MOUSE AND DUCK TALES
Welcome to our blog, where we share our tips on the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
Welcome to our blog, where we share our tips on the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
Universal Orlando Resort opened in 1990 and is Orlando Florida's second biggest attraction right behind the Disney theme parks. It had over 9 million visitors in 2016.
Universal boasts three parks: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and their brand new water park – Volcano Bay. They offer five “on property” hotels so that you can make your visit even more immersive. They often have specials like the current buy 3 days get two days free or their vacation package deal for Canadian residents that is $99 per night when you book 5 nights (restrictions apply). You can even use your Air Miles to buy park tickets.
Universal is not connected to Disney, therefore, you do have to book these park tickets and hotels separately from your Disney vacation. If you wanted to combine a trip to both Universal and Disney theme parks your travel agent can arrange transportation between the two resorts. It is about a 25-minute drive.
When you walk from the giant parking garage ($20 per car) over towards the entrance to begin your visit, you look down on a great mini golf course (extra charge of about $15 per person) and are welcomed by the iconic Universal Globe. Before you actually enter the parks there are shops, restaurants, night clubs and a movie theater that makes up the City Walk. We were surprised by the size of this area and that you can enjoy it at no cost if you want to visit on a non-park day. Think party atmosphere with some stores.
Head to your right and you will enter Universal Studios where you can see Diagon Alley, the Simpsons, Minions, Curious George, Fast & Furious, Shrek, E.T. and the Jimmy Fallon ride among others. Head to your left and it is Islands of Adventure with Hogwarts Castle, Seuss land, Spiderman and some pretty big roller coasters.
On our last trip we visited the park on two separate days with our two little children. Even with two full days, we couldn’t see it all. Of course we spent most of our time in the two Harry Potter areas but we also enjoyed other parts of the parks too. Most kids are tall enough for all the rides around age 10 but little kids can certainly can go on a lot of rides as well. Below are our highlights from the perspective of a family with travelling with a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old:
Wizarding World of Harry Potter: A++
The Harry Potter rides are easily the best theme park attractions we’ve ever visited. The theming and authenticity of the rides and shops was incredible. We are certainly fans of the movies but aren’t experts on all the characters and storylines. This didn’t matter at all. Seeing the movies once is enough to appreciate the experience. We really felt that we were walking into Hogwarts and travelling into the vaults at Gringotts. However, our young children were pretty thoroughly scared by the rides. We’d recommend this for children over 8 depending on the child.
As you walk in to Hogwarts Castle, the temperature drops, the lighting is low and you are greeted by portraits on the walls that talk to you. You pass Dumbeldore’s office and see many familiar sights from the movies. The castle’s ride, the Forbidden Journey, puts you in a Quidditch match gone wrong complete with Dementors, and a spider spits on you! The ride made us very nauseous but it was totally unbelievable and immersive.
The Harry Potter attractions are actually spread over two parks and are connected by the Hogwarts Express train. Hogsmeade village and Hogwarts castle are located in Islands of Adventure, while Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios. In order to travel on the Hogwarts Express train, you require a “park to park” ticket. This will allow you to go between the two parks. We think it would be a shame not to ride the train in both directions. Truly this experience was so enjoyable and made you feel what it would be like to be in the movies.
We think Escape to Gringotts might be the best ride in Florida. You are immersed in the story line of the ride right from your entry into the bank when you pass goblins in the bank. It has roller coaster elements, 3D elements and special effects. The technology behind the ride is really impressive. They took a part of a movie and turned it into a ride that you can now be part of.
Universal's Volcano Bay Water Park
The new Volcano Bay water park is 28 acres in size, meaning you should plan to be here for a full day. The designers want you to feel like you are relaxing in a water oasis. They’ve included a river, a sand beach and a giant volcano with a waterfall. The coolest thing about this water park is their brand new technology call “Tapu Tapu.” You tap the totem at each slide with your wristband then go in the wave pool or have a snack while you wait for your time on the slide or attraction. Your Tapu also opens your locker and pays for your food or merchandise.
It is possible to walk from any resort to any other area within the Universal complex. You can also opt for a water taxi or shuttles that provide easy access to the park. This means you can let teenagers walk around on their own. With security checkpoints at each entrance the complex is advertised as very safe.
The five resort hotels on the Universal property are arranged from right to left on the map according to price. Here we feature them in order price lowest to highest. The Aventura hotel is opening this summer and it will have tablets in the rooms and a rooftop bar that serves tapas. The Cabana Bay resort sleeps 4, 6 or 8 people with a retro 1950’s theme. It is walking distance to Volcano Bay and you can see the volcano in the water park from some rooms. Sapphire is the Caribbean inspired hotel. Royal Pacific was recently renovated in a Polynesian style. The Hard Rock resort has a California feel with rock ‘roll memorabilia. The Portofino hotel is meant to invoke an Italian village with a piazza, outdoor cafes and a harbor. There are kids suites in all the hotels and some rooms have sleeper sofas (although this isn’t something that can be guaranteed).
Universal's Express Pass
When you stay at the top three resorts, the Express pass is included. The Express pass means that you go to the front of the line for each ride or attraction in the parks. Even better than a traditional fast pass, there is no limit to how many rides you can use your Express pass with and no waiting for your scheduled time to ride. An unlimited express pass means you can go to the front of the line multiple times for each ride. A non-unlimited pass means you can go to the front of the line once for each participating ride. If you do decide to purchase the Express pass, because you are not staying in the three resorts that include it, you should purchase it in advance because it can sell out. The cost to purchase the 2-park unlimited express pass is $84 and the 2-day non-unlimited express pass is $64. There are a few other options, but we think if you are going to visit you need to get a 2 park ticket.
Universal Dining Plans
When you stay on property you can also choose to buy a dining plan. These plans don’t seem to be the best option since they are not accepted in the resort’s restaurants. The quick service plan gives you one quick service meal, one extra drink, and a snack $21.99 for adults or $13.99 for kids. The table service plan gives you one quick meal, two drinks, and a snack plus one table service meal not including gratuities which is $51.99 for adults and $17.99 for kids. One neat feature is that you can buy the dining plan by the day and it is nice to be able to budget and prepay for meals in advance. We hope they decide to expand where they accept this and maybe even start offering free dining in the future.
Simpson’s World: A
We think this area is a must if you are a Simpson’s fan. There are great photo opportunities including new statues of Chief Wiggum and Carl. The food court had menu items right out of the show like a Krusty Burger or Frying Dutchman Fish & Chips and a Lard Lad donut.
Simulator Ride: B+
This ride had the gags and witty humor you’d expect from the Simpsons plus Side Show Bob! Even the pre-show to the ride was really well done.
Kang and Kodo’s Twirl n’ Hurl ride: B-
Our youngest loves these types of rides: think Dumbo’s ride with funny commentary from your favourite aliens.
Seuss Land: A for young children / C for parents
This area has good opportunities to meet characters, the rides and shops were very well themed and it was not crowded. However, it was certainly geared to a younger age.
Taradon flyers: B
Best for 6 years and up but not for people who are afraid of heights. The seat rocks and with only one seat belt, you really feel like you are flying.
Fievel’s Playground: A
This area provided a fun, shaded playground where our kids could cool off, jump around and really enjoy themselves. We wouldn’t have visited this area without young kids but we were really impressed by the theming and unique activities.
Curious George Splash Pad: B+
This area was another good cool off spot for young children. It really got us wet and we had to drag the kids away.
Shrek 4D ride: B+ for kids
Somewhat dated but enjoyable for fans of the movie.
Dudley Do Right water ride: A
“Crazy and not for the faint of heart” but our child still talks about it. Be prepared for a pure drenching You might even consider paying for the standing dryers (think hand dryers for your body) This is a good reason to pack a poncho or extra clothes.
Great Rides for Older Kids
So many of the rides have new technology. Some of the true thrill rides include the Transformers 3D ride, the Incredible Hulk Coaster, the Reign of Kong and Spiderman 3D. Despicable Me is another great option for older children that we simply ran out of time to try.
New things to watch for
When you are planning your Disney World vacation and trying to choose a Disney vacation package, one decision you have to make is whether you are buying the dining plan or not. We've put together some explanations, definitions and things to consider to help you decide.
Three plan types
why book dining?
Pros: There are some great reasons to add the dining plan to your vacation package.
In the past, Disney has released some dates each year that include their Free Dining promotion package. This means that if you book a certain number of nights at a Disney resort you can have the dining package for free. We have enjoyed Disney’s “free dining” options as part of our vacation package twice. It isn’t always free; your room charge might be cheaper if you took advantage of a different promotion (and you can’t combine free dining with other promotions) however, we certainly enjoyed the experience enough to recommend this option even when it isn’t the cheapest deal. There is nothing like the feeling like you are eating for free. Your Disney travel agent can let you know when Free Dining has been offered in the past.
kid friendly snacks
We have often remarked at the nutritious options that Disney offers. We appreciate that their menus denote the healthy choices with an icon and that all kids’ meals come with milk and fruit at no extra cost. When you know you are going to indulge in a Mickey bar later in the day you can swap out a lunch cookie for yogurt. Some of our favourite snacks included pretzels, bacon cinnamon buns, Mickey shaped rice crispy treats and Dole whip treats.
There are over 150 different restaurants to choose from at Disney. Planning out where you want to eat can be really fun. However, a good Disney travel agent should be happy to recommend your best vacation package option and book all your dining reservations at no extra cost.
Stay on property: We’re embarrassed, but we’ll admit it: a few years ago we went to Disney World and we didn’t stay on property. We learned our lesson and we promise never to do that again! Here’s why:
Travel Time Matters
We wasted way too much time driving to the parks and then back to our condo. A hotel might advertise that they are 5 minutes from Disney World, but they are referring to the gates. Each park is another 10-20 minutes away. Stay on property and the Magical Express will have you back at your resort in 15 minutes for an afternoon swim. Stay off property and you have a long, hot walk to your car and a 30-minute drive to your hotel.
The cost of our car rental outweighed a lot of the savings of our cheaper hotel. Renting a car for the week usually costs about $300 plus $80 in gas and $20 a day for parking at the parks. Some off-site hotels charge $12 per day for parking as well. Condo properties and hotels with a water park charge resort fees of up to $25 per day. It’s true that lots of off-site hotels offer shuttles to the parks, but they are limited to a few times per day. If your little one needs an unexpected nap you might be in a bind.
If saving money is your top priority, you can get a cheap deal off property. But you need to ask yourself if saving a few hundred dollars is worth the compromise on quality and time. Ultimately you are paying to go to Disney. If you are driving back and forth to the parks – you are losing money. Plus Disney often has great discounts - click here to read about Disney's typical offers.
There’s a property for everyone
There are two kinds of Disney guests: the ones who want to go to the parks every day and the ones who want a more relaxed pace. No matter which type you are, you can have an amazing experience by staying on property.
If you are going to the parks most days, you might not be as worried about staying at a luxury hotel - a Value Resort is a great option. Depending on the time of year, a room at a Value Resort typically costs $160 per night. These properties have lots of great Disney theming with character statues and cartoonish décor. Your kids will be wowed and you will appreciate that the pools, dining room, arcade and store are just a short distance from your room. Every resort has movies under the stars and fun poolside activities.
If you want a little more luxury and maybe an escape from the flash of the Mouse, a Moderate Resort will check both boxes. A Moderate room typically costs $200 per night depending on the time of year. The theming is much more reserved and understated. It is easy to forget you are still in Disney World. Many moderates have the feel of their namesake: at Port Orleans you can easily imagine you are walking down a street in Mississippi; at Caribbean Beach you can relax in the sand and play in a pirate’s fort (as part of the pool and splash pad).
Of course, you won't regret splurging on a Deluxe Resort. One-night stays start around $400 per night. Your kids will be entertained all day with the free fun and educational activities while you can easily pretend you are in Hawaii, Africa or Atlantic City.
We think five days of park hopping and staying at a Value property then finished off by two nights at a Deluxe Resort would be the ideal way to experience Disney. This way you can enjoy all the parks and then recuperate in luxury so you can return home well rested.
Disney Service is Top Notch
If something goes wrong, we know Disney will take care of you. At one dinner, the debit machine was having trouble. After 6 minutes of waiting, the waitress apologized and gave us our $12 dessert for free.
At Animal Kingdom Lodge we were able to check in at 11am, upgraded to a Savannah view at no extra cost and charged the standard room rate, even though we booked the last room available at this price on any Disney property (sometimes cancelled flights turn into the best day of your vacation).
Securing Fast Passes
If you stay on property you are able to book your fast passes as early as 60 days before you travel. This gives you a much better chance of securing a fast pass for the rides that you want at the time that you want them. When you stay off property you have to wait until 30 days before you travel to book your fast passes. This delay can mean that the most popular rides have no fast passes left.
Not all breakfasts are created equal
Many times we have been fooled by free breakfast promos at off property hotels. We have found these free continental breakfasts to be less than yummy and always with very dubious eggs. When a family of four can eat breakfast at Disney for roughly $20 a day, don’t let a free breakfast entice you to stay off property.
Eating a kid’s breakfast at Disney can save lots – no one seemed to mind when we bought four kids meals for breakfast. A kid’s breakfast could include a drink, Mickey Waffles, bacon, a yogurt tube and grapes for $4.99. We expect it might not always be so easy for adults to buy a kid’s meal but on our last trip we were able to eat well in the morning for very little.
Disney is also one of the first places where we found low cost, healthy options for kids: All kid’s quick service meals come with fruit or veggies, plus you don’t pay extra to get milk.
(All prices listed are in U.S. dollars)
Bottom Line: Staying off property doesn’t always save money and it certainly doesn’t save time. Contact your Disney travel agent to price match your options, we recommend Click the mouse!