Universal Studios Florida – A Winter Reprieve

Monday, January 25, 2016 - by Patrick O'Hagan

With winter weather finally taking its grip in Tennessee, it seemed like the perfect time to head south in search of warmer weather and sunny skies. Wanting to take advantage of an extended weekend, Orlando was the perfect destination.

When you think of Orlando, Mickey and Minnie are probably the first things that pop into your head; but having been to Disney World multiple times, I wanted to try something a little different.

Universal Studios Florida Resort has recently been making headlines with several new additions to their parks, such as the expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It is also celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Famous for its ability to take fans into the worlds of their favorite movies, Universal is sure to be a fun and entertaining vacation destination. This coupled with the fact that off-season travel offers shorter wait lines and crowds make it an even better vacation option.   

We made the drive to Orlando from Chattanooga in just about eight hours – long enough to have that road trip experience, but short enough not to be overly tiring.  Keep in mind that time was with an early afternoon rush hour tie-up in Atlanta. For those not willing to dedicate a day on the road, flights can be booked to Orlando at a pretty affordable rate out of the Chattanooga Airport.  

The crowds and lines are shorter in the winter months, but still get pretty crowded on nice weekends,. Therefore, we arrived at the gates of Universal at 9 a.m. Saturday morning when the park opens for regular admission. There are plenty of hotels in the vicinity of Universal that provide free shuttles to the park, which will help you save $20 on parking (if you choose to drive yourself and park onsite). Walking is another option for those hotels located around the entrance of Universal. Whichever option you choose, be sure to pack comfortable shoes since you’ll be on your feet most of the day.

There are two individual theme parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – that comprise Universal Studios Florida.  All guests begin their Universal experience at the entrance of City Walk. City Walk does not cost to enter and includes a movie theater, mini golf course, and a collection of popular eateries and shops that lead to the entrance of both parks. Many visitors choose to hang out in this area throughout the day and night. The night scene of City Walk is especially lively.

A Park-to-Park admission ticket costs $147 for one day. It allows visitors to experience both parks, each with its own unique attractions. This also gives you access to the Hogwarts Express, connecting Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Other ticket price options are available at discounted rates for additional days.

For Harry Potter fans, Universal has added an entire new section to the Universal Studios park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. It offers shops and eateries identical to the ones you see and read about in the Harry Potter series.

The new addition, which opened in 2014, is a 20-acre expansion to the original Wizarding World found at Islands of Adventure. Wizards and witches-to-be can stop by Ollivanders to purchase a wand to begin their magical training. Robes can be purchased at another specialty shop. Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Fred and George Weasley’s shop, is another fun place to stop by. The inside is a replica of the shop seen in the movies and features many of the gag gifts and unique candies featured in the films. You can also drop in at the Leaky Cauldron for lunch or dinner, before heading off to Hogwarts.

A magical train ride aboard the Hogwarts Express transports visitors to and from Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The park-to-park ticket is required for boarding the train and can be used throughout the day. Not only is the Hogwarts Express a mode of transportation but also an attraction in itself. Modeled after the steam engine in the movies, you can board from King’s Cross Station in London at Platform 9 ¾ or from Hogsmeade. Each train car contains private cabins with interactive screens featuring scenes of London, the English country side, and the grounds surrounding Hogwarts.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions are amazingly detailed and expansive, especially with the new addition of Diagon Alley. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter seems like its own theme park aside from Universal. Even though I would not consider myself to be a Harry Potter fan I found the scenery, rides, and attractions captivating. Walking down the streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley truly felt like being in another world.

In addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter there is plenty more to see and do at Universal Studios Resort. We started our morning at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. This park contains the Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing. Each themed area features rides, shops, and attractions for a completely interactive experience. All park staff dress the part of their themed worlds, adding to the immersion experience.

Seuss Landing happened to be the first stop of the day. The make believe world created by Dr. Seuss features many aspects of his famous stories, including the Cat in the Hat, the Lorax, and Green Eggs and Ham. The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride provides a great view of this section of the park. A recording narrates the tour and the sights of Seuss Landing with fun Dr. Seuss references and quotes. This is a particularly easy and friendly ride, ideal for adults and kids alike.

Universal Studios Florida features the attractions of Production Central, New York, San Francisco, The World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, World Expo, Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone, and Hollywood. Just like Islands of Adventure, there are many worlds to be transported to in this park too. Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone is specifically geared for the young visitors that want a fun and interactive playground to explore. Walking through the area made me wish I was five years old again so that I could take a dive into a massive pit of plastic balls or climb a rope ladder to the top of the huge playground structure.

My favorite ride was the Hollywood Rip Rockit Coaster (I rode it four times and probably would have spent half a day on it if I could have). The massive outdoor coaster combines the thrills of vertical climbs, loops, and corkscrews at a high speed rate with the music of your choice. Each seat has its own screen to choose a song which plays during the ride in the back of your headrest. Motley Crue’s Kickstart My Heart seemed like the appropriate choice for such an occasion.

Waiting in line for rides has to be the least enjoyable experience of any amusement park. However, visiting during the offseason reduces wait times and congestion. Even so, many of the more popular rides (Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket) had wait times up to 60 minutes long. In many cases the purchase of an Express Pass (starting at $59.99 for unlimited express at the two parks) can help shorten wait times allowing access to a faster entrance at select attractions. This pass helped us get on rides quicker and was very helpful in allowing us more time to see the parks.

It would be nice if all attractions offered express pass entrance; unfortunately, express pass buyers are forced to wait in the general lines for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts rides. Both of these attractions had very long wait times, but were also quite enjoyable.

The two days spent touring Universal Studios Florida proved to be a great experience. The weather was warm and sunny, living up to Florida’s Sunshine State nickname, giving us a nice reprieve from traditional winter weather. An important factor for me was the ease of admission to the park during this time. The park was still very busy, but nothing compared to what it would be during peak summer months.

The massive decrease in wait lines compared to summer really increased the amount of the parks you get to explore during the day. In just a day and a half we had ridden everything we wanted and had seen all of both theme parks. This allowed for a relaxed afternoon on our last day to further explore all the strange, magical, and unique worlds created at Universal Studios Florida.  

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