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.
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
(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.
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.
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?