In the first two installments of this series, we looked closely at how a Universal trip differs from a typical Disney vacation. In the pre-trip booking and general logistic area, Universal paled in comparison to what Walt Disney World offers. In the skip-the-line options available from the two destinations, Universal’s Express Pass certainly puts up a good fight against Disney’s FastPass+ system. Many guests who have experienced both systems prefer the Universal Express Pass by far. Today, we are going to look at an area where Universal Orlando really shines and offers guests a completely different kind of magical experience.
The Unplanned Magic
Many hardcore Disney fans relish the long hours spent planning and pre-booking their vacation experiences months in advance of their actual trip. My family in particular has been a big supporter of the new FastPass+ system and the MagicBand changes that have been introduced over the last few years. We love the planning and find that the recent changes make for a pretty relaxing trip. With that in mind, we were apprehensive when embarking on a Universal vacation. We were heading to the parks our first day with no dining reservations, no ride reservations, and very little of a touring plan for our day. It was, frankly, rather stressful. By the end of our first day, however, we were beginning to realize that our inability to pre-plan our day was not a shortcoming of Universal but something rather magical.
The Magic of Scale
The first important difference in a Universal vacation is proximity. Where Walt Disney World covers over 40 square miles of Orlando, the Universal parks and resorts are compacted into a single area. And as good as the Disney transportation system is with its fleet of buses, ferries, and monorail system, the size of Universal gives it a big advantage in this area. We were staying in one of the farthest rooms you could get from the parks. Yet our room at the far end of Portofino Bay’s east wing was still a beautiful 15-minute walk to the front gates of Universal Studios. We could be on the water taxi at our resort in a few minutes and in the heart of CityWalk eight minutes later. The water taxis arrived constantly, and we never had to wait more than a few minutes to get on one. We could literally be in our room one minute and be in one of the parks 15 minutes later. Even at a Disney resort on the monorail line, this would be a daunting task. On our Disney vacations, we have taken afternoon breaks and gone back to the resort to rest. Depending on where you are staying and crowd levels, you could end up spending as much as an hour just trying to get from a Disney park back to your resort and, potentially, another hour getting back to the park that evening. The close proximity of Universal’s resorts to their parks make this a much more viable option without wasting a large portion of your day.
A Magical Freedom
The next important difference in a Universal day and a Disney day is directly related to the Express Pass system. If at all possible, through your resort choice or ticket bundling, you want to have a Universal Express Pass. With Disney’s FastPass system, we loved planning our days. We loved hitting our ride reservations in a particular order and planning our dining reservations around those ride reservations. It is very freeing at Universal not having to decide what you are doing and where you are going next. Our Express Passes offered a totally new kind of freedom. There are a few rides in the Universal parks that don’t accept an Express Pass. We kept a close eye on the wait times for those rides while freely exploring the rest of the park and taking advantage of the Express Pass lines at the other rides. When one of the Wizarding World rides dipped to a decent wait time, we headed over and rode them. If we got tired, we went back to the resort and took a break. If we got hungry, we strolled over to CityWalk and chose from the endless dining options. With no reservations, we hit four different table service locations with little to no wait. The freedom of having no pre-set times to plan around was actually very relaxing.
A Little Mobile Magic
The key to this strategy is being able to keep a close eye on all the ride times. This is another area where Universal has got Disney beat. The Universal app on my phone worked flawlessly for our entire trip. More importantly, it worked on Universal’s free WiFi system. I struggle to check my email on Disney’s park WiFi let alone get updated wait times in the My Disney Experience app. The Universal app, however, provided updated ride times and a very helpful interactive park map. You could filter the map by rides, shows, dining, parades, or even restrooms. It allowed us to explore the park, take advantage of the short wait times when they came up, and always find the closest bathroom when we needed it.
The Magical Strategies
So what if you don’t have the option of an Express Pass? With a little strategizing, you can still avoid many of the major wait times. If you are staying at the Loews Cabana Bay or Sapphire Falls resorts, which don’t offer a free Express Pass, you still get the advantage of early park admission. Currently, guests staying on property get early access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios an hour before the park opens. This can be helpful if you want to get on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts before the line builds to a 90-minute wait. However, if you are not at the front of the crowd flooding in to Diagon Alley, you may still be looking at a 30 to 40 minute wait as everyone entering the park is heading directly for that one ride. Here’s the real trick. Take that extra hour and enjoy the less crowded streets of The Wizarding World. This is a great time to check out some of the interactive magical spots, explore the shops, and marvel at the immersive detail Universal has put into this section of the park. You can then ride the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmeade as the park opens and be among the first guests of the day to ride Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey. From there, check the mobile app and explore Universal’s Islands of Adventure, hitting the rides with the lowest wait times. Depending on the time of day, there are plenty of rides with regular wait times of less than 30 minutes.
The key to taking advantage of the days shortest wait times is flexibility. A good place to start is planning for early meals. We had a lighter breakfast to start our days, had lunch between 11:00 and 11:30 AM to beat the dining crowds, and ended up eating dinner by 5:00 PM. This is important because not only did we avoid crowds at the restaurants, but we finished eating when everyone else was starting to head out of the parks to CityWalk for food and a break. On our trip, we found that around 6:30 PM the rides that had been maintaining an 80-minute wait all day suddenly dropped to a 20 to 30 minute wait. This is the ideal time to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts or Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey. And since you had an early dinner, you might as well head over to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlor for a Butterbeer Ice cream afterward.
A Different Kind of Magic
So with very little advanced planning, you can make the most of your vacation at Universal Orlando Parks and Resorts. And with only two parks to cover, 4 to 5 days at Universal allows you time to enjoy more of the resort areas, relax at the beautiful pools, and discover the entertainment and amenities available. There are definitely places in the overall process that Disney still corners the market, but in the end, Universal serves up a completely different kind of magic that Disney hasn’t quite found the key to yet. It was certainly a more relaxing vacation than we have been on in some time. Even as a hardcore Disney fan, I am already looking forward to our next trip to Universal Orlando Parks and Resorts.