My One-Day Itinerary in Universal Orlando:  What not to miss, what to skip and what I would have done differently

  

Part 2 of Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Universal Orlando Series

(In case you missed Universal Orlando Part 1: 15 Trippin’ Tips to Know Before You Go, check it out here.)

We arrived at Universal Orlando around 8:40 am—which is later than I’d have liked (8:15 was our original goal).  We followed the crowd and picked a line for security check—you have to do security check before you enter either park or Universal City Walk.

After security, we picked which area we’re headed to. Upon the advice of a friend (and later confirmed by the security dude), we started at Islands of Adventure (IOA), which made sense because it closed at 7 p.m. that day and Universal Studios Florida (USF) stayed open until 9 p.m.

Next, we printed our tickets (purchased online the night before) at the kiosk just outside of the park then waited in a fairly short line to get in IOA…and then we were off!

Islands of Adventure: 9 a.m – 3p.m.

Click here for Islands of Adventure Map & Fact Sheet

Attraction 1: Kong Skull Island.  A popular attraction toward the back of the park, wait times for this and Hulk often surpass Harry Potter as the day progress. This was a lot of fun, as you board an open safari bus to encounter the savage monsters of Skull Island. We boarded in minutes. Not much later, lines were well over an hour.

Attraction 2: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Very brief wait in a fast moving line—and that line is part of the attraction, as you tour Hogwarts Castle and its chattering portraits.

Attraction 3: Ollivander’s Wand Show. Not a big Potter fan? Or REALLY don’t want your kid begging you for $50 wand? You may want to skip this mini-show and head to attraction 4.

However, if you are considering a wand investment or just want to experience the magic of Ollivander’s, line up early for this 10-minute interactive show where guests watch the store owner help a lucky kid select a wand—or rather the wand selects the kid.

There’s a few demonstrations of wand magic along the way. Because it’s tight quarters, a very small crowd is allowed in at a time, and the wait can get significant later in the day. For us, it was a perfect chance to grab a butter beer and relax in line for about 15 minutes (no beer allowed in the show though).

If there is a line for the wand show, its a great chance to cool off with a refreshing Butter Beer! Just make sure to finish before the show beings, since no drinks are allowed.

My son was picked as the lucky kid, and since his mom was caught up in the magic, he ended up taking home a wand.

Wand tips: There are many wand options. You can either get a wand modeled after your favorite Potter character or select one of the larger wands that are simply Ollivander’s wands.  Additionally, there are two price tiers of wands. The $46 wands are just what they appear to be—wands. The $53 gold label wands come with a map with instructions on how to preform tricks around both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You can bring these wands back for future visits, and Universal will service/repair them at no charge if they fail to perform.

Miss out on the chance to buy a wand from Ollivander’s at IOA? Don’t fret. There’s also a store location at USF.

Attraction 4: Dragon Challenge. Thrilling coaster with 5 inversions where guests pick between Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball. A worker there told me the blue Horntail may be more of a rocky, twisty ride, while the red Fireball with be slightly faster and smoother. Very brief wait/fast moving line.

-Pause-

About Locker Rental

At this point in the morning, I’m learning the most inconvenient and time-consuming aspect of many of these rides is that you have to store all of your stuff into nearby lockers before going on each of them.  When it’s mandatory (and it is on a lot of the rides), locker rental is free for up to 55 minutes. On busy days, the tighter locker bays get insanely crowded. And in some cases, lockers can fill up and you might have to hang around a bit for one to free up.  They use finger print technology, but you’ll also need to remember your locker number.  Sometimes they malfunction, and you have to hunt down a locker guard to release your stuff.

What’s really irritating is that the giant wand that “picked” my son barely fits into the lockers and requires some finagling. Thanks Ollivander!

My recommendation: If it wasn’t for important meds and sunscreen, I think I would have only brought an ID, phone, currency and  worn clothes with secure pocket storage.  If needed, you could probably get away with a fanny pack tucked under your shirt when you board rides, so you can have a few small provisions, though a couple rides have a strict “no loose items” policy. In any case, consider waiting until the end of the day to do any shopping (though you can have stores send products to the front of either park for later pick-up), because the less time you spend shoving your merchandise into the lockers, the better.

Now back to our itinerary…

Early lunch: Pizza in the Jurassic Park area. This was a mistake in the 11-Noon hour, even if my son’s stomach was growling. Heck, when isn’t a 12-year-old boy’s stomach growling? We would have been wise to put lunch off for another hour. We also enjoyed some of the Harry Potter shops before eating, which was important for us.

But….

… if the goal is to ride as many rides with as short of wait as possible, we would have been better served to go straight to go to the popular Hulk coaster at the front of the park or Jurassic Park and Dudley Do Rights raft rides immediately after Dragon Challenge.

Why?

Because in the afternoon, those wait times immediately swell. A 20-30 minute wait is suddenly a 45-70 minute wait.  As it was, we enjoyed our wand show, Hogsmeade shops and an early lunch, which was our choice. But it was a choice we paid for in the form of some lengthy afternoon lines.

Honeydukes was a must-visit for these Harry Potter fans! But if thrill rides are your thing, skip the shops and keep moving.

Attractions 6 & 7: Jurassic Park & Dudley Do Right Falls. Both had a 45-60 minute wait—significantly longer than any line we’d experienced thus far. But by that point, most rides throughout the park had serious wait times.  However, these wet and wild rides are a lot of fun!

Attraction 8: Amazing Spider Man. We used the single rider option for a shorter wait time, but ended up sitting together anyway. Lots of fast-paced fun moving through a 3D world with Spidey as you encounter dangerous villains along the way! We found this style of ride was a common trademark of the rides over in Universal Orlando Florida.

At this point, we have a choice to make. A staff member advised that we should head over to USF by 3 p.m., but that same staff member said the Incredible Hulk was her favorite ride in Universal. I assumed we’d get right on the popular green coaster by using the single rider option, but to my surprise, the single rider queue was full! Because we were both more excited by the 3D movie themed rides, we both agreed to head to the Hogwarts Express and ride over the USF. My recommendation? If the Hulk is a priority, get in line in the first hour or two of opening.

Attraction 9: Hogwarts Express. We rode the famous train from IOA to USF. The line was fast-moving, and the ride was an adventure in itself. Apparently, a “darker” adventure awaits for guests riding from USF to IOA.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS Florida 3 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Click here for Universal Studios Florida Map & Fact Sheet

Food Break: Upon arriving in USF, we got our bearings then decided it was time for a food break after a sweaty afternoon of waiting in line. We stumbled into a burger joint that was lacking in ambiance, taste and value, but it was…there. If we could do it over, I’d head straight to the Leaky Cauldron once off the train (or Three Broomsticks before boarding the train), but at the time, I was only thinking that we were saving Diagon Alley for last, when it was less crowded.

Attraction 10 & 11: Transformers & The Mummy. We used the single rider option on both of these 3D adventure rides, since wait times were rather long. We ended up sitting together anyway in Transformers, but for The Mummy, we were separated into two different cars.

Attraction 12: Terminator Show. This live show was a must for my son, who is a big fan. There were stunts, smoke and special effects. Personally, I found it dated, and would have been happier using that hour we spent (in line, at the show and in the gift shop where Henry agonized over buying a Terminator action figure) elsewhere.

Attraction 13: The Parade. This was not a choice. It just happened that the parade was starting when we arrived to cross the street to Escape to New York, so we were stuck.

If you’ve ever sat through a Magic Kingdom parade, you might find the USO parade a little underwhelming. I could see little kids enjoying it, and it had plenty of Universal’s favorite characters and some big floats, but we would have been happy to skip it.

Attraction 14: Jimmy Fallon’s Escape from New York. One of my favorites of the 3D rides, because it’s just a whole lot of fun—just like Jimmy! Another plus: it’s the first ride at Universal to use an electric queue, meaning you schedule your spot in line through the app once you enter the parks, which means no long wait times.  And another plus: When you’re with your group in the holding area as you prepare to enter the ride, you are treated to a very entertaining, live band.

Attractions 15 & 16: Simpson’s and Men in Black. Both are a must! And while single rider lines are a great option when waits are long, MIB is best ridden together. You and your friends can enjoy shooting laser guns at hostile aliens, competing with each other to rack up points. Lucky for us, the lines and crowds have really died down as the night goes on.

Attraction 17: Escape from Gringotts & Diagon Alley. We saved the best for last.  As it was nearing 8 p.m., the posted wait time for the  latest and greatest Harry Potter attraction was only around 20 minutes at this point, however, the trek from the entry to the actual ride is considerable. But that’s okay, because it takes you through Gringotts, starting with the impressive bank lobby staffed by somber goblins, then down into the cavernous depths of the bank. The ride itself was just as adventurously stimulating as if you were right there with the Hogwarts gang, facing evil wizards and fire-breathing dragons.

Once we were done with Gringotts, we used our last hour at USF to explore the stunningly realistic Diagon Alley and put our wands to work! Using a map, we mastered all sorts of spells as magical store fronts reacted to our movements, took in some of the shops and just delighted in our chance to step into JK Rowling’s imagination!

As the park closed, we headed toward the exit with our eyes on the “Cinematic Spectacular” night time show, which featured famous movie clips projected onto giant screens, punctuated by high flying fountains and fireworks.

From there, we headed to Universal City Walk, where we met up with the other half of our family and told them all about our amazing day!

Things we got right:

  • Starting with IOA and heading toward the back of the park, beginning with Kong then Hogwarts.
  • Enjoying a Butter Beer mid-morning while in line for the wand show. It was much tastier than I expected, and the lines blew up during the afternoon.
  • Ending our day in Diagon Alley. And exploring the nearly-deserted winding streets behind the crowded main area.
  • Downloading the Universal Studios app and scheduling our spot in line for Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York upon our arrival.
  • Being there around opening and closing. These hours offered us the most rides with the least waiting.

Things we got wrong:

  • Taking a lunch break at 11/11:30. We should have high-tailed it to the Incredible Hulk or the Jurassic Park ride and postponed lunch for the afternoon.
  • Not researching and planning our  dining options. The rides were our priority, but I think the dining options could have added to the overall experience. As it was, our food breaks were merely used to fuel us in the fastest way possible (though the Jurassic Pizza was tasty.)
  • Carrying too much stuff. We should have purchased our wands toward the end of the day in Diagon Alley, and I should have condensed my belongings to pockets or a fanny pack. Not just because fanny packs are, like, totally fierce, but because I could have tucked it in under my tee and saved the time spent cramming our belongings into lockers.

Things that depend on your tastes:

  • Terminator Show. I would have skipped this outdated show or traded it for the Hollywood Horror Makeup Show, but it was a must for my son.
  • Ollivander’s Wand Show. If you’re not into Harry Potter or in the market for a $50 wand, your time may be better spent elsewhere. However, it was a highlight for my son, who was selected to participate…and got a wand from his sucker of a mother.
  • The Parade at USF. After experiencing Disney’s magical parade, this was just “meh.” But I could see it being a good opportunity to relax for a bit, and I think most little kids would enjoy it.
  • Leaving younger siblings behind…or not? Were there rides younger kids will enjoy? Sure. Both parks have areas and attractions suited for younger kids, like Seuss Landing, Curious George’s playground, the Minion Mayhem ride or  Shrek 4D. But for us, the more intense, big attractions that justify the big price would have been too much for my 8-year-old. HOWEVER, at her age, my son would have enjoyed them all. It’s not just an age consideration. It’s knowing what your kids like, knowing how big of a day they can handle, knowing if they’re tall enough to ride the rides they’d most enjoy and knowing if it makes sense for your budget.

Things we would have done if we had more time:

Islands of Adventure:

  • Incredible Hulk (a giant, loop-filled coaster)
  • Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall (blast 185 feet into the sky then drop back down)
  • Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rate Barges (a water raft ride)

Universal Studios Florida

  • Minion Mayhem (a 3D ride)
  • E.T. Adventure (Instead of the high-tech 3D imagery of many Universal rides, this kid-friendly ride is more like Disney’s rides, in that it uses actual props to create your surroundings)
  • Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rock-It (a thrilling roller coaster with high speed drops and climbs set to a rocking soundtrack)
  • Shrek 4D (a short film)
  • Hollywood Horror & Makeup Show (I’ve heard great things about this show!)
  • A trip back on Hogwarts Express (the experience/story-line is different for each direction)

In Closing…

I definitely hope to return to Universal Orlando in the future with both kids. Honestly, I would love to go back during the off season and stay on resort at Cabana Bay and enjoy the parks over the course of 4 or more days (and maybe head back to our hotel for an afternoon break). This would give us more time to soak up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, hit the attractions we missed, explore more dining options, enjoy our favorite rides more than once and do a little more exploring at a relaxed pace. Also, as noted in Part 1, the daily price goes down the more days you visit.

By the way, I’ve heard a lot of great things about the Universal Resorts, which are literally next door to the parks, and their efficient transportation. If doing multiple days or even one day at the park, I think it would be a huge benefit to stay on resort (especially with the early entry for Harry Potter).

The single-day, two-park pass cost was the most I’ve ever paid for any theme park, but we certainly covered a LOT of ground and had an unforgettable experience! We were able to 17 major attractions in a single day. The downside is that it was go, go, go.  Can you do it all in one day? No. But you can do alot.

All it all, it was a wonderful new adventure that left us hungry for more!

Looking to book Universal Orlando? Check out travel agency, Tabby Travels with Simply Mouse Vacations or email TabbyTravelsSMV@hotmail.com for a no-obligation price quote. Best of all: My services are free with every vacation booking.

Like what you read? Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and  like “Trippin’ Midwest Mama” on Facebook!