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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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
TRANSFORMERS: The 3D 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.
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