Friday, April 10, 2015

Destination: Universal Orlando!

This Spring Break, my husband, daughter and I spent a long weekend at Universal Orlando and it was simply amazing!  My 10-year-old is a huge Harry Potter fan (as am I!), and we were all excited to check out the re-creations of Hogsmead Village and Diagon Alley; but we could never have anticipated how much we would enjoy all the other amazing rides and shows in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure!

We scored a great package deal through Universal Orlando's website that included: a 4-night stay on-property at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, two breakfasts (one each in the Harry Potter establishments of Three Broomsticks and The Leaky Cauldron), 3 days of dual-park passes for each of us (with Early Park Admission for all 3 days allowing us to enter the park an hour before visitors who did not stay on-property), an Express Pass each (gives you priority seating on almost every ride and can be used an unlimited number of times), City Walk passes (entitling us to entry to a variety of clubs and venues at the City Walk complex immediately outside the Universal theme parks), and a "welcome package" that featured an adorable stuffed owl that my daughter fell in love with.  

The hotel was magnificent!  Boasting a Hawaiian/Polynesian Island vibe, the resort featured extremely attentive staff, a variety of eateries, an amazing pool with entertainment (movies, pool games, free snacks for the kids, a DJ, poolside service of adult beverages and food, etc.), beautiful lush grounds, and a free ferry that delivered you directly to the gates of the Universal theme parks (though there was also a walking path for land-lubbers)!  The ferry was about 5 minutes away from the parks, and the path was about a 10 minute walk - both fantastic options for reaching the parks.

The Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure parks left me breathless!  Both were immaculately maintained and beautifully arranged.  In both parks, Harry Potter world is at the rear-most section of the park, so there was a good deal of walking (which gave us a chance to get through and see everything so that we could plan out what we wanted to hit once we abandoned the magical world of Harry Potter!).  All three days saw us bolting to the back of the parks to hit the Gringotts and Forbidden Journey rides early (Express Passes do not work on these rides and lines quickly build to upward of 2 hours), and then meandering around to take in the shops, shows, and rides.  Then (because we had a dual-park pass), we would hop onto the Hogwarts Express (also does not accept the Express pass, but lines move very quickly) to ride over to the other park, where we would spend the balance of the day split between the Harry Potter section and the remainder of the park.  I could write a book about the amazing rides, shows, and exhibits, but I'll just share a few highlights:

In Harry Potter sections:

  • Gringotts was the winner, hands-downs.  It's a virtual reality ride that simulates a roller coaster ride through the vaults of the Wizard bank.  As amazing as the ride portion is, the intricacy of the actual bank itself (where you line up) is staggering - there is so much to see, hear and experience before you ever even get on the ride itself!
  • The Dragon Challenge was a close second, and a pleasant surprise for all of us!  We didn't know if we were coaster people or not until we took a few trips on this twisty, turny, loopy, scream-tastic adventure, but once we rode it, we were hooked!
  • The Hogwarts Express is a masterpiece of craftsmanship and magic!  Not only is the train itself a perfect replica of the one from the movies, but while you are in transit in your own little compartment you are treated to an elaborate show both through the "window" and on the translucent door way.

Non-Harry Potter sections:

  • Despicable Me and Men In Black are tied for first.  The Minions ride is a simul-coaster with an awesome storyline, thrilling action, and hilarious exploits!  Men in Black is a seated whirly ride where you have to shoot the aliens.  Both were so much fun we went back more than once!
  • A close second, the Jurassic Park River Ride (read flume!) offers a terrific adventure through the prehistoric world of dinosaurs with a dramatic ending that will leave you soaked and smiling!

Tips and Recommendations:
  • We spent a few minutes upon arrival on our first day putting together a plan that allowed us to hit the few rides that the Express Pass did NOT work for so we could minimize our wait time and maximize the number of rides and shows we could cover in a day.  It's definitely worth putting together a plan, though being able to be flexible gave us a few memorable experiences as well!
  • The parks both features lockers so that you can stow your belongings while you go on the rides; some are free for 25 minutes, some have a nominal fee - it was easily some of the best money we spent as it enabled us all to ride together without worrying about who would hold our stuff.
  • In Harry Potter world, Olivander's (where a wand chooses a Wizard or Witch), only one child (usually the first in the line) gets to have a wand choose them.  It's a cute show and they do a good job in both parks (there's an Olivander's in Hogsmead and Diagon Alley), but I wish we had known that only one child got to do it (we were second in line, so we kinda found out the hard way!).
  • Also in the Harry Potter section, there are interactive places where your child can use his or her wand to cast a spell.  Be forewarned, it's not as easy as it looks... if you can't get it to work, see if a wandering Witch or Wizard can give you some pointers (otherwise it can get frustrating, especially for the little ones).
  • Take breaks!  Our days started at the park, then we came back to the hotel late in the afternoon, hit the pool and relaxed a bit, showered, changed and headed back to the parks/City Walk for dinner and more fun!  It was the perfect way to break up the day!
  • Try a Butterbeer!  Warm was our favorite!
Safe and happy travels!
-Destination Mom

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