Penny travelled to Orlando over October half term to test out Universal Resort Orlando – the resort hotels, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Orlando theme parks, dining and entertainment. Here’s her quick intro for those planning a visit or wondering whether it’s right for their family, or skip to the video guide posted below.
It’s no secret I am a little bit of a theme park cynic, and so people have asked me if I really enjoyed the experience of Universal Orlando Resort. I might be more normally found in a field or forest than theme park, but I’m also a book and film lover and this is where Universal Resort Orlando completely drew me in.
It’s a journey deep inside the most magical, action packed and adventurous moments from our favourite films and popular culture. Stepping into these insanely filmic worlds with the kids made for really special family time. At 7 and 10 my kids are at the age where the workings of everything is being pondered and questioned, it’s becoming increasingly tricky to find magic at times, but Universal created total magic for even the most inquisitive mind. It works for younger and older kids than mine too, more on that in a minute.
What is there to do at Universal Resort Orlando?
Universal Orlando has two parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios with a third water park Volcano Bay opening in summer 2017 – between them they offer something for everyone, Universal does an incredible job of openly appealing to those who both love and hate theme parks, water parks and rollercoasters.
There is also City Walk with shops, theatre, bars, cinema, entertainment and eateries. During our stay we enjoyed the Blue Man Group, the most joyous and sensory loaded exploration of what it means to be human that the whole family will love.
What’s the difference between the Universal parks?
Universal Studios Orlando is a vast film set, with entire boulevards, within which rides are set. Transformers The Ride 3D is in a huge warehouse, Revenge of The Mummy has a looming museum facade. Facade is not quite the right word, every ride is a filmic mini narrative from the moment you step into the queue. Harry Potter Escape from Gringotts, involves walking into the bank and queuing amongst the goblins working there, then taking a lift down into the vault and boarding the ride. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem involves several film clips in which you are addressed as an overexcited minion, before fully becoming one in the ride itself.
Universal Studios also takes you inside Transformers, the Simpsons, ET, Men In Black and offers a chance to meet the animal actors in films, an unexpected highlight for us.
Islands of Adventure Orlando is more like a traditional theme park, with a series of themed islands, each a riot of colour and imagination. It has brand new rides in the shape of The Incredible Hulk Coaster and Skull Island, a dramatic King Kong themed 3D adventure. Seuss Adventure is packed with fun and colour for little ones and Toon Lagoon is heaving with spalshtastic high thrill water fun all the family loved.
Islands of Adventure has a Marvel Superheros Island and Jurassic Park. After Harry Potter, these were the two islands that my kids loved best, especially flying on a broomstick and being rescued by spiderman in a net in two highly immersive 3D adventures. The actors are amazing too, the Green Goblin taking over the comic book shop and wrapping my son’s purchase in reams of paper and tape, before pretending to run off with my daughter and the purchase, was a real highlight for them.
Volcano Bay Water Park Orlando opens Summer 2017 as is billed as ‘a waterpark for people who don’t like waterparks’. Amazing thrill technology can propel you up the log flume as well as down, but there will also be seriously fun themeing and lots of lazy rivers – think total immersion in a relaxing water universe.
What’s all the fuss about Harry Potter?
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter spans both parks and is linked by the Hogwarts Express, I would visit the parks just for this, the sheer scale of the set is hard to fathom; arriving on Diagon Alley on the Universal Studios side, through a hole in a wall of an entire London Street is breathtaking.
One of the buildings on this street, to give you an indication of scale, is Kings Cross, where even the staff completely believe they are London transport workers, it really takes your experience to a whole new level. You board the Hogwarts Express, the train journey recreates all the drama and stunning scenery from London to Scotland, and arrive in Hogsmeade.
Stepping off at Hogsmeade, and entering Islands of Adventure park, an entire village unfolds, covered in snow. Hogwarts looms behind utterly majestic. And, as if to completely blow our already overexcited minds, our wands we bought in Ollivanders even work in the shop windows in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
Doesn’t it get really busy?
Harry Potter especially, does get busy, but resort hotels give you early priority access. We also found it really quiet towards the end of the day. We visited in October, when American children don’t have school holidays, weather wise it was perfect – warm, very little rain, but not too hot.
But I don’t like rollercoasters!
As we arrived at Universal Studios and a big red rollercoaster, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, with a steep vertical climb and loops loomed above, I began to really regret offering to review the parks. What I wish someone had told me beforehand was that Universal is probably the best theme park there is for people who hate rollercoasters, while also catering for rollercoaster lovers like my 10yo daughter.
It’s also, most definitely, the best theme park for people who hate theme parks.
Universal Studio’s USP is that it takes you deep inside the film experience. 3D and 4D technology on giant 3D screens around the ride, combine with movement of the ride and added heat and water to make you absolutely feel as if you are right in the midst of a film action scene, being slobbered on by a dragon or feeling a dragon’s breath. It’s like nothing we had experienced before.
Play Quidditch over Hogwarts, follow Spider-Man as he defeats the baddies and rescues you in your web, drive through a Transformers city in crisis – but the best bit is the majority of the sensation is film and motion induced, not rollercoaster induced. The experience for me, was cerebral and a million times better than a vomit inducing rollercoaster, it fully immerses every sense and best of all, the imagination, which is where the magic truly lies.
I still took motion sickness tablets, which worked a treat, but it was nice to be able to close your eyes if you needed a moments respite!
What age kids would it suit?
My kids are 7 and 10 and it was completely perfect for them, right through to grown ups. Although perfect for harder to impress older kids, tweens and teens there are still plenty of rides and attractions for younger ones like Shrek, Minions, Woody Woodpecker, Dr Seuss Island, Animal Actors, Jurassic Park.
It’s all pretty amazing, but given Harry Potter is the most mind-blowing and largest element, if you have the opportunity of taking your kids at an age where they will really appreciate that, I would say go then.
How will I cope with all the gift shops?
The gift shops are incredibly plentiful and the quality and scope of the merchandise is awesome, so you do need to have a very clear game plan to navigate this with your children, and your own inner child. This could be a spending limit, giving them the cash to manage themselves or letting them choose one thing at the end of the day in the main gift shop which has something from every attraction. Talk it through before you enter. I love my new Harry Potter T Shirt. Lecture over.
But isn’t it a long way to go?
We woke up very early for the first few days, still on UK time, but in many ways early starts and early nights work well when you are planning to get the most out of theme parks. Plan in some low key lazy days while you adjust – the resort hotels are perfect for unwinding with pools and sun loungers. Sunshine defintely makes it all easier.
Flying with Virgin Holidays makes long haul family travel fun. The inflight entertainment, as you would expect, is excellent, with something to entertain all the family. The stand out element for me was the child friendliness of the staff and the regular treats they bring out to distract kids from asking ‘are we nearly there yet?’ Fab lollies, afternoon tea, love hearts sweeties. Kids get a little rucksack with socks, eye mask, activity book and crayons in which also helps them to keep their stuff in check.
Where should we stay?
Universal Orlando Resorts have 5 themed hotels close to the parks, so you can pick one to suit your personality – each has free bus or water taxi transport to the parks. We stayed at Cabana Bay Beach Resort which offers best value for money of the five, still with all the stunning design, fun and spotless themeing you can expect from Universal Resort Orlando. You can also enter the parks an hour before everyone else. Some of the other ‘premier’ and ‘preferred’ hotels give you the ability to skip the ride queues too, worth weighing up against the cost of fast passes.
The Cabana Bay Beach Resort is themed around the great American road trip family vacations of the 1950s. It’s bright, airy and fun. The scale of it really blew us away on arrival. The signage is gorgeously retro and the sweeping entrance and palm trees whisk you into a 50s holiday world, but with all the modern convenience of wifi and Starbucks.
Cabana Bay is located right next to Volcano Bay water park, opening Summer 2017, which is going to be ideal for families. The resort also has family suites with kitchenettes, if you fancy doing a bit of self catering.
I think if we had chosen ourselves we might have gone for the Hard Rock Hotel, just because rock music is more us and 1950s music and film on loop began to unnerve me after a few days. But there really is a hotel to suit everyone’s tastes, the other 3 are Italian, Carribbean and Luxury themed.
What can I eat?
Burgers and Fries? Only joking, of course you can have these, but there are lots of other food options. The newly opened steam punk themed Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savoury Feast Kitchen stands next to the colosseum-themed largest Hard Rock cafe in the world. We had to order the most instragrammed dessert on the Toothsome menu, a milkshake red velvet cupcake, it totally defeated us, but my goodness we had fun trying.
City Walk has a huge range of eateries and I loved the look of the Margarita bar by the lake. Inside the parks I would recommend booking in and eating at Mythos in Islands of Adventure, it has been voted theme park restaurant of the year for six years in a row. I love Greek food, which we plumped for starters, they were delicious and the Pad Thai was so good. I was hankering for something other than burgers and fries, and this delivered.
What else can I do in Orlando?
After two days in the park we were ready for a chill out day, which the resort perfectly provided for us. We lounged along the lazy river and dipped in the pool. It felt like the best of both worlds. By day four I was starting to feel I needed to see something that wasn’t man made, sadly we had run out of time, but if I went back I would love to take a road trip, see the coast or take a boat trip and look for crocodiles. The Kennedy Space Centre would be top of our list. Space in Your Case team member Katie has some fab ideas here. We Blog Travel also have an Orlando shopping guide, remember to leave some space in your case!
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Keen to know more about Universal Orlando Resort?
Read Penny’s full reviews of her holiday in Orlando over on parentshaped.
I am a member of the Mumsnet Bloggers Panel, a group of parent bloggers who have volunteered to review products, services, events and brands for Mumsnet. I have not paid for the product. I have editorial control and retain full editorial integrity.