Does buying a Universal Vacation Package make sense? We crunch the numbers.
If you’re even a casual fan of the Harry Potter series, a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWHP) at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure is a must. Down to every detail, it delivers on the ambitious goal of making you feel like you have entered Harry’s world. And it’s one of the rare experiences that parents will enjoy just as much as the kids; a place where adults (my husband and I included) walk around with wands in hand as if it’s completely normal. But immersing yourself in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley doesn’t come cheap. Faced with a smorgasbord of choices, planning the perfect family vacation can be overwhelming. We had the opportunity experience the super-sized Universal Vacation Package. Here’s a look at what’s worth your money - and what’s not.
KidTripster Tip: Universal Orlando Resort features two separate theme parks located adjacent to one another - Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Each one has a separate Harry Potter world: the original, Hogsmeade, is located at Islands of Adventure, and Diagon Alley, which opened in 2014, is at Universal Studios Florida. The Hogwarts Express experience links the two parks, and you’ll have to spring for the pricier park-to-park ticket to ride it and visit both Harry Potter parks on the same day - which you’ll probably want to do even if you’re on a multi-day visit.
1/Early access for on-site guests
Universal entices you to stay at one of its on-site properties by including a huge perk for hotel guests: entrance into the WWHP an hour earlier than the general public. You don’t need to book a Universal Vacation Package like we did to receive this benefit; all on-site guests get it. Occasionally, during the busiest times of year, both Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) and Diagon Alley (Universal Studios Florida) open early. But usually just one of the Harry Potter parks is on the early schedule and, unlike at Disney World, it doesn’t rotate each day. During our three-day visit in February, Hogsmeade was the early riser all three days. Depending on the time of year, that early entrance is either 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. Either way, it makes all the difference. The extra hour allowed us to enjoy Hogsmeade and catch the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley in time to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (our favorite!) in plenty of time to beat the lines. We happened to hit the park at the perfect time of year for sparse crowds (at least by WWHP standards) and rarely waited in line longer than 15 to 20 minutes, compared to two to three hours on peak days. Even with lighter crowds, we found the early entrance perk alone to be worth staying at one of Universal’s hotels.
KidTripster Tip: To help you avoid crowds, check a crowd calendar that predicts crowd sizes in advance.
KidTripster Tip: You can take advantage of the early admission benefit on check-in and check-out days, so it’s possible to score two days of early admission with a one-night stay!
KidTripster Tip: Make sure you arrive at the theme park front gate at least 20 minutes in advance as the entrance will consistently open ten minutes early to give visitors enough time to walk to the WWHP at the back of the park for the official opening.
KidTripster Tip: There’s an alternative to staying at an on-site Universal hotel and still scoring early admission. If you book a Universal Vacation Package, which includes at least hotel and theme park tickets, at one of the 40+ Universal Orlando Partner Hotels, you can get in early. Just make sure that you double check to get the benefit when you book.
2/Cutting down line time
While Universal packages at all on-site hotels will get you into the WWHP early, not all of them include the perk that cuts down on wait times for rides. The Universal Express Unlimited Pass lets you skip the regular line at select attractions (think FastPass at Disney). The added benefit is thrown in for guests at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. It doesn’t apply if you choose to stay at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort or Cabana Bay Beach Resort. If you only plan to visit WWHP, it won’t matter as there are no express line options at the three top attractions – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios Florida and the Hogwarts Express train ride that takes you between the two parks. But we did take time out each day to hit some of the other rides at both parks – like Skull Island: Reign of Kong and the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster. Those were our two favorite rides outside of the WWHP and the Unlimited Express Pass saved us valuable time at both.
The Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is the property’s five-star option, followed closely by the Hard Rock Hotel. While we didn’t visit either, I was told that Portofino attracts honeymooners and older couples, while the Hard Rock is the hotel of choice for singles and young couples. Given that we didn’t plan to spend much time at the hotel (and we didn’t), we chose the slightly more affordable Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which was a perfect family fit.
If you decide the Universal Express Unlimited Pass isn’t important to you, KidTripster really likes Cabana Bay Beach Resort as a budget option. Read our review here.
KidTripster Tip: The express ticket add-on is an optional upgrade to your theme park ticket, so even if you stay off-site, you can choose to pay extra for this benefit. The cost at the gate ranges from $49.99 to $89.99, depending on whether you want the upgrade at just one or both parks and whether or not you want it to include skipping the line just once at each ride or unlimited. But remember that it doesn’t work at the three most popular WWHP rides.
3/Ditch the dining plan
So as to include as many costs in our package up front, we folded in the Quick Service Universal Dining Plan: one entree with a non-alcoholic beverage (at select locations), a snack, and another drink each day at a cost of $21.99 for adults and $13.99 for kids (9 and under). Universal’s advertising claims the plan will save you as much as 30%, but we found that it was basically a wash. The included entrée is good at the two most popular WWHP eateries – Three Broomsticks at Hogsmeade and The Leaky Cauldron at Diagon Alley. But if your family is like mine and prefers water (and maybe an adult beverage for Mom and Dad) over soft drinks with lunch, then the price doesn’t pencil out. Had we paid for our lunch, it would have been around $50 for three of us (two adults and one child), but that included nearly $10 in soft drinks that we only ordered because they were included in the meal deal. With snacks and extra drinks on all three of our meal cards, we ended up getting a handful of unnecessary bottled waters on our final day to make sure that we fully used our credits.
The upgraded Table Service Universal Dining Plan option appears to be even more of a bum deal. This full-service plan includes all the quick service benefits, plus one table service meal that includes an entrée, soft drink, and dessert. The price is $51.99 for adults and $17.99 for kids, but given that there’s no gratuity included and doesn’t apply to appetizers, salads or alcohol, this option wouldn’t have come close to penciling out for our family.
KidTripster Tip: The one can’t-miss treat at the WWHP is butterbeer; I highly recommend the frozen variety. If you’re on the dining plan option, it will count toward one of your snacks and not toward your extra drink.
3/Smile for your own camera
When it comes to the option of buying a My Universal Photos card, I highly recommend skipping it. We included the three-day photo pass in our Universal package for $89.99, which seemed like a good deal compared to the one-day price tag of $69.99. Here’s the issue: there are few, if any, Universal photographers to take your picture in the WWHP. We admittedly didn’t search for them, but I don’t recall seeing a single photographer inside either of the WWHP parks during our visit. The reason (I think) is because of Universal’s number one goal of making you feel like you’re in Harry Potter’s world, not visiting a theme park. Our server at a Universal restaurant on CityWalk enlightened us that employees are banned from wearing their work uniforms inside the Wizarding Worlds, specifically to preserve the integrity of the experience. The photo card does include pictures from rides, but that’s not a big deal on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts as pictures there are taken while you weave your way through the line. By the end of our three days, I think we had about ten pictures on our photo card, and all of our best shots from the WWHP were on our own camera phones. Even with an 8x10 and 5x7 print included in the photo package, it didn’t even come close to making financial sense for us.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure you don’t miss the best photo opportunity of all – capturing your family walking through the brick wall to get to Platform 9 ¾! It comes at King's Cross Station as you wind through the line to catch the train from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade. Near the end of the line, you’ll see a full-length mirror that captures the illusion of the person on the other side walking through the brick wall. You’ll have to let your family go just ahead of you in line to capture the photo, but it’s well worth it!
Katy Brown Troftgruben was bitten by the travel bug in college during a three-month journey around the world on the Semester at Sea program. The trip also inspired a 20-year career in broadcast journalism. She now seeks every opportunity to explore new territory with her husband and their 8-year-old daughter.