MOUSE AND DUCK TALES
Here at Mouse and Duck we are constantly researching the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
Here at Mouse and Duck we are constantly researching the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
All of the Universal hotels are owned and operated by Lowes. This means you can POOL HOP (for all guests except those staying at Surfside Inn). Forgive our enthusiasm but we often wish this was an option at Disney. We love checking out different pools, especially because each one offers something different, like a waterslide or lazy river. Another reason to stay on property is that guests also receive access to one park one hour before regular guests. Currently Volcano Bay and Universal Studios open early. But periodically Islands of Adventures is open early instead. If you can make it there for 8am you can be sure to walk right on a few rides before the crowds increase (although not the really popular rides like Hagrid’s). Another great feature at the Lowes resorts are the vacation planners at each hotel’s reception area who can print your park tickets when you check-in, make dining reservations for you or just answer your questions
We really enjoy the 1950’s theming and décor of Cabana Bay Resort. Its proximity to Volcano Bay was fantastic, but it's also not very far away from the parks. Cabana Bay is considered a “Prime Value” hotel, which means it costs a bit more than Surfside but less than Sapphire Falls. It has a bowling alley, arcade, and a lazy river of its own. It has regular and suite style room options. When we visit Universal again we will likely choose Cabana Bay, however, it is a much bigger resort so it would require a big walk to your hotel, which is always hard after a long day at the parks.
Aventura Hotel has everything you could need in a resort – clean rooms, a great pool with a splash fountain, a pool bar and poolside movies. You can walk right to Volcano Bay underneath the road, which felt super exclusive. There is a great market-style food court, lots of elevators so there is no long waits to get to your room, a shop to get your Harry Potter gear and even a fun lobby Robot to play with. The bar is on the 17th floor and has a fantastic view - we could see all the way to Epcot. The rooms were a bit bland in their modern décor but a reasonable size with a coffee maker and fridge. The staff was very helpful and friendly; it was no problem to leave a day early because of the hurricane, to store our bags for the day or to get extra towels to go over to Volcano Bay before the pool opened.
Aventura Bay and Cabana Bay share a bus. These hotels are in the Prime Value category but are very nice options and comparable to Disney’s Art of Animation.
Sapphire Falls is a beautiful resort with a very relaxed feel. It’s a great resort for those looking for a Caribbean feel near the parks. It is right next to Aventura Bay and is a “Preferred” hotel. This means the price is comparable to a moderate resort at Disney. Unfortunately, it doesn't include the Express pass in your package and it is a higher price point but it is certainly a nicer resort, plus it is dog friendly. The breezy Caribbean feel, view of waterfalls right outside the window and boat to the parks also makes it a higher-end experience. We loved the “sand bar” in the middle of the pool and thought this would be great for little ones. Our bigger kids loved the water slide.
Lowes Portofino Bay Resort, Royal Pacific Resort and Hard Rock Cafe Resort are the “Premier” level hotels or what Disney would call the deluxe options. Staying at one of these three resorts grants you the Express pass for each day of your trip including on your check in day and your check out day. This can be a value of $130 per day per person! Premier hotels are all walking distance to the parks and have their own sit down restaurants. Portofino is based on the city of Portofino in Italy and gives you a European flavor. Royal Pacific Resort has a Polynesian feel with dark wood and orchids and you can take a boat to the parks from it. Hard Rock gives you an edgy rock & roll feel, its architecture is themed off the hotel California.
Obviously the price to stay on property varies depending on the season. Low season is August to September and January. High seasons are Christmas, October, Easter, May, July and around the Memorial Day weekend (last Monday of May). However, when you are choosing your time to travel don’t just think about price. The weather needs to be taken into consideration too. Can your kids handle some heat? Our kids were hot at 7:30am. And the August heat certainly limited how long we could stay at the park or how many rides we could walk to. What saved us was going back to our hotel for a swim and rest in the heat of the day.
Bonus: Insta-cart is an option to order food to your room. We tried it out and ordered granola bars, cereal, milk, fruit and yoghurt. The prices were reasonable and the process of ordering and delivery were very slick. Normally we order from Green Grocer but it doesn't deliver to Universal. With Insta-cart we submitted our mobile order and then met the delivery person in the hotel lobby. We were even able to order our favourite sunscreen so we didn't have to worry about liquids in our carry on. Because we only brought personal items on the plan we were able to save as much as $80 per bag for checked luggage.
We really had an excellent holiday on our recent trip to Universal Orlando, and an even better time than on our last visit. We were almost surprised how much fun we had and here are 5 reasons we would recommend this holiday!
#5 The Low Crowds & Relaxed VibE
Overall universal was a great holiday: it was not busy at all so we really felt relaxed. The end of August usually has low crowds because most American kids have returned to school. The pending hurricane and opening of Star Wars land over in Disney made Universal even quieter. But the lack of a priority ride pass system like Disney’s Fastpass process meant we felt even more relaxed. The Fastpass system means you have a schedule to follow and that can be a bit stressful. Universal has an Express pass system instead. While we don’t love the very high cost of the Express pass, it does allow you to pay more to have priority on all the rides. We actually didn’t think it was necessary at this time of the year as we walked on most rides and found the posted wait times were all lower than advertised. In addition, the Express pass seemed to slow it’s users down a bit as they had to scan their Express pass at each ride entrance. But we were pretty glad that we didn’t need to worry about Fastpasses, or keep checking for new ones like we did in Disneyland with their Maxpass system. You can certainly leave your phone at home if you like and sometimes that is just what the doctor ordered
#4 Volcano BaY
#3 The very close resort accommodations
#2 Great for ages 6+
There are rides that can keep your thrill seekers busy for days but also options for the tamer types in the crowd. It is not to say that really young guests wouldn’t enjoy the experience and ours certainly did when they were 2 and 6 years old, but we were able to enjoy more of the rides now that they are 6 and 10 years old. Our youngest still wanted to ride everything in Seuss land and was afraid to go on a number of the Harry Potter rides. We certainly had to talk her on to a number of the “darker” options. But every time she rode something she wanted to do it again right away and she ended up back in the “dark arts alley” three times. Our 10 year old has seen almost all of the Harry Potter movies so he really enjoyed all the incredible theming throughout. He is also a Marvel fan and appreciated the Marvel themed area. They are just starting to watch the Simpsons so that land had more meaning for them this time. There are so many rides and attractions that you can certainly skip over the really intense rides – Hulk or King Kong. But for families with teenagers these rides would be a big draw. It is fair to say Universal has an edgier side that is a refreshing change.
#1 The amazing Wizarding World of Harry Potter
During this trip we were able to spend lots of time in both Harry Potter lands and really enjoy all small touches that made it feel like we were in the movies. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal is actually made up of two different parks: Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You can travel between the two on the Hogwarts Express but you need a park-to-park ticket to ride it. There are a number of really great rides in both parks including the brand new Hagrid's Magical Motorbike ride. On our first day, the wait for Hagrid's was 150 minutes at park opening time but this meant we walked on everything else including the Forbidden Journey ride inside Hogwarts Castle! We can't say enough about these attractions, they are so immersive that you really feel like you are in the movies. In fact, we wished we'd had a bit more time in line inside the castle to really enjoy the queue.
There are SO many great shops to explore in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. You name the Harry Potter item and it can be yours. Everything from a cauldron cupcake, a quill pen set, an Owl backpack, a Butterbeer slushie and even your own Gringots money. It was hard to tell what items were props and what was actually for sale. We grown-ups probably loved it more than the kids, it really was a magical experience.
Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Ride is absolutely amazing! This is hands-down one of the best roller coasters we've ridden. The queue has some fun holograms and neat knick-knacks along the way but the way that you feel like you’re on a really fast motorcycle is spectacular. The wait time was listed at 100 minutes but we were done the ride in 65 minutes. We all thought the ride was well worth the wait and that is saying a lot for a family that avoids long lines. Both kids enjoyed it, although we had to work hard to get our six year old convinced to ride it. Luckily we made friends with some kids from New Jersey who told us how great the ride was and that helped calm the nerves.
A few honorable mentions: the Wi-Fi at Universal and in the Lowes resorts was spotless and connected automatically after the first set up. The Locker systems for rides is slick, just use your park ticket to select a locker and pop your stuff in while you ride. We can’t say enough about the fast and efficient bus service – the buses have one stop outside City Walk (the main entrance to the parks) and resort guests have designated buses that come frequently. We found all the staff to be friendly and helpful. Overall, and even though the hurricane cut our trip short, we would highly recommend this vacation.
We love Volcano Bay there so many slides and the most family raft rides of any waterpark. In fact, we walked around the corner and were surprised to see more slides we didn’t realize were there.
The little kids’ water area has five slides and looks like a fun tree house. Little kids could certainly enjoy this park, especially because of the sand and fairly calm large wave pool. But if you are a daredevil this water park is for you! They are two lazy rivers, both are fast but the fearless river require the life jackets for everyone and even knocked off a hat! We went around this one 3 times.
The volcano itself had very cool water features and a talking holograph inside. Some of the slides wound through the Volcano which we thought was super cool. We had early park entry because we are staying on property and walked on a bunch of slides. Including two that dropped you 4ft and 6ft into a pool at the end of the slide. The park is only 1 year old and looks awesome. The theming is great with thatched tiki huts over the queues, tropical food, and a relaxing vibe.
We didn't brave the plunge slide built into the side of the volcano. Even some of the family raft rides were really fast with huge upswings. The roller coaster family raft ride was very fast and felt like it went on forever.
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