A broken foot one year and an unexpected turn of events the next, led us to cancel a booked trip to Universal Orlando two years running.
It was third time lucky for our family and for Julie at Abbotts Travel, who had helped us change all our previous plans - one to a Caribbean cruise, but that’s a completely different story.
Thank goodness this year the Abbotts Travel team had us covered when our Thomas Cook flights were no more and Norwegian Air finally delivered us to Florida during a barmy October heatwave.
On Abbotts Travel advice we stayed on site at The Lowes Pacific Resort. It is a really pleasant hotel with good facilities including an outdoor swimming pool, gym, bars and restaurants. Of course the biggest advantage to staying on site is it offers invaluable early access and fast pass facilities in the three parks – Universal Orlando Resort, Universal’s Island of Adventure and the fantastic water park Universal Volcano Bay.
Something noteworthy is the early opening Starbucks in the hotel, offering a speedy and more cost effective alternative to hotel breakfast dining - effectively a ‘grab and go breakfast’ en route to the parks.
The three parks provided a completely different experience for each of us. The two boys, aged 14 and 11, are the perfect age for a trip to Universal, old enough to remember it all and tall enough to ride everything.
The eldest, and the biggest thrill seeker among us, loved the fast paced rides like The Hulk, Rip Ride Rocket and The Mummy. He also had a fantastic time at Halloween Horror Night. Beware though, it’s as scary as they say and not for the faint-hearted. Mum retired after a short while to Finnegan’s Irish Bar to escape the zombies and nurse a glass of wine.
The youngest had a fantastic time on the interactive 3D rides - Harry Potter, Spiderman, Minions, Transformers and Simpsons, to name just a few. We all loved the detail and magic of the Harry Potter experiences including the interactive 3D ride, 3D roller coaster, the true to life Diagon Alley and riding on The Hogwarts Express.
There were a number of things that struck us elders about Universal. Despite it being a theme park, it was a very calm place. From the water taxi ride into the parks, to the friendliness of the staff and the unhassled queues and ease of buying food and drink. As a non-roller-coaster-rider with a dodgy back, my mum couldn’t believe how many of the fantastic 3D experience rides she was able to go on and didn’t spend the whole time as designated bag holder.
Due to our fast passes, we never queued for more than 30 minutes. During our stay, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure was the only ride that did not accept the fast pass, but early access ensured we didn’t queue for any longer than 30 minutes for the ride and 30 minutes to access the park. Throughout the day queues for this ride reached 150 minutes.
Two of our days were spent at Universal Volcano Bay, which is the new waterpark. It offers everything for the family, from thrill seeking drops to the winding lazy river and early access bagged us sun loungers and an umbrella, vital during that particular heatwave. We did not have fast passes for this park but again we didn’t queue for very long.
City Walk is a great place to eat and socialise, there are lots of restaurants and fast food options to choose from. It’s worth noting that although all food outlets serve bottled water (including the stalls), if you ask, they are more than happy to provide cold water from the tap at no charge (we found the water fountains were luke warm).
On advice we booked a number of restaurants in advance so we had the option to cancel on the day as it can be difficult to get a booking at the last minute. Some were within the parks but the majority were on City Walk. Most were as expensive or more expensive than London prices but we expected this. Food wasn’t fabulous but there were enough options to please all of us.
We also left the site a few times, with Lyft and Uber operating from the hotel at a cheap rate. Mum went off to the supermarket to stock up on fruit, snacks and water (and wine). Through Stubhub we scored tickets to go and see an Orlando Magic basketball game – a must for all sports fans. We also went to Orlando’s Top Golf, just ten minutes away, and had fun comparing it to our very own Chigwell branch (if you’re interested, it’s one row higher and has better drive and scoring technology).
After a week of early mornings, late nights and untold adventures we took ourselves off by hire car to the Gulf of Mexico’s Madeira Beach, to spend the rest of our holiday relaxing. Madeira Beach is just two hours drive west of Orlando and lies between the busier resorts of Clearwater and St Petersburg.
Our apartment was in a quiet area of condos, a fabulous location right on the pristine white sanded beach. Each evening we walked a mile along the beach, watching the most incredible sunsets, to the truly funky area of John’s Pass. John’s Pass is a lively seafront clutter of brightly painted shops and mainly seafood restaurants with a real Caribbean vibe.
A day deep sea fishing was as hectic as this week got. The trip culminated in trick or treating on Halloween where a large local residential area provided the sort of American Halloween you see on TV and envy.
Would we recommend this holiday? Absolutely, we couldn’t fault it. It really is a once in a lifetime experience especially when your kids are the right age.