Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Universal Orlando for the Walt Disney World fanatic

With the addition of the two Harry Potter sections at Universal Orlando, we have more and more client's heading over to see what Universal Orlando is all about.  Recently several of the DreamFinder Travel agents attended a multi-day agency training course to learn more about Universal Orlando and have some fun experiencing all they offer.  Today's blog post is written by DreamFinder Travel agent Kim Merrill, as she tells what it's like for a "Disney" fan to head to Universal for the first time.  It's a comparison between the two, and some tips and info.
Universal Crash Course for WDW addicts

            Last spring I was invited to participate in an agent education at Universal Parks and Resorts in Orlando. We had three days packed full of information and touring which left me wanting to come back for more!  A life-long Disney addict, I suddenly found myself wanting to cheat on “The Mouse” and head across town for something different!

            I found my opportunity to come back in August, and surprised my 13-year-old daughter with her first visit to Universal.  We were already on the East Coast visiting family, so a “small detour” wasn’t too hard to arrange.  The rest of this blog is intended to point out some of my observations as to the differences between Universal and WDW.

Arrival at the airport:  As there is no Magical Express for Universal, I arranged transfers to my resort thru Super Shuttle.  This can be bundled as part of a package, and I found it very easy to use.  They have an app, and I received frequent texts and instructions upon arrival on how to meet my driver.  While I did wait about 25 minutes outside, there were only 3 of us in the van and I was lucky enough to be the first dropped off.  Note that the on-site hotels charge a parking fee per night.  For me, it wasn’t worth renting a car and paying the parking fee. 

Hotel/Resort Key
Resorts:  Instead of more than 20 resorts, you have five resorts to choose from “on property” at Universal. The 3 original hotels are the iconic Hard Rock, the Italian-themed Portfino, and the very tropically themed Royal Pacific. The two newest resorts join them:  Sapphire Falls and Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  The above hotels are listed in decreasing order by price.  I opted to stay at Royal Pacific to get a mid-range feel but retaining one of the on-site perks of the original 3 hotels:  Unlimited Express Pass!! I opted for this as I was going in August.: While the locals had gone back to school, it was still summer and it was very hot.  I wanted to minimize the wait if I could.  That being said, on our last day we met up with local friends and toughed out the lines and found them to be mostly manageable.

Express Pass Machine
Express Pass versus Fastpass:  If you’re reading this, I’m betting you know the premise of Fastpass…pre-reserving 3 ride times per day to reduce your wait times on headliner attractions.  At Universal, Express Pass is an option.  It can either be added on top of your ticket media if you’re staying off-site or at one of the newer hotels, or, it’s included as part of your hotel perk (theme park admission still required).  There are variations of Express Pass, but the one I’m going to wax poetic about, it was linked to my hotel stay, not my ticket. You take your hotel key and insert it into a kiosk at the hotel and get an “express pass” with your picture on it good for the length of your stay.  I kept it in my lanyard so that my ticket was scan-able on one side and the Express pass visible on the other. With the exception of the Harry Potter Rides and the new Kong attraction, I was pretty much able to use the Express Pass for everything else. 

On-site Benefits: Where WDW has early and late Magic hours, Universal has early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  This was very useful, as we were able to repeat some rides and make our way so that the wait for Kong was not too long once the park opened.  In addition, there is boat transportation around the property making it easy to resort-hop for dining or for just looking at the hotel properties. 

 Property layout: Universal does not have the same luxury of having plenty of land that WDW does, but they have maximized the space that they do have.  Their version of Downtown Disney is called Citywalk.  Citywalk is literally a wide U-shaped area that is connected on either side by a park.  In between the two parks is the Hard Rock CafĂ© and the Blue Man Group.  While your step-counter will show you’ve walked all over, it literally is very compact.

Ticket options: As with WDW, there are multi-day ticket options available as well as a park-to-park option.  The more you play, the more you save. 

Dining plans:  While there is one at Universal, it’s not even a comparison.  Disney has more participating restaurants and wins this hands-down.  None of the resort hotels at Universal participate in the Dining plan. 

Club-level amenities:  Club level service is very similar at WDW and Universal.  It is available at the 3 original hotels, and I have utilized this at both Portofino and Royal Pacific.  It is key-card access at both and there are dedicated times for breakfast, snacks,  “appetizers”, and desserts.  My daughter and I were able to use the appetizers as our dinner.  If you have large eaters, this will not suffice, but we were good with the lighter fare.  I found the wine to be decent.

Park “theming”:  I was shocked at how good the theming was of all the attractions.  Universal does theming wonderfully, with the only downfall being that they don’t have the ability to transition you from one land to another like WDW does. 

Notes on handicapped/differently-abled access: WDW is the place to be if you have a mobility impairment.  A member of my party during my first visit used a walker, and while there is ADA compliance, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to accomplish.  I noticed a large difference in the number of wheelchairs, scooters, and even strollers in this park.  I would approach this very differently if you have a multi-generational/differing-ability family.

Departure:  I had a 7am flight and had Super Shuttle reserved for my departure as well.  It was mostly flawless, with the exception of them wanting to back up our departure time by texting me at something like 3:45 am.  Fortunately, I was randomly awake and it wasn’t an issue.

            Overall, we had a GREAT time.  This was a huge hit with my daughter.  I think she is at the perfect age to really go for the thrill rides.  This is not a one-day and done trip.  We had two full days and an evening, and that barely enough.  Next year, their new waterpark (Volcano Bay) will open and that will be a full day unto itself.   I highly recommend considering this during your next visit to Orlando!

 For more information on booking your Universal Orlando vacation, contact your DreamFinder Travel agent.  DreamFinder Travel