This post is the first in a series about our 2015 family vacation to Orlando. The series includes these posts:
- Trip Recap (this post)
- Planning and Prep
- Travel and Accommodations
- Food for Five
- Our Family Favourites
- Tips and Tricks
There is a pervasive sentiment in middle class North America that parents need to take their kids to Disney World. I think that is nonsense and if you are reading this because you are debating whether to go, let me reassure you that your kids will be just fine if you never make the trip. Now with that disclaimer out of the way, let me share some reflections on our trip:
Our family capped off our 2015 summer with a 10 day trip to Orlando and it was a great family vacation, despite my hesitations. We all loved Disney World, we all loved our Disney resort, and 80% of us loved Universal Studios. I wrote this series of posts partly as catharsis after sinking so much time and money into the vacation and partly as a way to help answer common questions for others trying to plan a similar trip (first timers with kids who prefer thrill rides over theming). I spent a lot of time planning this trip. I listened to podcasts, I read tips online, I studied The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015, and I subscribed to touringplans.com. And in the end it resulted in a smooth vacation experience, so I think it was time well spent. I paid the vacation stress tax before the vacation started.
Our kids were ages 12, 10, and 9 at the time of our trip. That’s pretty much the sweet spot for having the stamina to tour theme parks from dawn till dusk (we tend to be amusement park “commandos”) while harbouring a sufficient sense of wonder to embrace the experience. We spent two and a half days at Universal Orlando followed by five full days and two half days at Disney World. We stayed at Loews Royal Pacific resort for three nights and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge for six nights. We lived in the Universal and Disney bubbles the entire time.
Day 1: Travel day. We flew into Orlando Sanford airport where we were picked up by a driver and taken to Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando. We arrived after 10pm so the only thing we did after checking in was to get our Express Pass tickets from the kiosk in the hotel lobby. Express Pass was the primary reason we stayed onsite at Universal. I hate spending the majority of my time at a theme park standing in lines and the extra cost to stay in a hotel that included Express Pass was more than worth it.
Day 2: Islands of Adventure. As guests at an onsite resort, we were admitted into the Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure one hour before general admission. Combined with our Express Pass, we were able to get wands at Ollivander’s then ride the Flight of the Hippogriff junior coaster, the Dragon Challenge coaster, and the Forbidden Journey ride within the first 90 minutes of the day. That left oodles of time to play with the interactive wand stations and visit the rest of the park.
We ate lunch (and drank Butterbeer!) at the Three Broomsticks, which was a fun experience although no one really enjoyed their food as much as the atmosphere and the Butterbeer.
Outside of Hogsmeade, the Incredible Hulk Coaster was the big family favourite in this park. For the thrill ride seekers, this was the best day of the trip. No other park lived up to the combination of Forbidden Journey, Dragon Challenge, Hulk Coaster, and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall PLUS the initial experience of the immersive Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For dinner we overindulged on seafood at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., part of Universal CityWalk.
Day 3: Universal Studios Florida. We started this day back in Islands of Adventure (which, remember, was open an hour early for onsite guests) to ride the Hogwarts Express into Universal Studios Florida. We all got a big kick out of arriving at platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station in London.
And then Diagon Alley! Although there is only one ride, the theming of this section simply blew us away. Everyone in our family is a Harry Potter fan to some extent so seeing Diagon Alley come to life was a trip highlight.
We rode Escape from Gringotts, browsed the shops, practiced spells at the interactive wand stations, watched a lovely puppet performance of a story from Tales of Beedle the Bard, and tried both Butterbeer and Earl Grey Lavender ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. Earl Grey Lavender ice cream is very refreshing on an uber hot Florida summer day!
The rest of Universal Studios Florida was entertaining but anticlimactic compared to the thrill rides we experienced the previous day at Islands of Adventure. The Men in Black attraction was fun because of its interactive shoot ‘em up aspect (and because I’ve been a long-standing MIB fan). The E.T. attraction was enjoyable for the nostalgic feelings it invokes in someone of my generation. Revenge of the Mummy is exciting though relatively tame as a coaster. The kids enjoyed the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket rollercoaster but I found the restraints uncomfortable and the ride too rough; it definitely does not make my list of must-try coasters. We ate at Classic Monsters Cafe for lunch and Richter’s Burger Co. for dinner. Neither meal was noteworthy. The theming at the Classic Monsters Cafe is interesting but the food was dreadfully mediocre even for counter service.
Day 4: Universal greatest hits in the morning then transfer to Disney World. We rode the Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross Station to Hogsmeade – the trip is different in each direction and this is the better direction! Then we revisited our favourite Universal attractions in about 3 hours thanks to the Express Pass and a one-time use “Express Pass” for Forbidden Journey that we received when another attraction went out of service while we were visiting it. We managed to hit Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black, Hogwarts Express, Dragon Challenge, Forbidden Journey, and Hulk Coaster all before noon thanks to an early start and Express Pass. I really cannot stress enough how much value we got out of our Express Pass. We rode all our favourite rides in both parks multiple times in 2.5 days.
The same transportation company from Day 1 picked us up at Royal Pacific resort at 12:30pm and drove us to Animal Kingdom Lodge. We left our luggage with the bellhop at AKL, ate at The Mara (a counter-service restaurant in AKL Jambo House), then lounged in the resort pool for a couple hours until our room was ready. After two and a half days of nonstop touring, the pool break was appreciated by all. After getting settled in our room, we took a Disney bus to Hollywood Studios and dined at the 50’s Prime Time Café. The food was delicious and the staff were wonderfully brash and wildly entertaining.
Day 5: Hollywood Studios. I planned our Disney agenda based on the touringplans.com crowd calendar and guessing which parks the kids would most want to revisit during our stay. The first Disney park was Hollywood Studios (DHS). We had gotten a sneak peak the night before when we went for dinner and snuck in a couple attractions. This day was DHS from open till close. I created a personalized touring plan at touringplans.com based off a recommended touring plan for parents with tweens (I did this for most days at Disney). Only Tower of Terror and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster scratched the thrill ride itch for the kids and me, but Hollywood Studios had plenty of attractions to keep us engaged all day long. It is the only park that some of us visited three times (except Hogsmeade, I suppose, if you want to get technical about it). We thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story Midway Mania, Star Tours, Tower of Terror, Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster, Muppet Vision 3D, and Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. Mrs. Hatchard quite enjoyed the live Beauty and the Beast show (I’ve yet to hear any of the kids admit to liking it quite so much as their mom).
For lunch we dined at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater restaurant, which is themed after a retro drive-in theatre complete with clips of old sci fi movies playing on the big screen while you eat in your “car.” The experience was pleasant, the food was good, and the air-conditioning was a much needed break from the heat.
For dinner we ate at Pizza Planet, which is loosely based on the kid-oriented Chuck E. Cheese parody from the Toy Story movie. The food was just calories to keep the family from turning hangry. I wouldn’t choose to eat there again, but it got us through the rest of the day. We were too tired this night to stick around for Fantasmic and the end-of-day park fireworks.
Day 6: Epcot. Before we toured Epcot, I repeated my advice to the kids to enjoy Disney World for what it is rather than be disappointed in the lack of high energy thrill rides. Our touring plan for the day called for visiting the attractions in Future World for the morning and wandering the World Showcase in the afternoon, taking in the park at a more leisurely pace than our normal commando-style approach. Epcot was not anyone’s favourite park but we had a good day. I thought Mission: SPACE and Test Track would be the biggest hits of the day but it was the tamer Spaceship Earth that the kids wanted to ride twice. A small but memorable experience was sampling sodas from around the world at Club Cool – watching the kids try a bitter non-alcoholic apéritif was priceless!
We had lunch at the Coral Reef Restaurant which was good food and an interesting atmosphere if you are seated close enough to the aquarium – it’s not everyday that sharks and sea turtles swim by while you eat.
The real food treat of the day was freshly made Werther’s caramel popcorn from the Germany pavilion. Soooo gooood….
Day 7: Magic Kingdom. I insisted this day that we arrive at the park 20 minutes before opening (“rope drop”) so the family could experience the opening show I’d read about. Remarkably we made it to the park entrance just as the show was starting – the only day of the trip all five of us arrived at a park before the official opening time.
We did the quintessential rides like Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and the relatively new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. We even suffered through the ear-grating It’s a Small World. Surprisingly one attraction that really stands out in my mind is Peter Pan’s Flight because of the brilliantly themed queue.
And Mrs. Hatchard finally got to visit the Swiss Family Treehouse.
We ate lunch at Casey’s Corner: the hot dog with pulled pork and coleslaw was disturbingly delicious even if it threatened to take six months off my life expectancy.
The heavens opened up on the late afternoon so we hid in the shops on Main Street USA to avoid the downpour. From there we walked down to the boat dock and cruised over to Wilderness Lodge where we had dinner reservations at Whispering Canyon Cafe. This was by far our most memorable meal. Our server was hilarious; in addition to the antics you might read about elsewhere online, he asked our 9 year old to call her grandmother (my mother) and had the entire restaurant tell her they were sorry her son was too cheap to bring her along to Disney. We were in hysterics!
Day 8: Animal Kingdom. We left this park until Saturday because it tends to draw smaller crowds and features more “walking around” activities and shows so we would be standing in fewer lines. We started the day with DINOSAUR then Expedition Everest, which was immediately and unanimously designated our favourite Disney World ride! We did a number of shows and animal tours: Festival of the Lion King, Flights of Wonder, and Finding Nemo – The Musical were favourites. Lunch was at Restaurantosaurus, which was fine but neither the theming nor the food would draw us back there. Animal Kingdom closes at 5pm so this was an early day.
Day 9: Downtown Disney and Hollywood Studios. Originally we had planned to start this day with the House of Blues Gospel Brunch in Downtown Disney but after considering the price and the lack of interest from the kids, we opted for a more leisurely morning and the breakfast buffet at Boma restaurant in Animal Kingdom Lodge. Though cheap compared to the Gospel Brunch, which is a meal and show, the Boma buffet was one of the more expensive meals we ate at Disney (bear in mind that we didn’t do any character dining – none of our kids were terribly concerned with it). We shopped around Downtown Disney for the afternoon. One great find was scorpion pepper salt at The Spice and Tea Exchange that I picked up for my father. I have a moderate tolerance (and enjoyment) of spicy things. Six flakes of this salt left my tongue numb. For the evening, I took a couple of the kids back to Hollywood Studios to revisit some of their favourites (Toy Story Midway Mania, Star Tours, Tower of Terror, Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster). We caught part of the Frozen Fireworks as we were leaving and they are amazing. One of my few disappointments from our trip is that we were just too tired most evenings to take in the fireworks / light shows.
Day 10: Animal Kingdom and travel day. This was the dreaded day that we had to pack up and head for the airport. But before we could do that, the youngest child had her heart set on going back to Animal Kingdom to buy a pair of folding sunglasses she had spotted. Since we were on vacation and we had the time, I gladly hopped on the Disney bus and took her back to the Animal Kingdom. We arrived at the park ten minutes before official opening and the gates were already open. Since we had a solid buffer of time before we had to get back, we squeezed in a few attractions. The Kilimanjaro Safari was much livelier in the morning. Most memorable for me was the crash of rhinos hanging out roadside.
Once back at the resort, we dragged our luggage outside where our car service was once again promptly waiting for us. For the long trip back to Canada I assigned everyone the job of writing down a top ten list of favourite experiences from the trip, which I’ve typed out as the last post in this series.
Post trip: Once back home, we needed some time to actually relax. A 10 day Disney trip is a lot of fun but not relaxing! I had wisely booked off the rest of the week, which gave me time to review our photos, reflect on the trip, and start this series of posts (which then took four months to finish).
There you have it, that’s our 2015 Disney World + Universal Studios trip in a nutshell. Check out the other posts in this series for how we planned our trip, where we stayed, how we got around, what we ate, and what our favourite experiences were. Hope it’s useful to you:
- Trip Recap
- Planning and Prep
- Travel and Accommodations
- Food for Five
- Our Family Favourites
- Tips and Tricks