In the bleakness of winter, those of us not fortunate to have leaves on the trees year-round will be heavily rewarded by taking a trip to Universal Orlando Resort. It is the smaller sibling to the Disney World behemoth and based on my experience, a far easier escape. If your thing is pools and sand, any trip in the continental US will make that very tricky in January. With most daytime temperatures in the warmer states staying in the low 70’s, you need to be fairly brave to head tot he beach or plan a pool party. However, read on and see why fun in the sun at Universal Orlando Resorts is not only amusement park fun but I think you can squeeze some dips in the pool. For the rest the year, imagine tropical temperatures and yes, anytime pool time!
This was my first trip to Universal Orlando and after completing Disney just prior to the pandemic, I was anxious to get my family back to some Florida fun. This time around, we elected to visit the two primary theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.
There were a few misconceptions when I first began my search especially that Disney is better for small kids and Universal targeting older. Neither is accurate as both cater to both. Yes, it is true that the roller coasters and rides at Universal Orlando can be more on the “thrill” side, there is plenty to offer for young and older kids alike. For parents, and couples, you too will find that there is magic in the air regardless of your age.
Our entire trip was booked through Universal Orlando and included, flights, hotel and park admission. We elected for the 4 day, 2 park ticket which turned out to be more than enough. This allowed us flexibility to either Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios at any time during our 4 day window. The 2 park ticket is key if you intend on riding Hogwarts Express train which connects the two parks. It is not necessary but an added bonus for any Harry Potter fan. More on that to come.
We stayed at the Adventura Hotel which is located adjacent to Volcano Bay water park. Being mid-January, the water park was not on our to do list. The Adventura Hotel is the only hotel at the complex to not have a theme but instead presents a contemporary, high-rise style. This does not mean it is not child friendly, but in comparison to many of the others, the pool size and other amenities are limited. Traveling with a ten year old girl, this was not a problem whatsoever. We thoroughly enjoyed the heated pool, hot tub and high tech room features including an iPad that controls the lighting, tv, etc..
Outside of the amenities, it was refreshing to stay in a tower that provided 16 floors of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the theme parks and city. It is one step up from the basic economy options and located next to Cabana Bay and Sapphire Falls. This is nice feature because a short stroll across the driveway brings you the complimentary water shuttle at Sapphire Falls, providing a more atmospheric mode of transportation to CityWalk, the heart of Universal Orlando’s entertainment. Additionally, you can share most of these Loews Hotels amenities throughout your stay. Our last day was spent at the pool, water slide and hot tub at Cabana Bay, a 1950’s themed resort.
Before moving on to the theme parks, I want to quickly mentioned the food and related pricing. For me, I thought the quality of food found across the hotels and theme parks at Universal was better than Disney. I also felt like there were more options including dine-in and outdoor dining. For pricing, just prepare yourself to be overcharged and nickel and dimed for everything. A bottle of water will cost you $4.50 and it goes up from there. This is not unusual and you will find the same at Six Flags or other amusement parks across the globe. However, it is wise to keep your budget in mind and take advantage of off-resort food options that can deliver including using Amazon Fresh to deliver fruit, cereals and other small snacks you can use to both save money and make your mornings less hectic. I was impressed with how the more experienced visitors worked the system.
CityWalk is Universal Orlando Resorts entertainment hub and starting point for Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Shuttle buses, boats and parking garages are located here and although it is open to the general public, everyone needs to pass through security checkpoint. At time of this article, face masks covering mouth and nose are required for all indoor activities.
Here you will find an abundance of gift shops, restaurants, bars and night clubs that extends the day well past park closing. I was amazed at how busy it remained throughout the day, reinforcing the fact that anyone can visit there, ticket or not. It is a fun atmosphere with ample outdoor seating and a nice break from the food options located within the parks. This includes more budget friendly pricing at Moe’s, Burger King and Panda Express.
The shops at CityWalk are programmed around marketing for the parks and not to be confused with anything resembling a mall. It was fun to stop in the many souvenir shops on the way back to the hotel when time was less a factor. Otherwise, expect the same as the food, overpriced with variable quality.
Islands of Adventure
The first park we visited was Islands of Adventure for little more reasoning than being the closest to where we were at CityWalk. I had researched the rides and attraction prior but insisted I would not be forced into a rigid plan as I tend to do. Instead, we took it casual and considered each attraction as we walked. The app is a must-have and gives you the approximate wait times which helps you plan as you make your way along the paths. Not overly large, you can easily double back if you miss something.
The rides at Islands of Adventure is less impressive than Universal Studios yet still plenty of fun. Outside of the Harry Potter themed area, Spiderman, Skull Island: Reign of Kong were mediocre and consisted of 4-D rides that jerk you back and forth avoiding falling buildings, etc. The technology was impressive but the rides underwhelming. We stayed away from the Velocicoaster in the Jurassic Park area primarily because none of us liked being upside down. That said, it had longs lines and looked awesome. The Jurassic park River Adventure was unfortunately closed although with the risk of getting wet, may not be for everyone in the cooler months. For those wishing to experience an adrenaline rush, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, located in the Marvel section, provides twin towers that skyrocket you upwards at incredible speeds.
The highlight of Islands of Adventure is easily found in the Harry Potter themed area. It consists of the can’t miss Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, best overall 4D ride in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the more child friendly, Flight of the Hippogriff coaster. Another high point albeit overly crowded, is Hogsmeade, a recreation of the village in the film series. that is adjacent to the impressive Hogwarts Castle. Any fan will need several photos as evidence that such magic does exist in the real world!
From Hogsmeade, you can take the entertaining Hogwarts Express train, connecting you with Universal Studios’ London area. The lines can be long for all of these attractions as it is for many, the emphasis of their visit. Just relax and enjoy the artfully recreated scenery, putting life on hold for a moment.
After Hogsmeade, the remaining lap around the lagoon is nice but not overly impressive. Here you will find the Dr. Seuss rides including a cute sky trolley and ride that acts out The Cat in The Hat. Kids will like these and the queues can reflect that. If you are short on time or without children, you might move on to the Incredible Hulk Coaster, full of loops and hard turns.
Universal Studios Florida
Entering Universal Studios Florida Theme park was much more of what I envisioned when booking the trip. It has fantastic architectural elements throughout its eclectic neighborhoods. These include, Hollywood, New York, San Francisco, Springfield (think Simpsons), and so on. The period architecture is an awesome backdrop to the best rides that Universal Orlando Resort offers.
As for the rides, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Race through New York Staring Jimmy Fallon (shorter lines and awesome), Transformers and the The Simpsons Ride were all home runs. Again, the loops kept us off Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and unfortunately Revenge of the mummy and Shrek were closed. In between were the E.T. Adventure, the interactive Men In Black ride and Wood Woodpeckers Nuthouse Coaster. These last three are musts for younger children.
The only miss for us and apparently others based on the short queues was Fast and Furious: Supercharged. Live action hosts made awkward jokes as they nervously swiveled back and forth in their chairs. Likewise, the use of recorded segments by all of the actual actors worked at times but otherwise fell short as they tried to convince you of an storyline that was full of holes. This was compounded by a less than impressive car chase in 4D.
Lastly, Harry Potter was once again the show stealer and consisted of a recreation of London with unmarked doorways that secretly lead you into the super impressive Diagon Alley. This is were I really felt transported into world of Harry Potter. Full of shops seen in the films, butter beer stalls, live shows and entrances to two great attractions, Diagon Alley was simply amazing in the day and unreal at night. The primary ride here is Escape From Gringotts and takes you on a fantastic 4D journey from within the Gringotts Bank. Voldemort make his appearance here as well as the heroes, Harry, Ron and Hermione. The lines are as expected, long but don’t let them stop you as everything in the Harry Potter themes areas is great, regardless if you have seen the movies or not.
The next attraction just outside of Diagon Alley is Kings Cross station which returns passengers to Islands of Adventure. It has a different experience than the ride over so don’t forget to try both! One note is that you need the 2-park ticket in order to take the train rides.
One of the great aspects of Universal Studios versus Islands of Adventure is that there is a lot of ambience. This comes in the form of a 1930’s New York, Hollywood’s Production Central, World Expo that includes the carnival-like Simpsons themed area or more tranquil waterfront of San Francisco. With a little imagination, you can feel yourself immersed in the different time locations and eras.
To close out Universal Studios, you really should try and capture the Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration that occurs in the lagoon at park closing. The extravaganza features an impressive water show with colorful fountains jetting high above and highlighted Universal Studio film clips projected off of the mist below! Best viewed from the Central Park area, the buildings of New York become an illuminated backdrop. Punctuating the event, a huge firework display lights up the night, sending you onto CityWalk to finish out your day.
Along with Disney, Universal Orlando should be on most peoples bucket list. It can be easily enjoyed with or without children and the accommodations can be off the resort if you have other plans in the Orlando area. Some obvious notes are to expect heavy attendance during any school vacation and weekends. A mid-week start to your trip will give you a jump start on the queues and be done with the major attractions before the crowds pour in Friday afternoon.