Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Universal Orlando Resort and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Family Travel Review and Tips)



Thinking of taking a family trip to Universal Orlando Resort? There are a few things you need to know before your arrival.


Welcome to Hollywood! 


First, Universal Orlando is comprised of four separate theme parks.  The main three are attached and people can walk from one to the other: Universal Studios Florida (the original and oldest), Universal CityWalk for shopping, dining, and entertainment (no admission fee, except parking), and Islands of Adventure (MY FAVORITE).  The fourth is the Wet n' Wild water park off the main site and will not be discussed here.

Tickets:

You can generally find discount tickets or Florida resident passes (proof of residency required) if you look hard enough. Know the restrictions and know what is included in each ticket! Package deals are usually the way to go!  Keep in mind those 10 and up will pay adult prices (currently $96 plus tax). However, that is the base price for one ticket to ONE park. 


You need to buy a "Park-to-Park" pass to enter both parks on the same ticket (see below for more information on these.) 

**If you are a member of AAA, you will find they have very competitive rates on tickets.**

Be sure to read the fine print carefully so you know the restrictions before you buy! For example, FL resident multi-day passes must be completely used within 60 days of the first use and all the deals right now for an "extra day free" (not free actually, but for a minimal extra cost) must be used within 14 days of first use.


A View of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle in Islands of Adventure


Doing both parks in one day is NOT advisable. 

If you truly want to experience the entire complex, I would suggest a minimum of two days in the parks - more if you want to take in the nightlife or specialty shows (like Blue Man Group) located at CityWalk.  IF you want to go to both parks your best option is to buy a 2-Day Park-to-Park ticket. To do BOTH parks in ONE day (again, not an easy feat especially during peak times) the base ticket is currently $136 plus tax. 

A one-park ticket will NOT get you on the Hogwarts Express which takes you from Kings Cross Station in London at Universal Studios to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. For die-hard Harry Potter fans, this is a must.  AND, keep in mind that the train ride is slightly different in each direction.  So ride it both ways if possible.

Knight Bus in Universal Studios Florida


Which brings me to the Express Pass option available for an additional charge. These passes allow you to skip the main queues for each attraction and take advantage of a shorter line. BUT BEWARE - even the Express Pass isn't valid on ALL the rides (ie: the main Harry Potter rides).  During peak times, however, this option can be very appealing. 

(Note: when boarding Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross Station, stop in the last row of the queue and look toward the signs straight ahead reading Platforms 9 and 10.  You will notice the illusion of people magically walking into the brick wall leading to Platform 9 3/4.  It's the little touches like this that make the entire experience so magical.)

TIP: Using the "Single-Rider" lane will save you tons of time.  However, your party will be split up so if you have a child who must sit next to you, this option will NOT be ideal. Parents with small children who cannot ride may take advantage of the "Parent-Swap" area where each parent will ride separately while the other waits with the child.

Main Attractions:

To be honest, if not for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this theme park would not be the draw it is.  AND THEY KNOW IT! So, with the success of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, came the new Diagon Alley in Universal Studios.  If you're having trouble finding Diagon Alley, just ask the Knight Bus driver - he'll direct you to the secret passageway.  Both are must-sees for Harry Potter fans. BUT, if you can only do one experience, I feel Hogsmeade located in Islands of Adventure is better. (That is, of course, if I absolutely HAD to choose.)

Gringotts Bank is home to the new AMAZING Harry Potter ride! 


This goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway.  The crowds and the lines in both of these sections can be staggering.  If you have the luxury of going during an off-peak time, do it. Otherwise, expect wait times of 60 minutes OR MORE for each main attraction. In general, the lines will be lighter the closer to closing time you get or during special events like parades and concerts.  However, the Despicable Me Minion ride was swamped all day with wait times nearly two hours.  We never did get to ride that one.

Click Here for more information on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Hulk
Each of the two main theme parks has an area for younger children, but in general, these parks are for families with older kids and adults.  Most of the rides are intense and filled with fantastic 3D or 4D special effects - think free-falling to your death! On The Simpson's ride I had to keep telling myself "this isn't real, this isn't real!"  If you don't handle motion sickness well, you won't enjoy these rides. Even most theater shows are filled with loud noises, intense strobe lighting, and special effects enough to scare young children.  I heard multiple children cry or say they were scared in the Shrek 4D attraction. For those of you that love a thrill, these parks are also home to some of the biggest roller coasters you'll see anywhere

Of course, part of the charm of these parks, particularly Universal Studios, is the Hollywood feel you have when walking around the "sets" of San Francisco, NYC, and Hollywood.  There are also several experiences that take you inside the movie magic! 

San Francisco Waterfront

Things to Consider:

I've visited these parks a couple of different ways.  My suggestion is, if at all possible, stay at one of the on-site hotels.  Depending on when you go, the benefits may far outweigh the price. For example, you can walk to and from the parks or take the transportation available not only avoiding the $17 per day parking fee but the insane traffic.  (This time, when staying off property, it took us a full hour to drive the approximate five miles from exiting the interstate to getting into the park. AND, when leaving, another 45 minutes or more to get from our parking spot to the hotel we were staying at THREE miles away.) 

The biggest benefit of staying at one of the Universal Orlando hotels is you have access to the parks one hour earlier. That may not sound like a big deal, but when you consider the lines at the main attractions, you will understand how crucial this can be. The first time we did this, we entered an hour earlier and went right to Hogsmeade and enjoyed shorter lines and less crowds.  In fact, we were able to experience most of the main rides and attractions before the park opened to the general public.  These hotels generally offer package deals including tickets that come with the Express Pass.  

Click here for current offers.

However, if you stay off property, I still suggest you find a hotel that offers complimentary transportation to the parks. This will still save you the aggravation of traffic and give you more time to enjoy yourself.

Overall, I would recommend these parks for families with older kids.  Shop around to make sure you are getting a decent deal on tickets. Unless you live locally, staying at one of the resorts on-site or with free transportation is most convenient.  Check the park's website for special events, such as the immensely popular Mardi Gras celebration, as they will definitely increase traffic and crowds.


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4 comments:

  1. It looks amazing, looking forward on going soon.....

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    1. It's fun! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  2. I was at Universal Orlando last year with my kids and they loved it. We stayed at Omni Hotel that we booked with reservationcounter.com. The best idea after that is to go around and look for the best ticket offers around. The best solution is really to go to the park's website and see their offers. That is how we got our discounted tickets.

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    1. Love the Omni! I agree the park's website has great offers. Usually hard to beat the FL resident ticket deals, but, of course, not everyone is able to take advantage of them. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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