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.)
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 $109.99 per person. These passes allow you to skip to the front of the line (with other Express Pass holders), decreasing advertised wait time by at least half, if not more.
These Express Passes turned out to be a godsend, and they greatly enhanced our day, even though I actually bought the wrong %$#@^!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.
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.
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.