Before we left for our latest trip I wasn’t sure I was going to blog this one. A theme park vacation isn’t a typical “Karen adventure”. Then I figured some things out I hadn’t expected. Years ago, about 15 or more, when we took our children to Disney World, there were entire books written with tips on how to get the most of one’s time in the Magic Kingdom. This adventure was primarily about my interest in seeing the Harry Potter attractions. We’ve been trying to do this for a few years and figured it would make a good two or three day add on to another trip. That just never seemed to work. This time when we booked the offer was buy two days of Park tickets and get three free. It seems they are always running these promotions, which are great as a big part of the expenses are Park tickets. As you will read, you will see how this really pays and turns a hectic, goal driven plan into a relaxing get away.
So, having booked the tickets for the five day, park hopping passes and our hotel, flights, etc., I put the trip on the back burner until a few weeks before we were going and then figured I would go online and learn the tips and secrets to make the most of our stay. I was shocked on how hard it was to find the kind of information I was looking for and the tips I found were not that interesting or helpful. So therefore, I decided to blog about the things we learned to help others. Also, eating with diet restrictions is one of the few customer service areas that Universal falls shorter then necessary, so I wanted to cover our thoughts and tips for that as well.
The first tip I want to share is something we learned on our Cruise trip a few years ago. There is a program called ParkSleepFly that allows you to stay at a hotel near your airport and for the price of the one night stay you can leave your car for a week and they shuttle you back and forth from the hotel. If you book through Ebates (now Rakuten), you get money off on your stay as well. We decided that with an early morning flight, this would be a great way to start our trip and it was, as our car was all set and we just had to take the shuttle to the airport in the morning.
Since we were staying in Philadelphia on Saturday night, we figured we’d extend our vacation not only with the hotel night, but meet some friends in town for dinner. When we couldn’t get reservations at our first choice place our friend Keith suggested a place he had heard about P.S. & Co. I took one look at the menu and questioned how I didn’t know about this place. They are totally vegan, totally gluten-free, organic and AMAZING! I can’t tell you how good the food was, you need to try it for yourself. I’m sure if you don’t have dietary restrictions, you might not be impressed or may think it a little pricey, but maybe not, good food is good food. If you are vegan, gluten-free, dairy or soy free or otherwise plant based you will be in heaven. We shared two appetizers, three entrees and three desserts for the four of us. We left full and very happy, being able to eat things we rarely or never can. A shout out to the nachos, my husband’s favorite, and the midnight mocha dessert as highest rated – but of course we didn’t try everything YET!
Before we get to all the fun, some notes about travel plans. We had our travel agent book on Frontier airlines, as even with paying for luggage, their rates were the best. There were a number of reasons to regret that decision, but in the long run, nothing that would stop me from doing it again, though I might research my options a little more. When the reservation was made our agent from Maddie from Town Place Travel mentioned about paying ahead for baggage and seat selection, but I didn’t pay that much attention. If you pay for your bags at the time of booking it can be cheaper, but as long as you pay on-line ahead you save money. We didn’t care about seat assignments, even if we had been separated for the short flights, we figured it wasn’t that important to us. In the end, when we checked in both times it seated us together. Before checking in the night before we were able to pack everything for both of us in the one suitcase we had already prepaid, so we checked in that way. If we had needed to add another, that would have been the time to do it. They charge for carry-ons but you can take one “personal” item that fits under you seat for free, so Steve took his computer back pack with a few extra things in it and I took the small backpack we always take on trips and would take to the Parks, with snacks, magazines, etc. and then put my purse in there prior to boarding. Just another note, I debated taking a light jacket and/or a sweater. I wound up being glad I had both, the airport was freezing, though I didn’t use them the rest of the trip.
As mentioned the airport was freezing and we spent a lot of time there, as our flight was delayed for about three hours, it had an issue with the door, though we learned this later. This is when we were first glad we had added the extra night onto our plan, so we had time to arrive and decompress and now so we didn’t waste most of a day’s park ticket. We had already had some breakfast bowls of eggs, potatoes and assorted toppings in the airport. After two hours they gave us vouchers for ten dollars each we could use in the airport for food and I found a place with healthy snacks and bought some juices and snack bars for the plane, chips we wound up eating by the pool later for a snack.
When we booked the trip we declined booking a shuttle. My research lead me to believe for the same price or less we could take Lyft (their prices were better then Uber every time we checked) in Orlando and we had a discount from the ones they send every once in a while. Also while we were away Rakuten started offing $.25 cents off every Lyft ride, not a lot but if you were using it daily it would add up. At one point we thought about renting a car for the day, though we were glad we hadn’t once we got delayed. Avis does have a desk at most or all hotels in Universal, but the hours for returning them seem limited, I never did get all the info as we decided against it.
So finally we were at our hotel, The Cabana Bay Beach Resort. It seems each hotel at Universal has different features that make it more appealing depending on your interests and needs. We picked The Cabana out of several hotels which were recommended due to it’s price point but found it had some other huge benefits. The biggest benefit is that it has a personal walking path and entrance to Volcano Bay Water Park, so if your ticket includes that (and I would recommend it if you are staying more then a day or two), you can walk there in minutes, especially if your room is at that end of the hotel – the place is enormous.
Now late afternoon, we decided to check out the pool. Actually there are two pools and the hotel’s own little lazy river. To use the lazy river you need to purchase inter-tubes, which are yours to keep, unless you bring your own. We decided to spend the money, I think $7 a piece and we used them multiple times throughout the week. It was very relaxing. There were lots of lounge chairs, many in shaded areas, also most of the lazy river was shaded as well, so nice way to cool off and relax.
Universal’s area with shops and restaurants outside the Parks is called “City Walk”. It’s also the entrance way to the Parks, so you go through security there, and then to enter the Parks you just need to present your ticket and fingerprint (and id the first day). The shuttles from Cabana Bay run regularly and we never waited more then 10 minutes, usually less for the 10 minute ride to the City Walk / Park areas. A number of the other hotels run boats that land in City Walk just outside the Universal Studios Park entrance, so could cut down a bit on walking, which we did A LOT of.
Food was a bigger challenge then usual this trip, because we were limited in where we could go and Universal has not made a priority of accommodating dietary needs well. It is a shame that a place that sells SO much food makes it a challenge to eat healthy or to enjoy the entire experience of the theme Parks for those with special dietary needs. Having said that, there are choices but you have to work hard to make sure you can eat, and not enjoy as much as those who can eat whatever is on the extensive menus. The policy is also that anyone can bring snacks into the park that do not require refrigeration and those that have medical needs can bring in more extensive foods.
I believe guests at all Universal hotels get early park admission to which ever parks are offering at the time, with the higher end hotels giving that perk as well as Express Pass. We got to Universal Studios during the hour of early admission the next morning and headed for the Gringots ride in Diagon Alley. I believe at that time the wait was about 40 minutes, maybe a bit less. Here is the thing to know about wait times. First, we never waited more then 40 minutes for an attraction and that was rare (fair, we didn’t ride Haggrid’s ride, the newest attraction, with wait times running between 120-150 minutes). A forty minute wait, isn’t really that long because that’s to the main ride, but there are always preshows and little tidbits of things to see along the line, so you are rarely more then 15 minutes without entertainment if the wait is 40 minutes.
We picked a week when we thought crowds would be lower (there are all kind of prediction calendars you can find online), figuring there were no Holidays and the schools would be in session. It winds up the British Schools were on Holiday. But it still was not overly crowded, especially mid-week and having all the Brits added to the atmosphere in the Harry Potter attractions, as so many people were speaking with a British accent. But back to the rides. All the rides in the Parks have the same set of warnings, from The Hulk, the wildest roller coaster (no we didn’t ride that), to the small kid friendly rides in Suessland. It took me some time to find a ranking online of how to compare the rides, somewhat, but since we had already ridden some of these, we could decide what others to ride and skip based on this information. I know the Parks are worried about liability, but they should have a little more rating of the movement and scare factors of the rides. Here is the resource I found . Be aware it was put together before Haggrid’s coaster, so that’s not included.
Anyway, my husband and I have some of the conditions on the “don’t ride list”, including me being prone to dizziness. On the rides we did choose we had no problems, just felt a little more shook after some of them. So Gringot’s was the first and I don’t want to spoil anything or remember all the details anyway, but it was well done, a lot of movement but not over the top and a good experience for our first ride. One other thing, if you are worried about handling the rides, or don’t meet the criteria, Universal has made it so families who have none riders can experience many of the attractions together anyway. As I mentioned there is often a “pre-show” in the line or cool features to see, like projected characters, interesting architecture and more. Non-riders can exit right before the “thrill” ride, so ask the staff about this. There is a “child swap” feature for parents who want to take turns riding and watching small children, so you don’t have to get back in the line.
We wandered around Diagon Alley, the detail is of course amazing, with all kinds of references to the Harry Potter stories. You can purchase interactive wands, which will allow children or adults who choose to activate various features throughout the two Harry Potter Worlds. Of course there are Harry Potter snacks, non of which we could try but if you only have one dietary restriction you may be able to. I have to say again about the foods, I was extremely disappointed in the “sweet shops” which of course had chocolate toads, every flavor beans and many other themed candies. Every one of them had artificial colors and flavors, besides all the chocolate with dairy and soy. The costs are high and the ingredients are of the lowest quality. They should be able to do better.
Islands of Adventure opened at 9 AM. There are two ways to get there with the Park hopper pass. You can walk around, about 15 minutes to the entrance and then another 15 minutes or so if you want to get to the Harry Potter side of that part, or you can ride the Hogwart’s Express. Even though the wait for that with the park opening was about 40 minutes, it seemed the better option. Besides, if you are park hopping, you need to ride the Hogwart’s Express at least once in each direction to get the full effect.
Once in Hogsmede we headed for the Hogwart’s castle ride, “The Forbidden Journey”. This was probably the most challenging of the rides we did and hands down the best. We actually did it once more on our final day and Steve snuck in a time in between, since I wasn’t sure I would do it again. I was glad I did. I caught more detail the second time around and wasn’t as worried about the motion, since I had already handled it. The second time Steve went, he used the single rider option, which bypasses a lot of the line, but also some of the pre-story. There are a few rides that offer this option to fill the “cars” to capacity, but it can actually take longer some times.
We had eaten some snack bars to hold us over until we had a real breakfast (thanks to the Ibotta shopping app, I had stocked up on lots of bars before we left home). We were going to try the Three Broomsticks, as they said they had gluten free options, but being cafeteria style they only offered substitutions and even if they worked you end up paying the same price and getting only a few things you can eat. So we found another attraction until the Mythos Restaurant opened at 11. Poseidon’s Fury is a total walk through attraction, the story line is cheesy and predictable but there some cool effects. Could be scary for young children but pretty tame.
Mythos was probably the best meal we had in the Park proper, but we didn’t have that many. They had a menu with a number of items that would meet our dietary needs and we almost went back again, but didn’t make it. From there we headed to Suessland, which was just a lovely sight to behold for those of us who grew up on and raised our children on Suess tales. One thing that struck me over and over in the Parks, is how one person’s mind can create something that becomes a world wide legend; J.K. Rowling, Theodor Seuss Geisel and all the others. We rode the little Suess Coaster, which is based on Sneetches, one of my favorite stories and the Suess Carousel. The Cat in the Hat ride is adorable and tells the Cat in the Hat story with lots of great props and projections. Another time back we watched the character show and got some great pictures.
By that point in the day we were getting hot and tired. We took the bus back to the hotel and decided instead of going to the pool, we’d check out the Volcano Bay water park, as I mentioned, it wasn’t much further for us then going to the pool. We rode their Lazy River to cool off and rest our bodies. Then we tried our first slide. The tube slides hold 3-6 persons and those slides are mostly similar. The hardest part is the long climb up the steps for a short ride down. The good part is the waits are never long thanks to the park’s TapuTapu system. Everyone gets an electronic wrist band and if the line gets long, you check in at the ride and are given a general amount of time to come back. You can continue to ride other attractions or relax at the beach while you wait. The first day we didn’t have any waits, but later in the week, we waited 10-20 minutes for our Tapu to tell us to come back when we were ready.
Besides the Lazy River, there is a more intense floating river with rapids, waves, etc. It would be fun in tubes, but you only get life jackets and, well, once was enough for us on that. The volcano is home to some of the more intense rides in the park, which we didn’t do, but there is a walk through attraction where you can interact with the volcano. We did the bottom part, not interested in climbing 200 steps to the top. Towels are not included in park admission, you can rent or bring your own. We found we didn’t need towels, just got wet and dried in the sun when necessary. On one of our visits it started to rain and it was funny to see all the already wet people rush for shelter.
There are lockers and of course “park food” and drink. Other then some fries, the only thing we ate there was our snack bars. We did buy a water proof phone case, not for our phones which we left at the hotel but to keep our valuables with us on the rides. It is worth getting one before you leave home. There are tons of beach chairs and many with umbrellas to shade them. That first day after the morning in the Parks and a few climbs we conked out on the lounge chairs for a bit, but they are not as comfortable as the ones by the hotel pool. We decided on the Aqua Coaster as a last ride as the park was closing soon. While in line a storm started and halfway up the stairs (less then the slides) the lightening started and they closed the ride. We walked back to the hotel in a downpour, but we were already plenty wet and headed for a shower to get the chlorine off.
This was our longest day and after changing we headed back to Islands of Adventure to catch the light show at Hogwart’s Castle. While waiting we decided to ride the Hippogriph’s Roller Coaster, a moderate coaster. What we didn’t know that when we went back, they blocked everyone who wasn’t already waiting for staying for the first show and had us stay in Hogsmead, which conveniently allows you to see a few flashes but not the show. Twenty minutes later we were moved up and the show began. It was amazing. It was based on the part in the Harry Potter series when the Dark Forces attack the castle and the effects were like nothing we’ve ever seen before. I gather there is a light show in Universal Studios much of the year as well, but while we were there Universal was closed at nights for Halloween Horrors, which is a separate admission and not of interest to me.
Following the light show we again had dinner in City Walk. This time we ate at Cowfish. It’s a restaurant that serves sushi and burgers, thus the name. We had some tasty sushi and I had a great salad with seared fish. They were able to replace the soy dressing with some delicious ginger dressing. A nice end to a wonderful day.
The next day was supposed to be the hottest, so we decided to take advantage of early admission to Volcano Bay, which wasn’t until 9 AM, so no alarm clock! We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, the Bayliner Diner. The whole of Cabana Bay is done in a retro theme, so the diner has the look of a sixties diner except bigger and with cafeteria service. The big screen TV’s show sixties commercials and scenes. We spoke with one of the chefs who was able to do gluten free waffles (frozen ones), gluten free bread (also prepacked), and assured us the eggs and the potatoes were safe. I got an omelette with potatoes and toast and Steve the waffles with fresh strawberries. There also was a lovely fresh fruit bar which we got some extra fruit from. If you aren’t restricted in diet, there are special meal plans you can get from Universal when you book your reservations to save some money. After breakfast we wandered over to the water park and again did a combo of slides, lazy river and got to ride the coaster, which was a little wild but fun.
When we were ready for a change we hit some of the rides in Islands of Adventure. Steve liked Spiderman because he knew the characters, I liked King Kong because it had less movement and great scenery. I liked it so much it was one of our repeats the last day.
We took a bus back to the Lowes Sapphire Falls Hotel, which took longer because it winds up they were one of the hotels with boat service, though not sure it was available to non-guests. We wanted to eat at the Strong Water Tavern in that hotel because they had a number of ceviche selections, something we usually love. I was really hungry so I also ordered some curried chicken with coconut rice. When the ceviche came it was really spicy, all except one of the types which was the smallest amount. We had to order some more of the rice to enjoy it without being overwhelmed by the spices. From there is was a short walk back to our hotel.
In the morning we grabbed some fruit from the the fruit bar at the Diner and took it with us so we could take advantage of early admission to Universal Studios. We rode the Minons ride which was cute, the Jimmy Fallon race through NYC which was also fun and funny, Shrek, the Transformers ride and the Men in Black ride, all with almost no waits.
There are a number of small shows in the Park, nothing large at this point, but it seems that those vary. We saw a Blues Brothers group and later the Beat Builders who made music with construction equipment. We went to the Makeup Horror Show, which I can’t recommend enough. It was funny, educational and historical; using a combination of live actors, old film clips and even an audience volunteer.
Later we rode the Simpson’s ride, which although we are not Simpson’s fan was a lot of fun, as it riffed on Theme Parks throughout the ride though an imaginary amusement park. Lots of motion thought for those who get motion sick.
We decided to try Lomard’s on the Wharf for lunch. They had some options that could be done gluten free and it was decent though not our favorite meal. Then we went to watch the character parade. Our last activity at the park for the day was the Animal show. Lots of dogs, cats, birds and a few other exotic trained animals. Very similar to the show we saw a few years ago at Busch Gardens. Then back to the pool at the hotel to unwind and cool off.
We decided to go off property that night for dinner, and although the Lyft made it a little pricey, the dinner was amazing. We went to Nile Ethiopian restaurant, a few miles from the hotel in a not so impressive looking shopping center. It had great reviews on both “Find Me Gluten Free” and “Happy Cow” and well deserved. When we told them we were gluten free they said they usually like when people call ahead for the Neff (the Ethiopian bread that can be made gluten free) and that it would take a little longer, but it really didn’t take long and I heard them tell the women at the next table the same thing and they accommodated. It might be different if they were very busy. We got a combo of the Ethiopian salads that you eat using the bread as your spoon. They were all amazing though the tomato one and the mustardy lentils stood out.
After three days there weren’t too many things we had missed at the Parks that we wanted to see, but we went back for the ET ride. It’s the oldest ride in the park and reminiscent of early Disney rides, very cheesy but sweet. We wandered a little more, looking at details and then did more water park. That night we went back to City Walk and found hidden away a little restaurant themed as a tribute to Bob Marley. We had two good vegetarian dishes and nice drinks. Oh and they had an appetizer that was a bean salsa that came with pita and plantain chips, but we were able to get it with just the plantain chips and that was very tasty as well.
In the morning we decided to go back to the Parks to wander and do a few of our favorite rides again. The Hard Rock Cafe in City Walk serves breakfast from 8:30 so we decided to check that out. We might have done it multiple times if we knew how good it was. They were able to do gluten free dairy free rolls toasted with our eggs and the potatoes were fried in a communal fryer, but after letting her know that was okay, we had those (could have skipped them, they were the most uninspired part of the meal). The best part was when we told them we didn’t want meat with our order they gave us fresh fruit in place of it and it was a big bowl of fresh berries, yum. We also got to sit under Bruce Springstein memorabilia, they must have known we were from Jersey, including the application for renewing his driver’s licence 🙂
After our Park wanderings we went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage. And since no trip would be complete without finding some dairy free ice cream, we took Lyft into town and first had lunch at Oudum Thai and Sushi. Then we walked the block and a half to the Greenery Creamery, which had a half dozen or more vegan flavors, most very original. About four of them were gluten free as well, so I had three and Steve had two.
Off to the airport. Besides being selected for extra security screening, our return trip was uneventful. Despite all of our eating that day, I was hungry by the time we got to Philly and got our luggage. I found a Pizza place in South Philly, Uncle Oogies, on our way home that was emphasizing their vegan pizzas and they assured me they could put them on a gluten free crust. Steve and I both ordered from the vegan menu a ten inch pizza. They brought his first and we started, shortly after they brought mine and the waitress and the owner came out. The owner said “that one was the vegan one” and we and the waitress said, “no, they were both supposed to be vegan”. He apologized profusely, had us take the rest home for someone else, produced a (proper) second vegan pizza, gave us a salad and then a coupon for a percentage off our next visit. I understood his concern and generosity, but we were both fine and the pizzas were delicious.
Home, with a weekend ahead to slowly work our way back into reality was also nice. On Sunday we needed to make a Whole Foods run. I had gone to the organic farm on Saturday for vegetables but there was no fresh fruit in the house, among other needed things. We decided since all Whole Foods involve traveling for us, that we might as well go into Philly again and bookend our trip with brunch at the aforementioned P.S and Co. Brunch was just as good as dinner and I can see regular trips to Philly, with various excuses in the near future, until our next longer adventure.