My husband and I just returned from a trip to Orlando where we hit both Universal parks and all four Disney parks in five days. We learned a lot, so I thought I’d share.
You just need four days. We did five and they were packed full, but there is one park adults can skip to do it in four. More on that later.
Stay at an onsite hotel. You’ll get special perks like shuttles and early or late park access. We chose to stay onsite at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort to get early access to Harry Potter World and a shuttle to and from Universal, which was fantastic.
Rent a car. Driving and parking at Disney World was surprisingly easy. It was only 20 minutes away and Disney practically has it’s own relaxed highway system leading to it’s parks. We barely hit traffic and there are huge, well-organized trams that take you from your parking spot to each park’s entrance. These are worth it even if there’s a bit of a wait. (Tip: Snap a picture of your parking area name and row. You will forget.)
Get to each park right when it opens. Otherwise you’ll spend way too much time waiting in line to get in.
Buy an Express Pass at Universal. They can be pricey, but that’s why they’re great. Most people won’t buy them and instead waste time in line while we had shorter lines for almost everything at both parks. I think my time is worth a lot, so I’m willing to pay extra to not stand in a soul-crushing, two-hour line. The only downside is this system excludes the most popular Harry Potter rides, like Forbidden Journey and Gringotts, which is dumb. Everything should have a Express Pass line.
Schedule your Disney Fast Passes as soon as the system lets you. Disney’s Fast Pass system just sucks. First, you just have to accept that. It’s not like Universal’s system and it should be, because it works. You can’t just get into all the shorter lines by showing your Fast Pass for an additional fee. It’s free and everyone gets to use three Fast Passes a day. But the part that just sucks, is that you have to schedule your Fast Passes and you get an hour window to show up. You’d think the challenge would be just getting to your Fast Pass on time, but we actually had the opposite problem. Expecting the parks were way bigger than they were, we thought it would take us hours to get from one ride to the other when it really only took about 20 minutes to get just about anywhere. So with things scheduled hours apart, we just had to sit somewhere and wait for our Fast Pass time. That’s stupid. I don’t mind getting only three a day, but once I get to one of my three chosen rides, can’t I just ride it? So I don’t have to waste my time? (Because I’d rather wait sitting somewhere than stand in some awful line.) And yes, you can reschedule them, but the day of, they’re usually all booked.
Get 2-day, park-hopper passes for each theme park. It’s worth it to be able to switch whenever you want and necessary to hit everything in four days.
Download both apps. Universal Orlando Resort and My Disney Experience both have maps, wait times and locations for rides, shows, restaurants, bathrooms and more. (Note about bathrooms: Universal does not have enough. There is just one per crazy-crowded Harry Potter town, which is nuts. Disney has bathrooms everywhere.)
Wear tennis shoes. Just inside theme parks, we got 96,695 steps over 5 days. That’s an average of 19,339 steps a day.
Bring sunscreen. We went in April where the highs were 80 degrees, but without a little sunscreen, we would’ve burned. Universal does not have enough shade. All Disney parks, except Magic Kingdom, have plenty of shade (and places to sit) everywhere.
Drink water. We didn’t want to carry a bunch of bottled water. (It would’ve made the locker situation impossible.) So we just bought it when the Florida humidity started to get to us. A bottle cost $3 in most places. But in Harry Potter World, it’s $6 because it’s “Gilly Water,” so buy it elsewhere.
Bag checks at Universal. You will have to stand in line and put your stuff in a tray to slide through a scanner just like the airport. But once you’re in, you’re in. You only have to do this once to access the CityWalk (restaurant area outside the two parks) and both parks.
Bag checks at Disney. They’re done by hand at the entrance of all four parks, so if you park hop, you’ll have to redo it at each entrance. The lines were never that long for us though.
Lockers at Universal. Universal, which frankly has better rides than Disney, also requires the use of lockers at many rides. Thankfully they’re free and use fingerprints which is kind of smart (though you have to remember a number which is hard. Use mnemonic devices.), but the locker rooms are so small and staff bark at you if you send more than one person in there. This is annoying when whole families walk in and block everything, but it was just me and my husband, who had all of my stuff in his backpack including my ID and my phone, so we could not get separated. So I ignored them. It’s not my fault they made their locker rooms the size of a phone booth. Their lockers are also too small. We had a normal-sized backpack with very little in it and had to stuff it in hard each time. (Tip: Take out your wands before you do this, and slide them in last so you don’t break them.)
Lockers at Disney. They have them, but you really don’t need them. Each ride has compartments where you can store your stuff and if it won’t fit you can just hold it, because their rides are generally tamer overall.
The following is a play-by-play if you want extreme detail.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure
We got on our shuttle at 7:30 a.m. and easily got through the gates at 7:50 a.m. even though our early access wasn’t supposed to start until 8 a.m. We went straight to Ollivanders and got our interactive wands, which was cool, but later found there are shops throughout the park that sell wands including a gift shop at our hotel. After that we went straight to Forbidden Journey, which is the most popular Harry Potter ride in Hogsmeade since it goes through Hogwarts castle. It also doesn’t accept Express Passes, but since we got there early we got right in. This was by far my favorite Harry Potter ride. Now does it make you a feel a little queasy because of this new robotic arm technology thing? I say yes and my husband says no. But I just closed my eyes until the queasy feeling passed each time I rode it. The second time, my eyes were open pretty much the whole time.
My favorite part of Hogsmeade was breakfast at the Three Broomsticks. It made me feel like I was in the movies. We did it around 10 a.m. and it wasn’t crowded. Yes, we had Butterbeer. (We both preferred the frozen one). No, there is no alcoholic version, which is stupid. (The Alamo Drafthouse has one during Harry Potter movies and it’s amazing. Adults like Harry Potter, too. They should get on this.) Pumpkin Juice is good. A shot of Fire Whiskey in a pint of Strongbow is good.
After 10 a.m. Hogsmeade was a total zoo, so after doing all the interactive magic on the streets (You basically wave your wand at hidden cameras in certain spots marked by a gold seal on the ground and cool stuff happens. You have to do the shape perfectly and small before it works, but it’s really fun.), we hopped the Hogwarts Express to King’s Cross Station and then to Diagon Alley at the other Universal park (Universal Studios).
The Hogwarts Express is a ride too and fun but hit it early. Though we had no line riding from Hogsmeade to King’s Cross, the line to ride from King’s Cross to Hogsmeade was easily two hours long.
Diagon Alley was a cooler street experience than Hogsmeade. The interactive magic was also more advanced. You could make it rain, turn on lights and do crazy spells to a yellow canary hidden in Knockaround Alley. The cool shops (like Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes) are all very small, though, so be ready for a crowded experience.
It was also so crowded at the Leaky Cauldron for lunch that the dining experience wasn’t as fun as the Three Broomsticks. And both restaurants have British food mostly, which I’m not particularly fond of. Not that I didn’t find something good on both menus. I did.
After lunch we rode a few non-Harry Potter rides at Universal like Men in Black, the Simpsons (way cooler than we expected), Transformers 3D, Revenge of the Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. The last one was intense but so fun we rode it twice. We also did Transformers twice. One cool thing about the 3D rides at Universal—besides the fact that they have awesome visuals and they’re really fun—is that you can take your backpacks on the ride.
After that, we saw a 45-minute wait time for Gringotts and headed back to Diagon Alley. This ride was fun but a little short and not as cool as Forbidden Journey. The best part was actually the line where you can see inside the bank.
Finally, after a 15-hour day, we grabbed some Burger King on the CityWalk on the way out, headed back to the hotel and crashed at about 11:30 p.m.
Since we did all of Harry Potter World in one day, we decided to skip our early admission and sleep in. We got into the park around 11 a.m., since getting on the shuttle, through security and into the park took a little longer. But it was worth it to get more sleep.
This day we just rode the Universal Studios rides we hadn’t hit yet like Spider-Man 3D, Kong 3D, Forbidden Journey again and the Hulk. The 3D rides were really great! The Kong one was like no other I’ve ever seen. The Hulk roller coaster had a really fast and amazing take off. The only downside was that it’s a “headbanger” ride. (Your head ping-pongs between the headrests, which gives you a headache.) So we didn’t ride it twice, even though the Express Pass line was really short.
This day we were back to our hotel by 5 p.m. and took a nap before eating a late dinner at VIVO Italian Kitchen in the CityWalk.
Epcot, Disney World
We got right in at the 9 a.m. opening with no trouble and went straight to the Soarin’ (around the world) ride. This is the only ride at Epcot that I liked. You can store your bag under the seat in a large net and it’s quite an amazing and immersive experience. (Caution: If you’re afraid of heights you may have some trouble, since you’re basically sitting in a swing with a seat belt, very high up in front of a giant screen.)
Unfortunately, though, their Fast Pass system was down, so even though we were on time, we weren’t able to use it. This was our first day at Disney and first ride, so it was a bit of bummer, but the park had just opened so the line didn’t take long.
Next we hit the World Showcase, which took the majority of our day. It’s a lake surrounded with replicas of 11 countries containing representative gift shops, restaurants and bars. Just looking at the replicated countries was fun. I checked in at all 11 with way too many pictures. You can, apparently, eat and drink your way around the world, which we didn’t even attempt because it just sounds like too much, but we made reservations for lunch and dinner at China and Germany. (Without reservations the wait times seemed pretty bad.) China was good. Germany was better and the ambiance was really cool, especially the polka band. Though $40 each for a buffet, no matter how delicious, is ridiculous. (I should’ve done one of those Disney meal plans, but I didn’t understand them.)
After that we rode two more rides at Epcot: Mission Space and Spaceship Earth. I don’t recommend either. Mission Space lets you experience 2.5 Gs (Who wants that?) and has vomit bags at every seat. I’ve never felt so sick in my life, but made it through. Everyone I’ve talked to about this ride said it gave them a panic attack. Don’t ride orange unless you actually want to be an astronaut. Go green to avoid feeling sick.
Spaceship Earth is the most boring ride I’ve ever been on in my entire life. Think slow with a history lesson (you already know) and animatronics. Any ride with animatronics is dated in my opinion. (If you agree, you can probably skip the famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride as well.) My husband described this ride as making him want to vomit…from boredom. It was also really stuffy inside the Epcot ball. I think every ride should have good AC, because you’re kinda trapped.
After dinner we stayed 45 minutes waiting for the Epcot fireworks, since we found a good place to sit. They were weak sauce. The Texas Renaissance Festival does a better job. No need to wait around for them.
Despite everyone leaving at once at closing, it was fairly easy to get to our car and drive out.
Magic Kingdom, Disney World
Magic Kingdom was not magical for us. This is the reason I say you can do Disney in two days if you’re adult-ing it. This park is only for you if you really really like Disney princesses and parades.
First of all, though we got there soon after it opened (8:30 a.m.), it took us an hour to get into the park because in addition to a tram ride from the parking lot, bag check and scanning your card to get in, you also had to get in line to ride a monorail from the gate to the actual park which is surrounded by a lake.
However, I did enjoy getting a selfie in front of Cinderella’s castle and eating breakfast at the Be Our Guest Restaurant. (Good food and ambiance.) But Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was tame. (The Runaway Mine Train at Six Flags in Arlington is much better. Sorry! I’m from Dallas. It’s impossible not to compare.) And Space Mountain was a descent roller coaster in the dark, but Runaway Mountain at Six Flags is much better. (Again. Sorry.) Haunted Mansion was kinda neat, though a little dated since it also featured animatronics. But the projected ghosts looked amazing. Thankfully our Fast Pass helped us avoid a line out the door.
But there wasn’t anything at this park I consider a must-do. This is probably because it is the most crowded place I’ve ever been and it was a Thursday of a school week. I don’t even want to imagine Magic Kingdom on a Saturday.
We left this park at about 4:30 p.m. and re-parked and re-entered at Hollywood Studios. One good thing about parking (even though it’s a whooping $20 a day) is once you pay it, you just have to show your receipt to park at the other parks.
Hollywood Studios, Disney World
This was my favorite Disney park because it was small, had lots of shade, adult drink carts and mostly featured Star Wars. (Magic Kingdom only had drinks at a few select sit-down restaurants, which we did not have reservations for.)
First, we hit Star Tours, an interactive 3D ride though familiar Star Wars scenes. It was hands-down our favorite Disney ride.
Then, we went to a Star Wars Desert Party that was delicious (and filled with great Star Wars photo opts) and watched the Star Wars themed fireworks from a special viewing area. These were way better than Epcot’s.
Last we drove back to the hotel at the park’s closing. It was surprising easy despite everyone leaving at once.
Animal Kingdom, Disney World
We got to this one right at opening, 9 a.m, and got right to our first Fast Pass for Expedition Everest, a train roller coaster through a mountain. This ride was pretty good. I’d definitely say it was the park’s best. On this one, you actually need to put your legs through your backpack straps.
After Everest we explored a bit and did the Maharajah Jungle Trek where we saw birds, giant bats and a tiger. We also tried out Dinosaurs which was okay (newer animatronics). Then we had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe, which seemed on-theme for a park that’s basically a zoo. Though we had to wait 20 minutes for our reserved table, they had the best pork ribs I’ve ever had.
We were able to switch our Kilimanjaro Safaris (very fun) Fast Pass to an hour and a half sooner which was the only instance we were able to successfully adjust a Fast Past. That enabled us to leave the park at 3 p.m. and go back to the hotel and sleep the rest of the day, which we desperately needed after five days of theme parking.
After our naps, we hit the Hard Rock Cafe on the CityWalk for a 10 p.m. dinner reservation before flying back to Austin in the morning.