When I say ‘Big Kids’ I mean me and hubby. This review is of our day out at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure whilst on our holiday in Orlando with the kids and grandparents and about how much crazy fun we fit into one day.
I guess we should have fit loads in – we started early enough. The night before we had booked to go to Universal me and hubby sat by the pool with a bottle of wine and a load of blog posts that had been written about Universal looking at what rides we wanted to go on and somehting made me check the hours of opening. Due to an event being held that evening Universal was opening at 8am rather than 9am and closing earlier too at 6pm. We had been in the practice at WDW of arriving 30-45 minutes before the park opened so we decided to do the same for Universal, however we also didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Universal as the only time we had driven that way over was at rush hour from the airport so we left really early (6.30ish) arriving into the Universal car park at 7am. What we hadn’t realised was that it was actually early opening at Universal for hotel guests (they get an extra hour) so the gates were actually open at 7 for them to get to the rides. We looked a little bit desperate I think arriving that early with nowhere to go, but we at least had chance to get our tickets sorted, grab a coffee and wait!
Speaking of tickets we had been provided with the tickets by Universal in exchange for this review, and they also included Unlimited Express Passes. Express Passes at Universal allow you to skip the lines at the majority of the rides at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The only rides that don’t offer Universal Express are:
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
- Hogwarts Express – London
- Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
Universal’s Islands of Adventure:
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Hogwarts Express – Hogsmeade
- Pteranodon Flyers
The Universal Express Pass doesn’t always get you on the ride straight away but it puts you in a separate (and in our experience significantly smaller) queue meaning you spend SIGNIFICANTLY less time queueing than you would otherwise have done. The difference between the Unlimited Express Pass and the Express Pass is that the latter can only be used once per ride, whereas the former is unlimited.
When I looked at a lot of touring plans for Universal Studios most suggested that you would really need two days to do it any justice at all. I don’t know if it was the combination of time of year (just after Easter) the early opening, and the Express Passes but we did all the rides we wanted to do i.e. all the major rides at both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure between 8am and 3pm in one day. The Express Passes were just amazing and I think that extra hour we got in the parks (when most people probably thought it wasn’t open between 8 and 9) meant we could do all the attractions that didn’t accept Express Pass without the crowds who arrived at 9.
We started at Universal Studios. Everything we had read said that the Harry Potter ride in Universal Studios was possibly the best theme park ride in existence today – a bold claim. So at 8am as the gates opened we made our way straight to
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
This ride often gets queues of over an 2hrs (later in the day it was 1hr 45) so to find a queue of just ten minutes was pretty exciting. The transformation of this area of Universal into Diagon Alley is amazing, take your breath away amazing. There are so many small details to be surprised by and the detail kept a large smile on my face as we waited in line. Whether it would have kept that smile had we waited 2 hours is another matter, I imagine not. Whilst there is no Express Pass line at Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts there is a single rider line. Much is made of the fact that if you take the single rider line you miss out on the pre-show and lots of excitement like the simulated elevator ride. I disgaree, if the single rider line is going to reduce your wait time significantly (often by 25% if not more) I’d say take it. The elevator is not that important. Yes it vibrates and takes you to the depths of the Gringotts vault (not really obvs) but I disagree that you would miss it it and would suggest your saved half an hour could be better spent on another attraction.
The ride itself was however superb. For me not as amazing as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Islands of Adventure, but easily one of the best attractions I had ever been on! Just incredibly clever an enhanced Spiderman or Transformers if you’ve been to Universal before.
I won’t say too much more but definitely do it, and do it EARLY.
After Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts we got on the Hogwarts Express in Kings Cross (yes the signs are exactly like those in Kings Cross, London) and took the train to Islands of Adventure to do the two Harry Potter themed rides there. It was only 8.30.
- Hogwarts Express – London to Hogsmeade
A real train that takes you the very short distance from Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure, but with a difference. The train really is an experience in itself and worth a trip. We only did the journey one way but rumour has it, it is different on the way back. You must have a two-park ticket to ride the train and this is because the train doesn’t pick you up and drop you off in the same location. It takes you to a new park. Your ticket will be scanned before you head into line and if you don’t have one and want to buy another ticket for another park there are helpfully locations close to the train stations to allow you to do so.
- Dragon Challenge
The first ride we encountered in Hogsmeade having left the Hogwarts Express was the Dragon Challenge two intertwined inverted roller coasters. Helpfully having been asked to leave ‘everything’ in a locker to the right of the ride entrance, and when they say everything they do mean everything as they send you through a scanner to check, we also left our Express Passes in the locker too. The ordinary queue was actually only 5 minutes long though in any event and so we quickly got to the front of the queue. This ride was amazingly quick and had some brilliant drops, so much so I went on it 3 times as the line was so short.
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Another of the rides without an Express Pass queue and one of the most popular in the park (as all the Harry Potter rides are).
Top Tip: We queued in the single rider line this time which reduced the queue time from 45 minutes to just 10.
For me, and my husband, this was the best ride of the day. The cleverest, the queasiest, the most inventive. Wikipedia states that “The experience includes a flight around Hogwarts castle, an encounter with the Whomping Willow and a horde of Dementors, and a Quidditch match. The ride drops, spins around, twists and turns, but does not turn upside down, though passengers sometimes lie flat on their backs”. If you want to check out a clip of the ride take a look at this you tube video:
As we wandered through Hogsmeade it was around 9.45 and very very busy. I did at that point query whether we were going to manage to do all the rides we wanted to do before the parks closed at 6pm, however when we turned out of Hogsmeade and into the Jurassic Park area the level of crowds simply disappeared. We then in very short succession with no wait at all in either queue rode:
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
- Jurassic Park River Adventure
and ended up looking like this!
We were drenched and I mean drenched, hubby literally poured water out of his trainers and I wasn’t wearing a scrap of clothes that wasn’t soaked through, but if you are going to get wet, you might as well get wet all at once! These rides don’t say you might get wet (like Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom) they say you WILL get wet. One part of one of the rides was like being under a shower. I am amazed my iPhone still works.
It was then time for Marvel Super Hero Island which includes The Incredible Hulk (unfortunately closed until Summer 2016) and
- Doctor Dooms Fearfall
Superb ride, the only one that hubby declined and I went on myself with only a 10 minute Express Pass queue time as opposed to 50. You’re strapped into your seat. The tension builds and then suddenly the countdown reaches zero and you are rocketed skyward, 185 feet into the air, then hurled back down – screaming!!
- The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman
Actually built for Islands of Adventures opening in 1999 the attraction is still as amazing today as it was then. Having experienced both the Harry Potter rides earlier in the day I was surprised as I thought Spiderman would seem to be the poor relation in comparison. However the re-vamp in 2002 (albeit that’s still 12 years ago) has kept it winning awards for its amazingness every year. We rode this very very quickly with the Express Passes and would otherwise have had a 45 minute wait.
We grabbed a coffee at Starbucks and sat down in the sun to dry off it was only 12.30 and we had done everything that we wanted to in Islands of Adventure.
Wandering back to the Universal Studios entrance we chatted about the relative costs of the one day/two day park entrance costs and the Express Passes. Whilst we got ours complimentary I would still recommend purchasing the Express Passes even at $89 extra and here is why.
One day both park entrance = $155
Two day both park entrance = $219.99
Unlimited Express Pass (both parks) = $84.99
One day both park entrance with Unlimited Express Pass for $239
So for $20 more you can do everything you want to do in a much more pleasant way, than over two days with lots of queueing instead. To me that makes perfect sense.
- Despicable Me
At park opening time, another ride that draws people to ride it first before the queues build is Despicable Me, a 3D interactive amusing motion simulator on which you join Gru and the girls featuring plenty of minion shenanigans. We both loved it. Slightly (and I mean slightly) spoiled for both of us as we were in the first row of seats and the stationary Father with his baby sat in the stationary seats right in front of us slightly changed the total immersion and feeling that you were moving at all times, minor issue though, definitely a hit.
After Despicable Me, came possibly the most intense ride I have ever been on.
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket
You have to watch this video – this is what we did! Skip to 2 minutes on the video just to see the ride part!
I was tempted (ish) to ride this again (Hubby wasn’t tempted at all) however the Express Pass queue was around 20 minutes long and the single rider even longer. It was around 1ish at this point so probably the busiest time of day. That’s my excuse for not riding it again anyway and I’m sticking to it.
After Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket there was a feeling of sickness so we skipped The Mummy and made our way to
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
Retrospectively the wrong choice if struggling with motion sickness as Transformers: The Ride 3D is basically a simulator like Spider Man but transformers themed. It is incredible but did little to quell the feeling of sickness – it was time for some actual food!
- Diagon Alley
We ate at a sandwich place just across from Diagon Alley and then spent a little bit of time wandering round this area which we hadn’t allowed ourselves in the morning as we wanted to get on with riding the rides. It was lovely to see the kids waving their newly purchased wands at the window and watching their faces when ‘secret’ things appeared.
It was at this point only 2.30pm so we had lots of time for the rest of the rides – The Mummy, ET, Shrek 3D, Men in Black but to be honest we felt like we had done enough. We had loved it all and we didn’t want to actually be sick! So we decided on one more.
- The Simpsons Ride
Hubby is a huge Simpsons fan and so we finished on that! Another immersive 3D ride made to make you feel like you are on an actual roller coaster that goes badly wrong. Again not necessarily the right choice when feeling ‘sensitive’ shall we say.
In summary we had an amazing day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure and in 14 days full of Disney Princesses and Mickey Mouse it was a very welcome Big Kids Day Out.
If you want to read a review about heading to Universal with Kids check out this post from Flying with a Baby here.
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Karen Beddow founded Mini Travellers in 2014 while doing what she loves most...going on holiday!
Mini Travellers is for parents looking for holiday ideas, destination reviews, days out and things to do with the kids. We also have family travel tips, activity ideas and all other things family holiday related. Take a look at some of our latest reviews for holidays and day trips in the UK.