My kids have been clamoring to go to Universal Orlando Resort for several years. When a last-minute change in vacation plans left us with a few extra days in Florida, we knew where we were headed.
Family vacations tend to fall into two broad categories: relaxing vacations with unscheduled days that create their own rhythm, and journey/adventure vacations that are filled with planned activities. Theme park vacations are in their own category. They can be relaxing, with not much thinking involved, yet stressful when long lines and crowds stretch the day and patience. A little planning and a few tips are all you need to get the most out of a Universal Orlando family vacation.
A simple Google search for “Park Attendance Calendar at Universal Orlando” yields a myriad of sites that help predict the crowds on a given day. There is no guaranteed way to avoid crowding, but the calendar helps. We visited Universal Orlando during the second week of January, a low-season period considered to have lighter attendance, and that held true. Although there were still lines for attractions, they were minimal.
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TIP: Low park attendance does not guarantee parallel low hotel rates or availability. Orlando is host to large conventions that take up hotel rooms across the city, as was the case during my visit, and I booked one of the very last rooms in the entire resort.
There are only two reasons not to stay on resort grounds: if there are no rooms available or if the price point isn’t agreeable. The perks vary between hotels, but at a minimum, all onsite stays include early admission into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — a huge benefit, as the lines grow quickly after the park opens to the public.
I wondered how our stay at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, the most value-oriented hotel on-property, would be, given that it had a price point equivalent to many offsite and less convenient hotels. I was impressed with the quality and the detail reflecting the retro theme of the hotel, like blast-from-the-past Zest soap and VO5 shampoo in the bathroom.
The hotel is loaded with kid-pleasing amenities and multiple pools, an arcade, a bowling alley and hipster-cool decor that captivates tweens and teens. It’s a good choice for families and is a 20-minute walk or a complimentary bus ride to the theme parks.
Figuring out which tickets to purchase is a little easier with the knowledge that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is spread between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, the two parks that comprise Universal Orlando Resort. A multi-day park-to-park ticket gives the greatest flexibility to maneuver between both parks on the Hogwarts Express or by walking. Of note: Most of the Harry Potter attractions do not have an express skip-the-line option, so having an extra hour in the park beforehand is a big deal.
Ciao Bambino’s tips for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are a good start to understanding the layout and attractions. However, even after reading this we mistakenly waited 20 minutes in a line that we thought was for the Ollivander’s Wand Shop, but instead was for the wand-choosing ceremony. We could have walked in the front door to Ollivander’s.
A less-mentioned tip is for Hogwarts Castle and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, undeniably a highlight of the parks. For fans who want another opportunity to see the castle and don’t need to go on the ride again, there is an option to simply walk through. Ask an attendant at the entrance for more information. I’d highly recommend this, as the castle is full of detail that’s easy to miss the first time around.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter steals the show, but don’t forget the rest of Universal. There are roller coasters and interactive shows like Fear Factor Live, where kids are often chosen to “help” — and even older kids can be convinced to check out a Minion or Dr. Seuss in the respective sections of the parks.
For additional nighttime entertainment, Blue Man Group is a family-friendly combo of music, dance and theater entertainment with nightly shows in Universal CityWalk.
“Finally, we get to go to a real resort,” my 13-year-old son said as we walked around the Cabana Bay Beach Resort check-in. It’s easy to forget that kids of all ages are entertained by a big pool and things to do at the hotel. Try to squeeze in some relaxation time between park visits.
Editor’s Note: Universal Orlando Resort provided complimentary two-day theme park tickets to review the experience. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Kristi Marcelle except where noted.
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