We made it home! What a long trip!! We had a blast and were able to accomplish all of our goals, thanks to Touring Plans!!!
Flight came into Orlando at midnight, so we reserved a car with Mears Taxi for $67. They had a person in a fancy suit waiting at the bottom of the escalator with a sign with our names on it. This made my daughter’s day! She actually filmed it - priceless. They helped with the bags from baggage claim and got us to the hotel quickly. They do allow you to stop to get groceries, bottled water, etc. But we opted to just go to the hotel, as it was late.
We stayed at Dockside for the first night. The lobby was really nice. However, the handicapped doors didn’t work and it was really confusing to find our rooms, as the place is huge & you have to enter several buildings & elevators to get to the room. The staff wasn’t helpful when we asked for assistance finding our rooms, nor were they able to answer my questions about the parks & getting dinner reservations. The rooms were decorated nicely, but the bathroom wasn’t great - shower didn’t have hot water or good pressure and the sink was leaking. In the morning prior to heading to the park for early park admission, we were able to get our Annual Passes at the Vacation Planning Desk because we paid in full (they did tell me if you paid using flex pay, you cannot do it at the hotel I guess). We were told that the Vacation Planning Desks at the hotels CANNOT activate the meal plans, this has to be done in the park… which was a bummer. The pool didn’t have anything special for the kids - it was just a basic pool, but they did play good music.
We then stayed at Hard Rock for a few nights. I really loved this hotel! The staff checked us in at 7 am and our room was ready. They did require a $200 deposit for incidentals or to order room service/pool service. The hotel is smaller, so it was easier to get to our rooms without getting lost They had great breakfast options with quick service as well as sit down meals. The Kitchen restaurant was soooooo good - we ate there multiple times! Highly recommend the salmon and the mango cheesecake! The water taxi was really easy to get to and the walking paths were really beautiful. The pool was really big/clean/fun with a slide for the kids. They had great music playing & took requests. The poolside staff was there to help with towels, getting you to an empty lounge-chair, bringing drinks & food. Plenty of umbrellas to keep you shaded.
We then switched to Cabana Bay for a few nights, as my daughter really wanted to stay here because of the theme. The transfer went smooth, as they did have taxi’s out front that would bring you to the other hotels for $10. Check in went fine, they did not require a room deposit, just that you paid the room rate in full upon check in. This hotel was HUGE and the staff was overwhelmed with people checking in, so we didn’t get great directions to our room - so we, once again, got lost… After walking around with 5 bags and getting frustrated, the staff finally agreed to have someone walk us to our room… One of the two elevators were down in our tower, so it took a long time getting up to the fifth floor as they had a rule that only one family could ride the elevator at a time due to COVID. The room was really cute & they had the most comfortable beds out of all the hotels we tried. We thought they had great food options in their food court - something for everyone. Bummer was that they didn’t have table service, it was quick service. The pool and lazy river were good. They had you buy a tube, rather than having rentals or allow you to use one as a guest - which I thought was odd. When you check out, they will exchange the blown up tubes for a packaged one - you just have to bring it to the tube hut. We ended up gifting one of our tubes to another family, as they both were too large to pack to bring home.
We then transferred to Pacific Bay for a few nights. The theming of this hotel is amazing. It is smaller, so it was easier to maneuver with little walking. They checked us in by seven and had our room ready. Again was charged $200 for a deposit. The shower was really great, with jet shower heads. The staff was really helpful with reservations and arranging transportation. The water taxi was easy to get to with little walking. The pool was fun, as it had a cool boat splash area for the kids. The poolside service wasn’t as great as Hard Rock, but they did have ample seating, towels & umbrellas.
Our very last night we stayed at Sapphire Falls. This was our favorite hotel for the theming and the comfort - even though we had some hiccups. They charged $100 for a deposit upon check in. Everything was really gorgeous to look at, including the waterfalls. They had a water taxi that was easy to get to, as well as a big slide for the kids at the pool. The poolside service wasn’t great, as they didn’t have staff to help at your loungers, they had limited umbrellas and they didn’t have enough people working to clean up after everyone. So guests were having to pick up after other guests, in order to have a chair to sit in. The pool was really big and had great depth, however there were lots of napkins & wrappers all around on the edges of the water (again, I think they were understaffed, so they had a hard time keeping up with the guests trash). The poolside food was really good though - highly recommend the chicken nachos, although be prepared because it is a huge serving! The staff was really helpful with questions and even went over & beyond when my daughter spilled her soda all over her bed - the cleaning staff came up right away and switched out her bedding & arranged all her Harry Potter stuffed animals around her bed in a cute way! They also delivered us pizza to our room within 30 minutes of ordering, including bringing us complimentary waters. Only bummer is they don’t give you Fast Passes with your reservation like Premieres… They should!!!
When we checked out, Superstar Shuttle was supposed to pick us up at 1:15 PM. We were in the lobby waiting at 1:00 and the shuttle had already come & left without us. The hotel staff was super helpful and confirmed the shuttle’s error - then gave us a complimentary ride to the airport with their taxi service. So, although it was a bummer to be left behind, our taxi driver was a hoot & cracked jokes with my 11 year old the whole ride to the airport. I did call Superstar Shuttle & they refunded me. I did complain to them that they need to have better communication with the guests, as they never sent me any confirmation email or text saying when the shuttle would arrive, etc. The only email I ever received was my receipt! I had to call Superstar Shuttle the day before we left to get the pick up information, which was a hassle because I was on hold for 45 minutes!!! Next time, I’m going to do the Mears Private Car Service instead, like I did when I arrived.
We used Touring Plans for our days in Universal Studios & at Island of Adventure. This was a huge success for us, as it kept us on track. We made our touring plans for half days, using early park admission, and making the setting be snail pace walking. Each plan was based on the different “lands” in the parks. I had half day plans for each of the following: Hollywood/San Francisco, The Simpsons, Diagon Alley, Hogsmead, Seuss Landing, Jurassic Park, Toon Landing, Super Heroes. We would do one land each day. All of our plans were made doing the rides/shows/meals in walking order, that way we didn’t have to zigzag and do too much walking (although each day was still 25k+ steps). We were able to see every land this way & ride every ride at least once and see every show in both parks. I always put the sit down & live action shows in the late morning of each day, which helped give our feet some time to rest & give us a much needed break.
We ate a sit down meal in air conditioning every day that we were in the parks. I made reservations ahead of time. This really made a difference for us, as by 11:30 we were really hot and tired and grouchy. Plus the parks were REALLY busy by this time and the lines to get food for quick service & sit down restaurants were really long everywhere - most of the people standing in line were in the sun & looked miserable. So having the reservations were amazing because we were able to walk right into the restaurants at our allotted time & sit without issue. I highly recommend the Pad Thai at Mythos, the beef stew at Finnegans and the ribs at Confisco Grill! Every server we had was amazing, kind and interacted with my daughter in character. We loved every minute of it!
We also took a 3 hour break between 1-4 each day, right after lunch, to go back to the hotel & swim. This gave us time to be out of the crowds & heat, as well as to change out of our sweaty clothes & socks. We would then come back to the park around 4 and enjoy the last few hours of the park when there were less people. This allowed my daughter to re-ride the attractions she really loved from earlier in the day, or to shop or play the carnival games, etc.
City Walk was always busy after the park closed. So if you want to eat at the many awesome restaurants there, make reservations ahead of time!!! We were lucky enough to get reservations at Antojitos and Toothsome. Unfortunately we couldn’t get into Vivo, which is where I really really wanted to eat… but next time! At Antojitos, they had a mariachi band and they offered the best freshly made guacamole that was made at your table side. I highly recommend the spicy jalapeno margarita. At Toothsome, you cannot go wrong with anything you order - especially the loaded brussel sprouts! They are famous for their milkshakes, which are a meal on its own.
We went to Volcano Bay 3x. Each for a half day, as the chemicals in the water were too much for my daughter for a full day. One of the days we got the Premiere Seating, which gives you a lounger chair with two seats, and includes a shade umbrella. It also includes a locker, which sits in the middle of the two seats & fits a full sized backpack. It is in a secluded area right in front of the volcano. When you get to the park, you check into the Premiere Seating by going to the right INSTEAD of going to the concierge hut. They have private check in at the seating area - there is a green sandwich board sign on the walkway that directs you to where you need to go. They have private servers there who will bring you food and drinks. I highly recommend the pizza boards - they are large and super good!!! It is centrally located in the park and right near the bathrooms. It is well worth the $80!!! The rides were easy to get on and usually less than a 10 minute wait - helpful hint: when the wrist band shows your wait time is 5 minutes or less, you can check in to ride, you do not need to wait until it says “ride now”. Our favorite thing to ride was the rapid river - soooooo fun and strangely relaxing (considering its rapid).
Photo Passes - I didn’t find value in this at all. We had it for all the days we were there and only found 5 photos we liked. Otherwise - we took all the other photos on our phones, as they didn’t have photographers around. IF you like ride photos, this may be something to invest in… although I will warn you, it takes a lot of time after you get off the ride to “upload” the ride photos to your pass… it is NOT automatic like Disney… so prepare for wait times if this is a priority!!! The photos that we liked included the photos from the Dark Room on Hollywood Boulevard & the photo op at ET’s Closet. We also really liked the photos from Volcano Bay, as they had a few photo stations throughout the park where you scan you pass & it take a photo for you - including right in front of the volcano. We did pay extra to do Shutterbuttons live action Video of scenes from Harry Potter - it creates a 2-3 minute video that they put on a DVD for you to take home. This is worth it if your kid is a HP fan! If I had to do it all over again, I’d only get the photo pass for the days I was in Volcano Bay.
Lastly, my advice:
- Bring Nexcare First Aid Tape for your blisters & skin rubbing from your shoes.
- Bring more than 1 pair of shoes & lots of socks!
- Have cash for tipping. The service is amazing at Universal. I tipped the cleaning service, bell services, waiters, bartenders (including Chez Alcatrez & Moe’s Bar & all the HP bars), hair wrap/braiders, henna tattoo artists, psychics, caricature artists and taxi drivers. Having a few spare $5s and $1s in your wallet is helpful!
- Stay hydrated. Carrying around the freestyle mug is annoying, but so worth it. We drank about 10 cups a day. If we bought that at the stands, we’d be spending $50+ on drinks every day!!!
- Bring a backpack, especially if you have kids. Most will fit in the free lockers, for the rides that require lockers. It is not as much of a hassle to use the lockers as you may think!!! You will want the bag to carry your freestyle cups, band aids, tylenol, advil, dramamine, the items you buy at the shops, the collector cups that comes with certain drinks, etc.
- If you are prone to motion sickness, I strongly recommend MQ Motion Sickness Patches. They last 3 days and work!!! So many of the rides are now simulation style, so you’ll want these!!!
- Bring an extra suitcase for souvenirs, collectors mugs and stuffed animals… its really strange how they add up!!!
- If you are planning on eating at HP restaurants & drinking every kind of butter beer (def try the ice cream), I recommend buying quick service plans for these meals, as there is savings in using it at these places.
- Stop into Moe’s and have a flamming moe and let your kiddo hear the prank call from Bart on the bar phone - the drink is non-alcoholic and your kid (and you) will be delighted.
- Watch the shows - they are amazing! Especially the HP shows, Bourne and the Night Time Celebration.