When The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at the Universal Orlando Resort in 2010, Universal’s theme parks stole the spotlight from its neighbors over at Disney. But there’s more to Universal than just Daigon Alley and Hogsmeade. Shows, parades, spectacles, and character visits pepper the parks. Smart alecks will love Springfield, home of the Simpsons; comic book fans will freak for the Marvel section; little ones and their nostalgic parents will fall for Seuss Landing’s charms. Outside the parks, City Walk offers shopping, dining, hotels, street performers, and more shows; plus, there’s a hotel for every preference and pocketbook.
My husband and I recently took our two sons, ages 12 and 7, for three days at Universal (we visited the Magic Kingdom for one, which I won’t discuss in detail). Here’s how we prepared, and what we enjoyed.
Universal Orlando Resort consists of two distinct theme parks, a water park, five hotels, and the City Walk area that links it all. It’s massive but easy to navigate. A Park-to-Park Pass allows guests to shuttle between the two theme parks via the magical Hogwarts Express, a replica of the train that takes Harry Potter and his friends between London and their school.
Universal Studios, which opened in 1990, is organized into areas designed to resemble iconic entertainment locations like New York, Hollywood, and London, but there are also areas like Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone that don’t follow this logic. Islands of Adventure opened nine years later with a fantasy theme, each “island” representing a fictitious destination such as Toon Lagoon, SuperHero Island, or Jurassic Park. There’s also a water park that will be replaced by Volcano Bay in 2017.
The themes, especially in the Harry Potter areas, are beautifully executed. For popular rides like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which explores Hogwarts Castle, Universal has perfected the art of making the wait in line almost as good as the ride itself. Inside Diagon Alley’s Gringott’s Bank, riders wait for the spectacular dark coaster in the bank’s intimidatingly ornate lobby under the beady eyes of the animatronic goblin tellers. Outside, a dragon perched atop the bank breathes fire at any who might attempt a heist. Here and in Hogsmeade, shops like Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes sell irresistible gadgets and treats. Buy a handsome wand with an electronic tip and your wizard can execute magic spells all over Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade; for $45 at Ollivander’s, it’s worth the splurge. Hogsmeade also has two of the park’s most thrilling coasters: the Dragon Challenge, and a milder coaster for younger riders, The Flight of the Hippogriff, which flashes past Hagrid’s hut.
Draft a Plan
As we hopped from ride to ride, we were aided by a handy app from Undercover Tourist that tracked our wait times for maximum efficiency. The website, which also offers deals and tips plus an invaluable crowd calendar for all Orlando-area attractions, is a great resource for discounted tickets, saving us more than $260 on four, two-day park-to-park tickets with a third day free.
If you can avoid the crowds, do. On our first two days at Universal, rated a 6/10 on Undercover Tourist’s crowd scale, we only waited in one long line, for Minion Mayhem. Otherwise, a combination of good planning and low crowds kept us moving along. But the park was far more congested on our last day, making it harder to move freely. Our next day at Disney, rated a 9/10 on the crowd scale, was exhausting and stressful in a way that I’d rather avoid on a vacation.
Where to Stay
Book well in advance and avoid peak periods for the best deals. We used miles, booking in August for a mid-December stay at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. A moderately priced, 1950s-themed mega-motel, it had everything we needed to unwind: on-site dining, a bowling alley, and an arcade. Shuttles to theme parks provide early park entrance and regular service all day. Our family suite overlooked a pool area with a lazy river, water slides, games, and fire pits where kids can make s’mores.
However, I have friends who swear by Portofino Bay, which provides not only early park entry, but also Express Pass access to all rides, indispensable if you visit during busy times. Other options include the Hard Rock Hotel, the soon-to-open Sapphire Falls, and dozens of area partner hotels.
- Escape from Gringotts
- Dragon Challenge
- The Mummy
- Jurassic Park River Adventure
- Men in Black Alien Attack
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- Universal’s Horror Make-up Show
- Beedle the Bard
- Poseidon’s Fury
- Fish and chips, butterbeer • The Three Broomsticks or The Leaky Cauldron
- Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour
- Lard Lad Donuts (Mmm!)
- Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck • Springfield