“If yeh know where to go”
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We love Harry Potter.
Sound familiar? Being the Harry Potter fans that we are, we knew our trip to Orlando would not be complete without a visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Armed with 2-day Park-To-Park tickets and Express Passes, how did we hold up? Read on to find out.
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“I love magic”
Why We Loved Universal Orlando Resort!
Incredible rides and roller coasters at Universal Orlando Resort
My favorite rides are roller coasters, and Universal has no shortage of those. The Rip Ride Rockit was a hit with the whole family. This ride allows you to choose your own soundtrack, but I’ll admit that I kind of tuned my music out with all of my screaming. After an intense initial vertical climb, the rest of the ride is an awesome series of twists and turns.
The hardcore thrill-seekers in the family will also love the Incredible Hulk Coaster. It’s full of screams right from the start!
Related: Be sure to read through our guide Universal Orlando Tips. This post has over 50 ways to have more fun at the parks and is a must-read!
Does your family like roller coasters? Be sure to check out our post on visiting Cleveland and Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of the world!
Harry Potter, of course!
Our afternoons were spent in the Harry Potter portions of each park. It was hot and crowded, but we didn’t have to wait long on the rides that did not accept the Express Passes. These sections of the parks are incredibly impressive and well themed. You feel like you’ve just stepped into the movies.
We had lunch the first day at The Leaky Cauldron, which serves up some traditional English foods like fish and chips. We thought the food was excellent and especially enjoyed the atmosphere with its giant cauldron in the fireplace and wanted posters for a screaming Sirius Black.
Be sure to order some Butterbeer™, but be warned that this non-acoholic butterscotch flavored drink is very rich. We ordered two for the four of us to share, and that was plenty. We also enjoyed the Butterbeer™ potted cream. Delicious!
“Why don’t we go and have a Butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks, it’s a bit cold, isn’t it?”
As far as the Harry Potter rides go, I loved Escape from Gringotts and Dragon Challenge. Cadence was too short to ride Dragon Challenge, so she’s already plotting a return trip in a few years.
One of the most fun things for us was buying wands at Ollivanders and making “magic” in the park.
“Only place for wands, Ollivanders, and yeh gotta have the best wand.”
With your wand, you receive a map and the spells required to make the magic happen, such as turning on the mermaid fountain, levitating a feather, and opening a chocolate frog box, to name just a few. You really do have to wave your wand correctly (“swish and flick!”), and it takes some practice, but there are some helpful “professional wizards” close at hand to help you out.
“It’s Win-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the gar nice and long.”
Another highlight and very well thought out ride is the Hogwarts Express, which takes you from one park to the other. Be sure to ride it both ways for two different adventures.
“Anything off the trolley, dears?”
The other themed areas are also excellent
Besides Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, other theming around the park was well done. If you like water rides, you’ll love Toon Lagoon. The log flume ride and the rapids ride are two of the best I’ve been on, and you are GUA-RAN-TEED to get soaked.
Doctor Doom was a great ride for thrill seekers, and the Jurassic Park ride was also lots of fun.
The food is excellent at Universal Orlando Resort!
I want to mention the food at this point. It’s really good! It was cheaper than Walt Disney World and also tastier. I felt like Universal had the best food (quick-service) than any other theme park we’ve visited. Good job in that area.
If you’re looking for some other great food options, be sure to head out to one of the restaurants located at Universal CityWalk or at one of the hotels on the property. They range from fast food to fine dining and we were surprised by all of it. The kids will particularly love The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen. It’s a wonderful mash-up of chocolate and steampunk and it’s delicious!
Be sure to take a minute to walk around and look at the amazingly detailed steampunk designs and knick-knacks.
Things We Didn’t Like
“Harry grinned to himself as, unnoticed by either Hagrid or Slughorn, he pointed his wand under the table at the emptying bottles and they immediately began to refill.”
The number one complaint we have are the unlimited, all-day, refillable mugs. They are none of those things except refillable! For $14.99, you get a small mug that holds – maybe – 8-10 oz. of soda with a radio chip embedded in the bottom. You can only refill it at certain soda stations around the park, and you can only do it every 10 minutes. Oh, and you can’t start your second day of refills until the quick-service places open around 10 or 11 to reactivate your mug for another $6.99, even though you were a sweaty mess at 8:30.
Now, Universal will say that each refill dispenses 24 oz. Truth: ice will take up some room, and then when you quit pressing the button – keeping your pop from fizzing over – you’re done for 10 minutes. Except your cup is only partially full because of the fizz. Now you’re mad and only have 10 of your promised 24 oz. of pop. Merlin’s Beard!
Furthermore, the pop is dispensed by those Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. These are the kind that give you 126 choices of flavors, which is 123 too many for a line of sweaty, thirsty people to navigate. Seriously, we stood behind a person holding up the line because she literally had 60 seconds left on her timer before her next refill. She didn’t budge. Even when the others in line (not-so) politely asked her to move so others could go. Very Unmagical!
Please make this experience better, Universal! Ahem, moving on…
Other Minor Nuisances
Many of the rides are pretty intense in our opinions. Because a lot of them are virtual reality, they are hard on those of us who get a little motion sick when we have to sit too close to the screen at a movie theater. There were a couple of rides that I passed on because my eyes just needed a break. Don’t get me wrong, the rides are very cool, and I did enjoy them. I just can’t do too many in a row.
Everything else was certainly worth doing, but you might need a little break in between rides to recover!
Was It Fun?
Of course it was! Overall, Universal has a much different vibe than Disney World, but we liked it. We probably would have had an even better time if we could have planned our days there at a different time of year or even on weekdays. We were there on a Friday and Saturday, and we experienced some of the hottest temperatures of our entire trip on those days. Again, those Express Passes allowed us to finish our days early so we could head back to our hotel and its glorious pools.
Don’t just take my word for how cool Universal is though. Here are the kids’ thoughts –
Andrew, age 11: “My favorite thing to do in Universal Studios was to ride the Dragon Challenge. It is a high speed suspended coaster with sharp turns, loops, corkscrew turns, and sudden drops. There are two coasters on this ride, the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball. They both do the same thing, just going in opposite directions. It is located in Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. I loved this ride because I am a wild roller coaster fanatic, and you get a great view of Hogsmeade.”
“I don’t envy the one who gets the Horntail. Vicious thing. Its back end’s as dangerous as its front”
Cadence, age 9: “My favorite thing in Universal was Rip Ride Rockit. It was so cool. The first thing it did was going up vertically. Mom felt like she was going to fall out. It went upside down a lot. My favorite part about it was when it kept stopping and then it would go really fast. I also liked Escape from Gringotts. I liked that one because it was part virtual reality and part roller coaster. When Andrew got to ride Dragon Challenge, I got to go to Honeydukes. Honeydukes is a candy shop. We got sour balls and sugar quills. If you dip the end of the sugar quills in water, they will write for a while. I loved Universal.”
“He suppressed a laugh as he imagined the look that would spread over Dudley’s piggy face if he could see where Harry was now.”
“There were shelves upon shelves of the most succulent-looking sweets imaginable.”
Know before you go
Universal Resort is not a budget vacation, especially if you add the Express Passes to your tickets. It’s such an amazing park, though, that you’ll want to save for the best experience possible. We felt that splurging for the Express Passes was worth it to avoid the lines and the crankiness that goes along with that. Make sure that you are either purchasing your tickets online ahead of time or through a 3rd party like Undercover Tourist. They will save you money, and you can pick up your tickets at the kiosks at the gate like we did.
How to Maximize Two Days at Universal Orlando Resort
Stay at one of the Universal Orlando Resort hotels
Universal Orlando Resort has a great collection of hotels and they are expanding all the time. In fact, they just expanded Sapphire Falls and Universal’s stylish Aventura Hotel at Universal Orlando is set to open in August 2018. We have stayed both off-site (the beautiful Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Orlando), and at the resort, and staying on-property is the hands-down winner.
If you are on a really strict budget, you may find cheaper options near the resort, but you’ll still be paying a premium, and honestly the prices at Cabana Bay and Sapphire Falls are very reasonable. We think the added perks you get make it worth it.
If you are staying at any of the resort hotels, you can enjoy these special perks:
- Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ and Universal’s Volcano Bay™, one hour before the park opens (with valid park admission).
- Complimentary delivery of merchandise purchased throughout the resort to your hotel
- Resort-wide charging privileges with your room key card
- Complimentary water taxis or shuttle buses that take you directly to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Volcano Bay and CityWalk™
If you are staying at the more upscale Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, you can enjoy the following perks:
- FREE Universal Express Unlimited (this is a great benefit worth up to $89 per ticket per day)
- Priority seating at select restaurants throughout both theme parks and enjoy first available seating at select Universal Orlando and Universal CityWalk™ restaurants.
We stayed at the Loews Sapphire Falls which is UOR’s newest hotel and it was great!
The rooms are nicely appointed, the pool complex is great for families (kids will love the water slide), and the restaurants have several great options with delicious food. The hotel decor has a laid back Caribbean feel that’s comfortable and fun.
Transportation around the resort to the various parks and other hotel properties is easy either via boat or shuttle bus. Park your car for the week and let Universal take care of the transportation for you! Loews is the exclusive hotelier for Universal Orlando Resort. With upscale and luxury properties all over the US, Loews hotels are easy for us to recommend. Be sure to sign up for their loyalty program before you book for extra perks and benefits!
Get a plan before you hit the turnstiles
Our favorite theme park app is Lines by touringplans.com. We’ve had so much success with this app in Disney World and Disneyland, that we purchased access to Universal Orlando Resort also. As usual, it didn’t let us down. Contrary to what our friends had advised, Lines got us through the other rides instead of heading straight to the Harry Potter portions of the parks. Just like magic, we zipped through both parks “faster than you can say Quidditch” in time to avoid the punishing 5 o’clock sun and get to the pool for fish tacos and start sipping Shirley Temples.
Consider adding Express Passes to your Universal Orlando Resort tickets
Since we were doing two days, we decided to purchase the Express Pass tickets, even though some people may argue that they aren’t worth the price. For our purposes, we really felt like these allowed us to get the most out of both parks in a short amount of time. Remember, if you decide to stay at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Express Passes are included, which could be a great deal for many families!
You can use your Express Pass on almost every ride, and it really cuts down on the wait times. With the temperatures approaching 100 degrees while we were there, we were very happy to get out of the parks by around 5:00 p.m. We felt like we had gotten our money’s worth.
Universal Orlando Resort should absolutely be on your list!
This is definitely a park for families with older kids, not toddlers, and we felt like Andrew and Cadence were the perfect ages at 9 and 11. There were a couple of rides that Cadence was just a little too short to ride, but she was still able to have a great experience. Even after having been to the Warner Brothers tour in England, it’s still a lot of fun. The rides are immersive, the themes are great, and the experience is magical. I hope your family has as much fun as we did!
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Visiting Universal Orlando Resort was part of our #SummerRoadTrip2016. Here are some other fun things to do in Florida:
- The Best Parasailing in Florida
- The Best of Walt Disney World Resort – Old Favorites and New Magic
- The Best Gulf Coast Family Resorts in Florida
What’s your favorite ride at Universal Orlando Resort? Stop by on social media and tell us!