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A Single Day at Universal Studios
How we crammed everything we wanted into a single day in two amusement parks
In Mission: Wanderlust, I write and podcast about our family’s travel adventures and the things that we have learned along the way.
It was the first time we ever had a family meeting to discuss vacation plans. It was the first time we were giving our kids a voice in the decisions we were making about what we would do on our vacation.
We sat down with YouTube and looked at all of the Universal options. We informed them that if we did Universal, they were going to have only three days in the Disney parks and they might have to sacrifice one of the four. While they both like Animal Kingdom better than Epcot, they knew there were things at Epcot that they still wanted to see and they wanted to correct the mistakes of our first visit. They were willing to let go of Animal Kingdom if that meant they could visit the world of Harry Potter and ride more rollercoasters.
That was the first step in the decision-making process.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Besides the cost, there was time to consider as well. We ended up with seven full days in Orlando, but we knew that if we were going to get home safely at the end of everything, we couldn’t be all systems go for all seven days. Jeff would still have to drive over 1,000 miles home while pulling our travel trailer. We also learned that if we wanted to visit both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, we were going to have to get a park hopper to visit the two Universal Theme parks, right next to each other.
We waited until we were in Orlando, making the final decision to leave our last day to rest and relaxation and spend a single day in the two parks, making the best of it. We would save our last theme park day for Univeral’s water park.
As a bonus, Jeff’s older sister Kristen flew in from Denver for the week and agreed to join our thrill-seeking son on the coasters that the rest of us refused to do. And it was a game changer.
Much to our son’s chagrin, it was the first day we weren’t at the gates as soon as they opened. An hour after open, we were hugging Kristen and walking through the gates of Islands of Adventure, heading straight to the Hogwarts Express so that we could start our day in Diagon Alley, I could get a wand, and we could ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. I searched high and low in Ollivanders for the perfect wand with Unicorn hair core (Pottermore says my wand is supposed to be made of pine but that was unavailable to me) and we tried it out in a couple of the magic locations. Then we got into line for the 4D experience that took us deep into the Gringotts vaults. While it was definitely more movement than we were expecting, we all enjoyed it.
Before we returned to Islands of Adventure, we headed into the rest of the theme park, all of us doing Transformers: The Ride-3D before splitting up so that our son and Kristen could experience Revenge of the Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and Jeff and I could take our theater-loving daughter to the Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show.1 We also got a quick glimpse of the Blues Brothers before they arrived for their performance on the streets of New York. By all reports, Kristen and our son enjoyed the thrills while Jeff, our daughter, and I enjoyed learning about special effects and horror make-up in an entertaining show that Jeff doesn’t think has changed much in 25 years. Jeff was a little bummed that we had to skip the Bourne Spectacular, but there was no time if we were going to get back to Islands of Adventure and do everything we could there.
Then it was back onto the Hogwarts Express so we could explore Hogsmeade. As we entered Platform 9 3/4, we watched people disappear through the wall with the use of a magic screen. Jeff made sure to take a video of all of us going through the platform before he joined back up with us in line.
Our first order of business was lunch at the Three Broomsticks, where we enjoyed a full meal of roasted potatoes, corn on the cob, chicken, ribs, and Butterbeer. The wait was longer than we would have liked, but the food was good and the frozen Butterbeer super sweet but delicious.
Then we were off to enjoy the rides. Hogsmeade has three rides as opposed to just the one in Diagon Alley. We started with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, another 4D ride that was significantly more movement than Escape from Gringotts. Jeff went through the line and Hogwarts castle and then bowed out before we entered the ride because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to handle the motion. The car dipped, tipped nearly upside down several times, and showed us adventures throughout the castle. It was a lot of fun and we all enjoyed it, but when Jeff saw a girl throw up outside after she got off the ride, he knew he had made the right decision.
Then Kristen and I headed off to Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure with my son. We opted for the single rider line but began to question our decision when that line seemed to take longer than the regular line, especially since we were in a race against an afternoon thunderstorm. With the cars designed for two people, one person riding a motorcycle and the other in the car next to the motorcycle, we probably would have been better off just sticking accepting that one of us would have to ride with a stranger. I was glad that I had used TRON to break in my rollercoaster experiences for the week, because Hagrid’s ride was fun but fast, and I wasn’t expecting to ride a significant portion of it backward, and definitely did not expect the drop at the end. Even with those unexpected features, we all enjoyed the ride.
At this point we split off. Our son was ready to try more intense rides and Jeff, our daughter, and I were ready to slow it down some. Jeff and our daughter joined me on the short but delightful Flight of the Hippogriff before we left Hogsmeade for good to explore the rest of the park.
I faced my fear of drops and gave in to Jeff’s desire to do the Jurassic Park River Adventure. Then the three of us donned 3D glasses, again, to do Skull Island: Reign of King Kong. But the time we were finished, our son was ready to rejoin his family for some water rides.
The rain had finished falling and never turned into thunderstorms, so we put all of our stuff in a locker and got drenched on Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. We walked in squishy shoes to the Jurassic Park River Adventures, ringing out our soaked clothes before one final drop into water at the end of that ride. I was thankful that I had removed my socks, all while wishing for my flip flops to get me through the rest of the evening.
We double-checked with both kids, especially our rollercoaster lover, to make sure that they were completely satisfied with their day. After he had one more turn at Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, our son was ready to leave. It had been tight, but thanks to light crowds we were able to do nearly everything that we wanted to do in a single day in both parks. We felt pretty accomplished.
We really enjoyed Universal, but it doesn’t have the “I need to return again and again” appeal for our family that Disney has. Still, we are happy that we spent the day there and couldn’t wait for our final day of park adventures at Volcano Bay.
To see the Instagram Reel from our day, go here.
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They discovered that if they went single rider on most rides, they would be able to get through faster, which became their strategy for the rest of the day.