Last week, I was in Orlando, Florida visiting Universal Studios. We bought the Wizarding World of Harry Potter package for a 3-day, 3-night super-fun time. And it was! In a follow-up article I might gush about how much fun we had and the great stuff we did. For this edition I’m going to give tips, tricks, and warnings.
Universal Studios is comprised of two theme parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, each of which contain multiple themed areas and require separate admission. The entrance to each park is through CityWalk, an entertainment park (no admission required) comprised mostly of restaurants, a movie theatre, and the Blue Man Group show (tickets required).
For the Harry Potter experience, Islands of Adventure has Hogsmeade and Universal Studios has Diagon Alley. You can have a great wizarding experience in either of these. The differences are not major but Diagon Alley is probably the best, experientially.
The package deals are always the best way to go because a la carte is so much more expensive.
+ Park-to-Park Passes: The pass is good for both parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios). You can ride the Hogwarts Express back and forth between the parks.
– 1 hour early admission: This is a highly promoted benefit that is a crock. Only a few of the popular rides are open before 9:00 a.m. Early admittance lets you in through the Islands of Adventure park entrance only. There you are herded to the back side of the park to Hogsmeade. All rides say they start at 9:00 a.m. but we were able to ride the Hippogriff at 8:30 a.m. I think the main benefit to early admittance is to be able to get in line early for these rides—I think the bigger benefit would be to buy an express pass. These are expensive but, in the busy season, may be worth it.
+ Breakfast at The Three Broomsticks (Hogsmeade) and The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley): A hearty, filling breakfast but the coffee was bad. Good bacon.
+ Hotel stay: Loved our hotel. More below.
+ Trollies: Hitch a ride to the parks and back run every ten minutes. This saves time and the enormous headache of dealing with traffic around the park.
+ Purchases taken to room: Although there are lockers in the park, they are pricey and require you to make multiple long trips back-and-forth to store stuff. If you stay at an on-site hotel, you can have any purchase you make in the park sent back to your hotel. This is a great feature. Anything you buy in the park will make it back to your hotel by midnight the same day so you can use this feature even on your last day in the park if your check out is the next day. We were told by some cashiers in the park that our purchases might not make it to the room until noon the next day. This is not true.
It’s a huge benefit to stay at one of the on-site hotels. Cabana Bay Beach Resort is less than a year old (built March 31, 2014). It gets only three stars on TripAdvisor but I think this is unfair. I really couldn’t be more pleased with this hotel.
+ Very helpful, friendly staff
+ Heated pools and hot tubs
+ Outdoor fire pits
+ Bayliner Diner. This is a cafeteria style restaurant that includes snacks and bottled drinks. The food was fresh and delicious. Great bacon.
+ Rooms are neat, clean, and smartly designed with nice amenities.
– Rooms are tight. A family suite does comfortably sleep six people but traffic space is narrow.
– HD TVs were beautiful but unwatchable because of streaming lag.
– There were nightly, outdoor movies that I could never find.
There are lockers in both parks at multiple locations. Before renting, be sure and read the instructions carefully.
– Lockers in Islands of Adventure were $2.00 per hour or $14 per day but you could only get into the locker one time.
+ There are a set of lockers at the exit of Universal Studios next to the rest rooms that were $8 for the day with unlimited entry.
The food is expensive. There’s a food package that we did not purchase. It was too close to call as to whether it would have saved us any money or not. The good thing is that all the food, with one exception, was generous, tasty, and fresh.
– The Burger Digs in Islands of Adventure was terrible and the kind of food I expected. It turned out to be the exception.
+ There are healthy selections like fruit, Gatoraid, Fuze, and water. There are also bar kiosks throughout the parks.
Souvenirs are just like the food—generous, good quality, but expensive. Harry Potter character wands and birthday themed wands are $40-$50. The more expensive wands are interactive throughout the park and a wonderful experience. There are wizard robes, “H” and “R” sweaters, house-themed everything, and stuffed plushies of every kind of creature. This is a great place to buy your geeky friends and family gifts.
+ Hall of Fame Hot Dogs: Hot dogs themed from ballparks all over the country.
+ Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville: Good food and good margaritas. Nadia is an awesome bartender.
– Pat O’Briens: The worst Bloody Mary
+ Universal Studios has a park app that I couldn’t have gone without. Turn location services on in your settings and it will even give you step-by-step directions to wherever you want to go. You can save favorites, set filters, get line wait times, and locate restrooms, lockers, and guest services.
Besides very sore feet and three days of sun, this is the best themed vacation experience I’ve had in a long time.