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 December 28, 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 over (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 Ben Franklin-plus 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 cost the money not one park, 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” pass holders.
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 the money. Over Christmas break, that more than doubled.
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.
Pin for later!
I’ll certainly visit Universal Orlando Resort again. But never, ever at Christmas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. The main thing is you guys enjoyed it!
We stayed at the Loews hotel which included 4 express passes during our entire stay
Thanks for the great info! We’re visiting tomorrow, the day after New Year’s… wish us luck! Thankfully, we have express passes!
i’m going to be in orlando for 10 days during christmas holidays, my boyfriend and i would like to visit the universal studios, and we were thinking to go on the 1st of january, so that maybe there would be less queues.
do you think there could actually be less queues on the 1 of january? or jst as muche people as the days of christmas?
People even complain about theme parks. What did you expect? At least at $100, your kid is staring at some drunk guy screaming bombs at you. You people will complain about fun ? Is that what I am hearing? Fun ? Complaining? Go have fun and stop the complaining, you are ON VACATION ..hahahahahahhahaha
I have season passes to universal. When my four kids were little we went to all the theme parks in orlando more times than i can count. What memories my kids have today as young adults of those trips. I love universal still today and will be visiting the day after xmas and staying 4 days. Guess who will be coming with me? My four adult kids who can’t wait to go. I thank god looking back i did not treat their chilhood/universal as a chore i was trying to put off.
I didn’t take their comments as complaints but merely a review which will help others more effectively plan their vacations. Back off!!!
We just went over Thanksgiving weekend and I was surprised by how empty the park was. Visiting on typical travel days definitely helps. But yes, the prices were ridiculous!
I’ve heard the theme parks are crazy during the holidays. It seems it’s hard to find any time these days when they are not crowded. Sorry you had to experience this!
I was thinking about taking my kids to Universal Studios for Christmas 2016. This will be the ONLY thing they get for Christmas — this and a book and other things they may need such as clothes. This review was quite informative and quite honest as it will help me prepare for our time there. My mother never took me as a child so this will be my first time as well. So as a family, I’m looking excited and willing to tough it out. I definitely plan on getting those express passes, but also visiting around the 22-23 instead of on Christmas Day. This may change, but that’s definitely the plan.
Thanks for your input! I’m glad I found your blog.
You will have a better trip and save money going during the slow season in Jan and Feb. Even if they miss a couple of days of school it is so worth it to wait We did Disney last year in May. Because it was a slower time the room and flights were less. Lines were shorter. In fact, with fastpass we walked right on to most rides. In Magic Kingdom we rode every ride we wanted. Used 10 fastpasses. The longest wait for a ride was 30 minutes. Only did that with one ride. My kids loved it It. Try to avoid the busy times if you can.
I am going on xmas eve for 10 days for the 1st time with my 2 teenagers aged 13 & 15.
Anyone any advice on how to structure & make the most out of our time there??
I, too am going for the first time with my two sons, aged 14 and 16. We bought 2 day park passes for Universal and received 2 days free….so 4 days at Universal. Any suggestions as to where to start?
I will be there from 24-28. We are planing to visit Christmas Day (Yikes). We are aware of the crowds so we plan to just do universal studios and spend the rest of our days doing other things around Orlando. This is my first trip with my 11 and 12 year old. We also bought the express passes which hopefully will make our time more enjoyable.