In case you’ve never experienced travel with me, I’m a planner. So immediately after booking flights and hotels, I went into Pinterest search extraordinaire about planning the trip to Universal in Orlando, Florida.
I read blog post after blog post of 10 or 20 things to see, do, not miss. I researched. I asked friends. Spreadsheets and word documents were involved, yet I was still not fully prepared to handle all the things the parks had to offer. So now I guess it’s my turn to share my wisdom of what worked, what I wish I had known, and what I would’ve done different.
Just like the parks themselves, it’s too much to do all at once so I’m going to offer my thoughts as: general hints and tips, the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the rest of the rides, and food stuffs (a nod to my son).
Begin at the beginning
1) THE TICKETS – tickets and hotels – I had more than a few hotel points accumulated from work travel and opted to burn through some. What I would do different – the hotel and ticket packages really do seem like a good deal. I opted to buy tickets from undercovertourist.com with a 5 day 2 park hopper pass. Even with that good price, the hotel package wouldn’t have been much more and most of these hotels have early access passes that would be worthwhile.
I will note for you the key part for Harry Potter – it’s split across two parks. Yes it is worth it to get the park hopper passes and yes you need the two park passes to ride the Hogwarts Express.
2) ARRIVING – getting in to the park – issue one: our hotel had a shuttle, but the shuttle didn’t run mid day and you actually had to reserve seats on the morning shuttle. In theory we were about a mile away from the park – a reasonable walk minus the 6 lanes of highway to cross. My kids got their first Lyft ride (with a driver who reeked of smoke) and later I got my first ripped off by a taxi driver trip. So many firsts and a bit of a first visit fail.
What you need to know about arriving at the park. You are dropped off at a “central” spot where you go through security. Security moves super fast and wasn’t a problem at all. Going through this takes you to Citywalk, which is shops, food, movie theatre, and is easily an event of its own and doesn’t require a ticket to any of the parks.
Once through most of Citywalk, you must make a decision. Bear left and go to Islands of Adventure or stick right and go to Universal Studios. My kids would warn you you are doing quite a bit of walking before you’ve even entered a park. Extra note – Universal Studios has another small exit/entrance that’s right behind the Hard Rock Cafe.
2) THE APP – This is where the app comes in handy really fast. The app was my friend – a lot. Because as the shirt says
The app is great not only for showing that the little dot that is me is now going in the wrong direction, it also gives clues to how long the ride wait times are. I stalked what I thought would be our favorites doe several days before arrival just to get an idea. It was pretty close to the trends I was seeing throughout the day. Afternoons are the craziest waits while early morning and dinner time seemed to calm down some.
Quick note – the parks have WiFi and when on the WiFi, the app had one small flaw that it would always default the map to the park we were in and it was an effort to look up the map for the other park.
Link to the app – Universal Orlando® by NBCUniversal Media, LLC
3) ARRIVE EARLY – Which leads me to advice I got over and over again – get to the park early. It was true and clearly some of the best advice I could take. Sadly my pre-teen who is practically nocturnal did not like this advice. But it did mean that we were less than 15 minutes in line for Gringotts on our final day and that we walked into the overcrowded ice cream shop to instead be there – alone (yes yes ice cream at 10 am is perfectly acceptable on vacation). Arriving at the park opening time really did mean a less crowded park especially if you are aiming for Harry Potter, which is in the back of both parks.
4) PHOTOS – As an add-on you can do a myuniversal photos package. The quick run down – this package provides you access to their photographers who are stationed at different parts of the parks at different times, as well as ride and character photos. Universal posted a link to a $59 package (sorry it seems like this was a promotion they aren’t doing at the moment) – 5 days, unlimited downloads plus a couple of prints. As my children have varying temperaments about me taking photos, this really was my best shot of a group photo of happiness. The results were varied but I would say I got my $60 worth out of it. What I wish I had done – more research on locations for photos (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/my-universal-photo/index.html#universal-photos-participating-locations), asked to see the quick previews (my son scowling in at least 3 and I can’t crop him out), not waited until our last day to do the prints. You can see all the photos through a website or an app as the day progresses but I kept wondering if we would get just one more that would be better. Also I pre bought the package but couldn’t get it started until I went into one of the locations inside the park.
5) PLAN – there are various one day or two day plans that can help you get the most out of the park(s). But we spread our 4 days with 2 half days and 2 full days. My full planning mode didn’t kick in until our last full day and it was an impressive checklist that we finished but by the end of the evening we couldn’t rally enough to see Hogwarts lit up again. My suggestion is make that “must see” checklist much earlier in the trip and map it out. If wait times aren’t working for you, then counter clockwise your map and plan. Also truly be prepared to eat ice cream at 10 am to avoid lines.
6) SOUVENIRS AND PACKAGE PICK UP – so many choices. And add in the ease of package pick up, it would be easy to try to buy the whole place. Package pick up sends your purchases to the front of the park to save you from lugging things around. Useful for chocolate things especially. Just note it takes at least 3 hours before you can pick it up. So if you buy at 4 pm, plan on a 7 pm pick up. What went well: each kid was given a gift card pre loaded with souvenir money. Mom didn’t have to try to track who spent what and was it equal. What we goofed on: pressed pennies – waited til we were done and did them at the front of the park with few selections. Decision making paralysis did me in and kept rethinking a shirt I wanted and the Harry Potter Christmas ornaments – don’t let your preferred souvenirs slip through your hands because doubling back to get them isn’t going to happen.
7) BACKPACKS – I carried the “parent backpack” that I normally bring onto flights as a personal item. It contains my “be prepared” kits of everything (pens, marker, first aid – seriously I won’t list everything here I have a literal full page checklist of things that go in). It was a tight squeeze in a few of the free lockers.
Oh and most of the rides have free lockers – nice touch to make it a little easier. But not all are free – I’m looking at you Dudley do Right. I’m bitter still about this cost, especially since they were super small and we had to get two. By our final trip to the park both kids had small back packs (my son was wearing a camelpack type thing and my daughter was keeping her wand and some other items in her own mini pack).
What else to throw in your parent pack – poncho. Florida weather. Most of the time it behaved as per normal “oh look blue skies and it’s kinda raining”. But our last day – deluge… like cats, dogs, birds, small woodland creatures. And we still needed to get our photos and package pick up. My daughter reached for her rain jacket and told me I was a genius (it’s not on video but I swear it happened)
They had packable rain jackets already. I donned the ever slimming totes poncho. Wisdom for later – I could’ve gotten away with a kid sized poncho
If this were in dementor black I could’ve pulled it off better.
But Florida weather being what it is – have a plan for a rainy day or hour – and keep those weather app alerts on.
It took us a bit to find our groove for walking in the right direction but by our final day we knew which way to find what and had set in our hearts what we wanted to be sure to do (or to do one more time).