Our bags are packed and ready to go! Our destination? Universal Orlando, Florida. Harry Potter here we come! It’s going to be a rocking great time, despite the Diagon Alley opening being pushed back beyond our travel dates!
We’ve been here before, just after The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade opened. It was a whirlwind adventure, a short stop-over enroute to another destination. We were well prepared for a fast paced, jam-packed two days in Orlando that included a day at Universal Orlando. Or so I thought!
So what worked for us? What was a near miss? Let’s find out!
Universal Orlando – What Worked Well
As you might suspect, summer at Universal Orlando is, well, quite frankly, crazy! Crazy busy. Crazy hot. Crazy pricey. And it’s going to be even more crazy in the weeks to come with the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley opening to the public.
Planning is tantamount for anyone set on maximizing their Universal Orlando experience, and it’s especially important if time is limited to a few short days. or during peak summer months. Sometimes, though, even the best laid plans can go awry.
But first, here are five things that worked well for us, and that we are repeating again on this week’s Universal Orlando trip.
1. Stay At An On-Site Universal Hotel
Nothing beats staying within walking distance to the theme parks. Yes, an on-site hotel will probably cost more than many off-property hotels. But just look at the benefits you get for staying on-site:
- One-Hour Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade
- Unlimited Express Pass included in room rate (Deluxe Hotels only)
- Priority seating at select restaurants
- In-park purchased merchandise delivered to your hotel
- And more! See the complete list at Hotel Guest Benefits.
No waiting in long parking lot lines and no long walks across steamy hot parking lots to reach the park entrance. And that extra hour in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade is awesome! It will be even more so once Diagon Alley opens.
Caution: If not staying at a Deluxe on-site hotel you can still purchase an Express Pass. Just know which kind of Express Pass you purchase. The standard Express Pass only allows the rider one express pass per ride, as opposed to the Unlimited Express Pass.
Caution! The Value-priced Cabana Bay Resort room price does not include the Unlimited Express Pass.
Do The Math: Purchasing an Express Pass can be quite pricey during peak park days. Do the math before you choose a hotel. You might find that the price of the on-site hotel is not much more, or even less, than the combined price of an off-site hotel and Express Passes for a family of four.
Final Thought – On-Site vs. Off-Property Hotel? Off-season, off-property budget hotels may be the way to go. However, during peak summer months, the benefits of an on-site hotel outweigh the lower rack rate of an off-site hotel.
2. Buy Park Tickets Before Arriving At The Park
Don’t wait until you arrive at the park to purchase park tickets. First, lines can be long, and who wants to spend valuable park time waiting in the ticket line?
Second, buying tickets at the park will cost more. If you didn’t purchase tickets before arriving in Orlando, purchase them at an on-site hotel for the same as the online price.
What We Did: We bought our park tickets at our on-site hotel. It was easy, there was no line, and we paid the same price as the discounted on-line price. An added bonus? There was less risk of misplacing the tickets enroute to Florida.
3. Arrive Early – Take A Break – Stay Late
And skip the mid-day heat and crowds! Hit those crazy-popular rides first thing in the morning, when the lines are not as long. Trust me, they will be at their worst in the early afternoon hours. Especially the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, which is not included in the Express Pass.
Then, take a break during peak park hours of 1:00-3:00. Stop by the Hard Rock Cafe for an entertaining lunch. Head over to CityWalk for some souvenir shopping and a refreshing break along the waterfront.
What We Did: Staying on-site has it’s benefits! We lunched at our hotel, then enjoyed a refreshing swim before heading back to the park for the evening hours.
Staying on-site? Take advantage of Early Park Admission to explore The Wizarding World of Harry Potter before the full onslaught of the crowds arrive. It’s the best time to experience the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.
4. Use The Express Pass To Plan Your Day
At peak times, an Express Pass can make the difference in how many rides you will experience. Not all rides or shows offer an Express Pass option, but for those that do, the Express Pass can save valuable park time.
What We Did: We planned our day around the rides and experiences that offer Express Pass. We rode the popular “non-express-pass” rides in the morning, then used the Express Pass on rides in the more busy afternoon.
Warning: The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride does not have an Express Pass line. Get there as early as you can!
5. Backpack It!
Load a back pack with water, small snacks, sunscreen, a packable rain jacket, and other essentials to get you through the day. Buying essential supplies inside the park costs a fortune! So do snacks and drinks.
Money Saving Tip: I packed refillable water bottles and powder drink packs. It saved a bundle on drinks!
Don’t Forget: That rain jacket! Afternoon showers in the summer are quite frequent.
Caution: Don’t pack a picnic lunch. That’s not allowed. And don’t pack snacks that melt easy. Because they will. 🙁
Universal Orlando – 5 Near Misses
As with many trips, not everything goes smoothly, and not everything goes as planned. This trip was no exception. Here are five “near misses” that I will be doing different on this week’s foray to Universal Orlando.
1. Missing The Olivander’s Wand Shop Show
Yes, we missed it. If the Olivander’s Wand Shop show is a “must-see” experience, get there early. Those “in the know” get in line as early as possible or whenever they see the line is “short”. If you have Early Park Admission privileges, consider getting in line about 15 minutes before the park opens to the general public. That line may not get any shorter!
What we did: We didn’t get in line before the park opened. We thought the line would be better later in the day. It was not. We bought a wand from a nearby Kiosk instead. A near miss, indeed! Got the coveted wand, but missed the show experience.
What I will do different: Get in line at 15 minutes before the park opens and just stick it out.
Olivander’s Shop Tip: Ask the line attendant how long of a wait the line is. If it is 30 minutes or less, get in line!
Caution: Most shops, including Olivander’s, aren’t open during Early Park Admission.
2. No Breakfast Reservation For Three Broomsticks
Make a reservation for breakfast at the widely popular Three Broomsticks and avoid the long lunch lines. It’s all about the experience, not the food, and why not start out the day on a full stomach! And don’t forget to have a butter beer. Yes, butter beer is served at breakfast.
What We Did: Without a breakfast reservation, we arrived right at 11:00 am for the opening of the lunch service. It was a long line, but we made it through. 🙁 and 🙂
What I will do different: Book a reservation for breakfast, of course!
Caution: Reservations are only available for breakfast.
3. Not Doing The Math On Park Ticket Prices
I’ll admit it. Since this was a last minute decision, I didn’t think through our ticket purchases. If I did, I would have purchased an extra day. Here’s why buying that extra day in the park might be worth it. Prices are based on single-park adult pricing.
- A 2-day park pass is $176.99.
- A 3-day park pass is $186.99. That’s only $10 more than the 2-day pass!
- A 4-day park pass is $196.99. Again, only $10 more than a 3-day pass!
Even if you just spend two hours in the park on that extra day, you only spent $10 for it! Money well spent in my book.
What I will do different: For $10 more, I am buying the 3-day pass. We only have a few hours that third day, but for $10, combined with Early Park Admission, it’s worth it.
Park-to-Park or Single Park? Single Park tickets are less than Park-to-Park tickets. Think about how you will see the parks before spending that extra money. Will you jump between parks, or focus on one park per day? Your call.
Park-to-Park Pass Tip: If you have the great fortune of being at Universal Orlando after Diagon Alley opens, you will need a Park-to-Park ticket if you want to ride the Hogwarts Express train between parks.
4. Letting Harry Potter Overshadow Other Areas
There is so much more to Universal Orlando than The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade, and the soon-to-open Diagon Alley. Yes, they are what’s driving us to Orlando. But there are so many other great experiences here! Don’t let one themed area overshadow the rest of the park.
What we did: We only spent time at Universal Islands of Adventure, and most of that in Hogsmeade. We short-changed ourselves on all the other rides.
What I will do different: We will better split our time between both Universal theme parks and the other rides outside of Harry Potter.
5. Not Wearing “Water Friendly” Clothes
If you plan on experiencing the water rides, you might want to strategically plan your clothing for the day. You’ll probably get soaked. Great in the hot Florida sun when outfitted in the proper attire. Not so great walking all afternoon in soggy sneakers and dripping wet jeans shorts!
What I will do different: Comfy sandals and water friendly fabrics for everyone! And I’ll be stashing a dry tee-shirt in my backpack just in case.
Over To You
Universal Orlando certainly isn’t our typical family vacation destination. It is, however, a very popular summer destination for many families, and one my boys wanted to re-experience. Guess the allure of the Harry Potter attractions sucked them in!
Have you been to Universal Orlando? What was your favorite ride? Do you have any travel tips or near misses to share with us? Let us know in the Comments section below.
Next stop? Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, and if we are lucky, a glimpse into Diagon Alley! Will our “near misses” be turned around? Come back later this month when I report back with how well this Universal Orlando adventure goes.
See you next week.
Photos from Universal Orlando and C.Biederman