We just got back from a whirlwind trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, FL and I thought I’d post about the trip just in case any of you might be considering visiting. I didn’t have much time to research the park and things to do and such and the information I did find was really overwhelming and didn’t really answer the questions I had. What should I pack, what should I wear and will my kids have fun?
So I thought I’d post about our experience and hopefully this will help you plan your trip or decide if this is the right place for your next vacation.
I was a little nervous at the onset about Universal Studios because I do have very small children (5 and 7) and we were concerned that this theme park might not be the best choice for them. Plus we were going in August to Florida and I kept hearing from others that our trip would be miserable. (Party poopers)
I can tell you we had SO MUCH FUN and I am so happy we decided to take this little vacation. Lots and lots of great memories as a family and the park is for sure a great place to take kiddos of all ages.
So here are a few notes about the accommodations, souvenirs, rides etc… As always these are just my opinions but hopefully you have the same great time we did!
View from the water taxi going from Loew’s to Universal
We stayed at the Loew’s Portofino Bay Resort which is a very fast water taxi (or about a 15 minute walk) from Universal. The major advantage to staying at the resort is two fold- first you can get into the park an hour early and secondly you will get an express pass for Universal.
We found the hotel to be lovely with a really nice swimming pool that my kids loved. The water taxi is gorgeous and a fantastic way to start the day (no traffic, no fighting for parking spots, no hot car rides- yay!)
Since you are staying at the resort, you will get an express pass. The express pass allows you to essentially jump the line on almost (but not all) rides. We LOVED the Express Pass and honestly I don’t think I would go back to Universal without it. When the lines were an hour long we waited a maximum of 20 minutes. For the most part I would say our wait time for a variety of rides was about 5 minutes to 15 minutes. The Express pass can be purchased from Universal directly for roughly $89 per person per day if you choose not to stay at the hotel. Note- this Express Pass is not park admission. You still need to buy tickets to the park. This is simply a way to jump the line to get on rides once you are in the park. There is a cheaper version of the express pass but you only get to use it once per ride.
You will also gain early access to the park- this is only beneficial for a handful of rides because the majority of rides are closed until the park officially opens. I loved the extra hour because we were able to do the Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter in seriously like 2 minutes wait time- that ride is typically the one people wait 2 hours or more to go on.
We were also able to rent strollers, buy breakfast, take photos, look around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade etc… in semi peace and quiet which I loved. I always find you want to get an early start at theme parks to avoid the worst heat of the day and the biggest crowds so it is nice to get in early and have some time to get sorted out before the park officially opens.
Cabana Bay pool just before it rained
We also got to stop in for just an afternoon at the Cabana Bay Resort which is a sister property and crazy cool. It is designed in a late 1950’s and early 1960’s vibe and seriously you will feel like you are on the set of Bewitched. I loved it! It is new and fun and has an awesome pool area and a lazy river that sounded wonderful. Sadly Florida rained when we were there so we literally had 11 minutes in the pool before we had to go inside.
I believe Cabana Bay will not give you the free Express Pass but staying at the hotel does get you that early admission.
*Notes on Loew’s Portofino– be sure to get in line a few minutes early to head to the park as there can be a wait, water taxis don’t operate during rain storms so if you feel one approaching get in line pronto or be prepared to wait it out where you are, the Starbucks at the hotel is significantly more expensive then a normal Starbucks (about $2 more for my Grande Latte) so you might hit the Starbucks in the park or on the Citywalk where the prices are more reasonable. At the pool don’t miss the 8:30pm poolside movies! They have free popcorn and it was really fun- like a drive in movie but poolside. Also at the pool they sell water toys that are very reasonably priced and super fun for the kids. They also have ice water available if you need to refill bottles.
UNIVERSAL ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE
There are two sides to the park just like at Disneyland in CA. Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. The easiest way to get back and forth is on the Hogwarts Express.
The Islands of Adventure side is awesome. This is where you will find Hogsmeade and the super popular Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.
There is a lot to do here but here were some highlights for us:
Seuss Landing– this is a must to at least walk through. Designed for smaller children the space has so much to see and is so vibrant and playful and has tons of Dr Seuss’s most popular books represented. We loved the One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish ride (you will get wet unless you listen to the song!)
Hogsmeade- We LOVED Hogsmeade – it really is just amazing to look at all the detail. You can have lunch at the Three Broomsticks, grab some candy at Honeydukes, get a Butter Beer or Pumpkin Juice oh and go on some amazing rides! Don’t be fooled- it looks like a winter wonderland but we were blistering hot. 😛 I thought the Butter Beer was too sweet but you can get it frozen (no caffeine) or on ice (caffeinated).
We started with the Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter which is this 3D ride that makes it feel like you are on a broom flying over the sky. Sadly I am an old fashioned roller coaster type girl and all the 3D effects and swirling around made me queasy. (I shut my eyes for almost the entire ride but the effects and such are astounding. Really cool stuff. My 7 year old is normally one that loves big, scary rides as she calls them and she was terrified on this one. Whoopsie. ) This is the one to go directly to when you enter the park as the lines can be insane.
The Dragon Challenge- this is a swirly whirly roller coaster that goes upside down in loops about 100 times for big kids or adults. My kids were too small and I had to go on alone. Holy smokes this ride made me feel so sick– my husband was fine but it ruined the morning for me. I almost went back to the hotel because I felt dizzy and sick after. Ahem… this did not bother my husband one bit nor the little boy that was riding for the 4th time ahead of me or our friends that went with us. But if you are like me and get queasy on spinny stuff and upside down stuff– well take a second and watch the roller coaster before you go on it.
Hogwarts Express– you need park to park admission to ride and it is super cool. You get on the actual train and then sit in a compartment just like in the books. You will look out the window and see exactly what Harry would have seen going from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley. We started the day on the Hogwarts Express because it gave us a few minutes to allow the kids to eat breakfast and was an easy way to get the day started. This is a great way to cool down too when you get hot in the afternoon. The ride is different on the return from London to Hogsmeade.
Pteranodon Flyers– super fun in the Jurassic Park section. My 5 year old loved this- you get into a swing and get a bird’s eye view of the park.
The Incredible Hulk- so this is the monster roller coaster of Universal. We never did get a chance to go on this one since our children were too small. The lines as you might expect are looonnngg and this roller coaster goes upside down like 7 times. After my earlier experience, I wasn’t too sad to miss this one. Next year ;D
Toon Lagoon- I thought this was fun to wander around and look at old school cartoons like Marmaduke, Blondie, Betty Boop etc… I noticed a spot to charge a phone over here too if you need it. The sign was in a store (I think) called Wossamotta U.
Absolutely soaked after Dudley Do Right
These deserve their own section as they were the most fun we had on the trip. You will get wet. Like ring out your shirt and have squishy shoes all day wet. I typically think people look like dorks when they bring ponchos to theme parks. In this situation I realized I was the dork and I kicked myself for not buying darn ponchos. (You can get them in the park for like $8 a pop- I was too cheap to fork out $32).
Anyhoo- here are the big 3 water rides.
Camp Jurassic- This is super fun and you will get moderately wet depending on where you sit in the boat. This was a really fun ride and the kiddos loved it. Probably ranked #3 out of 3 for the water rides in terms of our favorite but don’t miss it if you go!
Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges – this is one of those old school water rides where you are in the big circle inner tube thing and you can fully expect to get drenched. If you are wearing sneakers put them in the steering wheel section to stay dry. We thought this was really fun and this one was the favorite of our girls and the second favorite for the adults.
Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls- oh my gosh this is fun! This was my favorite ride in the entire park- it is a classic log ride and you can absolutely expect to get wet. We went on this ride four times in a row.
Here are a few notes on the water rides- as mentioned you will be soaked. So if you are me that means mascara running all over the place and your hair a total wreck and your clothes dripping off of you. (Worth it though!!) We decided to use the $5 family dryer thing by the water rides which was a big mistake- standing in steamy hot Florida and then getting into a little box with super hot air for 5 minutes was zero fun. The kids hated it and we went from drenched to soggy. Don’t waste your money 😉 Just try to dress appropriately instead.
If I could do it again I would plan better for the rides. I would probably buy ponchos for next time and bring them with us and I’d put my girls in bathing suits with a swimsuit coverup for the rest of the day and flip flops. For the adults I would have worn some sort of dry fit top and shorts and flip flops. I would have also brought a hair brush and sneaked a hand towel out of the hotel room. I have gallon size ziplocs usually in my luggage and that would have been perfect to store the towel. It is nice to be able to wipe your face off and such once you get drenched and that wouldn’t have been a big deal to carry around in a backpack. The Ziploc will also keep your phone and such safe on the rides. I think the flip flops were perfect for the water rides and if you can tuck them into a backpack and then wear walking shoes once you dry that is ideal. I am from California and I always buy good quality flip flips anyway because we wear them so much- so wearing them all day long and walking a ton would not bother me at all. If you get the cheapies for $1.00 or something you might want to bring more comfortable shoes to wear later.
Another tip on the water rides is that they get packed in the afternoon as you might expect. We started on them a little early (maybe 10:30) and found the lines with the Express Pass to be super short- about a 10 minute wait each time. And remember Florida is hot as blazes most of the year so we were not cold getting off the rides by any means. In California the temperature starts cool and gets warmer as the day progresses and then cools off again at night. I found Florida to be hot in the morning and hot in the afternoon and hot at night so really the positive thing is you can go on the water rides at any time of day.
We went on all 3 several times but once it hit about 11:30 the lines started the get crazy- our last time on Dudley we had to wait about 25 minutes with the Express Pass which was zero fun since we were soggy and super wet. I recommend going on them earlier in the day. Oh and if you have littles may as well hit One Fish, Two Fish in Seussland after since you are already wet! (Listen to the song they sing with directions or you get pummeled with a water gun.)
The other park wasn’t as exciting to me and we just spent a little time over there. You don’t want to miss it though- especially for Super Hero fans as there is a Marvel section. Oh and I have to take a moment and be bitter Bob here and say the Starbucks on this side stinks! We got there in the hour before the park opened and I had ONE person ahead of me and it took 30 minutes to get my Latte and Scones for the kids. The worst service I have ever seen at a Starbucks- my family went on 2 rides while I was stuck waiting. BOO!
The big highlights were:
Diagon Alley– you can go on Escape from Gringotts which is really fun! It is also so fun to tour around- see the Leaky Cauldron, Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour, the Knight Bus and more… Watch for the dragon at the top of Gringott’s as it breathes fire every 10 minutes.
Apparently when Escape from Gringott’s opened there was something like a 7 hour wait- so again that is one to head over to immediately when you arrive and hopefully beat the crowds. Be prepared to put all your things in a locker before you get on the ride. The lockers are free and super cool fingerprint ones!
There is a Simpson’s and Men in Black section– my kids like those rides and it was very fun to walk through. My kids have never watched the Simpsons and yet they kept insisting on taking photos with the various statues and such. You can buy a Lard Lad doughnut that is the size of a frisbee. We didn’t get one but it would make these photos more fun! You could be gobbling the doughnut next to the cop guy (what was his name?) -I heard the doughnuts were delicious. You could save it to eat during the fireworks show at night too.
Despicable Me Ride- my girls loved this one and seriously went on it like 10 times. The line goes super fast with an express pass.
Curious George- this is a play area and splash pad for small children. Great place to regroup and rest and cool off while the kids play. Mine could have stayed all day and it is super cute. So really at least take a quick look over there. It is like you are in the middle of one of the books.
ET Adventure– this was fun too and a good one for the smaller kids (my 5 year old loved this one). You get on a bike and fly through space- it wasn’t scary or nausea inducing 😛
This is the strip that the water taxi takes you to from the hotels (Hard Rock. Loew’s, Cabana Bay etc..) and is just outside the entrance to the different parks. There are tons of restaurants here although not much for breakfast (other then Starbucks). We had a great meal at Antojitos which is a gorgeous Mexican restaurant and good sandwiches at the Bread Box. There are a few shops and a movie theater and ice cream etc… (I would rather have purchased food here and brought it back to the hotel then dined at the hotel. Everything was super expensive at Loew’s).
Whew! You made it to the end! Hope some of this info is helpful to you! We were in Florida over Labor Day weekend and it was just insanely hot and muggy. We still had a great time but just make sure you pack more sunscreen then you think you might need! I had one can for 4 people and that lasted us seriously 2 days. Buy it at the pool area if you run out as they are cheaper then the gift shop. The sun is crazy bright so don’t forget your sunglasses (my California family members don’t usually wear sunglasses and we had to buy them at the park because the sun is blinding.)
One last little note about SOUVENIERS.
The Harry Potter stuff is awesome but very pricey. A cloak is $110 and you will see tons of kids wearing them. The Butter Beer was like $15 in the souvenir cup and I think my bottled Pumpkin Juice was like $8, chocolate frogs are $11. I think it is worth trying a few things though you have to live a little! Where else are you going to find this stuff? We got a caramel apple at Honeyduke’s that was amazing and ate it on the plane home.
We did not have a car to check this out but often Target stores near theme parks will carry tons of a souvenirs at a fraction of the price.
There are a few drink specials at the concession stands- you can pay $8 for a giant Coke cup and get $.99 refills the rest of your time at Universal. We normally don’t drink soda but it is just hot as blazes in Florida and we got about 100 lemonades and Sprites with this guy. I thought it was worth it. There is a similar popcorn deal- you pay something like $5.99 for a big popcorn and then get $.99 refills. I was kicking myself for not doing that as the refill of popcorn would have been perfect for the flight home and cheaper then airport food anyway. We were there for 3 days so that totally would have been worth it.
Oh and we bought this mister water bottle thing for $12 at Cabana Bar hotel. Ours looks like the one above except it has a Universal logo on it. You can refill it all over the park with water in the Coke Freestyle machines or from the concession stands. I thought this was worth the money both to keep us drinking tons of water and for a little mist in the heat. You can of course bring your own refillable water bottle– it is a must. (or get this one pictured for $10 here). Seriously I told my husband I felt like I was a lump of wet towels shoved in the dryer. It is so darn hot. My 7 year old said she would never eat bacon again because now she knows how it feels when it cooks- LOL!
Ack and two more quick things- if you bring ponchos with you (as mentioned for the water rides) you will be all set during the sudden rain storms in the afternoon. We got stuck in two of them and they are no fun at all. Some people had umbrellas too.
Regarding the crowds in the park- get ready for serious crowds in the Harry Potter sections. We found the beginning of the day (before 11am) and the evening after dinner were the slowest times. There is no shame at all in leaving the park at lunch and spending some time at your hotel pool and then come back when the crowds start to fade a little bit! Especially if you have a few days to see everything.
Does anyone else have experience and tips for travelling to Universal Studios Orlando? We’d love to hear from you!
PS: ‘Member how I said it was hot? Steamy really. Well my husband was in charge of a few photos- ahem. Not his calling. This is what they looked like from the humidity on the lens. LOL! This was first thing in the morning before the park opened. Crazy right?