6 Things I Learned at Universal Orlando Resort
Harry Potter brought me to Orlando. I got more than I bargained for.
By Calvin Hennick
When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to visit Universal Orlando Resort – mostly because it was where Double Dare, the slime-fueled kids game show, was filmed.
As an adult, I’d mostly forgotten about my childhood dream. But then my own kids became obsessed with Harry Potter, and we were drawn in by the parks’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But other than Hogwarts, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Here’s what I learned in three days in Orlando.
1. My Kids Love the Oldies
E.T. Adventure, based on the 1982 film and opened in 1990, is the only original ride still operating at Universal Studios Florida. (The Orlando resort is composed of three parks. Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are adjacent theme parks, while nearby Volcano Bay is a water park.)
The E.T. ride still holds up 30 years later, offering up nearly psychedelic animatronic scenes as you fly by on your bike. My kids loved it, and rode it three times. In fact, many of their favorite rides turned out to be based on TV shows and movies that debuted decades before they were born, including The Simpsons Ride, Jurassic Park River Adventure, and Men in Black: Alien Attack.
2. There’s Fun For All Ages
My kids are 8 and 5, and I was surprised at how much they could handle. My son rode Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure twice (once was enough for me, as the ride really does feel like you’re being driven around on a motorcycle by a dangerous maniac!). And my daughter was big enough for the smaller coasters, such as Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster and Flight of the Hippogriff, which provided plenty of excitement despite their meager height requirements. She also loved the screen-based rides like the silly, banana-scented Despicable Me Minion Mayhem.
My daughter even rode Skull Island: Reign of Kong, although she kept her hands over her eyes most of the time. (I admit that I shut my own eyes when the worms and the bugs showed up.) But the first ride she ran toward when we entered Islands of Adventure was the Caro-Seuss-el, a merry-go-round populated not by horses but rather by wonderfully weird Dr. Seuss characters. And we all had fun on the delightfully bonkers Cat in the Hat ride.
3. It’s Not All About the Rides
I’m a little embarrassed at how excited I got when we entered Springfield, the Simpsons-themed area of Universal Studios. I quickly enlisted my son to take a photo of my wife and me in front of the Kwik-E-Mart, and when I saw that they were selling Flaming Moes next door, I just had to have one.
My son was excited to explore “New York City” (just steps away from both “London” and “San Francisco”), he blushed taking photos with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and we all had fun checking out the Delorean from Back to the Future.
4. You Don’t Have to Do Everything to Have a Great Time
My stomach never quite felt ready for The Incredible Hulk Coaster, and my wife was the only one of us to brave the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. And amidst all the excitement, we only got a couple of hours to explore Volcano Bay. But it never felt like we were missing out on anything. If you experience even close to half of what’s on offer at Universal, you’ll have done plenty.
5. 3D Has Made the Rides Just Completely Nuts
Holy mother of God! I’m apparently pretty late to this particular game (The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride opened in 1999), but I was blown away by what’s possible with the combination of an indoor coaster ride, some 3D glasses, and a little bit of movie magic. Both the Spider-Man ride and Transformers: The Ride 3-D had me grinning from ear-to-ear (and also occasionally clutching my weak stomach.)
Slinging up to the top of skyscrapers with Spidey as he fights off a battalion of comic book villains is an experience you just can’t get anywhere else.
6. Harry Potter Really Is Magical
I confess: I’ve only read the first of the books, and the movies don’t do much for me. But my five-year-old daughter almost literally lost her mind when Hogwarts came into view. And then again when we went inside the castle and saw the magical talking portraits. And then again when she had her first taste of butter beer. And again, and again, and again.
For three days, we kept coming back to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade (the two areas are in separate parks, connected by the Hogwarts Express). My kids’ eyes grew wide with every new sight: The goblins of Gringotts, the colorful boxes of treats in the windows of Honeydukes, the rows and rows of wands on offer at Ollivanders.
I’ve been lucky to be able to take my children plenty of places so far in their young lives. But standing in the world of Harry Potter, watching dragons breathe fire and wizards take flight, there was nowhere on earth they’d have rather been.
Visit bostonparentspaper.com for a deeper dive into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!
Cabana Bay Beach Resort, connected to the parks via a five-minute shuttle ride, has a fun retro theme, with classic cars parked out front, two big pools, and even a bowling alley. Plus, as a guest, you can access the parks an hour earlier than the rest of the public!
Universal CityWalk, just outside the entrance gates to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, is home to a number of dining options, including NBC Sports Grill & Brew, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, and the recently opened Bigfire.
Dance, laugh, and dodge paint splatters at Blue Man Group, which has its own theatre at CityWalk.