I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that we did nothing but Disney whilst on our hols, however we did venture to some of the other theme parks and attractions during our 2 week sojurn in Orlando. G and M were particularly excited about the prospect of visiting Universal Studios, or more accurately, the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter“. My enthusiasm was not so great, particularly given my poor experiences to date in trying to get hold of some, or indeed any, information about visiting the parks with my food-allergy duo. I found the website difficult to navigate and the information available on it less than informative. My first e-mail to them went unanswered and if it hadn’t been that both M and G were desperate to visit, I honestly think I might well have given up at that point. However, I eventually tracked down a helpful customer services rep, who phoned me in the UK and discussed our needs at length. She reassured me that they catered for food allergies and that we should encounter no problems when eating in the parks. I was interested in booking the Character breakfast at La Bamba cafe so that the children could meet a Minion and once again I was assured that we could mix and match the breakfast options to get a meal that was safe for both G and M. Taking it on trust, I booked the breakfast and pencilled in 2 days at Universal on our somewhat hectic schedule.
Mike imitating both Dave Minion and Gru at the character breakfast!
Our first day started well as we arrived in glorious sunshine and headed directly to Diagon Alley carrying a rucksack prudently packed to the gills with M-friendly snacks. Our first view of Diagon Alley was impressive with a multitude of shops selling everything a young wizard could want as well as the fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts Bank. We headed into a nearby wand shop for both children to chose a wand to buy and then ventured off on a magical tour, following the map to find the location of spells for M to cast using his interactive Dumbledore wand. I even dared to sample a pint of Butterbeer as requested by my dear friend, F, but have to confess it’ll be the first and last time I do that as the drink was just too sweet for any of the family to enjoy. Disappointingly, as jaw-dropping as the “set” was, there really wasn’t enough to appeal to the younger age groups which we all found surprising. Nearly all the rides, apart from the utterly amazing Hogwarts Express that carried us between the 2 halves of the Harry Potter experience, were roller-coasters or simulators that were just too big and scary for my nervous pair.
I was also disappointed by just how commercial it all felt, especially the “unique interactive experience” at Ollivanders shop in Hogsmeade, which promised far more than it delivered. Just 2 children were selected from the crowd in the shop to participate in the amazing experience of finding out which wand was to be theirs; after all, as we all know “..the wand chooses the wizard…” (JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Not only was every other child in the audience disappointed not to be part of the action, but – call me a cynic – I don’t imagine many parents found it easy to then say no when their little darlings wanted to buy the wand that had chosen them in such dramatic fashion.
By lunchtime we had seen and experienced all that the Wizarding World had to offer and headed off in search of some food for our group. We left Hogsmeade, where the food queues were out of the door, bypassed yet another hard-sell when the magic show we had been ushered into turned out to be little more than an opportunity to buy 4 tricks for the price of 2 and ended up at the street markets of the Lost Continent. We stopped at what seemed a likely place as it sold hot dogs, something we had found was inevitably safe at all of the Disney parks and I queued to speak to what was possibly the most unhelpful server I have ever met and someone definitely not suited to a customer service role. She gazed blankly at me when I asked for allergy information about their food options and struggled to understand even the simplest of requests:
“Could I please have 2 hot dogs without the bread-rolls as I have 2 children with multiple food allergies?”
“Could I have 2 hot dogs without the buns?”
“You mean you don’t want the buns?”
“No, just the sausages…the meat”
“You don’t want the buns?”
“Just the dog?”
“But no bun?”
“No. Just. The. Dog.”
“So, you don’t want the bun, just the dog?”
“Oh. I’ll have to check with my manager if we can do that.”
Our exchange on whether I could get fruit or vegetables as an alternative side to the bun and the fries went in a similar vein. I gave up any hope of intelligent discussion at that point and G and M ended up with a hot dog each – “just” the dog: no bun, no fries, no fruit and no veg, all for the princely sum of $15 plus taxes. Yes, that’s right, £10 for 2 sausages that barely touched the sides going down. Mike and my Mum picked out some safe looking bits of salad from their lunches, we bought a packet of crisps for G (another £2.50 there) and fed M from our own plentiful supplies, much of which had been got from Disney.
I’d love to say our experience got better, but it really didn’t. In “The Cat in the Hat” area, a place filled with lovely rides inspired by Dr Seuss books and enjoyed by us all, we came across a bakery selling the most amazing-looking cakes, biscuits and sweets guaranteed to tantalise the tastebuds. Some of them were gluten-free, but none of the them catered for those with more complex allergies like G and M and we left empty-handed. I had toyed with the idea of eating dinner in one of the restaurants at Citywalk, but again, of the 4 I had contacted ahead of our visit, only 1 came back to confirm they could probably cater for M’s food needs. Maybe we’d been spoilt by our experiences in Disney, but Universal was a real disappointment and if it hadn’t been for our prepaid and booked Character breakfast for our second day there, I doubt we’d have bothered going back.