One of the best things about being a travel advisor (besides being able to plan amazing trips for fabulous people) is all of the learning opportunities available to me among thousands of vacation destinations. So when I was offered the chance to become a Universal Orlando Resort Specialist, I quickly jumped on that training and got certified since it was already a destination I was considering for my own family vacation this summer!
I planned a 5-day, 4-night vacation for 3 people (me, my 11-year old daughter Kelsey and my husband Tom) staying in two different hotels on-site with 3-day, park-to-park tickets. I’ll explain why we chose two different hotels later in this post. I believe this was the perfect amount of time to experience what all three parks had to offer without exhausting ourselves too much.
Universal Orlando Resort consists of three theme parks: Volcano Bay, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. I chose the park-to-park ticket option so that we were not limited to visiting just one park per day. This worked out great as we were able to jump from park to park each day and really vary our experience to see and do all the things!
My best travel buddies
Day One: Travel to Orlando
It’s no secret that the hardest part of taking a vacation this summer is air travel. And unfortunately, even as a travel advisor, I do not have much of an edge when planning personal air travel. Against my better judgment, I booked an early-evening flight to Orlando so that we could fly direct and save a few hundred dollars. After dealing with a 3-hour delay, we finally arrived at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, just before midnight. I had called ahead to inform them of our late arrival (travel planning 101). The party next to us could have benefited from my professional travel services since they did NOT call ahead, leaving them without the family suite they had reserved and were offered two standard rooms instead. Check-in for us went very smooth and we were anxious to get to bed (after a vending-machine "dinner") and rest for our first day in the parks!
Day Two: Volcano Bay and Parks Preview
After a few hours of sleep, we were up and ready to go. We decided on breakfast at our hotel in the Bayliner Diner. Cabana Bay has a super-cute 50’s-60’s theme going on that gives this giant property a lot of personality. I loved all of the retro-décor and clever theming, especially the classic cars all parked out front. While I kept my breakfast expectations fairly low, I was pleasantly surprised. The “diner” is set up as a food court, which works well for families wanting variety and wanting it quickly. The food was hot and fresh and they even had gluten-free offerings for my daughter Kelsey who has Celiac Disease. I opted for an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a croissant with a side of fresh fruit. It hit the spot. There was also a Starbucks in our hotel, but the lines were just long enough to keep us away.
We started our morning at Volcano Bay since it was walking distance from our hotel and even though we had 3-day park-to-park tickets, our Express Passes wouldn’t be ready to use until the following day. Volcano Bay is a massive waterpark with a giant Volcano right in the center, which was quite impressive. They have slides and attractions there for all ages and thrill levels. I tend to lean towards the “low-thrill” options but somehow my husband and daughter managed to get me on a ride in the “high-thrill” category which had me screaming like a crazy person the entire time! I really enjoyed the wave pool and two lazy rivers and we never had to wait long to enjoy most of the slides. There were also plenty of beach chairs available - yes, there’s an actual man-made beach on-site!
My best tips for a day at Volcano Bay:
If you are staying at an on-site hotel, take advantage of the early park admission, which allows you to enter the park one hour before it opens to the public. Use this time to find some chairs in the shade or with an umbrella that can act as your home base for the day.
Take advantage of the available lockers to store your valuables.
Bring in your own water bottles, which you can refill for free at any of the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines.
Use the Universal Orlando mobile app to order your lunch in advance, and opt for an early- or late- lunch. While we did use the mobile app, there were still long queues to pick up our food right at lunchtime.
We left Volcano Bay shortly after lunch due to an impending thunderstorm. It was reminiscent of that scene from Jaws with the lifeguards shouting through megaphones for everyone to get out of the water. Mass exodus! This actually worked out well for us because we were ready to go do some exploring in the other parks and plan out our strategy for the following days.
Our first stop was Islands of Adventure, which was a short shuttle ride from our hotel. We wandered about and checked out all of the lands and even jumped on the Cat in the Hat ride twice since there were no lines and it was a super cute non-threatening ride in Seuss Landing. We are NOT roller coaster people, to be clear. We were able to take the Hogwarts Express over to Diagon Alley in Universal Studios since this can only be done with a park-to-park ticket. What a truly unique experience. I would definitely put it on the MUST DO list. Especially if you are a Harry Potter fan.
We returned to Islands of Adventure in the Lost Continent for our dinner reservation at Mythos, which has won Theme Park Insider's award for “World’s Best Theme Park Restaurant” four years in a row. It absolutely lived up to its accolades. The building itself resembles a sandstone cave system with massive statues carved into the interior and exterior and large waterfalls and pools exuding a mythological Greek vibe. On to the food, which was also amazing. We started with some Grilled Lamb Meatballs with rosemary infused polenta, Kalamata olives and sweet chili marinara and mint chimichurri and my mouth is already watering before I can even write about my main course, which was a Souvlaki Couscous Bowl, with za’atar spiced couscous, fresh cucumbers, marinated artichoke, kalamata olives, spiced chickpeas, feta cheese, tzatziki and tahini dressing. I chose a Tofu topper, but a Souvlaki chicken kabob or Moroccan beef kabob were also available. Oh Mylanta, was it good! Mythos also had great offerings that were kid- and gluten- friendly for Kelsey. I don’t even remember what Tom ate because I was too busy with my bowl of deliciousness.
After our dinner, we walked towards Hogsmeade and noticed crowds starting to line up near the castle. We soon found out they were there for The Nighttime Lights At Hogwarts Castle, which only happens on select nights and is kind of a big deal. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! (this happened to us a LOT during our trip - beginner’s luck, I guess!). The show was absolutely stunning and was the perfect way to end our first day.
The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle. I had a great vantage point to capture this video.
Day Three: Check-In to Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Head to the Parks
Remember the part earlier in my blog where I mentioned I would explain why we chose to stay in two different hotels? Here we are. Stay with me. Basically, if you book an on-site “Premier” hotel, everyone in your room will receive a FREE Unlimited Universal Express Pass, which allows you to skip the line at almost every attraction, as many times as you would like. This pass is normally an additional cost on top of your park tickets (which are $440 for one 3-day park-to-park ticket). If you stay just one night at a “Premier” hotel, you get a 2-day pass good on the day of check-in (which you can pick up at 7am) and the day of check-out. Now, I only discovered this after we had already booked our non-refundable “Prime Value” hotel (they didn't teach this little trick in the training). But when I saw the somewhat shocking price* of the Express Passes for 2-days for all three of us, I decided to do some math. Now, generally I suck at math, but this kind of math actually gets me excited. No really. Here’s how it went:
Price of 2-park Unlimited Express Pass (June 20) x 3: $854.47
Price of 2-park Unlimited Express Pass (June 21) x 3: $826.47
Total for 2 days worth of 3 Unlimited Express Passes: $1681.41
Price of one discarded night @ Cabana Bay: $145.46
Price of one replacement night @ Portofino Bay: $620.11
Total for Premier hotel with included Unlimited Express Passes: $765.57
*The pricing of the Unlimited Express Passes varies greatly by day and time of year. We were obviously visiting during high-season. Passes can be more affordable during other times and a regular Express Pass option can also be more affordable (it allows for only one skip-the-line entry at each participating attraction)
Now, it does not take a math major to see the amount of money we saved ($915.84) by switching hotels for one night. The cost of a Premier hotel with the Express Passes was WAY cheaper than the cost of the Express Passes if purchased separately! What? Even my husband who works in finance was impressed. And as an added bonus, because we still had our room at Cabana Bay and would be returning there for our final night, we did not have to pack everything up and check out to go over to Portofino Bay. We just filled a backpack with what we needed for the night/next day. And for me, as a travel advisor, it was great to experience two different categories of Universal hotels so I have this knowledge to share with my clients. Portofino Bay was just lovely and it truly did feel like you were right there in Italy. Logistically, it was a bit awkward. In the morning, we had to take the shuttle bus from Cabana Bay to the parks and then wait for a different shuttle bus from there to take us over to Portofino Bay so we could pre-register and collect our Express Passes. It took some time out of our day, but was well worth it in the time we saved by having those passes! We were able to enjoy all the rides/attractions we wanted to with hardly any wait. Another bonus that comes with staying in the “Premier” hotels is that they have a water taxi to take you to the parks. This was a much nicer option than being stuffed into a shuttle bus and I welcomed the break from that mode of transport.
We started our day with a trip to Voodoo Doughnut in CityWalk, which is an impressive area with tons of restaurants and shops just outside the park entrances. Voodoo Doughnut is another MUST-DO. Easily some of the most gorgeous and delicious doughnuts I’ve ever eaten! There was always a queue, but it was worth the wait. And the shop itself was a feast for the eyes. To burn those doughnut calories, we high-tailed it over to Universal Studios. Now, I am not going to go into a full ride-by-ride review here. Congratulations if you have already made it this far into my endless blog (at what point does it become less of a blog and more of a novel?) I will say I do not do well on motion-simulated rides, but I went on them anyway. Some pleasantly surprised me, and some left me wanting to vomit all over the pavement. As a family, I think we decided a few of our favorite rides/attractions at Universal Studios were Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, E.T. Adventure (the only remaining original park attraction) and Hogwarts Express. I personally loved MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack, but Kelsey did not agree because her laser gun was not working.
As for shopping, the Tribute Store, which is only open for a short time this summer, was SO COOL. Total throwback to the OG Universal Studios stuff. E.T., Jaws, Back to the Future. The store was movie theater themed and the rooms paid homage to each movie. We may have bought some things. If you are staying on-site, you can have your purchases delivered back to your hotel or CityWalk to collect at the end of the day. We also spent quite a bit of time in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley where Kelsey could cast some more spells and do some magic with the new ($60) wand that CHOSE HER at Ollivander's Wand Shop the night before. We enjoyed a proper English lunch (and Butterbeer, of course!) at the Leaky Cauldron.
Kelsey enjoying a Butterbeer at The Leaky Cauldron.
After a long day in the parks, we returned to Portofino Bay to enjoy a fabulous Italian meal at Bice Ristorante, which was on-site at the hotel. I stayed awake just long enough to enjoy a perfect martini (or two), share a starter of Carpaccio di Manzo (beef tenderloin carpaccio, pickled onions, crispy capers, truffle aioli) and a fresh pasta dish - Cappellaccio (“Little Hat” shaped ravioli filled with braised beef short rib, spinach, fresh mushroom in a marsala cream sauce). Così buono! And they were also able to accommodate Kelsey with a kid- and gluten-friendly option.
This is not Italy. This is Loews Portofino Bay Hotel!
Day Four: Check-Out of Portofino Bay and Head to the Parks
After a restful night at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, we jumped on the water taxi back to the parks. We may have consumed some more Voodoo Doughnuts. We started again at Universal Studios to finish up the remaining two things we wanted to do and then jumped back on the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure. This is where I made the fatal mistake of going on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, against my better judgment. It was the most motion-ey (yes, I realize that’s not a word) of ALL the rides I went on and absolutely hands-down (sorry, Harry) my LEAST favorite. Let’s just say I “needed a moment” when we exited that ride. I think Kelsey was ready to call 911. We spent the rest of the day doing all the “wet” rides - and they were so much fun and refreshing in the Florida heat! Jurassic Park River Adventure was the most thrilling of all these rides. From Universal’s website: “One minute, you’re gliding along in your raft. The next, you’re face to face with a giant T. Rex. There’s nowhere to turn. She’s bearing down on you and your only escape from her razor sharp teeth is to take the pitch-black plunge before you. Did we mention it’s an 85-foot drop?” Yup, that pretty much sums it up. PITCH BLACK. 85-FOOT DROP. If I had actually seen this part of the ride in action (which was impossible since it was hidden inside a tall building), there would be no way in hell I would have gotten on it. Somehow, I survived. And I actually loved it. I would say on our list of favorites at Islands of Adventure would be the Jurassic Park River Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges.
Kelsey passing through to Hogwart's Express on Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station.
Ok, I don’t know about you, but I am just about blogged out sharing all the amazing experiences we had at Universal Orlando Resort. Are you still with me? Good. I have just a few more things to get to. After another fun-filled day in the parks, we returned to Cabana Bay where we were finally able to enjoy the pools and waterslide for a quick break before getting ready for dinner. Since it was Taco Tuesday, having a late meal at Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food in CityWalk was just the thing. We ended our night with a bit of last-minute shopping at the Universal Studios Store.
Day Five: Check-Out of Cabana Bay and Head to Orlando Airport
This was a sad day, of course. Our family trip had come to its end. But there is always one bright, shiny moment in every day. Ours was the fact that even amid the “Summer of Airmageddon” and our less than timely arrival at the beginning of our trip, we somehow managed to board the unicorn flight that was neither canceled or delayed. It was ON TIME. We were safely returned to our home state of New Hampshire, exhausted, a bit ripe and filled with memories that will last a lifetime.
My best tips for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure:
Book at least one night at a “Premier” hotel so that you can take full advantage of the two-day Unlimited Express Pass. It will almost always make sense financially (depending on what time of year you go) if you have more than 2 people in your party. You can stay at the more affordable properties for your remaining nights.
If you are staying on-site, take advantage of early park admission and use it to get on those rides that tend to have longer wait times (if you don’t have an Express Pass). Or simply enjoy being in a less-crowded park for an hour.
Make dinner reservations for every night of your trip well in advance - even if you don’t think you’ll use them. You can always cancel the day before. We really wanted to eat at Toothsome’s Chocolate Emporium in CityWalk, but missed out on this because the reservations were completely booked 2 weeks out and I waited until a few days before our trip to make our reservations. Also, make your reservations for a later time than you think you’ll eat. We changed ours to an hour later every night!
When eating in the parks, use the mobile app to order your food in advance. You can thank me later.
Go to Honeydukes (Islands of Adventure). Buy the Butterbeer Fudge. That is all.
Bring reusable water bottles to the parks and fill them up with free water at the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines as needed.
Give the Horror Make Up Show a go. (Universal Studios). It’s more hilarious than scary and a great way to cool off and give your tired feet a break. Just be sure to check show times for that day.
This one seems obvious, but wear comfortable, supportive shoes (say no to flip-flops, brand-new sneakers and stilettos). I wore my broken-in Birkenstocks the entire time and my feet thanked me at the end of the day. Also on the topic of apparel, be sure to wear lightweight, quick-dry clothing - especially in the hot summer months. There is nothing worse than a sweat-drenched cotton t-shirt at the end of the day. And no, I don’t want to sit next to you on the bus.
And finally, remember you are here to have fun! Yes, family vacations can have stressful moments and nothing is going to be perfect, but try to go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff. I saw far too many stressed-out parents fighting with their kids and I had a few anxious moments myself, but I tried to keep it in check and be grateful for the opportunity to travel with my family again.
I hope you enjoyed what has been the longest blog of my travel career so far. And of course - if you are looking for a travel professional to help plan YOUR Universal Orlando Vacation or any other vacation , I’ll be right here waiting.