Universal Orlando Review (and tips!)

Universal here we come!

For our winter vacation this year we decided to try out Universal Studios and Island of Adventure in Florida. Our daughter had read all the Harry Potter books (and we had all seen all the movies) so we were most excited for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This was our first trip to Universal and we definitely learned a lot! We had 3 day, 2 park passes. We stayed at Orlando/Kissimmee KOA to do the trip- to read our campground review go here: https://campingwiththekennedys.com/2022/01/22/orlando-kissimmee-koa-holiday-review/

Our campsite at KOA Orlando/Kissimmee

Hotel advantages

Universal hotel stays come with some extra perks, including 1 hour early admission (in less busy times this is usually only one park, islands of adventure) and some of the hotels come with free express passes for the duration of your stay. We wanted to do express passes but we’re struggling with the cost ($85 a person a day for our dates in mid January). So we decided to book a hotel (Lowes Royal Pacific) for one night. This was one of the hotels that came with express passes and it cost us $300 for the night, with express passes valid on both the check in and check out day. This was a lot cheaper than booking express passes for our family of 4 for 2 days. You can check in as early as 7am on arrival day, and check out is all online. Note we did not actually stay here, just used the booking for the perks as we were more than happy at the campground.

There were a few things we loved about doing this. One, you can park right at the hotel (it will cost you the same as parking at the parks), and take the water taxi or an easy 10 minute waterside walk to the parks. We actually found this was a closer walk than parking at the huge parking garage for off site guests. Another perk was a separate security entrance. There were much less people here and it was a smoother process.

One day we took advantage of 1 hour early admission at Islands of Adventure. Some of the best things to do with this extra hour include, hitting the Hogwarts area for pictures without a lot of people, doing the wand ceremony at Ollivanders and choosing a wand with low crowds, and riding Velocicoaster with no wait. Velocicoaster is one of two rides (the other being Hagrids Motorbike Adventure) that does not take express pass. My kids loved it and were able to walk right on a few times during this early hour. Hagrids Motorbike was not open during the early hour, but you could line up for the ride. I don’t suggest doing that, as the ride times were actually a lot lower mid day.

The big question is are the express passes worth it?. We used ours on a Tuesday and Wednesday off season. It was great to be able to walk on all the rides, but during that time of year the waits were mostly under 30 minutes each. Still it was nice to ride everything we wanted multiple times without checking ride waits. We also went in the park Friday without the express passes and the waits were up to 45 minutes for a lot of things. I would say it would definitely be worth it if you are visiting on a weekend. Overall our experience on the days we had on property perks was definitely more pleasant!

How many days do you need?

This obviously depends on what you are looking to do. We were able to do all rides (most multiple times) in 2 days with park to park tickets and express passes. The third day was nice to go back and soak everything in, do more spells in the wizarding world and reride our favorites without any real plan. If you want to ride the Hogwarts express (this was down during our visit) you need the park to park ticket. The Hogwarts express would have required less walking for sure, but we found the fronts of the parks were about a 5 minute walk apart.

The Locker Situation (what bag to pack)

Most of the rides had lockers to stash your things. They were free if your bag could fit into them. Large backpacks will not fit. We were able to fit smaller drawstring bags, wands and robes but sometimes needed multiple (free lockers) I would suggest trying to pack lighter if you don’t want to pay for a locker. There were a few rides- Hulk, Velocicoaster, Rip Ride Rocket) that had metal detectors. Many a people were sent back for trying to sneak in a phone. Don’t try to take anything into these lines!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter- Universal Studios Side

You will notice at the parks that on any given day probably 1/2 the people in attendance are in the Harry Potter area. It’s definitely the most crowded areas in the parks, and with good reason. The theming is spectacular, the rides are top notch and it just feels like you are in an entirely different world.

Diagon alley is located in Universal Studios. The entrance is around a brick wall, so that you can’t see anything Harry Potter until you go around the corner and then you feel like you are in a book. You could spend hours here taking in all the stores and details. It can get really crowded mid day, so if you can get there closer to park opening you will have the best chance of getting pictures with less people!

First time in Diagon Alley
The wall that blocks Diagon alley from the world of muggles

One of the must do’s is going to Ollivanders for wands. Make sure to do the little show where someone in each group (of 15-20) is chosen by the wizard for a wand chooses the wizard experience. Even though my kids were not chosen, they still thought this was really cool. I’ve heard they tend to pick kids around Harry Potter’s initial age, and dressed in robes but there are no guarantees. Afterwards you can go into the shop and choose your wand. It is really crowded in the shop, but earlier and later in the day the crowds seem to die down. Make sure to get an interactive wand, these are $60 but will unlock all the spells in the Wizarding world. They come with a map to all the spell spots. Once you find a spell spot, you do the motion listed, and voila! Magic. Between the two parks there are about 25 spots, all in the wizarding world. Make sure you visit knockturn alley at the end of Diagon alley for the dark arts spells and experience (bonus if it’s a hot day it is really cool and dark back there)

So many wands!
A spell station- open the box to a chocolate frog!
Another spell station
The rain spell was a hit!

You can visit sugarplums sweet shop (or Honey dukes in Island of Adventure) for chocolate frogs, jelly beans, and other Harry Potter treats. One of the must dos of course is butterbeer! they have carts a plenty selling this delicious drink. We tried it cold, frozen, hot (you have to go in one of the restaurants for this but can order to go) and icecream (at Florean Fortescues Icecream Parlor). Hot was my favorite, but my kids preferred cold. Just be prepared these non-alcoholic drinks are $8. We also really enjoyed the Wizards Brew, a dark beer we found in the Leaky Cauldron. To keep with theming, no soda products are sold in the wizarding world.

Cold butterbeer
Hot butterbeer (in Hogsmeade)
Icecream butterbeer
Chocolate frog

There are only two rides here, the Hogwarts express and Escape from Gringotts. The train on this side is where you can walk through the wall at platform 9 3/4. Even though it was closed when we went, we asked nicely and were given a tour to be able to do this. Make sure one person in your party stays back and films through the mirror to capture this. When it’s running, you will see scenes of Harry going to school. Escape from Gringotts is an indoor roller coaster type ride using 3D glasses and screens. Be careful if you experience motion sickness. The theming is amazing, and the queue for the line takes you through the bank where the goblins work. Just outside the ride is a big dragon that breathes fire every 15 minutes. This scared one of my girls but it’s really cool to see! Also, be sure to visit the Knight bus right outside the Wizarding world, it’s a great photo op and the talking head interacts to tell jokes.

Queue Escape from Gringotts
Platform 9 3/4
Hogwarts express
Walking through the wall at platform 9 3/4!
Every 15 minutes the dragon breathes fire

Wizarding World of Harry Potter- Islands of Adventure side

Hogsmeade, located in Islands of Adventure is the counterpart to Diagon Alley. We found it had more room to roam about. Butterbeer and sweets can also be found here, and there are numerous spells to be done. They also have an Ollivanders, but it’s much smaller. The centerpoint of this side is Hogwarts Castle. The theming on this side, and in the castle is also really impressive.

There are 4 rides on this side, the Hogwarts express (which will show Harry returning from school when traveling to Diagon alley), Flight of the Hippogriff, Hagrids Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and the Forbidden Journey.

Flight of the Hippogriff is an outdoor rollercoaster that is more tame and kid friendly with no big hills or loops. Hagrids Motorbike Adventure doesn’t go upside down but is definitely a thrill! This ride doesn’t take express passes but we found midday it often went down to 50 minutes. The line moves very fast, and takes you through Hagrids house with some cool theming. One thing to note: They told us when we got to the front that whoever wants to ride the motorbike can’t wear a robe. I was able to switch with my kids and wear there too small for me robes so they could ride the motorbike but I wished I had known sooner to stash in a locker. You get a choice to ride the motorbike or the sidecar (between your party). I tried both and the motorbike is definitely more fun! Feels like you are actually riding a motorcycle through the forest. The last ride on this side is the Forbidden Journey, which takes you through Hogwarts castle. It’s an indoor dark ride This one was definitely rough for some, it’s a motion ride that relies on screens and definitely jerks you around a bit but our family really enjoyed it!

Motorbike ride
Entering Forbidden Journey

Another cool feature of Hogsmeade to check out is the bathroom. You can hear Moaning Myrtle talking while you are in there!

Islands of Adventure- outside the wizarding world

Our favorite ride outside the wizarding world was Velocicoaster (Jurrasic Park) This is a really fast rollercoaster that has an inversion at one point where you are upside down 5 feet from the water. This ride does not take express passes so I would recommend hitting it early for a shorter wait. We liked that the lockers were built into the line so you don’t have to give up your stuff until right before you got on the ride. I would also suggest doing the Raptor experience. It’s more of a photo of, but if the line is short it’s really fun!

Jurassic Park
Raptor Encounter
Video of raptor encounter
Velocicoaster entrance

In superhero island, my kids really liked the Hulk roller coaster, I found it to be a bit too jerky for me. Spiderman was a superfun 3D indoor ride with a lot of motion. Dr Dooms fearfall was overrated and in my opinion not worth it. We enjoyed the King Kong ride in Skull Island. The cat and the hat ride in Suessland was great for a slow change of pace. Suessland is a great area in general for the younger kids. There are also a few kiddie rides in the Jurrasic Park area, as well as a play area.


Toon Lagoon was a cute area featuring two water rides, Dudley do right ripsaw falls and Popeye and Blutos Rat Barges, as well as a play area for younger kids. Dudley do right is a log flume type of ride, with a pretty big drop and some smaller drops. The barges was a ride talking you around a river and going through a waterfall where you will get soaked! It wasnt super warm when we went so we brought a change of clothes (and flip flops) to avoid staying wet all day. One of our favorite things to do was put tokens (25 cents each) that activated squirt guns and shoot water at the people on the rides.

Dudley Falls
We got pretty soaked!

As far as food went, my favorite eating place inside the park was at Thunder Falls Terrace. They had rice bowls, turkey legs, and more! My kids really enjoyed the drinks in Suessland where they had moose juice and goose juice (they were frozen icees but delicious!)

Goose juice
Turkey leg from Thunder Falls Terrace

Universal Studios- Outside the Wizarding World

In Production Central (the front of the park) we all really loved Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket. This was a rollercoaster that allowed each person to choose their own song from a list. Something about riding a rollercoaster to I will Survive made it so much more fun! We also enjoyed Minion Mayem (theater style motion ride), since this is at the front everyone seems to go there first making the wait longer in the morning. I’d wait till mid day or later. The transformers ride was one of my husband’s favorite for the nostaglia, it’s a 3D motion ride Nearby in New York, I loved Jimmy Fallon’s race through New York (also a theater style motion ride, in 3D). There were a lot of fun clips from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon playing while you wait.

Rip Rocket

In San Francisco, Fast and Furious is a 3D tram style motion ride that we found fun. My personal favorite was the Men in Black Alien attack where you got to shoot aliens. It does have a few jarring spins but I found it super satisfying! One of the old school rides, ET is super fun and a break from all the screen style rides. My kids liked when they ask your name at the beginning and would often make something up. You hear ET say your name at the end. I loved the theming of Springfield and the Simpsons, but man the Simpsons ride is intense. It’s a simulated rollercoaster but it definitely feels like you are dropping. We also really enjoyed the Bourne show (check for times).

Men in Black
Meeting Bart near Simpsons ride

My worst dining experience was at the food court near Simpsons. You wait in a long line, but if someone in your family wants pizza, but someone else wants a burger you then have to wait through separate lines at each station. I’m gluten free and decided on a tuna salad but didn’t care much for it. We did really enjoy the non alcoholic Flaming Moe drink (it was actually really cold instead of hot!) My husband got a Duff beer from the outdoor bar and said it was really good. Over near Harry Potter we got loaded baked potatoes from the food cart that were delicious! Chez Alcatraz (outdoor bar) has a great drink menu. I enjoyed the Ocean Attack which came complete with the bartender putting on a jaws mit and pretending to attack it. A little kitchy, but fun.

Flaming Moe
Ocean Attack

Final Thoughts

Overall our family likes to get up early on vacation, but we are pretty tired by late afternoon. We would leave the park and go back to our campground for dinner and pool time. There is a cool nighttime show at Hogwarts Castle, but we never actually lasted until dark. We did eat in City Walk one night at Toothsome Chocolate emporium, and it was amazing. I had chocolate crusted pork tenderloin and some excellent chocolate martinis. We had great icecream sundaes as well. Make sure to make a reservation in advance for that one.

Waffles- more like dessert!
Chocolate banana martini
Two icecream sundaes with cheesecake on the side

We also like to spend some non theme park days on vacation. We hit up Disney Springs one day (we love Raglan Road and the rooftop bar at Coca Cola) and one day we traveled to Crystal springs to go kayaking with the manatees. We did the Pirate Adventure Dinner show one night (we got a great Groupon) and the show was surprisingly good (as well as the food) A different trip we did Clearwater beach and aquarium. Orlando offers a lot of day trips options if you tend to get theme parked out!

Rooftop bar Coca Cola- Disney Springs
Goofys candy shop- Disney Springs
Pirate dinner show Orlando
Kayaking with manatees- Crystal River Kayak Company

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