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Universal Studios and beyond

Recently, we were blessed to attend a conference at Universal Studios in Orlando. We are members of a consortium called Travel Leaders Network (TLN). Their purpose is to provide support and resources to travel professionals like ourselves. TLN holds a national training conference each year and this year’s was…you guessed it, at Universal Studios Orlando. Think about it. Who wouldn’t want to host about 2,000 travel advisors and encourage them to sell your product? And let me tell you, Universal Studios did it right. But enough about us, let me tell you what our experiences taught us.

First of all, the host hotels for the conference were Loews Sapphire and Loews Royal Pacific hotels. These are Caribbean style resorts, owned by Universal Studios and offer a lot of amenities that other hotels can’t. Sapphire is very nice, and gets you lots of park amenities like early admission, but there is one difference in this and the “Premier” hotel category like Royal Pacific. It’s the free express passes! That can save you $129 a day per person! For the $80 difference in a room at these two resorts, that is a significant savings you may not have known about (you’re welcome).

The Universal Studios hotels provide transportation to and from the parks. But check the location of the hotel. Some offer bus transportation, some by water taxi. Some are a little farther away. Of course, the more convenient, the more expensive, so you have to weigh convenience and luxury with budget. But lucky for you, they have both. The newest park resort is advertising rooms for $89/day. The bus is fine (we rode that one night), but Sapphire and Royal Pacific are close to the park and both provide water taxis that take you to City Walk (more about that in a minute). From there, you walk a few steps and you’re in the gate. Why is saving time important? Theme park tickets are expensive and let’s face it, that’s why you came. You want to maximize your time to get your money’s worth. You will waste plenty of time waiting in lines for the rides. The evening is even more important. Think about it. You have been walking the park all day, you are exhausted, and the kids are crying and tired, but didn’t want to leave. Trust me, you want to get back to your room and get those shoes off as quickly as possible.

All of the Universal properties get you in the park an hour early, which I highly recommend. One hour before the parks open, every day, guests of Universal Studios hotels can enter and ride most of the rides before the crowds are turned loose. So you can jump on the most popular rides first, before things get crazy. Trust me, you will instantly notice the difference when the public is admitted. One little secret, get there about a half hour early because they sometimes open the gates 10 or 15 minutes early. Oh, and very important, bring your room card. That is their way of knowing you are their hotel guest. Each adult would have been given one at check in.

When you book your hotel, buy your park passes then. You will save a little and avoid the lines buying them at the gate. Tickets vary a lot, so know what you are getting. This is where an experienced, certified Universal Studios travel advisor, say like…H&K Travel, comes in handy (shameless plug). There are one day passes to one park, multiple day passes to one park a day or tickets to hop from park to park. And then there is the infamous Express Pass and Express Pass Unlimited. Confused yet? How do I know what to buy? I always say, plan on spending time one park per day. One of the three parks is a water park, so decide if you are going there. If it’s winter, maybe you skip that one. My preference is to plan 2-3 days at the park. Day one at Islands of Adventure, day two at Universal Studios, and day three riding your favorite rides again (or the water park if it’s summer). Even with the park to park pass, you waste too much time hopping from park to park. If you are budget minded, the 1 park per day pass is fine. If you are like the thousands of people that are going there to experience Harry Potter, you will need the park to park pass to ride the Hogwarts Express train between the two parks. See? Bet you didn’t know that. And definitely get the Express Pass Unlimited. This increases the ticket price a lot, but without it you may wait an hour and a half for one ride. That means you might get to ride four rides all day. The Express Pass allows you to skip the regular line one time per ride. The Unlimited lets you do it over and over.

Okay, now you’re in the park. What to do? It really is quit overwhelming. The three theme parks are the size of a small town. Plan ahead. Have your travel agent print you a map. What do you want to see most? The new Velociraptor roller coaster is a must! The Rocking Rollercoaster allows you to pick your music and takes you straight up 90 degrees and around about ¼ of the park. It’s a must as well. And don’t forget the Hulk, Universal’s original rollercoaster that never stops spinning and turning.

While we were there, we noticed most of the park wasn’t busy at all except maybe the most popular roller coasters. But when you get to Harry Potter, it can be shoulder to shoulder. If you are like 70% of the crowd and came for the Harry Potter experience, go there first. It is all the way in the back. In Universal Studios, you will find Diagon Alley, where you can ride Harry Potter and the Escape from the Gringotts. This interactive ride incorporates amazing 4D graphics into the caves of the Gringotts. Check out the fire breathing dragon sitting atop the Gringotts Bank (yes, it actually breaths fire). Inside, you are completely immersed in the world of Harry Potter. You can even buy an interactive wand to make the shop windows come alive. At Islands of Adventure you will find Hogsmeade. Another insider tip. Ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure first. It doesn’t take the Express Pass, so later the lines will be long. The Harry Potter Forbidden Journey is one of my favorites, as you follow Harry on a Cribbage adventure as you soar over Hogwarts. The Hogwarts Express connects the two worlds and is designed just like the train in the Harry Potter series, including an illusion in the line that looks like people are walking through the wall.

In the evening, stop at City Park for dinner. There are theme restaurants for any taste. One of my personal favorites is Pat O’Brien’s. Just like the New Orleans legend, there you can sip on their world-famous hurricanes and listen to the dualling pianos. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is a favorite, as is The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, where they have great food, but don’t miss their custom chocolate shakes. They are expensive (about $13 each) but are worth it. Mine was Key Lime and came with a slice of pie on top. Don’t miss the Voodoo Donuts, they are amazing. You gotta get there early though, the line gets long in the evening. There are also some less expensive places to eat. One thing for sure, make reservations in advance or you’ll wait at least an hour or two for a table. If you are on a budget, do like we did and order Uber Eats delivered to your hotel. They will bring you a variety of food from Orlando restaurants like Five Guys or Dominos Pizza.

And finally, one last piece of little-known information. Universal Studios has an American Express lounge exclusively for platinum card holders, just like at the airports. It is tucked away discretely by the Shrek attraction (you’d never notice it on your own). There you can relax on comfy chairs and have a free snack and water in air conditioned comfort.

We spent a couple of days with some local friends touring the Disney resorts along the monorail and water taxis as well. There are some great secrets to these Disney resorts as well. But I will save that for another day.

So what is my advice for going to Universal Studios? Lay all your clothes and money on the bed when packing. Take ½ the clothes and twice the money. This is not a cheap vacation so budget ahead of time. If what you can afford is a budget vacation, there are ways to do it and make it exciting. But if you can, save a little more and do it right. You will be glad you did. You spent a lot of money to fly there. Make the most of it. If you can budget it, stay on site in the Premium hotels to get the Free Express Pass Unlimited. When you add that in, you are actually saving money. Take advantage of the early admission to the park and save time on the most popular attractions. Most of all, plan ahead. Find you a travel agent that knows the parks and hotels to do all the legwork for you. And that’s where we come in.

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