PHOTO: COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT
Your kids are begging you to take them to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so now you've found yourself planning a trip to Universal Orlando Resort—and you want to do it right. Whether your goal is to save money, limit the time you spend in line or maximize your wizarding, here's what you need to know.
Universal Orlando Resort is made up of three theme parks: the original Universal Studios Florida, which opened in 1990, and features rides based on blockbuster franchises like Transformers, Despicable Me and Fast & Furious; and Islands of Adventure, home to the Incredible Hulk roller coaster, Jurassic Park River Adventure and Seuss Landing. The two parks are joined by Universal CityWalk, a restaurant and shopping area that's convenient for after-park meals or to grab a Starbucks or stop for a kid-pleasing breakfast at Voodoo Doughnuts on your way in. The Universal's Volcano Bay water theme park, which opened in 2017, and eight hotels round out the property.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in 2010 and is the reason many families travel to Universal, spans both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You can get from Diagon Alley on the Universal Studios side to Hogsmeade, on the Islands of Adventure side (and back again) on the Hogwarts Express. This means there's two ways of getting between the parks (walking through CityWalk, or taking the train) but it also means if you are primarily visiting Universal for Harry Potter, you need tickets to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, in order to see it all.
If your family is into rides, Universal Orlando Resort won't disappoint. A lot of the rides use 3D and 4D simulator technology, which means you experience the feeling of flying, falling or crashing at high speed all with the use of 3D glasses, a screen and chairs that bump and turn—but don't actually go very far. Both parks also have their fair share of roller coasters, including the high-speed Incredible Hulk Coaster (Islands of Adventure), the thrilling Revenge of the Mummy (Universal Studios) and the Flight of the Hippogriff, a kid-friendly coaster in Hogsmeade. E.T. Adventure, a leisurely flying bicycle ride to the extraterrestrial's home planet, is the only remaining original ride, making it a must-do.
If you're comparing it to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort is geared more towards families with older kids, although there are some areas, like Seuss Landing, that will keep younger kids entertained while the older ones go off on roller coasters and high-action simulators. There are shows, parades and character meet and greets at Universal, including Minions, Transformers and superheroes like Spiderman, Captain America and Storm, but those experiences don't require the same advance planning than they do at Disney World. You can use the Universal Orlando Resort app to check out the location and timing for shows and character meet and greets.
Attractions at Universal's Volcano Bay include the Krakatau Aqua Coaster (an exhilarating cross between a waterslide and a roller coaster), TeAwa the Fearless River (a twist on the lazy river where you're swept up in a fast current—life jackets mandatory!), a wave pool and, of course, numerous waterslides.
How many days: This all depends on how much you want to see and do. To take in all of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you need tickets to both parks. However, it would be hard to fully explore both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, and still get a chance to take in rides in both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, in one day. If you want to be able to fully explore both parks, then you need at least two days or more. Keep in mind that even if your kids aren't Harry Potter fans, the rides and atmosphere in those areas make it worth incorporating into your visit.
Plan to add one more day if you want to visit Universal's Volcano Bay water theme park—you won't be disappointed.
Universal Express Passes: If you don't want to spend a lot of time waiting in line, consider getting an Express Pass. Different from Disney World's FastPass, where you can reserve up to three attractions at a time, in advance, the Universal Express pass allows you to join the express line, rather than the regular queue, on most rides, significantly lowering your wait times. The cost for the express passes can really add up, however: a regular Express Pass to one park adds at least $70 (plus tax) to the price of your ticket. That will get you into the Express Pass line for each ride once. Unlimited Express is at least $20 more. Lanyards (available in gift shops) are a great way to keep express passes handy as you'll need to show them to get on rides—and they make an inexpensive souvenir.
Photo passes: Want to capture your terrified roller coaster face or get professional shots of your kids with their favourite characters? Universal offers a photo package starting at $70/day (plus tax). You can buy in advance, get a photo pass from a photographer in the park, or visit a My Universal Photos store near the entrance of each park.
When you spend a day at any theme park, you need to eat, which can get expensive. Save money by sharing meals (whole pizzas are great for this), or by bringing in your own, although you can't bring in hard coolers or food or drinks in glass containers. Services such as Wegoshop.com allow you to order food and have it delivered to your hotel.
For good bang for your buck, try the Leaky Cauldron or Three Broomsticks in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you want a sit-down meal, Mythos Restaurant in Islands of Adventure is a popular full-service restaurant with a kids menu—but you might want to make a reservation. To limit the amount of time you spend in line, avoid eating between 12 and 1:30. Some people choose to leave the parks and eat in CityWalk.
There are also discounted dining plans available, but you're limited on where and what you can eat.
There's no shortage of options when it comes to Universal Orlando Resort hotels. There are eight in total, all which provide complimentary transportation to and from the theme parks. Premier hotels, like Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel include an express pass for each hotel guest in your party, for the day of your booking and the following day. This means even though they look more expensive at first glance, it may end up being the cheaper option if you want express passes.
If you're just looking for a place to rest your head, Universal's Endless Summer Resort has affordable room options. The Hard Rock Hotel is the most conveniently located, right beside the Universal Studios Florida entrance. If you want to incorporate some hotel pool downtime into your trip, Cabana Bay Beach Resort has two pools, a lazy river and a bowling alley.
Of course, you can also stay off-site at a hotel or vacation rental. Parking is available on site, but be sure to give yourself lots of time before park opening to park and get to the gates.
Potter fans or not, kids will love casting spells in Diagon Alley—but to do that, you'll need to pony up for interactive wands (easily available in the parks). The wands have a lifetime guarantee, so you can use them on multiple visits or get them second-hand. Most of the spells are marked, but there are some hidden ones—look for the invisible ink spell in the window at Scribbulus or, the kid-fave dragon's dung spell at Slug and Jigger's Apothecary. If you're having trouble with any of the spells (they can be tricky for little kids) ask the staff for help.
The rides in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are some of the best in the parks. Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is Universal Orlando Resort's newest ride, and it doesn't the option to use Universal Express. But, it's worth the wait—to reduce your time in line, trying getting to Islands of Adventure and lining up before park opening, or going around lunch time, when lineups might be shorter.
The Hogwarts Express takes you from Diagon Alley in Universal Studios to Hogsmeade, in Islands of Adventure, and back again. It's worth going both ways, as the experience is different. The train leaves from a replica of King's Cross station in London (near Diagon Alley), and it's here that you can snag a video of your family walking through platform 9 and 3/4. (To do so, one person in your group needs to stand back, and take the video through the luggage cart.)
Harry Potter fans will want to spend time taking in all the details from the books and movies. Be sure to listen for Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom at Hogsmeade, interact with the Knight Bus driver outside Diagon Alley, look for Kreacher the house elf peeking out the curtain of 12 Grimmauld Place, and sample Butter Beer and Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans.
With the number of high-speed roller coasters and thrill rides, Universal Orlando Resort really is geared towards older children and adults. But that doesn't mean you can't bring younger siblings or enjoy it as an adult with an infant. All restrooms have diaper changing areas and single and double strollers are available for rent, but you can also bring your own into the parks.
Each ride also offers the option of having one parent ride, while the other stays back with whichever kids are too young or don't want to go on that ride. When they're back, the adults switch places so the one who sat out can enjoy the ride. The Jurassic Park Discovery Centre in Islands of Adventure and Barney's Backyard play centre in Universal Studios offer indoor air-conditioned spaces you can bring your little ones for some relief from walking in the heat.