Universal Orlando Resort: A Basic Primer for Walt Disney World Vacation Veterans
Friends, vacationers, locals… lend me your comically over-sized souvenir mouse ears! Most of you like the Walt Disney World Resort, and for good reason. But, dear reader, let me tell you about another place. A wonderful place. A place where you can squeal and fawn over little jellybean men in overalls and not feel weird because everyone else is doing the same thing. That place… is the Universal Orlando Resort.
There are some people out there who might tell you that there are Disney Folk and Universal Folk, and that never the two shall meet. But, dear reader… that just ain’t so. It doesn’t matter what your family is composed of or how much coffee you drink out of your oversized novelty Donald Duck Mug. If you like roller coasters, Universal Orlando Resort has something for you. If you like great food, the resort has something for you. If you like dinosaurs and wizards, swashbuckling and dancing, beach chairs and tornadoes… it has something for you. Below you’ll find a brief summary of the Universal experience, from the events it hosts to some very important ways it differs from the House of Mouse.
Atmosphere and Crowd
By and large, the Universal Orlando Resort is a surprisingly relaxed place at most times of the year. Sure, if it’s your first time, you’re still going to be going at a trot if you want to cross everything off your list. But there’s something about the whole place that just encourages a more casual attitude. Easy access for locals means that many people who live nearby consider CityWalk and the parks themselves an easy weekend or after work hangout. While little kids will find a lot to do, the greater variety of attractions means older kids have more to keep themselves occupied with for a longer time. Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see your fair share of ankle biters running around doing… whatever it is kids like to do… chase hoops with sticks? Claw the furniture? If you’ve got several kids of different ages, or just more options beyond activities and attractions aimed at the young’uns in general, the variety at the Universal Orlando Resort is a high point. An important thing to consider when planning your vacation is whether any significant new attractions have opened up recently. You’re probably really excited for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley… but so am I. And so are thousands of other people, all who are going to be crushing their way through those gates at the same time. If you can stand the wait, giving new attractions and areas a few months to cool off will ease the crowd significantly.
Dining and Dancing
If you’ve been visiting the Mouse for a while, you’re probably used to having to plan most of your restaurant reservations weeks if not months in advance. While it’s true that at certain times of the year when more families are likely to be on vacation from different parts of the world restaurants can fill up, largely you’ll find that you can walk up to just about any restaurant without a reservation. Each park has a wide variety of counter “quick” service stands, refillable mugs for purchase along with Coke Freestyle Machines, as well as two sit-down full service restaurants, and CityWalk offers even more. In addition to food and shopping, CityWalk has several clubs that require a separate fee to enter. If you’re looking for that nightclub flair, try the Red Coconut Club for cocktails and lounging. Or visit CityWalk’s Rising Star, which is both a great bar and a karaoke club… with a live band and backup singers on certain nights of the week! Sure you’ll still embarrass yourself tearfully bellowing Wanted: Dead or Alive like you did back in your bedroom when you got dumped back in seventh grade, but hey, at least you won’t go down alone. I got your back. FREEBIRD!
Throughout the year, the Universal Orlando Resort puts on a lot of extra events, parties, and concerts that can make your trip a vastly different experience depending on when you go and what you go to. Detailing all of them in-depth would require its own article, but here are a few of the big ones you’ll either want to get excited about, or watch out for.
- Rock the Universe – This remarkably rowdy and energetic series of concerts takes place over a single weekend in September. Focusing on Christian music and faith, and running from 4:00PM to a staggering 1:00AM, it features musical performances by some of the genre’s top artists, Sunday morning worship service, and the rides and attractions running throughout at both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. It’s a separately ticketed event, so even if you already have a Universal Studios pass you’ll still need to buy a ticket if you want to attend. If you have young kids, you may want to keep an eye on them, since despite the theme, this is still a massive party with the sale of alc0hol, and things can wind up getting rowdy.
- Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights – Another event that requires its own separate ticket, this one takes place at Universal Studios Florida. Running select nights weekly from late September through the first of November, this is for everyone who loves a good scream and the revving of a chainsaw. With multiple themed “Scare Zones” where horrifically costumed Team Members roam the streets and a number of amazingly detailed haunted “Houses”, this event is centered entirely around thrills and chills. Most attractions at the park will even be running at the same time. While children aren’t restricted from entering, parents should be warned that this event is extremely bloody and frightening. Perhaps more importantly, it also tends to attract an older crowd that, combined with the high-energy atmosphere and the substantial sales of alcohol, means things get more raucous here than perhaps any other time of the year. Then again, I always felt toddlers who were forged in the fires of ear-rupturing screams and seven-foot-tall zombies grew into sterner stuff. (No, I don’t have kids… why do you ask?)
- Mardi Gras – Unlike most of the other events on the calendar, this one is not only included with your ticket, but runs on average a whopping five months from February to June on the weekends. During this time, Universal Studios transforms into a riot of colour, beads, shiny fabrics, and music. Throughout the event, different concerts are scheduled… everyone from artists like Hot Chelle Ray to Robin Thicke. If you’re willing to put up with one doozy of a crowd, you can catch the performances onstage in the park as part of your admission. With parades, food carts, and more, Mardi Gras, perhaps more than any other event, encourages dancing and revelry while aiming to stay family-friendly. Everyone needs embarrassing photos of their kids two-stepping in satin jester hats and glitter beads, right?
Attractions and Properties
As you might expect, Universal Orlando Resort’s two parks draw a lot of their themes, attractions, and designs from movies. Islands of Adventure boasts several themed “lands” centered around Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and Marvel in addition to the classics like The Lost Lands or Toon Lagoon. Each of these areas provides a surprising balance of entertainment aimed at all ages, and anyone who claims Universal falls short in the theming of their architecture and design clearly hasn’t taken a good long look at the intricate windows and shelves of Hogsmeade, or the winding, storybook trees and buildings of Seuss Landing. On the other side of CityWalk, a mere brisk two minute walk, you’ll find Universal Studios Florida, with a somewhat more eclectic collection of attractions. There you’ll find the breakneck spinning and action of Transformers: The Ride-3D. The unexpected backwards tricks of the Revenge of the Mummy coaster, and of course, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster… with its secret music tracks, no less. (Shh!) Guests of certain generous body dimensions, of which I count myself included, should be forewarned that many of the attractions at Universal Orlando Resort are considered significantly more restrictive than those at the Walt Disney World Resort. But before you hop into one of the long lines for these rides, you might want to consider…
Universal Express Pass
Can you really overstate the usefulness, nay, the sheer unbridled joy, of not having to wait an hour and a half to get on a two minute ride? Unlike Disney World’s FastPass+ system, Universal Express Pass isn’t available for every attraction and is sadly not free, but as a result, outside of special events the Express line tends to be vastly underutilized compared to what you might experience at Disney World. Each pass is good for one ride on each attraction, and you can use it whenever you please, which means nobody has to wait around for a specific time window for anything. Before you buy, however, take a walk through the park you’re visiting and scope out the average wait times for each attraction… you might not need the pass at all! If you’re staying at either Loews’ Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews’ Portofino Bay, however, you don’t need to shell out any extra dough, since guests staying at one of those three hotels can swipe their room key for a special pass that allows free Unlimited Express Pass on all rides that offer it for the duration of their stay. And speaking of the hotels…
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort – If you’re looking for the sort of hotel that invites casual relaxation when you’re not being flung around by Decepticons or spat on by giant spiders, Royal Pacific is for you. From the topical, beach-side design to the scenic and serene seven minute walk along the well-kept path to City Walk, everything about it is perfectly tailored to encourage you to chill out. Dining options include, but are not limited to, the substantial menu at Jake’s American Bar, the eye-popping opulence of Emeril’s Tchoup-Chop, and the Orchid Court Lounge and Sushi Bar… breakfast in the morning, some of the best rolls that’ll ever grace your lips at night. This is one of the best choices for families or couples looking for a stay with close proximity to the park, but without a lot of raucousness from the other guests.
- Hard Rock Hotel – Come on. How can you not like a hotel that will loan you a guitar to learn how to play via in-room video tutorials completely free of charge? The Hard Rock is definitely the closest of Universal’s on-site accommodations, with a short two to three minute meander depositing you right at the front gates to Universal Studios. Everything about the design encourages that party party party mentality, from the memorabilia lining the halls and walls everywhere to the underwater sound system at the pool. This means that it can be the most fun, but also most rambunctious, hotel the property has to offer. Many of the guests you’ll encounter are young adults looking to dial it up to eleven, which may mean it isn’t ideal if you want somewhere calm and quiet. The poolside bar and restaurant offers one of the best turkey burgers you’ll find anywhere, however, and the energetic atmosphere and varied bars makes it perfect for when you leave the park at the end of the day but don’t want the party to stop.
- Loews Portofino Bay Resort – Picture it. Old world architecture. Quiet walkways. Three themed pools to suit your mood. And to cap it off? Music down at the docks in the evenings. Portofino Bay is the best choice for people looking for a hotel that offers a more serene ambiance and adult atmosphere without sacrificing the amenities you want while you’re on vacation, making this the best choice if you really want somewhere quiet and relaxing to retreat to at the end of the day. Portofino’s biggest drawback, however, is that you either have to be willing to wait for and catch a boat back from the parks, or walk back if you don’t have the scratch for a tip for your friendly neighbourhood surrey bike driver. While the pathway to Portofino is one of the most beautiful the property has to offer, especially when everything is in bloom for its butterfly garden, it’s also the longest pathway, and what was an idyllic stroll at the start of the day can feel like a never-ending uphill slog at the end of it. If you’re a fan of good pizza, however, it might all be worth it, since Sal’s Market Deli has by far the best you’ll find anywhere at Universal. Yeah, I went there.
- Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort – With a swanky mid 1900s style and an even swankier pool with a lazy river, this is the newest on-property hotel. The upsides of this lovely modern place are pretty keen. A full poolside suite typically going for substantially less than your average king bedroom at one of the other hotels. The aforementioned pool, only open to Cabana Bay residents. To say nothing of some great casual dining options and even a Starbucks of its own. The downsides? Well, if you stay at Cabana Bay, you do not get the free park Express Passes, and since it’s farther away than any of the other hotels, you either have to be prepared for a much longer walk, or go for the shuttle. I don’t know about you guys, but there’s a lot I’m willing to forgive, even a long walk after a longer day, if it comes with a cheap six person room with a kitchenette and poolside access.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything the Universal Orlando Resort. Still, it should provide you with a basic idea of the things to keep in mind that set this place apart from the Walt Disney World Resort. I hope you’ll join us there some time! I’ll be the girl laying facedown on the cobblestones in Diagon Alley. Where Jaws used to be. Tearfully crooning “My Heart Will Go On” while being shooed by the Ministry of Magic. As for this post… I guess you’ve reached the bottom.
Please welcome Dora Breckinridge to the TouringPlans blog team. Originally from Canada, Dora now lives in Tampa and loves all the Central Florida theme parks. Dora reviews video games at JayisGames.com during her day job.