Universal Studios Hacks
My son turned 10 last year and for his "dad trip" he requested a visit to Universal Studios Orlando. As a "game for anything" amusement park kind of guy, Billy was more than happy to oblige. They had an epic adventure. In fact, they were so impressed Billy insisted we do it again as an entire family. The benefit, other than the obvious fun, was how the guys had done all of the research needed to make the trip super efficient. I thought I'd share these tidbits just in case you decide to make the trip yourself.
As a So Cal native, I am a humidity wimp. Can I adjust when needed? Absolutely. But when it comes to taking a discretionary trip to Florida in the middle of summer to visit an amusement park with everyone ELSE on school break, I will likely pass. The best way to avoid said situation is to plan a visit during the non-peak season.
This means playing hookey. Given our drive time, the unexcused absence started midday Thursday and included Friday.
I wouldn't advise such a move if you're at all worried about grades or otherwise interested in winning a "responsible parenting" award. If you want to maximize family time, well then, go for it! NOTE - this is NOT a great park for young or small children. There are height restrictions and seriously thrilling rides.
If you have family in Orlando, stay with them. They are expecting you. (Why else would they choose to live in Amusement Park USA??)
If not, I would highly suggest staying on property. This means checking into one of the Lowes resorts. There are five resorts. Two allow guests to have early admission to the parks (Cabana Bay, Sapphire Falls), while three have early admission AND Express Passes (Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay, or Hard Rock). An express pass is a ticket that allows you to go in the "express lanes" for most of the rides at both parks. By our best guess, it allows you to cut the wait time in lines to about 1/3rd of the time of the regular lines. Express pass tickets can be bought by anyone for a much higher price (so most regular park-goers don't buy them), but they are included for free with overnight stays at the hotels mentioned above. The value for an express pass is $40 per person, so if you do the math against the hotel rate, opt for one of the latter spots.
We enjoy the Hard Rock and all of the rock and roll schtick that comes with it. Not only is it an attractive space, the 15-minute stroll to the park is pretty. Alternatively, you could take the little boat that picks up right outside the hotel over to the parks if you aren't into walking.The hotel's breakfast buffet is about the cost of ordering room service or you can snag an egg sandwich and coffee/tea in the kitchen grab-and-go snack bar in the hotel and save some cash.
Two parks make up Universal Orlando: Universal & Islands of Adventure. You'll want to get passes for both and there are discounts for getting them together. Also, during the winter months there are often specials where if you buy two days you get the third free. This is another reason to go off season.
The second most important thing is to get the express pass (which, again, we got for free by staying at the Hard Rock Hotel on property). Even in the non-crowded season you need it. The pass comes with your picture on it, so no funny business in trying to share passes (though the photo-bombing didn't make a difference).The pass works on all but three Harry Potter rides which is why you need to stay on property and get into the park early (ahem). There is one ride in the Islands of Adventure park - Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey (we call this "Scary Potter" since it's the scarier of the two rides) and one ride on the Universal park - Gringotts. The third non-express pass ride is Hogwarts Express which is a train going between the two parks/Harry Potter sections (Hogsmeade & London/Diagon Alley). NOTE - the train ride is VERY cool and is different in each direction so you want to make sure you ride at least once in each direction.ALSO NOTE - because the train connects two different parks you MUST have your admission tickets with you. Take a picture of them in case of loss or forgetfulness. If you DO misplace your tickets, go see Chris (or any other "porter") who will save your day as he demonstrates OUTSTANDING customer service (hypothetically speaking).What we found worked best was to pick a starting park, then get there for early admission (an hour earlier than the crowds and, again, a perk of staying at the Hard Rock Hotel) and go straight to the HP ride of your choice. Ride it multiple times before the crowds if you can take the motion. Take the Hogwarts express over to the other side if you want to grab both before the crowds arrive, or if you're staying multiple days, take your time before heading over to the other park.
"But I don't like Harry Potter!"
I understand there are people who haven't read/don't dig/aren't tracking with the whole Harry Potter thing. (I'm married to one.) That's fine - if you like to people watch or have the slightest inkling of imagination, you too will appreciate this world. This part of the park is ridiculously well done. You will feel as if you've visited London.
There are tricks embedded in the shops where if you move your wand in a precise way you'll make objects move, fountains flow, flowers bloom. There's a dragon atop a bank.And every now and then he breathes fire.The people watching alone is spectacular, and it's not just Harry and Hermione you see. You'll see Snape, Ron, and even "The Fat Lady" (a character from the Harry Potter series) in her frame.Like Dragon-Con or Comic-Con, people who bother to put together a costume actually LIKE the attention and welcome pictures. I walked behind this team for two rides and had to get a picture with Luna Lovegood and Rita Skeeter.Are you kidding me??? I love these people!!!
Even if you aren't Harry Potter kind of people, you will enjoy this space.
When it's a thousand degrees outside, water rides are a great idea. In the winter, even in Florida, not so much. You should know if you ride Jurassic Park you'll get wet. Should this happen to you, I highly recommend skipping the $5.00 drying booths and go to the hand dryers in the restrooms. They are life savers!
That said, if you happen to be around Toon Lagoon, it's great fun to watch fellow park go-ers pay money to use water cannons to drench the suckers people on this ride.Serious. Hilariousness.
Leave cool at the door
Theme parks are best enjoyed if you lean into the ridiculousness of it all.
If you're a costume person, go for it. If you love selfies, take a bunch.Engage with the characters.Make memories like it's your job.And if you are prone to motion sickness, well...hmmmm. Maybe hold everyone's bags while they ride. Enjoy your team/squad/people!
And one final thought - avoid the hassle and terrible food at the park by retreating to City Walk for lunch. City Walk is right across the bay from the parks and is a five minute walk. Use your "in-and-out" privileges to go over there for lunch or dinner. It's definitely worth the walk!(You knew we'd do a jump shot, right?)