A PEOPLE editor shares lessons learned while visiting the Florida theme park with two tweens!

By Kate Coyne
August 20, 2018 09:07 AM
Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

This past spring, my husband and I realized that even though it felt like only yesterday, it had actually been five full years since we’d brought our twin boys, then six years old, to Disney World—the sort of trip that, once you’ve survived it, makes you feel like you ought to be able to cross “theme park” off your travel list for a good two or three decades.

However, with two nearly-12 year olds who were officially “tweens” about to start middle school in the fall, it seemed another trip that was more about them and less about Mom and Dad’s desire to lay inert on a lounge chair was in order.

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

We brought up the idea of a return to Disney but it was soundly rejected by the boys. “It’s too much princess and little kid stuff,” one groused. “And there are no really good roller coasters,” sighed the other one. “And, uh…those lines? In June?” my husband muttered.

Luckily, my guys had other plans. “We have to go to Universal Studios,” one begged. “Harry Potter! Butterbeer!” the other added.

By late June we were on our way, and by the time our trip ended, I felt like we had just stumbled onto the best kept secret in theme parks.

Here are the five things we learned that made Universal Orlando Resort pretty much our greatest vacation ever.

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

1. Stay in a selected hotel within the park and lines pretty much evaporate.

We stayed at the really lovely Loews Portofino Bay hotel, which is within the confines of the park. But beyond the convenience, our room came with the best perk ever: unlimited Express Pass access to all of the rides within two of the park’s main sections, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Express Pass is basically like Disney’s Fast Pass . . . on crack. There’s no signing up for a specific time and no limit on the number of rides you can apply it to. Once you have the pass, you are free to use the special, speedier entrance for every ride at Universal.

We rarely saw more than 20 people waiting on the Express Pass lines. Why? Because it’s not cheap; it costs upwards of $100 per person per day depending on the season for the Express Pass —unless you stay at one of three selected Loews resorts (the Portofino Bay, Hard Rock or Royal Pacific) within Universal Studios, and then boom: it’s included with the cost of your room.

Yes, those hotels are a little bit pricier than budget options, but they’re still well within reason and the one room price provides Express Pass to everyone staying in that room. More than worth it.

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

2. The rides are suitable for pretty much everyone!

One of my guys was psyched to go on roller coasters like the Incredible Hulk Coaster and the deservedly legendary Rip Rockit Coaster (if you haven’t seen the video of Jimmy Fallon and Kevin Hart screaming themselves silly on that one, go check it out right now) but my other son is a bit more nervous about things that drop, twist and roll.

WATCH THIS: Take a Tour Through Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle with “Harry Potter’s” Luna Lovegood

Luckily, the vast majority of the thrill rides at Universal are actually “simulators” — you sit in a small theater-like environment with a massive screen in front of you, and the theater tilts, pivots and turns to create a feeling that you are truly falling or flying — which provided excellent peace of mind for my more nervous dude that we weren’t really hurtling through the air (even though it sure felt like it on the Simpsons ride!)

While the simulators may not be ideal if you’re prone to motion sickness, we made it through each and every one unscathed (and I’ve been known to get car sick reading a text message). Another bonus: they’re all air conditioned and sheltered from the elements, so even the typical June thunderstorms that rolled through each day didn’t shut them down.

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

3. Princesses need not apply.

Look, I have nothing against Cinderella and Belle, but there’s no denying that my boys were significantly more thrilled to discover that Universal is also home to a ton of Marvel-themed superhero rides, from the aforementioned Hulk coaster to the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman and even some non-comic book action greats like Transformers and the Fast and the Furious. Instead of seeing Mickey wandering around, my tweens were far more psyched to pose for pictures with Wolverine and Optimus Prime.

Not that little kids would’ve been out of luck: I was delighted to learn that Universal is also home to a slew of Dr. Seuss and old-school cartoon themed rides that will absolutely delight our toddler daughter when she’s old enough to make the trip.

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

4. Even Muggles will love the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

My horrible pop culture blind spot: I know next to nothing about Harry Potter. But none of that mattered once I boarded the Hogwarts Express, which took us from one Potter-themed area (the truly delightful Diagon Alley, filled with wizarding shops and Butterbeer merchants) to the bucolic Hogsmeade, home of Hogwarts and a dazzling light show each evening.

Even without having read the books, the sense of magic is palpable, and the attention to detail is so staggering that you genuinely feel transported. By the time I’d gone through Gringotts bank (the setting for the Escape from Gringotts ride) and traveled on the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogsmeade not once but three times, I was ready to buy a wand at Ollivander’s and declare my new house affiliation (I’m a Ravensclaw, according to my sons.) Wizarding World is understandably Universal’s pride and joy and honestly? It’s just that good.

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

5. Universal has figured out how to banish water park waits.

On our final day, we went to Universal’s new water park, Volcano Bay. Water parks are generally not my thing, but you know what makes them bearable? Sweltering Florida heat, and an ingenious system which means no lugging inner tubes up flights of stairs while waiting hours for a slide that lasts two minutes. Instead, at Volcano Bay, we were given wristbands that allowed us to “tap in” at the start of various rides, effectively registering our place in line. When it was our turn to ride, the bands would vibrate and alert us to head back to the ride. In between, we floated on a lazy river or splashed in the wave pool and basically forgot that we weren’t at a fancier beach resort. The longest wait was for a ride Universal bills as the first waterpark roller coaster—and they’re not wrong.

All in all, Universal exceeded even my most jaded expectations. But perhaps the biggest sign that the trip was a hit? My boys are already asking when we can go back.