Universal Orlando Resort

We’ve traveled to Orlando a lot in the last three years, but on this trip down to Florida we decided to visit Universal Orlando Resort. I’ve mentioned in a few of my posts how much we enjoy amusement parks, so with Universal’s reputation of having world class thrill rides, it seemed like the perfect place for a short holiday away from the cold northeast. We chose to travel in December because we also wanted to enjoy the holiday decorations and special events at the resort and parks.

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Universal Resort at Sunset

We had a very early flight to Orlando, so we chose to stay at the Double Tree Hilton, located just a few miles from Newark airport. We were able to take advantage of their park & fly package which included a reasonably priced room and parking for up to two weeks. We hit traffic on the drive down, so we didn’t have much time to explore the hotel, but it was modernly furnished, conveniently located, and provided a shuttle directly to the airport 24/7. Our flight to Orlando was scheduled for 6:00 am, and after a couple hours of flying we landed in Orlando and were able to take a Universal sponsored Superstar Shuttle directly to our hotel.

We chose to stay at the new Aventura Hotel. This hotel is considered a part of the prime value category and offers simple, yet modern accommodations on a budget. As an official Universal hotel we did have access to free transportation around the property, as well as early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The hotel is also connected to the parks via a walking path, which we used on a couple of evenings, around the time the parks closed, and the buses were overly crowded with guests returning to their hotels. The value hotels do not come with a Universal Express pass, but since we were visiting during a projected low-crowd time we decided this was not a consideration when choosing a hotel. I will say that if you are traveling during a busy time, upgrading to a preferred hotel to get the Universal Express pass benefit would be beneficial.

Our room at the Aventura was modern, clean and simply decorated. The amenities of the room are also connected through an iPad that allows the guest to control the television, lights, room temperature and even chat with the front desk. The on-site restaurant, Urban Kitchen, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a variety of internationally inspired cuisines. The quality and variety of food was very good, and we ended up eating at least one meal a day here. There is also a rooftop bar, called Bar 17, which offers light food, assorted beverages and a beautiful view of Orlando. Finally, the hotel also has a pool and Universal Resort merchandise store.

Universal Orlando has three parks, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay. We chose to only buy tickets for two of the parks and skipped Volcano Bay because it was December and the weather was too cold for a water park. The package we chose included paying for a two-day, two-park, park-to-park ticket. With this purchase we received two additional days free, for a total of four days at the parks. I will note here that the Universal theme parks do not stay open very late into the evenings, at least during the winter months. During the weeknights the parks closed by 6:00 or 7:00 pm, and maybe 8:00 or 9:00 pm on the weekends. After the parks closed to the general public they stayed open for private events, but it was disappointing to not be able to enjoy the parks during the evening when everything is lit up.

Universal Studios is divided into the following areas and contains these attractions: Production Central – Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Shrek 4-D, Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, Transformers The Ride 3D; New York – Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, Revenge of the Mummy, The Blues Brothers Show; San Francisco – Fast and Furious Supercharged; World Expo – Fear Factor Live, Men In Black Alien Attack; Springfield: Home of the Simpsons – The Simpsons Ride, Kang and Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl; Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone – Animal Actors on Location, A Day in the Park with Barney, Curious George Goes to Town, Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster, Fievel’s Playland, E.T. Adventure; Hollywood – Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-up Show; and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley – Hogwarts Express King’s Cross Station, Knight Bus, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

Our favorite rides in Universal Studios were Revenge of the Mummy, Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and Transformers 3D. Our second favorite ride of the whole resort, I’ll get to the first shortly, was Revenge of the Mummy. This ride may be considered ‘old school’ for some, but this indoor roller coaster was a welcomed break from the sometimes-overwhelming technology of other rides. There is nothing like the combination of speed and a good theme to make you smile while in a theme park. We also had the opportunity to watch the holiday parade and see Manheim Steamroller in concert. It was really fun to spend one evening in the park doing these festive activities.

Islands of Adventure is divided into the following areas and contains these attractions: Marvel Super Hero Island – The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Storm Force Accelatron, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman; Toon Lagoon – Me Ship The Olive, Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges, Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls; Skull Island: Reign of Kong – Skull Island: Reign of Kong; Jurassic Park – Camp Jurassic, Pteranodon Flyers, Jurassic Park River Adventure, Jurassic Park Discovery Center; The Lost Continent – The Mystic Fountain, Poseidon’s Furry; Seuss Landing; – The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride, Caro-Seuss-el, One Fish Two Fish Red Fist Blue Fish, The Cat in the Hat, If I Ran the Zoo; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff, Frog Choir/Triwizard Spirit Rally, Ollivanders, Hogwarts Express Hogsmeade Station.

Our favorite rides at Islands of Adventure were Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was, in our opinion, the best ride of the whole resort. The queue winds through Hogwarts Castle, which transports you into the movies and makes waiting in line an enjoyable experience. The ride itself is thrilling and perfectly combines the latest technology with physical and psychological thrills; all while making you feel like you are flying with Harry Potter himself.

City Walk contains many restaurants, bars and shopping venues. We ate at a few of the restaurants including The Cowfish, Red Oven Pizza Bakery, The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, Vivo Italian Kitchen and VooDoo Doughnut. We enjoyed the convenience of having City Walk just outside of the parks, but the quality of the food wasn’t as high as I would have liked. I did enjoy the giant milkshakes at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and doughnuts at VooDoo Doughnuts!

Our favorite meal was actually enjoyed on our last day at Universal. The forecast had been for rain most of the day, so after we went on a few rides that morning we decided to head back to our hotel to pack and relax before venturing out to another one of Universal’s hotels, the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. There is complementary transportation offered between the hotels either by shuttle or private car. Just speak to the front desk about your plans and they can help arrange the transportation. This hotel has an Italian theme, and most importantly a spa. We decided to end our trip with a relaxing couples massage and dinner here. I have to say I was a little disappointed in our spa experience. The massage itself was fine, but the facilities felt tired. Part of a good spa experience is all of the amenities included with your treatment, but I just wasn’t enticed to spend extra time here. After our massage we walked to nearby Bice for dinner. This fine dining restaurant offers award winning Italian cuisine in an upscale setting. We both enjoyed an excellent meal here, with my Cannelloni being the star of the night. I am a huge fan of pasta, and this was some of the best I’ve ever had. They also have an extensive wine menu to complement your meal.

Overall we thoroughly enjoyed our short vacation at Universal Orlando. I would admit that two days is probably enough to enjoy both parks, and I would add an extra day if you want to visit Volcano Bay. You could also do both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in one day if you are visiting nearby Walt Disney World. One day would be rushed to try and fit everything in, but it would be possible. The rides are definitely geared more towards adults and older children. Many of the attractions are also in 3D or 4D, and are not for those who are prone to motion sickness. There are some areas of each park dedicated to young children, but children will enjoy Universal Orlando more when they are older and tall enough to be allowed on most of the rides.

While I still prefer the magical vacation offerings of Walt Disney World, I am glad we chose to visit Universal Orlando Resort. I enjoyed their emphasis on thrill rides, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is absolutely stunning in its attention to detail. I would certainly consider adding Universal to our Orlando vacation plans again in the future.