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Orlando, Florida in the Off-Season: The Best of Universal

We all love Disney World (and love going all the time!) but for this trip, I chose a different route in Orlando. Universal was something well-adored as a kid, but the serious rides and competition with Mickey-land didn’t draw me in until recently. Then, Universal did one of the smartest things ever – they embraced all the nerds who love the Harry Potter franchise and will do anything to be a part of it.

I’m kind of a psycho about all things Harry Potter. I read every book growing up alongside the characters and saw all the movies in the theater. I low-key show m y fandom in public, but will travel far and wide to see where they filmed scenes in the UK (like Oxford) and where exhibits are being hosted (like the Studio Tour just outside London).

When the opportunity came to tack on a day in Orlando while I was down in Florida visiting family, I almost lost my mind. This has been years in the making – and I was going to be able to visit Universal Orlando during the holidays too. Diagon Alley, Hogwarts and Hogsmeade (all Harry Potter places) would be doubly decked out with Christmas cheer. It took everything in my power not to mortify my husband and wear all my HP gear to the parks, but I tried to keep it classy. They’ll be more about this to come!

dr suess land universal orlando

Just as good though was the rest of the Universal parks. We spent a huge chunk of time in the Harry Potter areas, but still have plenty of room for riding all the rides and wandering around the other areas of the park. From super heroes to the Simpsons, Dr. Seuss and nostalgic movie rides from my childhood, we all had one of the best days of the year hanging out at Universal Studios.

Choose the Best Time to go to Orlando

My husband and I don’t have children, which makes visiting theme-parks and other kiddo-centric attractions ideal in the off-season. If we do expand our family someday of course our time won’t be as flexible, but for now there’s prime days with little crowds we can utilize. For instance, on this trip we chose the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend…and it was practically a ghost town. Even in the fake-snow covered Harry Potter parks. Winning.

fake snow hogsmeade orlando florida

Mid-January can also be a good time to go, as can springtime right before school lets out for the summer. Luckily, Orlando’s weather is mild most of the year so weather won’t affect the fun.

Stay On-Site at Universal

Even with the off-season luck of less crowds, it’s well worth making sure you use your day to its full potential.

This time we didn’t have the chance to check out the brand-new Volcano Bay, Universal’s newest wet-and-wild addition. But it’s location was right next to our super cozy and convenient hotel, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort.

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort Orlando Florida sun flare

It’s well worth staying at a hotel on property at Universal, which cuts down on commute time into the park and allow you to park at your accommodations. Loews Sapphire Falls has shuttles that come every 10-20 minutes throughout the day to other parks, but the fun way to get to Universal is the ferry. Along the man-made river that runs through City Walk is a complimentary boat that takes you to the gate of Universal Studios.

How to do Universal Orlando in One Day

A solid 12 hours is what we had to work with you get around both parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. They open at (9AM), but if you stay at one of the park properties, you can get in an hour early. Things starts to wind down around 9-10PM every night.

Have a good sleep and breakfast before you go so you’re ready for action. Or you know, do what I did and just get a giant-ass donut at the Simpsons park first thing in the morning.

From there, it’s worth following the signs to each section and just go with the flow of the pedestrians. You can start backward and head to the other side of the park which might help in the morning.

universal studios world globe enterance

Must-Dos in Universal

Universal Express™ Pass

If you’ve already bankrolled the flights, tickets, hotel on-site; skip a few souvenirs and invest in the Universal Express™ Pass. It’s the best thing we had all day. Every line was skipped with a quick scan of our tickets, which meant we could ride our favorites multiple times and get to see everything in one day. If you want to just do everything once, there’s options for that as well as multiple-park passes to skip those dreaded lines.

Heroes and Villains

Transformers, Spiderman and Hong Kong were the best of the 4-D rides that wow-ed us from start to finish (besides the Harry Potter rides of course). As for roller coasters, some enjoyed the Hulk inversions more, but I loved the Rip Ride Rocket for the tunes! These types of rides are spread out over the two parks, so it’s worth seeing both to not miss a thing.

spiderman ride universal studios

PS, a Cautionary Tale

Although the sun was shining in November, it still was a little cold in the shade and a bit windy. We saw a log flume ride up ahead and though why not, the ride had no line. BAD idea. We got completely soaked, had no dry clothes and had to shiver ourselves dry the rest of the afternoon. I laughed at the dumb people spending five bucks to dry inside of this contraption next to the ride, but after we went ourselves I bit my tongue.

Walk Down Memory Lane

Jurassic Park

Dinosaurs were my thing when I was in Kindergarten; I wanted to be a paleontologist! But when Jurassic Park came out, I quickly abandoned the idea after seeing gnashing teeth and people being eaten by these monsters. No thanks. The ride at Universal for me now as a 30-cough-something year-old is a great time. It’s part water ride, part 4-D screen ride and offers one giant drop into darkness while you try to evade the big T-Rex. We loved it, and grabbed a dinosaur-sized turkey leg for lunch at the nearby Jurassic Café.

E.T. Ride

This made my little nine-year-old heart swell. The E.T. ride has been around for at least 20 years, and is one of the only things left from my childhood visit to the park (besides a sad-looking Delorean car from Back to the Future shoved in a dark corner). I had low expectations as I was sure it’d be silly by now, but the animatronics and sheer attention to detail hold up through the test of time. It’s just plain, wholesome fun – dare I say, more fun than It’s a Small World at another classic theme-park nearby?

Simpsons

I don’t have as much of an affinity for the Simpsons – probably because it was banned from my house growing up. But I felt almost like a rebel going on their classic 4-D ride. That’s right, Mom and Dad, I’m an adult now! I can go on the Simpsons ride and you can kiss my butt!

the big pink universal studios simpsons

Other Orlando, Florida Highlights

On previous trips, I’ve loved a night out at City Walk to complete an Orlando experience. Unlike Epcot, City Walk is open to the public for tons of dining, entertainment and imbibing options. Enjoy some live music at the Bob Marley bar, then dance the night away at The Red Coconut Club.

A little gem on our way to the airport is worth mentioning. Now maybe I’ve just lived in London too long at this point, but the idea of BBQ was swimming in my mind and we were on the lookout for something quick and easy. Right off the highway is Dickey’s – a chain originally from Dallas that serves all the classics, including pulled pork and ribs. Personally, I lost my mind because they actually have a soft serve ice cream machine that’s unlimited and dangerous perfect with a pile of smoked meat. Take some to go, for free and enjoy a sweet treat before your flight.

dickey's orlando free soft serve

Have you been to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida? Did you go for the whole park experience or just for Harry Potter? Would you go again?

Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Twitter @Crooked_Flight

More posts by Eileen Cotter Wright

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