Our family of four travels to Universal in Orlando often. We've stayed at every on-site hotel and know the landscape well.
The More You Go to Universal Orlando, the More Secrets You Learn
When I first visited Universal Orlando, I only paid attention to what most visitors paid attention to—the rides, the scenery, the food, and the cool stuff in the shops. I was immersed in those things and never thought about the little details that go into creating the illusion that there's no outside world.
However, the more you visit Universal Orlando, the more you start to learn the secrets of the parks and the hotels and everything else. You start looking for things because it adds more fun to the vacation. In some cases, Universal has designed these things into the park. In other cases, they don't want you to adventure in certain places.
Regardless of whether Universal likes it or not, these are the kinds of things that are fun and add adventure to visiting Universal Orlando.
Secret Entrances and Exits
There are a couple of little tricks at Universal Studios that are worth noting regarding secret places to exit and enter Universal Studios.
The picture above shows an entrance to Universal Studio that takes you between Minion Mayhem and the Universal Store. You can access it from the path where you used to enter the Blue Man Group building. I'm not sure what's going to happen to this entrance since Blue Man Group is no longer there, but there's no indication the building is going away. It's not open all the time, but if you notice it open and you're heading to Islands of Adventure from inside Universal Studios, it's a good place to exit the park.
The second "secret" entrance is on the farthest side of Universal Studios nearest the Hard Rock. Basically, when you walk through the main entrance on your way to ticketing or the entrance to the park, go as far right as possible. Sometimes, they let people in on the other side of the building, which dumps you in near the bathrooms on the other side of the Today Show lounge. I have personally used this entrance when there was a really long line to get in, so it can be very convenient if it's open.
The Best Place to Watch the Velocicoaster While Going To School
Do you know where the School of Fish is located at Islands of Adventure?
The first time I rode the Velocicoaster, it was roughly a week before opening day, so technically the ride was in soft open. The line for it was usually about an hour. The entrance was packed with people.
If you go over to the Olive Oil, which is the kid's play ship just past Bilge-Rat Barges, there's a wonderful walking area of decks and bridges with lots of fun sight gags. Among them is the School of Fish where, if you ask me, you have the best unobstructed view of the Velocicoaster. I should have taken a picture, but you're standing right next to the top hat, so you can see just about everything from there and hear the screams of joy and fear as clear as day.
It's the perfect place to stand and watch a great roller coaster.
Most regular visitors to Universal Orlando know about the free tours. However, as many times as I've been to both parks, I haven't come close to doing all the tours or even remembering they exist.
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What's a free tour, you ask? Well, if it's not too crowded and there's an available team member, many ride areas offer tours of the back areas of the ride or special places where most people aren't allowed to go normally.
I have been on the Men in Black Immigration Tour, which is where a team member will take you on the floor of the queue line where the aliens reside and you can take pictures. From what I know, there are also tours for Jimmy Fallon and The Mummy. Undoubtedly, there are others. You just have to ask.
Ride a Float During Mardi Gras
This was one of those things I didn't really know about until I visited a few times.
During Mardi Gras, the resort is always looking for guests to ride the floats and throw beads, and also to hold the giant balloons. While it involves a bit of a time commitment, it's a great way to go behind the scenes at Universal Orlando. Usually, if you're visiting for the first time, just watching the parade is exciting enough.
I've done both of these activities and throwing beads at people is probably the most fun, although learning how to be a balloon walker is interesting too. I'll just say, people go unnecessarily crazy for free beads.
Cool Off at Cat in the Hat
The two coldest buildings in the park are Cat in the Hat and Men in Black. So when it's really hot, we usually head to Cat in the Hat to cool off.
Men in Black is also very cold, but only for the walk up the ramp at the beginning (if you're in the Express or Single Rider line). After that, it's more of a normal, indoor, air-conditioned temperature.
All of Cat in the Hat is ice cold. It's very refreshing.
Watch a New TV Show and Get a Gift Card at the NBC Universal Media Center
Most first-time visitors have no idea about the Media Center. It's located along the path between the Hollywood Horror Make-Up Show and the Animal Actors show. The picture shows the Garden of Allah Villas, but the actual place where you go to watch the shows is to the left of that.
On one vacation, I went to the Media Center every day for a week and received seven $25 gift cards. It was almost like a job. However, they've since limited participation to once per year. Sometimes you can do it twice because they don't remember you, but only count on doing it once.
Depending on the length of the program you watch, you can get up to a $50 gift card, but that's uncommon. Usually, it's $10 or $20.
This is a testing center where they conduct research on new shows to gauge audience reaction. In order to qualify for this, you'll have to pass a brief interview with a team member (usually in a white shirt holding a clipboard) outside the Media Center.
I've found this experience extremely rewarding and have seen a few new shows long before they aired.
Turn Around on The Mummy
I'm always interested in how things work, so if there's an opportunity to see parts of the ride the designers are trying to avoid showing, I'll like to look.
Most rides are designed to make the rider feel like their car is the only one on the ride. You are not supposed to see other riders or other cars.
The Mummy is probably one of the most complicated rides when it comes to keeping you from seeing other cars. Think about how many cars run on that ride, yet you never see another car. Everything is timed perfectly.
However, there's one opportunity where you can almost see another car and that's after you enter the beetle room and the car suddenly goes backward and then turns around to ready you for shooting up the track.
As the car begins to turn around, if you look behind, you'll see the wall start to drop so that riders coming through the other way can't see the track. Frankly, I haven't seen another car, but I think if I could keep my neck turned, I'd see it at the last second.
Look Down and Around on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
I almost never feel sick on a ride, but this is one of the few where I can sometimes feel a bit woozy. The Quidditch flying part does it to me. Usually, that happens when my son makes me ride a bunch of times in a row or something.
So, if I'm not up for that part, I tend to try to figure out what's going on. As you enter the Quidditch arena, try looking down and seeing how the ride works. You'll notice the fact that you're basically riding on a giant crane and that there's a series of turning concave screens, so as each ride vehicle comes around, you enter the screen so you can't really see around you. Somehow, you stay within the screen long enough to watch the entire mini-movie until popping out again.
Frankly, I find the mechanics of that ride amazing. If the timing isn't right, the whole thing doesn't work. Like many rides in the park, the goal of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is to make you feel like you're the only one on the ride. They do an amazing job creating that illusion as long as you stay focused on what's in front of you.
Go Pick Something Up at Walgreens
There are many great aspects to staying at an on-site hotel.
One of my favorites is the design of the whole resort. Everything about every part of the resort and every hotel is that it's designed to make you forget the outside world exists. Transporting your mind and body is part of a great vacation.
When I stay at Portofino, it's great to get into the mindset of being secluded and away from real life. You'll notice when you drive into Universal, Orlando, the roads are curved and there are bushes or buildings blocking any view of non-resort objects. You're supposed to feel separated from reality.
In truth, the Portofino Bay Hotel is about a five-minute walk from a Walgreens. I figured this out during one stay when my wife needed some medicine and I didn't want to pay out the nose at Portofino's convenience store, where two Advil cost like $10. I also needed some stuff they didn't have. I didn't have a car. Yes, I could have taken an Uber, but I realized just how close my answer was.
Given that anyone staying on-site can ride the water taxis, this might just be the best trip to a Walgreens anyone has ever taken.
Basically, the Walgreens is almost exactly behind the hotel. However, Portofino does not want you to go behind the hotel because there's stuff back there, like trash collection and parking for the staff. However, if you can find the main pool, you can walk around the hotel on the sidewalk, which will end suddenly. From there, you just walk through the grass until you get to the street. Then turn right and you'll get to the intersection of Vineland and South Kirkland Road. This is not exactly a pedestrian-friendly crossing, so be cautious.
You can also get over there if you can find the parking lot behind Portofino, which is accessible from the Villa pool. You walk around on the north side of the pool around the hotel, and you'll see a ramp that goes down to the parking lot.
If you need something at Walgreens, like water or sunscreen, a five-minute walk will save a lot of money. And frankly, I find it somehow rewarding to remind myself that real people work at these hotels, and being so nice all the time is a job.
Walk the Shortcut from Portofino to Universal Studios
I need to insert a disclaimer here: This is not something Universal Orlando wants its guests to be doing or condones.
There, I said it. I actually don't want many people doing this either because not many people do it now and, if it gets too crowded, it won't be fun or safe.
Anyone who stays at Portofino knows that sometimes the wait for the water taxi can take a while. So, if you anticipate a wait of more than about 15 minutes, what can you do?
Well, one nice alternative is to take the walking path. That can take anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes depending on how fast you walk. Another alternative is to take the walking path to the water taxi entrance at the Hard Rock. Still, your total time from Portofino to the parks will be at least 30 minutes.
If you're looking for something faster, try taking the shortcut, which involves walking to Portofino's front entrance, across the street to the Hard Rock, and then through the Hard Rock's parking lot to a short walking path that leads to the walking path entrance to the parks.
Personally, I kind of enjoy seeing things behind the scenes and this walk involves the back of the Hard Rock Hotel, its parking lot, and a road that runs alongside the backs of the Curious George kids' play area, the Nut House Coaster, and E.T.
My family plays a game during these walks as we try to identify as many states as we can from license plates in the Hard Rock parking lot.
The only downside to this walk is that there's not a lot of shade and it can be rather hot, which is why we usually do it first thing in the morning. Just be careful crossing the street and watch your children in the parking lot.
Buy Some Chocolate Bread to go at Toothsome
This is a little tricky and may get me into some trouble, but there's a way to order stuff at Toothsome without waiting in line too long or having to get a table.
Basically, just walk right in and head upstairs to the bar where you can order just about anything you want. There doesn't necessarily have to be a seat at the bar either. You can just approach and order.
Obviously, food can take some time because you're waiting in a queue just like the people seated at tables, but one thing you can get quickly that's among the best food bargains in the park is the chocolate bread. It's delicious and the whole loaf is only $4. When they first opened, Toothsome charged $3 but then they raised the prices.
Still, you can usually just walk right up to the bar and get what you want without any problem. If you're by yourself, you can sit at the bar and eat.
Hit the Universal Garage Sale
'Cheap' and 'theme park gear' are things that don't go together, unless you're shopping at the annual Universal garage sale.
I'll be honest, we've scheduled entire vacations around the garage sale. I've taken solo trips for the garage sale. It's a little crazy, but the prices are certainly worth it. Usually, the sale occurs during the second or third week of November but isn't generally announced far enough in advance to schedule a trip around it if you're from out-of-state. Sometimes you take a chance.
The sale usually takes place at the employee parking garage, which is located at Vineland and Turkey Lake Road. If you want to know where that is in relation to the parks, imagine if you could walk off Platform 9 and 3/4, climb over the train, and then over the wall. You'd basically be in the employee parking lot (actually, I think you'd be somewhere in the Human Resources building, but you'd be really close to the parking lot).
You can take a bus to the garage or, if you've rented a car, you can drive there. It can be a bit of a headache. However, there is a lot of cheap stuff there, which usually starts at 70% off retail during the sale. After a few days, it goes to 80% off retail. Then, in the last half hour of the sale, stuff is usually 90% off.
I've gotten some great deals and some not-so-great deals, but the sale is one of those things like Black Friday where it's kind of an event. They usually have tons of clothing and the selection is usually pretty amazing.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Allen Donald