We finally did it. We went took our first trip to Universal Studios Orlando, mainly to check out all of the Harry Potter Attractions. I’m going to give you my opinion on the good the bad and the comparisons to Disney. We made a few mistakes and hopefully you can learn from them.
We spent two days in both parks ( park hopper for 2 days). Tickets are expensive. They are comparable to Disney, one theme park is not cheaper than the other. We were able to take advantage of a Florida resident deal which gave us two days for the price of one. Universal does often run sales or promotions on tickets, keep your eye out for those.
Just like Disney’s lightning lane, Universal has a paid option to skip the lines called Express Pass. There are two versions of this pass The Express pass ($99) which lets you skip the lines one time on all included rides and the Unlimited Express pass ($129) which as you may guess gives you unlimited times to ride. You need to make sure you have this for both parks on both days. Read the options carefully when buying. This pass currently does not include Hagrids Magical Motor Bike Adventure or Velocicoaster.
If you stay at one of Universal’s top-tier hotels ( think Disney Deluxe Hotel) the unlimited fast pass is included for all the guests registered in the room. This pass applies the day you check in and the day you check out. This can be an enormous value and really does justify the cost of the more expensive room. At the time of this publication, the hotels that include the Express pass include Lowes Royal Pacific, The Hard Rock, and Lowes Portofino Bay.
Because of a little poor planning on my part on our first trip to Universal Studios, we spent one day in the parks with the express pass and one day without. In my opinion, Universal’s version of the express pass is far superior to Disney’s Lightning Lane. Here’s why. You do not have to make a reservation for the express pass. You use it when you want. There is no checking your phone every two hours. No need to plan out your entire day and the line is actually fast! This makes it easier to plan a day in the park with a large group ( we had six people).
Do I think the express pass is worth it? Absolutely. On the first day with no express pass, we rode 4 rides. In 8 hours in the park. Granted we waited about 90 minutes for Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike Ride ( totally worth it). There is no express pass option for this ride. On the second day with the express pass, we rode 4 rides in the first 90 minutes.
What we Loved
We loved all things Harry Potter and truly did not have time to experience all of it. The Harry Potter attractions are spread out over both parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. In order to experience the Hogwarts Express ( train) you will need a park hopper ticket. This train ride is a different experience depending on if you are coming or going from Hogwarts. It was a highlight for everyone on our trip.
The Hogwarts/Hogsmeade area was extremely crowded. Think shoulder to shoulder. There were lines for everything from butter beer ( we all enjoyed the hot version as it was extremely cold for Florida), to rides, store purchases, and interactive wand spots. Be prepared to wait in line at the interactive wand spots throughout all the Harry Potter Areas. The interactive wands will set you back $63 each and require some patience and practice to perfect. We borrowed some from friends in order to skip the hefty price tag.
Diagon Alley was equally impressive. We didn’t have time to take in all the shows happening in the area. But we did get some sweets, beer, and pumpkin pasties. You can also change some muggle money into notes from Gringots. Just make sure to spend it before you leave the park because trying to turn it back into muggle money was less than a magical experience for us.
The Rest of the Park
Here is where the magic sort of ended for me. The rest of our experiences at our first trip to Universal Studios were underwhelming. I think your enjoyment of these attractions could also be tied to how invested in the characters or IP you are. Many of Universals rides are billed as 4D. Many of the rides felt like different versions of the same ride to me. Think of moving vehicles, screens, and 4D effects like squirts of water or wind. If you are at all prone to motion sickness, like two in our party, you will want to have something to combat the motion sickness on board before you start the day. Both my son and sister-in-law needed Dramamine to get through the 4D rides.
Of Note: the Velocicoaster was a favorite of our groups. I didn’t ride since my youngest hates roller coasters. The rest of the crew waited in a long line but said it was the best coaster they had ever been on. Instead of waiting on them my son and I rode four rides together with our express pass!
I generally hate to be negative. However, I can’t say enough bad things about the food. It was awful. Literally, everything we ate was bad. ( except for the sweet treats, butter beer, and regular beer). We had a sit-down lunch at Conficso Grille inside the park and Toothsome Cholate Emporium outside of the park in City walk. Both locations had slow and less than great service and not great but expensive food. We did also try the comic book cafe inside the park. I figured it would be hard to screw up a theme park burger. We were wrong. On both service and food, Disney got all of our votes.
Did we enjoy our first trip to Universal Studios? Yes. Would any of us go back? Probably not. Go and check out Harry Potter but set your expectations low for the remainder of the park. Unless you really love ET, Men in Black, or The Simpsons I don’t feel like the rest of the park has a lot to offer. With the service and food both being sub-par I can’t think of a good reason to return.
How do you feel about Universal vs. Disney? Have you experienced both? Do you feel like Harry Potter is enough of a draw to the park for you to visit? Let us know in the comments below.