Fodor's editor Eric Wechter shares his family vacation experience at Universal, teaching us that location is everything.
The light at the end of the tunnel on The Incredible Hulk Coaster was not a welcome sight.
Dispensing with the usual slow-climb-to-big-drop introduction, The Hulk began by firing us through a dark chamber toward the sky. As the light approached with fantastic speed, my mind formed an unhelpful image of our tragic launch into the void— in a slightly less dramatic turn of events, we banked left for a headlong dive into a sweeping inversion. Emboldened by my survival, I handled the remainder of the ride's corkscrews and loops with gusto.
The Long and the Short of It
A visit to Universal, Orlando, I quickly discovered, is a vacation marked by many of these highly compressed moments, when dynamic emotions—often alarm and exhilaration—conflate in an instant. Recalling split-second highlights from rides, in remarkably vivid detail, became a recurring topic of conversation for my wife, son, and me. We repeatedly reveled in our shared reactions to events: Our collective gasp when a virtual Spider Man pounced on the front end of our pod vehicle, causing us to buckle under the force of his landing. Our great relief when he snatched away the ray-gun Dr. Octopus had trained right between our eyes—so close we felt the heat of its laser on our faces! Or the agreeable tingle in our stomachs as we dropped down a giant elevator shaft in the Simpsons Ride.
Perhaps more subtly though, Universal is also a vacation filled with expansive moments. We strolled along on a tropical trail amid pink dombeyas and yellow trumpet trees. We took unhurried water-taxi rides on a gentle river, and, while tucking into poolside nachos, we exchanged knowing glances as we heard distant screams from Dr. Doom's Fearfall.
Don't Break the Spell
All our activities became part of a continuum I call "Universal Time," the unique rhythms of which are smoothest when you stay in an onsite hotel. This is key. Staying in the park allowed our moments of compression and expansion to flow from one to the next undisturbed—our "Universal Chi" was in perfect harmony! Okay maybe it wasn't that mystical, but there certainly was an unbroken-spell aura to our vacation—a tinge of "locked all night in the toy store" fantasy. After our breathtaking coaster ride, we segued to a peaceful exploration of the fanciful Seuss Landing, which led to Mythos, a restaurant with way-too-good-to-be-theme-park food. Our days unfolded naturally, at our own pace, sans prosaic interruptions such as traffic, parking, topping off the tank, etc. An hour, roundtrip, in a cab from Orlando International was our total time in a car.
Ticket to Ride
Most importantly, staying onsite gave us the Universal Express pass, which cuts the wait time for rides in half, sometimes more. We took multiple turns on our favorite rides—in Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios—by simply flashing our room keys for access to the Express lines. When we needed to resolve an important debate over which ride was the best, we, pretty much at will, revisited each of the candidates (Spider Man, Simpsons, Mummy, Hulk, Dueling Dragons) for further evaluation.
When to Go
We stayed at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort in their Jurassic Suite. There's a separate kid's room with two twin beds beneath a tropical background and dinosaur images from the Jurassic Park movie. My son is eleven, and any perceived slight to his maturity inflicted by the dino decor was quickly offset by the supreme comfort of his generous bed and personal flat-screen TV. The main room has a king-size bed and a couch. It was ample room for our family of three, and would easily accommodate a family of four. One of our favorite vacation activities is simply to avail ourselves of all the hotel's amenities, and Loews offered plenty. Most notably a ginormous, lagoon-style pool with a beach and water-gun zone. We stayed for three days, two nights, which for us was plenty of time to see what we wanted. But I must say, a crucial factor in maximizing our Universal Time was the overall timing of our trip. We went in mid November, the off-season, during the week. Taking your children out of school for a vacation is a personal decision, and you can read what other Fodor's travelers have to say about it here. For us it was the right move. Before this trip, I would have been reluctant to offer an opinion on another family-vacation discussion: Which is the best place to visit in Orlando? I still am. But I will say that the in-the-park lodging experience made our Universal Time one of our most fun and exciting vacations to date.
–Eric B. Wechter
- Orlando-Disney World Destination Guide
- Pulling Kids Out of School for Travel: Yay or Nay?
- Mythos restaurant review
Photos: Francesca Drago