Universal Studios, April ’16

I’m writing blogs about each of the theme parks in Florida that we visited, with a few hints and tips that you might find useful if you’re visiting… If I can help you save a few bucks and save you some time – then the time I’ve spent on these blogs have been worth it! Links to the blogs about the other parks can be found at the bottom of the page…

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The first thing to mention is that it’s quite a long walk from the car park to the entrance of either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure (They are right next to each other). This is because you have to walk all the way through City Walk to get there. City Walk is simply a collection of bars, shops & restaurants – Very similar to Disney Springs. If, like us, you like to get there around opening time, allow an extra 15 minutes or so. If you plan to arrive around 10-11am then allow 30 mins as this is the busiest time and you’ll get caught in huge queues to go through security. They will try to sell you ‘preferred parking’ as you arrive – which is an extra $10. It gets you a slightly closer parking space, but if you’re there first thing in the morning, there is hardly any difference, so I’d suggest that it’s not worth the extra money. Standard parking is $20 anyway, so why spend more?

As you go through security, expect to have your bags checked and to walk through a metal detector. The queues can be fairly long, but if you’re not carrying a bag, there are much quicker queues to the side.

We visited over the Easter holidays, which was also ‘Spring Break’ in the USA. It was a busy time of year, certainly, but there were areas within the park that you could go to without the hours and hours of queuing. It’s a toss-up between deciding if you want to hit the most popular rides first hoping that the queue will be at its shortest – or going for the rides with the shortest queue time with the aim of fitting more into your day.

We generally arrived around 9.15am but already the queues for some of the rides were long. The most popular ones seemed to be the ‘Despicable Me, Minion Mayhem’ ride and ‘Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts’ – and already the length of the queues were showing at around 80 minutes long, even though the park itself had only been open a few minutes. I think this is partly because the Minions one is the first ride you see as you enter – so most people get straight in the queue, and also because there are hoards of people who only to go Universal as they are massive Harry Potter fans and it’s a relatively new area in the park.

My main issue with the parks under the Universal umbrella, and this is what sets them apart from Disney, is that they sell ‘Universal Express’ passes. If you’ve bought one of these passes, it enables you to virtually jump the queue for each ride. Because they prioritise people with these, the ‘normal’ queue length very quickly rises, and in fact, the estimated queue time is often completely wrong. A good example of this was a day we queued for the Minions ride – The time estimated was 80 minutes, but we actually queued for 105 minutes before we got on it. The price of the express passes changes from day to day and is more expensive during the weekends and holidays. You have to buy a pass per person, per day, so it could very quickly add a large chunk to your holiday if you plan on buying some.

My personal advice is always to head straight to the back of the park, whichever park you’re at, so you have shorter waiting times for the other rides, as you’re not following the crowds around. There is an app you can download which gives you a guideline of queuing times, and you can pick up the free wifi in most areas around the park. If you are in a long queue with kids, think of taking snacks, or playing games to while away the time. We had a charades app which helped to pass the time and was something that we could all play…

There are lots of live shows on at Universal, all of which are worth a look. Our favourite was the Beat Builders – think along the lines of the West End show, Stomp. It was a high energy music show, using items that you’d find on a building site. The men performing were great and enthusiastic – and it was a suitable show for all ages. A fab distraction for a few minutes, when you’ve been on your feet all day.

Other short shows included a Blues Brothers street show, an acrobatics show, a brass band, and singing shows in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you’ve got time to fit them into your day, please do – you won’t be disappointed.

The longest show is the Fear Factor Live show, which puts park volunteers to the test – Think along the lines of I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here! It was great fun, and quite extreme! You wouldn’t get me volunteering – put it that way!

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It takes place in a large stadium-style seating area, and you see people pushing themselves to the limit. If it’s your type of thing, you can ‘audition’ for it by going to the kiosk at the front of the stadium and going through the casting procedure.

There is a Superstar Parade each afternoon at 5pm, whereby the characters from lots of Universal films sing and dance as they pass by. It was enjoyable, but to be brutally honest, not a patch on the Disney parades.

There are plenty of characters that appear throughout the day in order for you to have your photograph taken with them. Henry’s favourite was a Transformer, which was very cleverly done. We saw Woody Woodpecker, Scooby-Doo, Gru & some Minions etc, and the queues for people to have their pictures taken with them weren’t too bad – probably about 10 minutes at the maximum.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was very well done. You can buy an interactive wand from Ollivanders’ shop, which enables you to make things ‘happen’ in spell locations – I noticed lots of shop windows have things that move in them when a wand is waved in front. The wands cost around $50 though, so it’s no small change for the novelty. The biggest Harry Potter fans would get an incredible amount of fun from them, and they are suitable for guests of any age – and reusable if you plan to return.

The ‘Escape from Gringotts’ ride is a thrilling rollercoaster ride and easily attracts some of the biggest crowds. The ride was fabulous, but the biggest downside was the queue length. We also had bad luck with the ride breaking down, and on two separate occasions, we had queued for 90 minutes or so and were evacuated from the building when they hadn’t been able to fix it promptly. When this happened, we were given a free fast-track pass for one ride – so at least there was some attempt to compensate for our wasted time.

Henry loved the fire-breathing dragon which was on top of Gringotts bank. It drew quite a crowd!

You can ‘catch a train’ from the Harry Potter area within Universal to the Harry Potter area in Islands of Adventure. It was very cleverly done, and it takes you from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade and visa-versa. Expect to queue for this like a ride though – the queue was often 45 minutes or longer. You basically sit in a train carriage and watch a screen as if you are looking out of the window, and this is what transports you from London to the world of Harry Potter.

There are plenty of places to eat and drink at Universal. I’m gluten-free, and I found it easy to eat. There is a range of snack-bars and seated restaurants with table service dotted around. As in all of the parks, you can buy a reusable cup, which gives you free refills at machines around the park. Overall, they are good value for money. We bought one and reused it over a couple of days, and shared it between the three of us. The machines can be hard to locate around the park though, so if you spot one, make a mental note of it so you can return to it later on! We made the mistake of queuing at some of the snack bars for a drink refill, but when you get to the front, the cashier refuses to refill it for you and instead points you in the direction of a machine somewhere else. You’re allowed to refill at a machine every 10 minutes, and at Universal it recognises your cup via a chip at the bottom. Each of the parks have a similar scheme, but Universal and Islands of Adventure are the only ones with a chip at the bottom of the cup as the rest have a barcode system.

Overall, we had a wonderful time. There is so much to see and do, that you’ll never fit it all into one day. We went back for 2 full days and one-half day, and there were still things we didn’t do – partly because Henry wasn’t tall enough to go on some of the rides, and partly because we spent a lot of each day queuing because it was a busy time of year. We certainly look forward to returning one day, although I can’t imagine that it will change very much – Darren and I were last there over a decade ago, and quite a lot of it hasn’t changed at all…

My blog about Islands of Adventure can be found here

My blog about Seaworld can be found here

My blog about Busch Gardens can be found here

My short blog about Aquatica can be found here

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