Yes, we made it to Universal Studios this summer and I’m finally sitting down to tell about it! Yes, it was much easier to plan than Disney World and no, the food wasn’t that great – sorry, maybe we were just unlucky, but we definitely had better food at Disney World (since we are making comparisons). Overall it was an awesome trip and we would love to go back – in fact, we probably will! If you are wondering how much time you need to see and do most of what Universal Studios offers, I would say three full days at a minimum – four if you want to do Volcano Bay. We squeezed everything into three days, but it almost killed us (no joke. We limped back to our hotel every evening) and we only got one morning at Volcano Bay. It definitely deserves more than a few hours, and that’s coming from someone who typically avoids water parks like the plague. So let’s get into what we learned:
Just buy it. I know, it’s crazy expensive and you could buy groceries for a month with that money. But how much are you spending on this trip and what do you want to get out of it? If I spend several thousand dollars on a trip to Universal and then spend the majority of our time standing in lines, my opinion is we might as well not go. Just figure it in to the total cost as part of the trip, unless you are VERY SURE you will be there with low crowds. It was SO WORTH IT for us when we were there in early June. We were able to walk on most of the rides with no to very little wait, while the rest of the masses melted in the sun. The parks were packed, even though it was still “during covid”, and we would’ve only gotten on a handful of rides per day without the express passes. Plus it requires no planning ahead like Disney’s system. Just get in the express lane of any ride at any time! The best way to get the most value out of this is to stay at one of the onsite deluxe-level resorts, which gives everyone in your room a free express pass. Check rates because it is almost ALWAYS cheaper to stay at one of these resorts and get the included passes, rather than buy them separately and stay at a different hotel. We saved about $400/night on our EP’s this way, by staying at…
Loews Royal Pacific Resort
We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in our room, but it is a beautiful resort. We loved the tropical feel and the pool area, although our room was on the small side – we really missed having a balcony like at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. If you have really small kids who need naps and spend more time in the room, I could see it being a little tight. Service was great, although we had the strangest issue with our key cards not working. They then gave us new ones that also stopped working, then sent maintenance to change the lock on our door, and THEN all our cards stopped working AGAIN. Not sure what that was all about, but it was kind of a hassle. We did love being able to walk back and forth to the parks in 10 minutes – we tried the ferry once, but by the time we waited for it, loaded and unloaded, it took longer than just walking. Oh, and here’s another difference from Disney – they will not accept deliveries for you if you are not in the hotel. We had some basic groceries delivered on arrival night while we went to eat at CityWalk, thinking they would be held at the front desk, but – nope. Luckily, we ordered through Publix and they use a system that lets you see messages from your delivery driver. We were able to explain to her where we were and she was happy to deliver them later once we got back to the hotel.
So, I had heard beforehand that Universal rides rely a lot more on screens than Disney World rides – we found this to be somewhat true, although they have some great coasters too. I was a little concerned about motion sickness because I had experienced that on a few rides at Disney, and my younger son is especially prone to it. However, we both took dramamine and were fine! Even on the Simpsons ride, although I did have to close my eyes a few times on that one.
While we are not huge Harry Potter fans, we do like the books and movies…you just won’t find us dressed in cloaks and studying spells (although we did break down and buy wands to try out the “magic” effects in the parks, which were pretty cool). The Wizarding World areas are really fun to explore, with unique shops and snacks right out of the movies. We did, however, spend way too much time waiting in line for the wand demonstration at Ollivanders; we had heard it was a must-do and to go first thing in the morning. We did exactly that on a day with early entry (staying onsite gets you early admission to certain parks on specific days), rushed all the way to the back of the park, and the line was already ridiculous. But we stuck it out because we had heard it was “sooooo great”. We waited probably close to 2 hours, wasting our entire early entry time, for a 10-minute “show” that wasn’t particularly remarkable in any way, so I would only do it if it’s a short wait. There are so many other amazing things to do. These were the highlights for our family:
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – we had never been on a ride like this; I don’t even know how to describe it, except it is so fun and the technology used is amazing. You really feel like you are flying. One of our favorites and we rode it multiple times.
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – this is a family-friendly coaster with a super fun surprise (I won’t spoil it because it really made the ride something special), and just a total kick to ride. We would have loved to ride it more than once, but we almost didn’t get to at all! It was using a “virutal queue” system while we were there, and we could not get a spot in line through the app our entire first two days there, even reloading it multiple times throughout the day. Luckily, on our third and final day, they opened the ride using a regular standby line first thing in the morning. We had to rush straight to the ride with hoardes of crazy people, but we managed to get a spot (no express passes for this ride, unfortunately). Two hours and 3 heat strokes later, we were hopping on our motorcycles!
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – in some ways this is similar to the technology in Forbidden Journey, except you ride in a cart rather than hang from a track. Really really fun.
- VelociCoaster – this was my 16-year-old’s favorite ride. It’s their newest, craziest coaster and didn’t officially open until the week after we were there. We weren’t expecting to get to ride it, so my son was thrilled that they had it running, and my husband braved it with him. My younger son and I used the time to buy some treats from the Harry Potter shops.
- Revenge of the Mummy – my younger son really loved this one; it’s kind of an indoor coaster that has a part where you go backwards.
Other than a few standout items, the food was just ok. Not bad, but definitely not as good as Disney World’s if we want to keep that as a comparison again. My biggest beef here is the crazy app-ordering system that didn’t work properly a single time for us. I don’t know if the process was new due to covid or our iphones just didn’t jive with it or what, but the whole system was a big fail. The first place we tried to eat was Krusty Burger in the Simpsons area, and it is part of a larger dining hall type facility. We waited in a huge line to find ourselves at what seemed to be a hostess stand, where an employee would occasionally walk by but never talk to us. Not knowing what we were supposed to do (wait to be seated? Go order at a counter?), I finally flagged someone down who told us to go to “that room over there” where someone (whose name I don’t remember) “would show us where to sit”. We wandered to the packed room and found one other employee cleaning a table. He then told us we could sit anywhere, so we sat at the only open table we could find. We must’ve sat there 20 minutes waiting for a server until we figured out we were supposed to order online after scanning the bar code on the table. It REALLY would’ve been helpful if someone – I don’t know, maybe at the hostess stand? – would’ve told us up front that we needed to order through the app. After we finally figured it out, we had another looooong wait until our food arrived. It ended up being a huge time suck; we should’ve just eaten at the taco truck across the street. That’s kind of what we learned about the sit-down places in the park: if you don’t want to waste a ton of time, just get food at a booth or stand. The best food experiences for us were:
- Butterbeer and Pumpkin Fizz – drinks in the WW of Harry Potter of course. The pumpkin fizz was from Three Broomsticks and it was the surprise favorite. SO tasty. Frozen butterbeer was good here, too.
- Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour – butterbeer ice cream and other fun flavors! We stopped here right after the Ollivander’s wand experience, early in the day when there was no line.
- treats from Honeydukes – really fun, unique treats in the world of Harry Potter…butterbeer fudge and exploding bon bons were favorites.
- Three Broomsticks – We really wanted to eat here or at the other Harry Potter restaurant (Leaky Cauldron) at least once, and they both had such long lines every time we walked by, we almost didn’t get to. But on our last day, Islands of Adventure closed early for an event so we walked back to the Three Broomsticks shortly before closing and got in. We were stuck at probably the worst table in the place, on the Hogs Head side, but the atmosphere was pretty cool. Unfortunately, when we tried to order (again had issues with the app and had to track down an employee because our order would not go through), all the interesting food, like shepherd’s pie and beef pasties, was “not available”. Kind of a bummer to be stuck with underwhelming chicken after all that. At least we were next to the bar and had pumpkin fizz to cheer us up!
- Burgushi at Cowfish – this restaurant at CityWalk (just outside the parks) has burgers, sushi, and a mashup they call “burgushi”. Really fun and tasty, albeit slightly overpriced.
- Voodoo Doughnuts – also at CityWalk, this is a really cool donut shop with unique doughnuts and a fun design inside.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a little something about Volcano Bay. We only planned for a half-day here because the kids threatened mutiny if we didn’t go. As I said, I normally avoid water parks, as I find them…slimy. Rubbing up against other wet people gives me the willies, ok? In any case, I took one for the team and got up early so we could arrive right at opening. We walked into an empty park and the seating area in front of the giant volcano was wide open. We had our pick of beach chairs, the husband got me a giant frozen cocktail, and we laid back in front of the amazing view while the boys hit the slides. It was so relaxing, I regretted that we had plans in the park later. Our favorite ride was the Krakatau, which is a water slide that acts like a roller coaster and is super fun to ride as a family. I also really enjoyed the lazy rivers – there are two, and one takes you through a beautiful cave. Being there early meant the crowds were pretty low, and the whole experience was just really laidback and lovely. Don’t forget to walk through the volcano if you go; there are some fun surprises to explore in there, too. The only downer was again the food experience. We thought it was so cool that you could order from the app right at your beach chair, but when we went to pick up our order we had major problems again. No one could find our order, we had to reorder, it still didn’t work, etc. We wasted way too much time again just trying to eat lunch before we left. Hopefully they have fixed some of the glitches in this system by now…we left just as the crowds really started to pour in.
Trying to hit everything in 3 days was a whirlwind, and we probably pushed our bodies a little too far with the walking, but it was a blast. Different experience than the “other” Orlando Park, but just as fun. We’ll need to stay longer next time!