Check out this helpful guide & start planning your next trip! In a follow up blog post I’ll cover planning for Disneyworld.
I love planning things—especially trips. This probably comes from having the opportunity to visit Disneyland many times during my childhood, and being trained in the ways of Disney’s FastPass+ since the beginning.
My husband and I took our Disneyworld and Universal Orlando vacation in May 2015 as a belated honeymoon. Since the trip, I’ve been meaning to post about our exciting adventure. If you’re planning a future family vacation to Universal Orlando, I hope this can help you traverse the murky planning waters, and provide you with a comprehensive guide that will help you make the most of your time.
- Hotel: Cabana Bay Beach Resort
- Rides (WWoHP): Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey, Escape from Gringotts
- Rides: (Other): Revenge of the Mummy, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- Food: Mythos, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour
Planning Where to Stay
What it really comes down to are your personal tastes, and what’s most important to you. If you want to stay at a deluxe hotel that’s right up in the action, there’s Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Royal Pacific Resort and the new Sapphire Falls Resort. These accommodations are much more expensive, but with additional perks and closer proximity to the park. For a detailed look at these hotels, click here.
There are many other less expensive hotels about 1-3 miles from the park. Some of these include: the Hyatt Place Orlando/Universal, Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Across from Universal Orlando, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando, La Quinta Inn Orlando Universal, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Nearest Universal Orlando, the Wingate by Wyndham, Quality Inn & Suites Universal Studios area, and others.
Review of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort
My husband and I wanted a nice hotel that was very convenient for getting to the parks, but still helped us stay within our budget. The Cabana Bay Beach Resort fit the bill for us. It’s 0.4 miles from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP), offers access to the park one hour early (with a valid theme park admission), a complimentary shuttle throughout the day, and also has a convenient walking path to the park. Rates vary throughout the year, but were around $140 a night when we went.
They have a Starbucks downstairs that makes it easy to grab something quick and affordable. There’s also a gift shop with Universal Orlando merchandise immediately next to it. If you want to buy additional Harry Potter World mementos or sweets—you can do so here and avoid the long lines in the park. Not to mention, you won’t have to carry your things all the way back to the hotel in the Florida heat. Melted chocolate frogs? No thank you!
Arriving at the Hotel
My husband and I really loved the vibrant retro theme, the huge pools (lazy river, anyone!?) and friendly service. We took a rental car up from Miami (we used Hertz) and dropped it off on-site at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. We arrived at the hotel at around 11AM, checked in at the front desk, and left our bags with the hotel’s baggage check while we waited for our room to be ready. They weren’t fully booked, so we ended up with pool view room on the 7th floor in the Continental Building, overlooking the pool and lazy river. It was super easy and absolutely wonderful!
The shuttle service picks up right outside the front entrance of the hotel. We never had to wait more than ten minutes or so between pick ups, and the shuttle ride to Universal Orlando was only about five minutes. After riding the escalator and traveling through Universal City Walk, you’re funneled to the park entrances.
Why You Should Get a Park Hopper Pass
If you’ve never been to Universal Orlando, you’ll quickly discover that it’s actually divided into two side-by-side parks: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. If you want to visit both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley in the WWoHP, you’ll need to purchase a park hopper pass (since the two Harry Potter-themed areas are in different parks). I HIGHLY recommend this, as getting to travel between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley via the Hogwarts Express is an experience unto itself!
How to Maximize Your Time in the Parks
Before you enter the park, make sure to download the free Official Universal Orlando Resort App on your smartphone. This will save you a ton of time. The app not only shows a detailed map of both parks, but also tells you the current wait times for rides, lists showtimes, and highlights dining options throughout the parks. This way, while waiting in line for rides throughout the day, you can plan out which ride you want to hit next based on proximity to your current location and the current wait time. If you REALLY want to be prepared, Google a map of the theme parks and plot out which rides are your absolute must-do’s.
I would also consider packing very lightly. For the roller coasters, Universal makes you rent out a locker if you have any loose items (this includes cell phones, wallets, sunglasses, water bottles—pretty much anything). They have metal detectors set up before the rides, and are pretty serious about enforcing this. Luckily, the lockers are free to use (I believe for a half an hour). If you want to ride something more than once, you need to go back to the locker room and put your items in another locker to avoid getting charged (We personally experienced this). Pretty inconvenient, but once you’ve done it a couple times you get used to it. My husband and I brought only things we could carry in our pockets: cash, tickets, sunglasses, cell phones, and a bottle of water.
Islands of Adventure
We decided to visit Islands of Adventure on our first day, and entered the park around 12PM. Peak lunch hours are around 11:30AM–1:30PM, so the lines and wait times for quick service stands and restaurants were jammed packed at this time. Instead of waiting in line for food, we decided to jump in line for the Jurassic Park River Adventure Ride, which was only 5 minutes long. It was around 90 degrees out—so getting soaked didn’t sound like a completely terrible idea. After the ride, we meandered through the surrounding area, and decided to head over to Hogsmeade in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The Hogsmeade entrance located directly after the Cat in the Hat land screams obligatory photo op—with the Hogsmeade sign and picturesque, snow-capped town lining the background. Hogsmeade was so much more than I could have expected. I thought it would echo the feel of the sets from the movie (and those I’d conjured up in my head from reading the books)—but the level of detail and thought put into Hogsmeade blew me away. From the elaborate showcases in each storefront window, to the park employees that remained constantly in character—it was fantastic!
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is aptly named. Being in Hogsmeade really made us feel like we’d been whisked straight into the world of Harry Potter. The crowning achievement of Hogsmeade is definitely the Harry Potter castle replica (not as big as the real castle, but still pretty amazing), which is situated near the back of Hogsmeade and is about 15 stories tall. It includes a greenhouse, Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, the sorting hat, and more!
The main attractions:
- Dragon Challenge: This roller coaster is intense! Not for the faint of heart, or those prone to motion sickness. There are actually two dueling coasters that wind their way around each other as they race to the finish. I’m not sure if one is better than the other (We were placed on the red one). Let’s just say once was enough for me.
- Flight of the Hippogriff: A much more kid-friendly coaster. This one was pretty tame. One cool aspect of this ride is getting to pass by Hagrid’s Hut on your way to the front of the line.
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey: Easily the most popular ride in Hogsmeade. It was awesome! This ride is located inside the Harry Potter castle itself. This is an indoor, moving, motion simulator dark ride. Basically, it takes you on a wild journey in a 2-4 person vehicle featuring KUKA robocoaster technology (I mean-err-it’s magic!), allowing for a ride that not only moves on the track, but that can twist and turn, soar forward or plummet towards the ground. This ride is a definite must-do in our book.
The Amazingness That is Butterbeer
Before hitting the rides, we ventured into the Three Broomsticks to seek out some of the famed butterbeer. At the rear of the Three Broomsticks, you can find the Hog’s Head pub, where a number of Harry Potter-themed beverage choices (besides butterbeer) are also available, such as pumpkin juice or a red lager called the Hogshead brew for those over 21. My husband and I found a quieter, shaded spot behind the Three Broomsticks, and sat down at the picnic tables to plan out our afternoon. I expected butterbeer to be good, but I did not expect it to be that good. It tastes like butterscotch mixed with cream soda and topped with a buttery froth. It’s amazing.
You can get it as either normal butterbeer or in slushy form. We tried both and decided that the normal butterbeer was the best—but to each their own. The Hogshead brew was also very good. Keep in mind that there are some drinks and other items that you can only get in Hogsmeade (like the Hogshead brew), and others that are only available in Diagon Alley (like Dragon Scale and Wizard’s Brew). For a full list of drinks, click here.
Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Hogsmeade
While in Hogsmeade, we took advantage of the short line for the Ollivander’s Wand Shop experience. While the real Ollivander’s was actually located in Diagon Alley in the books (and the shop there is definitely bigger and cooler than the Ollivander’s in Hogsmeade), we decided to check it out. They filter in about 15 people at a time, and perform a “wand chooses the wizard” ceremony with one chosen person in the group. I was lucky enough to be chosen in our group and got to interact with the shopkeeper and play around with a few wands before a wand “chose me.”
While you don’t get to keep the wand that picks you, it’s definitely a neat experience and is not to be missed. However, as stated earlier, I’d recommend doing it at the Ollivander’s in Diagon Alley. While we got lucky with the short line in the late afternoon in Hogsmeade, we noticed that the line tended to be shorter in the early morning and later in the evening.
Types of Interactive Wands
After the ceremony, the wand was taken through the back door and into the connected shop, where I was given the option to purchase it. There are two types of wands you can purchase: the first is a collector’s wand that’s a little bit cheaper (around $38.00 USD—still a hefty price!) or an interactive wand with Xbox KNEX technology (about $48.00 USD). There’s a pretty broad selection of wands, including wands used by characters in the Harry Potter movies, and “unclaimed” wands that aren’t associated with any of the characters. We ended up buying the interactive wand (an “unclaimed” wand), which comes with a really neat marauder’s map that includes both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, and locations where you can actually use your wand to cast spells. While the wand is expensive, it was worth the price given how much enjoyment we got out of it.
On the map you receive with the wand, there are 34 spots listed where you can practice your magic spells by saying the words and moving the wand in a certain pattern to make things happen. This includes causing water to rain down on people in Diagon Alley, lighting candles, making a puppet show in a storefront window come to life and more. There are also several secret spots that aren’t listed on the map.
The Best Time to Take Your Wand for a Spin
My husband and I ended up taking our wand back to the hotel in the middle of the first day so we wouldn’t have to carry it around, and brought it back out on our final day to make use of it before leaving. It worked out really well! Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley weren’t as crowded in the morning, giving us more space to meander through the streets in search of the spellcasting medallions while it wasn’t as hot. This is a great activity for kids (especially younger kids that might not be tall enough for all of the rides). In all, it took us about three hours to seek out all of the medallions—and we felt it was time well spent.
Hogsmeade is also home to Dervish and Banges, the Owl Post, Honeydukes and Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods. Honeydukes is a great place to satisfy your sweet tooth and get authentic Harry Potter treats like Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans, Chocolate Frogs (That come with a holographic witch or wizard card like from the books), Fizzing Whizzbees (These are so good! Like chocolate-covered pop rocks!) and others.
One thing I wasn’t expecting that really enhanced the ambience of Hogsmeade were the performances that took place on a small stage throughout the day (located between the Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff, also marked on the park map). We never stayed to watch an entire show, but caught pieces of Hogwarts students singing in the Frog Choir and a Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students performing in a Triwizard Spirit Rally as we traveled between rides.
During our afternoon intermission, we went in the huge, meandering lazy river at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. It was an excellent idea—allowing us to recharge and enjoy the hotel’s amenities before heading back to the parks for the evening.
The Rest of Islands of Adventure
We reentered the park and made our way to Marvel Super Hero Island, where we went on the Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman Ride. We loved the Spiderman ride—it uses moving vehicles and a combination of 3D special effects and physical sets. I’d recommend doing the indoor rides (like Spiderman) to avoid the heat of the day.
Dinner at The Three Broomsticks
We decided to eat an early dinner at The Three Broomsticks that evening, and I have to say, it was just okay. They serve British pub fare, and for the price, I feel like I didn’t get as much food as I expected (I got the Cornish pasties and salad). My husband got the shepherd’s pie, which was a bit heartier but still not that impressive. I suppose the ambience of The Three Broomsticks is the real draw here. If I were to do it again, I would probably get butterbeer and drinks here (or make it an early or late lunch stop), and find dinner elsewhere.
The Hogwarts Express
Around 6PM, we headed over to the Hogsmeade Station, which houses the Hogwarts Express and connects to Diagon Alley in the Universal Studios Florida Park. We figured since Islands of Adventure closed earlier than Universal Studios Florida, we’d hop on the Hogwarts Express and squeeze in a couple more hours of fun at the other park. This worked out really well for us—just make sure you allot enough time to get through the line for the Hogwarts Express before Islands of Adventure is set to close (the hours change throughout the year—check the calendar on the Universal Orlando site ahead of time or your park map for hours).
This is where the park hopper pass comes in handy. Again, Universal has done a magnificent job recreating the magic of the Harry Potter movies and books with the Hogwarts Express and station. The line was fairly short (about 20 minutes), and the journey to the other park is also short (under 10 minutes). If you’ve downloaded the Official Universal Orlando Resort App, you can check the Hogwarts Express wait ahead of time and plan accordingly.
Each compartment in the Hogwarts Express fits between 4-8 people. The experience is different each way (From Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley and from Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade), so I’d recommend doing both. The train ride is also the quickest way to travel between parks, and offers an air-conditioned reprieve if you’re traveling in the heat of the day.
Looking to Buy a Memento?
If you’re planning on buying mementos from the park, a good time to do this would be right before leaving on your last day. This way, you’ll get to scope out what’s available in each park, and can avoid carrying your purchases around during the day.
Universal Studios Florida
We began the next day at Universal Studios Florida, and headed to Transformers The Ride-3D (which was awesome!) while the line was still short. After, we did the Revenge of the Mummy ride with no wait time! We got right back in line and did the ride two more times. The Revenge of the Mummy ride (suffice to say) was awesome. You even go backwards for part of it—super cool!
We also did the TWISTER… Ride It Out—which isn’t really a ride, but an interactive show where in the climax, you’re meant to feel as if you’re in the middle of a tornado. It was okay. After, we went to the Disaster! show and ride. It was more entertaining than I thought it would be (probably partly because my husband got chosen to be one of the “movie actors” in the short show). I would say if you have time, it might be worth doing once, but many of the other rides are much more worth your time.
We ventured over to Diagon Alley from The Embarcadero, and let me just say, the recreation of King’s Cross, the Knight Bus, telephone booth, and other fun touches leading up to the Diagon Alley entrance are a really nice segue into the world of Harry Potter. There’s a photo op with the Knight Bus conductor and shrunken head (they playfully banter with one another), and if you continue on, 12 Grimmauld Place. Tip: Kreacher the house elf periodically peers out of the second-story window.
The entrance to Diagon Alley is to the left of 12 Grimmauld Place and to the right of King’s Cross Station, behind an unmarked brick entrance that’s faithful to the look of the entrance from the Harry Potter books. If you have trouble finding it, just follow the crowd or ask a Universal Orlando employee. As soon as you enter, you’ll be assailed with the sights and sounds of this magical world—including memorable locations like Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Ollivander’s Wand Shop and the Leaky Cauldron, in addition to the Magical Menagerie, Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, Quality Quidditch Supplies and Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. As you walk down the street, you’re greeted by the menacing escaped dragon perched atop Gringott’s Bank—that actually breathes fire every twenty minutes or so!
Don’t Miss the Shows!
My husband and I had taken time during the previous night to wander through some of the stores (which aren’t as crowded in the later evening hours as park goers began to wind down for the day). We made sure to take note of the showtimes for the live performance of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Celestina Warbeck and Banshees. I would recommend making time to watch the shows, as they’re really entertaining and definitely enhanced our experience!
As you’re walking into Diagon Alley, there’s a small offshoot on the left (a narrower passageway) that funnels you into Knockturn Alley. This was a pleasant surprise for me. Instead of having this area be open to the daytime sky, it’s cold and foreboding, with a perpetually starry night “sky” overhead, and storefronts illuminated with the flickering lights from within. In this small area, you’ll find Borgin and Burkes, a creepy shop featuring sinister magical objects like skulls and Death Eater masks. Tip: If you get close to the vanishing cabinet, you can hear the bird (like from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) tweeting inside.
Escape From Gringotts
The Escape from Gringotts ride uses the same mine carts that you see in the movies in a combined 3D effect and coaster thrill ride that winds perilously into the deepest recesses of the cavernous interior. Everything in Gringotts Bank is recreated SO WELL. You’ll see scenes from the book perfectly mimiced, all the way from the striking chandeliers on the ceiling to the trolls stationed on each side of the entryway. You can also expect an appearance from the dragon atop Gringotts Bank, and from You Know Who himself! My jaw was seriously dropping the whole time.
My husband and I initially rode the Escape from Gringotts ride on our first night in the parks. We went in the late evening when the crowds had started to thin out—and thus had a much shorter wait time (only about 20 minutes). I don’t want to spoil the ride—so you’ll just have to experience the rest for yourself because it is a definite must-do.
Other Rides in Universal Studios Florida
- Men in Black Alien Attack: This was a really cool shoot-em-up dark ride where you get a gun and are pegged against alien invaders.
- The Simpsons Ride: It wasn’t really for me. If you’re a big Simpsons fan you may enjoy it.
- The E.T. Adventure Ride: We liked this ride. It was slower-paced but enjoyable—reminiscent of the Peter Pan ride at Disneyworld.
- Terminator 2 3-D Show: The show combines live actors and a 3D special effects animated show. It had slightly dated effects, but was actually pretty entertaining. If anything, it’s a nice break in the middle of the day to recoup, sit in a cool, dark theater and avoid the sun for a bit.
After the show, we made our way back through Fast Food Blvd. and over to King’s Cross Station to ride the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure. Riding the train from Universal Studios Florida to Islands of Adventure was (in my opinion) cooler than riding it the other direction. The line leading to the train takes you through platform 9 ¾, where a magical mirror let’s you see guests actually look as if they’re walking through the brick wall!
Our Review of the Mythos Restaurant
I had heard that planning ahead and making reservations for the Mythos restaurant was a good idea—and I’m glad I did. We made lunch reservations just a few days in advance for 1:30PM, and saved ourselves an hour of standby wait time. It was fantastic being able to spend an hour during the hottest part of the day in an air-conditioned restaurant. The mid-May heat in Orlando is nothing to scoff at! If you’re looking to eat at a park restaurant, I would definitely recommend Mythos. It’s a little bit expensive, but well worth it with the mythical, grotto-themed interior. The food was good, but I think the setting definitely made it more of an experience. The exterior of restaurant features a series of waterfalls, one of which trickles into the interior of the restaurant, winding through it in a flowing stream.
Afterwards, we crossed the walkway and made our way towards the impressive façade of Poseidon’s Fury. We felt lunch at Mythos was a very fitting prelude to the interactive walking tour in the ancient Temple of Poseidon. An archeologist from the Global Discovery Group leads you deep into the recesses of the temple and was very amusing with his humorous quips.
Shows, Drinks & More at Diagon Alley
After Poseidon’s Fury, we ventured back over to Universal Studios Florida and Diagon Alley, where we tried the Tongue Tying Lemon Squash and Fishy Green Ale while watching the Tales of Beedle of the Bard show. The Fishy Green Ale was sweet with tangy pops of blueberry, while the Tongue Tying Lemon Squash was refreshing, but not unique. The show was really wonderful! Actors narrate the tale while controlling the movements of beautifully crafted puppets. After, we got shots of the cinnamon-flavored Firewhiskey before going on the Escape from Gringotts ride for a third time. We also got the Wizard’s Brew and Dragon Scale beer—both of which were very good.
We had a late dinner at the Leaky Cauldron (to avoid the crowds). I was more impressed with the food there than at The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. Both serve British pub fare. I got a delicious (and filling) bread bowl with Guinness and lamb stew. The tavern-like ambience and soaring ceilings, moving wanted poster featuring Sirius Black, actual leaky cauldron and other touches really made the restaurant feel fantastical, like you were dropped straight into one of the movies.
Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour
Later that evening we headed to Florean Fortescue’s for ice cream before making our way back to the hotel. My husband got the butterbeer soft serve ice cream and I got sticky toffee and salted caramel blondie—they were all amazing! Florean Fortescue’s also had some more interesting flavors to try for the more adventurous, like earl grey and lavender, chocolate chili, clotted cream or orange marmalade (among others). I’d recommend checking it out!
Wrapping up the Day
Afterwards, we managed to squeeze in the Shrek 4D show. It was cute and is a good family-friendly performance. We also went on the Despicable Me ride, which we loved. The short intro narration that occurs before the ride was almost more entertaining than the ride itself! The line was really long for this ride during most of the day, so we’d recommend going either early in the morning, or later in the evening to make the most of your time.
The Final Morning
On the final day, we packed our things, checked out of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, and left our bags with the hotel’s luggage service before venturing out for a final morning in the park. The goal of our final morning was to go on as many rides as possible and test out our Harry Potter interactive wand before taxiing over to the Caribbean Beach Resort on Disneyworld property that afternoon.
We headed into Universal Studios Florida in time for the park opening at 9AM and knocked out as many rides as possible while the lines were still short. This included Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, the Revenge of the Mummy ride, Transformers the Ride 3D and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Serious thrill-seekers and rollercoaster-goers will definitely appreciate Rip Ride Rockit. Unless your children like traveling *literally* straight up into the air with music pounding in their ears only to be tossed through death-defying loops and turns before returning (somehow) safely to the station—I would say this ride is not family friendly. However, I did see some kids brave enough to give it a try (and others backing out at the last second). Once was enough for me.
Farewell, Universal Orlando
After surviving Rip Ride Rocket, we went to Diagon Alley and rode the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmeade, where we did the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride one final time. My husband and I decided to ride together since the line was only about 20 minutes long. We tried out the spells with our interactive wand in both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. For lunch, we found a cart over by the Revenge of the Mummy ride with giant turkey legs. An excellent end to an excellent adventure!
The Final Verdict
Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida definitely surpassed my expectations. The highlight for me was Diagon Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and how impeccably well thought out it was. Plus, the fact that there is so much to see and do besides WWoHP really made me feel like I got my money’s worth. There’s something for everyone to enjoy—whether it’s the cute minions and pre-ride act in the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride, the interactive wand experience in both WWoHP lands, or roller coasters like the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket for those looking for an adrenaline rush. With a little game planning, you can fit in an impressive amount of fun into a short amount of time.
Final thoughts: If you’re a Harry Potter fan—you have to experience this! I know we’ll definitely be making a trip back.
Questions or comments? Planning a Universal Orlando trip of your own? Please share in the space below!