We recently returned from another fabulous Florida vacation. This time was different from all the previous ones. For one thing, we didn’t do the Disney parks, but we still stayed onsite at Disney of course. Let’s not get too crazy here!
This trip was Universal and other Orlando attractions we’ve never taken the time to do. Sea World, Discovery Cove and we took an air boat ride through the swamp to see alligators! We also rented a car this time, which we’ve never done. Using Disney and private transportation is great, but with so many different things on the itinerary, a car was really necessary this time. It turned out to be easy peasy too.
This trip we spent more time at Universal, 4 nights total with 3 days of park to park tickets, so we could ride Hogwarts Express! This amount of time was great as it really let us enjoy so much more of the parks and still get lots of down time at the resort pool to relax. We mainly spent half days in the parks, the mornings, and the afternoons and evenings at the pool. A dinner break at City Walk and maybe a short trip into a park for a few rides in the evenings.
We stayed on site at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, we love this place! Read all about it here.
Highlights for this year:
Eric was tall enough for everything, last year he missed out on Hulk and Dragon Challenge, so he was thrilled. Hulk had just re-opened after an almost year long refurbishment just a few weeks prior. Phew!
We missed out on a few things last year that we made sure to not miss again. We rode Hogwarts both ways, enjoying the walk through the wall at Platform 9 3/4. The Simpson’s ride became a new favorite and finally after a 20 year wait, I rode E.T. So cute! I was in line for E.T. 20 some odd years ago on a trip with a friend and after waiting in line 2 hours, the ride broke down and we never got to ride it, we were almost inside!
Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen had just opened so while wait times for milk shakes and the restaurant were a bit much for us, I did tour the shop and it was great, so unique!
Matthew the donut lover got to have the Big Pink Donut from Lard Lads. Heaven for him!
We ate at several restaurants at City Walk including Margaritavilla, Hard Rock Cafe, NBC Sport Grill and Brew, all wonderful.
Skull Island Reign of Kong had recently opened and just started accepting Express Pass when we arrived, perfect timing.
We of course rode all our favorites from last year, more than once taking advantage of early park entry for onsite guests on 2 of the 3 days and the invaluable Express Pass included with our stay at Portofino Bay Resort. Even during a not so busy time of year, the last week of August, Express Pass came in handy.
Universal can be done in 1-2 days, but taking a little more time really makes it a much more enjoyable vacation and as the kids get older, they tend to lean more towards this type of entertainment.
On this year’s family vacation to Disney, we added two nights at Universal since our kids (12 and 9) are now old enough to get the most out of these parks. They are geared to a slightly older kid crowd.
We stayed at the Portofino Bay Hotel, and you can read the hotel review here.
When you arrive from the hotel via the water taxi, you disembark at CityWalk. CityWalk is an entertainment and dining complex located between the two theme parks. Over the bridge to the right is Universal Studios and over the bridge to the left is Islands of Adventure.
The big draw at Universal Orlando Resort is of course, their two Harry Potter themed lands. Walking into Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, takes you right into the movie. Universal nailed it! We are not big Harry Potter fans, kids are reading the books now, and we’ve seen and enjoyed the movies, but even we could appreciate the level of detail. Everything you’d expect is there, Ollivander’s, Butterbeer in several varieties, pumpkin juice, snacks, and merchandise. Wands for sale at various price points, including interactive wands that will activate window dressing throughout the two lands. The Harry Potter attractions are fantastic and even the queues are entertaining enough to make the waits bearable. Escape from Gringotts was our collective favorite, although my oldest might say Dueling Dragons was his.
There are now two Harry Potter themed lands with the opening of Diagon Alley last summer. Hogmeade is inside Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios. There is a train, the Hogwarts Express, that connects the two parks, but a park-to-park ticket is required to ride this attraction. The park to park ticket is akin to Disney’s Park Hopper allowing you to hop between the 2 parks on the same day. This is not just a train connecting the parks though, it’s a ride in itself and different in each direction.
This is where staying onsite comes in handy. Onsite guests have early entry to one, sometimes both during busy times, of the Harry Potter sections each morning. For our trip, in late August, is was Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. Entering early meant little to no wait times on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the ride inside Hogwarts Castle. Also Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff.
Beverage Cart in the queue! This is genius!
Staying onsite, we also had Unlimited Express Pass included, which allows you do bypass the main queue in almost all the attractions at both parks (Harry Potter rides not included). Now, this didn’t eliminate the waits completely, but it did shorten them significantly. Despicable Me was probably the longest wait even with Express Pass at about 30 minutes, but it was posted at 80 minutes without. Note that you can buy an Express Pass, but it is not Unlimited, you can only ride each ride once with the regular Express Pass.
Being that the parks are both movie themed, all the attractions are obviously movie centered. Comic Book heros, Minions, Shrek, Transformers, Men in Black, Jurassic Park, a favorite of my boys. There are younger kids areas like Seuss Landing. Many of the attractions are simulator type rides, but with a moving ride vehicle.
As I said, most of the rides are more suited to tweens and teens or slightly older kid. My youngest is 9, almost 10 . Only 2 rides had a height limit of 54 inches. He missed the cutoff by a 1/2 inch on The Hulk and Dueling Dragons, but was able to do everything else. Several are 52 and 48 inches. There are several water rides as well, a log flume similar to Splash Mountain, a raft ride similar to Kali River Rapids at Animal Kingdom and the Jurassic Park ride. You WILL GET WET on all these rides. Soaked on two of them. I warned you.
When you’re hungry there is food everywhere. Tons of counter service places and most are quite large with lots of seating. We had lunch in Jurassic Park at The Burger Digs one day. Don’t make the mistake of sitting at the tables just outside, stay inside. We had to move when a crazy squirrel would not leave us alone, he was jumping on the table and coming right to our tray trying to take our food. No fear for him, I was terrified!
You don’t have to make reservations 180 days in advance!
We did table service for both dinners. There are not many table service restaurants in the parks, but just outside at CityWalk there are plenty. You can make reservations for the table service restaurants, most are on Open Table, but it’s not always necessary and you can do it a week or two in advance, or even just early in the day for dinner. We chose Mythos at Islands of Adventure which is consistently ranked one of the top theme park restaurants and it did not disappoint. Food and service both very good.
We also ate at Finnegan’s at Universal Studios which was great as well. Authentic Irish pub food and live entertainment, although at first the songs were decidedly classic rock, but eventually he broke into some classic Irish tunes like Irish Rover.
Both Universal parks are fairly small in comparison to the Disney parks, think more along the lines of Hollywood Studios size. We had half a day, the day we arrived and then a full day the next and were able to see everything we wanted to. Now, if you are big Harry Potter fans, you’ll need a bit more time as we didn’t spend too much time exploring those areas other than doing the rides and wandering a bit during the early entry hour before it got crowded. We also took afternoon breaks to return to the resort and swim, which was super convenient being just a 15 minute walk or short boat ride away.
Next time we might do 3 nights just to have a little more time to spend more time in certain areas and still have the afternoon swim breaks, maybe explore some of the other resorts as well since pool hopping is permitted at Universal.
Overall it was a very enjoyable add-on and change from our usual and I do believe it will now be a MUST DO for all future trips.
I can help plan your trip to Universal Orlando Resort, just contact me and we’ll get started. 🙂
My family recently ventured to the “dark side” and added a 2 night stay at Universal Orlando Resort to our traditional Disney vacation.
Perfect add-on for families with older kids, tweens and teens!
Planning a Universal Orlando Resort trip is not quite as overwhelming as a Disney trip can be, but there is still a little planning to be done. I can help you with this too 🙂 This wasn’t my first stay at Universal, but it was our first trip as a family and with the kids . We will be back!
We chose the Portofino Bay Hotel as our home base for our 2 night stay. This hotel is simply stunning. It’s is a replica of the Italian coastal town of Portofino, right down to the little fishing boats in the harbor and vespa’s lining the piazza!
The hotel complex is sprawling, made up of 3 main areas. The lobby facing the main harbor piazza and then the East and West Wings. A Villas Wing extends off of the West Wing.
The West Wing offers the best proximity to the boat dock and walking path to the theme parks and the feature pool.
Rooms at Portofino Bay are spacious and well -appointed, starting at a generous 450 sq feet for a standard room Garden or Bay view. Deluxe rooms, suites and club level services are also available.
Rooms have all the standard amenities and beds are queen sized.
Portofino Bay features Despicable Me suites in the East Wing.
There are numerous restaurants, all Italian, including a Gelateria and Starbucks. Splendido Bar & Grill is right by the main pool with lounge chair service. Three pools are scattered throughout, the Beach Pool being the feature pool with the Roman aqueduct themed water slide, zero entry, sandy beach, waterfalls and a small grotto. Even when busy, we were always able to find a few lounge chairs available.
Recreation includes poolside activities, bocce ball, a game room, fitness center, a spa and much more. Be sure to catch the daily Musica della Notte show in the harbor piazza, and enjoy the sounds Italy.
Transportation to/from the parks is so easy! There are boats running constantly from early morning till the wee hours of the night. Every 20 minutes or so. The ride is less than 10 minutes. The walking path is just past the boat dock and takes about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace, 10 minutes if you are really trying to make it back before a downpour…we made it. 🙂 The path brings you past the Hard Rock Hotel and right to the Universal Studios entrance. They also have bicycle jitneys going back and forth if you choose.
The major benefit of staying on-site at Universal is this:
SKIP THE REGULAR LINES with Universal Express SM Unlimited ride access* in both theme parks – a FREE benefit worth up to $89 per person, per day** (valid theme park admission required)
Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, one hour before the theme park opens† (valid theme park admission required)
That’s right, staying at one of the 3 deluxe onsite hotels, Portofino Bay, Hard Rock or the Royal Pacific, entitles you to the above benefits. With the popularity of Harry Potter, that extra hour is much needed! And Express Pass really helps with the rest of the parks , the only place it is not accepted is for the Harry Potter rides.
We made the most of both the parks and the resort by splitting up our day with a pool break in the afternoon each day and with Express Pass and having early entry one day, we were able to see and do everything we wanted to in less than 2 full days, but would probably stay longer next time to really make the most of everything offered.
Universal offers some great packages including a Wizarding World of Harry Potter package and Stay More Save More deals. Contact me for a free no obligation quote.