Video by Universal Orlando Resort
Club Wyndham Orlando International is your location for the perfect Orlando vacation.
Day One Arrival
The drive down Interstate 95 for me is an exciting time. Not because 10+ hours in the car is a ball, but because I know what is ahead of me. I have made this journey many times over the years. At first, riding along with the family on trips, then later with friends or going solo to escape.
I am an Orlando fan. Not just for Disney or Universal, but even the smaller places you can go and have an amazing amusement park or travel experience. This particular drive was about 12 hours, but I broke it down into 2 days to make it easier. I drove all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, and stopped for the night, then completed my trip the next day.
Since I had driven most of the way the day before, I had some time to spend in the area today before checking into the resort.
If you have read any of my blog posts before you know that I love things that are nostalgic, or that deal with local history, and everything that is like a touristy thing to do. I am a sucker for all of it. Think of me like a much bigger Clark Griswold of Vacation fame. He wanted to stop and see the World’s largest frying pan, and I might do that too.
Today I wanted to do something simple that has been around for a long time and that was a tourist thing to do. So, I chose a local boat tour and trip that has been in business in Orlando since 1938. These are simple little tour adventure that involves riding on a pontoon boat and hearing about the local waterway from a neat local character. It is about 1 hour long and enjoyable, as well as affordable. I think with tax the total cost is $16 for a person. Do not expect an animatronic adventure here this is more just a calm and relaxing local guide experience. It made for a nice break in my two-day travel by car adventure.
Next, it was time for lunch. I was starving after not eating breakfast and only having a snack once I hit Jacksonville the night before. As I drove towards the resort, I looked for something neat near the resort. I found Texas de Brazil this is one of those buffets, slash-cooked meats to the table kind of spots. I am a meat eater and a bit crazy about the stuff so it was a great fit. Also, lunch here is about $15 less than dinner and the menu is almost the same, so it is a great value.
The meat here tasted fresh, not frozen, and it was all just hot on the grill. They also had a large salad bar and a hot item bar to complement your meal. Texas de Brazil also had a nice dessert selection and a group of specialty drinks. After a car trip, I like a drink or two to unwind. Since I knew where my resort was, I did have 2 drinks with my giant meal. If you love grilled meats as I do, this may be a place to add to your list. Once I had finished, it was time for checking in at the resort, so I headed that way.
Arriving at the resort you find it almost on top of the Universal resort which is nice. It sits right next to the Sunshine Resort which I have written about before. Both have similarities and benefits you can enjoy. My first impression here was that it was a calmer location. Everything is well maintained, but it feels more established. The Sunshine has more resort-based amenities than Orlando International but if you are looking for rest after long days of hitting the parks this may be the option you are looking for.
The villas here are about 1,300sq ft and 2 bedrooms so they are very nicely sized for comfort.
The resort and villas have all of these amenities.
- Cable TV
- Coffee Maker
- DVD Player
- Ice Maker
- In-Room Safe
- Hot Tub
Then the resort itself offers all of these options.
- Activities Center/Desk
- BBQ Grills
- Walking Trails
- Picnic Area
- Fitness Room
- Hot Tub
- Outdoor Pool
- Internet Access
- Kid’s Activities
- On-Site Security
- Tennis Court
After checking in, I was still so full from that giant lunch that I wanted to just take it easy and get some rest so I could hit Universal as soon as it opened tomorrow.
Day Two Universal
Universal has three giant theme parks here. Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay. From the resort, you are closest to Volcano Bay, but today I was headed to the other two parks.
Since I have had the great fortune to have already come to Orlando and Universal this year, I was back and putting my Annual 2 park pass to great use. If I was not, I would have purchased my 2 park passes which for adults are about $78 a day per person. You can do a 3-park pass but that takes it to over $90 a day. I am not much of a water park guy these days but it you have kids; you may choose to just get access to the water park for one day separately.
When it comes to amusement parks, I am basically just a big kid. Although these days I am slower moving than I was 30 years ago. I like both parks here about as much as most 12-year-old kids. On this trip, while traveling alone to do some writing, and have fun on vacation, I had arranged to meet some friends and their kids at the park today and tomorrow.
My friend had lost a job with a company we both used to work for some time back, and while people never really talk about things like that, I sensed that they were just not having a great year.
I chose to tell my friends a little white lie. I said that I was in town writing about a few resorts and that I had free tickets to Universal. In reality, I just wanted to do something nice for a great family who have not had a great year. Looking back now as I add to my notes from my trip and write this, I am very glad that I did this because I traveled in 2019 and then we all know what happened in 2020.
At first, I was going to meet my friend and his family somewhere, but then I realized that they should just stay at the resort with me tonight since the villa is a 2 bedroom, and that way they would not have to drive 2 hours each way from their home near Tampa. It would also make this feel much more like a full vacation for the kids, and the whole tribe really. So before heading to the park I met my friends at the resort and helped them settle in with their bags and stuff, and get the kids set up on the sleeper sofa for later when we came back from the park dead tired.
My friends have a family of 4, and given that I overshared about my buddy’s job situation I will leave their names out of the post. But it is good to know that they are a family of 4 kinds of all-American families. Dad, Mom, Son, and Daughter. The kids are I think 8-11 with the girl being 11 going on 14 as they always seem to be so much more mature than younger boys.
My friends’ son is much like me (at his age) with ADHD tendencies, and he gets very excited about theme parks.
We all jumped into their minivan and we headed into the park.
I had ordered tickets ahead of time and just needed to pick them up from the automated Kiosks at the park. So, as we pulled in, I darted off to get the tickets or passes and get us set. My friend wanted to run along with me (he may have been checking up on me about the free ticket white lie) but since I had these in the system and already paid for, I think I was able to get away with my bit of deception.
I handed my friend the passes for his family, and I already had my season pass for myself. Today I wanted to make things very special for this family. This meant that I also had made some reservations for today and tomorrow, and I paid a little more for a FastPass, or what they now call express passes. This is not a cheap thing to do. But it is like 1 tier or 2 on the ladder of expense below the tour guide’s level of experience. I may have gone that far instead if there had been some other kind of major life event for my friends, but in reality, they had just had a crappy year, and I wanted them to have a special experience so this was it.
For $119 a person per day we got the Universal Express Unlimited Passes. Now again most people likely will not want to pay for this option. But I was faking things, making it seem like I had earned some all-bad prize or comp deal from a company so I went all in.
It was the week of spring break so the lines were long, and this would allow all of us to skip almost any line, on most rides, and get the best seats at shows, and so on. Now, this is a bit of overkill not just on the costs but there are ways on some rides to skip the line anyway and basically get an appointment to return at a set time for free. If they are still doing that when you come, you may want to inquire and save that high added expense of the express pass.
When going into the park I had the chance to talk to my pal about his year, and how things were going. Then we talked about the drive to Orlando and so on. Man, I was glad I had chosen to do this. I think they were OK but it would have been a year for a stay-cation without this happening.
I will tell you a secret about myself. I truly enjoy experiencing things through the eyes of others. If I can do something like this for someone and see their happiness, it makes me feel like a million dollars. Now I am not a rich guy. I do not have a pricy home and expensive toys. But I do get to travel more than most people I know, and I have learned some great travel secrets over the years.
When you can save a ton on your accommodation by booking through TZort as an example you can spoil yourself or others because you have that money available to do things you otherwise could not afford. If you are reading this thinking “this guy must be rich” then you are not correct. I just save a fortune on travel thanks to TZort and spend my money wisely when I am not traveling. You can do the same.
Think about it: if you save $500 on your accommodations you now have that to spend for meals out on the trip, or the express pass for 1 day on a vacation, and so on. When booking travel take advantage where you can and you can then live things up a bit more for the same cost.
OK, so we are in the park and I think all 5 of us have eyes the size of watermelons for the first few minutes. Universal and Disney are both so amazing these days it is hard to explain. I pull up the park map for Universal on my phone and make a plan with the kids and their parents. We chose to break up into teams and go off in two directions and meet up in a few hours.
This first time breaking up into teams, the ladies decided it should be boys and girls. I chuckled at that idea. And next thing I know my friend’s son has planned our next two hours in vivid detail. I think the Express pass was burning a hole in his pocket (as my grandfather would have said).
Our little group darted off first to all things Harry Potter with Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™. This is the new high-dollar theme ride for Harry Potter. I had been to the new area before but to be honest I was too big to ride last time. (Yeah, I got that large working from home). Prior to this trip, I think I had lost enough pounds to make the cut. For safety, the little harnesses need to fit around you. At 6’4” that is a bit of a challenge from the start, but if you add on some pounds, it makes it impossible. In a few minutes, I was excited because I made the cut.
Luckily, you do not have to get on a scale there is a test seat outside the ride you can check to see if you fit on the down low. They do this at the other Harry Potter ride in the Islands of Adventure as well. Which is nice so you do not have to stand in line just to be turned away.
This ride is a 3D/4D kind of ride and a fun one. So, fun in fact we used our express pass several times in a row. In about 45 minutes we had ridden it 3 times, and we had to convince our 8-year-old leader to move on to another ride to be fair to the people waiting.
It was a fun ride if you get the chance to check it out, even if you have to wait a bit this one is worth it for any Potter Fan.
As adults, even though we had the two park passes, we had made the call to do 1 park a day for the bulk of each day. Then at the end of day, two let the kids choose anything they wanted to do, or do again for the last few hours of the day.
Diagon Alley is very neat, and well done. Here, like in the Islands of Adventure, you can get butter beer. Which is very sweet and tastes close to a slurpy with extra sugar. I voted for a round of butter beers before the next ride. My friend’s son was on board, while my buddy seemed to know what that much sugar would do, then what his wife might do to him later, but he just laughed and agreed.
After slamming down the butter beer, we were back on the move. Next, it was to the Men in Black, which was a motion simulation ride, and a good one. Then we went to the Transformers, which is another 3D ride and it too was fun. I think it goes without saying that for a young boy, this was like amusement in heaven. Once we had made the rides on our own, we headed back to meet the ladies of the group.
We had some lunch and exchanged stories of our fun and excitement. I could see the gals had a ball and that they too went on each ride we did, but choosing their own order and pace. It likely gave Mother and Daughter some time to laugh and talk together 1-1.
For lunch, we just did some fast food like a spot in the park, nothing special for dinner I had made reservations so that was going to be after the next round of rides or whatever.
Now, what Universal Calls the Virtual Line™ experience now is app-based with your phone and you can get a return time to come back to rides so you do not have to wait. It is a great free option that they make available when crowds allow it. If you did not splurge on the expensive Express Passes keep an eye out for this, it is a life and fun saver that is free.
We spent the next few hours as a group charging through all things Universal Studios. It was a blast.
For dinner, I had a reservation at Lombard’s Seafood Grille. The secret I had hidden was that the reservation was for 2 and I wanted my friends to have a nice dinner together. I had arranged to take care of the bill with my reservation. I and the kids would go to the Leaky Cauldron™ which is the faster service more affordable Harry Potter-themed restaurant. I had said to myself “in for a penny in for a pound” with my white lie about this all being something paid for, so why not.
After dinner for them, a fast meal, and another ride for me and the kids we would meet up and go back to the resort.
Day Three Islands of Adventure
Wow, talk about excited people. I do not know who was more ramped up, likely it was my friend’s kids, but I was a very close second. I really like Universal and it is the Islands of Adventure that is my favorite part.
We started the day off at Jurassic Park here even for a theme park, the scale of things is amazing. Your visit to this section includes rides and several adventures all with the amazing backdrops of the Jurassic Park theme.
After over 2 hours in that area, it was back to the World of Harry Potter. The word was out on the Butter Beer, so we started with a round of Butter Beers. These are great but not for everyone. Again, think very sweet slurpy here and you are close.
Next, it was to the Harry Potter ride, then using our Express Pass to go again right after our first go. Then we used the Express Pass to get the kids sorted for a wand at Ollivanders. This is a live-action experience where you get your shot at finding your wand and finding the one for you.
Here the actors make a difference and the 1-1 time you get is amazing. Also, they want prices to be not bad given that you are pretty much roped into getting a kid one if you let them go through this experience. $25 for a starter wand and $48 for one that lights up and does some digital tricks. The interactive want works in both park’s Harry Potter areas for special effects as well. If we were to do this again, we might have run here first in the AM and before going to the other Harry Potter area as well. If one of the kids likes the interactive stuff, I can see us running back to Universal Studios just to see what it will do over there. I know if I was 8-11, I would have wanted to check it out.
Video by Rix Flix
Oh, for crazy Harry Potter fans you can also get sorted and experience an online ceremony before your trip for free. This allows you to get sorted into your Hogwarts House, you can even find out about your Patronus. Then choose your wand as well. But if you are coming to the resort wait on the wand portion and do the Ollivanders for the win.
I was right, the boy and girl both wanted to ride the rides here again with the Express Pass but then run back over to the other park too and see what their wands would do. I kind of wanted one more Butter Beer as well.
Afterward, my friends insisted on taking me and everyone out for dinner. I just insisted that we eat outside of the park (secretly trying to save them some money) and they chose well we went for dinner at Ichiban Buffer near the resort. It was good and much more affordable at $14 a person for dinner and if you go at lunch only $9.99. Here they do kids by the size of the kid which is funny but makes sense. That way no proof of age or issues around that.
Kids eat for free if they are under 3ft tall. Between 2-5ft they are $4 less for each meal time. I had not seen a restaurant do that before and I thought it was clever.
My friends ended the night hanging out with the kids and me by the pool at the resort. They thanked me a ton, as they had both days and I waived it off. Just saying how much fun I had. But my buddy pulled me aside and said, “Hey man, I am not crazy. I get that you did this, really did this. I can not thank you enough.” We hugged it out even know I am not a hugger and I just said “so glad you guys had fun.”
If you too want to be able to do something special for friends or even just be able to afford something extra on your family trip book with TZort.