Back in 2013, I was still a Cast Member of the Disney World Resort. I had just transferred to attractions at the Adventureland area of Magic Kingdom after spending my first year in recreation at the Port Orleans Resort and Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs). The first attraction I worked in Adventureland was none other than the World-Famous Jungle Cruise. After completing training and working a few days, we had a Skipper outing one night at a local Miller’s Ale house, and that evening I spent a decent amount of time talking to a College Program participant named Chelsea.
She would become one of my best friends, even after I moved to the Seattle area five years ago. So when she invited me to attend her wedding, there was no way to say no, especially as it was going to be a Disney Cruise wedding! There is a lot more detail about the planning for this wedding that Chelsea shares on her blog, Twenty Something in Orlando, and if you would like to read more about the wedding planning as well as the story of her and her now husband Jay, you can do so through her writings about their Disney Dream Wedding.
So this was the inspiration for the trip in the first place, of course, I had to get over there, and thus it was time to turn to a trusty friend in the skies, Alaska Airlines.
I have taken the redeye flight to get to Orlando from Seattle a few times, and with the trip I took here in October, I found that getting the window seat was actually better for redeye flights since you could kind of lean on the wall for a little shuteye, so I booked the emergency exit row for the extra leg room, and got the window for the attempt to sleep a bit on the flight.
As luck would have it though, this flight came right around the beginning of the panic around the Coronavirus outbreak, and so some people had begun cancelling their flight plans. When I checked the waiting list for an upgrade, I saw that I had not made it as everyone ahead of me was placed in the premium cabin. So I accepted that I was going to be in the exit row as I had planned, but was keeping my fingers crossed the middle seat would stay empty as it had been when I looked at the seat map last. Turned out that it would be even better.
Upon scanning my boarding pass, the gate agent said to me “You’ve been moved to seat 1D.” Meaning that I didn’t just get an upgrade, it was the first-class upgrade! I have had MVP status with Alaska for a few years now, and typically when flying with them across the country, the best I might get for an upgrade is to premium economy. It has only been with shorter flights like to California or Colorado that I get the first-class upgrades... until this flight! So not only did I have a more comfortable seat for the cross-country trek, but there was the fruit & cheese plate and free alcoholic beverages included. The other great perk was that you get a blanket to use up in first class, which isn’t typical in economy for domestic flights in the US. It made for one of the most enjoyable domestic redeye flights I have experienced so far.
Upon landing, I grabbed an Uber over to the Universal Resort as I would be meeting friends there when they finished up their appointments that morning. It wasn’t a long day at the parks there as I was hoping to get to Plant City in the evening for the annual Florida Strawberry Festival as there would be some coasters that I had no yet ridden, and my friend Andrew was willing to drive down there! I didn’t get as many pictures from our visit to Universal in part as it was a shorter visit, and because I was largely side-tracked with catching up with my friends who I had not seen in several months.
My friends Alison and Emily also met up for the day at Universal, and we started with Islands of Adventure, taking rides on Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Flight of the Hippogriff (because we could), Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure and the Hogwarts Express over to the other side. I had been on Spiderman many times which continues to be a favorite of this park. I still dig the redone Incredible Hulk, especially with the new on-board soundtrack, it just adds to the ride! It is still kind of bizarre how quiet it is now though when compared to the roar it gave before the rebuild of the ride. Getting on Hagrid’s was great as well, because I did get to try it for the first time back in October, but the speaker on the car I rode was broken, and so I missed a lot of the detail of the ride because of it, so it was nice to have a better understanding of the ride’s storyline. I still say that the ride is a great replacement for the Dueling Dragons/Dragon Challenge that was removed before. While I would have loved to see them keep the old dueling inverts, this was a worthy replacement. We also enjoyed lunch at the Three Broomsticks restaurant in Hogsmeade, which I had not yet eaten at before. I tried their ribs platter, and enjoyed it with none other than a Butterbeer. I don’t think I can visit Islands of Adventure without getting one, they are one of my favorite theme park beverages!
When we got off of the Hogwarts Express, we enjoyed several rides in the Universal Studios side, including Escape from Gringotts, Men in Black, E.T. and Revenge of the Mummy. While the latter three have been in the park for many of my visits when I lived in Florida, Gringotts had just opened right before I moved as part of the Diagon Alley expansion of the Universal Potterverse. The first time I rode it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed as I was hoping for more of a coaster since it was based on the carts from the bank in the books and movies (To be fair though, I have only seen the first two movies and not read the books, so perhaps the way they utilized it was a better way to fit the story more). I will say though that every time I ride it, it grows on me more. While I would put Forbidden Journey and Hagrid’s Motorbikes ahead of it, I still really enjoy the ride.
In between, we also took part in a research study being conducted by NBC Universal as they do from time to time. While I don’t think I’m able to give details about the study that we participated it, I will say that if you are asked about it while in the park, it may be worth the time as Andrew told me that many times they give each person who participates a Universal gift card. So that could be a nice way to help cover a meal or get a souvenir if they are conducting them that day. After our last ride, Andrew and I made our way to Andrew’s car for the drive to Plant City.
The Florida Strawberry Festival is an event that has been a part of Plant City for 85 years, and it is the celebration of the large harvesting of strawberries from Eastern Hillsborough County, which often features major touring concerts during the 11-day event. While living there, I had heard about it several times, but never found the time to attend. I did, however, find out it was taking place when I had some time before the festivities of Chelsea and Jay’s wedding weekend, so I thought I should finally check it out!
With the focal point of the festival being on the strawberry harvest, they make all sorts of things with strawberries or strawberry-flavored. Everything from strawberry covered doughnuts and strawberry tea, to strawberry pizza. One of the main food items of the festival is the “build your own” strawberry shortcake. Here your given a shortcake, and can cover it with as many strawberries and as much whip cream as you can fit in that bowl. At $4, it really isn’t a bad deal either when compared to the prices of other items sold at the event.
Like many large events, there was a carnival at the Strawberry Festival, and the amusement company for this year’s festival is one that I believe has been running their carnival for a while, and that is Belle City Amusements. Since I had never been to any of their previous events, any coaster owned by Belle City would be a new credit, and on this occasion, there were three. They also had a pretty good assortment of rides that we enjoyed, especially since it was $20 wristband night. One of those rides we tried was the incredible quirky Mystery Mansion. While I was fully prepared for this to be your run-of-the-mill portable dark rides, this one would actually use switch tracks to mix up the direction that cars would take and have paths cross in different directions. It was really unexpected for a ride of this type.
Of course, the one of the motivators for coming to the festival was that there were coasters. At this point, until the likes of Iron Gwazi, Tron and Guardians of the Galaxy opens in the next few years, I have ridden all of the coasters in the State of Florida. There are, however, the carnival coasters that come through which I may have not ridden. And there were three such coasters at this event.
The first that Andrew and I rode was the Dragon’s Nest. This bizarre little coaster was just like one I experienced for the first time when at the Calgary Stampede last summer. A sort of cross between a Dragon Wagon and a tire launched coaster as the wheels bring the train back a bit, and then move the train forward to sort of launch it through the course. Not really super-fast or anything, but certainly not something you would expect out of a traveling coaster.
There was also a Wacky Worm and a Galaxy style coaster, both of which we also rode. Neither of them were really noteworthy, but it was still nice to be able to get a few new coasters on the list from this trip as I was fully prepared for this trip to involve no new coasters until I saw that the Strawberry Festival was on.
When our evening came to an end, we made our way back toward Orlando, and I would spend the night at the home of another friend who was among the wedding attendees. While the cruise would be departing in two days, the festivities to celebrate the wedding would begin the next day!
A big thank you to my friends Alison and Emily for joining me at Universal, and a bigger thank you to Andrew for spending the day with me, and for being willing to make the drive down to Plant City and back. I look forward to seeing you all again next time!
To follow Chelsea's first-hand account of her wedding experience, along with all the planning details and helpful information for planning your own Disney Dream Wedding, check out her Twenty Something in Orlando Disney Dream Wedding Series!
See More of 2020 Disney Dream Wedding & More:
1: Universal Studios & Florida Strawberry Festival / 2: Hoop-Dee-Doo Ever After / 3: The Dream Begins /
4: A Morning in Nassau