3 kids, 2 parks, 1 day: A guide to a family trip to Universal Orlando

A look at what worked out, what didn't

By Matt Morawski - Executive Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - "He Who Must Not Be Named." "Blue the Raptor." "The Daily Bugle." If you have children in your life, you know these things are more than just fictional fun. 

For my family, to find a place that has Harry Potter, Jurassic Park and superheroes all within walking distance of each other was a total jackpot. 

Last summer, we made a deal with our 9-year-old daughter Addy: read all the Harry Potter books and we'd take her to "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at Universal Studios. That was great motivation. She knocked out all eight books in the series, then went on to read the "Cursed Child" screen play and both" Fantastic Beasts" books. So - she earned this trip.

As promised, over spring break, my wife and I packed up our three children (ages 3, 6 and 9) and headed to Orlando to escape the Michigan cold.

We did some planning before heading to Universal Studios and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, but ultimately had three goals in mind: experience Harry Potter world, meet a dinosaur and get pictures with some superheroes. I'd give us a B+ -- and here's why:

Super Heroes/Characters

Our kids LOVE meeting characters and taking pictures with them. 

As we entered the first park, we met Optimus Prime without having to wait. Our kids watch the "Transformers: Rescue Bots" series, so this was big for them. 

We knew getting to the Harry Potter section early was important, so we sidelined the characters for a bit. This is where we went wrong. We spent around six hours in the Harry Potter section before venturing off to check out other parts of the park (we easily could have spent all day in the Harry Potter area  -- more on that in a bit).

Little did we know, most of the character appearences happen earlier in the day. That means we missed the super hero parade on Marvel Super Hero Island and didn't see any of the characters as we walked through other sections of the park.

If we timed it right, we could have met Bumblebee, Megatron, Minions, the Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, Shrek, Curious George, Scooby-Doo and more. 

I will say - the character greetings we did get to experience were pretty great. When we made it to Marvel Super Hero Island (on Islands of Adventure), there was a very limited wait to meet Spiderman. He talks to the guests and was actually really funny. He took time to chat with our kids, take pictures and even remembered our youngest son, Jack, when he went to meet him a second time.

The store takes their pictures in front of a "green screen" so you'd have to purchase the pictures if you want a realistic background. But, we were still able to snap photos with Spiderman on our phone.

One bummer is there was no Hulk character greeting. We took a picture by the Hulk roller coaster instead.

By FAR the coolest character greeting we've ever experienced in our visits to any theme park was getting to meet Blue the Velociraptor in the Jurassic Park area of Universal's Islands of Adventure. The "dinosaur trainer" was SO into it. “Kash with a K” acted as if we were getting to meet a very real and very dangerous animal. It really added to the experience.

When it was our turn with Blue, the staff was great about taking pictures and video for us...and the trainer "protected us" as the dinosaur moved closer.  He was also mindful that we had a 3-year-old with us who adores dinosaurs, so he didn't make it a scary experience like he was doing for some of the other guests.  

We waited about 30 minutes to meet Blue - but it was totally worth it. If you and/or your kids like dinosaurs, this is a must-do. 

Bottom-line here: if meeting characters is a high priority, do it earlier in the day and ask a staff member about times they'll be appearing. You'll have little to no wait to meet most of the characters. 

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

This is the real reason why we decided to visit Universal in the first place. Our expectations were very high, and I must say, Universal MORE than delivered.

The attraction is divided between the two parks: Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.  Diagon Alley is within Universal Studios. Hogsmeade is within Islands of Adventure. That means you need to buy the two-park pass to visit both parts of this attraction. An added bonus - you get to ride the Hogwarts Express with that park-to-park ticket. 

Really, if you're visiting Universal for the Harry Potter attraction, you shouldn't do it without the park-to-park ticket.  The single park ticket is $115 for adults and $110 for kids.

That lets you only visit either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure. The park-to-park ticket is $170 for adults and $165 for kids. With the single park ticket, you cannot ride the Hogwarts Express and will only get to visit one part of the attraction. 

If both parks are not an option for you because of cost, I'd personally recommend doing Hogsmeade within Islands of Adventure. All three of my kids really enjoyed this side. This is where you'll get to check out some essential sights for Harry Potter fans. Hogwarts Castle most importantly.

You can also pick up a wand (including the interactive wands - more to come on that), drink Butterbeer (frozen, draft or as ice cream) get some of your favorite sweets including Chocolate Frogs, Fizzing Whizbees and more at Honeydukes.  

Our 3-year-old son loved the candy quill lollipop -- until he dropped it.  At $6.99 a quill, we felt his pain, too!

Hogsmeade has two rides currently: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff.  Our older two children were big enough to ride both. Our youngest couldn't ride either, but he didn't seem to mind. There's SO much to just look at even when you’re just waiting in line.

The Flight of the Hippogriff is a one-minute roller coaster that takes you through Hagrid's pumpkin patch. It's actually an excellent first coaster for kids if they've never been on one. I love the intense roller coasters and this one still had me laughing and having fun. It really is a ride that's fun for families.

The other ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was our favorite in all of Universal.

This one takes you through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as you wait in line including Dumbledore's office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, the Room of Requirement, and more (big bonus for visitors because the line can sometimes top a one-hour wait). 

The ride itself takes you above the castle grounds, following Harry Potter and his crew. It's a mix of virtual reality / 3D, 4D (water squirts and air blown on you) and animatronics (but you don't have to wear those silly, uncomfortable glasses). We were all screaming and laughing along the way.  I wouldn't recommend this ride for little ones, but my 6-year-old loved it.  

The good thing about all of the intense rides at the park is the "child swap" areas.  Here’s how it works - our whole family went through the line together,   Just before you get on the ride, my wife and our 3-year-old stepped out and were able to wait in an air conditioned, themed area while I rode the ride with our bigger kids.

Then, we swapped.  My wife got to get on the ride immediately, and (BIG BONUS) the older two kids got to ride AGAIN with her, without waiting in line. 

In June, Hogsmeade will offer a third ride - a roller coaster called Hagrid's Motorbike Adventure. So, another reason to pick Hogsmeade if it's your only park you plan to visit. Read more about that ride here.

We decided to grab lunch in Hogsmeade at the Three Broomsticks Tavern.

To get in, we had to wait about 30 minutes. Then, you order from a counter and pick up your food and wait in another line to be seated. It was cafeteria-style dining. It had a ton of potential to be a unique dining experience, but we all felt a little rushed.

The food was great. I had the Shepherd's Pie with Garden Salad ($14.49). It was delicious.

My wife and daughter had the fish and chips ($15.99), and they both really liked it. If you're looking for a lighter lunch, this is a dish you could definitely split, have a Butterbeer and be satisfied. Our boys, of course, had the kids' mac and cheese ($6.99).

It came with grapes and applesauce. It was pretty standard mac and cheese, but our kids ate it, so, that was a win. The restaurant had several other options including beef pasties, spare ribs, chicken and non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks.

We got draft Butterbeer ($6.99) and frozen Butterbeer ($6.99). I loved the draft. It's creamy with marshmallow froth and smooth like a cream soda. My wife and kids preferred the frozen. It had the same topping, but more of a Slurpee consistency. 

We took our Butterbeers back on to the streets of Hogsmeade and headed towards the train station to ride the Hogwarts Express.

The Hogwarts Express isn't your typical train ride. The station is beautiful and looks like something ripped from the book/movies.

Again, this is something you can only ride if you have the park-to-park pass...and it's something you should do twice. You get the chance to ride between the London King's Cross Station Platform 9¾ and Hogsmeade Station.

The ride is different each way. Without giving away too much of the magic, it looks like you're actually traveling the route. What I found most fascinating was the door of the coach where you're sitting. Harry, Ron and the gang walk by and you can hear their whispers, see their silhouettes and see other unique special effects. It's something you need to experience.

All of our kids enjoyed this. It does get a little dark at points which made my youngest a little antsy. But it passes quickly. Add a chocolate frog or candy quill to your ride and they'll be distracted from the (briefly) scary parts. It's a great way to rest your legs and have a memorable ride. This was one of my personal favorite parts.

Definitely not your typical train ride.

Once in Diagon Alley, there are a few must-dos.

Topping that list is a visit to Olivander's Wand Shop. Don't be discouraged by the line to get inside. It's worth it. You probably won't wait long (we waited about 10 minutes). Once inside, a witch puts on a show about wand selection. A person is picked from the crowd and gets to test out various wands.

They try out tricks and spells with the wands. The whole thing lasts a few minutes, and then you get to walk into the shop to pick out your own wand. All three of our kids were entertained by this show. Once inside the shop, don't be surprised if it's very crowded. But there's zero concern for supplies. There are hundreds of wands with a wide variety to choose from. 

They have your favorite characters' wands and many other options if you want to select something that better represents you. There are "interactive wands" ($52) and standard wands ($46). It's worth the few extra bucks to get the interactive ones.

You can use them at various parts of the Wizarding World to “cast spells” that make displays move, water fall and more. The interactive wands come with a map to show you where you can use them.

We found the map a little hard to navigate, but we're not great with maps. Just look for people waving their wands around and you'll find the spots (also marked in the ground). 

Our older two got the interactive wands. Our youngest is only 3, so we got him a standard one. He didn't know the difference anyways. Our daughter did not get a character wand, but the boys did.  Our six-year-old chose the wand of "He Who Must Not Be Named."  

Our youngest got a Death Eater wand. Check out all the options here

After the wand shop, be sure to check out the Magical Menagerie, aka the “pet shop.”   You’ll find stuffed animal versions of all of the fabulous creatures including Buckbeak, Crookshanks, and of course, Hedwig.  

It was a huge hit with our kids, and really who doesn’t need more stuffed animals?  (Yes, I’m kidding, but it was still really fun.)   

There's only one ride on this side of the park: Escape from Gringotts. You'll probably see it -- hear it -- or even feel it when you walk into Diagon Alley. Perched on top of Gringotts bank is a giant, loud, fire-breathing dragon from the Deathly Hollows.

You'll want to snap a picture showing the dragon breathing fire. This can be a little tricky. The key here is to wait for the growl.

Once you hear that, get set - fire is coming. The fire alone was a big thrill for our kids.

Fun fact: the fire blasting out of the dragon's mouth reaches temperatures of 3,560°F, according to Universal Studios.

So, you'll feel the heat when it happens. 

The ride itself, Escape from Gringotts is good for older kids.  Our 3-year-old sat this one out, but we did the “child swap” again here.  When you enter, you walk through the bank, which is amazingly decorated - complete with the goblin bank tellers. Once you make it through the bank, you board a giant elevator. It was a "mini-ride" in itself.

The elevator takes you to the bowels of the bank. It rumbles, lights flicker and really feels like you're riding an elevator down a very long way.  The ride is a 4D experience, and you'll have to wear those silly glasses. It's fast-paced, fun, a little frightening at times and dark. It was our second favorite ride. 

If you're into the Dark Arts, there is an area tucked away in Diagon Alley where you can shop for Dark Arts gear. Head to the bathroom area and you'll see it. If your little ones don't like the dark, you can skip it, but, it's not that scary.

It's a quick walk-through and worth checking out for true fans.

For dining options, you've got the quick service spots to grab Butterbeer, Pumpkin Juice and more. The only sit-down restaurant is the Leaky Cauldron (made famous in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). We decided to skip this spot. The menu, in our opinion, is a little too similar to the Three Broomsticks. 

The one thing we think is missing from the Wizarding World is character experiences. You can see Hogwarts students walking to and from the castle.

They have performances with the singing frogs and you can take a picture with the train conductor or Knight Bus driver. But, our kids would have freaked out if they got a chance to meet  Hagrid. And, who wouldn't love to meet Harry, Ron, Hermione and the gang.

I think it would be a simple addition that would go a long way with kids and adults. 

Overall, our experience at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure was a blast. We could have easily spent the entire day at the Wizarding World. If you have Harry Potter fans in your family, it's worth spending the day between the two parks.

If you have the option, add a second day to your Universal visit to check out all the rest. I know we'll be heading back again in the years to come!

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