Got kids who love Harry Potter? Does your family contain teens and tweens? Then if you’ve been planning a trip to Orlando, you’ve probably been thinking about visiting Universal Orlando.
My family—my husband and 12-yr-old son Aidan—just got back from a whirlwind visit. I write about Orlando for Family Fun Magazine and WorkingMother.com and edit Frommer’s Orlando guide, but I have to admit that I’m not as fluent in “Universal” as I could be, so I was determined to find as many insider tips as possible.
Universal is known for it’s thrill rides, roller coasters, and watery plunges at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. And of course, two wonderfully themed Wizarding Worlds devoted to Harry Potter — the “Boy Who Lived” — that are easily the biggest draw here.
Although there’s a fun and whimsical Seussland in Islands of Adventure, Universal isn’t really an amusement park for small kids. Kids 8 and under won’t be able to ride a lot the rides, and it’s not as family oriented as the mouse across town.
However for my 12-year-old, it was game on! Here’s what we learned during our time:
Where to Stay
If you know you’re going to be spending your time at Universal and not Disney, it pays to stay at one of the 5 hotels on property. My family spent several nights at Loews Portofino which is a stylish reproduction of an Italian coastal city. There are three different Italian restaurants, a gourmet pizza spot, a gelato shop, AND a Starbucks (not Italian, but always a welcome addition to my morning routine). Plus three pools and live entertainment. Staying here gave us access to a water shuttle that only took 5 minutes to get us to Universal City Walk and ran pretty much continuously. It also provided us with early access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and free Express Pass tickets to skip the general lines for most rides at both parks (all the rides EXCEPT the Harry Potter ones you really want to ride — see below.)
Getting Started: Tips and tricks
* In addition to regular admission tickets, Universal sells “Express Passes” ($39 to $59 per person per day), which allow you to skip the regular ride line and gives you access to less-crowded, faster moving Express option. Buy these in advance; both ticket prices and Express Passes are more expensive if you purchase them when you arrive at the park. (Also note that Universal is now using “Surge” pricing, so the busiest days will be the most expensive. To save money, come weekdays and avoid school holidays).
*There are several Express Pass options, the “regular” single ride for each attraction option is enough if you only have one day (you probably won’t have time to fully utilize the “Unlimited” version if you want to see everything).
*Important Note: Express Pass does NOT work at any of the Harry Potter attractions.
*If you stay at one of Universal’s 3 premium properties — Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino, and Loews Royal Pacific —Express Passes are included in your stay – a BIG savings if you have a family of four.
*Staying at any Universal hotel property grants you 1 hour early access to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Take advantage of this! Note that Universal often opens 15 to 30 minutes early to non-hotel guests, so don’t wait until the end of the hour to arrive (I learned this the hard way as we strolled to the Harry Potter entrance at 8:40 only to be overtaken by the general admission crowd, and watched the line for the most popular ride– Gringotts in Diaigon Alley— grow from 20 to 45 minutes in about a 3 minute span. It only goes up from there.)
*Good news, however, if you’re not staying on Universal property: arrive at least 30 minutes before park opening and you should be able to beat later arriving crowds to get to both Harry Potter and other attractions.
There are two separate parks here requiring two separate admissions—Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure—or one two-park pass (which you’ll need to ride the Hogwart’s Express). Both are smallish and can be seen in one epically long, exhausting day (that’s my way of saying you really should have two days to do it all).
A circle of restaurants and stores around a man-made lake form Universal City Walk, which is where you enter the Universal world. (If you’ve been to Disneyland in California, Universal’s layout will look familiar to you. )
The “World’s Largest Hard Rock” is located here, as are a huge miniature golf center, and what is now one of my family’s favorite dinner spots in Orlando, CowFish. (They serve sushi. They serve burgers. They serve hybrid sushi/meat combos called “burgushi.” Aidan said: “What else could you ever want?”).
Remember that you can leave the parks to eat at CityWalk if you’d like (which I found a civilized way to break up the day).
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The “boy who lived” is really the star of Universal, regardless of how many other fun rides, cool themed areas, and giant roller coasters they add. I’m going to assume that if you’re heading to Universal, this is also where you’re going to want to spend time.
Diagon Alley is the remarkable on many levels, and worth any crowds you need to navigate to experience it.
Turn the corner in front of a double decker bus, duck behind the weathered stoops of London flats, and the weather drops 10 degrees, the ground is damp, and you’re completely immersed in Harry Potter’s world, including shops that sell magic wands (only $40 for a stick – yippee), magic jelly beans, and everyone’s favorite, Butterbeer (this was really good – the slushee variety especially; and there’s an ice cream shop that sells a soft serve version, which was my personal favorite).
You’ll notice a steady stream of people heading straight back to the Escape from Gringotts ride. Do not stop for photo ops. Do not sip a butterbeer. Do not watch the dragon spit fire at the top of the bank tower (although it’s SO cool — but wait to see it later). If you want to ride Gringotts, run there are soon as you can. We watched the line build from 25 minutes to 45 minutes to 70 minutes in the course of a badly timed entry to the “world”.
Now, here’s where things get sticky. Gringotts is truly a fabulous ride. The unbelievably detailed interior is truly transporting, and I think it’s worth an hour’s wait, especially since you spend some of that time waiting in the elaborately decorated bank. However, the next coolest Harry ride is the Hogwarts Express. It’s gorgeous. It’s a real train. It looks and feels completely like the one in the movie. And the only way you can ride it is to buy a multi-park ticket. Ouch.
With our two park ticket in hand (you can actually upgrade it a the ride gate) hop aboard at platform 9 3/4. And then you’re whisked away between parks in a train that feels like it’s right out of the movies.
You have now arrived in Islands of Adventure. If there’s anything you want to do back in Studios, you’d have to wait in line for the train again.
Once you arrive in Islands of Adventure, you need to get on line, quickly for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was the first big HP ride at Universal. It’s an immersive creative ride that makes it feel as though you’re swooping and soaring over Hogwarts. There are also two roller coasters here, a kiddie-starter one called Flight of the Hippogriff and a high-speed, double-track, hold on to your hats, Dragon Challenge.
Once you’re done with Harry and the gang, there are more “worlds” to explore.
“Studios” had my family’s favorite attraction: Springfield. You know, where Homer Simpson and his family live. The Simpsons ride is a “simulator,” which makes it feel like you’re on a roller coaster, and being pushed over a cliff, stuck in a baby’s mouth, and other cartoon mishaps, but in reality you stay in place in a rocking car of sorts. (There are lots of “in” jokes here, plus a Kwik-E-Mart and Duff’s Beer bar; and even mega donuts and a taco truck!)
*Sit down restaurant Lombard’s Seafood Grille, looks like it was lifted off the wharf in San Francisco . By eating right at noon we didn’t have a wait and sat in lovely air conditioned comfort with attentive waitress service while munching on crisp fish and chips for basically the same price as counter service in the rest of the park.
- When you enter the park you hit Minions, which is hugely popular spin off ride from Despicable Me movie; if the line looks short (and you’re not running to Diagon Alley), jump on now. It’s fun, but not worth waiting two hours for.
Islands of Adventure
We spent less time at Islands of Adventure, but among the highlights here are the Spiderman ride –which was one of the highest-tech, coolest, simulator rides I’ve been on — it’s spins you through Gotham City, while Spidey tries to save you from evil.
And if you like to get wet (and I mean really wet), Islands is where you’ll find multiple log flumes, white water rafts, and plunging water rapids (my pick for big fun and slightly less splash is Jurassic Park River Adventure). It’s definitely a fast way to cool off on a hot day. (Tip: if it’s not hot, there are drying stations near all the water rides — basically high powered blowers — which is a great touch).
Of course to cool off you could just do what Harry would do and get a refreshing Butter Beer — it is Universal after all.