Yes the dragon breathes fire. Yes, it’s terrifying.
This April 2015 I finally went to Universal Studios in Orlando to celebrate the end of my 6 month long leg injury. Here is an overview of my experience.
[Planning, Booking, Highlights, Overview, Last Tips]
Planning: Although the official Universal website is clear and useful (on an introductory basis), it only cover the basics (maps, ride names, etc). I found two other super useful resources that are a lot of help both before and during the trip.
1- Orlando Informer website: A LOT of information, especially about Harry Potter World. Be sure to check out their Crowd Calendar, an amazing tool that takes in consideration special events, holidays and annual crowd levels to make you choose the best dates for your trip! This is the best place to get an idea of the scheduling that is best for you, what to expect from rides and restaurants, while also telling you about every hidden corner and trick of the park. If you’re spending a short time at Universal – or are simply stressed about missing out on anything – read some on their very specific articles.
2- Universal Studios app: this app gives you interactive maps of the rides, shows, restaurants and all that’s going on while you’re there – updated daily. The actual website does not have this day-to-day factor, nor did the travel agents at the Orlando hotel – get the most up to date info about hours and everything you can possibly think of with the app – including wait times!
Also there’s FREE WIFI across the Parks, and it actually works! Good for your Universal app, to research a restaurant or send photos to friends!
The trip: Once the nerd in you has read every single page the Orlando Informer has on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you need to find the cheapest and best travel value possible for your actual trip. itravel2000 is my go-to website for any kind of “touristy-touristy” travel where I’m looking for any kind of flight/hotel package deal. I’ve booked with them directly on the website many times and have always found the best deals even after hours of searching on tens of other similar websites. Since my dates we semi-flexible, I managed to book a 7 days/6 nights trip for 550$ CAN. This included both flights (Westjet) and 6 nights at the Rosen Inn International hotel (pretty descent, within the free shuttle service to Universal Parks, two pools, situated on the main International Drive road).
Park passes: I would suggest staying away froms unofficial website claiming to sell discounted passes – you will get a fair price buying directly from the and it will save you 20$ and the stupid feeling of getting to the gate and waiting in line at the park doors while everybody else already has their tickets.
Food: One of the perks of not getting one of the coolest, but more expensive, hotels that are within the Universal Parks resort is that you have easier access to external food sources and you don’t have to book expensive dinners in advance that you don’t even care about in the first place. Although mostly unhealthy restaurants abound, we did manage to find a Whole Foods grocery store right off International Drive which saved us a lot in snacks, breakfast and dinners. Most days we managed to only spend on one meal within the Parks, which made the actual dining experiences much more special and less of a necessary pain in the ass. There wasn’t much waiting in line as there a many restaurants around. Nevertheless, most have no vegetarian options; something to expect when visiting one of the most touristy places in the US.
- Islands of Adventure:
– Jurrassic Park (Classic, hardcore but only for a second)
– The Hulk roller coaster (actually less rough for the neck than the seemingly easier Dragon Challenge, also feels safer, but goes much higher).
- Universal Studios:
– Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (the BEST! Has an actual story line, and a good balance between 3D and an actual roller coaster. Also the coolest line that brings you through the Gringotts Bank)
– The Mummy (Lacks in popularity, thus no wait lines. Super cool indoors roller coaster with a spooky/Halloween vibe)
– E.T. (Super old ride, but I hope they never destroy it. Magical, cute and simple. Best for cooling off, or if you’re getting a headache from those intense rides. Bonus: You give your name at entry, and E.T. says goodbye to you at the end of the ride!)
Food: Don’t miss out on my life obsession: churros (in stands everywhere). Butterbeer at both Diagon Alley (Universal Studios) and Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure). Lunch at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley or the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. Burn all your money at Honeydukes candy store (Every Flaror Beans!), just like in the books/movies, found in Hogsmeade.
The classics: A magic wand at Ollivanders – A film clap picture frame for a group photo – Keychains everywhere (the chocolate-scented chocolate frog keychain from the Wizarding World is so cool!) – There’s a mug for everything (and a butterbeer souvenir plastic mug).
My favourites: Hermione’s wand… yes I’m an adult. Yes it’s now hanging proudly on my wall like an artefact – The Mirror of Erised Photo Frame: really cool if you’re a Harry Potter fan. Hand painted, super original, plus just looks like a super beautiful frame in itself. 40$ US, but worth it if you’re looking for something special that you’re actually gonna keep and show, not hide in a drawer forever. – The penny machines! Yes they still have them in most places, a fun souvenir if you collected them when you were a child.
Yes, there are souvenirs other than Harry Potter ones! Make sure to include time for looking through all the different shops – it will help you clam your excitement throughout the day and avoid regretful purchases by making them at the end of the day – but be careful, the huge store at the entry/exit of the parks does not include all items! Don’t be stuck having to run through half of the park to go back for one special item.
- Best plan for a three-day pass: Two days at Universal Studios + One day at Islands of Adventure.
- I followed Orlando Informer‘s Crowd Calendar and yes, we seriously only waited in line 20 minutes once. I even did the Gringotts ride 5 times (with 5 other rides the same day).
- Of the two Parks, I felt Universal Studios was more fun to walk around and easier to grasp, and Diagon alley was more impressive than Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade.
Last tips: Don’t bring a huge DSLR camera for this, you’re not here to get wedding photos, you’re here to have fun and not walk around with a hugh backpack and spend half of your time tring to fit your stuff in the mandatory lockers. Also, bring a poncho from a cheap dollar store – for rain and rides – you’ll need it, and you won’t want to spend 5$ or more for one. Bring ziplocks for protection – for snacks, for your phones, for souvenirs…
Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home, and it will be awesome.
If you have any questions, let me know!
(photos from iPhone 5S)