Our first 5 park days were at Universal but since there isn’t a trip report category there I’m putting this here.
Cast of characters:
Me: 44, optimizer, enjoys planning things, Ravenclaw
DH: 47, likes more improvisational vacations, sorted to Hufflepuff by the website but I think he’s more a Slythindor
DS11: 11, obviously, thrill-seeking, sweetly fierce, maybe Slytherin maybe Griffindor
DS7: 7, not into major scary rides and prone to motion sickness but likes doing what his brother does mostly, fiercely sweet, also wants to be Slytherin (I have my doubts)
We all live in Toronto, but used to live in Vancouver. We’re all Star Wars and Marvel fans and I thought the kids and I were all Harry Potter fans but it turns out DS11 thinks it’s kind of played out. DS11 went through a major Cinderella phase around age 3 and both kids liked Frozen and Moana when they came out but started hating them when people wouldn’t stop singing the songs so this was a no-princess trip in the planning and, with one show exception, in the execution.
My initial planning also had us rope dropping or doing a pre-park open breakfast every morning. We kept 2 breakfasts but never actually rope dropped a park or a ride, though we did come close a few times.
Background – skip until the next bolded bit unless you care: DH and I both made family trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios as kids, and then once in 2000 on our first roadtrip together. We’re not hardcore theme park people but we’re not hardcore anti-theme park people either, and we felt like once both kids had good walking stamina we would consider a Disney trip. A few years ago when I heard about the Star Wars land they’d started building I thought we should wait for that but DH thought it would make more sense to go before it opens.
So back in January when we were talking about summer plans I pointed out that Batuu was probably opening at Walt Disney World in the fall so did we want to head to Orlando? Last December we drove to New York for a long weekend for DS11’s birthday weekend and the kids had done great with the ~12 hour (because of a wrong turn onto the New Jersey Turnpike) drive home so DH suggested we do it as a road trip and I could figure out the dates.
The last 2 weeks of August looked good from a crowds perspective since most US schools are already back in session then, and I thought we could take our time on the way down, visit friends in Washington DC and maybe spend a couple of nights in Savannah (which I’ve wanted to visit since watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and then have 8 or so nights in Orlando before a 2-3 day drive home. Disney had their Free Dining offer so in early February we booked 5 nights at All-Star Music and then 3 nights at Royal Pacific Resort for less than the cost of 2 days of Express Pass for the 4 of us. I started doing a bit of Disney research and booked some restaurant reservations 180 days before the start of our stay.
Then some time in March Disney announced that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge would open August 29th in Orlando. My first reaction was “whew, we’ll avoid the madness because we move over to Universal on August 27th.” That reaction stayed in place until some time in May, after Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened at Disneyland and, from reports, it was actually very sane and looked really cool. And then it continued to sound very sane in June. Plus Universal had a 5 days-for-the-price-of 2 ticket deal so if we dropped Washington DC and Savannah we could spend 5 more days in Orlando, going to Universal first and then Disney. Universal also announced their August Annual Passholder appreciation days, which included a free (if you have an annual pass) after-hours party August 18th at Universal Studios Florida. I already had an annual pass for the hotel discount but we started to think that sounded fun too.
So we discussed it as a family and everyone wanted to go to the Star Wars opening on August 29th if we could. I spent a couple of days spreadsheeting, figuring out what to do about our hotel reservations and dining plans and blahblahblah. I like planning trips but the number of spreadsheets and the level of advanced planning Disney in particular seemed to demand was a bit stressful.
I had enough Bonvoy points to book 3 nights at the Swan and adding on 2 more days of Disney tickets was only about $100 for the 4 of us. The Universal hotel was more expensive for the earlier nights as there was no annual pass discount, but I could get the discount at one of their other resorts and by staying at the cheaper hotel for 2 nights and the more expensive for the next 2 we’d still get 3 days of express passes (you get them on both check-in and check-out days).
After all the juggling this was the hotel plan::
August 16-18 Driving to Orlando, booking en route
August 18-20 Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort
August 20-22 Universal’s Royal Pacific Resort (express pass included)
August 22-27 Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort (with the dining plan)
August 27-30 Disney’s Swan
August 30-Sept 1 Driving back to Toronto, booking en route
In July I didn’t manage to get tickets on eventbrite when they first released them, but then a week before we left managed to get 3 before they sold out again. I called Universal and changed DH and the kids’ tickets to seasonal annual passes for an extra $25 each, and kept refreshing the eventbrite site whenever I thought of it to try to get that 4th ticket.
Also in July, while the kids and I were in BC visiting family, DH thought he’d take up running and get in better shape for all the walking we’d be doing. The first week of Couch to 5K was fine, and then he injured his knees. He had a physio session before we left that helped a bit and got some knee braces but we were a bit worried how the walking would go.
Ok, enough background.
Day 1: Friday August 16
We got off to a later start than hoped for because of my packing procrastination process, but we were out of the house before 9 and across the border by 11am. We stopped for US cash in Grimsby and just before that I snagged our 4th Passholder appreciation party ticket which felt super lucky. The Tim Hortons by the bank was under construction inside and the drive thru line was long so we kept driving to St Catherines, stopping for gas/Doritos and vitamin water/lottery ticket (the kids were horrified at the lotto ticket waste of money and talked me into the vitamin water with an economic argument) and finally breakfast from Tim Hortons. By the time we got to the border we’d already seen a bunch of state license plates.
The drive was largely uneventful, we stopped for lunch at Meeder’s in Ripley NY, figured out a hotel to aim for using booking dot com and TripAdvisor, got slowed down outside Pittsburgh because of a big accident, stopped for gas and Wendy’s somewhere in northern West Virginia and got to the Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham in Beckley WV around 9:20pm. The pull out sofa bed was pretty bad – narrow, with a thin and lumpy mattress. As we were about to read I said to DS7 “it’s not the most comfortable mattress ever” and he clarified “it’s the least comfortable”.
Day 2 Saturday August 17
DS7 will tell you that he got practically no sleep that night, but he slept longer that morning than the rest of us. This was a day of lots of driving – we got on the road around 9 after giving DS7 a bit of time to wake up and eating the free hotel breakfast and checking all the license plates in the hotel parking lot to see if there were any new states.
Two tunnels through mountains. Lunch was at a Smashburger in North (I think) Carolina; outside was very hot and humid. We nearly got overpriced gas ($2.99 vs $2.35 a gallon) due to gasbuddy, but also avoided it because of gasbuddy – I checked my visa online when I started writing this about 4 days later and the hold for 50 US of overpriced gas we pre-approved but didn’t pump was finally gone. I drove for a bit in the afternoon while DH tried to nap (I am generally a much better passenger than he is). There was heavy rain off and on through SC, GA but by the time we got to FL it had stopped.
We picked up the kids’ Fortnite swim gear I’d preordered at the Target in Jacksonville and were at the Ponce Hotel St Augustine about half an hour later. We unpacked the car and then started walking somewhere for dinner but managed to convince DS11 to try the hotel restaurant, De Leon. The Colombian food was excellent. The waiter made us up a table in the breakfast area since the restaurant was full, next to a family from Savannah and their friend. They travel to Orlando for dinner sometimes, and DH ended up trying the margarita because of their rec. I highly recommend the restaurant if you don’t have picky eaters, and DS11’s nuggets and fries were fine if you do. We went straight to bed after dinner, around 9:30.
Day 3 Sunday August 18
DS7 slept later than the rest of us again, but we were at breakfast off the lobby by around 9 and on the road around 10. The breakfast was decent but not as impressive as dinner – the kids mostly had froot loops.
We didn’t drive by the fountain of youth on our way out of St Augustine, alas. Uneventful drive with one pit stop and we arrived at Cabana Bay Beach Resort around noon. DH dropped me off to check in while he parked and the kids joined me after I’d been in line for 5 min or so. The guy behind me in line was also from Toronto – they’d left at 5am Saturday and had made it to southern Georgia in 16 hours and decided to sleep there instead of pushing through to Orlando since their hotel was booked to start Sunday. Unlike ours, their car was all packed the night before.
I really liked the Cabana Bay midcentury modern ambiance (the photo above is from when I checked out Tuesday and the lobby was largely empty – almost every seat was filled and there was a lot more luggage around mid-day Sunday). At the front of the line Jason from New Jersey was helping with flow and asked about the drive as he was planning to drive home the next weekend with friends. Our check in guy Eric was helpful but our room wasn’t ready yet so he set us up with temporary hotel keys for garage and building access. After moving the car to the garage and a brief photo session with the vintage cars in front of the hotel, we hopped a Minion bus to the park around 12:45.
When we got up the escalator to the bag check/metal detectors I asked a security guy which way to go – he explained, and we quickly walked through CityWalk (with a pause for DS11 at the Funko Pop cart) to the Universal Studios Florida side. This was where the passholder party would be until midnight, after the park closed to everyone else at 8pm. Once we were off the shaded City Walk conveyer belt and in the sun it was hooooot.
We asked the passholder party people about process so first went through the big arch to redeem our passes. After a brief wait in the wrong (guest services) line we got to the right one, waited a few minutes while the kids got antsy and argument-prone with each other – they were not just hangry but hswhangry where the extra h and sw are for hot and sweaty. It took a while for our UK-origin team member Sandy to make DH and the kids’ passes because when I called to switch them from tickets to annual passes, Jessica, who helped me on the phone, hadn’t indicated which bar code would be the child one (DS11 counts as an adult for theme parks). After trying various combos Sandy told us to try scanning the ones she’d made at the thumb print gate and come back and hover at her window if it didn’t work. So that’s what we did – DH went first and got asked for ID because his was the child pass. We explained the mix-up and said we’d be back after visiting Sandy again. Sandy reissued DH and DS7’s passes on the right cards this time and we headed back to scan/fingerprint in.
Then we went out and back to the outer entry to get our wristbands for the party (it was very twisty turny queue to follow with multiple check points but there were very few people in it so it was pretty fast), then we went in to get our photopass lanyards and cards. By the time that was set up it was past 2pm, the kids were totally melting from the heat and wanted to go to the hotel but I hadn’t received the room ready text (later I discovered I’d received an email instead right around that time saying our room was ready). I checked the Universal app and the Jimmy Fallon ride was only a 10 min wait so we said we’d try that one. We basically walked on, waited maybe 3 minutes in the greenroom area, and into the ride.
I’d been a bit concerned about DS7’s motion sickness with the virtual/screen type rides but it turns out his issue is with real motion. Phew! The ride story was ludicrous but I was amused and it was fun. DH said later he was a bit queasy but he powered through.
We saw the Blues Brothers in their car and maybe 45 seconds of them arriving and starting to sing but DS11 and especially DS7 had no interest at all in staying in the heat to watch. Then we went to Transformers which had a 20min wait but steadily moving queue and buttons to push and AC and dim light so the wait was fine and we all enjoyed it. This was my first attempt to time a queue – I started the timer and then totally forgot to start it until we were out and onto the next thing.
And then we posed with Bumblebee. I can’t remember what music he played. Maybe We Are Family?
By then it was close to 4, so we headed back to the hotel after a brief pause to grab a churro with chocolate sauce and a pretzel without cheese sauce. The shuttle bus for Cabana Bay and Aventura wasn’t in the same place as its drop-off and DS7 and I ended up running madly ahead after a TM pointed us in the right direction but we got on. It was standing room only but a nice woman offered the kids her seat.
I got our room number 5534 and room keys updated in the lobby, we loaded the necessary bags on a trolley in the parking lot, and headed to the room to chillax for an hour or so. The pool looked great but busy (and blurry in the photo I took.)
By around 6 we were back at CityWalk and got in right away without reservations at Vivo Italian Kitchen. While waiting for food we played around with panorama photos of each other.
I ordered the Chateau Miraval rose to see what Angelina and Brad’s wine was like. I liked it. My branzino and DH’s squid ink pasta were excellent – we ended up asking for extra bread at the end to mop up the sauces. We skipped dessert and were done right around 7pm, with a brief detour back to our table for me when I realized at the exit I’d left the backpack under my chair.
After dinner we headed back to USF and, stopping for a few photos and a visit with the Knight Bus driver along the way, made our way to Diagon Alley.
I loved the unmarked passageway to sneak in to Diagon Alley, and how the whole area smelled like chamomile and maybe a bit of magic. It was dusk and the dragon was looking impressive against the sky above Gringott’s Bank – we tried to take a selfie at the right angle with no luck, so some stranger offered to take one for us and didn’t include the dragon at all. So then we tried again.
Ollivander’s had basically no wait, so we went in. A funny girl around 10 or 11 with deadpan responses was picked and we all enjoyed the show. The kids wanted to try again until they got picked. The next one we were the first or second group in. A girl around 8 or 9 was picked and she seemed super thrilled. There were different spells and effects and it was fun though not quite as novel as the first time through. As we exited DS7 was a bit despairing but he and DS11 wanted to try again.
This time we had to wait a few minutes longer and ended up in a different room with a different Ollivander. DS7 says they were the only kids but I’m not sure. He came over and asked DS11’s name, and then asked DS7’s name, and had them both come up. It was super awesome and they decided they needed to buy both wands, of course. I’d told them beforehand we’d buy one and that wouldn’t come out of their souvenir budget and they agreed to each pay half the cost of the second. (The best bit is around 2:30 in the video)
Then we did spells (lighting up the window of lights and making the umbrella rain were the faves) and checked out Knockturn Alley for 20 or 30 minutes, and waited without success to see the dragon blow fire, taking many atmospheric photos of it while waiting. We’d heard it twice during the trips through Ollivanders but I’m amused that we never actually saw it, that night or any of the next 4 days.
The party had started around the time we finished at Ollivander’s and people without wristbands were gently guided to the exit. But there were still lots of people. And it was sticky humid, as you can see from some of my pictures. Gringotts had a 25 or 30 minute wait. The line for butterbeer at the drink place was long and the Leaky Cauldron looked busy, and DS11 and DH were both feeling headachey and crowd-overwhelmed so we left Diagon Alley after briefly checking out Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and taking a few more dragon pictures.
We headed for Men in Black, stuck our stuff in the free lockers (3 of them because of the wands), and waited about 20min for that ride. The guy next to me scored around 400k, I got almost to 200k. He said even if you know the targets it’s hard with the spinning to get the max score – he hasn’t yet managed it.
Simpsons ride was next and felt like a longish wait but I enjoyed the ride. I’d do it again with no wait and if I wasn’t feeling queasy from anything. DS11 now thinks it might be worth checking out the show because the ride was funny. We saw a pig walking down the street, I think for a special party-specific Animal Actors on Location meet and greet, but we walked on by and instead took photos with Chief Wiggum in front of Lard Lad Donuts.
We found a spot on the grass along the water to watch the fireworks around 10, but then found out the show didn’t start until 10:30 so decided not to wait. DS11 and DH rode Rip Ride Rockit while DS7 and I sat by the DJ stage and watched Shrek and Fiona dancing (DS7 said I could dance if I wanted to, but not with him). Then the Trolls were dancing too and DS7 wanted to Avada Kedavra them.
Once we were all back together the fireworks were starting. DH had a headache from Rip Ride Rockit. If there’d been a shorter wait DS11 would have wanted to ride again as he wanted to choose different music tracks.
I thought there’d be less walking for DH’s knees if we took the boat to Sapphire Falls and then crossed the street, instead of walking all the way through City Walk to the shuttle bus area. I was probably wrong. First we waited for the boat. Then we had to walk through Sapphire Falls and up a 2 story circular staircase, then through the front grounds and across the street with no pedestrian crossing/signals. But we got back to Cabana Bay and the boat and Sapphire Falls were pretty.
Then, just after we’d crossed the street, DS11’s lanyard fell and he dropped his cards. He found his room key but couldn’t find his annual pass. We searched the area – I crossed back to the Sapphire Falls side to see if it had dropped there – and after a few minutes DS7 found it white side up on a white stop line. On subsequent days the kids didn’t wear lanyards and DH and I carried all 4 room keys in one lanyard and all 4 park passes in a zippered pocket, and a photo card each.
We got back to the room by 11:30 and crashed after taking a few shots out the window. DS11 said his favourite part of the day was “when we didn’t go to the fireworks. There was a lot of the day when we weren’t going to the fireworks.” DS7’s favourite was when he and DS11 got picked together, and doing spells.
Aug 18 Summary:
Universal Studios Florida crowd level according to Touring Plans: 3/10
Rides: 5 (8 if the 3 times through Ollivanders count, more if you count spells cast, 4 if you count none of these and don’t count the coaster DS7 and I didn’t ride – metrics mean nothing without a data dictionary)
Character interactions: 3 (2 if you count the shrunken head and the Knight Bus driver separately)
Entered park: around 1:30pm
Photo pass photos: 11
Photos taken on my phone: 96
Photos taken on DH’s phone: 91
Steps according to my phone: 16,967