Perhaps one of the best surprises on my last trip to Orlando was finding the gem that is Raglan Road in Disney Springs. It started with finding out that they have Gluten-Free fish and chips (something I haven’t had since 2015 when I was in England) and it ended with knowing it was the perfect place to take my baby sister for her bachelorette party dinner.
Raglan Road is set up part Irish pub and part Irish dance show. What caught my eye is that it reminded me of my last visit to Dublin and a visit to the Celtic Nights dinner and dance show.
What is great about Raglan Road, and a little different, and a totally American fashion, is that the building is absolutely pristine, and the dancing matches that. Call it Disney magic, or an Americana fabrication, but the venue offers a level of escapism that is not always seen in a restaurant.
Orlando ultimately has a little bit of everything for everyone. One can escape into their favorite movies or cartoon and not worry about everything that exists on the outside world. Raglan Road offers its own version of Ireland encapsulated in a restaurant setting.
While I often am put off by “Irish” things or “Celtic” as they often have a tackiness to them, Raglan Road offered a happy blend of the things I love about folk culture in the British Isles.
The restaurant is well designed with touches of traditional architecture and creating a typical pub atmosphere. Even better, the restaurant is staffed by a fabulous group of people that make you feel welcomed and cared for the second you walk inside. Even when I called to adjust our reservation about three times, everyone was friendly and delighted to help. As a restaurant, the food was absolutely delicious, and my fish and chips were cooked to perfection, and the portion was massive, but reflective of a traditional chippy meal!
Raglan offers a great restaurant, but the main draw for people is the folk music, dance, singing, and overall fun that the restaurant is home to. Not only is the restaurant full of talented dancers, singers, and performers, they have taken the care to make the restaurant an immersive experience celebrating food and art!
My sister had a wonderful night, everyone gave her well wishes, we all enjoyed our food, and it was one of the best times out I have ever had. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by, and tap your foot to some great Irish tunes!
A big reason why we headed to Orlando in October 2020 was for my baby sister’s wedding. As it goes when friends and family fly in for a wedding, a week of wedding-related adventures must ensue. It was vital that this included a Bachelorette Party and we could not think of a better place to celebrate than the Cabana Bay Beach Resort!
While Cabana is considered an economical option in the Universal Resort hotels, and it is rated as a 3-star hotel, I truly felt that the accommodations and service compared to 4-star if not 5-star locations. The resort offers a family-friendly atmosphere while not compromising on design and a touch of luxury. With a 1950s/60s theme it’s a fun and nostalgic vacation spot offering a lot for travelers.
The resort is located right next to the parks, making it easy to walk from or bus from to the parks (including Volcano Bay). This makes accessing the parks an absolute delight and more comfortable than accommodations of the same caliber at Disney. Which I find a phenomenal perk to staying at Universal. For my group this meant we could go to the parks, have a meal at City Walk, change at the hotel, go back to City Walk, and back again as needed. Going out with a big group also meant that people could come and go as they pleased and a pool-side suite that comfortably slept six gave us ample space and comfort.
The suites offer two queen beds and a pull-out sofa bed. While the two queens share a space, the sofa bed is in a living area with a sliding door to close it off. This is especially nice for those needing more sleep (such as kids) and offering more privacy for a large group of people. The kitchenette, with a microwave and sink, also make time with kids a lot easier to manage and enjoy!
In addition to comfortable rooms, the hotel offers a large pool area, with a section of sand for a “beach feel” and some great dining options. While you won’t get much originality in food options, there is a lot of care to make things allergy-friendly, and it was all tasty.
If you are staying more than one night skip inside bars and glasses and head for the pool bar. There you can get a fantastic cocktail for around $15.00 (common drink price) which comes with a souvenir tumbler. This tumbler can be reused for drinks the ENTIRE time you visit and they cost $10.00 each versus $15.00. If you plan on returning, bring your tumbler from before and the discount still applies. I’m not much of a drinker, but the tumbler has proven to be a nice drink mug at home and to show off at work.
Do plan on some additional costs at the resort. Parking is $17.00 per day, per car (versus $20.00 in the regular lot). None of your food or drinks are included with the rate (unless you get a meal plan) and you have to buy tickets separately for the parks.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Cabana and I REALLY enjoyed the whole experience and my time there. While I may return with a bigger budget in the future, I am pretty sold on staying at Cabana for my future adventures.
I generally find souvenirs a bit on the hokey, at times worthless, side. That being said, I do like getting little things to commemorate my adventures and I know it means even more to kiddos when they get to see the world.
Universal has no end to shopping and items one can pick from, if anything they have too many options to choose from. From Potterhead “musts” to Marvel treats, the entire theme park offers something for everyone. I am definitely in camp Potter, while my family loved the variety of Marvel, pride, and comic books offered in the park. However, while our decisions are based on preferences and fandoms, there are a few things that make great momentos and memories, and you should make sure you budget for with your family trip.
Here is my short list:
A Wand – Harry Potter World offers the fantastic wand ceremony at Olivander’s and if you have young ones in your party, they will most likely hope to be chosen for the ceremony. If they are chosen for the ceremony, the wand that selects them is available for the low price of $55.00 each. While this does seem like a steep price for a fiber glass souvenir, do know that it interacts with the park and “unlocks” surprises throughout the Wizarding World. This means that trip one, or trip twenty is made all the most special. It also means, if your kiddo is chosen, a truly priceless memory is created with the Olivander’s experience AND you likely won’t have to do it again.
A Lanyard – The park sells lanyards everywhere, and while the price may seem steep, it does make for an easier trip. The lanyards they sell allow for holding ones ticket, making going in and out of the parks much easier. As Universal does not offer a virtual or “Magic Band” equivalent, having something on your neck makes for an easier day with less wallets and worrying about losing your ticket. An added bonus, the lanyard works when you go home for whatever use you may need.
Jurassic Park Shirt – This may be a personal preference, but I feel like everyone needs a Jurassic Park shirt. If you are a fan of the movie(s) then the shirt feels like a good purchase, however if you are going to ride the Jurassic Park River Adventure, you are likely to get sopping wet at the end, and a shirt just seems like a good rash purchase. My husband agrees this is a smart buy.
A Hoodie – Living in Colorado we practically live in hoodies for like 80% of the year *short summers and cold summer nights* buying a hoodie on vacation is a common souvenir and they WILL get used.
Sweets – While they mad get consumed in the park, sweets from different areas of the park bring a lot of fun to vacation. I adore the Harry Potter themed options in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and my husband and stepdaughter loved Toothsome and their glorious shakes. Oh – and don’t forget the butterbeer.
Patches – Last, but not least, I buy patches everywhere that I travel to and I sew them onto a jacket. It’s a cheap and small item that I can have as a reminder of my adventures. At Universal they have some great items in the Harry Potter world that are perfect for your own travel jacket.
In an Instaworthy land of food treats, it’s easy to get caught up on the trends and seek out the photo, not the FOOD. I am a terrible food-grammer (see my page for evidence) as I get so caught up in enjoying a meal or cupcake or snack that I forget the photo. Instead of showing off my Butterbeer, I guzzle it. Instead of treasuring my cupcake, I inhale it….you get the picture.
However, while Disney may win with new colors, bows, and ears on everything. Universal has its fair share of options for foodies seeking delicious and equally delightful treats.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
My absolute favorite in “Harry Potter World” is the Butterbeer. I love it, and the versions of cold, iced, or hot through the year are a must try. While Gluten-Free, the treat is not dairy free, but that does not stop me from having one or two!
I also happen to think the sweets and other goodies, all Potter themed, in this part of the park are worth a try! Don’t miss the Bertie Botts, Pumpkin Juice, and other gems that are sprinkled throughout. So far, nothing has disappointed. Even better, if you have food allergies, the staff at every location will work hard to make sure you have plenty of deliciousness to eat and enjoy. Read more here. Our meal at the Hogs Head was one of the best I have had in years (I maybe ate my weight in potatoes)!
Universal is full of dining options for all preferences. If you are trying to maximize fun time, and minimize other “wasted” time then opting for more “fast casual” food places are sure to please. We tried Mel’s Diner for burgers, shakes, and soda on our last trip and we were thoroughly delighted. Not only were the burgers (vegan Beyond Burgers too), fries, and drinks DELICIOUS, the restaurant was well staffed, quick, and made for an enjoyable time. This was true for our group of people aged 12 to 82!
If Mel’s isn’t your style, the park offers Krusty Burger for fans of the Simpsons and other locations with pub-style and American fare! The best part, more and more people are serving allergy-friendly and vegan options for those with different dietary needs!
If you are sick of the parks, or simply wanting to try something different, head to City Walk and try some more refined dining and drinks. The prices and options are similar to that of a downtown in a bigger city *think Denver or London* but the quality is a step above!
We dined at The Cowfish (I don’t get the name either), which offered exciting Asian fusion. This was perfect for us that enjoy sushi, and those that are more land-based eaters. I would give the food a 3.5 out of 5 and atmosphere a 4/5. This is a good option for those wanting a healthier dining option and something beyond regular theme park Americana Food.
My absolute favorite (in the park and not) for entertainment, food, and atmosphere is Toothsome. While almost imposing on the Universal skyline, Toothsome is a steampunked themed “Chocolate Restaurant” with everything you imagine that would include. The ambiance is full of vintage-style prints. The servers and other employees are all decked out in Steampunk garb and ALL of them are a 100% delight. Our server alone set the bar for servers to an entirely new level! Not only did he have the ENTIRE (very large) menu memorized, but he knew allergens in each dish and how to either modify the dish or direct someone elsewhere. He was so great we even had to take a picture with him!
Perhaps the biggest draw for the restaurant, and definitely something our group loved, were the giant and delicious sweets. Toothsome serves up crazy shakes with desserts topping them (brownies, pie, cookies) AND they have a chocolate shop inside. My stepdaughter opted for a crazy brownie shake, and I opted for candies to bring home to my work team. All around they were considered a roaring success.
Most importantly, Toothsome has a charm to it through all of these features combined. My husband had the “best Rubin of his life” but I just had one of the best dining experiences of my life. While my salad was above and beyond, my amazement was with our server (who we tipped 30%), and his skills to make our night magical. All of us left with giant grins, massive gratitude, and overwhelming joy. Which, ultimately, is what we all seek on vacation!
My advise – jump on that Toothsome train and love it!
It is so unbelievably hard traveling with food allergies. Living in the western United States with food allergies is Russian Roulette on where you go, with who, and how sick you might become. The biggest issue overall is that people don’t understand that allergies are serious, and that eating said food means hours, if not days, of discomfort and upset!
When I travel abroad I usually can find items without issue, it is taken pretty seriously in most establishments (if you can cross the language barrier). While in the United States, half the people you work with don’t care, or don’t understand. I am not picking on servers who are underpaid, overworked, and often undertrained, but rather a system that doesn’t always take it seriously. For instance, I have celiac, that means that if you make me a dish after someone else, you need to either use a CLEAN pan or CLEAN the pan to remove any residue from the last order. Sometimes the care is taken, sometimes it is not.
Therefore, when I went to Universal Studios this time around, I was really nervous about what I could eat and what would be offered. When I visited in 2015, I found it hard to find enough to eat that was worth the money and worth the sit-down meal time. Four years later I was worried I would be faced with similar issues. I even packed emergency food because I had no idea if I could eat all day.
My fears were actually overhyped. Completely overhyped. What I found on the food landscape at Universal in late 2019 was a complete overhaul of their menus, offering a vast and delicious variety of food for people like me. Not only am I celiac, but I don’t eat any meat but fish (pescatarian), and I try really hard to avoid dairy and soy. The true key to the success of their grab and go menus was the use of one magic little patty, the Beyond Burger. For those not in the know, the Beyond Burger is a protein packed veggie patty that is gluten, soy, and dairy free. It is also vegan, and the thing is really tasty when prepared right. Universal now offers this burger at most quick eat burger-type locations AND they offer a gluten-free bun.
This meant that I could go to Mel’s Drive-In with the rest of my group and eat a burger with everyone. To top it off they even had a gluten-free french fry fryer. This meant I could sit down in a burger joint and eat with my family. I almost cried with joy, I had not been able to do something like this EVER with my husband (we have been together 9 years) and stepdaughter. To top it off, it was soooooo tasty.
AND the better part is it wasn’t just Mel’s that worked hard to make our time great. We went to the Three Broomsticks for dinner that same night, and we ordered their Great Feast platter which is full of veggies, potatoes, and chicken. It feeds like four to six people. All of us but my husband and stepdaughter had allergies, so the chef came out and discussed our options. So wonderful was he that he made individual plates for my sister’s and I (the most common allergies) and made sure no one got sick. This was equally delicious, and we practically rolled everyone out of the pub after dinner we were all so full. This care and concern MADE the trip really magical.
Did I mention that Butterbeer is also GLUTEN FREE (not vegan/dairy free) and extremely tasty hot or frozen!
It didn’t stop there either, we ate at the cafeteria at Cabana Bay the nights we were there, and we had the same care and precision with our burgers there. We ate at Cowfish at City Walk and they were equally cautious and thorough. Then we ate at Toothsome, also at City Walk, and the gentleman there was so good that he had every menu item memorized and could tell us when we could and could not eat at the drop of a hat. He also did it without flinching, without checking with a chef, and without concerning anyone!
This meant many things, including that we all had a much easier and enjoyable time on vacation, and that we all left the restaurants without stomach aches, needing an Epi-pen, or days of discomfort. This precision made our vacation an elevated and magical experience, which I have only ever seen in the contained workings of a cruise ship kitchen.
This comes down to offering a variety of food at each location and well-trained EXPERT staff that do their job with love and dedication. Without the people that have the knowledge of ingredients, cooking, and allergies, none of this would work.
Therefore, I write this as a thank you to the fantastic employees of Universal Studios Orlando!
While the original Universal Studios is a fabulous trek down memory lane, Islands of Adventure offers a blast through additional fun and journeys. The second park opened in 1999, and is a bright and bold blend of 90s fun with futuristic excitement, the park is equally, if not more enjoyable than the main park.
A side note on Hagrid’s, this ride opened in 2019 and has been a runaway hit, clocking in wait times of 10+ hours on opening week. I was a little cautious about all the hype, but I have to say it was well worth our wait of 70 minutes or so! The build up to the ride was taken with immense care to create a well-crafted and detailed line ride that tells the stories of Hagrid and brings more of the Hogwarts grounds to life. Massive pumpkin, Hagrid’s hut, carved building ruins, paintings, and much more bring the story to life and build on the excitement. Harry Potter fans can’t miss this ride if even for the build up. Beyond that, the ride itself is a fantastic high speed roller coaster experience that stretches almost a mile long! The coaster seamlessly blends story and speed bursts, with some amazing surprises, to make a fabulous experience for all. I have never been on a ride I loved so very much and I can’t wait to return to Universal to ride again!
Beyond the rides, the area is home to fan favorite locations from the stories including the Three Broomsticks and Hogshead. Shops sell things like Pumpkin Juice, and a treat shop is sure to please any sugar rush. There is even a wand shop for those that missed Olivander’s or need to replace one they left on the train (I know this from personal experience….12 year olds).
As an additional charm they have ample outdoor seating and wonderful views of the castle made with a distorted perspective, allowing guests to REALLY feel engrossed in the Wizarding World.
My last tip is to check if they are doing any light shows or events for the season you are visiting. When we were there they had their Halloween Death Eaters Show and it was phenomenal to watch and enjoy. My stepdaughter even had a showdown with a Death Eater!
Now, if you must venture out of Hogsmead and Harry Potter world, the Islands of Adventure offers something for everyone! Exit by the castle and you can’t miss the Jurassic Park education zone, an exact replica from the 1993 movie! This family-friendly area brings to life moments from the movie’s work with DNA and eggs to create new-age dinos and it’s a blast for kiddos to get involved with. Even if they haven’t seen the movies.
Follow along that same path and you will see a raptor encounter, recently updated with Blue from the Jurassic World trilogy. A little further along you will see the River Adventure Ride that offers so much fun for kids of all ages (my 5-year-old cousin lovingly calls them water coasters). This log flume ride offers some thrills and nostalgia as it reflects the first movies in the series, and some animatronics that could use some love. Regardless, it is a lot of fun!
For thrill seekers, don’t miss the Kong ride they opened in early 2016 which celebrates the stories and thrills over King Kong. The ride is a bus simulated ride through the jungle, in 3-D, offering bumps and falls and much excitement for riders.
After Kong there are several options for fun, including toon land, and a superhero land. The Spiderman Ride is worth a spin, and my husband loved the Hulk Coaster! If you are a fan of 90s superhero cartoons and classic comic books, make sure you visit this area of the park. Rumors are around that the rights to the area may run out soon. Since Disney now owns all the Marvel characters, there is a good chance they will want to create their own Superhero world and they will need to get rid of the competition.
If you are traveling with little ones, exit Hogsmead by the Hogwarts Express and head along that route for some delightful theming and “islands” that are less intense for little adventurers. The Lost Continent is like a mysterious land of shops, shows, and a touch of Arabian Nights. Past that you will land in Suess Landing which is ultimately a “little kid land”. This area is purely delightful for Dr. Suess fans, and it is full of all your favorite characters, such as the Lorax, and Cat in the Hat. If you are a fan, simply walk through and enjoy a piece of your childhood in real life.
Both sides will loop you back to the front of the park, which exists onto Universal City Walk.
All around, if you are visiting the parks, visit both of them. If you have more than one day, go twice. You will want to ride certain things twice, buy things you forgot, and overall make sure you have time to take it all in.
A few years ago a co-worker informed me that you can swim with wild MANATEES in Florida! As you know, if you follow this blog, I adore animal encounters. Learning manatees are an option meant they went to the top of my list for my Florida vacation 2019.
Manatees are a native species to Florida, and are considered an important part of the ecosystem and culture of the state. Before Europeans arrived the animals were a valuable part to the winter diets of Native populations in the Southeast. Early European explorers to the Southern United States thought they were some type of mermaid, and myths and legends abounded about the “sea cows”. They also hunted some types into extinction.
By the 20th century the animals were threatened due to pollution, boats, and loss of habitat. In 2019 though, the numbers have greatly increased and they are now a vulnerable versus an endangered species. However, the biggest threat to these animals continues to be humans, and impending climate change.
You are so lucky because you live on the west coast of Florida, where there are lots and lots of manatees, … Most of the kids in the country don’t know about manatees and how wonderful they are.
My intrigue with manatees began when I was a little kid, an animal
lover, and I learned about the oddly majestic water mammals. I was extremely
concerned for their well-being regarding the damage boats were doing to them, and
I have followed their bounce back over the last 20 years or so. Thus, having
the chance to get dirty and go visit some of the critters was simply something
I could not pass up!
Researching the trip, I learned that some the best viewing areas for manatees is in Crystal River, Florida, about two hours west of Orlando. Located on the gulf coast, the area has the perfect blend of warm waters fed by underground aquifers that the manatees adore. The beasts like things to be 70°F +, and can die in temperatures below 68°F. When the gulf coast gets cold, especially in the winter months, the animals move inland to the naturally warm fresh water.
I ended up selecting the company, River Ventures, as they vocally expressed their concern and work to protect the gentle giants, and they came highly rated in Trip Advisor and other locations. We selected their group tour, flight and early at 7:15 a.m. and waited with anticipation for our adventure.
A youth manatee at Crystal River
At 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday in October my sister and I carb loaded, drank some tea and coffee and drove the pitch black highways of western Florida to Crystal River. We wore swimsuits under our clothes, and made sure we were well equipped with towels and equipment to make the most of a three hour adventure. As a severely nearsighted person I purchased snorkel goggles with adjusted lenses, and as a video nerd I bought a small 4k camera to film our adventure. These investments proved to be priceless!
The company started before our scheduled time and offered coffee, bathrooms, and friendly rescue dog snuggles (a total bonus). Everyone was enthusiastic to participate in the adventure and we chatted happily with other travelers. Before long we were sat in to watch an educational video, discuss wet suits, and change into said suits before a short bus ride took us to the canal boats we were to sail on.
It took a while to find some manatees in the canals, we were early for the season, but several manatees had come inland sensing a storm and cooling period on the horizon. The added bonus of sailing the canals for 40 minutes was that we could take in dozens of birds and the sunrise over the canals, offering a charming glimpse into the ecosystem of the area.
While the canals lay on ancient foundations fed by springs the area has been built up with houses and boating enthusiasts. However, with as many people as there are living in the area there was an active group participation in preservation and safety for the animals. Every few docks posted signs about manatees, people named their boats after the animals, and the tour companies that regularly operate in the area work together to tell people about manatee spotting, patterns they have seen, and other important details. This community spirit is vital in the preservation of the region and unique animals that inhabit the area.
Once we had found a good manatee for visiting, and by good manatee they mean one that is docile and experienced with people, we got our goggles and snorkels ready to go, climbed into the cool waters, and let the wet suits and pool noodles do their jobs to keep us afloat.
Slowly we approached the 40+ year old manatee that we were meant to visit. The big girl was affectionately known as “Red Hot Poker” due to the red algae she grows on her back during certain times of the year. “Red” was not only an elder member of the manatee community, but she was also very pregnant and due to give birth at any time.
I expected the manatees to be large, one can not truly understand their size until you come upon them in murky waters. My experience was one of slowly swimming to the rest of my group with “Red” and coming upon a massive grey beast lurking in the water. For scale, imagine how disconcerting it would be to swim upon a car hood in a small and shallow canal. Her tail fin was in fact the size of a car hood, and showed her decades of swimming, boat encounters, and life in the canals and gulf.
Swimming upon any animal besides a fish is a truly remarkable experience, to visit with such an ancient queen of Florida was truly breathtaking. The guides referred to these beasts as Buddhas due to their calm relationship with their surroundings. The animals simply float, eat, experience, and interact with their world in a second by second manner. They take in the movement and landscape with nerves on their body that sense people and object undetected by their small eyes and poor eyesight. So calm about their existence “Red” simply went about her business grazing on sea grass and coming up for air every few minutes, even with fifteen nosy tourists sticking their nose in her business. “Red” was so calm that she would rise up under myself and other swimmers to get a breath, here she would swim against my hands and was totally unmoved by them being there. Her sense knew I was there all along, but she didn’t care that I touched her in a friendly reminder or hello.
Our interaction with “Red” was nothing short of amazing, in the taking breath ones away and wanting to cry it’s so profound, way. I could not believe how peaceful she floated about her day, obviously aware we were curious, and aware that we meant her only peace and friendship. To be face to face with a wild animal that was so calm was a fascinating glimpse into a world beyond our own comprehension and reactions. No wonder early settlers and native cultures were equally intrigued by these majestic animals.
Our time with “Red” came to an end, but before heading back we stopped to view an aquifer, known as Jurassic Spring, that fed the canals with warm water. It was there that a youth manatee swam through our group on the run from a larger group of snorkelers. We called it a day, and followed the directions to return to our boat and back to the tour beginnings.
In support of the cause we bought our photos, some cute souvenirs, and with giant grins on our face we headed back to Orlando. Ending a truly magical morning in the fresh waters of Crystal River, Florida. With, as my husband calls them, sea potatoes.
Have you swam with manatees? What was your experience like?
Disney is notoriously expensive, and adding on souvenirs can make
everything that much more! My family isn’t particularly materialistic, but we
do like fun items to remember our adventures and that includes Disney. All of
us at my house have some favorite characters, and all of us have fandoms that
we collect from. So, the question when we were headed to Disney World was how
much should we budget and how can we save money?
When I visited Disney Springs in 2015, I was surprised at how
affordable a lot of options were for visitors. There were a lot of two for one
deals on stuffed animals, affordable bags, and other items that made the cost a
little more bearable. I also LOVED the pins and lanyards, and inevitably bought
about $100 worth of goodies for myself and to share with my stepdaughter.
Planning for our trip in 2019, I am surprised to hear that overall,
Disney has increased in price, and that hasn’t skipped souvenirs. From my
research on their online shop even, many items seem more expensive than they
did previously. Some of the sales are not as good etc. I think a few things
have happened with this, including a moving away from so many steep discounts
in retail, and general inflation on goods. Thus, being the budget-minded
traveler that I am, I have researched and found a few suggestions on getting
souvenirs, including visiting the Disney Outlet(s) in Orlando.
Naturally curious, I had to stop at one of these stores for my own take
on if it’s worth the time, or if it is a waste. Here is what I learned, bought
and decided overall.
plan on it being busy!
Start early if you can
By the time I arrived in the stores Th e shelved we’re looking kind of bare. I imagine this had to do with the time of year (big family holiday season from Europe and the USA). And that it was a Friday.
Make a list
In order to keep my spending in check I watched some current videos of locals on YouTube to see what might be available. This allowed me to know what to budget and what to plan to buy.
With the prices so much lower than the theme parks it’s easy to want to buy buy buy. However, before you know it you may have spent $100 and bought more than you planned. This is where the list of options/planned purchases are worth the time before you go.
Visit both Orlando locations
Often I have heard of people just visiting one location, and skipping the other. My advice is to take some extra time and do both. This is because one store may be out of an item, or may have better sizes left (I experienced this directly).
Just pay to park!
These outlet malls in Orlando have LIMITED parking. This can meat circling the lot for 30 min and still not getting anywhere. Instead, plan ahead and download the MYPARK app, set up your spot when you pull up. Pay your $3, and be on your way. Why eat into vacation for $3?
Plan on crowds and lines
The closest location to Disney (Vineland) was WAY busier, but it is a bigger store. This made it hard to shop and look around. I was literally bumping into people just trying to walk through the store. I would suggest to be courteous to others and your family, leave the kids elsewhere and just send in an adult to dodge and weave.
As a side note, the check out line was long and FAST moving! And the staff was Sooooooo nice and patient and kind. Gold ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
My preference was the International Drive location:
While parking was harder at this MASSIVE mall, this store was better. It was less busy, not as picked over, and the feeling was much nicer. Pricing was as good, selection was basically the same. If you only go to one, go to International Drive!
I can’t post specifics as some are presents for the upcoming holiday season. However, I did get some awesome (and expensive) shirts for about 75% off their original prices. I got my stepdaughter an ornament for our tree (an annual tradition). And I got myself a patch for my travel denim jacket (my thing).
If you have littles, there were MANY toys to choose from that would make great surprise souvenirs for before or after the park (leaving more money in your pocket.
Universal Studios offers a
lot of food options for visitors, but unfortunately they don’t offer the
variety of Disney. This is due to the size of the parks, the demographics of
the parks, and just pure logistics. While Disney operates on a much larger
scale, Universal is a fraction of the size, meaning it has a fraction of the
However, that being said,
they have a lot more options every year than they did before. If you are a
regular family, and you have no allergies, you will have a great time eating
every deep fried offering you can find. For instance, their Halloween
Horror Night menu looks completely amazing.
If you are a part of my
family, everything gets hard.
I have celiac disease (I eat
Free), which makes life interesting enough, but I also have allergies
(because of celiac) to dairy, soy, and I don’t eat any meat but fish and
seafood. I am an absolute pain in the ass – I admit it. So eating out is a
nuisance, and even bigger when you are visiting a theme park that was never meant
to cater to people like me.
If you are in my boots, I
suggest bringing something from home to eat through the day. While Universal
has a “no outside food” policy I have never had an issue if I explain I have a
lot of allergies and it’s safer if I bring something pre-packaged. If you can’t
bring something, go straight for table
service restaurants. The table service restaurants will have someone speak
to you about your needs and they will be able to make you something, or modify
something. A few years ago I had a very tasty risotto at Mythos
and had no issues.
While the parks have a few
dining options, the real gems are located at City
Walk, and they are very easy to access during your day. My sister is quite
partial to the experience at Toothsome.
Don’t worry you will be able to reenter the park after dining.
For you potterheads, the
Butter Beer IS Gluten Free!
Universal Studios offers a lot of food options for visitors, but make sure you read up in advance to make the most of your trip!
Start by reviewing what you want out of the vacation. Universal Orlando has two
separate theme parks (Islands
of Adventure and Universal
Studios) and a water park (Volcano Bay). The theme parks are manageable in
a day, depending on how old your kids are, and what all you want to ride. If
you are going to try for both theme parks, I suggest starting at open, and not
leaving until closing and only going on a weekday, not a weekend. If you have
little ones, just do a park a day, or those little feet may not quite make it.
Bay is the water park at Universal Orlando, and from all reviews, it is a great
park for a day visit. The park has most of the important water park features,
and has some fantastic tech to reduce ride waits, make reservations and more.
Having a nice water park is extremely helpful for HOT days in Orlando, and for
your mermaid/merman littles.
Hollywood is one theme park, and is theoretically comfortable to visit in
one day. However, if you want to get the most of the activities and fun, a second
day may be worth the extra cash.
Much like with Disney, I suggest you read over all of the rides and make sure that your kiddos are all tall enough to ride. Make sure your big people are comfortable, and make sure people are actually interested in such and such ride. For more information on rides that may be uncomfortable, click here and here. Also, for you tall folks, my husband (6’ 4”) had a miserable time on the Rip Ride Rocket as it literally smashed some sensitive areas (it wasn’t so bad that ice was needed, but bad enough that there was awkward walking the rest of the day).
For instance, we are traveling with my five-year-old cousin, but there is plenty she can ride at Universal that we can either split up to enjoy, or that we can use a kid swap option for.
If you are going with older kids and/or adults, talk about what the top priorities for the day are. For instance, we are taking my stepdaughter to Olivander’s and to avoid the crowds we are planning on doing that part of the park first thing. Then we can spend the morning in the busiest part of the park (Wizarding World) before the majority of crowds show up.
If your group has been there, done that, then head to other parts of the parks and skip it. There is no point in visiting a super crowded part of a theme park if no one actually wants to be there.
If you are planning trips in the near future (2020, 2021) you can expect even better options for families, and fanatics of a variety of fandoms. My number one suggestion is to pick your favorite characters or movies, and make an effort to experience interactions with them.
Universal is different in that many of their classic rides and activities go away when they lose popularity, so there are not as many popular “classics” as exist in Disney. That being said, Universal is little kid friendly, but really geared to older kids, in the 8+ range. It’s not that littles won’t have a great time, but some of the activities and events may just go over their heads.
Regardless, I do feel like it’s an easy place to have fun and escape from reality. Seeing their Diagon Alley in Orlando was truly a magical experience for me. I was practically skipping I was so excited. Meaning, if you just love fun, movies, and some whimsy, you are sure to enjoy the parks!