Spring break is rapidly approaching and usually that’s when many of us flock south… and if you have kids, that spring vacation often means Orlando, Florida. We took a whirlwind trip to visit Universal Studios Orlando, LEGOland, and Disney World in the fall and I’ve gotten lots of questions about planning so I pulled together a travel guide to help you get the most out of your family vacation to Orlando. Since there’s SO much info to share, here’s the motherload of tips and tricks for getting the most out of your visit to Universal Studios Florida (Disney World is up next, stay tuned!)
Where to Stay at Universal Studios
There are several affordable hotels outside the parks, but since we only had five days to visit ALL the parks in Orlando we opted to stay on-site while at Universal and Disney. The best part about staying on the property at Universal is some of the hotels give you free Express passes to the parks (usually $89 per person per park per day) and these were invaluable. They were worth every penny of paying for the upgraded hotels because they allowed you to skip the lines and saved us hours of waiting! Another bonus is they have water shuttles to the parks, so there’s no dealing with parking. You simply hop on a boat and zip over to the parks. It was part of the fun of the experience!
We chose to stay at the Italy-inspired Portofino Bay, which is in the upper tier of on-site hotels. I’ll just go ahead and say it– I’m a hotel snob with lifelong sleep issues, so where we stay is super important to me. It needs to be clean, and I love those special details that make it feel luxurious. I was thrilled with the hotel and with my lavender essential oil slept like a baby. 🙂
We also upgraded to the Club level in order to have access to the stocked lounge. It was a way to get snacks, drinks, adult beverages, breakfast, dessert, and a light dinner without having to waste time in restaurants. In hindsight, I’m not sure it saved us money which was my original intent– but that being said, we enjoyed the convenience of being able to pop in for a glass of wine and water bottles for the kids, and eat a quick breakfast before hitting the parks.
Each hotel has a different theme and not all offer the Express passes, so be sure to check if it’s included in your package.
What to Wear to Universal Studios Florida
I get asked this question all the time, and I have two words for you: COMFY SHOES. We walked 7 miles each day, so comfortable shoes were a must. I wore my Brooks running shoes one day and I know it sounds crazy but my Sam Edelman flats the next– I love those shoes! Unless you’re going in the heat of summer, layers are nice to have. We went on a somewhat chilly day, so we packed hoodies in our backpacks. Speaking of, it was nice to have just one large backpack since you need to check bags for some rides and this made it less complicated.
As for the rest of what to wear, I’m NOT a big ‘costume’ person (or, at all a costume person) but getting custom graphic tees made for our trip made getting dressed SO easy and it doubled as inexpensive souvenirs of our vacation. Plus, it made it super easy to find the kids. I hit up Esty and ordered everything in advance, rolled them together with pants in our luggage, and we were in business. I wore my Zella leggings on day one and my favorite pair of skinny jeans on day 2 and both were comfy and practical. Obviously if you go during the warmer months you’ll probably want to wear less but this worked for us in October.
TIP: Lanyard necklaces with a plastic badge were dorky but SO helpful because you need to carry all your tickets and Express Passes and pull them out often. I took one for the team and wore it so we had everything in one place. Also, we had plenty of sunscreen on hand. No matter the time of year, carry A LOT of it, apply before you get there, and reapply often. That Florida sun’ll get ya!
someone isn’t happy to be leaving Wizarding World…
Visiting the Universal Parks
The first thing to know if you’re going to Universal is that there are three theme parks (one is a water park.) If you want to experience the entire Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it’s spread over two parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure) so you’ll need to get park-to-park tickets. There is a train that will take you from one section of Harry Potter to the other, and it’s all part of the experience! However, it is a bit sly on their part because it means you need to upgrade your tickets to see both sections.
Because of the two park split, this post is arranged in one section with everything you need to know about the Wizarding World (both parks!) and then I’ll cover the each park individually below that.
Notice the, um, detail of the owlry in Diagon Alley– there’s so much to see, everywhere!
Wizarding World of Harry Potter: The Universal Studios Section
The Universal Studios park is where you’ll find Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley (Hogsmead and Hogwarts are in Islands of Adventure.) Be aware that the entrance is somewhat hidden! It’s through the brick doorway, right after King’s Cross Station and across from the Knight Bus. Universal did an amazing job of hiding it, which makes it feel secretive as you enter and when you step inside it is, as cliche as it sounds, magical.
Harry Potter fans will have their heart skip a beat as the bustle and energy of the park surrounds them. Non-Harry Potter fans might enjoy it, but I’ll be totally honest- this section is extremely commercial. We loved drinking Butter Beer (they have a cold and frozen version, both delicious!) and the various shops because we adore the books, but basically it is all retail stores. Beautifully stocked, perfectly authentic retail stores, but it’s shopping just the same.
There is really only one ride in this section, and the main attraction here is the Escape From Gringotts ride. You can’t miss it– there’s a dragon perched on top and be forewarned that it roars and shoots fireballs about every 15 minutes. If you see people stopped nearby and staring up, that’s your cue that it’s about to go down. It gets HOT underneath and small kids may be terrified, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty dang awesome.
Like many of the rides at Universal, Escape from Gringotts is a cross between a track ride and a movie. You feel as if you’re inside Gringotts during the dragon scene, and it may be intense for young kids. I thought it was fabulous, though my 9-year-old was not a fan even though she LOVES Harry Potter. FYI: You can’t bring large bags on this ride, you’ll need to check them into lockers before heading in line.
Another fun activity is to take the tour at Ollivander’s Wand Shop. You can enter the shop without taking the tour, but fans will want to stand in line through the door on the left to enjoy the short ‘show’ that Ollivander puts on where he picks someone from the group to have their wand chosen (or, be chosen by the wand if you’re familiar with the books.) Be forewarned, the shop is CROWDED. You can choose your wand by character or material.
They have some wands that are ‘regular’ wands, and others that are interactive. The interactive wands run about $50 a piece, and can be used through Wizarding World to perform ‘magic’. Note that the wands are a bit finicky, sometimes there are staff helping kids with the magic because the technology isn’t perfect. For my little fans, it was worth the wand upgrade but it’s not a ‘must.’
When you get an interactive wand, it comes with a map of where you can try out your magic. But really, just look for either these brass circles on the ground that show you the way you need to move your wand… or, the confused kids waving wands madly around trying to get them to work. 😉
Did I mention the Butter Beer? It’s non-alcoholic. My kids didn’t like it but my husband and I each had one both days we were there. YUM.
As for shopping, you’ll find it all. In addition to promising they could each get a wand, we gave them a spending budget. They enjoyed the tricks at the joke shop, candy at Honeydukes, and there’s a little pet shop tucked in the back where you can ‘talk’ to the snake in the side window. They each adopted pets there, my son got a huge Hedwig puppet and my daughter a dragon (a Norwegian Ridgeback to be precise.)
While there, don’t miss the dark and creepy Knockturn Alley hidden at the end of Diagon Alley (after the pet shop.) They did SUCH a great job capturing the dank spirit of this place… so much so that my daughter wouldn’t go inside. My son and I walked around the area and were sufficiently creeped out at Borgin and Burkes. Because it’s a small space and perpetually dark, it’s crowded and tight which just adds to the ‘ick’ factor in my opinion.
To travel between the two parks, you can take the Hogwarts Express located in Kings Cross Station. There is a very cool optical illusion that happens as you wind your way through the line and I’m kicking myself because I pushed the wrong button on my phone and the video didn’t record. I got a nice photo of my feet though. #bloggerfail Anyways, when you’re there check out the people as they go through the brick doorway– they seem to magically disappear through the bricks, just like in the movie.
One of the best parts about Universal is that they make even the most mundane tasks fun such as waiting in line and even the train. There’s an experience on the train that surrounds you as you travel from one park to the other and makes it go quickly. The experience is different depending on the direction you are going, so if you have a chance I recommend taking the train both ways during your visit.
NOTE: we saw huuuuuuge lines for the train about an hour before the one of the parks closed because people were trying to travel to the park that had longer hours. It was close to Halloween so they closed one park early in preparation for the ticketed festivities, so I’m not sure if this is the norm but needless to say we were thankful to be traveling in the opposite direction. It’s something to keep in mind if one park is closing earlier than the others.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Islands of Adventure
Once you depart the train, you’re dropped into a ‘snowy’ Hogsmead straight from the movies, with Hogwarts on a hill overlooking the town. Again, here’s more shopping and interactive wand stations to try out your magic. This section has two rides– Flight of the Hippogriff which is a small rollercoaster and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an intense ride with height restrictions for younger kids.
As with most rides, Universal does a great job making it easy for parents to switch off the kids which worked well for us on The Forbidden Journey; my kids actually enjoyed the walk through Hogwarts and there was a small room where one of us could sit with them where the other enjoyed the ride, and then we could switch off. It was intense because the ride simulates being on a broom so your feet dangle, but the good part is you’re in your own pod-like seat so feel somewhat protected. Children may find it intense as you face Aragog the giant spider and Voldemort, but it’s a heart-racingly fun ride.
While she doesn’t like rides in the dark, my otherwise fearless daughter LOVES her a rollercoaster. Flight of the Hippogriff is a smaller sized rollercoaster that’s really fun and not too scary for younger kids.
There’s also a show at the bottom of the hill that leads to the castle, and we happened to be walking by as it started. It’s basically the scene from Goblet of Fire where the various schools are introduced, a ‘Triwizard Spirit Rally’ that’s short and provides a break from the rides.
Where to Eat in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
As fans of the books, we knew we wanted to eat at either The Three Broomsticks or The Leaky Cauldron. Both serve cafeteria style British food if there is such a thing. Since I can’t have gluten, they had a chef come over to ensure the food I was ordering is safe which was a nice touch. I personally love that it was efficient and organized, and staff help your family find a table so you’re not standing there holding heavy trays with kids running around your feet. The atmosphere was exactly as you would hope if you’re a Potterhead. 🙂
There’s a bakery/ ice cream shop in Diagon Alley, The Hogs Head Pub in Hogsmeade, plenty of places that sell Butterbeer, and Honeydukes for sweets too. You won’t go hungry in either park!
The Non-Harry Potter Portion of the Parks
If you are just there for Harry Potter, you can definitely see both sections in one packed day. However, I’m glad we spread it over two days because we enjoyed visiting twice and there’s still so much to see in the rest of the parks!
Universal Studios Orlando
Aside from the Wizarding World portion, this is probably the park we spent the least amount of time because the hours were shorter the days we were there. My kids really enjoyed Minion Mayhem, a 3-D ride that’ll make you laugh out loud which is always a perk. In fact, this ride was the favorite of my 7-year old son. Be aware that most of the 3-D rides had signs like this (the motion sickness graphic is my favorite):
The other ride we all enjoyed even though we had to force them to go on it was Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York. Know in advance that the line is part of the experience so even though it says the line is ‘short’, from start to finish might take 45+ minutes. First you’re handed a ticket with a color on it so you know when to enter each area. The first area is a museum of the Late Show where you browse while you wait. Then, you head upstairs where the barbershop quartet performs and they sing pop songs in a barbershop style (it’s actually super entertaining.) Then, you’re lined up and watch clips from the show as you wait. Finally, you get to enjoy a wild 3-D ride through New York where you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster even though you never leave the room.
There are many other rides in this park that range from great for young kids (the Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone) to fun for older kids and adults (Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black, and Transformers rides were too intense for our crew right now, we’ll do those another time.) We’ve heard the doughnuts from The Simpsons section are a MUST as well. Since this park closed early due to the Halloween festivities we spent the least amount of time here.
Islands of Adventure
Directly outside of Wizarding World on the Islands of adventure side is the Jurassic Park section. My daughter loved the Jurassic Park River Adventure, which is a flume ride where a T-Rex jumps out right before you fly down a steep drop (you will get wet, but not as much as some of the water rides.) Also in that section is a discovery center if you have kids that want an interactive experience, an awesome playground area called Camp Jurassic where kids can run and let off some energy, and a really cool ride called Pteranodon Flyers which has serious height restrictions (it’s for one adult with one child only.) With Pteranodon Flyers, you hang sitting down under a track above the park so it’s thrilling but perhaps not the best if you don’t like heights. I did it anyways and it was one of our favorites!
Nearby is Skull Island from King Kong. This is where we made a big mistake as our daughter freaked out while in line. Thankfully we had the Express passes so the line was short but it’s LOUD, dark, and there’s drumming and chanting. The ride itself isn’t that scary, you’re in ‘buses’ with screens on either side so there’s some movement but nothing my 7-year old couldn’t handle. My daughter refused to ride it, thank goodness for those swap areas where you can wait while the other half of your family rides!
Toon Lagoon has two rides where you will get soaked if you enjoy that sort of thing: Bilge Rats and Ripsaw Falls. We avoided those two because it was chilly out and also I didn’t want to be soaked head to toe all day… or, at all. 😉 These would be better on a hot day when you needed to cool down. My kids loved the Me Ship, The Olive because it’s a playground– another great place for my husband and I to rest a minute while the kids played and sprayed the people on the Bilge Rats ride with water guns.
From there, you head over to Marvel Super Hero Island. This is where the biggggg rides live. The Hulk Rollercoaster, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, Spiderman… boy, I bet those rides are fun. My kids took one look and ‘noped’ on out of there.
Instead, we spent some time at Seuss Landing. I thought my kids would be a wee bit over it, but to my surprise they enjoyed it. No scary drops, dark rooms, or jerky rides. We rode the The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride twice and enjoyed the other rides there as well. It was nice and calm after the craziness of the rest of the park and best for those under 10.
Aside from The Wizarding World, the only other place we ate was in the The Lost Continent section. I was craving chicken kabobs and the food at Doc Sugrue’s Kebab House was quick and perfect. It was a nice break from typical theme park food. In that same area was Mythos Grill, and rumor has it that they have the best food at Universal (which means you often need reservations in advance.)
At the end of a happily exhausting day, it was so nice to hop on the water taxi and head back to the hotel.
While we experienced so much while there, the kids are already begging to go back and visit again. There’s so many rides we missed, and of course those we want to ride again! On the last night, I tucked the kids in and went to brush my teeth and came out to this. Well done, Universal. WELL DONE.