Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that Universal Orlando welcomed a certain bespectacled wizard to its land of fantasy last summer. But if you’re not a big theme park aficionado, you may not know that there’s more to this cluster of Florida parks than screaming mandrakes and Quidditch brooms.
Before upstart Potter came on the scene, superheroes, dinosaurs, sharks, and mummies were the hard-working headliners of Universal’s three-hotel, two theme-park metropolis. One park, Universal Studios, exhorts you to “Ride the movies” while the other, Islands of Adventure (to which The Wizarding World of Harry Potter officially belongs) invites you simply to ride. Thrills are aplenty, with just enough gravity-defying, inverted, looping contraptions to make your stomach lurch and your hair stand on end. In a good way.
5…Buckle up for family time
Two questions often surround a first trip to Universal: how much time do you need and are these parks good for kids? As to the first--it depends. Thrill seekers could spend two days just riding the Incredible Hulk Coaster. Ibid for Potterheads on the Forbidden Journey. You might be able to dash through the flagship rides in a day (most likely off peak), but it’s not much of a vacation if you’re racing, and you’d have to skip most of the shows and impromptu street performances, not to mention some tucked-away attractions like Islands’ talking fountain that could entertain kids for hours.
Whether said kids will enjoy the rest of the parks depends on the kids. The Universal resort as a whole treads a line between playful and boisterous, decidedly louder than Disney, but with some unique eye poppers. The colorfully askew Seuss Landing is aimed squarely at tykes, while The Simpsons (Universal Studios) and Marvel Super Hero Island (Islands of Adventure) have nine-year-old boy all over them. Shrek 4-D, including an original 3-D movie, is also big draw, but the noise and effects may spook younger kids.
The thrill rides here are generally perfect for those who like the vroom of zero to 40 in two seconds. But most rides have height restrictions that may frustrate the thrill-seeking, under-40-inch set for whom the soaring Rip Ride Rockit is just a vision of torment . To be sure, there are things for all. The utterly wacky (and wet) Curious George play area is a ton of fun. And, no place else has Barney -- you’ll have to decide if that’s a bonus or not. Under age three gets in free, and junior admission applies until age 9. Your best bet: surf the height requirements before deciding.
4…Know how to jump the lines
It used to be that skipping theme-park lines required a heady title like Academy Award Winner—or Your Highness. These days, special Express Plus passes will permit average Joes to leapfrog most of the way through Universal Orlando lines, which means passholders will be allowed to queue up in an area at the front of the line -- similar to the areas reserved for Disney FastPass holders. The admission add-on is good for one leap per participating attraction. That it’s for sale both inside and outside the gate means you can size up the crowds at the rides first and buy later from select gift shops. Decide early, however, as pass sales are limited and sellouts are possible.
Ultra-pricey VIP Passes include admission and net unlimited ride access, but cost so much, you might do better staying at one of the three on-site-hotels from which room keys double as unlimited Express passes (admission sold separately). Alas, Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and Rip Ride Rocket are not currently on any of the Express lists, meaning your only salvation is to go all entourage with a back-doored VIP Tour (price: a small fortune), or be first in line when the park opens (on-site hotel keys get you in early). VIP perks are also available on the parking front, with valet service ($25) that will save lots of time on the way in, but may be less fun during the mass exodus at park closing. For $10 more, Valet Red Carpet ensures your car will arrive in five minutes. The less-expensive compromise is $20 preferred parking. Just $5 more than the regular lots, it’ll cut in half the amount of schlepping you’ll do through the massive parking structure, something you’re feet will thank you for at the end of a long day.
3…Consider these potential ways to save money
Universal has so many pass options -- two-park, one-park, single day, multi day, some with front-of-line, some without -- you practically need a spreadsheet to do the math. Those visiting for more than one day will save $10 per person by buying online, plus you’ll get a coupon book (most useful for the 10 percent or so off a handful of restaurants in the parks) and avoid the hassle of a wait at the box office. It’s true that each added day becomes exponentially cheaper (a three-day adult pass costs just $10 more than a two day) but don’t get sucked into paying for more than you need, especially since you can’t stash passes for future vacations, as unused days expire within two weeks of the first use. The same goes for promotional hotel packages that might cost you extra for nothing more than unneeded commemorative items.
All-you-can-eat meal plans require similar scrutiny. The $23.99 pass ($11.99 for ages 9 and under) is good for one guest, one day, lunch through dinner at six in-park, fast-food joints until 30 minutes before closing. Drinks are extra and you’ll have to go through the line for each entrée/dessert you order. Alternatively, a family of four will pay roughly the same $100 for two fast-food meals a la carte, but have the flexibility to opt for sit down without guilt. Plus, you have to factor in the pricey Dippin’ Dots (not included) which will leave you in the hole after your six-year-old inevitably eats them too close to dinner. The one exception to this rule is the teen-aged boy for whom the all-you-can-eat option is no doubt a bargain.
If your brood wants to go beyond the food available within the parks, Universal CityWalk, a 30-acre behemoth slightly southeast of Islands of Adventure, is packed with restaurants from the likes of Emeril and Jimmy Buffet as well as live entertainment venues and plenty of shops.
2…Believe what you hear about getting wet
Universal visitors can probably be identified by their clothes—they’re usually wet. Never ones for moderation, the Universal resort can come off like Disney's impish younger sibling, never shy of mischief, launching a whole tsunami when a mere splash will do. It’s all a hoot. But, anyone who’s careened down Popeye’s Bilge-Rat Barges raft ride (at Islands of Adventure) knows half the fun is watching first-timers who, despite seeing folks literally wringing a few gallons from their pants, don’t believe they’re actually going to get wet. How wet? Buckets of water fall like GatorAde after a football game, plus visitors take aim with stationary water cannons and are not in the least shy about dousing perfect strangers. Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls (which is closed as of this writing due to a fire) and Jurassic Park are similarly drenching, though there’s a rumor the latter can get toned down in cold weather.
Even non-water rides get into the act, whether it’s the “squirt” from the oh-so-innocent looking One-Fish, Two-Fish ride (it says if you follow the instructions of the song, you won’t get squirted—but it lies!) to mists on the Hulk and the Mummy which won’t soak you, but will seriously impact your good-hair day. The moral: store shoes and anything else you don’t want to get wet (a bathing suit under clothes isn’t a bad idea in hot weather). In cooler weather, raincoats are sometimes for sale at ride entrances. Since wet clothes can make even summer nights chilly, keep an extra dry T, or count on a pricey new souvenir t-shirt accompanying you home.
1…Defying gravity doesn’t work here, either
What goes up must come down, and in the case of the Incredible Hulk Coaster and myriad other inverted theme-park contraptions, what comes down is usually a cell phone, sunglasses, flip flops or the occasional stuffed toy. To avoid unfortunate demonstrations of Newton’s law, Universal forbids backpacks and other unsecured carry-ons from most of its thrill rides. The best plan is to come with minimal supplies in buttoned or zipped pockets. Since that’s often impractical, before lining up, wannabe riders will need to stash bags and smartphones in short-term lockers located near the rides. Short-term rentals (up to 90 minutes) are free. Credit cards are only required for longer rentals, which cost $2 per hour. Daily rental lockers ($7 to $10) can be found near the front of both parks.
The locker experience can be admittedly maddening on a busy day when it feels like you’re waiting on one line just to get on another. More addling still is that digital locks malfunction frequently, though staff is mercifully on hand to help you out. Still, following the rules is a whole lot better than being sent out with your bag after making it all the way to the boarding area. Unwise souls who stash camera or cell phones can wave at said items as they plummet to the nets below. The good news: park employees do search and rescue. The bad news: they only do it about once a week. The moral: put the car keys in the locker. As for shoes, ride operators won’t let you on without them, so it’s best to opt for footwear that won’t fall off.