Universal Orlando Travel Tips
I am not sure if you have noticed but I am a huge Harry Potter fan. It started with the first movie, and turned ugly. You know, knocking down kids to get the midnight release of the next book. Then, binge reading and re-reading the book. Naturally, I instilled that love/obsession of HP to the kids because that is what good mothers do, right? After a stellar Harry Potter themed birthday party, we further invested our love of Rowling’s world by going to what we lovingly call Harry Potter land.
I do a ton of research before I go, but if I missed anything; tips, secret spells, places to go, or best hotel deals please leave a comment. We are already scoping out a time for our next trip. Speaking of time, when is the best time to go? When everyone else isn’t there! Don’t go on a weekend if you can, don’t go on a holiday, don’t go in peak summer. I used the free crowd calendar map on orlandoinformer.com to find out how busy the park would be and made my travel times when the crowd was slow to moderate.
You may think that having an express pass will help so you can go when its busy to very busy, but NO, it will not help much. Why? First, because if your going for HP land, Escape from Gringotts, the Forbidden journey, and the Hogwarts Express do not offer express pass lines (although, Gringotts and Journey have a single rider line). Also because anyone staying at the 3 deluxe onsite hotels get Express Passes with their stay. This doesn’t include anyone actually buying express passes. Side note, if you go during a peak time and you are planning on purchasing Express Passes, don’t. Just stay at the 3 on-site deluxe hotels (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock and Portifino). The price per night during peak is around Royal pacific – $310, Portifino- $370, Hard Rock – $382. Express Passes for unlimited use to both parks are $149 each! If you have 4 people going, you’ll save money just staying at the nice hotel.
I haven’t even told you about cheaptickets.com! I searched the on-site hotels for a couple of weeks and could not find a deal with all the traditional hotel websites. Cheaptickets.com had the same price as all the other hotel website, but they always seem to have a 20% off promo code. I was looking at the Royal Pacific in June and cheaptickets.com quoted $240/night (with the free passes). This was an extremely good price for that hotel. Looking it up now for those same dates this year, Universal is quoting $319. Another point is that if you see a price you like, buy it, because the prices are constantly changing. That same price was gone 2 days later, which was fine since I decided to stay in the Cabana Bay.
Cabana Bay was the newest on-site hotel in summer of 2015, however, Sapphire Falls is opening up in 2016. Cabana Bay is the considered the prime value on-site hotel but it was beautiful and clean. I was nervous that we would be staying in the crap hotel and we would be the sad lot at Universal, but that wasn’t us…….it was the people staying at the off-site hotels. I’m just kidding. My point is that is was a very nice place and I’m glad I made the choice to spend a little less on the hotel room (if we didn’t need the express pass for lines) and spend more money at HP land. We went to the pool the first day, which has an awesome lazy river. The kids were so excited about this. We ate at the Bayliner Diner, which has a cafeteria feel but nicer. Its like going to the food area in a mall. They have certain types of food in a section and you get in the line. Grab your food, get a drink and check out. This was actually really nice because you are so exhausted by the time you get back to the hotel, all you want to do is eat quickly, shower, then sleep. You can eat in a huge dining hall with everyone or take the food back to your hotel room. In the morning, the lines at the bus stop get long. Get there 30 minutes before the park opens up to get on one of the first couple of buses. I was very impressed with the bus system at Universal. Besides the morning, we didn’t wait more than 10 minutes for a bus. This includes the time when we are at the park and a severe thunderstorm rolled through. There was a mad, mass exodus out of the park and the line at the bus stop was so terribly long! We were drenched from head to toe. The staff called in extra buses to cart everyone away. Very impressive. At disneyland, we waited 45 minutes for buses just throughout the day.
Buy a Quick Service Dining Plan!!!! Don’t get this mixed up with the Universal Dining Plan (see picture below), and you may not want to purchase if you plan to eat outside of Harry Potter land (but why would you want too?). I didn’t buy the QS- dining plan and found out on day 2 by a lovely man working at the Three Broomsticks when we went for lunch. The nice part about this plan is that you don’t have to pre-order, you can purchase right at the register. That is what happened to me. I was about to buy our lunch and the lovely man asked if I wanted to buy a dining plan. Me, the skeptic, was thinking I was going to get the short end of the stick, but he explained to me that if I paid $3 more, I could get the dining plan, which would pay for another snack and 2 drink. For example, I ordered and entree and 2 butter beers and a drink for the 3 of us and my total was $30. If I paid $33, we would get 1 snack and 2 drinks for the rest of the day. What? Sign me up! Now, this depends on where you eat but we were having most of our meals in HP land, where waters run $3 or $4. You can use the snack for frozen butter beer($4) and at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. Ice cream in a cup $5, in a waffle cone $6. Seemed like a no brainer to me because I didn’t want to carry stuff around all day. I did get 2 things to bring which were these collapsible water bottles and these frogg togg headbands. Otherwise you want as little as possible, because they make you put your bags in very small lockers. The area is so busy. You can see people getting in line while you watch the person in front of you try figure out how to use the screen to unlock the locker. Heaven forbid, you can’t get your bag in the tiny locker. I had this problem and had to get my daughter to open a second locker. Bottom line, go light.
Tickets: I wasn’t able to find a stellar deal on tickets. Just searched and ordered the best deal. I will say get the park to park, because that is the only way you can ride the Hogwarts Express train. If you are spending most of your time in the world of HP, you may want to go back and forth a couple of times throughout the day based on what you want to eat or what attraction you want to visit. This is a good time to tell you that I found the Universal wait time app to be the most accurate and what I followed to see where the shortest lines were located.
The reason you want to stay at an on-site hotel is because on-site hotels offer 1 hour early entry into the WWoHP. What I didn’t know was that the only side that opens is the Island of Adventures side. Everyone lines up in front of Island of Adventures and they have park people and ropes leading you to the NE side where the Forbidden Journey is located. Even first thing in the morning there is a long line but, at this time, the line doesn’t take that long (15-20 minutes). It is actually a little too fast because they did such a fantastic job of setting up Hogwarts, you want to take it all in. It’s ok, though. You’re not ridding this thing only once.
After that, we road the train to get to Universal and went straight to Ollivanders because the line gets very long. Take the kids to a wand choosing ceremony! They get a group of 15 or so people and bring them into a small wand room. A wand wizard comes in and chooses 1 kid. I had 2 there so I had to inform them that if one got chosen and the other didn’t, be happy for the one that did. Neither got picked. Haha. A quiet kid that was in the back did, though. My 8 year old was really oohing and ah-ing over the “show”, just totally immersed and invested. Both kids also had their school robes on which they had previously gotten for their birthday. At the end, we all clapped and we were about to head out when the wizard asked the girls if they were getting all their supplies for school and a couple of other questions. Everyone had left and he was still talking to the girls. Then, he asked them go go in front of his desk and did a mini wand ceremony with just the 3 of us. I can’t tell you how much of an experience that was for us. You can see it on my youngest’s face. My older daughter was sick so it took her a while to warm up her attitude that morning. 🙂 However, we will always remember that moment. My suggestion, if you want to get picked, wear your HP gear. I don’t know how they pick but next time, I’m wearing a robe, hat, backpack, socks, scarf, etc. Also, buy the interactive wand. The kids walk around Diagon Alley where there are brass markers. Kids have to move the wand in the proper sequence and point the wand in the right direction in order to see the spell work. Very cool. (Note: there is an Ollivander’s in Hogsmeade which is supposed to have shorter lines and more room, but I wanted to take them to the Diagon Alley one if the lines were’t too long since that is the location in the movies and books)
We immediately went to Escape from Gringotts after that because it was still early and I was trying to beat the crowd. We walked around Diagon Alley for a long time yes. We explored quite a few shops. Diagon Alley is extremely immersive and true to concept, so the shops are super tiny. Not like any theme park shop you have ever been too, so even on a day when it isn’t crowded at WWoHP, it feels cramped. Can you imagine on insanely busy days?
When you go to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, if you buy a pygme puff, they will do a pygme puff ceremony in front of the whole store (all 50 sq.ft.).
We ate at the Leaky Caldron after that (get meal plan). It is such an experience to be in a place that looks straight out of the movies. We walked around Diagon Alley and looked at the different shops, they had a street show telling the story of the Deathly Hallows. A little later, they had Celestina Warbeck singing. The kids practiced spells with their interactive wands, and had a great time discovering all the little things they read about in the books. There are a couple of shows at Hogsmeade but we didn’t catch them.
Some secret things to look for in Harry Potter land, and some not so secret:
- The entrance to Diagon Alley is through a wall next to an unmarked record store. Be careful if it’s wet. There is a slight angle and it’s slippery.
- At the Magical Menagerie, there is a huge snake in the window and if you listen, it speaks parseltongue.
- Go to Knockturn Alley during the hottest part of the day. It is very cool and dark here. Borgia and Burkes store is located here and if you listen closely to the vanishing cabinet, you can hear a bird inside.
- On the street by the double decker bus are homes. If you go to the 4 homes (going towards Fear Factor), you will see 12 Grimmauld Place. Look at the windows and you will see Kreacher looking out one of the windows.
- There are 2 hidden spell locations. One is at Slug and Jiggers Apothecary faux storefront and a second is in the right-hand window of Scribbulus Writing Implements on Horizont Alley.
- Go to the Gringotts money exchange (not Gringotts bank), you can exchange money for Gringotts bank notes which can be used in some areas of the park. The fun part is that the goblin interacts with people while they are in line. Another website suggested you ask the goblin if he is a house elf. I don’t know what happens because, even though I had this on my list, I forgot to do this.
- On the Knight bus, you can go on and interact with the shrunken head and the conductor.
- In the phone booth at Kings Crossing, if you dial 62442 (Magic), you get the Ministry of Magic. However, when we went there, the telephone dial was locked or removed.
- Moaning Myrtle can be heard in the bathroom at Hogsmeade.
- While in line for the Forbidden Journey, you can hear a teacher lecturing Neville behind the door to the Potions classroom.
I did my best to consolidate all the information I obtained before we went on our trip. If you have any questions, please ask. I will help if I can. We were there for 3 days and went to every part of both parks. However, we spent a majority of our time in HP land. In early June, the lines were not too long (30-45 at peak times) . The only exception was the Minions ride. That seemed to always be at about 90 minutes. The worst part is that it is one of the few rides where they don’t have any “theater” while waiting in line, so it was a tedious wait. This is an express pass line, though, if you have one.
I will say that this was one of the best trips if you are a Harry Potter fan. The staff was outstanding and we cannot wait to go back!