{Universal Studios ~ Vacation Recap Part 1}

Here it is! Vacation Recap Part 1! We’ll cover all of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the magical!

First up – Universal Studios!

Kennedy Space Center

We actually spent our first day at Kennedy Space Center which was a separate excursion and a super fun day trip. Our tour bus guide was… interesting… and I’m not totally sure I’d be first in line to sign up with him again but overall it was fine. Once we got to KSC, we went off on our own anyway so it was all good. We had a low tire when we got back on the bus, they theoretically fixed it, and for reasons I still don’t understand, it took us 2.5 hours to drive the 1 hour back to our hotel. We were all pretty well over Dave by that point. But KSC was AWESOME! We saw the Artemis rocket and the Space X launch site (from a far distance) and all of the exhibits were excellent. If you do nothing else there, the Atlantis shuttle exhibit is incredible. The pre-movie before was amazing and absolutely gives you chills. But I’m an 80s baby so shuttles have a special place in my heart! I couldn’t even go in the Challenger memorial.

Loews Portifino Bay and City Walk

We started our week at Loews Portifino Bay which one of the resorts at Universal that offers the Unlimited Express Pass for rides in the park. More on this later but 100% worth it. The offer a water taxi to and from City Walk where you walk right into the parks. That was the best. Never super crowded and pretty fast. We had to wait a couple of times on the return trip but really it wasn’t bad. There’s a beautiful walking path too that leads back to the hotel if you don’t want to wait for the taxi. When we first checked in, we ate at the resort at Sal’s and it was very good. Pizza, sandwiches, and a little market so it was just what we wanted as a quick in between meal since we traveled through breakfast and lunch but weren’t quite ready for dinner. We were able to hit the pool the first night too and it was great. It’s a beach set up on one end, with a slide, and a deeper end on the other side. We went back to the pool our last night there too after the park and it was great to relax for a little bit. The first night was crowded but the second night they had a poolside movie.

The girl at the front desk that checked me in was super nice and helpful and the girl that checked my parents in was decidedly not. We also had trouble with the front desk folks when we tried to figure out how to get to the bus loop to catch our Kennedy shuttle. Two seperate people told James and my dad that there was no way to get there except to hire a car (in our case two) to drive us five minutes around the corner. When we pulled in, we saw there was in fact a bus that went from our hotel to the bus loop so that was frustrating to say the least.

We went to City Walk for dinner the first and second night and none of us really found it to be enjoyable. Granted it was Spring Break so it was super crowded but it was just too overwhelming for us. They do have a giant Universal store and a legacy/vintage store that were neat. If possible, make reservations WAY ahead of time at a sit down place. Since our party was so big and I didn’t know exactly when we’d get in from our flights and Kennedy, I didn’t do reservations and we just tried to get quick service. We ate at Bread Box Handcrafted Sandwiches and it was super yummy. I could have just eaten the cheesy tater tots and been satisfied. The second night we got stuck eating at Moe’s and it took most of an hour to get food. And yes, it’s Moe’s like you find on any corner at home not special City Walk Moe’s. But Cam’s burrito made his trip highlight list so to each his own I guess!

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We had tickets to both Universal and Islands of Adventure and if you’re planning to do any of the Harry Potter attractions, a ticket to both is a must. That’s the only way you can ride the Hogwarts Express to get between parks. (The train was fun but not “oh my gosh we must ride it again” fun. But it is a different experience going each way so fun to do for sure.)

We started at Universal and went straight to Diagon Alley for wands – Cam’s #1 priority for weeks! Pack your patient pants, a mask, and leave your claustrophobia at the door because omg the wand shop is TINY and everyone and their brother wants one. There’s a wand show but a long line so we just went to the shop. They have famous witch and wizard wands in one section (Cam already knew he wanted Ron’s wand) and on the other side it’s more of a “the wand chooses the wizard” sort of experience. The people in the shop are SUPER helpful and so fun. The man that helped Pax and Eri find a wand was so nice. Eri followed the signs and chose her own but Pax talked to the man about his interests and personality and they found a wand that fit him. Wands are stupid expensive and I’d maybe suggest finding a “family wand” for everyone to share. When you’re in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, there are a lot of interactive windows and other hidden spots that interact with your wand that the kids LOVED. We could have spent hours just doing that. There’s a little gold circle on the ground by the windows that shows you how to move your wand. Make sure you find Knockturn Alley because it’s tucked away and not clearly marked. There’s a shop in there and a few wand spots. The door was our favorite. Make sure after you do your wand to grab the door handle. I wish I had a video!

We rode Escape from Gringott’s first and loved it! You have to wait around for the dragon outside of Gringott’s too! Every few minutes he breathes fire and apparently James was unaware so while waiting outside of the wand shop, he got quite the surprise! Half of the party stayed to watch the Tales of the Beedle Bard show while the rest rode Gringott’s then we all got some Butterbeer. (I’d give Butterbeer a solid three stars but the kids loved it and my brother said the frozen was much better than the regular.)

The entire Harry Potter area was very immersive and we found the cast members there to be completely different than the rest of the park. Just outside of Diagon Alley is the Knight Bus and it was one of my favorite parts! I’d originally thought it was just a quick photo stop but Eri and Cam went up and talked to the driver and the shrunken head (I’m not totally up on my HP) and they were hysterical. 100% in character, on the ball improv, and so, so funny – all the shoutouts to the Knight Bus!

In the evening we rode the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmeade and even with the Express Pass, it was a bit of a wait. Certainly an experience to check off the list but, again, not something I’d say we were anxious to do over and over. The cabins are very small but the experience was neat.

In Hogsmeade, we went to Honeydukes and had dinner at the Three Broomsticks. Mixed reviews on dinner. You can get super weird (beef pasties), pretty standard (rotisserie chicken), or kid friendly (mac and cheese). We also saw the castle fireworks there and, although super crowded, it was amazing. Fireworks and projections on the castle, sorting hat narrating, and each house featured. Don’t miss that! We rode the Forbidden Journey at the Hogwarts Castle and it was the best! Paxton and I rode it first then came back through to ride again with Mike. Even if you don’t plan to ride, go through the line with your party because you get to see the inside of the castle which is incredible!

Universal Studios

We enjoyed Universal Studios A LOT more than Islands of Adventure. The kids loved the MIB ride and we had to do that twice. Cam fell in love with the E.T. ride which is dated and cheesy but still so fun. We even had to get an E.T. to bring home. We rode the Transformer ride which was awesome (the Spiderman ride in Islands of Adventure is similar but both are pretty jerky and very loud so FYI). Outside the Transformer ride, the Transformers come out for photos and they are HUGE. We waited for pictures with Optimus Prime but were able to see Bumblebee and Megatron too. While we rode the Transformers, Eri, my mom, and James went over to the Horror Movie Makeup show and they said it was so funny. A favorite was the Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon ride. The waiting area itself is almost the best part! The first time we rode, the Ragtime Gals barbershop singers came out and sang but they play funny (family friendly) clips from the Tonight Show while you’re waiting and we were all cracking up.

The theming at Universal is the best. Each section is so wonderfully themed and they really go all out. Outside of Diagon Alley, you’re on the streets of London, there’s an entire Simpson’s themed area, the old Hollywood section is so neat and less crowded, and the New York streets were awesome. There are lots of little inset areas as you’re walking around that give you a little break from the crowds and make for fun pictures too so keep an eye out for those.

When we got into the park, we grabbed coffee and a pastry at the Today Show cafe. We ate lunch at Mel’s Diner which was nice. The seating area outside was covered and the line moved fairly quickly. Overall though, Universal is a bit light on the benches and it gets pretty darn sunny in the middle part of the day so that might be a good time to grab a snack or see a show.

Islands of Adventure

Our favorite part of Islands of Adventure was by far Seuss Landing, but we’re a bit partial. Granddaddy walked around reciting every Dr. Seuss book at each stop and of course we had to take pictures of Eri in front of anything having to do with Gertrude McFuzz since that’s who she played in Seussical. We got ice cream there and the service was far from desirable but we took it over to the Circus tent to eat and that was a nice, cool spot to relax. The boys and I “pranked” everyone when we finished eating and said we had to go to the bathroom but really went and got on the train ride because it passes through the tent over the people eating. Cam thought it was hysterical to yell to everyone as we went over!

We also really liked Jurassic Park too. We did the raptor encounter and although Blue wasn’t out, we did get to meet Sierra who is a smaller raptor with a super funny handler. He asked the kids where they were from and when they told him Virginia, he asked if we brought any peanut soup with us. Mind blown lol! We missed the Pteranodon Flyers and the Jurassic Park River Adventure because it was SO hot and so crowded and I feel like things were easy to miss in that section because of how it’s laid out.

Somehow James talked us into doing Poseidon’s Fury which literally none of us realized what exactly was involved. It was an entertaining walk through show but RIP my good hair day… It’s very dark, very loud, and has really neat fire and water effects if you’re into that kind of thing!

We went to the superhero area and the comic book area and both were a solid meh from us. The superhero area was the more interesting of the two. We rode Spiderman and met Captain America who was very nice and engaging. We stopped in the Captain America Diner to cool off and regroup but overall it was just crowded and hot and everything seemed a little haphazard. We were super hot and super tired and felt like we’d covered just about everything of interest at that point. We were even able to hit a couple of favorites a second time before leaving a little bit early and heading to the pool.

Overall we really did enjoy Universal Studios a lot and would absolutely love to go back! There are a few things we didn’t get to do or see and now that we know the lay of the land and what to expect, we’d be more prepared to plan better. The Unlimited Express Pass is the way to go though. But being able to essentially walk right onto rides was a game changer. Lines for some of the bigger rides absolutely were over an hour and we wouldn’t have been able to ride nearly as much as we did without the Express Passes. The parks were pretty crowded like we expected them to be. Most areas were spread out enough that you didn’t feel too cramped (but Harry Potter was way crowded all day). Things really thinned out at night and we loved the nighttime experience at both parks.

Shout out to our amazing travel agent Ashley for helping us book all of this on our trip and for answering our 8 million questions about everything! We don’t travel much (hence cramming three vacations into one week!) and needed all the help we can get! Give her a call for sure if you’re planning a Universal or Disney trip soon! Ashley Giometti ashley@slaydonstravel.com

Next week we’ll head to Disney!!! I’m a Disney girl through and through so I’ll have all of the fun details to share in that post!!

~ Maggie

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