How To Conquer Universal Studios Orlando In Four Days

Diagon Alley - Universal Studios

Diagon Alley - Universal Studios

Because we have four kids who are old enough to trek miles upon miles (upon miles) through busy theme parks and we finally had enough accumulated travel points to fly all of us there, we just spent an exhausting and magical long weekend in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Whenever our bigger family travels anywhere, we tend to hear a lot of “How did you do it?” questions. So, although I’m not an expert on Universal Studios by any stretch (and there are plenty of people online who are), we did have a great experience, and I’m glad to share some behind-the-scenes tips.

Before anyone jumps in with the Disney questions, we didn’t go to any of those parks. From the very beginning of planning, this trip was all about Universal Studios, because of our family’s appreciation/obsession with all things Harry Potter. There are actually two huge parks that are part of the Universal experience and they have completely different vibes, so there was more than enough action to fill our four days. And, yes, I do think you can pull a Universal trip off in four days and still have time for relaxing at the pool. But we were clear with our kids before it began that it would mean setting daily alarms and they were game.


First, let me address the most confusing aspect of visiting Universal Orlando: there are two SEPARATE Harry Potter areas. One side, known as Islands of Adventure, has the Hogwarts School (which houses a thrill ride) and the Hogsmeade walk-thru area. The other side, known as Universal Studios, has Gringotts Bank (which houses another thrill ride) and the walk-thru Diagon Alley area. And, of course, there are a lot of other great rides and attractions in each park to add to the fun.

universal studios map

Technically, you need separate park tickets to enter each side; however, most ticket bundles will allow for the park-to-park option. If you are a Potter fan, make sure you upgrade and get a ticket that allows you to access both sides, as they are completely different and equally amazing. Further confusion now: there are two ways to travel back and forth. You can go by foot through a shopping and restaurant area known as CityWalk. Or you can ride the Hogwarts Express train (more about that below).

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

We’ve been to Orlando a couple of times before this recent trip. We’ve tried staying off-site and on-site and I’ll say—if you are travelling with young kids and the theme parks are the main reason for your trip—staying on-site is an advantage. Often, there will be incentives for park entry (we were given early admission every day to one of the Harry Potter areas and took full advantage of it) and any funds we might have saved by preparing our own meals in a condo don’t really make up for the cost of a rental vehicle, parking passes, and the time it takes to shop, meal prep and travel. Again, because we were only there for four days, it didn’t make sense for us but, If you’re staying in the area for a longer period, off-site housing is a great idea.

What if you’re staying off-site and don’t have the early admission option? There is another option called Express Passes that can be added as an upgrade to your tickets. On our previous trip, when I spent one day there with my three older kids, while my husband and youngest child stayed behind at our off-site accommodation, we splurged on it (there’s no other way to describe it than a splurge; it’s expensive). We had one day to see both parks and we had fewer family members to pay for. It’s very pricey, but it allows you to get into much shorter lineups for all the rides (which is a really great advantage for the high volume rides that can be lined up for over two hours).

One of the best on-site amenities, for a big family like ours, was access to the complimentary shuttle bus system. It’s something Disney and Universal do very well. We never had to wait more than five minutes and it’s door-to-door pick up and drop off. You need your walking feet for inside the parks, so being shuttled to the gates (which are quite a hike to the park anyway) is fantastic. The same applies for complimentary airport pick up and drop-off, if you are staying at an on-site resort. If you are driving, there are a lot of parking garage spaces available and you can also contract private shuttle services.


We chose the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and absolutely loved the clean and modern layout, as well as the option for the six of us to be in one room (thanks to a pull-out couch). The resort has two sizeable pools, hot tubs, a water slide, and a lazy river, as well as a grown ups lounge, gift shop + tuck shop, bowling alley, arcade, gym, and a fantastic self-serve cafeteria with multiple hot food stations (more about that later, too). It has a really family-friendly vibe, and it was easy for us to keep our eyes on the kids while giving them a bit of leeway to explore.

We found our resort and secured four days worth of park tickets for the price of two days, by using a travel advisor who specializes in creating itineraries and booking reservations at Disney and Universal. We’ve used the same advisor, Kirsten, for two trips and have been so pleased with her services and knowledge (not to mention enthusiasm). It’s of no added cost to you and her expertise and tips help to alleviate a lot of planning anxiety. Click here to be directed to our fantastic advisor.

What are the best tips for getting around Universal?

  • Get a brightly coloured backpack (choose one person to wear it and have that person walk through the crowds at the front of your group like a beacon) and bring comfortable walking shoes for everyone (I’m so serious!)

  • In the backpack: hats, sunscreen, bandaids for blisters, pain relievers (adult and child), reusable water bottles, and lightweight sweaters for the morning and evening.

  • Have a lanyard to hold your tickets (designate a ticket holder too). Each time you come to a park entry (including the Hogwarts Train), you are required to show your ticket and have your fingerprint scanned to prove the ticket is yours. To save time, hand out the tickets right before you get there and then collect them again. They’re made of paper and would be so easy to drop or misplace. Again, a lanyard is your friend!

  • Extra socks and rain ponchos (buy them at home before you leave on your trip) are a must if you plan to ride any of the water-themed rides (and you should!). We love the Popeye & Bluto’s ride (you’ll get soaked) and the Jurassic Park ride is epic (and surprisingly emotional).

  • If your children are old enough to be out of strollers (though you can rent them at the park or bring your own, too) you can designate a family meeting place if they get lost, or give your kids clear instructions about how to enter a store and provide your cell phone number to a uniformed employee.

  • Have your meals at less busy, off-times. We committed to one sit-down meal inside the park each day and then relied on smaller snacks (like ice cream and donuts - HA!) to get us through the day. Our favourite onsite restaurant was the Cowfish Burger Sushi Bar in the CityWalk area with its $7.00 bento lunches. And most restaurants we checked out had fair pricing for their kids’ menu.

  • The first morning, we slept in a bit to recover from the 4 a.m. wake up on travel day, so we took our time and sat down to pancakes and coffee at our resort’s HUGE cafeteria. The next three mornings, we were up at 6 a.m. to get to the park for early admission. To save time, we shopped in the cafeteria the night before and brought everything to our room so we could get ready while we ate. There are mini-refrigerators in the rooms and every individualized cereal container comes with a complimentary milk. We added fresh fruit, muffins and croissants and we were more than fuelled for the start of a busy day. [We don’t opt in for the meal plan: it’s very pricey and we are more interested in exploring the rides/attractions than eating three times a day.] As far as staying hydrated, there is an option to buy refillable drink containers inside the park for bottomless pop (not the best idea for kids if you want to avoid a cycle of sugar crashes). We all filled up on ice water at our sit-down meals and you could pour some into a reusable container of your own.

How to get the most out of the Harry Potter areas in both parks:

  • Do everything Harry Potter first!!! If you have early admission (it will only be to one side of the park) USE IT!! Yes, that means setting your alarms on vacation, but we were more than happy to give up sleep to save us from standing in two hour long line ups for a 10 minute ride. It’s so much less congested in the walk thru areas, too, which allows for awesome photos and time to appreciate the beautiful and ever-so-accurate details everywhere. Again, if you have super fans, it will be magical. We also lined up at the Hogwarts Express train before the other side of the park opened, so we would be the first ones to enter that park (versus all the other patrons who were lined up at the gates). We got to run through Hogwarts School (which is where you normally line up for the ride and don’t worry there’s lots to look at while you do) and got onto the ride in under 10 minutes. That never happens if you enter the park by foot. By the time we left the ride there was already a line up of more than an hour. If you buy Express Passes, you don’t need to worry as much, but some of the bigger Potter attractions will always have long lineups.

  • About that train: there are two different stations and journeys depending on which park you are starting in. It’s a lovely experience for true Potter fans, but I wouldn’t line up more than 30-40 minutes for it, personally, so pay attention to the lineup times before committing (there’s not as much to look at while you line up vs the other big Potter rides). We prefer leaving from the King’s Cross station on the Universal Studios side of the park, as you get the 9 and 3/4 platform experience, but try and go both ways if you can. It’s an exact replica of the book/movie and just stepping onto it is utterly magical (p.s. no photos or videos are allowed on the train or any of the rides, but don’t fret…they’re truly unforgettable for your kids).

  • Try the Butterbeer: it’s a beverage referenced in all seven Harry Potter books, and it’s just something you need to try once (or a few times if you are like us). But you don’t need your own glass (it’s $6.99 per cup). It’s a very rich and filling drink. We asked for two straws and split with a partner. We prefer the icy version and on the last day we tried the ice cream, too. Put in on your list of to-dos—you won’t be sorry.

  • Make use of the knowledgable staff in the Harry Potter areas, who are in character at all times and so enthusiastic. They have a lot of fun tips and tricks to share. We bought a candied quill in Honeydukes and found out it could be dipped in water after the candy was eaten and used as an ink quill.

    We also picked up a Pygmy Puff and were told to bring it over to the Weasley's’ Wizard Wheezes joke shop where we could have its name announced, which was such a fun treat.

The wand she chose suited her personality

The wand she chose suited her personality

  • If you decide to buy a wand inside the park, you’ll notice long lineups for the wand choosing experience (wherein the wand chooses you) outside Ollivander’s wand shop on both the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley sides of the park. It’s a very cool room, but honestly they only choose one child in the crowd to have the experience while the rest watch. It wasn’t worth the lineup, in our opinion. We opted to enter the store afterwards and found a delightful staff member who took her time explaining all the different wand personalities and helped our little one choose a wand for her birthday gift. It was still a very personal experience (and it didn’t have the lineup to go with it). You can pay more for an interactive wand that allows you to visit various places throughout both parks (using an ancient map) and make some magic happen. Was it worth the extra cost? Yes. But again, our wand was a birthday gift and the birthday girl was happy to let her siblings try it out, too.

hogwarts castle

hogwarts castle

  • Sometimes, you’ll have a kid who doesn’t want to go on one of the rides the rest of your group does, or they won’t be tall enough. There are two ways to handle that issue. When our older kids wanted to go on the Spiderman ride, I took our little one to the Seuss Zone and let her ride the more age-appropriate rides. She also wanted to get a souvenir for her best friend, so it was a good time to get that done. If it’s a ride that both adults want to ride, but it’s not age-appropriate or appealing to one of your kids, you can make use of the child swap program that allows you to line up as a family and then have parents take turns in a family waiting room near the loading area for the ride. When the first parent comes off the ride, you swap places allowing the other parent to have a turn. This is also a great option if you finally make it to the front of the line and one of you gets scared (that’s a real life story for our family).

  • If you are staying on-site, choose an afternoon (when the weather is favourable) to hang out at your hotel and make use of the pools. It allows you to take advantage of those amenities and save money on food, too. We ordered poolside food from the outdoor grill and spent the day soaking up the sun and resting our feet. We walked over to a fancier resort and had a market style dinner there that saved money on the cost of a sit down meal. Always look at the kids’ menu options, even if you’re grown up sized, as they work well when paired with shared appetizers. On our pool day, we headed into the park for the evening and stayed until it closed. It’s a very different experience in the evening with amazing parades on the Universal Studios side and a stunning light show and fireworks display at Hogwart’s castle that’s worth putting on your list.

  • If you have older kids (or even if you want to bring the whole family) that are looking for more non-theme park adventure, you can take a Lyft ride or public transit to International Drive where there are a lot more restaurants and fun entertainment options like Escape Rooms.

How to avoid long lineups:

  • Even if you have access to advantages like early admission and express passes, the most important thing to do before arriving at the parks is to download the Universal App for your devices. Luckily, the wifi inside the parks is fantastic. Using this app will allow you to access tips (like restaurants and show times) and information about the rides (like what category they are in 3D/4D/Thrill/Kids and what the height requirements are etc). BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT thing this app will tell you is what the real-time wait times are for each ride. Do not spend energy and time dragging your family from one side of the park to the other only to find out the wait time for the ride you want is 180 minutes (yes, that does happen!). You can also set alerts on the app so you are notified when the rides you really want to get on are less than 60 minutes (or whatever your tolerance is for line ups). Have a discussion before you hit the parks about what each person REALLY wants to ride and don’t be afraid to break into smaller groups so that less-than-enthusiastic riders can find something else to do. We had a family meeting place that had lots of seating and a view of the parks where we met after dividing and conquering.

Which rides are must-dos?

This is the list according to my kids (who range in age from nine to 16 years old) with the best at the top. We were lucky this time to get on all the rides we wanted to (though I never made it onto the E.T. ride) and many we rode more than once. There were also a lot of rides in Seuss Zone that we rode (multiple times) and they’re all perfect for the younger crowd with manageable wait times.

  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

  • Escape From Gringotts

  • Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon

  • The Amazing Adventures of SpiderMan

  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong

  • Hogwart’s Express (both ways)

  • Jurassic Park River Adventure

  • Flight of the Hippogriff

  • The Simpson’s 4D Ride


  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem

  • Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges

My last bit of advice has everything to do with the mindset we brought with us. We keep expectations open and bring our most flexible and resilient parenting to trips like this one. Take deep breaths, look up (there are so many beautiful details in the Potter areas) , move slowly through the moments as much as you can, eat the ice cream for lunch and donuts before dinner, get in the photos with your kids, really watch your kids’ faces (oh please do!), and don’t forget to let your inner kid come out to play, too.

If you have any questions, go ahead and leave them in the comments below. I’m happy to help.

You may also like:

I’m The Chief Scheduler In Our Family—Except For Vacations

Family Winter Getaway: Blue Mountain

Home Again: A Storytelling Journey Across Ireland

Rafting With Kids, Yes You Can!

Find Summer Perfection At Pinery Provincial Park

Family Winter Getaway: Blue Mountain


Two weeks ago, we stuffed the minivan with snacks and snowsuits and left on a two-hour journey that would land us at Blue Mountain resort for a winter-themed family getaway. Could we entertain four kids and two grown ups (who don't ski) at a vacation destination known for wintertime skiing? We were going to find out.

JB and I both grew up in areas of Ontario where towering snowbanks were part of the landscape, Christmases were always white, and snow stuck around until spring. We each have fond memories of being excited by the sight of more falling snow (imagine!) Playing outside — no matter how cold the windchill got — was a welcome part of the winter season.

It's easy to lose that child-like wonder when you grow up and have places to be and responsibilities to meet. But maybe that's the best part about living somewhere with seasons — you adapt to the changes and learn how to make the best of each season as it comes. And as easy as it would be to give into hibernation each winter, we are doing the best we can to encourage our kids to appreciate the outdoors year-round.

Once we pulled into The Westin Trillium House, unloaded our bags, and parked in the underground parking lot, we were able to say goodbye to our minivan for the rest of the trip. Blue Mountain Village is completely pedestrian-friendly. We walked everywhere and the kids had a lot of freedom to roam. We noticed several families using toboggans and sleds to wander around with their snowsuit-clad toddlers and kids. 


We walked into the village to check it out and stopped in at the Crock A Doodle shop to paint some pottery. I have very artistically-inclined kids, and it was the perfect (mellow) way to shake off the drive. Once we got them all settled with their chosen pieces, the grown ups snuck out and around the corner for some parent-sized Starbucks. All the pieces we painted were ready to be picked up (fired and glazed) the next afternoon.


After hanging out in our two-bedroom suite (complete with kitchen) for awhile to get ourselves unpacked and fight over beds, we made our way back into the village to catch a shuttle bus to dinner at the newly-renovated Pottery Restaurant. The menu offered great kids' options with generous portion sizes and a choice of salad or french fries (tip: half the kids order fries and the other half order salad. We divide the bounty by using the bread plates for a side salad). The adults were able to enjoy a few beverages (since we were catching another shuttle back to our hotel) and all of us were well-fuelled for some night swimming at Westin's outdoor pool. 


The kids loved being able to swim outside in the dark, and the water was heated to the perfect temperature. There was a lot of giggling each time we had to streak from the pool to the hot tub in the snow! And everyone was tired enough to settle down (hello, Westin's Heavenly Beds!) without protest. 


We set our alarms and piled on the outerwear to walk into the village for breakfast the next day. There are a lot of us and we wanted to be sure to get a table at the popular all-day breakfast joint, Sunset Grill, before the crowds started to show up. The kids filled themselves up with chocolate chip pancakes and fruit, while I did my best not to fall victim to the bottomless refills of coffee (knowing where we were headed next). 


We took a shuttle over to the ski rental building where we were met by friendly and knowledgable staff that helped us get all our measurements sorted out. We wanted to do something outside that was geared to our large family, and we were thrilled to find out we could take a guided snowshoe hike. For those families who are interested in skiing, the Kids at Blue program looked amazing and the instructors could not be more supportive and encouraging (and oh my goodness, there is nothing more adorable than a gaggle of kids in ski goggles).There's also an amazing outdoor skating pond that offers rentals. 


Snowshoeing was just as fun as I imagined it would be. But don't let that fool you, like it temporarily fooled me. Snowshoeing is a work out — especially when your guide takes you straight up a ski hill (aren't they meant for travelling in a downward direction?!). Our more athletic kids were able to keep up to the guide, but I had to stop several times to shovel handfuls of the fresh snow in my mouth. And JB got sidetracked by a dawdling six-year-old, who was also very focused on eating snow. But we made it to the top and stopped at a couple of look outs to take in the view of Collingwood and Georgian Bay below. 

We were sweaty and well-exercised by the time we made it back to the bottom of the hill and more than ready to head back to the village for smoothies and BeaverTails as a reward. At that point, I separated from JB and the kids (who were able to pick up the instructions to a village scavenger hunt at the Information Kiosk) and headed to an appointment at the IWA Spa in the village.


I felt guilty (that JB wasn't with me) for about 10 seconds, before the ache in my calves and feet (I'm not used to walking around in snowshoes) let me give myself over to the most incredible hour. I started with the Beat The Ski Boot Blues leg and foot massage, and it was absolutely wonderful (and enjoyed alongside homemade chocolate and herbal tea). Just when I thought I couldn't be more relaxed, I was whisked upstairs for a first-time experience in the Gan-ban rock sauna. I love being any place that's warm, and this meditative experience was no exception. Check out my glow. 


I managed to drift back to the hotel where I found the kids happily relaxing in preparation for our next adventure (tip: grab comic books and magazines from the book store, picture books from the library, and art supplies from home and pack them in a tote. Give the electronic devices a vacation, too).

We got into our bathing suits and robes again and headed down to the amazing PLUNGE! Aquatic Centre (tip: you can buy three hour or full-day passes and there's a discount if you buy four or more). This was a trip highlight for my swimmers. My kids love to be in the water and the added adventure of being at an indoor-outdoor water park was so much fun for them. 


We enjoyed the basketball hoops, flotation devices, swinging rope drop, and the outdoor water slide (even my fearful kid was able to conquer her worries and go down it several times). All of the action happening against a snowy backdrop made it even more magical. The water was warm and the hot tub warmer. There were plenty of seats, an on-duty lifeguard, and lots of fun to be had on the pint-sized slides and fountains found indoors. 


By the time we were dried off again, we were all starving. And our youngest was dragging her heels with hunger and exhaustion. Luckily, we only had a short elevator ride to dinner. We headed for the lobby of the Westin and into Oliver & Bonacini's for dinner. As soon as our wonderful server took in the sight of my little one with her head down on the table, she promised to speed up service and get her fed before she fell asleep for the night. We devoured two baskets of warm bread and then enjoyed one of the most delicious meals we've had in a long while. We even made it to dessert (once my kids saw S'mores on the menu it was a given). 

We were up early again the next day, so we could treat ourselves to another hearty breakfast (tip: because Blue Mountain accommodations offer kitchenettes, you can save money by bringing your own breakfast foods. There are coffee machines and kettles in the rooms, too). We decided to go back to Oliver & Bonacini's for a hot breakfast (because we knew they have amazing Eggs Benedict, and we don't normally have time for that kind of decadence). Once again, the kids' menu was perfect for our crew, and we were happy to get some eggs into all of them before heading outside for our last day of adventure.


The Hike N' Tube adventure was so perfect for our family. The kids could pull the tubes to the top of the hill on their own and they whoooped and hollered down to the bottom over and over again. As for me and JB? Well, we did plenty of hollering, too (is there anything better than feeling like a kid again?). This activity is great for anyone age three and up (there were grandparents racing their grandkids, too). And passes are available for an hour of riding. 

Just when we thought the fun couldn't be topped, we made our way over to the outdoor Ridge Runner Coaster which takes you on a speedy ride through the woods and over top of skiers as they speed down the hills. Children under age 13 ride with a responsible adult (meaning someone who knows when it's a good idea to apply the brakes). We would hear the "wheeeeee" from the observation deck on top of the ski chalet. 


We could not have asked for a better winter getaway (that was within a very manageable driving distance to the Toronto-area) to help bring us out of the hibernation that can easily happen during winter. The activities we enjoyed at Blue Mountain were fun for every member of our family, which was really the best part of the trip; we were able to do everything together. 

As we climbed back into our minivan and pulled away from the beautiful view, I heard a voice call out from the backseat, "Oh Mama, can we please come back again?" I turned to JB and said, "I was going to say the same thing."



Thank you to the wonderful and generous team at Blue Mountain for making this trip happen for my family. And thank you to all the vendors throughout the village who welcomed us so warmly.

Opinions and photos are my own.