In some 20-plus years of writing about this theme park wonderland, we’ve developed a keen sense of what is – and isn’t – a good idea, and have various strategies for getting the most out of our park visits. This also leads to another regular question – can you do both Universal Orlando parks in a day?
Well, it’s not ideal, but we realise people will try to cram as much into their Orlando holiday as possible (especially on a combo ticket!), so we set out recently with our three boys to work out the best way to do this in the heat of August.
Actually, calling them ‘boys’ is a bit of a misnomer these days, as, at the ages of 22, 19 and 17, they are hardly juvenile, but they still make an excellent ‘research team,’ and, as we were also doing the final updates for our 2016 Brit Guide, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one tourist-sized stone.
Just to start with, Universal Orlando is a heavyweight prospect. Both parks have seen a lot of development in recent years (with more to come), and the likes of the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter, Transformers, Despicable Me and the Springfield area of the Studios park ensure terrific variety as well as quality.
Add in all the dining, shopping and entertainment attractions of CityWalk, and you have a massive prospect on hand. Trying to do it all in a half-day is simply not possible, but if you focus on the headline rides and shows, you can certainly have a memorable (if tiring!) day. Here’s what we found:
First of all, we’re assuming that, like us, you’re not staying at one of Universal’s three deluxe hotels that all provide the Universal Express front-of-line pass that saves hours of queuing time. If you are – congratulations! You have a head start on the majority. If you want to purchase Universal Express, either in advance of your visit or on the day, it can cost up to $100/person for the Unlimited use ticket for both parks (or $55 off-peak).
Arriving at 9am, right on opening time, at Universal Studios, your best bet is to head straight in to the Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem simulator attraction, which is just about the first big thing you see on your left through the gates.
Normally, we would say avoid the first attraction you encounter in any park as this will nearly always have the longest queue, but this hilarious delve into the world of super-villain Gru and his helpers maintains queues of 70 minutes or more for much of the day, hence it pays to do it early on. If the posted wait time is less than 30 minutes, head straight in!
Your next move should almost certainly be to the back of the park for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. This magnificently creative area opened in 2014 and still draws the biggest crowds, but, for the first couple of hours (and the last two of the evening, when the park can be open as late as 10pm), it is definitely manageable.
Top ride is Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, and a queue time of just 30 minutes at 10am had us all in line double-quick. We didn’t stop long in Diagon Alley – it’s a good place just for a general wander in mid-afternoon – so headed back out at this stage for some of the other top rides.
Indoor rollercoaster Revenge of the Mummy had barely a 10-minute wait, so we did this next, and then took in the two rides at the back of the park Men in Black Alien Attack, with its interactive alien-zapping fun, and the simulator-ride hilarity of The Simpsons Ride.
At this point we headed back into Diagon Alley for an early lunch at The Leaky Cauldron (where we all love the Cottage Pie, Fish and Chips and Toad in the Hole) and then took the Hogwart’s Express train to the other Wizarding World in the Islands of Adventure park. As well as being a fabulous ride, it saves a lot of walking.
In hindsight, we might have been better taking the Express before lunch (and having a meal at The Three Broomsticks instead) as the usual 10-minute queue had ballooned to 30 minutes in the time it took to wolf our food down.
With our crew, the demands for the second park are simple – all the big rides. That means the coasters of The Incredible Hulk and Dragon Challenge, as well as the high-tech Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the 3-D ride experience of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
Starting in Hogsmeade, we did the two Potter rides (using the Single Rider line for Forbidden Journey to cut the wait time down from an hour to barely 15 minutes), then ambled through the Jurassic Park area. We considered doing the Jurassic Park River Adventure, which was showing a half-hour queue but, despite the heat, none of us were keen to get too wet. Instead, we stopped for refreshment at the aptly-named Thunder Falls Terrace and watched others getting soaked on the ride’s big drop instead!
At Spider-Man, we again ducked into the Single Rider line and saved more than half an hour, while The Hulk was, surprisingly, almost a walk-on, even in mid-afternoon.
We were then faced with either staying in Islands of Adventure for The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad Stunt Show or going back to Universal Studios for more rides. The rides won, and, instead of returning to Hogsmeade and getting the Hogwarts Express back (with its different take on the famous Kings Cross journey), we saved time by going out the front gates, walking by the Hard Rock Live and re-entering the Studios by its ‘secret’ entrance adjacent to the Blue Man Group theatre (which brings you in next to Despicable Me).
From there, we were in pole position to do Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, with its superb music-fuelled high-rise ride, with a slightly longer wait than the posted 30 minutes as there was a technical issue while we were waiting, and then another family fave, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride – 3D. We absolutely love the theming and build-up for this and, while it is a similar ride to Spider-Man, its next-gen digital screening gives it a more dynamic feel.
By this time, it was getting on for dinner and we had to decide whether to stay for the nightly Universal Cinematic Spectacular multi-media and fireworks show on the central Lagoon, or head out into CityWalk in search of food.
In this case, the food took the vote (unanimously, it has to be said). As we left, we caught a bit of the 7pm Universal’s Superstar Parade, with its cavalcade of cartoon fun, including those loveable Minions (did we mention we love the Minions?!), and then headed to our new favourite dinner choice of Vivo Italian Kitchen for some of the best Italian food in Orlando.
On a different day, we might have finished with a round of Hollywood Drive-In Golf but, with the heat (it had reached a whacking 36C) and a relatively early start, we decided to call it quits. We certainly didn’t manage to ‘do it all,’ - 2 days will always be better than 1 - but we definitely hit the high points and got good value for our multi-park to both parks. On a cooler day we could have done more – and I’m sure we will next time!
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