Friday, March 12, 2010

Universal Studios Orlando - From a local's point of view

A few weeks ago, my husband and I drove eleven whole miles to Universal Studios Orlando, where we would stay for the weekend with our kids. You might question our sanity...why on earth would we pay for a hotel in the same city in which we live? Why would we do this on an annual basis? We have a perfectly good explanation. And when I thought about it, we have learned a few tricks over the years that lead to a happier, less stressful visit to Universal Orlando's two theme parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Why not share these tricks with our friends?

1. If you can, stay on property

Universal has three onsite Loew's properties that are all very nice...Royal Pacific Resort (least expensive), Hard Rock Hotel (mid-priced) and Portofino Bay Hotel (most expensive). All are within walking distance from the parks, although Hard Rock Hotel is closest. You may also take a free water taxi to the parks as well. You will not need your car once you arrive.

If you stay on property, your room key acts as an express pass to any ride with an express option. This means no lines. It is worth its weight in gold, and is worth paying a little more for the hotels. Even during the slow months, lines for the popular rides will escalate to 45 minutes and up by mid-day. One new coaster, "Rip Ride Rockit", does not allow the express option, a major flaw in my opinion. This requires some special care and consideration. But more on that in a minute.

Your room key also gets you into the park approximately 30 minutes before the masses, giving you plenty of time to race around and ride in the front row of your favorite ride. If you like roller coasters, my advice would be to ride front row of The Hulk and Dueling Dragons (which will be called something else once Harry Potter opens), which are both located in Islands of Adventure.

2. Buy passes online

This comes in handy particularly if you are a Florida Resident. Tickets are significantly cheaper if you buy them this way. Also there are often promotional perks for buying online, like coupons.

3. High thrill or low key?

Each park is distinct in the type of featured attractions. Both parks have rides for small children, but Islands of Adventure features some high thrill rides with height requirements equivalent to a 10 or 11 year old kid. Universal Studios rides generally are more gentle. So if you have a little one, or a big one that isn't interested in going high, fast and upside down and getting wet, Universal Studios might be where you spend more of your time.

4. Leave the backpack at home

In addition to the requisite searches performed on all bags going into the parks, which can take some time, there are a number of rides where you cannot take your bags. You are required to rent a locker to store them while riding. This may not bother you, but I would rather just wear shorts with pockets and not deal with it.

5. Civilized dining

Both parks have ample options for fast food, but I'm not a big fan of the greasy grab-and-go. I like to take a nice time-out and be waited on. In Islands of Adventure, I would recommend the restaurant Mythos, located within a rock formation with waterfalls.

In Universal Studios, our favorite is Lombard's Seafood Grill, in the re-creation of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. It is Universal Studios' flagship restaurant for a good reason. The fish is fresh, the wait staff is friendly and attentive, and the atmosphere is plush and quiet.

There are other phenomenal, five star restaurants immediately outside the parks as well. Some of our favorites are Tchoup Chop at Royal Pacific, Mama Della's at Portofino Bay, The Palm at Hard Rock Hotel, and Emeril's at City Walk. Most of these restaurants fill up quickly, so make sure you make reservations well in advance.

Keep in mind that most restaurants honor the AAA discount, so bring your card and don't for get to mention it to your server.

I should also mention that Universal also offers a family meal plan...$20 per day for adults and $10 for kids for one park, and slightly more for two parks. This allows you to eat all day at a select number of the grab-and-go eating establishments (Mythos and Lombard's are not included!). This is a pretty good deal if you plan on eating more than one meal inside the parks, and you don't mind fast food. Keep in mind these participating locations are not open for breakfast. Personally, this would not be an option I would choose, but you need to be aware that it is heavily promoted.

6. Harry Potter is coming

The air is almost electric with anticipation for the newest addition to Islands of Adventure, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Construction of Phase 1 is nearly complete as you can see below, and employees tell us they think it will be open in April or May. The grand opening is going to be huge. I shudder to think what crowds will be like when it happens.

7. Plan ahead if you want to ride "Rip Ride Rockit"

Universal Studios latest crown jewel is this ride, which opened last summer. The hook for this ride, beyond it being an amazing roller coaster, is that you are allowed to select one of about 30 songs to listen to while you ride. They have something for, rock and roll, pop, electronic, and rap. There is also a video camera built into the back of each seat to capture your every facial expression, which can be viewed (and purchased of course) after you disembark.

The ride is insanely popular, and does not have an express option yet. What this means is that 30 minutes after the park opens, you are looking at about an hour wait or more. So unless you have the patience to stand in long lines, your best bet is to make this ride your first stop of the day.

Universal however, will not let even early visitors (those who stay on property) to proceed past a certain point in this park until the park officially opens, which only allows you to ride Jimmy Neutron and Shrek 4D early. The result is about a hundred twitchy people amassing in a dense crowd, waiting for "the signal" from a sacrificial Universal employee. Once that signal comes, it is like running with the bulls, all heading in one direction, and it is scary. I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea, because eventually someone will get hurt or trampled. My advice is to make peace with an extra five or ten minutes of wait, and avoid bodily harm by steering clear of the mob.

8. For those who aren't staying on property

Not everyone is in the position to stay in one of the Universal hotels, but instead stay in a less expensive hotel or with friends. My family has annual passes, so more often than not, we are popping in when the kids get a day off from school or on the weekend. Your best bet in this situation is to get to the parks when they open, and hit as many rides as you can before noon. In the afternoon, just about all rides have excruciatingly long waits. Save the afternoon for an enjoyable lunch, shopping in the parks or in the shops right outside the park at CityWalk, going to the movies at CityWalk, or, if you have little ones, playing at one of the parks playgrounds.

Unless you have a pass that includes parking, you will be charged $14 a day. All parking is in a garage and is covered, which is nice in the summer when it is hot and rains daily. Budget some extra time to get from the parking garage to the parks - at least 15 minutes or more. It is a long walk and there are no trolleys like you see at other parks.

If you ever wander down here to my neck of the woods, and visit our fair city and its theme parks, I hope this helps!

For more information on Universal Studios Orlando, click here for UpTake's website.


Craftymoose Crafts said...

Thanks, Sandy, for that very comprehensive look at Universal. So far we have visited a few times in conjunction with a visit to Disney World.

The Bumbles said...

I love insider tips from locals. The insight you give on the meal plan option is especially helpful to families planning their budget. How lucky that you get to live so close - I'm sure you'll provide a detailed review when Harry Potter opens ;0)

JUD said...

Very nice report! The only thing I would add, as it is a personal favorite, is that while Mythos has many times won "Best Theme Park Restaurant of the Year", I think it could easily compete with out the 'theme park' limitation! It is fantastic!

Melody said...

Great post, Sandy! I enjoyed reading them all! The HP theme sounds very exciting!!

Melissa said...

I don't see us getting to Florida anytime soon, but I love all the insider tips!