It probably seems a little odd starting with a review of Universal Studios on when that other park down the road is our main focus. Well, we’ve been to the four main Disney parks in Orlando, and our perspective hasn’t been that of a wide-eyed first visit in a while. We did, however, make our first visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure recently.
I’m going to start with the booking process. As a travel agency, we of course worked through a slightly different channel than would be available to the public. Even with that, the booking experience can be a little overwhelming. Three parks, multiple options for each park, some options included with certain hotels but not others, resort hotels and partner hotels, it really was a lot. I cannot say enough, if you book a Universal vacation, get some help. Use us, use a friend with experience, use someone. Otherwise, you may end up spending more than you need to, or missing an option you needed. We settled on the 2 park, 3 day ticket, staying at the Royal Pacific Resort. Because we stayed here, the Unlimited Express Pass was included with our stay. Additionally, since we were staying at an on-site resort, we could get into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at 8 am.
I should tell you before we move on to the hotel, that I am not a hotel connoisseur. When I am theme parking, I want four walls and a clean room. Next to that, I want it convenient to the park. So, let me just say that the rooms were kind of plain, which is fine, but the common areas were spectacular. The Pacific Island theme was ever present but not overwhelming. We spent some time two nights at the pool, which was not overcrowded, and definitely had a “family” feeling. My only complaint is that we were placed in the furthest room from everything except the dog walk, which, of course, meant we were on the hall with all of the barking dogs. I will request to be somewhere else next time. We were about a ten minute walk from the parks, and were able to pass through a small, off to the side security area that got us trough in seconds with no line.
Check in was very smooth. Compared to Disney though, it leaves a bit to be desired. Our last couple of Disney trips, we never went to the check in area. Everything was done through the Magic Bands, we checked in online, and the only thing we had to keep up with was the Magic Band on our wrists. At Universal we checked in and got our room keys, then we went to another desk and got our park tickets (paper card). Lastly we went to a kiosk and picked up our Express Passes. Unfortunately, all three of these cards are needed at various times of the day. Obviously you need your ticket to get in. Then you need it to board the Hogwarts Express since you change parks. You need your room key to get in early if you take advantage of early entry to Harry Potter. Then you need your express pass to get in the express lines. Even pre-Magic Band, Disney had managed to get most of that on one card. One important thing of note: Many rides require you to leave all of your personal belongings in a free locker before you ride. There are ride attendants standing at the entrance reminding you to take everything out of your pockets. LEAVE YOUR EXPRESS PASSES IN YOUR POCKETS. Some of the rides have express entrances that are not easy to see, and we missed the opportunity at least once because we locked up our passes. I highly suggest getting a lanyard and clear envelope to put all your various cards in.
So day 1, we set out for Islands of Adventure. We started around 8, and had ridden about everything before 4, despite a long period of rain that shut down much of the park. We started with Harry Potter, which I will come back to. The highlight for me was either the Dragon Challenge, or the Forbidden Journey. For the 11 year old daughter, it was undoubtedly The Hulk. Or maybe Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges. Or maybe even the Storm Force Accelatron, or “the teacups on acid ride” as I like to call it. Either way, she had a blast, even if the park did seem to be a little smaller than I expected.
Day 2, Universal Studios. I have to say, I think I enjoyed it more than Islands of Adventure. For one thing, it seems much larger. All day long, we kept finding more and more to do. There were far more characters here to snap pictures with, even if some of them (Beetlejuice) were a bit out of date. I spent a good amount of time explaining Beetlejuice, E.T. and some of the others to my daughter. Of course she spent a little time explaining “Minions” to me. Something to note here: In two days, only one time did I get frustrated with the lines. The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. I have ridden many rides, and this ride has one of the best designed load queues I have ever seen. Great design, abysmal implementation. Even with the express pass we waited nearly an hour.
Let’s talk about food. Probably the fewest options I have ever seen in a park. The only place of note we ate in the park was the Classic Monster’s Cafe. Great food, and a ton of it. The rest of our meals in the park were kiosk vendors. Now, out of the park, I have to say a word about the Red Oven Pizza Bakery. I love Pizza. A good friend and co-worker turned me on to Neapolitan Pizza. If you haven’t had it, it’s phenomenal, and Red Oven is one of the best I have had. I cannot recommend it enough.
OK, so I have saved Harry Potter for last. Apparently, I am the last person on Earth who has never read a Harry Potter book, or seen a movie. Or at least I was. I listened to the first book on the trip home, and watched the movie when I got there. This was not the proper order at all. If you are going to Universal, take a couple hours and watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before you go. What they have done here is absolutely amazing. First a little explanation. There are two Harry Potter related areas, one in each park (yep, if you want to see it all, you have to pay for both.) The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is located at the back of Islands of Adventure. It has a three rides, and will strike you as being typical of themed areas of parks, however it is done more completely and better than I have ever seen. That is of course until you hop on the Hogwarts Express and head over to Diagon Alley. From the moment you step into it (it’s well hidden, we had to ask) you are in a different world. Once I saw the movie, I was even more amazed at how faithfully it had been recreated. It is truly an amazing spectacle.
One last thing….Butterbeer. Frozen butterbeer. I had no idea what butterbeer was….still don’t know. Except that it is good, and it won’t get your kids drunk. Did I say it was good?
So, all in all, do we recommend Universal. Yep. How do we recommend we plan your trip? That’s a tough one. There are so may variables here, from day of the week, age of the kids, budget, so many things. All I can say is, give us a call and we will walk you through it. Doesn’t cost you anything extra, and may save you a fortune in the long run!!!