Thursday 8 December 2016

Grinchmas Greetings: A green meanie getaway to Universal Studios

Orlando's 'Anti-Claus'

Brian Farrell

Published 10/12/2015 | 07:22

School children talk to
School children talk to "The Grinch" at a preview of the "Grinchmas" holiday celebration at Universal Studios. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Brian Farrell with The Grinch
The Macy's Christmas at Universal Studios Orlando
Mannheim Steamroller perform At Universal Studios Orlando
The famous Universal Globe at Universal Studios Florida theme park. Photo: Deposit
Brian Farrell at Universal Studios Orlando

The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future had done their work in just two magical days – I still had time to save the season.

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My ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ demeanour had been spoiling the festivities for years. Office party, Christmas drinks, mince pies and silly jumpers – Bah Humbug!

So, in the hope that a little reverse psychology might just do the trick, my colleagues packed my sleigh and sent me off to meet my hero – The Grinch.

The green meanie has been a particular favourite of mine ever since Jim Carrey’s brilliant portrayal of the Dr Seuss character 15 years ago.

And as the Grinchmas festivities kicked off, I travelled to meet the great man at his home in Universal Resort, Orlando.

The Florida theme park’s holiday extravaganza (Dec 5 to Jan 2) kicked off last weekend, and old ‘Anti-Claus’ wasn’t just stealing Christmas, he was stealing the show.

As his No.1 fan, I managed to snag a couple of front-row seats for Mr Misery’s very own festive musical – The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular – at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

It’s a hilarious Broadway-style show filled with singing, dancing and side-splitting sarcasm and will melt even the hardest of hearts – mine included.

After the show, I managed to grab a few words with the great man himself and realised that under that gruff, green exterior was just a big old softie itching, quite literally, to break out and party.

Maybe it was just the searing Orlando heat, but I was actually warming to this whole idea of Christmas.

Wandering around Yuletide markets in some Baltic backwater might be for some, but give me a few bars of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ in 25-degree heat any day of the week.

As Storm Desmond lashed the entire country, the only suggestion of bad weather in Florida was the snow-covered rooftops of Hogsmeade Village at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Potter films seem to take on extra significance this time of year and there was a certain magic in the air as we strolled through the cobbled streets towards Hogwarts Castle.

The sheer size, scale and attention to detail of the castle and its environs will leave you spellbound – and that’s before you even get the chance to take the ‘Forbidden Journey’.

The famous Universal Globe at Universal Studios Florida theme park. Photo: Deposit
The famous Universal Globe at Universal Studios Florida theme park. Photo: Deposit

This amazing motion ride – which is housed inside the walls of Hogwarts – takes you on an epic broomstick adventure through the castle, where you’ll join Harry in fighting off dragons, dementors and even get to play a game of quidditch.

Quite simply, it’s one of the most-ingenious rides ever devised.

We continue our festive journey with a short ride on board the famed Hogwarts Express to London’s King’s Cross Station (well, Universal’s incredibly-detailed version of it).

This stunning replica steam train travels between Hogsmeade and the Diagon Alley area in the neighbouring Universal Studios.

The ride takes just a few short minutes, during which the carriage ‘windows’ are cleverly transformed into movie screens that display footage of Harry’s passage between London and Scotland.

We arrive at platform 93/4 just as the centrepiece of the resort’s Christmas spectacular is about to get underway.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade has been winding its way thought the 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.

Mannheim Steamroller perform At Universal Studios Orlando
Mannheim Steamroller perform At Universal Studios Orlando

Thousands line the streets as the spectacular balloons, falloons (float-based balloons), balloonicles (self-powered balloon vehicles), acrobats and marching bands negotiate the narrow streets of the park.

There’s a two-storey turkey, a floating candy cane, a wriggling caterpillar, rubber Christmas tree lights that actually glow and a giant, purple,flying hippo.

It’s a heady mix of colour and noise, with the highlight being the arrival of Santa Claus on a swan-shaped sleigh pulled by two of his reindeer (well, it’s actually a massive 4x4 but it’s impressive nonetheless).

We finish off the day in true festive fashion, with a Christmas sing-a-long – if my friends could only see me now – to the tunes of Mannheim Steamroller, an American group/orchestra (think Ennio Morricone meets E.L.O) that have been banging out the holiday favourites for more than 30 years.

The setting is quite spectacular – Universal Studio’s famous Rip Ride Rocket rollercoaster forms an impressive backdrop – as throngs of couples and families gather stage-side for a not-so-silent night.

They say it’s the most-wonderful time of the year – and after my Scrooge epiphany and a natter with the Grinch, I’m inclined to agree.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Get there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies four times weekly from Dublin to Orlando with fares starting from €279 each-way, including taxes and charges.

The two-park bonus ticket gives you admission to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme parks, plus access to the live entertainment at Universal CityWalk, for up to 14 consecutive days. Prices from €178 (child), €192 (adult).

Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk) has seven nights in Orlando at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort from €1,275pp, based on two adults and two children sharing. It includes scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights from London Gatwick direct to Orlando, room only accommodation at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and car hire. Departure on December 15, 2015.

Tour America (touramerica.ie) also has some great New Year deals available from just €799pp. The price  includes return flights (all taxes and charges), seven nights accommodation Cabana Bay standard room and two-park Universal ticket (based on two adults and two kids sharing), based on a January 6 departure (Ref 503031).

Where to stay

We stayed at the fabulous Cabana Bay Beach Resort (loewshotels.com). It’s a retro-themed hotel that’s just minutes away from all the action. The hotel is the perfect base for families and has two swimming pools, a lazy river, fitness centre and its own indoor ten-pin bowling alley.

Also on-site are Universal’s Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay and,   opening in 2016, the new Sapphire Falls Resort. Check out universalorlando.com.

Where to eat

COWFISH at Universal’s City Walk is one of the most innovative restaurants you’re ever likely to come across. As the name suggests, it’s a combination of sushi and burgers and their frothy milkshakes are to die for.

If you’re looking for something a little more refined, then Vivo Italian Kitchen is the place for you. Their hand-made pastas a simply delicious and you can’t leave this place with trying their amazing ricotta-stuffed cannoli.

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