When we visited Florida recently, one of the things the kids and Adam were most excited about was visiting Universal Studios. It was definitely something on Adam’s bucket list, after all, he is a huge geek when it comes to Transformers after spending his childhood playing with the toys and has somehow managed to rope the kids into this obsession too. I can’t talk really, as a huge Harry Potter geek, I have been dreaming of visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for years and I’ve been steadily encouraging the boys to get into the magic too by reading them the boys and letting them watch the first three books.
So let’s just say it was high up on everyone’s list of must-sees.
We stayed at Loews Sapphire Falls resort for two nights and from arrival to check out we couldn’t get over how stunning the whole place was. You arrived to luxury, you dined in luxury, you had a few too many Cuba Libre’s in the rum bar in luxury and you dozed off in luxury on a mega comfy bed. Everything about this hotel impressed us.
What we loved:
- The decor – stunning. There really was no other word for it, it was beautiful, clean and achingly stylish.
- The staff – right from check in (with Morgan who was a delight) to check out, the staff were wonderful. On our first night we went downstairs to the rum bar while the kids were under the dutiful care of Maw Maw (my mum) and ordered some of their cocktails and tapas. The wrong tapas was sent out to me by mistake, but as I ordered cerviche and they simply brought the wrong kind I didn’t complain – however when I mentioned to the server that I had been sent the Caribbean and not the Mexican cerviche, but it didn’t matter I had eaten the Caribbean one anyway and it was lovely, she immediately told me to enjoy the dish and brought the original order out with compliments. It was just all so efficient and a credit to the company.
- The rum bar – delicious cocktails, huge TV screens and a relaxed atmosphere. Perfect.
- The rooms – we had a water view and it was spectacular, just so pretty and absolutely a joy to stay in. The beds were plush and cosy, the rooms were filled with beautiful decor and furniture and the shower/bathroom was lovely. When we asked for a crib, it came along with a complimentary pack of baby essentials from body wash to the nappy cream I had forgotten and desperately needed.
- The proximity to the parks – walk out of the hotel in the morning, grab the water shuttle and within 2-3 mins you are on the city walk and being dropped off almost directly outside the park entrance. Magic.
What we didn’t love:
- Less child friendly – it really wasn’t as children aimed as I expected a universal hotel to be. I thought of it more as the type of place that Adam and I would visit if we were going on a couples holiday… but then I felt the parks were aimed at children who were older than mine too. It was in no way “unfriendly” towards children, rather that it seemed to lends itself to kids less than adults.
- The noise – the doors didn’t really do much to block out the noise in the rooms, which surprised me, however I suspect that is because the hotel was VERY new and everything needed to settle a bit.
With those as negatives I’m pretty confident that I could admit I would not only love to stay there again, but when the kids are older and heading into tween territory, it will 100% be the go-to place for us in Florida.
On to the parks. I can’t tell you how much they surpassed our expectations, however I’m not so sure it was all as positive as the hotel.
What we loved:
- Cleanliness – everything, just like all of the Orlando parks, was spotless. Everything was in the right place and super easy to find, not to mention the park decor was beautiful.
- The simulations on the rides were like no other I have ever seen – forget Disney when it comes to simulators, if they are your bag then Universal studios and Island of Adventure was 100% the place for you. It was so realistic, so breath taking and just awesome.
- Harry Potter fans paradise – there was very little that you couldn’t get on dragon alley and the Wizarding world was just out of THIS world and into another filled with magic.
- Food prices were cheaper than disney, by quite a bit.
- It was a mixture – there was something for everyone. Disney is *just* disney and I think for Adam he found it repetitive at times, albeit wonderful and enjoyable. Yes, Disney is for every age but Universal had something for everyone and it was all totally different – from Dr Seuss to Harry Potter to Simpsons to Terminator. Everything.
- The interactive nature of… everything – especially in Harry Potter locations. Toby spent a good 4-5 hours trying out various charms with his interactive wand and he loved it. Nothing like it anywhere else either!
What we didn’t love:
- The staff – whereas the disney staff seemed to take genuine pleasure in helping you out the staff at the parks at Universal Studios forgot their perky pills. They were anything from downright rude (the woman on the kid’s Pterodactyl ride who snapped her answer to us, turned her back and started a conversation with another customer) to bored and disengaged (the man we picked our bags up from at the end of the day didn’t look at us once and smiling could possibly have been physically painful for him). It was such a shock because the staff at the hotel were falling over themselves to help you and I did feel that it let down the day slightly.
- The express passes don’t work on the most popular rides – the express passes were brilliant for us because the kids wanted to ride on various rides and they really don’t like queuing (who does?) however when we came to 4 rides (a very small amount for the parks) almost all the Harry Potter rides and the Pterodactyl ride, we were told “express passes don’t work on these rides as they are our most popular rides”… this literally made no sense to me as surely, logic would suggest the more popular rides would have express pass premiums, but no!
- The height restrictions – Toby was left pretty frustrated after a day at Universal because he was half an inch too small to go on 90% of the rides. Listen up peeps, if your kids are under 42″ and are ride lovers DO NOT go to Universal, save it for another time. We had a particularly sad moment when he couldn’t go on the Jurassic park water ride as it was the only one he’d really been looking forward to. He is 41.6″ tall, but safety is safety after all and though painfully frustrating for us, kudos to the Universal staff for sticking to their guns as some parents did get quite stroppy!
- The majority of rides were simulators or 3D experiences – though out of this world, the 3D simulators accounted for the majority of our ride experiences and roller coasters seemed to be few and far between. It became a little same-y after a while, but in reality they were so good I would do them again given chance!
- The lead up time to rides – I’m an impatient kind of gal, and after the initial 2-5 minutes of safety info, I want to ride that ride and move on but Universal lead up times are very slow. We would be stood in a queue for 15 minutes (Simpsons ride was one of the worst) while they played various gimmicks and stuff. It was tedious at times.
Overall verdict? I’d go again for sure. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do the two parks in one day with small children, in fact I probably wouldn’t recommend doing them with small children at all and if we do go back, it will be when they kids are older and able to do more. I can’t recommend the hotel enough to anyone going to Florida – even if you aren’t heading to the parks, to compare it to Disney, it blew the Caribbean Beach out of the water.
- Invest in an interactive wand at Ollivanders but skip the show, it was seriously dulls ville and the boys were so annoyed by the end.
- We missed most of Island of Adventure because we didn’t have time (though the kids are not Popeye or Seuss fans) so I would recommend taking two days at least to go to the parks.
- Don’t eat at Hogsmede, it wasn’t bad food but it was expensive and quite frankly there were so many hot dog stalls and burger places that would have been just as good, half the price, a good 40 minutes less queuing.
- Do fork out for the express pass, just be aware that those all important rides aren’t available. It’s tough because the kids (and I) wanted to go on the Harry Potter rides but the queues were insane by the time we got to them so we only got to do Gringotts. The express pass did come in handy for the Hippogriff ride though, which we went on 6 times.
- Don’t beeline for your favourite or most anticipated thing! We made this mistake because we did Transformers first and totally regretted it.
- Take your time, you will miss stuff if you don’t. We missed Shrek, though none of us were that fussed, because we moved on to the next park too fast.
- Take lots of spending money because there was so much to buy, especially if you are a fan of one particular brand like Transformers.
- Take an umbrella or ponchos. It rains in florida at random times – don’t get caught.
- Pick up a time sheet for characters – like Disney you can meet various characters and you will be super disappointed (like Adam was with Megatron because we missed him) if you don’t get to see the one you reeeeeeeeally want to see.
- If your kids are Harry Potter fans but the queue for the ride in Hogwarts is too long or they are too short then definitely go on a tour of the castle. So many people have told me they were disappointed because they couldn’t go into the castle without the ride but you CAN! Just tell the member of staff that you want to castle tour instead of ride and they will let you through. Is it worth it? Meh, there are a couple of cute interactive things to walk past but we weren’t overly enthused.
- Grab a butter beer, they were lovely and a very unique part of the experience.
- There is a very small water park in Island of Adventure, like so small you could miss it, but the kids thought it was ace and couldn’t go in as we had no change of clothes or costume, so take one!
- Watch an egg hatch in the Dinosaur centre, stay at the front and you might get chosen to name a dino!
- The refillable cups are NOT worth it if you are not a soda/pop lover.
All in all, a very enjoyable place to visit with older kids and more time, so I would recommend it but next time, we’ll be doing a lot different.