we couldn’t see the screen ahead of us as much as usual which was weird.

Mat was waiting outside when we got out. We popped to the Diagon Alley toilets...









...and then took some photos outside Diagon Alley.













It was 8.50 am and a Team Member was walking through at this point telling guests that the rest of the park was open already.

We decided to take some shark pictures. Seren was scared of the shark and I have a video of her running away from it which is quite amusing.









Freya was complaining that she just wanted to go on rides. She always says that as soon as there’s been a gap of 20 minutes or something since our last ride, or if we’re eating or in a show or shop. The girls decided they wanted to do Rip Ride Rockit which was open today after being closed all day yesterday due to the bad weather. So the girls and I walked round to RRR while Mat went to Starbucks. Seren wanted a hot chocolate with almond milk to warm her up and he got our usuals: my black Americano and his double espresso. Apparently the music was really loud in there today.

The girls went to join the RRR line and I found a tiny patch of sun outside the entrance to stand in to keep warm. Other parents and non-riders were also doing the same. The girls were back within 10 minutes. I could hear Freya screaming on the ride again like last time so I knew when they were about to come off. They asked to go on again. Mat still wasn’t back so they went again, and just like the first time they were off super quick. They were randomly in the front row both times.







Mat then came back and we drank our drinks in the little square of sunshine. Like I said, it was slightly warmer than yesterday but still chilly.





Continued below...
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Old 23 Jun 20, 08:13 PM  
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...continued

Seren and her friends love Shrek and she wanted to get some Shrek stuff for them as presents, so we walked over to the Shrek shop. She got one of her friends a cute little Shrek bobblehead and a couple of the Shrek chocolate bars. When we’d paid and were just about to leave, the guy said ‘have a Shrek-cellent day’. Love it.









Seren wanted to go in the Mardi Gras store between Jimmy Fallon and The Mummy. Mat took them in first while I finished my coffee sat on the kerb outside.











Then I went back in with the girls as they wanted to show me how cool the shop was. I think this store is used for merchandise for themed events throughout the year such as Halloween Horror Nights. In the entrance and throughout the shop there were lots of interesting props.





The theming was really good and inside the store it was very dark and a bit spooky. There were lots of bits the girls wanted and I said they could have one small souvenir each. Freya chose a lucky eye keyring and Seren got a Mardi Gras sticker.



Then of course it was time to ride The Mummy since several waking hours had passed since we’d last ridden and Freya was getting withdrawal symptoms.



Strangely there was no one checking Express Passes outside or inside so anyone could have used the Express line. The ride was actually pretty quiet so I don’t think it made much of a difference. We were on within a few minutes.















We hadn’t actually done many rides the previous day with the cold weather and leaving the park early so with this being our last day, we decided we wanted to tick off a few more today. So next up was Transformers which Mat had said the day before he never wanted to ride again but here we were. We had to wait a while to get on. Usually with Express you don’t really have to wait more than about five minutes, and often if you hit resistance in the line you can already see the loading area and know it’s not going to be long. But today we had to wait a bit longer in the middle of the queue, long enough to notice we were waiting if that makes sense which doesn’t happen often. Today at Transformers they were definitely loading more people from the standby line. They load two vehicles at a time and sometimes both vehicles contained only standby riders so I guess maybe that line had got quite backed up.

We were given row one which we were happy about. While we were at the loading dock, I had this exchange with the Team Member closest to me:

Him (very enthusiastically) : Hi!
Me (as enthusiastically as I could) : Hi!
Him: Having a good day?
Me: Yes!
Him: Ready to save the world?
Me: Yes!
Him: *holds out hand for high 5*

I love stuff like that. I think some people think Universal Team Members maybe don’t have the same enthusiasm we might see from some Disney Cast Members, and I think eight or so years ago I would have agreed. But I think Universal TMs have got a lot better over the years and we encountered some great ones like this guy this year.

Like I said in yesterday’s report, I was really liking this ride this year which was unexpected because usually I’m quite meh about it. I do seem to go on and off some rides each trip, I’m a bit fickle like that. Today was also better than yesterday because we were in the front. Towards the end of the ride, one of the screens was blank which was a weird experience. We were just moving around in the simulator staring at this blanks screen. When we got back Mat and one of the other riders each told a different Team Member about the problem with the screen. Our guy said sometimes it freezes and needs to be reset. He offered us another ride but we said we were good.



We decided to ride Jimmy Fallon for the second time this trip. When we got inside we were given green passes. When we got upstairs they were already boarding green and the whole place was empty. The Ragtime Band were playing to one very enthusiastic woman which was a bit weird. She possibly worked there. The audio from their performance was playing as we entered the pre-show line and they didn’t sound too good. We were singing along and bopping as we queued but we winced at a few off notes. I’ve said it before, the girls and I really like this ride, Mat doesn’t. The family behind us were very enthusiastic and when we got off Mat said ‘Not sure what they were watching.’









As we were leaving today and needed to get over to Tampa, we decided to have an early lunch and dinner before getting to the airport. We were up for one last Beyond Burger so we walked up to Richter's.

Continued below...
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Old 23 Jun 20, 08:16 PM  
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...continued



It opened at 11 am and it was about eight minutes to so I went to the San Francisco restrooms. We generally avoid these particular restrooms after finding them a bit grim in 2001 and on our next trip in 2012 but today they were fine. While I restroomed Mat got into a queue outside Richter’s behind one other even more keen party. By the time the doors opened there was about eight families waiting. It was so nice to go in when it was quiet and choose a nice table by the window.





Mat and I had burgers with cheese and vegenaise, Seren had hers plain. I added onions and pickles from the toppings bar. The burgers were really good. Like yesterday they were small portions of fries even for Freya who had just a side of fries. I definitely rate the food at Richter’s, at least for vegans, and it was so good to be able to enjoy our lunch while it was pretty quiet in there. By the time we left it had definitely filled up though.





It was warming up a bit more, warm enough for Seren to take her sweatshirt off. It was still a bit too cool for the rest of us to do that but it was still lovely and sunny and definitely warmer than the previous day.





We went into the movie shop by Transformers next but didn’t buy anything and then we bumped into the Despicable Me parade so we watched that for a minute as the characters are just so cute.







Then we had a look around a little store we’d never seen before which was full of props from the park that you could buy. They had some really cool and weird things in there so it was worth a little look around.









Terrifying:



We walked through Hollywood again and decided to have a look in a new shop that had just opened in the last few days in the Beverly Wilshire building.



It’s where the Horror Makeup Show and the new Bourne attraction kick out so there was both horror and Bourne merchandise in the store. There was a screen blocking the exit doors from the soon-to-be-open Bourne Stuntacular and a Team Member stationed like a security guard making sure people didn’t go back there.

Freya was after some cotton candy which they were selling in tubs in the store. We said she could have some as long as we used up all the loose change we didn’t want to take home with us. Mat and Freya went off to pay and had a chat with the friendly Team Member at the counter who was asking them where they were from. We had a lot of that this trip, more than usual for some reason.

We went back outside and the Secret Life of Pets parade floats were out. The animals are so cute so we stopped and watched those for a bit.













We were starting to think about leaving the park for the last time this trip which was a bit sad. We’d had such a lovely week and after the bad weather of the previous day, the sun was shining now and it had started to warm up. We really didn’t want to go home.



Seren wanted to meet Shrek before we left which they’ve never done before. They went to join the line but dithered a bit and ended up letting a few people ahead of them. Unfortunately when the characters went for a break a few minutes later, they cut the line right in front of the girls. If they hadn’t dithered about entering the queue they would have been through before the characters went on a break which was annoying. Especially since their break seemed to take forever (but was probably only about 10 minutes.)

The girls really enjoyed the meet. Donkey is so funny. Unfortunately he heard Seren’s name as Sarah so it was quite funny hearing him call her that. Obviously with her unusual name it wasn’t the first time someone had got it wrong but it made us laugh.







After that it really was time to go. I actually feel really sad just looking at the photos of us leaving the park while I’m writing this.



Continued...
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Old 23 Jun 20, 08:22 PM  
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Continued...

Obviously at that point, although Covid-19 was a thing, we didn’t realise how the next few months were going to play out. If we had known that a month later the parks would be closing and future trips would be up in the air after it became a global pandemic suspending US travel, leaving today would have been sadder. At the time, knowing we had been lucky enough to make almost annual trips to Orlando, we were thinking we’d be back again within 18 months or so because we can’t stay away.







It was about 12.30 pm as we walked back one last time to the Hard Rock Hotel, taking some more photos.

















We said goodbye to the queen as we passed:



When we got back the girls and I sat down in the lobby while Mat sorted out collecting the luggage and bringing the car to the entrance.





It didn’t take very long before we were on our way.



We had decided to have a very early ‘dinner’ only three hours after our lunch. We wanted to go to Sweet Tomatoes and hadn’t made it there yet so this was our last chance. Now that Sweet Tomatoes is no more, we’re so glad we made the effort to go one last time.



We got there about 2.15 pm and the place was so busy. We managed to find one of the last available tables. We thought it was a bit strange that it was so busy mid afternoon. About half an hour later the place emptied out and we realised there had been a coach party (or two) in when we arrived.

I had a Club Veg email coupon for $9.49 lunch each (I’m sure the discount vouchers used to be more generous than that.) We each got a big plate of salad. I loved the salad at Sweet Tomatoes. Here’s my plate. Yum:



And the girls' salad plates:





Remembering our lovely food on our last trip there is making me sad now that I know it really was our last trip there. I absolutely love the salad at Sweet Tomatoes and everything on my plate was delicious. So delicious that when I’d finished I got a smaller second plate which unfortunately I couldn’t finish as it still wasn’t that long since I’d had my burger.

Everyone else got various second plates (Seren: baked sweet potato, Mat: soup, Freya: pizza and pasta) but we were all too full for any dessert.

We set off for Tampa just after 2 pm and for some reason I took this random photo of a Fishbones on the way.



We pulled up at the rental car return at Tampa Airport just after 4 pm. Mat hadn’t filled the car and I didn’t realise we were supposed to bring it back full because he hadn’t told me (he ‘forgot’) so we had words about how much that tank was going to cost us when Avis charged us for it.

We unloaded the car and went inside, taking the elevator up.



We all restroomed, changed into our travelling home tops and then put the last bits into the cases that needed to go into the cases. We had purchases from the morning and some food and the tops we’d taken off to shove into the cases and it took a few minutes because the cases were already pretty full.

Check-in was quite slow as there weren’t many BA desks but luckily there weren’t too many people waiting. There was a bit of a wait for security and the guy checking passports was super scary and was shouting at everyone for doing and not doing things.

Once we got to the security belts there was some confusion about shoes, belts and stuff as the staff weren’t really telling people what they needed to take off. A TSA agent asked how old Freya was and when we told her she was 11 (for two more days although I didn’t say that) the agent took us from the main line for the body scanner to the screening arch for families. She also said we didn’t have to take our shoes off because we were going through the family lane, which was also quicker than the regular, body scanner line. Thank you Freya.

It amazes me how many people still bring liquids over 100ml through security.

Once we were all done with that it was about 6 pm. I fancied a pre-flight drink so Mat had a little wander around the departure area but as expected there wasn’t anywhere we could get a takeaway alcoholic drink from. I didn’t want to sit in at a bar or restaurant and just wanted to chill at the seats in departures.

Mat suggested that he go to the American Airlines Lounge as he can get in there with his Silver Avios membership and ask if he could bring me out a drink. I knew this wasn’t going to work but he went off anyway. He came back a few minutes later and said that the staff had said we could all go in the Lounge. We’ve often gone into the BA Lounge before our return flight with Mat’s Avios but technically he’s only allowed one guest so we can only go in as a family at staff discretion (i.e. when the Lounge is quiet.) So sometimes we don’t bother to ask and that’s how we felt today. But now we were able to go in and relax and have a drink I was quite happy about it.

Mat has been in AA Lounges before but I think I have only been in BA ones. It was quite busy but we found a table right down the end by the bar. There wasn’t much in the way of snacks but I think Freya and maybe Seren found something they could nibble. In the BA Lounge drinks are unlimited and you help yourself but in the American Lounge you get a voucher each for a premium drink (the girls didn’t, just Mat and I.) Mat didn’t want a drink so he let me use his. I had two Tanquerey and tonics. Bottled water was also considered a premium drink so I think everyone else just had tap water or soft drinks from the pump at the bar.



We were able to charge our phones where we were sat and Mat and I finished up the last of the Kettle Chips we had in our bag. We were only in there about an hour because it was almost time to board and we needed to buy some water for the flight. We walked down to the gate, stopping in a little shop to get a few bottles of water.

Just after 7 pm we were waiting at the gate.



Our flight was due to take off at 7.25 pm but I think it was delayed by 30 minutes or something. Because boarding was a bit late, people were getting even more impatient to get in the line than usual. It’s always fun when you have people in boarding group four or five standing at the gate entrance before anyone has been called to board.

Being group two we were boarded quickly and were soon in our usual seats. We always book the first row of economy after the bulkhead. We get free seat reservation at the time of booking with Mat’s Silver Avios but would have to pay extra for the extra legroom of the bulkhead. However I think we might rethink our chosen seats after the past few years as the people in the bulkhead seats usually seem to recline their seats all the way back for pretty much the entire flight, despite the fact they also have all that extra legroom in front of them. It’s probably just a coincidence but we’re decidedly anti-recliners and I really hate having to eat my meal with my tray almost pressing into me and spending the flight with my TV screen right in my face.

It wasn’t the best flight but then overnight return flights are rarely much fun are they. I think Mat and I both slept about three hours, Seren had a bit more and Freya slept most of the flight which she usually does. The vegan meal wasn’t good, I know that, but I can’t remember exactly what it was. The food on the way home is never as good as the outbound in my opinion.

I think I had run out of ‘new’ films or films I hadn’t seen that I wanted to see after the outbound journey. As I said before, the films hadn’t really been updated since before our flight to New York in August so it was slim pickings for me. They had an extended romance section for Valentine’s Day so I decided to watch two old rom-coms I’d seen before that I wouldn’t really have to concentrate on and might send me off to sleep. I watched 50 First Dates and The Proposal, both weren’t very good but the second was slightly better than the first. When I’d watched both of those and had a sleep, I watched a bit of Modern Family and Friends I think.

After landing in Gatwick on a cold Sunday February morning, the line for Passport Control was pretty short. As Freya was turning 12 the following day, we commented on the fact that this would be the last time we wouldn’t be directed to the automatic passport gates. We had to wait quite a while for our luggage but I can’t remember a flight that we haven’t had to wait ages for our luggage in about the last five years. And that’s with our apparent ‘Priority Baggage’ which doesn’t seem to be a thing most of the time.

We headed towards the car park and decided to stop at Costa in the terminal first. I went to get the coffees while Mat contacted Purple Parking to tell them we were back. I decided to get us all some food from Costa too since we had all barely eaten or slept since the day before and could really use the energy. Freya got some salt and vinegar crisps and a pain au chocolat, Seren got her usual Costa order of a bag of plain Pom Bears and an Innocent Energise smoothie, and I got Mat and I a vegan cheese and quorn ham toastie each. We ate our food standing just outside Costa (the toasties were really good) and then headed back to the car park where Purple Parking had brought our car back for us. As I’ve said before, I would definitely recommend Purple Parking Meet and Greet at Gatwick. It’s quick and easy, cheap and the service is good. Not having a long walk or shuttle bus ride when you’re freezing and tired, just a quick elevator ride to a multi-storey where your car is waiting for you is much appreciated.

I drank my coffee in the car and took this photo to document how lovely it was to be back on the M25 in the rain.



It was 10 am at this point. The girls slept the whole way home and I tried to stay awake as much as possible because I feel bad for Mat having to drive if I sleep. We were home within an hour and forty five minutes or so.

This holiday had been a first for us being Universal only but we really enjoyed the relaxed pace. It was our second February half term holiday in a row but last year had been much more full-on, doing a park every day including rope dropping all four Disney parks. I loved both but this year’s trip felt like it went faster because we were relaxing more for the first half of the week. When we were super busy last year fitting a lot more in it made the week go slower. And the other benefit of last year was the perfect weather whereas we were let us down a bit by the weather this year with it being so cold on the Friday and Saturday. It was still an awesome week though, and as I’ve already mentioned I feel so grateful that we were able to go to Florida and have that holiday this year now that Covid-19 has led to so many people’s holiday’s being cancelled.

Future Plans

While we were in Florida we kind of decided that next time we go back we want to do the Disney parks too as we did kind of miss them despite appreciating the more relaxed week of Universal. It was weird not to visit a Disney park at all while we were there, although going to Disney Springs twice was a nice Disney fix.

This trip was supposed to be an extra on top of our main holiday this year which was a three week California road trip in August. We decided to cancel that in May knowing it was unlikely to happen anyway. It’s pretty much all cancelled now apart from one of the nine accommodations and the flights which we’re hoping BA will cancel before our balance is due to try to avoid losing our £150 deposit. When we cancelled we decided to book Christmas in Orlando instead. In early May we were quite optimistic about everything being ok by then but who knows. We’re happy to go ahead with the restrictions that have been announced with the parks reopening and I booked all of our park reservations yesterday which made me cautiously excited. At the moment we’ve decided just to be optimistic that we’ll get to go. Spending Christmas at Disney World has been on my bucket list for a long time. If it happens we’re doing two days in New York (watching our favourite city get hammered by Covid-19 and then seeing the protests there has made us miss it even more than we usually do) followed by 10 days at the Yacht Club (our favourite Disney Hotel) and then three days at the Hard Rock Hotel spending New Year at Universal. Keeping fingers crossed.

These reports take a lot of time (especially when you ramble on as much as me) but it’s so worth it to have them to look back on. Thanks to everyone who has read along and especially for the comments which always help motivate me. Reliving the holiday and looking at the photos has been comforting during these crazy few months. Now that this report has come together quite quickly I’m going back to finish August 2018 and February 2019 if anyone still cares about stuff that happened that long ago .
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Old 23 Jun 20, 10:37 PM  
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Aw have really enjoyed reading along with all your activities. It has cheered me up now that our July/August holiday has been cancelled. ☹️ The silver lining being we have decided on a 3 week trip next summer with club level at Portofino and a road trip to Florida Keys. Hope you’re all safe and well.
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Old 24 Jun 20, 09:25 AM  
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Great TP thanks for posting. We did a week once and managed Disney, Universal & 2 water park afternoons! It’s amazing how much you can pack into a 7 night break but you do miss the relaxing days so nice you had a more relaxing pace for the week. Have a fantastic Christmas & NY hols, sounds amazing
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Old 24 Jun 20, 01:45 PM  
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Great read, our May trip was cancelled (obviously) so seeing and reading about Orlando makes us smile and bring back memories. The drive home from the airport is the worst. Especially if its cold and raining, you just keep thinking...this time yesterday...
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Old 24 Jun 20, 04:53 PM  
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I really hope your Dec trip comes off.

We had Aug in Orlando booked for our first villa trip. We knew it wouldn’t come off but thankfully BA cancelled the flights properly yesterday. We had rescheduled for mid Dec onsite but actually decided over the weekend we wouldn’t be doing it. Many reasons/factors involved in that decision, one of which only appeared last week.

What a weird year eh!
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Old 24 Jun 20, 09:18 PM  
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Thanks for posting, enjoyed reading along x
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Old 25 Jun 20, 09:24 AM  
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Thanks so much for posting, I've enjoyed reading along! We were in Orlando at the same time as you, though not at Universal. I vividly remember that super cold Friday - it was soo freezing and I hadn't packed any jackets for us as sure, we were going to Florida LOL! Just goes to show Florida weather is nuts!
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