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Don’t Visit Universal Orlando Resort at Christmas

I’ve read the travel advice. Heck, I’ve written the travel advice: “Avoid Orlando theme parks over Christmas vacation.” Wildly popular parks like Universal Studios and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom are often crowded, but between Christmas and New Year’s, they’re packed like I’ve never seen an amusement park before – and never hope to see again.

On Saturday, December 28, 2013, we encountered lines even before we spotted one roller coaster at Universal Orlando Resort. When our group (my kids and I, plus my local friend Melissa and her teen daughter) pulled off I-4 we immediately came upon dozens and dozens cars backed up before the entrance to the parking lot. “I’ve never seen it like this before,” said Melissa. (To her credit, she, too, knew that the park was going to be packed; she and her family have Universal season passes, but holidays are blackout days. Orlando Universal Resort seems not to need locals visiting during this time, as they’d create even longer lines for out-of-town guests.)

Crowded and rainy - a winning combination at any theme park. (Not.)

Crowded and rainy – a winning combination at any theme park. (Not.)

Sure, we could have bagged the theme parks, but we were in Orlando on vacation! My kids like thrill rides; I like thrill rides. We decided to go for it – and my pocketbook is still crying out in pain.

Here’s why: We spent $128 (plus tax) per person for entrance into both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida theme parks. But the ride lines were ridiculously long. When we arrived around 10 a.m., the Incredible Hulk Coaster wait was 80 minutes and The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man was 120 minutes. If we were going to wait up to 2 hours in line to ride one 3- to 10-minute ride, we’d barely get to experience anything by the time we wanted to leave around 9 p.m.

So, I bought Express Passes for a ridiculous $109.99 per person. These passes allow you to skip to the front of the line (with other Express Pass holders), decreasing advertised wait time by at least half, if not more.

Express Passes shortened the wait time for Doctor Doom's Fearfall by

Express Passes shortened the wait time for Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall by 80 percent.

These Express Passes turned out to be a godsend, and they greatly enhanced our day, even though I actually bought the wrong %$#@^!passes: I thought I was buying the use-one-time-per-ride passes for both parks ($119.99) not one park ($109.99), but I didn’t. However, it worked out. My friend Melissa got a bunch of free one-time-use Express Passes as an apology after she had to stand in line for an hour at Guest Services to work out a problem with her daughter’s ticket – but that’s an entirely different story.

As I said, having those pricey Express Passes was key to the enjoyment of our day. Instead of waiting two hours for the Spidey ride, it took us no more than 20 minutes. The Hulk was only 25 minutes. Dr. Doom’s Free Fall stomach-lurching tower ride was 10 minutes, not 50 minutes for “regular” passholders.

I’d hate to say the Express Passes were worth it, but they did allow us to ride more rides. However, I do think we were gouged with the price at holiday time. During slower periods of time at the park, say, a weekday in mid-February, an Express Pass to two parks costs $45.99. Over Christmas break, that more than doubled to $119.99. I absolutely hated paying that kind of money for theme-park rides, but at the time, I saw it as the only answer to our having a good day at Universal.

And, overall, we did have a good day.

One unfortunate incident: Due to the vast number of people in the park, the bulk of whom wanted to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort was limiting access to the area. We wanted to visit the popular Harry Potter attraction at about 3 p.m., but it was at capacity. Instead, we had to pick up timed tickets that would allow us to enter Harry Potter between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

No problem, we could kill time riding other rides. Our kids (ages 11 and 13) had a ball getting wet on Jurassic Park River Adventure, Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. We figured we also had time to head over to adjacent Universal Studios Florida to check out the indoor Revenge of the Mummy and TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D before returning to Harry Potter.

A splashing good time on Ripsaw Falls.

A splashing good time on Ripsaw Falls.

It was about 7 p.m. when we got out of Revenge of the Mummy, and we decided we didn’t have time for TRANSFORMERS (though the line wait was minimal), before we had to get to Harry Potter by 7:30 p.m. So, we blew off that attraction and hustled back over to Islands of Adventure, with our timed tickets in hand.

And no one was checking the timed tickets. We waltzed right into the attraction.

This was highly disappointing. If we’d known staff wasn’t checking timed tickets for entry to Harry Potter, we absolutely would have taken the time to enjoy another ride in the other park.

Regardless, the kids enjoyed their Butterbeers in Hogsmeade, while this mama was overdue for a real beer after battling crowds and drizzle, and walking nearly 10 miles in the parks, according to my FitBit. We happily rode the Wizarding World’s Dragon Challenge twice, to experience the two different coasters.

Happy kids with frothy, frozen Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Happy kids with frothy, frozen Butterbeer at Hog’s Head pub in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

In all, our day at Universal Orlando Resort was fun. Despite gloomy weather and despite the pain of pulling out a credit card several times for maximum enjoyment. We laughed and screamed on thrill rides. We made memories with our Florida-based longtime friends.

I’ll certainly visit Universal Orlando Resort again. But never, ever at Christmas.

6 Responses to “Don’t Visit Universal Orlando Resort at Christmas”

  1. 1

    I just can’t stomach visiting, at any time of the year. I read too many stories that I just can’t stomach. Yes, our 7-year-old son is requesting a visit to the magical world of Orlando more and more (thanks little friends in the first grade), but I’m holding out as long as possible. Maybe I’ll go for one of those February visits. I had cousins down there the same time as you. I just can’t imagine these crowds.

  2. 2
    Mark says:

    We’ve never been at Christmas, only during the summer (May or June). Lines are long, but it doesn’t bother me cause I don’t ride anything. I’m the camera, cap, water bottle, bag, and anything else that you can’t take on the ride, holder. I still love that place though. We live in Mississippi and have been four times. Now that my kids are in their mid to late twenties, it’s not that much fun to them. I like it a lot better than Disney World or Busch Gardens at Tampa. They’re too spread out.

    • 2.1
      Mark in San Diego says:

      If you want a non-spread-out Disney experience, the original is the best – Disneyland Resort in California. Both parks (Disneyland [Magic Kingdom] and Disney California Adventure (DCA)) are compact marvels – open enough so that you don’t feel claustrophobic, but close enough that criss-crossing a park to get to a ride – or even hopping to the other park – is no big deal. (As an illustration, the entirety of Disneyland [Magic Kingdom] would fit comfortably into the World Showcase Lagoon in Epcot.) DCA also has rides (such as those in Cars Land) found nowhere else in the Disney empire.

  3. 3
    Mark says:

    If you can arrange it, September is a great time to go to Disney. We had season passes and met our Daughter, Son in Law and grandson there for our grandson’s birthday. No lines! Walked right on to many rides. Rode Space mountain twice in 30 minutes. It was great.

  4. 4
    Rod Austin says:

    Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. The main thing is you guys enjoyed it!

  5. 5
    Ray says:

    We stayed at the Loews hotel which included 4 express passes during our entire stay

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