In my last post I left things at the Galaxy Bowl – my 7yo offered to take my go as I was eating still, and got me a strike – result! We’d arrived at Universal Orlando Resort Cabana Bay Beach resort hotel, chilled out in our rooms and started to explore the hotel a little. Today I want to explain what’s on offer across the whole of Universal Orlando Resort and what makes the parks unique. And who better to do it than a theme park cynic? That’s me of course.
We all woke up early on our first day, still on UK time, it was still dark and we lay in bed watching the sun gently warm up the palm trees. Florida sunrises are unforgettable, tinged with promise. I swallowed motion sickness tablets and a berocca to gently encourage my body to embrace time and motion…
The Cabana Bay offers a huge diner style area with self service, a Starbucks and pool side snack bars, plus the Galaxy Bowl for dining in your bowling lane or alongside the lanes. In the self service restaurant I enjoyed having an omelette made each morning, the kids loved waffles and pancakes and filling cups with pieces of juicy melon and giant berries.
It was great for breakfast, you can also get lunch and dinner (pizza, burger, salad bar, toasties). I loved this huge scale the first couple of days, but later in the week, as I often do in resorts, I started to find the huge space a little overwhelming and the 50s music and films on loop began to unnerve me a little. There is however, a built in Starbucks for variety and a more intimate, classic 50s atmosphere.
Getting to the parks
This is so easy! A very funky bus runs every 10 mins from the Cabana Bay to Universal Parks. Even when the kids were on their knees with tiredness after a full on day at the parks, a bus would be there in seconds to swoop them up and take them home. All the resort hotels have transport and some even have water taxis.
After a short walk through City Walk, which is a free to enter area full of bars, eateries, shopping, cinema and gift shops we were face to face with the Universal globe and the entrance to both parks. Slight trepidation here, we had no idea what to expect and our minds were already bamboozled by the scale of things!
Universal has two theme parks: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. The thing I didn’t realise until we arrived, having had only two weeks to prep for this trip – and this is so flipping exciting – the two parks are linked by Hogwarts Express which actually takes you from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade or vice versa. I say ‘actually’ for a reason, you will not believe the size and scope of the film worlds created in the parks and how believable it all feels.
We started both our days at Universal Studios, leaving Harry Potter at Universal Studios until last on day one, and taking the Hogwarts Express on day two to continue our Harry Potter adventures over at Islands of Adventure. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, this is a wonderfully immersive way to do it, and a good way to avoid the middle of the day crowds that build here. Plus Universal Resort Orlando hotel guests can enter the park an hour earlier. If you have time, go back the other way on the Hogwarts Express for a different experience.
October is an amazing time to do Universal, the weather is warm, but not too hot, and US children are in school still so it’s not too busy. Some parts were a little creepy looking, because the park is also open at night for Halloween, my idea of hell, but it might be right up your street, the minimum recommended age is 13.
The photo above gives a little inkling into the scale of things, Universal Studios is a vast film set, with entire boulevards, within which rides are set, Transformers The Ride 3D is in a huge warehouse, Revenge of The Mummy has a looming museum facade, I say facade, but that’s not quite the right word, because when you step inside to queue for any ride at Universal, the entire film world comes to life.
Harry Potter Escape from Gringotts, involves walking into the bank and queuing amongst the goblins working there, then taking a lift down into the vault and boarding the ride. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem involves several film clips in which you are addressed as an overexcited minion, before fully becoming one in the ride itself. We had never experienced anything quite so magical and immersive as Universal’s ride experience before. The sheer scale of the themeing means every ride is a filmic mini narrative from the moment you step into the queue.
I am not a ride person, and as we arrived at Universal Studios and a big red rollercoaster, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, with a steep vertical climb and loops loomed above, I began to really regret offering my services for this trip.
What I wish someone had told me beforehand was that Universal is probably the best theme park there is for people who hate rollercoasters, while also catering for rollercoaster lovers like my 10yo daughter too. It’s also, most definitely, the best theme park for people who hate theme parks.
Universal Studio’s USP is that it takes you deep inside the film experience. 3D and 4D technology on giant 3D screens around the ride, combine with movement of the ride and added heat and water to make you absolutely feel as if you are right in the midst of a film action scene, being slobbered on by a dragon or feeling a dragon’s breath. It’s like nothing we had experienced before.
Play Quidditch over Hogwarts, follow Spider-Man as he defeats the baddies and rescues you in your web, drive through a Transformers city in crisis – but the best bit is the majority of the sensation is film and motion induced, not rollercoaster induced. The experience for me, was cerebral and a million times better than a vomit inducing rollercoaster, it fully immerses every sense and best of all, the imagination, which is where the magic truly lies.
Universal Studios takes you inside Minions, Transformers, the Simpsons, ET, Men In Black and offers a chance to meet the animal actors in films, an unexpected highlight for us – my 7yo loves films with animals in!
Islands of Adventure has a series of themed areas – a riot of colour and imagination. It has brand new rides in the shape of The Incredible Hulk Coaster – we will have to come back as our resident rollercoaster fan was a smidgen too small for this one – and Skull Island, a dramatic King Kong themed 3D adventure which we all loved. Seuss Adventure is packed with fun and colour and Toon Lagoon is heaving with spalshtastic high thrill water fun all the family loved.
Islands of Adventure has a Marvel Superheros Island and Jurassic Park – some truly magical things happened for the kids in these particular islands and I can’t wait to share some of our most unforgettable moments next time, or to share just how drenched we got on the water rides.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Our absolute highlight was the Harry Potter experience, the scale of the set is hard to fathom; arriving on Diagon Alley on the Universal Studios side, through a hole in a wall of an entire London Street truly takes your breath away.
One of the buildings on the street, to give you an indication of scale, is Kings Cross, where even the staff completely believe they are London transport workers – I was so impressed by how in role the staff are, it really takes your experience to a whole new level. You board the Hogwarts Express, the train journey recreates all the drama and stunning scenery from London to Scotland, and arrive in Hogsmeade.
Stepping off at Hogsmeade, and entering Islands of Adventure park, an entire village unfolds, covered in snow. Hogwarts looms behind utterly majestic. And, as if to completely blow our already overexcited minds, the wands even work in the shop windows in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, next week I will share the video so you can see it in action.
The Verdict on the Universal Parks
It’s no secret I am a theme park cynic, and plenty of people have asked me if I really enjoyed the experience*. Oh My Gosh YES! Universal parks are absolutely the theme parks for us – I love the film theme, the immersive nature of it, a theme park that feels like a magical adventure not an ordeal.
*I deleted a lot of exclamation marks from this post, another sure sign I loved it.
I do however need to unleash my inner cynic for a moment, I need to warn you that the gift shops are incredibly plentiful and the quality and scope of the merchandise is awesome, so you do need to have a very clear game plan to navigate this with your children, and your own inner child. Lecture over.
It’s a journey deep inside the most magical, action packed and adventurous moments from our favourite films. As an ex Film Studies teacher and video game developer Mr A and I were completely in our element, it was just like stepping into a game or a film and the attention to detail and technology is mind blowing.
Then there is the wonderful dimension of stepping into these insanely filmic worlds with the kids. At 8 and 10 our kids are at the age where the workings of everything is being pondered and questioned, it’s becoming increasingly tricky to find magic at times, but Universal creates total magic for even the most inquisitive mind.
I can’t wait to share more next week, I want to share the moments that really moved us, the magic that brought completely uninhabited smiles and allowed us to play together and to suspend our disbelief. There are too many to cram in here, and they really are the moments that crystallise what Universal Resort Orlando is truly about.
Between the parks, around the lake/river, Universal is packed with eateries and entertainment. We sampled the newly opened Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savoury Feast Kitchen, a riot of Steam Punk fun and the most crazy puddings. We loved that the waiter’s advice and the restaurant’s concept was just to plump for the first thing that jumped out at you from the huge and all encompassing menu, it really is about treating yourself to a little bit of exactly what you fancy. It worked. I went for the veggie burger, which was beautifully done.
We had to order the most instragrammed dessert on the menu, a milkshake red velvet cupcake, it totally defeated us, but my goodness we had fun trying.
The costumes were incredible and the entire place looked beautiful lit up at night. We loved sitting outside overlooking the lake as the sun set and the sparkling lights of City Walk appeared. Here I am meeting the the owner before the sunset, another Penny, well, Penelope in her case.
It wouldn’t have been right not to eat at the largest Hard Rock Cafe in the world too, it even has a car on the bar. The food wasn’t quite as great as I remembered from previous Hard Rock experiences, although the new veggie options are much more imaginative and the experience was fun.
We loved eating at the Mythos Restaurant, in Islands of Adventure, it has been voted theme park restaurant of the year for six years in a row. I love Greek food, which we plumped for starters, they were delicious and the Pad Thai was so good! I was hankering for something other than burgers and fries, and this delivered.
The Blue Man Group
During our stay we enjoyed the Blue Man Group, a riot of a theatrical, musical, total performance experience. Like the rides in the parks, these three performers take sensory stimulation to completely new heights. It’s the most joyous exploration of what it means to be human that the whole family will love.
Chilling back at the hotel
As I explored last week, you have 5 Universal Resorts hotels to choose from on different themes and budgets, something for everyone. We loved the Cabana Bay Beach Resort for its colourful family friendliness and it is expanding to be even more awesome next year (more on that in a minute). The kids couldn’t wait to get outside and test out the two pools and the lazy river.
The weather was definitely warm enough for sunbathing in October, the pools are heated too. The hotel has two sides, each with pools, so of course we tried them both. The perfect place to let off steam and cool down after a thrilling day at the parks.
Volcano Bay Water Park
What’s super exciting about Cabana Bay, (and I am writing this from World Travel Market where I just got to hear all about this direct from the the creators) is that in summer 2017 Volcano Bay Water Park is opening next door, a third Universal park, billed as ‘a waterpark for people who don’t like waterparks’. I think they stole that from my ‘a theme park for people who don’t like theme parks’ don’t you?
There is amazing thrill technology that propels you up the log flume as well as down, but there is also seriously fun themeing and lots of lazy rivers – think total immersion in a relaxing water universe. And it is literally right next door to Cabana Bay!
If you are staying at Cabana Bay before then, it is worth knowing that one side of the hotel is still being extended, we stayed on this side, in the Americana block, we found watching the construction quite fascinating and weren’t at all disrupted by noise. But, perhaps request to stay on the Castaway side if you’d rather not have your thematic disbelief suspended by cranes and construction.
Keen to know more about Universal Orlando Resort?
I am a member of the Mumsnet Bloggers Panel, a group of parent bloggers who have volunteered to review products, services, events and brands for Mumsnet. I have not paid for the product. I have editorial control and retain full editorial integrity.
In the interests of full disclosure our trip involved a VIP tour of both parks with a guide and without queues in order to cram in both parks into the short timeframe our press trip allowed. I will fully cover this experience in subsequent posts and have tried to remain objective to that experience in writing this – of course there are fast pass options and tours for public too, in fact a lovely French lady offered us her fast passes over breakfast as she didn’t need them.