Jingle all the way at Universal Orlando
AS Willy Wonka once said: “Come with me and you’ll see a world of pure imagination”.
And here I was, little old Irish Charlie Bucket, with the last of the five precious golden tickets in my hand.
Along with my fellow companions - Veruca, Violet, Augustus and Mike – I was about to enter Universal Orlando’s very own ‘chocolate factory’.
With steam billowing from its impressive smoke stacks and the sweet smell of cocoa filling the air, the sight of the resort’s Toothsome Chocolate Emporium as we came around the bend in the river had me salivating at the mouth.
Professor Doctor Penelope Tibeaux-Tinker Toothsome and her robot Jacques
Old Wonka may have laid claim to the Everlasting Gobstopper and the Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar - but he’d have been out of business up against this lot.
They’ve got chocolate bread with salted-caramel butter, chocolate stout chicken wings, chocolate dipped bacon and chocolate mole pasta sauces to die for. Their milkshakes and desserts will leave you bursting at the seams and their very own chocolate stout would give old Uncle Arthur’s finest a run for its money.
But the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, which only opened its doors in September, is just the tip of the iceberg after an astonishing 12 months at the resort.
In that time alone, Universal’s magicians – with the aid of Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione – have also conjured up a stunning new Caribbean-themed hotel, unleashed the King of all new rides and brought an old Marvel monster back to life.
And, as the Christmas festivities kicked into gear this week (December 3 to January 1), even old ‘Anti-Claus’ himself, The Grinch, couldn’t dampen the spirits.
The green old meanie – whose very own festive musical ‘The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular’ is currently running at Universal’s Islands of Adventure – wasn’t so much intent on stealing Christmas this time around, but stealing the show.
The infamous Dr Seuss character plays a leading role in the Florida festive extravaganza, which culminates each evening with the famous Macy’s parade.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade has been winding its way down streets of New York since the early 1920s, with its giant-sized balloons and floats wowing young and old alike.
And since 2001, the bright sparks behind the pageant have taken a scaled-down version of the show to Universal Studios. There’s a two-storey turkey balloon, a floating candy cane, a wriggling caterpillar, inflatable Christmas tree lights that actually glow and, of course, the main man himself, Santa Claus, who arrives on a swan-shaped sleigh.
They say Christmas is a time for giving - but over the past few years Universal has become the gift that keeps on giving.
The unveiling of their latest attraction, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, in June has ensured that the Orlando resort remains King of the theme parks and followed hot on the heels of the expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2014.
The new ride incorporates some extremely clever 3D movie elements, along with some impressive animatronics, and takes you on a 1930s expedition into Skull Island where you’ll encounter a tonne of dangerous creatures and, of course, King Kong himself.
The walk-up to the attraction is probably one of the most-impressive entrances at any theme park and features 150,000sq ft of rock work – including the 80ft-high Great Wall façade and temple ruins – which took 70,000 work hours to complete. The intricate brickwork – none of which was prefabricated – was handcrafted onsite by an army of more than 300 workers.
The queue line is one of the best parts of this attraction and, much like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringott’s, there isn’t a dull moment as you stroll towards the entrance of the ride.
Another old favourite who has returned to Universal after a year-long sabbatical was The Hulk. The new-look super-coaster roared back to life this summer and proved that he’s meaner than ever.
The Marvel monster has been given a total makeover – although at a glance you’d think nothing has changed – but the upgrade includes a new pre-show with high-tech scenes, a new storyline and even new ride vehicles. It all leads to one of the world’s greatest rollercoaster rides and is the icing on the cake of what has been a wonderful year for the Florida resort.
But knowing how these guys work, it won’t be long before the magicians are weaving their magic once again – and as Willy Wonka says, “we are the music makers, we are the dreamers of the dream”.
HOW TO GET THERE: Tour America has a fab seven-night stay at Sapphire Falls Resort this Christmas available from just €1069 per person. The price includes return flights and taxes and seven nights’ accommodation (standard room) at Sapphire Falls. The price is based on two adults and two children sharing and departs on December 21, 2016 (Ref 525528). Check out www.touramerica.ie for all the latest deals.
WHERE TO STAY: We stayed at the newly-opened Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. It’s a stunning Caribbean-themed hotel that’s just minutes away from all the action. It’s the perfect base for families and couples alike and boasts the biggest swimming pool of all the onsite resorts. Also onsite are Universal’s Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay and opening in 2018, the new Aventura Resort.
WHAT’S NEW: In summer of 2017, Universal will open the doors to the new all-singing, all-dancing Volcano Bay waterpark. It will bring the total of onsite theme parks to three, alongside Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Volcano Bay’s attractions are located in four themed areas, each inspired by various Polynesian islands and cultures. The centre-piece of the park is ‘Krakatau’, a 200ft volcano that will appear to have waterfalls during the day and lava flows at night. Check out www.universalorlando.com