This article is part eleven of the series “Trip diary: Three weeks on the road in Florida”Teaser: New series starts this week Introduction: A three week road trip around Florida, June-July 2013 Hotel review: Park Inn Oslo Airport Flight report: Lufthansa New Business Class Frankfurt to Miami First impressions – a Limey driving in the USA Hotel review: Hilton Miami Downtown First impressions – an Anglo-Nordic family in Miami Hotel review: Sheraton Vistana Resort Villas, Orlando Three theme parks in three days – Day 1: Walt Disney World Three theme parks in three days – Day 2: Wet ‘n Wild Three theme parks in three days – Day 3: Universal Orlando Resort Hotel review: St. George Inn, St Augustine Historical Florida – St Augustine Hotel review: Hampton Inn & Suites Amelia Island Amelia Island – the destination for relaxation in northeast Florida Hotel review: Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast Old Florida – Cedar Key Hotel review: The Birchwood, St. Petersburg Dali Museum, St. Petersburg Hotel review: Island Inn, Sanibel Cruising to Cabbage Key Great road trips of the world – Highway 1 Hotel review: Orchid Key Inn, Key West The other Florida – Key West Hotel review: South Beach Z Ocean Hotel, Miami Beach
Refreshed after our afternoon at Wet ‘n Wild the day before, we woke up ready to make the most of our last full day in Orlando. Anne decided to drop the roller-coasters in favour of the facilities at the Sheraton Vistana Resort and the rest of us went to reception to buy our tickets for Universal Orlando Resort.
Bearing in mind how we’d enjoyed the rides at the Magic Kingdom we were really excited to see what Universal’s two parks had to offer. We had high expectations as we piled into the car and made the fifteen minute journey across town. These expectations were raised yet higher by tantalizing glimpses of tracks hanging high in the air that we saw in the distance as we approached.
We found a slot for the Merc in the enormous Universal car park which is a multi-storey building offering protection from the rain, unlike the open car parks of Walt Disney World. It was then a short walk to the main entrance where we bought an express pass each as we would only have one day and such passes were not sold at our hotel.
Day Three: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
You might want to sit down for this part. Okay, it’s not quite as complicated as Walt Disney World, but those folks at Universal are certainly trying to keep up with their arch-rivals…
- Admission to a single park for a single day costs USD 96 for adults, USD 90 for children
- Per-day costs fall dramatically with a multi-day ticket – two days in a single park would be USD 63/60, three days USD 49/45 and four days USD 39/36
- Admission to both parks for a single day costs USD 136 for adults, USD 130 for children
- Again, 2-4 day passes cut your per-day costs – two days in both parks comes to USD 88/83, three days USD 62/58 and four days USD 49/46
- To really make the most out of your time, you can get access to both parks with Unlimited Express – meaning you can skip the queues for each ride as often as you like (not just once per ride) for USD 189.99/184.99 for one day; multi-day passes make your per day costs as follows: USD 135/130 for two days, USD 103/99 for three days and USD 85/82
- You can also buy a regular Express Pass as an add-on; but they are not cheap. However, unlike the the free Fastpass system at Disney you are not restricted to booking one ride per pass at any given time. You can jump the queue any time you want rather than having to return at your allotted time – but only once for each ride (the Unlimited Express option is only available bundled as above).
- Two rides are excluded from the Express Pass (both regular and Unlimited) – including the most popular one of all – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Prices for an Express Pass start at USD 29.99 per park per day, a 2-park version at USD 35.99. However, prices are set according to demand and if you find them that cheap the day you plan to visit you probably don’t need one. Peak season prices (July/August) are more like USD 69.99 for both parks, perhaps USD 5 cheaper for just one.
- To visit over a longer period you’ll want the Orlando Flex Ticket, which comes in two varieties depending on whether you want to include Busch Gardens in Tampa which is 2 hours away by free shuttle bus
- The Orlando Flex Ticket gives you unlimited entry to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Wet ‘n Wild, SeaWorld and Aquatica for fourteen days for USD 319.95 (adults) and USD 299.95 (children). The Flex Ticket Plus includes Busch Gardens and costs USD 359.95 and USD 339.95 respectively
- All the above rates are exclusive of Florida’s 6% sales tax.
- Parking costs USD 17 per day
Still with me? After all that, I have some good news. Provided you have a pulse and a reasonable sense of fun, the effort required to decide which tickets to buy and that uneasy feeling of parting with a huge chunk of cash will be but a distant memory shortly after you enter the park. You are going to enjoy yourself, and enjoy yourself a lot. Even 30 days later, when that credit card bill thumps onto your doormat and you are reminded just how expensive this day was, it’s unlikely you’ll regret it.
Just as Walt Disney World offers more than the Magic Kingdom, Universal Orlando Resort is actually two theme parks – Universal Studios and Universal’s Island of Adventure. There is also a dining and shopping area called CityWalk which you pass through first from the main entrance and forms a kind of hub between the two parks. Head over the bridge to the right for Universal Studios while the one on the left leads to Islands of Adventure.
Image © Universal Orlando Resort
Islands of Adventure
We went left, deciding to explore the newer part of the resort first. This park was added in 1997 (Universal Studios opened its doors in 1990) and in addition to Universal’s film properties includes a number of licensed attractions from other producers. Just in case you were wondering why Spider-Man is here. And Popeye. And the Cat in the Hat.
But more importantly, Harry Potter. Beating Disney for the rights to the bespectacled schoolboy propelled Universal Orlando Resort into the big league with almost eight million visitors a year doing what we did here.
The first ride to catch our attention was the Incredible Hulk Coaster. This was where the Higgs family really became hooked on thrill rides and if there was any justice in this world there would be a plaque next to the entrance to commemorate this event.
Storm clouds were threatening as we left our bags in a locker and sped past the long queue using our Express Passes, but luck was with us and we managed to ride the Hulk (yes, that sounds weird) before the skies opened and the ride was temporarily closed. It was so good that we waited out the storm and went back again. Basically it starts fast (0-40 mph in 2 seconds), flips you into a zero-G roll then blasts you down towards the lake in the middle of the park before reaching top speed of 67 mph. Then you have the rest of the ride…
As an introduction to proper roller-coasters, this is the perfect ride. Mari Anne took a little convincing but the staff convinced her. “Oh I take this every day before work, after work and any time I can,” said the guy checking our tickets. “It’s over so fast, you don’t have time to get scared, either.”
So there’s a Grown-up Travel Guide tip right there: try the Incredible Hulk Coaster to discover where you stand on the whole roller-coaster thing – it’s the litmus test for thrill rides.
I won’t bore you with the details of everything we tried, as we did try practically everything. The other highlights at Islands of Adventure were as follows:
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – an incredible combination of reality and 3D virtual projection which I won’t spoil for you – just do it)
Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls – I have absolutely no idea who Mr Do-Right is but this flume ride was fun despite the fact that it was raining at the time and we got utterly soaked, as you’d expect. Drying booths are available for a charge afterwards but consider waterproofs too
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – your Express Pass is no good here so you will have to queue. But take solace from the fact that it won’t be as bad as the 8 hours the crazy first-day visitors waited. I think it took us just over an hour and a half to reach the ride, but the line is part of the experience once you enter the building, with video projections and neat tricks to keep your attention.And it’s worth it – the unique way the ride is constructed means that it feels like you’re flying; add the high definition visuals, robotics and actual effects like fire and you’re in for a real treat.
Dragon Challenge – two interlocking roller-coasters that almost meet at points on the twisting tracks. High speed thrills.
The Cat in the Hat – I know, but I love those books so we just had to.
The big news for 2014 is the opening of a major new Harry Potter attraction, Diagon Alley. This will connect the two parks with a train ride – the Hogwarts Express – and will also change the dynamics of park visits. A two-park ticket will be essential if you want to take the Express. We’ll let you know all about this after our visit in July.
After lunch it was time to see what Universal Studios had to offer. It’s easy to forget that this is a real, working film studio but on entering the park you certainly feel like you are on a film set. Personally I found this preferable to Disney’s efforts to immerse you in a fairytale world, but both work.
Again, we loved it all here but these were our favourites:
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – the gimmick here is that you can choose your own song as the soundtrack to this fast and slightly brutal ride. I recommend ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath.
Transformers: The Ride 3D – you couldn’t pay me to see the Michael Bay films but the ride is a good one. Loads of good effects, both physical and virtual and as over-the-top as you’d expect
Twister – Ride It Out – more of a tornado simulator than a ride, with a very cheesy narration that happily fails to spoil the experience
Men In Black Alien Attack – this adds a competitive element to the ride as each of the six people in the car is responsible for zapping as many aliens as possible.
The Simpsons Ride – The combination of moving seats and massive IMAX screens works very well, especially in the Simpsons universe with the actual cast members doing the voice work. The area around the ride is now Springfield USA too so you can buy a Krusty Burger and have a Duff beer at Moe’s.
In terms of theme parks, this is the place you should spend most of your time and money in Orlando. As there are so many great rides you should aim for two days if possible, but as you can see we did a lot in just one. Universal Orlando Resort is the cooler, more edgy big brother to the Magic Kingdom and appeals to a slightly older crowd, and does what it does well.
With the new attractions coming this year as well as the ones we didn’t have time for in 2013, we cannot wait to go back. We’ll let you know what we think after the summer!