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Summer at Universal Studios (a Travelogue)

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

Earlier this week, one Oakville News reporter was given the chance to work on a dream assignment: to spend three days at the Universal Orlando resort in Florida for his "summer vacation" this year.

What follows below is his travelogue and look at what has become one of the best-selling tourist selling destinations in Halton region. We hope you enjoy this special report.

A Universal Appeal?

Universal Pictures is an incredible film production studio. But does how does that translate into a different entertainment businesses - like say, your summer vacation?

You might be surprised to learn that, of all U.S. tourist destinations, the ones growing faster than any other in popularity for Halton families are those owned by Universal Destinations & Experiences (UDE). That includes both their working movie studio lot and theme park in Hollywood, California and their vacation resort in Orlando, Florida.

Oakville News remains dedicated to covering critical local news here in town, in our region and province, so travel isn't a subject we'd normally cover here. Being able to write about travel in detail isn't normally feasible for an organization like ours.

But back in April this year, after we reported on the opening of the Jurassic World exhibition and attraction in Mississauga - still, by the way, selling out admissions four months after its opening - Oakville News was invited to visit the Orlando resort to see what other kinds of experiences the newly renamed company could offer families in their travels.

That's how this reporter ended up packing his bags for what was easily the most fun (and exhausting) news report of his life. Who is this resort best suited for? What can you see and do? Is it worth the cost? Most of all, what makes the place so special - and suddenly appealing - to thousands of Oakville and Halton locals?

Originally opened in 1990, the Universal Orlando resort has grown considerably in the last 30 years. The resort now features more than a dozen main points of interest:

  • Two theme parks: Universal Studios Florida and the acclaimed Islands of Adventure
  • A water theme park: Universal's Volcano Bay
  • Citywalk: an urban mall-like shopping, dining and entertainment complex
  • Several smaller attractions, including a spa, two miniature golf courses, two elaborate escape rooms, and a movie theatre
  • Eight themed hotels, offering benefits to guests like free in-resort transportation and early admission to the parks (the three most expensive even offer unlimited skip-the-line access on most rides!)

Our extensive visit was full of excitement, surprises, and a lot of really fun things to see and do. There were also some disappointments, and a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. Hopefully, this report can help you live your travel dreams vicariously and help you decide if this trip is right (or not) for you.

Strap in, and keep your hands, arms, feet, and legs inside the newspaper at all times. Here we go.

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News
The theme parks

The two main theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, are unquestionably the two biggest draws for guests to visit the resort. These are two world-class theme parks with some truly groundbreaking, jaw-dropping roller coasters, rides and live shows.

The Studios opened with the resort in June 1990, and Islands opened just a five minute walk away in 1999. With recent additions from movie franchises like Harry Potter, Jurassic World and Despicable Me, the resort's popularity has exploded over the last decade - annual attendance in the last ten years has increased at both parks by nearly 50%.

In the reopening after COVID-19 in 2020, it was the most visited theme park in the world. Last year in 2022, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida were respectively the 3rd and 5th most visited parks in North America, with Islands in the top 5 most-visited parks on Earth.

Some of the marquee attractions from both parks are truly (I promise I'm not exaggerating) among the best entertainment experiences this writer has ever had in his life.

The production value, sets, music, design and excitement from several of the rides are true $50-100 million blockbusters with interactive sets so enormous and realistic they were as impressive to all the adults around me as they were to the kids.

With such complex technology, however, the downside is these gigantic rides often break down - some multiple times per day. Over my two-day visit, it happened six times (six!) where we were in line for a ride that broke down while we were waiting to board. For a headliner theme park, that's a disappointing ride reliability.

Universal Studios has a greater focus on individual attractions and standalone properties from the catalogue of Universal movies, while Islands of Adventure is organized into seven themed areas, each focused on a group of characters.

The most impressive attraction at Universal Studios was the new Bourne Stuntacular live show - a technically impressive stunt show using real sets, an IMAX size LED screen, several live stunt performers and actors, and fast-paced choreography to put on a 25-minute show about the spy character Jason Bourne (originally played by Matt Damon.) Our whole audience was spellbound, including at least four "how did they DO that?!" moments.

Other favourites at the Studios were the just-scary-enough Revenge of the Mummy indoor roller coaster and two dark rides: Transformers 4D and Men in Black Alien Attack, each themed to their titular film franchises.

One criticism from this park is more than half of the attractions here are movie-screen based simulators, and four rides require 3D glasses. The intensity of the rides combined with so much 3D screen time meant we saw several guests begin to feel slightly nauseous or have a headache. (I myself had a small headache after my third ride - pace yourself by alternating activities so as not to do too many screen-rides in a row.)

Islands of Adventure, on the other hand, features many more rides for varying age groups and many with practical sets instead of digital ones.

In fact, of the 16 rides in this second park, only two use screens at all, and only one is 3D: the spectacular, unmissable Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man dark ride. It's been nearly 25 years since this ride opened, and somehow it's still among the most impressive designs of any theme park ride I've ever experienced, featuring drops, twists, lights, pyrotechnics, water effects, and sets the size of a skyscraper moving around you.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal
Hogwarts Castle at Universal's Islands of Adventure | T. Collins / Oakville News

The two biggest winners in Islands were the two thrill rides in the Wizarding World's Hogsmeade; two of the most elaborate rides ever concocted with unnecessarily long names to match: the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey track ride and Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure family roller coaster. We'll talk more about the Harry Potter attractions in greater detail later.

(For what it's worth, Forbidden Journey gets my vote not just as the best thing to see at the resort, but probably the best theme park ride in the world. The equally show-stopping queue features a tour through an exact replica of Hogwarts castle, including real magic tricks to see while you wait.)

Our least favourite rides were the too short and dull Fast and Furious Supercharged at the Studios and seeing the broken effects on Islands' Jurassic Park River Adventure. After loving the dinosaurs this past spring here locally, seeing more than half of this ride's animatronic dinosaurs not working properly (or working at all!) was extremely disappointing.

(Read more here: Spend a day with dinosaurs at Jurassic World)

The resort's newest ride is a moving arcade game themed to the Despicable Me series, called Villaincon: Minion Blast. It's located in the Studios' newly opened (like, last-week new) Minions Land. This is a great ride for kids with lots of colours and a fun premise of guests competing to become the next great bad guy.

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

One on hand, the rules of the video game on the ride were never explained by staff, so most riders didn't know what to do until the game was over. With dozens of players shooting at once, it was also often hard to find out which blaster belonged to you.

But on the other hand: once you learned the rules, the game and ride became more fun and addicting each time you went on. We went three times, and everyone agreed the ride only gets better each time you play. It's also an incredibly efficient loading system on the moving walkway, so the wait time was almost always short.

One final word about the theme parks: we experienced thunderstorms on all five calendar days of this trip. While all but two rides at the Studios are indoors, Islands is a terrible place to get stuck in a storm: 13 of 16 rides shut down if there's thunder anywhere near the resort. 

Universal Express

One of the signature features of both theme parks is a service called Universal Express. All modern theme parks now offer paid services for visitors to skip the anticipated long lines to go on rides, and Universal's is no different.

While Universal Express is the most expensive line-cutting pass offered by any North American theme park, it's also the easiest the use and among the most effective. There are two things about Express that are simply brilliant:

  1. The Universal Express pass can be used at over 95% of the rides and attractions at the resort. It's not just the big thrill rides: you can use it for kids rides, water rides, reserved show seating - you name it.
  2. You can use it any time you want. No reservations or pre-planning is required! Just walk up to whatever ride you want whenever you want, scan your pass, and go on. This freedom and flexibility felt incredible, and really made for a relaxing day.
Photo of the MEN IN BLACK attraction, showing the entrance to Universal Express service.
Photo of the MEN IN BLACK attraction, showing the entrance to Universal Express service.

Here's the downside: the price of this service is ludicrous. There are two versions you can buy: you can either skip the lines once per ride, or an unlimited number of times per ride.

The one-time-per-ride use pass starts at $90 USD per person per day, averages at $160-200 USD per person per day, and the maximum price is a whopping $350 USD per person on the busiest days. That's almost $500 Canadian dollars per person per day - and the unlimited passes cost an additional 15-40% premium.

But how does the system work? Does it really save you time? In our experience, yes and no. We spent one day at the parks without the service, and another day taking advantage. 

On some rides, like the Escape from Gringotts roller coaster and the Jurassic World themed Velocicoaster, we waltzed past an hour-long line with ease. This felt great, and we were on the ride within 10-15 minutes.

On other rides, the line system merging regular and Express guests was less efficient, and even with the Express pass our waits on the Dudley Do-Right Ripsaw Falls log flume and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem simulator were over half an hour. It was technically a shorter wait, but paying $200 per person to still wait in 30-40 minute lines is definitely not worth it.

(Side note: yes, they really have a log flume ride here themed to the Canadian mountie comic strip character Dudley Do-Right, full of references no guest under the age of 50 understood. But this ride was a lot of fun!)

On two rare examples, like riding the Hogwarts Express train, being in the Express line actually took longer than the normal line. This is because the line merges too far away from where the ride vehicles actually load, forcing the last 20 minutes of the queue on everyone equally. It's 50/50 guests from both the regular and Express lines who were admitted at a time.

Worst of all, we watched a group enter the normal line about 7-8 minutes after we got in the Express line. That family group actually got on the train before we did, meaning their overall wait time was 15 minutes shorter than the Express guests. With a service this expensive, that's an inexcusable inefficiency.

Should you buy Universal Express? Generally speaking, no. It works very well on most attractions, but the gigantic per person cost isn't worth it for a service that doesn't always work.

However, the three premier hotels offer an incredible perk: all guests staying at the Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and the Royal Pacific Resort gets unlimited Universal Express passes for everyone in the room for their entire stay.

While buying individual Universal Express passes is a bad idea, I would 100% recommend paying the premium cost to stay in one of the beautifully themed and extremely comfortable premier hotels to have the service. This is absolutely what I would do on my next vacation.

(For this trip, we stayed at the pleasant Universal's Endless Summer hotel. We don't have space in this story to talk about the resorts, but we had a great hotel stay and would definitely go back. Every visitor we met staying at any of the hotels seemed to give their resorts only positive feedback.)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I know we've already spent a lot of time talking about the rides, but I'd be remiss if we didn't briefly overview the two most incredible themed areas of both parks: The Wizarding World.

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

Themed to the phenomenon Harry Potter book series by J. K. Rowling and the hit movie franchise, there are two sections themed these magical characters - one in each park: Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios, while Hogsmeade is in Islands of Adventure.

Both lands are so meticulously themed, beautifully detailed, and immersive like no theme park land has ever attempted or matched before. These lands are incredible, and if you have even a faint admiration or affinity for Harry Potter you are legitimately going to be spellbound.

The two separate lands are connected by the all-ages, previously mentioned Hogwarts Express train ride that will transport guests between the two areas. It's a lot of fun to ride, and the themed show on board is different riding in each direction. (Just know that to ride, you'll need the upcharge "park-to-park" ticket to gain access.)

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

Throughout the lands are dazzling rides with magnificent special effects that really make the spell casting seem real. The engagement of the cast members really sell the illusions and the staff in the Wizarding World offer plenty of low-pressure encouragement to immerse yourself in the themed areas. It's a lot of fun.

Aside from the five rides across the two areas, we found several off-the-beaten path activities that were great fun.

  • Walking through recreations of shops from the books and movies
  • Sampling the delicious non-alcoholic "Butterbeer" from food shops and drink carts (it tastes like a caramel flavoured soda with marshmallow topping - sickly sweet but do delicious and refreshing)
  • Watching the terrific "Tales of Beedle the Bard" puppet show
  • Having breakfast at the Three Broomsticks pub
  • Attending a wand choosing ceremony in Ollivander's shop (complete with one true WOW moment)
  • Playing with interactive wands, available for purchase from wand shops

The only thing that didn't work quite right were the interactive wands - a beautiful souvenir to take home, and the wands can theoretically make special effects appear throughout the lands like a small, interactive game. The wands, before tax, cost $63 USD each.

Unfortunately, the effects didn't always work, and even when they do the technology of small cameras to look for guests using their wands in the correct areas were finnicky at best. Even after some "wand coaching" from staff, we struggled to make the game effects work, and they often took 7-10 tries before it worked correctly, spoiling the illusion and making it more frustrating than fun.

If you want a wand to take home, it's still visually stunning. But if you want a wand just to play the game, we don't recommend this - spend time on the rides, in the shops, and drinking more tasty Butterbeer. (Even if you don't want to buy a wand, do not skip the Ollivander's wand show - no purchase required.)

Millions of Harry Potter fans from around the world have made trip to Universal Orlando explicitly to visit the Wizarding World, and now having been myself I can see why. It's a thoroughly enjoyable area that's easily the highlight of the theme parks, and you can spend an entire day in just these two zones by themselves.

Volcano Bay: a "water theme park"

There's a third park at Universal Orlando resort, but while heavily themed, it's technically a water park first. Volcano Bay water theme park is just branding, what it really means is that it's a lavish and elaborately themed water park.

After spending a day here, not only was this the surprise highlight of the entire trip, but Volcano Bay turned out to be the best day of swimming and best day I've ever spent at any waterpark - period. (And this reporter knows water parks: we've covered local ones extensively in our news.)

Even if you skipped everything else on the resort, Volcano Bay is so good and so much fun it's worth making a day trip here alone.

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

Themed to Polynesia and the south pacific, the tropical tiki theme is executed in a bright, whimsical and nature-focused way. Palm trees and beautiful sculpting surround the themed water slides, all around the focal, 200-foot tall Krakatau volcano. (Yes, there are slides in the volcano.)

Design details were made not just to highlight theming but also to improve guest comfort. Too much sun? No problem - there are hundreds of beach umbrellas and shady nooks. Bare feet too hot? No problem - there's real sand beaches and mist sprays on the sidewalks to cool your feet down. Don't want to carry tubes up stairs? No problem! Elevators carry tubes for you on all the slides.

Best of all is TapuTapu, the complimentary digital wristwatch which lets you reserve your place in line for waterslides. So instead of standing in the hot sun for an hour to go on a 60 second ride, you can be off doing something fun - having lunch, being in the lazy river, swimming in the wave pool or just lounging around.

The designers of Volcano Bay streamlined everything to make it the most fun and relaxing day possible swimming around - it's beautifully themed, full of fun, unique waterslides, and the guest service details are impeccable.

Some of our favourite waterslides included the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, the Honu boomerang raft slide, and the Maku funnel slide (pictured in slideshow below.) We also loved the not-so-lazy river full of swimming rapids, TeAwa the Fearless River. We went for three laps in a row!

For the bravest riders, the Ko'okiri Body Plunge is a dropping speed slide that shoots you like a rocket from the top of the 200-foot volcano back to the ground in about ten seconds. It's scary fun and the ultimate thrill, but be warned it's a marathon climbing the 211 steps to the top of the volcano. (The park claims it's 209 steps, but I counted twice - it's a brutal 211.)

I was actively looking for something wrong at Volcano Bay water park, and I only managed to find two: the first is the ID requirement to buy some drinks throughout the park. They have a signature beer called Volcano Blossom, but it was difficult to try it because I was asked for an ID...which was in a locker on the other side of the water park. You can't have your wallet while swimming. A suggestion: maybe upload an age verification to the admission ticket or TapuTapu?

Second, and this was the only real blunder, was the fact that no towels are provided for hotel guests to use. Locals can bring towels from home, but hotel guests don't travel with their own towels normally. We were prohibited from bringing towels from the hotel, and were charged $7 per towel, per person, per use all day.

That's highway robbery, and a slimy move from Universal. That was inexcusably bad service. If not made available to all guests, at least make towels available for people paying extra money to stay at the resort hotels.

Towels aside, our day at Volcano Bay was otherwise flawless. It was an outstanding summer day, and I'd wholeheartedly recommend the water theme park to all guests of all ages - it was the best part of this assignment.

Theme Dining reigns supreme

One of the most pleasantly surprising parts of the trip was eating many of the themed foods around the resort. Not only was the food themed to several film franchises and looked fun and tasty - but the food itself was fun and tasty.

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

The ingredient quality was fresh, there were lots of choices, the playfulness made it feel special, the dining rooms were comfy and well-themed, and while it was expensive because of our international currency exchange rate, the USD prices were reasonable and portion sizes ample.

In other words, the food wasn't just good. It was great.

Theme parks are not normally known for high quality food, but the quick-service food outlets in the theme parks were all surprisingly good. The newly opened Minions Land at the Studios park features the delicious, silly and playful Minions Cafe. I sampled eight menu items and they all ranged from good to fantastic. All of it was cleverly themed to the Despicable Me films and we even got sat at a table that doubled as Minions themed foosball! How cool is that?!

The porchetta sandwich and calzone were the highlights, as was the PX-40 berry punch (that made my tongue very purple.) I was pleasantly shocked that the Despicable Me themed food was somehow more enjoyable than the movies the café is based on.

Other favourites around the resort are listed below here, all of which I'd recommend:

  • Simpsons-themed Springfield Fast Food at Universal Studios (get the chicken waffle sandwich!)
  • Harry Potter themed pub cuisine at the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron
  • Butterbeer ice cream at Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour
  • Jurassic Park themed BBQ at Thunder Falls Terrace
  • And of course, Minions Cafe (get the Minions Swiss roll dessert!)

While well-themed, the only places I'd suggest skipping are the Fantastic Four themed Cafe 4 and the Dr. Seuss themed Green Eggs and Ham Cafe.

Is Universal Orlando Resort right for you?
T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

With the onslaught of information, photos, facts, favourites and gripes now finished, what does this amount to? Overall, I had a lot of fun on my summer vacation this week - even if it involved hours of note taking, researching, photographing, and reporting. It was work, but it was still exhilarating and I'd do it again without question.

It's clear that the surging demand for the theme park resort among Halton families is more than just wanting to visit Florida's warmer weather (that's a benefit to all of us cold Canadians jealous of the sunshine.) 

Basically, Halton guests want the high-calibre production value to engage with movie characters they know and love. In that respect, Universal Orlando resort is hit-and-miss delivering that experience depending on the rides, but I'll say this: for every lackluster simulator ride, there are three or four showstoppers that together make up the single best collection of thrill rides in the world.

Spontaneity flowed easily throughout the trip and it felt great: we did very little advance planning before arriving and other than ride closures (and annoying breakdowns) we got to see and do everything we wanted to.

This leaves one last question: should you go?

For most people, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have older grade school children or teenagers in your family, this is a must-visit destination. If you love movies, specifically Universal's impressive roster of franchises and movie history, then film buffs (like myself) will have an outstanding time.

Regardless of age, if you like theme parks, these places are great. If you like water parks, Volcano Bay is unmatched anywhere else.

But if you prefer slower, gentler attractions, are seniors with less stamina to do 12-15km of daily walking in hot, summer heat, or you're travelling with young children age 6 and under, there's significantly less in the entertainment line up tailored to you. While I genuinely loved the Seuss Landing zone with kids rides themed to Dr. Seuss (I went on them all and loved them!) it's not enough to justify a trip for young kids.

And all of this still isn't even half of all the offerings at the resort. There are seven hotels I didn't stay in, attractions I didn't see, and popular seasonal events like Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights we don't have time to get into.

To top it all off, the resort is currently building a third full scale theme park nearby. Called Epic Universe, it's set to open in early 2025 and (among other attractions) is rumoured to feature a recreation of the popular Super Nintendo World featuring the Mario characters, first seen at resorts in Japan and California.

I'd love to come back in two years to see the new park when it's finished. For now, I really enjoyed my trip to the Orlando resort, and I have a much stronger understanding of, why at least for us Halton locals, it has its universal appeal.

Oakville News reporter Tyler Collins, on vacation
Oakville News reporter Tyler Collins, on vacation

Editor's note: While a complimentary admission pass was provided for this story from Universal Destinations and Experiences, this article and its contents are not sponsored or edited by the Universal Orlando resort. All other affiliated costs for this story were incurred and personally spent by the author.

All photos in this story were taken by the author.