Speed Planning A First Trip To Universal Orlando

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Outside Universal
Outside Universal

By nature, we’re crazy planners. We like to look over the scenery, plan our day, and then return to the plan to tweak it. Last year, we planned a Walt Disney World trip in a month – and thought we’d never do anything crazier.

This year, we planned a first trip to Universal Orlando in ten days. Let’s take a ride.

Live blogging our trip to Universal

July 21, 2014

We’ve got this weird set of credits on Southwest that have to be used by May of next year, and, being teachers, we can’t really see an opportunity to use them. So my wife, Christy, keeps looking at flights and attempting to see what will work. We’ve looked at other locations, quick trips in the near future, and essentially come to the conclusion to just hold on to them. We actually look at Universal, but reservations aren’t available for our dates, August 2 to August 6. So, we put it on hold.

July 22, 2014

We resolved to wait, but I checked the website. And inputted the dates. And something strange happened. I asked my wife again which hotel it was. Frankly, I still have no idea which hotels are which. Except Cabana Bay. That sticks out in my brain. “Loews Royal Pacific,” she retorts. Which shows up on the list. For our departure in ten days. After a quick look back and forth, we go to work.

iPad in her hands and computer in mine, we are assembling. I’ve inputted the dates into the Universal site, and quickly updated that to show the Harry Potter package and reservations for breakfasts on two days. Christy has the Southwest site. And it’s giving major headaches. It turns out that each reservation can only use four methods of payment per reservation, and we have five people in our party. After contacting Southwest, I decide to plan our trip in three chunks – including one adult and one young child in each reservation. I’m starting to stress that once I book one reservation, and the other spots will become unavailable or more expensive. It means sacrificing the smallest credits, but we should all be able to book. I’ve got two browsers open on the computer, and the iPad working, and I’m able to reserve all of the spots! I turn to the computer and prepare to pay. For the reservation that no longer exists. I’ve been logged out.

So now, I have five flights set together, with no reservation. I flip back over to the Universal site and check again. Not available. So, I get on the phone, ready to be terrifyingly kind despite my frantic state. I start hearing the hold message – and it shows up. I input the dates, grab the reservations again, and stay on the line all the way until the end of the booking. And I put in the credit card – but not the Disney Visa card – and keep my fingers crossed. Success. And what have I done? I’ve booked a trip in ten days. Well, eleven. But who’s counting, right?

My daughter has been waiting for the computer. Note that I have not used the word patiently. And my wife and I decide to discuss what in the world happens next. We start thinking, and I start panicking. Christy mentions that Orlando – and the planning of this trip – may be our mid-life crisis. I find that comforting and calming. We decide to take our walk – a quick jaunt around the neighborhood to calm our nerves. But still, this trip departs in like… ten days.

After our small saunter, we let the kids in on our crazy plan, and my brain starts flying. I know nothing, really, about Universal other than that it’s in Orlando. I need to find this stuff out. So, I start flipping through the Unofficial Guide. The planning is in there, but it’s scant. By the end of the night, I’ve added three books specializing in Universal Orlando to my Kindle app. Then I start to read. Should I have the dining plan? What about reservations? Express Passes? Slow down.

Most importantly, I nail down the few rides that don’t include the Express Pass. And input them into a computer. If I visit those, I should be fine afterward. I then remember that we are leaving for Washington, D.C., to pick up my niece this weekend. So, even though we leave in ten days, we have less to really plan.

July 23, 2014

We need to make arrangements for the dog! Mythos seems to be the best restaurant – and it’s unavailable for our Islands of Adventure day, so we plan to come back on the split day for dinner. At least it’s near the train. Our reservation is 4:45 PM on a not-eating-a-Harry-Potter-breakfast day, so we should be fine.

July 24, 2014

Finalize. Check. Pack for Washington, D.C.

July 25 – July 28

We are in Washington, D.C.

July 29, 2014

Serious reading. I’ve now finished off three books on the Kindle, and transferred the pieces of information from my general set over to the plans for each day. And oh, yeah. Drive my niece back to her Mom’s house up north. Not much seriously done on planning today.

July 30, 2014

Now time to finalize technology and touring plans. Make certain that apps are correctly downloaded to phones and that I can access them from Wi-Fi. I’m still trying to finalize a few items but have no big worries.

I’m trying to figure out a plan for each day. It seems to make the most sense to start each day in the Harry Potter section of each park – knowing that is the focal reason for getting to Universal – and our reason for getting to Universal, too. Plus, the rides there don’t qualify for Unieversal Express. Start in Harry Potter and work our way clockwise around the park, according to THIS PLAN FOR UNIVERSAL DAY ONE.

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Sunday, August 3, 2014 – Islands of Adventure. It essentially hits up the Harry Potter section of the park and flips through major rides there. I’ve allotted time to pick up the Universal Photo Connect on the first day. It swings around, giving two rides on the Dragon Challenge, one for each parent. My youngest is still too short to ride it. We should be able to saunter the land while the two older girls ride Dragon Challenge. Then, breakfast at Three Broomsticks and Flight of the Hippogriff, before wandering out into Seuss Landing. From there, we’ll see the rest of the park clockwise. It includes nearly every attraction that I think we will have any interest in hitting throughout the day. Plus, Hulk won’t accomodate my shortest child, and Spider-Man is located nearby. We should be able to flip back again through it while the girls ride the Hulk. A late lunch at Thunder Falls, and then finishing up with a second trip to Hogsmeade. I’ve included a second ride on Forbidden Journey, too. Then, a train ride over to London to get our bearings over at Diagon Alley, so tomorrow, we will know exactly where we are going.

Monday, August 4, 2014 – Universal Studios Florida THIS PLAN FOR UNIVERSAL DAY TWO

Atop Gringott's
Atop Gringott’s

(Please understand that due to a few modifications when writing this article, the PAST date is no longer available, so I had to modify it FORWARD and then re-check. But be assured, this was the plan we used – to some broken degree – on that date. More on that later.) We again start with Harry Potter – in Hogsmeade, this time. After the ride on Gringotts, we plan to hit Ollivanders, then tour through Hogsmeade. Then, when the rest of the park opens, we will hit up MEN IN BLACK and The Simpsons ride. I have planned to hit up the food court in Springfield for healthy treats, good variety, and of course a waffle sandwich with a side of giant donut and ice cream, too. We will continue to work our way clockwise around the park, ending at Hogwarts Express back to IOA for dinner over at Mythos and back again to finish up the Studios.

Our last day, we will more than likely start over at the Studios, again. While at this point, we haven’t ridden or seen it, more than likely Gringotts will be our top priority once again. Then, we will hit our favorite rides in the same order again, clockwise. Then, we’ll train back over to IOA and hit our favorites over there.

July 31, 2014

Laundry day. Morning to evening. Fun. And packing subsequently.

August 1, 2014

Remind everyone to not wear anything that you want to wear for the trip. Finalize the end of packing and planning by double-checking the placement and size of zipper bags. Drop off the dog. Eat dinner with friends. Check in our three separate reservations. Sent boarding passes back home. Begin to really freak out that we are leaving. Tomorrow. And print out all of the boarding passes.

August 2, 2014 – Departure day

We are actually feeling pretty good today. Shocking. We didn’t sleep too well. Anyone else have that we can’t sleep feeling before leaving for a vacation? We call it ‘being big, dumb idiots.’ It feels a lot like I used to feel on Christmas Eve. I have the same not being able to sleep feeling the night before the first day of school every year. We plan on heading over to Hot Topic for matching outfits. Our oldest has a credit – and we are wearing matching outfits kind of people. Perhaps that’s the brainstorm for the next article. We grab outfits that work – not exactly matching, but they are all Harry Potter ones. I will check out Universal itself to find our ‘house’ shirts. Our first dinner plan – too crowded. So we end up at a second choice. And then off to the airport.

Looking backward

My reflections? Multitudes. Our touring plan had us at the front of the park and trying to ride Shrek, and the Despicable Me in the early afternoon. What a mess. Shrek and Despicable Me both listed wait times of under 10 minutes on the touring plans app, as nearly every ride did via the touring plans set up – with Universal Express Pass. When we arrived, we waited longer. We waited almost an hour (inclusive of the ride itself) on Shrek and over an hour for Despicable Me in its entirety. Both waits were over 30 minutes in real wait time – even with the Universal Express Unlimited. With the length of the attractions themselves plus the extra time in the Express Line, we spent around two hours on these attractions. (Ed. – wait times that long for any attraction when you use Express Pass is very unusual.) I’m not certain what happened there, but neither experience was worth the wait for the ride, and I felt like the pre-show was better on both experiences. In defense, we were about five people from getting into a Shrek show, and that could have shaved fifteen minutes from our wait time, but unless you can ‘walk on’ to Shrek, I wouldn’t waste your time, and I might wait one turn for Despicable Me. (Ed. – I agree that neither attraction is worth waiting for.) At the same time, shortly thereafter, we waited 30 minutes for Revenge of the Mummy. It was one of the best rides in either park. My kids ended up riding it eight times over the next two days.

The author samples some liquid cereal in a nearly empty Diagon Alley
The author samples some liquid cereal in a nearly empty Diagon Alley

On the other hand, the plan allocated significant time to Diagon Alley at its least busy time of day. Most guests will spend a significant amount of time in Diagon Alley, and few will get there as early as we did. Those that do arrive may move through Gringotts and then sprint to a high traffic ride. Don’t. Taking time to see that section of that park – I might wait three hours for Shrek. I am certainly not the first person to point this out, but Diagon Alley may be the most spectacular section of any theme park in any area ever. I kept telling my wife, “J.K. can be as much of a selfish woman as she wants to be. Universal has made this come to life.” Most of the rest of the time we spent moving our way through Diagon Alley, throngs of people dodged their way through tourists who had their hands raised high, taking photo after photo. Seeing it in the early morning gave a certain beauty to the experience. Certainly, we were able to navigate much more easily. I can remember one experience when my seven year old successfully completed a spell, and then flitted down the alley, past her wizard team member. The man then turned to me and asked, “Did she just run gleefully into Knockturn Alley?” Knowing that she’s experienced all of this before, I smiled, and our family ran to keep up with her. I may have also stopped to enjoy some of the ‘liquid cereal’ for breakfast – suggested by a team member – but it felt polished. It did not feel new. My girls tried out spells without having to wade through throngs, and the small details could be experienced. I kept thinking about all of our experiences on our first trip through Animal Kingdom – a rather polarizing park. On our first trip, we flipped through our plan, eager to see all everything. We missed the point. Animal Kingdom is a park to be savored, like fine wine or a great steak. Later trips, we slowed down, missed many of the ‘experiences,’ but experienced the park. Diagon Alley takes that argument to a new level. Being first in line and moving quickly to our first target gave us ample time to really see all that Universal had built – and Diagon Alley is glorious.

My conclusion? Universal isn’t Disney World. At all. And it can be done. Quickly. And should. We loved Universal. And we’re REALLY Disney people. Crazy. While we were there? We decided that we wouldn’t return for a few years. Now, we’re planning to return in two years, and then every year after. But by next summer, who knows? I mean, next summer’s still more than ten days away, right?

Kevin Bastos

Kevin has taught high school since 1998, and loved Disney World since a 2009 visit with his wife and three daughters. He loves the planning stages of the vacation, and tends to focus on details (while his wife manages the big picture). He also collects comic books, and sometimes maintains a blog reading them. You can follow my twitter @kevin_m_bastos.

6 thoughts on “Speed Planning A First Trip To Universal Orlando

  • September 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm
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    So, we’re going in 2 weeks – staying on site with 2 days park-to-park tickets. I have read and thought and researched and I still don’t have a clue. Our 5 days at Disney are meticulously planned, but I just don’t get Universal. I need a 2 day plan for dummies. I’m so lost…

    Reply
    • September 21, 2014 at 5:07 pm
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      Shannon – never fear. I, like you, was terrifyingly nervous about a first trip to Universal – knowing the amount of planning that needed to go into a trip to Disney World. This is nothing like that. Really, the only necessary reservation would be for food – at Mythos. I would strongly suggest. It isn’t the best food I’ve ever eaten, but for value – especially inside a theme park – it really can’t be beaten. Two strong suggestions. First, if you haven’t yet already, subscribe to the touring plans. There are excellent plans for seeing all of Universal. It also includes a monitor for the rides, too. You can check throughout your visit on a smart phone to check ride times. During our three days, it was nearly spot on all of the time. The big exceptions were during the afternoon, between lunch and dinner. When we hit Shrek and Despicable Me – it was during that time, and estimations were WAY off. Of course, it was in early August. Probably in late September and early October, you won’t have as many issues. Next, Seth Kubersky wrote two articles for the touring plans blog that are quite good. The first was July 23rd, and the second was July 31st. The July 31st was an update after a few days of revisions. Both list an excellent plan set that prioritizes rides. While I would recommend visiting Diagon Alley during its slowest times before mountains of guests arrive, this plan gets you quickly through rides. As an aside, I also noticed that you were staying ‘on-site.’ May I ask if it’s Cabana Bay or at one of the other three hotels? Both offer levels of benefits. The Universal Express passes notwithstanding – Cabana Bay also requires you to either travel by car, or rely on other transportation. Walking paths exist from the other hotels, so you can advance plan your arrival. Good news, though. The trip planner and touring plans guide also lists options on planning from Universal Express passes, and without. Don’t stress. You’ll have a great time. Let me know if I can help in any other way with specific questions. Good luck. I’m VERY jealous!

      Reply
  • September 21, 2014 at 7:41 pm
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    Universal is amazing! If your staying at the Royal Pacific order the nachos at the pool bar.

    Relax Universal is way more laid back than Disney

    Reply
    • September 21, 2014 at 9:45 pm
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      Universal was pretty great. Not better than Disney World, in my humble opinion. Except Diagon Alley. Did we stay at Royal Pacific? Yes. Did we order the nachos? Yes. Twice.

      Unfortunately, relax is not in my planning vocabulary – except when I am planning time for my vacation to schedule relaxation. And I do relax there. Just not when I am planning. Ever.

      Reply
  • September 23, 2014 at 10:58 am
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    Glad you had a good trip overall, but waiting an hour for Shrek (especially with Express) is absolutely insane. I’ve never heard of a wait over 30 even at peak times, especially since there are 2 theaters. There must have been a guest illness or technical breakdown that stopped the attraction for a while. Despicable Me on the other hand can easily have up to an hour wait with express on peak days, if you don’t get in first thing that line can be brutal.

    Reply
    • September 23, 2014 at 10:23 pm
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      The sixty minutes included the show and the pre-show. It was an odd set of circumstances, to say the least. We waited three show moves – and ended up about ten guests out of the last show. So, thirty minutes waiting outside, ten minutes+ pre-show, and ten minutes+ of the show. We checked clocks when we got out – almost an hour. I don’t know about the two theaters – or if one was broken, dirty, etc. But outside of those two stops – Despicable Me and Shrek – we never really had to wait. Neither were worth even half the wait. Despicable Me had other problems that I’ll cover next time.

      Reply

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