Universal, Harry Potter, I-Drive, Oh My!
But somewhere in your mind, I’m guessing that Mickey and Minnie–or Shamu the whale or Harry Potter–are making an appearance as well.
Orlando is home to seven of the most 25 visited theme parks in the world–Disney’s Magic Kingdom (#1 on the list, of course, with a whopping 17.2 million visitors in 2009), Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld, Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure. In fact, Orlando brings in 47 million visitors a year, according to Visit Orlando.
During a recent visit to Orlando’s Universal Studios, I did a few things wrong–so now I can turn around and tell you a few things to do right to make your park visits easier. Although some of these tips are specific to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (both of part of the Universal Orlando Resort), you can apply most of these tips to any theme park in Orlando that you plan to conquer.
1. Save time, buy your tickets online. If you buy in advance online, you can compare best ticket deals, often saving money compared to buying them once you arrive at the park (and you cut down on time waiting in line). You can also search online for deals to visit multiple parks, multiple days, Florida resident discounts, or other combinations. However, Florida residents, note that some parks may have black-out dates for their discounts. Universal Studios did not offer a resident discount when we visited the park this month (July), presumably because it’s one of their busiest times.
2. Wear good walking shoes. For Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, the walk from our car to the parks was a good 20 minutes. Granted, there are walkways so you don’t have to walk the whole way, and the park also has preferred parking (regular parking is $15/day, preferred is $20/day), but still. You do all that walking and you’re not even in the park yet. Be ready for it.
3. Expect long lines when visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Islands of Adventure, which hosts the new Harry Potter exhibit, opens at 8 a.m. At 9:30 a.m. the day we visited, there was a two-hour wait for one of the Harry Potter rides. By 10:30 a.m., the park was limiting the number of people who could enter the Harry Potter area, giving those just arriving tickets to come back in the afternoon. There was a line to get in one of the Harry Potter gift stores, and once you got in, you had to brush elbows and waists with numerous other tourists looking to buy magic wands, biting books, and magic brooms. If sweaty crowds of tourists don’t bother you, fine. If they do, consider the next tip to make your Harry Potter visit easier.
4. Visit the park after 5 or 6 p.m. “By then, most people can’t take the heat and they’re leaving,” a park employee told me. Hence, you’ll get a smaller crowd–and parking is only $3 after 6 p.m. The same employee told me there are also certain times of year where you’ll find crowds to be smaller–right after January 1 until the Mardi Gras celebration starts sometime in February, after August 1 through about mid September, and most of November. While those recommended times are specific to Universal Studios, they also have some applicability to other parks, as all of the parks tend to be busier during holiday seasons (Christmas and school summer breaks, for example).
5. Make drinking water a line item on your budget. Nothing at the parks is cheap. So, every time you go to buy that nice bottle of water (or soda or Powerade), you’re shelling out about $2.50 or $3. That said, if you’re visiting in the late spring or summer, you’ll need to keep hydrating. Consider a few bottles for each person in your party who’s visiting the park on a given day, and make sure you have money on hand to keep them drinking. Otherwise, they’ll get exhausted and cranky.
6. Consider strollers even for older kids. You may only think of strollers for kids five and under–I know I did. But after about three hours at Islands of Adventure, my seven year old was so tired from the heat and crowds and walking around, he was asking for a stroller. I wasn’t crazy about the $15/day rental, but I’m glad I gave in. He got to rest and it made the park visit more pleasant for all of us. During our visit to Universal Studios, I rented the stroller as soon as we got to the park.
7. Expect to make some international friends. You’ll find a large number of international visitors at the parks. I was particularly surprised by the large number of Brazilian tourists, although maybe not too surprised when you consider Brazilians are the biggest group of foreign spenders right now in Florida. At Islands of Adventure, a musical troupe played samba, and I noticed a number of the Brazilian tourists enjoying their typical music.
8. Take a break from the parks to spend some time on International Drive (I-Drive). If you’re coming a long distance to visit Orlando, you probably want to pack in as much theme park time as you can. That’s understandable. But you may want to take the less-is-more approach and spend a day (or more) on I-Drive, the main tourist drag. My son had just as much fun at WonderWorks (an interactive science museum with an arcade, 4D movie, ropes course, and eatery) and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum as he did at Universal Studios. In fact, we went to Wonderworks twice. It was nice to take two days of our trip to go to these smaller attractions and hang out by the hotel pool instead of facing the large theme park crowds. And some of the I-Drive attractions (like Ripley’s) have Florida resident discounts. Everywhere you visit in Orlando, you’ll find coupon books–those little books usually also have coupons for various I-Drive attractions.
9. Check your hotel’s shuttle schedule before arrival. Your hotel shuttle can help you save money to and from the theme parks only if you’re prepared to follow its schedule, which may be limited. I was happy to see that my hotel had a shuttle to Universal Studios and Wet ‘N’ Wild, only to later see the shuttle left early and had only one late return. If you don’t think you want to stay at any given park a long time, consider alternate transportation, such as the I-Ride Trolley, a taxi, or your own car.