We just got back from a trip to Orlando, Fl., where we spent several days at Universal Studios and the surrounding area. I want to make your next trip a little easier than mine was by sharing some things our family learned, rides and restaurants we enjoyed, and some things we would do differently the next time we go. While our trip was full of adventurous fun, some things could have been better if we had prepared just a little more in advance. Neither Jim nor I had ever been to Universal Studios before this trip. I have traveled several times to Disney, and we have gone to Orlando as a family, but this was our first for Universal.
Let’s start with planning first. While you can go online and schedule everything, we decided to make it a little easier and go through a planner. Almost all of us have a friend or two that plans Disney and Universal vacations. If you don’t have one, I am happy to send you my friends’ info. She travels there every year and can look up all the dates, hotels, and park info for you. Plan on scheduling as far in advance as possible. Rooms book up fast for peak seasonal times. It also allows you to have more choices in hotel room layouts. We weren’t sure if our son would be inviting a friend to join us or not, so we planned for the extra space in the room just in case. We’ll talk more about that in hotel choice. Planning in advance also allows you to look up restaurants or stores you might want to visit while in town. So, while being spontaneous is fun, for this trip you want to do some preplanning. We of course live in Florida. That means we get the local resident’s discount. This however doesn’t mean high perks, just a small discount depending upon time of year chosen to go. There are also discounts for military and annual pass holders. They do have discount blackout dates so keep that in mind if you are wanting to go at Christmas or Halloween. You might find it fun during those times, but you will pay the premium and deal with the crowds and wait times. Plan accordingly! If you don’t like crowds don’t go during peak season (i.e., Spring break, Summer, Halloween, Christmas, and during Cheerleading nationals) We made the mistake and ended up during the cheer competition time. It was a little more crowded than we liked, but not nearly as bad as it is during other peak times. Finding the best time for you is all that matters. You also want to consider how long you will be there. We chose the two-day park pass and one extra day to spend around Orlando. To me this was too short. We crammed all of the park into that short time, and honestly could have used an extra day just to see everything there. We missed out on at least half of the first park due to time and exhaustion, and this was during a slower time of the year. If I could go again, I would plan on at least a third day in the two major Universal parks.
For travel we of course drove since it is only a 6-hour distance at most. This also gave us the freedom of driving from our hotel to the park, out to restaurants, and to Disney Springs. This also allowed us to carry a cooler and bring food for our hotel room that had a full kitchen. And we had the ability to bring back items without them melting. You unfortunately won’t have that luxury flying to Orlando. If you do fly be sure to rent a car, even if you stay at one of the onsite hotels. That way you can go venture off site without trying to wait on any of the buses. But if you choose not to rent, you can always find an uber or ride share. There are also plenty of shuttles to all of the main hotspots around town. Just remember if you do drive to plan on parking fees! We missed that memo and got hit hard on them. I mentioned we stayed off site in order to get a specific room size for our family. We ended up with a bigger hotel room offsite, but we had to pay parking fees daily. That was unexpected, and an unfortunate fee that might have played in our hotel choice had we known in advance. Also, Universal charges for parking at their parks. The fee ranges from $27 to $50 depending upon how close you want to be to the entrance. Disney springs does not charge for parking which is a big plus in my book! Driving around Orlando can also rack up a toll bill. You can navigate around the toll roads, but often it is much quicker to just take them and pay the money. They charge you by taking a picture of your tag. Only one entrance we are questioning and waiting for the bill to see the total. It had the old coin payment system. You had to have exact change (which we didn’t) and chunk it into the cone. It did have a SunPass side, but we don’t have one and opted for the coin side before discovering it didn’t take cash. Hopefully it then reverted to sending the bill and doesn’t charge an extra fee. I guess we will find that out that later. Just plan ahead to have two dollars or more in change. I had unfortunately used all of the excess coins in the park that day.
Let’s talk about hotel choice. I mentioned before our son had thought about bringing a friend. That meant we would need extra bed space in our room. When we started planning it was still early summer and had thought about going that fall during the Halloween themed time. But as we looked, we soon learned the cost was going to be way higher than we had budgeted for this trip, and staying onsite was an absolute no go at that time unless we wanted a single room with double beds. I’m sure we could have gotten one larger if we had booked a year in advance, but not at that point. There were a few options on site in the budget, but once again it meant smaller rooms and paying more. The perks of staying on site might have equaled out the cost in the end had we not needed the extra space. Staying on site gives you early access to the park. That means one whole extra hour in the morning to avoid the rush of crowds between 9 and 10am. Some prefer this and go immediately to those big popular rides that stay busy the rest of the day. For instance, Hagrid’s motorbike adventure. Staying on site also gives you a convenience of being able to go back to your room for a break and then hitting the park again in the evening. You also have the added perk of not paying for parking. We had to pay to park both days. As I mentioned above the cost varies and it just depends upon how far you want to walk from your car to the entrance. This was a hidden fee we didn’t know about. Also, if you choose a hotel off site be aware that they might have parking fees. Ours did! This was also a cost we didn’t know about until arriving. I am sure it is written somewhere, but we went through the agent and if she mentioned it, we didn’t absorb that information while planning. While staying on site avoids those things, staying off site has the perk of location. We were a short drive from Disney Springs and only a small drive from the Universal theme parks. This allowed us to find restaurants outside of the park that were not as pricy. Still high, but not as bad as inside the park. The one perk of us staying offsite was getting the loyalty points for our chosen hotel. We can now use those points to get a free room next time we travel. So, when you start deciding where to stay take all of that into account before deciding.
Ok before getting into our favorite food stops, we need to talk about the parks. Let’s be honest that’s what you really want to know about. Universal has three parks and one town/shopping strip. The parks are Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Volcano Bay, and City Walk. Each one has something for all ages to enjoy. We went to all but Volcano Bay, as that is the water park and it’s still a little too cold for that during February. I will break down each park we went to, but the first thing you want to do before entering any of these parks is to download the Universal parks app. I waited until the night before and didn’t get the chance to fully explore all the settings until I was in the park using them. The app has a spot to scan your ticket, scan a credit card, and any other discounts you might have. You can then use the app to virtually pay for items in the park. This makes it really convenient for ordering food while sitting in the long line to enter. You can also order food at a few places and pick it up outside the restaurant at a kiosk without ever going inside or dealing with the crowds at counters. The app also has a virtual map to help navigate to your favorite spots around the park or find the meeting spots of your other family and friends. We used that a few times when Jim went off with one child and I went to a ride with another. We simply messaged each other where we were and then used the virtual map to find and navigate to that location. Long gone are the days of navigating with the printed park map. The app also has a feature showing wait times at all of the various rides and you can set notifications to alert you when it drops to a set time. This was helpful for those more popular rides. You can also see all the small shows that are scheduled around the park and the times they repeat during the day. Get the app. It was such a helpful thing to have!
City Walk: This park is between the parking garage and both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. It is their version of a shopping center complete with movie theatre, restaurants, amphitheater, and shopping. They stay open until midnight, so if you aren’t exhausted from your day of fun in the park you can keep on hanging out here before heading back to the hotel. If you are coming from the parking garage and not the on-site hotels, you will need to pass through a metal detector before entering. Don’t accidentally pack any weapons! Our family has a habit of carrying loose bullets (that’s a whole other story from a trip!), pocketknives, and fingernail files that are long enough to be considered a weapon. Just check your bags in advance and leave those items behind! You can carry in food and water, just be prepared for being checked first. The larger rides require you to place bags, loose items, and in some cases your phones inside a locker. The lockers are located near the entrance or exit of each ride with the exception of the Jurassic World VelocioCoaster in the Islands of Adventure Park. It has it located inside the ride. They have rows of lockers for free. You scan your ticket, a door pops open, place items in, shut door, and then after the ride scan your ticket again and that door pops back open to retrieve the items. Here is where we learned the hard way on the first day and brought an item that wouldn’t fit in the free locker. This is very important! Make sure your items can fit in a small shoe box height locker. They are deep and can fit a large backpack, but not very tall. We had to rent the larger locker that day, which costs $2 for a certain amount of time (I think it was two hours). So be smart and leave that large gallon sized water container behind. You won’t need it anyway, because bottles can be refilled with water and ice for free at any of the coke machines in the park. One of which is located inside Mel’s diner. So just bring a small bottle or one that allows you to collapse it down as you empty the contents. We planned on going to one restaurant in City Walk, but got stuck inside the park and missed our reservation. (I’ll share more on that in the next park) Have you ever heard of Voodoo donuts? They are located in this section, and carry a wider variety of novelty donuts. We used the app on our first day to order a box of various donuts to try. We simply picked what we wanted hit order and, on our way out of the park, stopped at the kiosk to pick up our pink box and enjoy after returning to our hotel room. They were good, but by no means as good as they could have been. I later found out that this location doesn’t make them, they simply have them shipped in frozen. Which explained why they tasted a little dry. Fun experience, but not worth the price here. I’m sure fresh at their original location is way better. But if you are wanting to try out the novelty item, go for it.
Universal Studios: As I mentioned the theme park itself is separated into three different parks. Entrance to this one is towards the right after leaving the City Walk area. This park is geared towards movies and has the smaller rides. We spent our first whole day here doing things our youngest could enjoy and a few things for all of us. The park makes one big circle around a small water way and is separated into sections with different themes. You go from a city scene with a diner to a section with SpongeBob and other cartoon characters. Then on to the Simpsons, Men in Black, London (and the entrance to Diagon Alley and all things Harry Potter), Fast and Furious and some New York style areas, then back around towards the front where you will find the Minions. There are several shops throughout all of that and several rides or virtual theaters as well, but we didn’t have time for it all. I would definitely recommend scoping it out and making a plan as to which rides or shows are most important to you.
We started slow with the ET ride (fun but very aged animatronics) and a ride in the Simpsons area for the little one, then we hit our first and actually our favorite family ride the Men in Black ride. We actually came back on our second day and rode it again. It is a car that fits six people who each have a lazer gun. You are put through a training simulation similar to the one in the movie, only you are moving instead of standing still. The goal is to earn points by shooting the aliens. Each person gets a score and the whole car gets a total. You are trying to beat the other team. We didn’t know that until the end, but ended up winning anyway. (Obviously we are a little competitive!) Here’s your spoiler if you want to get a higher score: 1) Use all the guns in the car. Jim had an empty seat next to him on the first ride and used both guns. Had I known I would have sat so that I could do the same, because I also had an empty seat on the row. This helps your total score. 2) Aim for the black sensors. They can be found on the eyes of the aliens and at the top of the opposing team’s car during the duel. 3) There are lots of aliens in the windows up high and in the bushes down low that seem to get missed by people. 4) Don’t miss the bonus point. Zed will say push the red button close to the end of the ride near the largest Alien. I wasn’t sure if it was the button in the front of us or on the gun, so I pushed both. You can even hold it down. 5)You don’t run out of ammo, so shoot as much as possible. Some even say hold the trigger down, but I am not sure if that helped or not. I can’t exactly remember my first score. It was somewhere between 25,000 to 45,000. My second ride score was 183,000. Our car won the total both times. It did have spinning, but you are so focused on the aliens it helps to keep your head level. Just like a ballerina using spots to keep from getting dizzy while spinning. Thankfully no drops or upside down on this ride, so it is one the non-coaster fans can enjoy. We next went into Potter world, but I will save that for an entire discussion later. On to Fast and Furious. This virtual bus ride is ok, but can make you dizzy if you are not good with moving screens and the feeling of driving hectically through a city. At this point we split and Jim took the oldest to go find a snack while I took the youngest to see the Minions. This one had the longest wait of the day. It said 35 minutes, but felt longer. Once in the actual ride you sit in a large theater of seats and watch a digital screen. This is a virtual ride that makes you feel as if you are inside a person shrunk down to minion size. You then bounce and fly through out Gru’s house and laboratory. The chairs shake enough to make you feel as if you are actually being catapulted through the air. It was a fun one for any age, but the younger crowd definitely enjoyed it. After this ride we met back up at Mel’s diner and relaxed until the night’s Mardi Gras parade started. This is the best spot to see the parade, because you get to see it twice if you decide to stay long enough, and you don’t get stuck in the park. We left as soon as it passed us the first time, but the second night we got stuck on the other side and couldn’t leave until after the parade was completely over. So be sure to check the app for any parades and the map for the route. We just happened to be here during their Mardi Gras Festival, it wasn’t originally part of our planning.
The nightly parades start at 5:15. If you want to ride one of the floats you can! You have to sign up for the virtual wait list on the app that I mentioned earlier. It is first come first serve, and will occupy at least two hours of your time in the park. Your whole party has to be on time to the starting location, and understand that you can’t get off until the end of the parade. But if you like chunking beads at people, it could be lots of fun. You can also find food stands featuring food from various countries that celebrate the carnival season during this time of year. While we didn’t plan on being here for the Mardi Gras events, it did work out in our favor giving us an extra bonus experience.
Islands of Adventure: For our second day we started here before hopping back over to the other park. In order to do this, you need the two-day two park pass. This park has the big roller coasters, which aren’t for the faint of heart! I honestly shouldn’t have ridden, but they were really fun! First we split up, Jim went with the youngest to Seussville (a Dr. Seuss theme area) and rode some small items. While he did that, I took our oldest to ride the Hulk roller coaster. This ride not only requires putting all loose items in a locker before entering the ride, but it also has a metal detector to double check for items in pockets. Even if you have a pocket with a zipper, you can not bring items on! So just put that phone and extra items into the free locker first. It will save you a good 10-minute line wait by doing so. The Hulk is a fast coaster that turns, drops, flips, and slings you through high g-force turns. I was super clammy after and a little light headed. Definitely not a ride for little kids, even if they are tall enough. Our youngest missed the height by an inch, so we didn’t even have to worry about him wanting to try. After that ride we met back up and slowly made our way towards the Jurassic park area. We passed a lot of rides along the way, including several with water. We just didn’t feel like getting our shoes wet for the day. It would be a good idea during the summer to prepare and have some slip on wet shoes just for those rides. Once in the Jurassic area we split again. I took the oldest to ride the next big coaster while Jim took the youngest on an aerial zipline style ride. That ride is for kids only! You can not ride it unless under a certain height, and a parent has to ride with you. Jim watched as one child was turned away for being too tall, and watched as one parent forced a child on because they wanted to ride. (Please don’t be that parent!) He said the ride was entirely too short for the wait time, but if he could he would ride again. For my ride I lured my oldest to join me on the VelociCoaster.
It is themed after the newer Jurassic Park movies and has some videos with the characters gearing you up mentally for the ride. The lockers for this ride are inside the entrance, unless you need the larger one. They are located inside the building next door, which is designed to look like the Jurassic Park gift shop/main building from the movie. It’s also a great spot to cool down after the ride. It has a restaurant and restrooms upstairs, and hands on games downstairs. Back to the ride….it was probably the best in the park thrill wise, but I put it and the Hulk equally. This ride allows shorter riders, but I wouldn’t let my youngest on even though he was tall enough. It only has a lap brace, and you will get air time. I had my sweater tied around my waist when I entered the ride, and was promptly told to wear it on the ride. I believe they did that knowing I would be lifted out of my seat and didn’t want me losing the sweater or it causing me to be too loose in the chair. This ride had a few drops, upside down flips, and high g-force spots. I shouldn’t have ridden! I was seeing spots in my vision towards the end, and had my equilibrium messed up for the rest of the day. This put a bit of a damper on some of the day’s activities. So, if you are adventurous keep this in mind. My son however returned later and rode again. It was his favorite of both parks. After that fun I needed a major break, so we decided to sit for awhile and get lunch. This helped a lot. We spent a few hours in the Harry Potter section of the park, before catching the Hogwarts express back to Universal Studios to ride our favorite ride again. I will tell you all about our time and all things Potter in another post. In order to hop on the train you have to have the pass I mentioned allowing you to visit both parks. They will check that pass at the entrance. The wait time can vary and the ride itself is very short. But it is a quick way to get between the parks. We set a notification in our app and played around in the Jurassic Park area while we waited for it to shrink. Some times the train will have an ending run time. Be sure to check on that once there to verify. Otherwise you have to walk all the way around and through the gates. We should have paid attention and ridden it back to the other side in order to avoid getting stuck by the parade, but we failed to do so. I know we missed a lot from both of the parks and I didn’t get to mention it here. I will share more on shopping, food, and all things Potter in another blog. Be sure to check it out.
before planning your trip.