Universal Trip Report- The One Where we Upgrade to APs for free!

This is our trip report for family of 5 (myself, DH, DD16, DD14-birthday on trip, and DS11) from 1/4-1/8.

We booked this trip through Costco and gave it to the kids as their Christmas gift. Our reason for these specific dates was that our middle daughter’s birthday is 1/7 and she never gets to do cool stuff for her birthday :slightly_smiling_face: We drove in from Georgia, leaving the first real cold weather of the season. Arrived at Portofino Bay around 3:30 pm and checked in pretty quickly, though our room wasn’t ready. While we waited for our room, I went to the Universal Ticket desk to go ahead and print our tickets and, just out of curiosity, asked about the cost to upgrade our 3 day, park to park tickets to APs. The guy informed me that we could upgrade to the Seasonal Pass (lowest pass) for FREE!! So we did :smiley:

We finally got the text that our room was ready around 4:15. By that time, the line to check in had gotten pretty long. We headed to the room, quickly put on walking shoes, and headed to the parks with our NEW APs!

It was almost 5 pm by the time we entered IOA. We headed towards Hogsmeade to check on the Hagrid’s situation, but the line was all the way back to Poseidon, so we decided to wait. Went to ride FJ and then took the HE to USF. Once in USF, we rode Rip Ride Rocket and then headed to City Walk for dinner since we hadn’t eaten since 11 am.

We got to City Walk around 7 (USF closed at 7, IOA at 8) and it was pretty packed. We ended up at the BK, Panda Express, Moe’s area and got fast food. Then headed back to the room to rest up for the next day! Also, this is our first time doing UO in January and the weather was AMAZING. Needed a jacket/hoodie at night and never really got hot during the day. Perfect.

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Day 2: During our stay, only IOA had EE, starting at 8 am. They also removed Hagrid’s from EE a few days before we got there :unamused: But we decided to do EE anyway since it wasn’t super early (started at 7 am the last time we went) and we wanted to do VC. The boys beat the girls up and ended up getting to the park around 7:45. They opened the gates at 7:51 and DH and DS rode VC by 8:15. The girls and I were about 15 minutes behind them. We walked straight to VC and still rode in about 20 minutes. At that point, we all did FJ (and it threw me a bit with dizziness after VC) then checked Hagrid’s, which was crazy. So we headed to JP River and Kong, then did Spiderman and Hulk (fam faves) again. Then we headed to USF around 10:30! In USF we did Despicable Me, Mummy and walked to Simpson’s for lunch. We had chicken fingers and a burger from the Simpson’s food court area and all agreed they were BAD. Decided that would be the last time we ate inside the park. City Walk just has too many better options for roughly the same price!

After lunch, DH went to the hotel to rest and work, the kids and I headed back to Diagon Alley. We had brought a HP wand we borrowed from a friend, so we tried out a few spells. It gets SO crowded back there after lunch, though, so we didn’t do too many. We rode Gringott’s (which all of us but DH like better than FJ) and then took the HE back to IOA. Once in IOA, DH met us and we decided to brave Hagrid’s. The wait was around 90 minutes, but TP was saying expected wait time was shorter, so we jumped in line! We ended up riding in about 70 minutes. And it was worth it! We all agree that it is the BEST ride we’ve ever been on!

*Questions about Hagrid’s here: First, will it ever have EP? Is there some secret metric Universal uses to decide when to add rides to EP? Second, in the room with the screen, didn’t there use to be a pre-show with Mr. Weasley and Hagrid? We all thought we remembered one from September of 2019, but this time is was just Fang pacing or the motorbike.

Back to the report! After Hagrid’s, we forced the kids to do Cat in the Hat and the Seuss Trolley! The Caroususell is still under wraps and it really kind of kills the atmosphere in that section, IMO. We were pretty beat at that point, it was probably around 5, and had plans to leave property to eat, so we headed back to Portofino.

We tried to go eat in Orlando that night (had a gift card that my parents gave us for Xmas) and it was a HUGE MISTAKE! Apparently Orlando, like the rest of the world, is struggling with staffing. We were quoted 45 minutes for a table at Outback at 6:30 and after waiting an hour, still no end in sight. So, we did what any true Georgian would do- Google mapped the nearest Chick Fil A :wink: Then we went back to the room and binged Shark Tank! There were folks headed to the pool when we got back, but as southerners, 60 degrees is WAY too cold to swim!

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Day 3: DD and DS decided to get to IOA early again to do VC, but the girls and I chose to wait and head to USF to get to Diagon Alley at opening. Honestly, with Hagrid’s off the list for EE right now, it’s just not that big a deal to get there that early. We never waited more than around 35 minutes for VC and the only other options at EE were Hulk and Spiderman, both of which have EP. But I digress…

The girls and I got to USF around 8:40 (opening at 9). They opened the gates at 8:50 and we headed straight to DA. It makes a HUGE difference to get back there at park open! You can really wander around and see everything, cast spells without waiting, etc. We wandered down Nocturn Alley, took pictures, DD16 bought a pygmy puff, and we headed to Ollivander’s. My kids were interested in the show, so we just went and DD14 picked out a wand (belonging to someone from Fantastic Beasts, it was pink???) and by this time, DS and DH had ridden HE over and joined us. DS decided to get a wand, too, and picked out Slytherin’s :snake: They walked around some more casting spells and we got in line for Gringott’s around 9:45. After Gringott’s, we decided to do Mummy (had to get it in again since we knew it was going to close the next day) and Transformers (which we all agree is a slightly lesser Spiderman, but worth a ride). Then we let DS and DH do RRR again and headed to City Walk for lunch.

We ate at Margaritaville, getting nachos, a shrimp and chicken bowl, and a burger. The food there is decent, the atmosphere is fun, and our waitress was awesome! After lunch, DH headed back for his afternoon break and the kids and I walked to IOA. We had seen people in the single rider line at Hagrid’s the day before and decided that might be the way to go.

Once we got to IOA and saw the Hagrid’s line, the kids had an argument about waiting (the line was back almost to Poseidon again and they won’t guarantee there’s an SR line at that point, you have to get up to the actual entrance to find out). After many strong words between siblings and some yelling from mom (keeping it real here), we decided to wait a bit and go to Jurassic Park instead. DS and DD14 rode VC in the SR line, which took about 30 minutes (posted wait was 60 at that point). Then we rode JP River and got MUCH wetter than planned (we were in the front!) and at that point another argument about riding other water rides ensued :confounded: Mom ended it by saying I didn’t want to get wet, so we went to try Hagrid’s again. At this point (2 maybe?) the line was only back to the HE entrance, so we decided to go for it. We got in the SR line and ended up waiting around 45 minutes instead of the posted 75. The SR line is VERY boring, but the shorter wait was worth it.

At that point, we headed to USF (walking) and DH joined us again. I knew I wanted to see the Bourne show (though my kids complained a LOT, they do NOT like shows) so we planned on the 5:15 show. That gave us time to do RRR and Gringott’s (I tried to talk them into Jimmy Fallon but “Mom, it’s just a show! We hate shows!”). We then headed to ET and then went to Bourne for the 5:15. And let me tell you, 30 seconds in, the kids took ALL their words back! That show is so awesome! The technology they use is really incredible and the timing of the actors is so precise! When they issued the warning beforehand I was like, that’s really weird! I’ve never seen a show with a warning like a ride! But it was definitely needed! If you can handle it, definitely go see it!

By the time we got out, it was around 6. DD14 wanted to do Mummy one more time, but the rest of us were hungry and tired, so we headed to City Walk. We ended up eating a Red Oven Pizza Kitchen and it was a really great experience! We sat in about 15 minutes. We’d never been before, so not sure if this is a Covid change, but we ordered on the App and they delivered it to our table. We did have to go up to the counter to get waters to drink, but it was really an easy way to do dinner and the pizza was really good. We will definitely be back there! Then the girls did some shopping and we headed back to Portofino! The boat line for Portofino was really long, so we walked instead. It’s a really nice walk, especially in this weather, and only took us about 15 minutes, even though we were all really tired!

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Day 4: After two days of EE at IOA, even DS and DH decided to sleep a bit longer on our last day and just head to USF for opening. I forgot to mention that we were the first room in our hall in the West Wing of Portofino, so we could literally see the boat from our balcony! Super convenient, I will request West if we stay there again. We walked down at 8:30 and got to the park entrance by 8:45. They opened the gates at 8:50 (at which point the party behind me said they wanted to ride Back to the Future :laughing:) We headed back to DA for some spell casting and exploring, finding two of the “hidden” spells! We then rode Gringott’s again. After that we talked to the Knight Bus conductor and tried to get into the Ministry of Magic (closed…again) and then went to Men In Black, where I soundly beat ALL of my kids! There was literally NO ONE in MiB. The car across from us (that you’re supposed to shoot when they are revealed as Aliens) was EMPTY. It made me kind of sad bc it’s not a terrible ride. Better than the Toy Story shooting one in MK, IMO. But alas, not everyone appreciates Will Smith in his prime. After that, we headed to the Simpsons ride. The ride is good! The food in that area is NOT.

One final attempt to get them to do Jimmy Fallon was unsuccessful. They did, however, say they would watch Bourne again! But I didn’t think my feet could take waiting in that ante-room. So we let DS, DD14 and DH get their RRR on one more time, then headed to an early lunch. I’d made a reservation for Hard Rock at noon, but it wasn’t really necessary. We got there at 11:30 and they sat us immediately. We had nachos (again), chicken tenders, and a burger. Everything was delicious and they even brought out a free Sundae for DD14’s birthday!

After lunch, DH went for his daily rest and the kids and I walked around City Walk and let DD14 shop for her birthday (a true gift from her roller coaster loving brother who would go NON-STOP if the rest of us could hang). We headed back into IOA around 1:15, hoping to get on Hagrid’s close to sunset. The kids did VC (DD16’s first time since she is kind of sensitive to that stuff) and after that, her younger siblings agreed to go on Ripsaw Falls with her. After that, we joined DH and headed back to Hogsmeade, thinking we’d kill time and get in line at Hagrid’s around 4-4:30 with the goal of riding at sunset. We did FJ and Hippogriff, then headed to Hagrid’s.

SR line was closed at Hagrid’s, but the posted wait time was only 75 minutes. We ended up riding right at sunset, though next time I think we will try to wait until dark. It was still awesome though, and DS did some quick math and made it so that he and I were on the very first motorbike! His sisters were NOT happy with him, but it was awesome to ride in front :blush: We then headed to do Spiderman one last time and Hulk, which we hadn’t ridden at dark. Then it was back to City Walk as DD14 wanted Panda Express for her birthday dinner (teens are weird). For whatever reason, this area was much less crowded that night than it had been our first night. All in all, it was a fantastic trip and we will DEFINITELY be back soon!

Extra thoughts: if you are visiting while mask requirements are in place (and they were enforced at all indoor locations), I highly recommend a mask lanyard. They were lifesavers for us! They are string lanyards that clip on either side of your mask (these are the ones I bought: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08HHVQL42/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o06_s03?ie=UTF8&psc=1
They are great for taking your mask off for a break, to eat, etc. and not losing it or having to stuff it in your pocket or bag.

Would love to hear thoughts on when APH hotel rates are usually released or how to go about getting them! We are looking at returning for a couple of days in the beginning of May and the rates I’m currently seeing are regular rates, I think. Hope this report helps someone!

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Thanks for posting your report. We will be there in 13 days for our first UOR trip! This was helpful!

Did you use any sort of touring plan or just go where the teenagers took you? We will have EPs too, and I’ve been trying to decide if I need to make a plan or not.

I booked an AP rate for our stay. I had a room booked at the regular rate and kept checking for AP rates- I just kept the AP hotel search open in a tab on my phone. I found AP rates 3 months before our travel dates, and rebooked the hotel. I’m sure it’d be easier if you used a travel agent.

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Oh, exciting! In our experience, with EPs you don’t necessarily need a plan. But, if you’ve never been, you might want to make one for the first day just to make sure you get to everyone’s top priorities. It’s also good to know which park/where you’ll be to plan meals. Have a blast!

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Wow, lots of good nuggets for my family’s upcoming trip! Thank you! One question, how far ahead do they post where/if there is EE? I can’t seem to find consistent info on that. Thanks!

Usually 1 month ahead. Best place to check is in the app, click Theme Park Hours and Early Park Admission will be listed there.

Thank you! ETA I never actually downloaded the app… I had my Lines app ready to go, though :stuck_out_tongue:

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For us, TPs estimate was pretty accurate. And, if I remember correctly, once I put in the dates for our trip, I was emailed when the hours changed for one of our days from their posted prediction. I had both apps downloaded! The UO one is really good for finding restaurants and ordering food (we used the app for Red Oven Pizza).

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Ah yes, you should definitely have the Universal Orlando app. Besides park hours, it’s great for show times, restaurant hours, and menus.

If you drive, it also has a parking location tool.
You can set a notification for an attraction if the wait time drops down to a desired length.
And you can add your tickets to access them that way.

My husband tried to put our info in but it seems like we can’t until we check in?? This our first UO trip so we are figuring out all the differences from Disney as we go.

Ah I see. Yes it depends how you purchased your admission.

Ok thanks. We are staying at HRH so we have Express pass so I’m not too worried about pre-planning. Though I’m not the winging it type, I guess that’s just how it is! ETA sorry for hijacking the thread, continue on!

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Random question—if you wanted to ride HE both ways, do you have to get off and wait in line again, or is there a way to stay on?

You have to get off and get back in line.

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Passholder rates are usually released about 60-90 days out, but there’s no set release time. Sometimes it’s been 6 months out, and at the moment they still haven’t released anything beyond mid-February, so it varies. In case you haven’t found it (on universal’s unwieldy website), here’s the link to the passholder hotel page where you can find and book passholder rates (if available): Universal Orlando.

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Fellow Georgian here - good call on finding the nearest CFA :joy: Glad your trip was great! Quick question - how did you find the cleanliness at Portofino? Trying to decide between Hard Rock and Portofino for our September trip - but seeing sooo many reports of unclean, run down rooms (at both resorts) that I’m almost hesitant to book! Just wondering how your experience with the resort was. Thanks!

The rooms were refreshed over the COVID shut down so ignore any reviews before 2021 or so.

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