This is the second of several posts on our days in the parks of Walt Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. I'm doing a recap of each day, the park we visited, where and what we ate and drank, the very best parts of each, and what we'd do differently or skip altogether for next time.
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Universal is often dismissed as the non-Disney park and called things like "that other park in Orlando." While perhaps less popular than Disney, at first, Universal Studios is where the MAGIC of Harry Potter lives. I know dozens of adults who are "too cool" for Disney but will talk to you about Harry Potter for hours. I've been lucky to travel with people who agree with me that visiting Universal is equally as important ad Disney while spending time in Orlando.
During our recent trip, we spent our second day in Orlando at Universal Studios. Join us and relive the whole day!
Parks, Tickets, and Universal Express Passes
Universal Orlando has two parks: Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure. I'll be calling them Universal and Islands, respectively, throughout this post. I'll call the overall company/campus Universal Studios. There are Harry Potter "lands" in both parks.
Both times I've visited Orlando in recent years I have visited Universal Studios and done both parks in just one day. It has worked out really well that way both times, with a gang of pre-teens and a couple of little kids alike.
While both parks typically open at the same time each day, Universal seems to open an hour later than Islands. Check the park hours here for the day you're visiting to make sure you're maximizing your time.
In addition to the two standard parks, there's also: Volcano Bay - the Universal waterpark, Universal CityWalk - the shopping and dining area outside of the parks, and Universal's own hotels, but we won't be talking about any of that in this post.
This is where I underestimated Universal Studios, the ticket prices. Their tickets are more expensive than Disney's.
Similar to Disney's ticketing structure, you can purchase a ticket for a single park at a base price. Currently the price for a Universal Studios one-park one-day ticket is $114. The prices vary by day and cost more on the weekends. Universal Studios is more insistent that you select your visit date in advance than Disney.
For more money you can upgrade to visit both of Universal Studio's parks in a single day. For a two-parks one-day ticket the price is currently $169.
Universal Studios Express Passes
Universal Studios offers you the option to pay for an Express Pass. It sounds crazy but hear me out, for $79.99 more per adult you can skip the general line on rides and get into the shorter Express Pass lane, saving you time throughout the day. There are dozens of rides included and your purchase of the Express Pass includes all of them, although just once throughout the day. You can print the Express Passes or show them on your phone to be scanned. If you want to ride anything for a second time, you've got to get in the general line. (Actually, for $99.99 per adult you can get an Universal Express Unlimited and get in the Express Pass lane an unlimited amount of times throughout the day!)
This format is similar to Disney's FastPass+ but you're paying for Universal Studio's shorter lines. The benefit is that you're getting in the short lines at Universal Studios ALL DAY without ever needing to re-apply like you do for Disney's FastPass+.
We splurged and got the two-park one-day tickets PLUS the Express Pass. My brother-in-law is the person who actually needed to go to Orlando, for a work conference, and Universal Studios day was his only request. He specifically wanted to ride everything. The cost for us to go to Universal Studios with the Express Pass for just one day was over $200 per person. It was a very, very hard amount to swallow and even when we entered the gates of the park we weren't sure we'd made a good choice.
I'm happy to tell you that it WAS worth all of that extra money for us. We spent all but three minutes of operating hours inside the parks arriving at 9:00 am, on the dot, when the park opened and leaving at 6:57 pm, just moments before closing at 7:00 pm. All of the four adults in our group got to ride what they came to ride. Some combination of us rode every single Express Pass ride and I think my brother-in-law rode EVERYTHING. We hardly waited in any lines, at all, all day long.
If I were to go to Orlando again I'd do the same thing, spending the extra money for both parks and Express Passes and doing it all in one day. It was worth the money we spent to get to ride everything and I'm not sure there's enough to do at Universal Studios to justify splitting the parks up for a full day in each. Plus the amount of money you'd spend on hotel, food, and so on, for the extra day, would far exceed the ticket price even with the add ons. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
Getting to Universal Studios
From our Disney hotel, we took Uber and/or Lyft to and from Universal Studios. Both companies have the option for a vehicle with a car seat (for the two year old). The cost was reasonable and it was super fast and easy.
All of the Disney hotel perks still carried on without us for a day!
Where to Start
If you are like me and the main goal of your trip to Universal Studios is to see and do all of the Harry Potter things, you absolutely need to visit both parks and you should begin your day at Universal.
To get from one park to the other you take the Hogwarts Express. That train ride is in my top three favorite rides in the park! At Universal you enter Diagon Alley where you'll find Gringott's Bank, the Night Bus, and so much more HP magic. When you're ready to head to Islands, you board the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 3/4 and take the journey to Hogwarts, just the way a new witch or wizard does.
The order of the parks and direction of the Hogwarts Express is not crucial to the enjoyment of your trip. I have done it "backwards" from Hogwarts to London, TWICE now. Don't be like me, at least get it right on the second try!
If Harry Potter isn't your thing (??) just refer to the park hours for the day to help you make the best starting and ending points.
We rode nearly every ride in the two parks. Here's a little list of my favorite rides and some other honorable mentions. Plus, my husband's 2 cents on the roller coasters, his true love when it comes to parks.
My Favorite Rides:
Other rides worth mentioning:
My husband, like his brother, is all about the rides. Bryce (my husband) is specifically interested in roller coasters. His official conclusion is that Universal Studios' coasters are BETTER than Disney's yet still not on the level of Six Flags! He loved having his bro around to ride them all with him and I was happy to stay away and find more snacks.
Food and Drink
FINALLY, let's get to the food and beverage options of the Wizarding World and other Universal areas.
Butter Beer: This delicious drink can be served hot, cold, or frozen. The temperature was chilly, for Florida, on our Universal Day and a hot butter beer was just the remedy. It was so delicious and I could have drank 6 more! Butter beer is sweet and creamy and tastes like a butterscotch candy. It's one of the best parts of the HP magic and it can be found in several locations in both parks.
Leaky Cauldron: The one and only meal we had in the park was lunch at the Leaky Cauldron (at Universal). Be sure to look at the sign for the Leaky Cauldron outside, it actually leaks! I love the efficiency: when you walk into the restaurant you immediately get into a line. You look over the menu before paying and ordering at a register. You're given a number and then move along to be seated at the community style tables. You have a few minutes to sit down and get comfortable before your food meets you at the table! The place is huge and the theming is amazing. My husband and I shared the mini pie combination: the cottage (seafood) pie and the shepherd's pie. Comforting and tasty, the meal was filling and delicious.
Sticky Toffee Pudding: The star of the show at the HP restaurants (both the Leaky Cauldron and Three Broomsticks) is the dessert: Sticky Toffee Pudding. It's dense cake, melted candy bits, cold ice cream, and warm sauces all together. Do not go to Universal Studios without getting Sticky Toffee Pudding.
Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream: The line is always long and always worth it for this incredible ice cream. They've got butter beer and sticky toffee pudding flavored ice cream but I've gotten the salted caramel blondie both times I've visited! Walking around Diagon Alley and all of the many stores while enjoying ice cream is the way to go, trust me.
Fizzing Whizzbees: A friend of mine requested these as a souvenir from my first visit to Universal Studios and I fell in lovee with them. It's chocolate that's got rock candy inside. It's sweet, chocolatey, and fruity all together in the very best way. The candy cracks and pops in your mouth after the chocolate's melted and it's an odd and wonderful feeling. You NEED these candies. A box or two for your friends and another for yourself.
Starbucks: Butter beer is great but it's all sugar and no caffeine. There's a Starbucks not far into Islands, near Spiderman!
Dr Seuss fudge: I don't write about foods that I haven't made or eaten, but I'm making an exception. I didn't eat any of the Dr. Seuss themed fudge but it was so incredibly beautiful that I had to take a picture! Look at the names and colors and detail. Universal Studios really does give Disney some wonderful competition.
Final Universal Thoughts
The size and detail of Universal Studios Orlandos is far above and beyond what Universal Studios Hollywood has to offer. Seeing the Hogwarts castle and Harry Potter's World in Hollywood blew me away but when I got to Orlando and saw the Harry Potter "lands" in both parks I was dumbfounded. I'd recommend visiting both but know that Florida's got so, so much more to offer, including more HP rides. This is the same way I feel about the coast's Disneys parks: Cali's parks are GREAT and so worth visiting but those in Florida are just so much larger, more mature, and detailed.
Universal had an area with arcade games and a giant play area for small kids which just felt a little different from Disney. We spent time in and enjoyed both games and playground time.
Finally, my favorite little nugget from this visit to Universal Studios was finding The Godfather themed window display! The Genco Olive Oil is something only true Corleone family fans would notice and that's certainly me.
Hello, I'm Angela.
Figs and Flights is all about traveling near and far & eating great food both at home and away.