Over winter break I took both of my sons to Orlando, Florida for a much needed vacation. This was a Universal Studios vacation because we all wanted to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both of my sons have read the books and one has seen all of the movies. However, in the end we hit up all three Universal parks, spending essentially one day in each park.
I know this is different than my usual content, but it is helpful content for others, which is the point of the blog. I want to share what I know and have learned from this vacation. So I’m going forward with this blog post to provide the answers I couldn’t find when I was trying to plan this trip.
Doing online research was difficult for me. I couldn’t figure out exactly what each park contained, the pros and cons of each, and if I even needed to actually visit each of the three parks. I wanted to be choosy, but ultimately I ended up winging it. However, I learned so much being there that I want to share with you.
Staying At a Universal Hotel
We stayed at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and I recommend it. The resort’s theme is retro 1950s style, which is cutesy. It is a huge resort with multiple buildings, multiple pools, and multiple dining options. The rooms were bright and cheerful. The resort was recently remodeled.
We did not get the “pool access” room, which actually was only just a little bit more money. Why? Because I felt like it would be too loud to be close to the pool. They play pool music and there is a lot of foot traffic. Instead we were on the sixth floor of the Americana building. We had a quiet room with two double beds, which was perfect for me and my sons. Sadly, my husband had to work so he couldn’t join us. Prices fluctuate depending on seasonality but we paid roughly $150/per night. Our trip was from Tuesday to Saturday, which added up to five days and four nights.
Staying onsite was great because we had free transportation from our hotel via large, comfortable branded buses to the entrance for Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. Access to Volcano Bay was via a walkable path from Cabana Bay. Our hotel, Cabana Bay, was right next to Volcano Bay. By staying at a Universal property, we saved money on transportation costs to and from the parks.
Additionally, staying at a Universal Studios hotel means that you get access to all parks one hour earlier than general admission. Early park admission is a great perk because you can beat everyone to the most popular rides and shows. However, we just couldn’t get up early to take advantage of it! Every Universal hotel offers the perk of early admission to their guests.
Also there are a couple of Universal Studios Florida hotels give you express passes for free. Express passes allow you to jump the lines for theme park rides to board with little to no wait. Universal’s Cabana Bay does not grant you express passes for free. If this perk is important to you, look up current hotels offering that special. At the time of writing this, I believe Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel, Universal’s Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Universal’s Loews Portofino Bay Hotel include express passes in the cost of their accommodation. Keep in mind that those hotels are the very most expensive of all of the hotels I priced out.
Best Ages for Universal Studios
My older son is 14 and my youngest is 10. These ages are perfect for the Universal Studios parks because there are many thrill rides and rollercoasters. I saw families with younger kids and I personally did not think there was enough for them to do. First of all, there is a height limit for many rides. Even if you have an adventurous and brave younger child, they would be stopped from riding various rides due to safety concerns. Secondly, keep in mind the shows and rides that do allow younger kids are still loud, scary, dark, and wet. If I had younger kids, I would choose Disney instead.
Universal Studios Costs
I did not buy our tickets ahead of time because I didn’t know much about the parks and which ones were the best choices for my family.
Our very first morning we went to the desk at the hotel and asked them directly about the parks and if they were running any specials. They were running a special! It was buy two days, get two additional days free. The special included all three parks. So the two-day pass that I purchased for each of us included all three parks with park-hopping included over four days. It cost about $1,200 for all three of us.
Why Park-Hopping is Worth It (Probably)
Park-hopping is worth it only for a couple of reasons, which may not apply to you. Read on:
- Riding the Harry Potter Train. If you plan on riding the train, you need park-hopping added to your ticket. The train goes both ways and takes you from one park to the other. It was a brilliant financial move for Universal Studios to have Harry Potter sections in each of the major parks and then connect them via the train. The train was magical and my sons loved it. I wouldn’t do it again, but I’m happy that I was able to give them that experience once.
- Volcano Bay Waterpark is not all-day. Volcano Bay at Orlando was open until 5 pm. We enjoyed the waterpark and felt it was well-done waterpark (scroll down for more information about Volcano Bay). We finished all the rides we were interested in by 2:30 or 3 pm. So we went back to our room, changed clothes, and then returned to Universal Studios Florida. That wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have the park-hopping option.
Why Universal Studios Express Passes Aren’t Worth It (Probably)
On top of the already high cost of admittance to Universal Studios, you can pay additional money to get to the front of the line for all the rides. The prices change on a daily basis. The express pass range dramatically due to park capacity. I’m assuming that on days when there are lots of people, they charge more. The days we were there the cost was $210 per person on top of what we had already paid. Sticker shock was in full effect!
- Entertainment in Line. Most of the rides know that you wait anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes to wait. So they set up exhibits and TV programs that educate you about the ride or show. Some exhibits entertain you with skits and stories on the TV and there are displays of paraphernalia related to the ride. There are also safety videos. The people who speed right up through the express pass lines miss out on this experience. We found that waiting in line you were able to learn a lot more about what you were about to do. For example, the Harry Potter ride in the Castle has tons of paraphernalia and theatrics while you wait. It feels like you have entered the castle as you see moving pictures that talk to you and get you ready for the ride. My sons and I got pumped for the ride as we waited, but the people who sped through missed out. Most rides that did something like that for people in line.
- Lines weren’t that long at Islands of Adventure. The lines at Islands of Adventure were not horrible. We were able to hit up all the rides and see the shows we wanted to. The express pass would have been a big waste money. We went on a Wednesday during the winter so maybe that wasn’t typical traffic for that theme park.
- The Universal app tells you wait times. You can use the app to figure out where to go and when the lines are shortest. We saw the lines at the SpiderMan ride were long, but we kept checking the app and the line time dropped to 45 minutes so we returned later and got in line.
- Universal Studios Florida might be the place where express passes make sense. There was possibly one place where express passes would have been helpful. That was Universal Studios Florida, because were not able to get through the whole park in one day. It took us a day and a half, which included an entire Thursday and the late afternoon and evening hours of Friday. If you really want to compress your time in Universal Studios Florida to one day, it could make sense for you to purchase the express passes.
Child Swap Areas
Each ride has a “child swap” area right by where you board a ride. I didn’t understand the function of that space until we had gone through several rides. The child swap area makes it possible for a family to wait in line with an infant. When the parents get to the front of the line, one parent can wait in the child swap area or a private viewing room, while one parent rides the ride. Then when the parent finishes riding the ride, they can switch the child-care duties, and the other parent can board the ride. It makes it possible for the second parent to avoid having to return to the beginning of the line and wait through the long wait time once again. It makes sense not to punish a family for having small children, since they have already waited as a family.
Islands of Adventure versus Universal Studios
Both theme parks are big and have terrific rides and shows. But how do they differ and which one is the best? I was clueless until I went through both theme parks this January:
- Islands of Adventure has more outdoor rides. When we first bought our tickets at the amenities desk of our hotel, I mentioned that it was supposed to rain on Thursday. I asked the attendant which park should we go to if it rains. She said go to Universal Studios Florida on a rainy day because it has more indoor rides. I would agree.
- Islands of Adventure has more rollercoasters. Islands of Adventure has rollercoasters everywhere. If rollercoasters are your thing, you will love it. As you walk around, you see people going up, down, and all around.
- Universal Studios Florida has more live shows. Walking around Universal Studios Florida, it feels like there are more movie-type shows. It feels a bit like a movie set as you glide through various different parts of the theme park. I loved the feeling of the street at the beginning of the park. It felt like being in a movie!
- Universal Studios Florida has more of a polished feel. Universal Studios Florida feels professional and sophisticated. Every detail was thoughtfully done! It felt established and special.
- Universal Studios Florida is bigger. We were able to ride all of our favorite rides at least once at Islands of Adventure. But on the Thursday we spent at Universal Studios Florida, we got through 60% of the theme park. We missed one whole side! Luckily, we purchased park hopping and we came back the following day for the afternoon and evening hours. Then we were able to fit in all of the rest of the rides we wanted to get to. Keep in mind that in both of the theme parks we did not ride every ride because some weren’t interesting to us.
Best Rides at Islands of Adventure
We didn’t ride every ride at Islands of Adventure because some of them weren’t right for my family. However, these were the ones we did and we liked pretty much every one. Note, I’m going in order of which ones you can ride as you take a left into the theme park:
- The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman – The Spiderman ride was one of our favorite rides! You move around in your seat in front of a large screen displaying Spiderman’s adventurous trip. I was a little motion sick right at the end, but I found that if I closed my eyes, it made it better. It was exciting to go up and down and follow Spiderman around. My kids loved it. This ride had a 60 minute long wait, so we skipped it at first and came back when it was 45 minutes long.
- Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges – This group water ride was so fun that we went three times. Even though we wore ponchos, we were soaked to the skin. Keep that in mind so if you are wearing leather shoes, like someone who was on the ride with us, they will be soaked through. You bump and slide down a river. We hung on tight and were flung around and drenched. It was really, really fun.
- Jurassic Park River Adventure – This ride also has the chance of getting you wet. It depends on where you sit. We were in the front row and I don’t remember getting very wet at all. Ponchos would be helpful on this ride. There are two big drops on this ride, where you feel like you are falling. The first one is small, but the second one is very steep and you really feel like you are going to fall off. My kids loved it.
- Flight of the Hippogriff – My sons rode this ride, but it was late into the night and I was just too tired. They enjoyed it and actually went on it twice.
- Harry Potter’s Castle Night Show – At night there is a show displayed on the side of Harry Potter’s Castle. It is made up of lights and it felt almost emotional as they play the music and show various different lights on the castle. Everyone stopped to record it on their phones.
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – This is another ride where you are in a seat that lifts you up and down in front of a screen. I liked this ride almost as much as all the memorabilia and entertainment you can see as you wait in line for the ride inside of the castle itself. It was a feast for the eyes. However, the ride got me more motion sick than any other ride. Luckily I closed my eyes or looked off-screen to stabilize myself.
- Hogwarts Express – We rode the train both ways between the parks. In fact, we didn’t start at the Hogwarts Express station at the Islands of Adventure. We actually boarded the train at Universal Studios Florida the next day and came to Hogsmeade that way. It was a special experience that my sons enjoyed. I would recommend starting the ride over at Universal Studios Florida first and then taking it back. Why? Because that is the order that appeared in the book and movie, I believe. Going from Islands of Adventure via the Hogwarts Express is a return trip for Harry Potter. Each way displays a different show.
- Poseidon’s Fury – This was a show, not a ride. You participate in a story where there is water and fire. I won’t tell you what happened because I don’t want to spoil it. We were cold so have a jacket handy.
Rides We Skipped at Islands of Adventure
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall – This is a ride that drops you as you sit in a long row. We weren’t interested in getting dropped from high heights.
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster – This rollercoaster was intimidating! It takes people up and and down so fast! It would have been too much for our family.
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls – We almost did this one, but my son backed out right as we were about to board. This is a water-based ride so you will get wet! If this has a long wait, it’s probably because these are single seat rides.
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong – This ride was closed when we were there.
- VelociCoaster – We were not interested in this rollercoaster ride because we were worried it would be too intense.
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – This ride has the longest wait of any ride in all three of the parks. It was 120 minutes of waiting. We just couldn’t waste that much time in line. Part of why it was such a long wait was because there are very few people in each motorbike. That means that you cannot load up this ride.
- Seuss Landing – We did nothing in Seuss Landing because it is for younger kids. My kids were not interested. This is probably one of the only things you could do with children eight and under at Islands of Adventure.
Best Rides at Universal Studios Florida
When we entered Universal Studios Florida, we turned to the right. Keep in mind we weren’t able to complete everything in one day. Here are the rides and shows we hit up:
- The Bourne Stuntacular – As you turn right, you enter a fake city scene. It feels like you have stumbled on a movie set. We took a right into the Bourne Stuntacular which is a dynamic, live action show. It feels like a movie set crossed with a theater show with a large screen that corresponds with the action on the stage. They do shoot blanks and there are bright strobe lights at time and it was very fun. This theater felt a little cold so grab your sweater.
- The Simpson’s Ride – The Simpson’s ride was not one of my favorites. You are in a large car like vehicle that moves you around in front of a screen. The movements were jerky and jarring. If you have back problems, this would not be a good choice for you. I also got motion sick during this ride.
- Men in Black: Alien Attack – This ride was our least favorite ride in all of the attractions we went to. The wait was long and then you are put in a vehicle where you are supposed to use a blaster to shoot aliens. The blaster I got did not work that well and it was kind of hard to know where to shoot. It also felt like a short ride. The only bright spot of the Men in Black ride was that the waiting line entertainment included a TV/movie show and other paraphernalia. If you don’t have time to ride this ride, you can skip it.
- Diagon Alley – We went behind a brick wall, and there was Diagon Alley. My sons were impressed with the details. It was mind-boggling how stunning and perfect everything was. I felt like I was there in Harry Potter’s world. The dragon on the top of the Gringotts Bank breathes fire every 10 minutes. You can feel the heat! Explore all of the shops and feel the magic.
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – My sons love this ride where you get in a mining car and go deep into the underground, but they complained it was too short. This was another ride where the waiting line entertainment was so detailed and interesting with all the troll men in the bank and then going deep into the bank. I liked the atmosphere as we waited more than I liked the ride.
- Hogwarts Express – We took the train from here over to Hogsmeade in the Islands of Adventure. You need the park hopping option to ride the train. The surroundings as we waited felt just like we were in Harry Potter’s world. I would recommend starting here are going to there because it mimics Harry Potter’s journey in the books and in the movies. Harry Potter rides the train to the castle. My sons loved it and it reminded them of the books and movies. There is a different story for each direction the train goes.
- Fast and the Furious: Supercharged – The wait for this ride is super short, but it’s not because the ride sucks. It’s because you are in an actual bus-sized car so it can accommodate a lot of people to ride all at once. The bus goes through a landscape and there are videos all around. My son sat at the end of the row and got a blast of sound right in his ear. It was so loud that he couldn’t hear for a bit. You bump and jump, but not enough to need to stow your belongings in a locker like you do before getting in line at other rides. This was not our favorite ride.
- Revenge of the Mummy – This ride felt like an older ride, but it was so much fun. The entertainment as we waited was also interactive. They had a TV interview with cast and crew of the movie and it was funny. They also had memorabilia from the movie and it felt spooky like we entered the pyramids. There was a lot of fire inside of this ride and it felt hot as you are going through the ride.
- Race Through New York with Starring Jimmy Fallon – We thought this ride was so fun. The waiting room felt like we were in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza waiting to see Jimmy Fallon live. They played some of the best clips from some his shows and we laughed so hard as we waited. Then we entered the theater for the show. We were seated in a large TV studio-like space, but they did put a bar down on our legs.
- Transformers The Ride 3D – We almost didn’t do this ride because it had a long wait time. But we waited until the end of the night when the wait time had dropped. In fact, it said 60 minutes, but it was actually only a 30 minute wait. The ride itself felt a lot like the Spiderman ride, to be honest. However, I was very tired because this was our last ride. I don’t remember much of the ride, but I do remember closing my eyes because I felt motion sick.
- Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration – When the park is just about to close, they put on a show over the water or lagoon. The show was actually emotional to watch because they show clips from all of their hit movies. It takes 20-30 minutes so it was long. We really enjoyed the display and then left the park because it was time to head back to the hotel.
Rides We Skipped at Universal Studios Florida
We rode virtually all of the rides we wanted to, but we did miss some. Here was what we missed.
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem – We didn’t make it to this ride because we did run out of energy. We went to the souvenir shop at the entrance of the park instead! Next time we would like to try it.
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – This rollercoaster looked so intimidating. There were so many ups and downs and whipping people around. There was no way we were going to get on it!
- ET Adventure – We missed this one because he ran out of time. It is hard to find this ride because it is hidden to one side.
Volcano Bay at Universal
Last but not least we spent a day at Volcano Bay at Universal. It was the most relaxing and chill day we had at any theme park. We went on a Friday, but it was “colder” for people who live in Florida so there weren’t that many people. It wasn’t crowded. We were not cold at all, but we are from Illinois so 60-70 degrees in the sun is wonderful.
This is a well-organized water park with polished details and a Hawaiian theme. I believe it was the nicest waterpark I’ve ever visited. Everything was clean and pretty. That shouldn’t be surprising because it is the newest of all the parks. Volcano Bay opened in 2017.
But I got lost! Navigating my way through the waterpark was difficult. I wish I could have been able to walk around the park in a big circle. Instead, when I had to go back to my locker, I went through the volcano itself and it took me twice as long. It’s not clear which direction to turn when you get deep into the waterpark.
Best Rides in Volcano Bay
- Kopiko Wai Winding River
- Ohyah and Ohno Drop Slides
- Waturi Beach
I cannot remember the names of all of the rides we did because they all sound the same to me. The ones listed above are the ones I know for sure we did. We experienced more than are on this list, but we did not go to every ride at Volcano Bay. Some of the larger ones were intimidating and we were tired. The winding river was the most fun for me. We went through it multiple times.
Pros and Cons of Volcano Bay
- Pro: It was relaxing and chill.
- Pro: It wasn’t crowded.
- Pro: It’s the cheapest of all of Universal’s three theme parks. Standalone admission was cheaper; however, our admission was bundled in the special we bought.
- Con: Easy to get lost.
- Con: Shorter hours of operation
Managing Sensory Needs at Universal Studios
Managing sensory needs at Universal Studios would be difficult to have special needs or sensory needs at the theme parks. Personally, I only had difficulty with motion sickness. Just a warning that if you have difficulty with any of the following variables, it might be challenging to get the most out of your experience at Universal Studios:
- Waiting – If you struggle with long lines, then waiting will be a lot for you.
- Crowds – There are lots of people. You will be next to a lot of people as you walk through the park and then again at some of the shows. There is standing room only at many shows.
- Darkness – Many rides and shows are dark. The waiting experiences can be dark and spooky too. If you have a fear of darkness, it might be scary for you and also young children.
- Water – Several rides get you wet. Ponchos only do so much. If you get wet and then do a lot of walking, you might feel uncomfortable, especially as wet clothes rub on your skin.
- Heights – Most rollercoasters, both indoor and outdoor, drop you from a height. If you are sensitive to heights, this would be challenging for you.
- Heat – It could be a hot day when you are visiting the parks. But also many of the rides have fire included as part of the show. You could feel hot from the bursts of fire in several rides and shows.
- Cold – Some indoor spaces are over-air conditioned. This could make you cold until you exit the space. Sometimes it feels like you are in a basement and it is chilly.
- Lights – There are bright lights and strobes in some rides that could trigger migraines.
- Motion sickness – If you get motion sick, you find this to be difficult to manage as most rides and shows like to physically or virtually move you are around quickly. I was motion sick multiple times during the trip.
My family wore KN95 face masks in indoor spaces as we went through the park and also at the hotel. We are still covid aware and did not get sick!
Universal Studios Vacation Recap
In conclusion, we had a wonderful vacation away from the cold and snow from January in Chicago. The boys and I made special memories and they wish they could go back! We spent a Wednesday at Islands of Adventure, Thursday at Universal Studios Florida, and Friday at Volcano Bay returning late afternoon and evening to Universal Studios to finish off the rest of our experience. I hope writing this massive blog post helps your family make the right decisions about a Universal Studios vacation.