My husband and I just returned from a trip to Universal Studios Orlando for our 10th wedding anniversary.
It was a splurge. But hey, 10 years is no small achievement, so we didn’t want to take a small vacation. We wanted to go big, travel somewhere neither of us had ever been before, and experience something magical. Once we figured out what we wanted out of our trip, the destination became clear: we wanted—needed—to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We booked in December, and I spent the intervening months obsessively researching travel options, park attractions, and restaurants. I read every review I could find because I didn’t want to chance missing out on something amazing. So now that I’m home, I’d like to add my own review to the interwebs.
Warning: it’s going to be a long post. And spoiler alert: we had a blast and agreed that we’ll be coming back and doing everything in essentially the same way sometime in the future.
Without further ado: my review our vacation to Universal Studios Orlando.
We booked the majority of our trip (hotel and park admissions) on Universal Orlando’s website. I also checked a few discount vacation websites like Expedia, which my parents often use when booking their trips to destinations like Barcelona because the deals are outrageously good. But for our needs, the package on Universal’s own website turned out to be the cheapest. They also allowed us to pay a deposit on the vacation package and pay the balance closer to our trip, which worked out wonderfully since we were using our tax return to fund a lot of this adventure.
We found a great deal on a non-stop flight Salt Lake City to Orlando on Delta, booking directly on their website because it had the best rate. Orlando’s vacation packages allow you to include a flight as well, but oddly, the specific flight we wanted wasn’t an option there. I’m pretty picky about departure times and non-stops…and pretty picky about flying Delta. Unless their rate is way more than a competitor, I choose them. Not only do I love hoarding SkyMiles, but I’ve had too many bad experiences with other airlines to be willing to take a chance unless I’m saving a bundle.
To get from the airport to our hotel, we booked directly with a company called SuperShuttle. They were reasonably priced, quick, efficient, and clean. I really have no complaints there and would use them again next time for sure, but I do recall there being a shuttle option in the Universal Orlando vacation package as well that we didn’t book…and I can’t recall why. I would say take the time to compare those options since I’m obviously falling short here.
OUR HOTEL: LOEWS ROYAL PACIFIC RESORT
Okay, normally I’m pretty frugal with my accommodations. When I travel to Spain to visit family, I always try to rent an apartment because it’s cheaper per night than a hotel and we have a kitchen for cooking meals. Failing that, we stay in inexpensive little pensions, which are sort of like nice hostels with private bathrooms. But for this trip we decided to splurge and stay in one of the theme park’s own resorts.
SO WORTH IT. Here’s a pile of reasons why:
#1: Club Rooms. When we arrived, they upgraded us to a “club room” so we had access to a lounge that included complimentary continental breakfast, free lunch & dinner (including wine and beer), and free dessert in the evenings. Being good hobbits, we had breakfast there every morning and then a 2nd breakfast in the park…which was also free (see below). The “dinner” in the lounge was early enough that we were able to pig out in the evenings as well, often getting a 2nd, later dinner in the CityWalk.
#2: Early Park Admission. Because we stayed on-site, we got into Hogsmeade an hour earlier than everyone else in the mornings, which was fantastic because that place got crowded in the afternoons.
#3: Free breakfasts and Shutterbutton’s studio session. On our first full day, we had a complimentary breakfast at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. The potatoes and mushrooms were delicious, and I learned that pumpkin juice is way too sweet for my palate. The next day we got to do the same thing at The Leaky Cauldron. It was great having a huge filling breakfast each day at no extra cost, not to mention getting to eat in such classic Harry Potter establishments.
We also got a free studio session at Shutterbuttons, which means we now have a DVD of us being amazingly dorky in a Harry Potter-themed mini movie. I’ll treasure it forever. :)
Most of all…#4: Free Unlimited Express Passes to both parks. I will never, ever go to Universal Studios without one. Nearly every ride had an express line, and it cut our wait time for those rides at least in half. There were a few rides it didn’t work on (all 3 of the big Harry Potter rides, including the Hogwarts Express), and we waited at least an hour in line for each of those. If we’d had to wait that long for every ride, my feet would’ve detached themselves from my body and marched off in a huff. If you buy passes like that, they’re about $85.00 per day on top of your park admission ticket. Yikes! I was super happy about my free one!
THE PARKS: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS and ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE
My prior experience with theme or amusement parks has been limited to Utah’s own glorified carnival midway (Lagoon), and day trips to Six Flags Magic Mountain in California and Elitch Gardens in Colorado (both of which were super fun). I’ve also not seen a 3D movie since I was a kid and the glasses were made of paper and little strips of red and blue cellophane.
What you might infer from that background is that I was simply not prepared for the sheer awesomeness of the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
My favorite rides:
Escape from Gringotts in Universal Studios, in which you ride a cart through the vaults at Gringotts while being chased by Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. It’s part indoor roller coaster, part immersive 3D movie. You get hit by real water from a spell. You can feel the heat of the dragon’s breath. I flinched and ducked because the effects were so realistic that I thought I was going to be hit by flying debris in several parts. We rode it twice, and if we’d had more time or the ride had an Express Line, I think we’d have ridden it six more times as well.
There were a few other rides that were extremely similar, like Transformers 3D and the Spiderman ride, but I felt like Escape from Gringotts was the best version. Maybe I’m biased because of Harry Potter…maybe. J Bonus: while waiting in line (and oh boy, do you wait!), you get to tour through Gringotts, which looks exactly like it does in the films.
Jurrassic Park River Adventure in Islands of Adventure. It’s a tour through Jurassic Park on little boats, which means not only do you get to see some sweet animatronic dinosaurs but you get soaked in the process. Best parts: the beginning, when the giant gates open for you and John Williams’ original score swells up around you (I might have cried a little), and then end, when…well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it did this to me:
We bought park-to-park tickets because we’re Harry Potter geeks and wanted to visit both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, and ride the Hogwarts Express. I’m so glad we did, because both parks are a ton of fun but definitely feel very different.
If you can’t afford a park-to-park pass and have to pick just one…it depends on why you’re going, I think. If you’re a Harry Potter nerd, Diagon Alley in Universal Studios is definitely better than Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. It’s bigger, there are more opportunities to use your interactive wand (if you buy one, which we couldn’t resist doing), and I think the Escape from Gringotts ride is better than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (which isn’t to say that one isn’t awesome, which it is). But on the other hand, if you’re not interested in spending gads of time in the Harry Potter areas (waving your wand around like a lunatic and drinking butterbeer) and you’re just interested in riding as many rides as possible, I actually think Islands of Adventure is a little bit better than Universal Studios. There is a wider variety of styles of rides, and it has three water rides that completely drench you (I’m quite partial to those).
THE BOTTOM LINE:
We loved our trip SO MUCH. Everything about it was amazing, the rides made me scream until I was hoarse, and seeing my adorable husband’s face when we walked into Hogsmeade on the first day will remain one of my favorite memories for years to come.
We are definitely going back as soon as we can. Check out the gallery below for some photos from our trip:
What’s your favorite theme park? Have you ever been to Universal Studios? I’d love to hear about your vacation experiences too!