New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

Check out Part I here!

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The main purpose of going to Orlando was to spend New Years Eve at Epcot. I think my love for world travel draws me to Epcot more than the other Disney parks. It features miniature cities (called pavilions) from eleven countries as a main attractions. While I also love Magic Kingdom and enjoy visiting Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, if I had to pick just one park to visit it would be Epcot every time.

The lack of crowds at Epcot early in the morning surprised me. I took a picture of the iconic Spaceship Earth from the center of the park with no people in the picture! Unfortunately, when my dad and I tried to go on the Test Track ride, we learned where all the people were: waiting in line for the rides. The line for Test Track was four hours long, and the single riders line was two hours long. At that point I realized I would only get to go on one ride at Epcot that day. I chose the new "Frozen" ride.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando

Norway

The "Frozen" ride is one of the most popular rides in the park. As a fan of the "Frozen" movie - and as a Norwegian - I was excited to go on the ride. The line was forty-five minutes long. Guests in line wander through the castle, a village, and Oaken's Trading Post. Once on the ride, riders see scenes and hear songs from "Frozen."

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; norway; frozen

The ride was fun, but it was exactly the same ride as the Viking one that had previously been in its location! Having been on this ride multiple times before I was disappointed there was absolutely nothing new about it. Even the boats we rode in were the same Viking boats. The only difference was the wait time: the "Frozen" theme draws a crowd whereas I walked right onto the Viking ride every time before. If you are a huge fan of "Frozen" or have never been on the Viking boat ride, then a line less than one hour long is worth waiting in. If you are expecting something drastically new and different, don't wait in line.

China

Whenever my dad and I visit China, or "China," we end up doing things we didn't plan to. In Beijing, we accidentally saw Mao's embalmed body. In Epcot's China, we accidentally watched a 13 minute 360-degree film about the country.

China is one of many world showcase countries I've visited in real life since the last time I was at Epcot. It was neat to see reconstructions of real Chinese buildings I had seen recently in Epcot's showcase. One such building was the Temple of Heaven structure. In Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a park with a circular structure surrounded by a concrete plaza. Many people take photos in the plaza but no one is allowed to enter the structure. You can look inside to see an altar but the entrance is locked.

At Epcot, the Temple of Heaven structure is open. My dad and I walked in, passed the exhibits, and made our way through the building. We expected to find shops that we could walk through and exit on the other side. Instead, we ended up in a giant circular theatre. There were about 50 people already inside leaning on banisters in the center of the room. We soon realized what we had walked into, but not quickly enough. The exit doors started closing just as we were about to leave. We were stuck: we would be watching the film about China.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; china; temple of heaven

When you go to Epcot, if you have a strong interest in China or a familiarity with the country you may want to watch the film. It is only 13 minutes long and the effects of being in a 360-degree theatre are pretty cool. It was also interesting to see Beijing represented in the film after having traveled there. However, if your intent for visiting Epcot is to enjoy the Disney-related elements, perhaps a documentary on a foreign country is not the best way to spend your time.

Japan

My dad and I were hungry for lunch when we arrived at Japan's pavilion, even though it was only 11:00 AM. I heard that the restaurants on the second floor of Japan's pavilion were phenomenal and wanted to check them out. All dining reservations in Epcot that day were fully booked months in advance. Our only opportunity to try Japan's restaurants was to arrive when they opened.

We were luckily immediately seated in Tokyo Dining at a table next to a window overlooking the World Showcase Lagoon. From our table, we could see each of the country pavilions and Future World. We could also see and hear the Japanese percussion show performed across the way on the Pagoda's platform. The food was good too! Not wanting a heavy meal, we each ordered a miso soup, followed by panko-crusted shrimp for my dad and a large spicy-crunchy maki roll for me. I would recommend either dish for lunch. The portions were large enough to fill us up for the rest of our day at the park.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; japan

View from Tokyo Dining

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; japan; sushi

Maki Lunch

Morocco

The final country I want to highlight for you is Morocco, though I recommend visiting all eleven country pavilions. I have not yet been to real Morocco so I cannot compare the pavilion to the country itself. Nevertheless, I feel confident in its authenticity. When the Kingdom of Morocco learned Epcot planned to include its country as a pavilion, it funded and oversaw the construction of the entire area. To this day, the Moroccan government pays for and oversees upkeep and restoration. The next time you visit Epcot, keep this in mind as you wonder at the mosaics and visit the souks in Morocco's pavilion.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; morocco

Fountain in Morocco

Secret Passageway - The International Gateway

My best tip for Epcot is to use the International Gateway entrance and exit. Located between the France and England pavilions, and a short walk from the Disney Yacht Club Resort, this entrance is not well-known so few people use it.

If you are using Disney transportation or taking a ride share, get dropped off at the Disney Yacht Club. Walk through the lobby to the beach and then go left up the path. Stay left as you go over the bridge and you will soon find yourself at Epcot's back entrance. There are ticket booths available if you need to purchase your park ticket. The best part: no lines!

More important than a quick entrance is a less-crowded exit at the end of the night, which was especially important on New Years Eve! One of my only stressors for this vacation was how my dad and I were going to get back to our off-property hotel after midnight. I had heard horror stories about exiting the park through the main gate, hours-long waits to board Disney's monorail, and traffic jams that turned Google Maps from red to purple. This "secret" exit away from the park's main gate was one key in having an enjoyable end to the night.

Disney Springs

To avoid staying at Epcot for 15 hours and relying on the different fast food areas within the park for dinner (as there were no reservations available), my dad and I went back to the hotel for a few hours in the afternoon to enjoy the resort pool and then went to Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) for dinner.

Disney Springs was bustling at night! There were many people heading to dinner or settling in to enjoy the New Years festivities. Live bands were setting up on various stages for performances later in the evening. As we walked by some of the bands after dinner, it seemed like it would be a fun evening. I can only imagine what the midnight celebration was like!

The Boathouse Restaurant

OpenTable's list of the 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in the USA included Disney Springs' The Boathouse. I did not realize the restaurant was part of the Disney complex at first when I saw the list. As I was considering where to make dinner reservations for New Years Eve, the recommendation on the list convinced me to make a reservation at this restaurant. I'm so glad I did! Not only did the reservations fill up entirely before we arrived in Orlando, but its scenic views were matched only by the quality of the food. Both were incredible! My dad and I sat at a table on a dock over the water. As a Northerner, this was my first time enjoying New Years Eve dinner outside, and in a tank top no less!

As we were enjoying the fresh warm rolls covered in honey-butter, a car drove by. This caught my attention since we were surrounded by water. My dad was enthralled: he had not seen an amphicar in over half a century! Apparently these cars, similar to the duck boats, were a fad in the 1960s. They can drive on land but are also watertight with a propeller that allows them to function as boats. Rides were $125 for about 10 minutes so we did not take a ride, but it was fascinating to watch the cars float by as we were eating.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; dinner; boathouse; disney springs

Dinner on the water!

Epcot for New Years Eve

After dinner we took a Disney bus back to Epcot for the New Years Eve festivities. Using our newly-discovered secret entrance at the Yacht Club Resort, we were thrust into the party as we entered the park in the World Showcase. The world pavilions had transformed from quaint villages during the day to party scenes at night.

DJs and Dance Parties

England hosted a Queen cover band that led the crowd in a "Bohemian Rhapsody" singalong. Italy featured a DJ leading a proper European rave. When we snaked through this crowd I was immediately transported back to the clubs I encountered during my times studying abroad. The atmosphere was very authentic. China had a more varied musical selection. Its main attraction was a colorful electronic dragon that spewed steam and fire over the heads of the dancers. A live funk band  played at America's stage. People were dancing in the area in front of stage while many more weary revelers rested their legs in the amphitheater seating while watching the entertainment.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; china

Chinese Party and Dragon

There were two dance parties at the entrance to Future World. One was a Silent Groove. Participants took headphones provided by the prak and listened to music played by the DJs. If you did not have headphones you could not hear the music or the DJ's commentary. I did not participate but it was fun watching for a while.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; silent groove; dance party

Silent Groove

My favorite dance party was the main party in front of Spaceship Earth. The DJ got into the groove playing the best music and feeling the crowd. After spending some time wandering around the world showcase, I loved watching this DJ in his element dancing to the music along with thousands of strangers.

Midnight Celebration

My dad and I stayed at the main dance party until 11:40 PM. We then went back to the World Showcase in search of champagne and a place to watch the special New Years Illuminations show. Of course the best champagne was in France. After making our purchases, we watched the Epcot globe light up the lagoon with pictures from around the world.

At five minutes to midnight there was a special presentation for each World Showcase country that had already celebrated the New Year. Each country was recognized individually with fireworks shot off from its pavilion in the colors of the country's flag. The group of us watching from France cheered extra loud when it was France's turn! Disney timed the celebration perfectly: after going through the eight previous countries, we had a 10-second countdown for the USA, Mexico, and Canada. As midnight struck, the largest fireworks finale I've ever seen went off! It was an amazing New Years celebration.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; fireworks; midnight

Exiting the Park

Ten minutes after midnight everyone headed for the park exits. My dad and I had strategically placed ourselves next to the International Gateway exit and left quickly with thousands of people. The night before, an Uber driver left us behind because I ordered the ride too quickly, anticipating traffic at Universal Studios' pick up. Hoping to avoid the same fate, I waited until we were back on the Yacht Club property to order an Uber. There were none available in the area! One driver finally accepted the ride only to cancel when he saw we were 20 minutes away.

Our brilliant exit strategy was failing. I had not accounted for the supply and demand problem with ride shares just after midnight on New Years Eve. We also weren't the only ones who planned to make our exit by Uber from the Disney Yacht Club. About 50 other people were also waiting in front of the hotel for rides. I was exhausted from two days of constant walking and was getting deflated about our chances for getting home at a reasonable time. I looked to the curb for a space to sit down.

The Kindest Strangers Ever

I must have looked pretty weary because a man offered me his curb seat, insisting he would rather stand anyway. After sitting I explained the Uber situation to my dad. The now-standing man's wife, who was sitting next to me, asked in which direction we were headed. I named our hotel, not knowing in which direction it was. The couple immediately offered to share their Uber with us! The woman had ordered an Uber about twenty minutes prior on the walk from the park and their ride was almost at the resort. I assumed their hotel was near ours. Considering that our chances of getting a ride in the next few hours were almost nothing, my dad and I took the couple up on their offer.

Due to a few international glitches (her Canadian Uber and Venmo apps would not recognize my American phone number), we had to pay the couple in cash for our part of the ride. I'm hoping our contribution was sufficient because the couple was staying about 5 minutes away, just outside Disney park limits, whereas my dad and I rode in the Uber for another twenty minutes. Without a communication method, though, I had no way of knowing. As the couple left the Uber, I thanked them profusely (again). They said they were just building karma for the New Year and were happy to help. I can only imagine how long we would have been stranded at the Disney Yacht Club Resort had these kind strangers not offered to share their ride with us.

Saying Thank You

Though I've tried, I have no way of getting in touch with the couple again. The woman, Maureen, gave me her business card in case anything went wrong during the rest of the Uber ride. I am posting her business website here as a small thank you: if you have the ability and interest in patronizing her, please do so! Magnolia and Vine - Maureen's website.

Overall the trip was a success! I had a great time and would definitely visit Orlando for New Years Eve weekend again. I would reconsider being in a park at midnight as I think the celebration at Disney Springs would have been just as good, but I loved every second of the vacation.

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Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part I

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part I

Two months ago, I was not planning to spend New Years Eve in Orlando. I hoped to go skiing in Canada. However, when I suggested this to my dad - my travel companion for the weekend - he requested that we set our sights on a warmer locale.

The flights to and hotels in Orlando were surprisingly cheap for New Years Eve weekend. Furthermore, I had not yet seen the new half of Harry Potter World at Universal. I also suspected that Disney would have an awesome midnight celebration. After reading this article from blogger Tessa Koten about New Years at Epcot I was hooked. My dad and I booked our flights a few days before Christmas and we were on our way to celebrate the new year in Orlando!

Spirit Air Flight

Spirit Air; new years eve orlando; budget airline

The flights were surprisingly cheap in part because my dad and I flew budget airline Spirit Air. We chose Spirit because the airline offered direct flights to and from Orlando at reasonable times of day.

This was my first flight on Spirit Air. I had flown other budget airlines in Europe and Asia before so I was not as concerned as first-time budget travelers. Still, I set my expectations low.

Upgrades

When you fly a budget airline you must pay a fee for everything on top of your ticket price. The "upgrades" my dad and I paid for were one checked bag and BIG Front Seats. One checked bag was cheaper than two carry-ons. Plus, we wouldn't have to carry bags through the airport and we could bring full-size liquids. This upgrade was worth it until we had to get our bag from baggage claim in Orlando.

Checked Baggage

Many people (falsely) believe that budget airlines are cheap because they are not as safe as mainstream airlines. This is not true. To operate flights in the US or Europe, all airlines must pass the same safety inspections. Budget airlines are cheap because they make you pay for "extras" and they pay the lowest airport fees. Low airport fees means last priority when there is an airport-wide delay and when the baggage handlers need to unload checked bags.

It took almost an hour to leave the airport from the time my dad and I disembarked the plane. I don't normally check bags so I thought maybe this was normal. The other passengers made it clear this was an excessive amount of time. Because of this time, and because the personal baggage allotment is pretty large (the size of a small carry-on), I recommend against checking a bag on Spirit Air.

BIG Front Seat

spirit air; big front seat; first class; new years eve orlando

Enjoying our BIG Front Seats on the way to Orlando!

I do recommend booking the BIG Front Seat option. One of my cousins recommended this upgrade to my dad and I over Christmas. I hesitated to spend any additional money on what was supposed to be a budget-friendly vacation, but my dad convinced me it was worth it. The BIG Front Seats look like they are former first class passenger seats from Boeing 737 aircraft that Spirit bought at a discount. They are large and comfortable, but do not recline and do not offer in-seat entertainment. They also look used. Despite all these drawbacks, I felt like a first class passenger sitting in the seat, even though I had to bring my own food and water on-board.

Hilton Orlando Resort

After my dad and I finally obtained our checked luggage, an Uber took us to our hotel, the Hilton Orlando resort. I was amazed by this hotel. The lobby was huge. It included three restaurants, a cafe, and hotel shop. The outdoor area was even bigger. There were two giant pools, three hot tubs, a great lazy river, three-story water slide, pool bar, and outdoor games like volleyball and cornhole. Although the property was somewhat out of the way of everything, I am glad we stayed there. I would absolutely stay again next time I am in Orlando.

Outdoor Pool Area

hilton orlando; new years eve orlando; resort

I have been to Orlando numerous times before, so I expected the hotel to have a pool as most Orlando hotels do. The pool area at the Hilton Orlando was more than just another hotel pool. The main pool was about 100 meters long. The three hot tubs were well-spaced and large enough for multiple people to use them comfortably. The pool bar was centrally located and provided delicious food and drinks. It also had about six big-screen televisions broadcasting the college football bowl games. The water slide was as good as any you would find at a small water park.

The best part of the pool area, and the place where I spent most of my time, was the lazy river. It was warmer than the main pool but still refreshing. It allowed you to be in the water while still doing something, either sitting in an inner tube holding a drink or swimming along with the current.

Indoor Cafe and Restaurants

The cafe on the first floor of the resort was key to my vacation. It provided coffee and espresso drinks each morning. There was cheap drip coffee available in the hotel room, but purchasing a large iced caramel latte to begin the day meant I could stay on-the-go exploring the theme parks for 12+ hours without needing a break to either rest or get more coffee.

The on-site restaurants were decent as well. I only had the chance to try David's Club Bar & Grill, but it suited mine and my dad's needs perfectly. David's had two giant TVs in its lounge area with over-sized chairs and low tables in front of them. At the end of a long day of travel or day at the parks it was great to be able to settle into a chair, order a nice glass of wine and appetizer, and watch a few quarters of football on the large screen.

hilton orlando; resort; football lounge

Watching sports at David's Club

Universal Studios Orlando on New Years Eve Weekend

Six years ago I visited Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure park to see Harry Potter World. About four years ago, Universal built a second Harry Potter World in Universal Studios park and added a ride on the Hogwarts Express connecting the two. You can only access the Hogwarts Express if you have a multi-park ticket. I was determined to ride the Hogwarts Express, so I insisted on buying the one-day Park-2-Park ticket. I have no regrets.

Harry Potter World

My first visit to Universal Studios was in 2001. My middle school best friend was spending her February vacation in Orlando, so my parents agreed to go on vacation there as well. We spent a full day going on rides like Back to the Future, JAWS, and the Hollywood Studios Tour. None of these rides exist anymore. Instead, areas depicting real places like New York City, San Francisco, and London have been created.

The London area was very well done. Though Kings Cross Station is miles from the Leicester Square Station tube stop in real London, I was impressed that everything looked very authentic.

After admiring the authenticity as I walked along the typical London street, I quickly found myself moving away from London and into another city. I stopped to pause. Where was Diagon Alley? And the Escape from Gringotts ride? How had I missed them?

I asked a nearby vendor where the entrance was to Gringotts (the Harry Potter Wizarding Bank). She pointed to the Leicester Square Station entrance, a large red brick building. Standing in front of the station, I peered into a large opening in the front wall. A second wall was set back a few feet. It looked like the entrance to the bathroom at an airport or sports stadium. I expected to find a long line of people waiting to go on the Escape from Gringotts ride on the other side of the wall.

universal orlando; harry potter world; new years eve orlando; diagon alley; london

London street and entrance to Diagon Alley

Inside Diagon Alley

Instead, as my dad and I turned the corner around the stack of bricks, Universal Studios Orlando disappeared and Diagon Alley opened up before our eyes! I don't know what type of illusory magic Universal used to create this effect, but I definitely couldn't see the four blocks of three-story wizard buildings from the park, and aside from the occasional helicopter passing overhead, I thought I was in Diagon Alley, London, while standing in its square. Magical shops lined the streets, including Honeydukes sweets, Olivander's wand shop, the Weasley's Wizard Wheezes joke shop, Borgin & Burkes, and the Leaky Cauldron pub. In the center of it all was Gringotts with a dragon perched high on the roof.

gringotts; diagon alley; harry potter world; universal orlando

First View of Diagon Alley, with the dragon on top of Gringotts shooting fire every so often

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Every kind of magical sweet you could imagine was available at Honeydukes! I bought the Fizzing Whizbees

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Weasley's Wizard Wheezes inviting shoppers in

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Vanishing Cabinet in Borgin & Burkes

Most of the tourists were wearing various forms of Harry Potter paraphernalia, while children dressed in full wizard robes. Olivander's was selling interactive magic wands that would cause different effects around the Alley, such as making a stone frog fountain squirt water at passersby. Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando exceeded my expectations. It felt as real as an imaginary place could be.

Escape from Gringotts

The Escape from Gringotts ride is a 4D adventure inside the wizard bank. It follows the story from Harry Potter book seven where Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into Gringotts bank to visit an evil wizard's vault. They have to spontaneously come up with an escape plane when the bank's security devices remove the enchantments the trio used to break in.

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Watch the goblins work as you wait to enter the bank's vault

Thirty minutes after the park opened the wait for the ride was already four hours long. There was no way I was spending almost half my day in line for one ride no matter how good it was. Luckily there was a "single riders" line option. Theme park rides that offer single rider lines are the best. Individuals in these lines fill empty space in carriages on rides to ensure ride efficiency. Unless you really want your souvenir photo screaming on a roller coaster with your friends there's no reason not to use the single riders line. My dad and I bypassed the four hour wait and were on the ride in 15 minutes!

Hogwarts Express

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My expectations for the Hogwarts Express were mild. Because this was my only opportunity to ride on the "Hogwarts Express," I wanted to experience it. I expected the ride to be a normal train that would slowly move between the two parks in a couple minutes. Instead, Universal made it into another ride experience.

To get on the ride at Kings Cross, guests go "through" the wall between platforms 9 and 10 to platform 9 3/4. Universal set up an illusion glass in the train station so approaching guests see those ahead of them disappearing into the wall. Such a neat effect!

Once on the train the compartment door closes and scenes of London streets are shown out the window. The streets turn to the English and Scottish countrysides. The scenery includes the Glenfinnan Viaduct and dementors flying by. On the other side of the compartment, shadows of Harry, Ron, and Hermione pass by. When the train reaches Universal Islands of Adventure in Hogsmeade, Hagrid greets you as you arrive. For someone who grew up always wanting to receive my "letter" and be whisked away to Hogwarts, this was an incredible experience. Universal did its best to make it as real as it possibly could be.

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Watching London's streets pass by in the window

Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts

I did not spend much time in the Hogsmeade area, having already visited in 2013. Almost nothing had changed. The one difference I noticed was the Dragon Challenge roller coaster ride was missing. It was demolished in 2017 to make room for a new Harry Potter roller coaster attraction, hopefully opening soon.

My dad and I wandered around the village, went on the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwarts Castle (still the best Harry Potter ride I think), then grabbed some Butterbeer and left Harry Potter World to look for better food and explore the rest of the park.

Universal Islands of Adventure Park

Islands of Adventure has eight different "lands" within the park. For lunch, we went to the Lost Continent for some healthy Mediterranean food: a gyro, a Greek salad, and a hummus plate. After lunch we sought out a mild ride to go on while digesting.

Poseidon's Fury

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I did not know what the Poseidon's Fury ride entailed when we got in line for it after lunch. The park guide at the entrance said we would be standing on our feet the entire time. We entered the first room of the "ride" after about 20 minutes in line and the show began. As soon as the actress started talking, I knew I had done this ride before. I thoroughly regretted going on it again.

Poseidon's Fury is not really a ride. It is a show with an actress pretending to be a junior archaeologist who "wakes up" Poseidon and his rival Greek god. She gets the group stuck underground in a dig site where the gods engage in battle. Guests go into a few different rooms, which involves walking through a somewhat-cool water tunnel. They see a final performance with a lot of water and fire effects that are sort of neat in the last room. I would skip this attraction if you are looking for anything more exciting during your visit.

Jurassic Park

jurassic park; universal orlando; islands of adventure; orlando new years eve

The next land my dad and I visited was Jurassic Park. We went on the river raft ride in 2013, but the giant log flume ride provided some action and entertainment, so we went on it again. This was another ride where the single riders line potentially saved us hours of waiting in line. Admittedly I'm not a huge fan of rides that include a large drop. I closed my eyes at the top of the crest when our boat went down the flume, but it was still fun! My dad, who is much more afraid of heights than I am, made fun of me afterwards because he kept his eyes open the whole time.

Skull Island

Our final stop for the day was the Kong ride on Skull Island. This ride always has a long wait. We decided to wait this time because we had never gone on it before and it seemed highly popular.

skull island; king kong; universal orlando; islands of adventure

One of the features to distract guests while waiting in line

WARNING: If you cannot get on the Kong ride within 15 minutes, do not wait in line. We must have been on our feet for two hours going through the twists and turns Universal uses to prevent guests from seeing the long line around the corner. In the end, the ride was three-minutes long. King Kong appears on some screens next to you and the large caravan you're in shakes a little.

Waiting so long to go on this unimpressive ride did us in for the day. We took the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios, walked through a few more areas of that park, and then went back to the hotel to get some dinner and relax.

Part II: New Years Eve Day at Epcot coming soon!

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Learn about the good and bad available
Learn about the good and bad at Universal Orlando's Harry Potter World and Islands of Adventure through stories about visiting on New Year's Eve weekend.
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