Arrival/Departure City: Orlando (MCO)/Orlando (MCO)
Know Before You Go: If staying at a Universal Orlando Resort hotel, a car is not at all necessary to explore the resort. Both Universal Studios Florida® and Universal’s Islands of Adventure®, as well as Universal CityWalk®, are within a 5-10 minute walk of the resort hotels. A vehicle is necessary to travel to Kennedy Space Center, which is about a one-hour drive from Orlando. The good news is, several of the resort hotels have Hertz Car Rental locations in the lobby, so it’s super easy and convenient to rent a car for the day. Renting a car for the entire trip is not advised, as the resorts do charge a significant daily fee for parking.
The Universal Orlando Resort is home to two theme parks: Universal Studios Florida® (USF) and Universal’s Islands of Adventure® (IoA). Both parks are home to a park-within-a-park known as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ (WWoHP). Important locations described in the Harry Potter series of books have been recreated in the parks with fantastic creativity and attention to detail; Diagon Alley™ is located at USF, Hogsmeade™ is located at IoA, and the two parks are connected by Hogwart’s™ Express. As with any theme park, attendance is higher during peak vacation times. I recommend making hotel reservations at least 8 months in advance. Park tickets can be purchased on-line at any time prior to departure.
Pre-purchasing park tickets via UniversalOnline.com will save approximately $20 per ticket vs. purchasing at the gate. For this itinerary, purchase a 3-day Park-to-Park Admission ticket, as a Park-to-Park ticket is required to ride the Hogwart’s™ Express. If purchased on-line, a 3-day Park-to-Park adult ticket is $204.99 ($68.33 per day), and a child (ages 3-9) ticket is $194.99 ($65 per day), not including tax. If you plan to stay at one of the three deluxe hotels at the resort, DO NOT purchase Universal Express passes, as this perk is included in your room rate (see below). Tickets will be delivered electronically, and you must print them prior to arriving at a park.
Arrival Day: After arriving at the Orlando International Airport, follow the signs for ground transportation. There should be plenty of taxis/private cars waiting to take you to the hotel. A one-way trip will cost approximately $60, which includes a generous tip.
- Where to Stay ($$$): The Loews Royal Pacific Resort is one of four on-site hotels at the Universal Orlando Resort (a fifth is scheduled to open in summer 2016). In addition to being within walking distance of all the major resort attractions and amenities, The Loews Royal Pacific offers standard rooms that are 335 sq. ft. and equipped with all of the typical amenities. The most valuable perks included in a stay at a resort hotel are Early Entry access to the parks and Universal Express Unlimited pass, which provides unlimited front-of-the-line access to most rides and attractions at both parks (Note: Guests at Cabana Bay Beach Resort do not receive the Universal Express pass and Universal Express cannot be used on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™ or Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™ attractions.). A good summary of the Early Entry perk can be found here, and Universal Express is explained here. Both Early Entry and Universal Express passes (one for each guest) are included in the room rate. Room-only rates start from $234 per night; however discounts of up to 35% can often be found on the hotel website. It is also possible to purchase vacation packages that include accommodations and theme park tickets, but you will typically save money by purchasing these independently.
- What to Do ($): Depending on your arrival time, use the remainder of the day to enjoy the hotel’s richly-themed lagoon pool and sandy beach, or follow the pedestrian path to CityWalk and enjoy a round of miniature golf at Hollywood Drive-In Golf and grab a meal at one of the many CityWalk restaurants.
Day 2: Dedicated Harry Potter fans will want to stay true to the story and start the day at Diagon Alley™, located in USF. Check at the hotel front desk the night before to determine what time USF will open for resort guests and arrive at the entry gates at least 45 minutes before the official opening time (the park often opens 30 minutes prior to the official opening time).
- What to Do ($-$$): Your 3-day park-to-park ticket includes admission to both parks. Follow the pedestrian walkway to USF, and head straight to Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™ for your first wizarding experience. Take time to enjoy the richly-themed interactive queue; the attention to detail is absolutely amazing and fully immersive!. After exiting the ride, if the line is still relatively short (less than 30 minutes), I strongly recommend riding a second time. The line only gets longer as the day progresses, and this ride is prone to technical difficulties, so take advantage of short lines whenever possible. Also, as the line gets longer, you get to enjoy even more of the interactive queue (the single rider option skips the queue almost completely, so don’t opt for this until you’ve experienced the full queue at least once). Once you have sufficiently escaped from Gringotts, take time to simply wander around Diagon Alley™ and be filled with wonder and amazement at the creativity that went into creating this fantastic space. You and your Harry Potter fan will truly feel like characters in the cherished series of books. Take time to visit Ollivander’s™, giving your wizard time to participate in the wand chooses the wizard experience and select a wand from the floor-to-ceiling assortment. Be sure to stop in Gringott’s Money Exchange and talk to the goblin…ask him anything you want, really! Explore creepy Knockturn Alley, browse in the various shops that sell anything and everything a wizard could possibly need, and try to catch a musical performance by Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees or a puppet performance of “The Tale of the Three Brothers” or “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”. As the crowds begin to build, you may decide to exit Diagon Alley™ and use your Universal Express passes to enjoy some of the other rides and attractions at USF. Or head to Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station to catch the Hogwart’s™ Express to Hogsmeade™. The experience on the journey from King’s Cross to Hogsmeade is different from the journey from Hogsmeade to King’s Cross, so be sure to experience both routes. If heading to Hogsmeade™, expect crowds and long lines. Your Universal Express pass can be used to ride Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff with minimal waits.
- Where to Eat ($): If possible, delay breakfast until after escaping from Gringotts, and stop at Leaky Cauldron™ for a hearty, British pub-style late breakfast or early lunch. Indulge in butterbeer, either cold, hot, or frozen while admiring the beautiful theming in this restaurant. After spending the day in the parks, return to the Loews Royal Pacific and enjoy dinner at Islands Dining Room. On select nights, the restaurant offers The Wok Experience, an all-you-can-eat meal featuring a made-to-order stir-fry bar offering an assortment of meats, veggies, and sauces, as well as a make-your-own pho bar.
Day 3: Check with the front desk the night before to determine what time IoA is scheduled to open for resort guests and arrive at the gates at least 45 minutes prior. Use your second day of park admission to explore Hogsmeade™ and experience a Forbidden Journey.
- What to Do ($-$$): Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™ is the headliner attraction at Hogsmeade™, so be sure to experience this amazing attraction before the queue gets too long. As with Gringotts, Forbidden Journey has an amazingly immersive and interactive queue that takes you all through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Don’t feel pressured to rush through; as long as the line is short, take time to admire the displays and interactive presentations in full. As with Diagon Alley™, the attention to detail is astounding and truly brings the story to life. The ride itself is an amazing and one-of-a-kind combination of robotics technology and special effects that should not be missed. If the queue is still relatively short, ride again if possible (the ride may induce motion sickness; if so, back-to-back rides are not advised). No trip to Hogsmeade™ is complete without a stop at Honeydukes™ sweetshop for Fizzing Whizzbees, Chocolate Frogs, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Use your Universal Express passes to ride Flight of the Hippogriff™ and Dragon Challenge™ as many times as your wizard’s heart desires, and take time to explore and take in all of the charm and fanciful details that bring Hogsmeade™ to life. If desired, exit Hogsmeade™ and spend time in the rest of IoA, using Universal Express to minimize wait times at rides such as Jurassic Park River Adventure®, The Incredible Hulk Coaster®, and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man®. When you’re ready to return to the Wizarding World, head back to Hogsmeade™ and catch the Hogwarts™ Express for a completely different experience on the journey to London.
- Where to Eat ($): Three Broomsticks™ offers a variety of breakfast and lunch options, depending on your preference. The restaurant is beautifully themed and no wizard can make the trip to Hogsmeade without stopping in for a bite! If you have an adventurous eater, treat yourselves to dinner at Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, located at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Simply show your theme park ticket and receive a free appetizer or dessert with the purchase of one entrée. Reservations are recommended and can be made online here.
Day 4: Use the last day of your park-to-park ticket to revisit favorite experiences in the WWoHP or explore other areas of USF and/or IoA. Be sure to take advantage of all your hotel perks including Early Entry and Universal Express to minimize wait times.
- What to Do ($-$$): If your wizard is willing to spend time outside of the WWoHP, additional rides and attractions of interest include The Revenge of the Mummy®, E.T. Adventure®, Men In Black™ Alien Attack™, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Shrek 4-D, and many more. Universal Orlando Resort is also home to a regular performance of Blue Man Group, a creative and interactive fusion of music, humor, and technology that is sure to entertain every member of the family. Shows are typically held every night of the week, although tickets for performances on Friday and Saturday cost a bit more. Advance purchase of tickets is strongly recommended and can be made here.
- Where to Eat ($): Before the Blue Man Group performance, enjoy dinner at one of the many CityWalk restaurants , all of which are just a short walk to the theater.
Day 5: Rent a car and drive to Cape Canaveral, Florida to visit the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) where you can stand nose-to-nose with an actual space shuttle displayed as only spacewalking astronauts have ever seen her.
- What to do ($): The Kennedy Space Center was home to every single launch for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. General admission is $50 for adults and $40 for children ages 3-11, and tickets can be purchased upon arrival. Admission includes IMAX® space films, all exhibits and shows, the Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame®. The highlight of KSC is the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. Atlantis is displayed in all her glory, rotated at an angle of 43.21 degrees with the payload doors open and the robotic arm extended, as if she has just undocked from the International Space Station. In addition to the magnificent shuttle display, there are numerous other interactive exhibits detailing the 30-year history of the Space Shuttle Program, as well as the Shuttle Launch Experience® which simulates the sights, sounds, and sensations of a space shuttle launch. The IMAX® Theater offers showings of “Journey to Space 3D” and “Hubble 3D” and the KSC Bus Tour offers up-close views of active launch pads. Plan to spend the entire day enjoying the exhibits, touring the facility, browsing the gift shop, and paying your respects to NASA’s fallen heroes at the solemnly beautiful Astronaut Memorial.
- How to Get There ($): The Loews Royal Pacific Hotel has a Hertz Rental Car Desk in the lobby. Advance reservations are required and can be made here. An economy compact rental will cost approximately $70 for the day, not including gas. There are plenty of gas stations near Universal Orlando Resort, so there is no need to purchase the fuel plan. The drive to KSC will take about an hour and does include toll roads. The rental car should have a toll tag, and Hertz will charge your credit card for the toll fees within a few days after returning the car. Pick-up/drop-off of the car is with the valet attendants in the main driveway in front of the hotel.
- Where to Eat ($): Enjoy a low-key, casual dinner at Jake’s American Bar located in the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Despite the name, this is a family-friendly restaurant with plenty of great menu options for parents and kids.