THE Comprehensive Guide to Universal Orlando
The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando by Seth Kubersky is packed with detailed, specific information on every ride, show, and restaurant in the resort, including insider details on Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, as well as the new waterpark Volcano Bay.
Compiled and written by a former Universal Orlando employee and based upon decades of research from a team whose work has been cited by such diverse sources as USA Today and Operations Research Forum, The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando provides step-by-step, detailed touring plans that allow you to make the most of every minute and dollar during your Universal Orlando vacation.
The guide includes info on where to find the cheapest Universal Orlando admission tickets, how to save big on Universal on-site hotel rooms and skip the regular lines in the parks, when to visit Universal Orlando for the lightest crowds, and everything else you need to know for a stress-free Universal Orlando experience.
About the Author
Seth Kuberskyhas worked for more than 20 years as a theatrical artist, culture critic, and travel journalist. Seth is the author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando and coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, as well as a collaborator on The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas and The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.
Seth is nationally recognized as an authority on theme parks and amusement attractions, and contributes to Attractions Magazine, AAA Via, and the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast. Named Best Arts Writer in The Daily City’s 2013 readers’ poll, Kubersky writes an arts and entertainment column, “Live Active Cultures,” that appears in every issue of the Orlando Weekly, central Florida’s leading alternative newspaper.
A native of Livingston, New Jersey, Kubersky earned a B.A. in theater from The College of William and Mary in Virginia. He has produced and directed dozens of plays through his award-winning Empty Spaces Theatre Co. and at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. As a stage technician and entertainment supervisor at Universal Orlando from 1996 to 2000, he worked on the Ghostbusters Spooktacular and Terminator 2: 3-D attractions, Mardi Gras parades, and Halloween mazes. Seth lives in Orlando with his wife, Genevieve, and their cat, Brubeck.
Read an Excerpt
PART 2 ACCOMMODATIONS
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Universal’s fifth on-site hotel, the Sapphire Falls Resort, brings a sunny Caribbean island vibe to the moderate market with its 1,000 rooms (including 77 suites), which opened in summer 2016. Sandwiched between Royal Pacific and Cabana Bayboth physically and price-wiseSapphire Falls sports most of the amenities of Universal’s three fanciest hotels, including water taxi transportation to the parks, with the crucial exception of complimentary Express Passes.
Rather than replicating the stereotypical pastel palette seen at Disney’s Caribbean-themed hotel, Sapphire Falls designers went with a cooler blue-and-white color scheme for the exterior. The lobby continues the modern reinterpretation of island aesthetics with a playful hanging sculpture of wicker beach balls and a massive floor-to-ceiling window providing a postcard-perfect view of the rear lagoon, with the towers of Doctor Doom’s Fearfall posing in the background. Public spaces fuse seemingly ancient structuressuch as a stunning stone silo, complete with authentic-looking mill equipmentwith starkly minimalist architecture and contemporary artwork. The mix can prove somewhat jarring; we sometimes emerged from a richly detailed space into a barren white hallway and wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn into an unfinished area. But after a couple visits, we’ve come to appreciate the Sapphire Falls Resort’s casually sophisticated vibe, which hits a sweet spot between the family-friendly freneticism of Cabana Bay and the elegance of Universal’s more upscale hotels.
Water figures heavily at Sapphire Falls, whose namesake waterfalls form the scenic centerpiece of the resort. The 15,600-square-foot main pool features 3,500 square feet of white sand on which to set your lounger, a 100-foot waterslide, children’s play areas, fire pits, a hot tub, and cabanas for rent. There are two zero-entry points near the middle of the pool on opposite sides, which allow you to pretend to walk across the water. A fitness room holds a sauna (the first free steam room on Universal property); table tennis (free to use) and a pool table (nominal fee per game) are available outside near the small arcade.
On the lower level, Amatista Cookhouse offers à la carte or buffet American breakfast, followed by table-service Caribbean food for lunch and dinner. Drhum Club Kantine serves tapas-style small plates, sandwiches, and massive bowls of alcohol near the pool bar’s fire pit. New Dutch Trading Co., an island-inspired grab-and-go marketplace, has ice cream, coffee, hot entrées and sandwiches, refillable Coke Freestyle cups, and packaged snacks. Strong Water Tavern in the lobby offers rum tastings and freshly made seviche, and a Universal Studios Store in the lobby sells sundries and resort souvenirs.
The rooms range from 322 square feet in a standard queen or king to 529 square feet in the 36 Kids’ Suites, up to 1,353 square feet in the 15 Hospitality Suites, which are appointed with charming rustic light fixtures and are sizable enough to live in long-term. All rooms include a 49-inch flat-panel HDTV, an alarm clock with iPhone dock, in-wall USB charging ports, mini-fridge, and coffeemaker. The rooms are aesthetically acceptable but a bit antiseptic, aside from a garishly colored mirror frame and metallized photos above the beds, and they are barely bigger than the standard Cabana Bay rooms. The layout is perfectly functional, but there are some odd design quirks, such as a sliding door to the toilet that doesn’t latch; don’t plan on doing your business in private if you have inquisitive kids.
Sapphire Falls also contains 131,000 square feet of meeting space and a business center. Covered walkways connect to a parking structure, which in turn connects to the meeting facilities at Royal Pacific, making the new sister properties ideal for conventions.
Water taxi transportation to Sapphire Falls takes only a few minutes longer than sailing to Royal Pacific, though boats may be delayed by traffic congestion under the bridge between the hotels and CityWalk. A pedestrian pathway to the parks starts near the boat dock, joining up with the Royal Pacific garden path near that hotel’s convention center entrance. Beware if you want to walk from Sapphire Falls to Cabana Bay; though their main entrances sit across from each other along Adventure Way, there is no pedestrian crosswalk at that heavily trafficked intersection.
Sapphire Falls occupies an interesting spot in Universal’s hotel spectrum, appealing to people turned off both by the mid-century aesthetics of Cabana Bay and the higher price tags of the resort’s other properties. If water taxi transportation is important to you, but Express Unlimited access is not, Sapphire Falls is your spot. Otherwise, search for photos online to see if you like the resort’s look, and carefully compare the rates to both Cabana Bay and Royal Pacific for the time of your planned visit.
UNIVERSAL’S ISLAND OF ADVENTURE ATTRACTIONS
Skull Island: Reign of Kong
Skull Island: Reign of Kong is both an attraction and an entire “island” unto itself, located between Toon Lagoon’s Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and the Thunder Falls Terrace restaurant in Jurassic Park. This attraction isn’t exactly based on the 2005 King Kong remake (though director Peter Jackson did consult on the design), nor is it directly tied to the Kong: Skull Island film in 2017. Rather, the ride is an original adventure set in the 1930s, casting guests as explorers with the Eighth Wonder Expedition Company, which has set up its jungle base camp in an ancient temple inhabited by a hostile Kong-worshiping indigenous tribe. That may seem like a foolish place to pitch your tent, but it makes for a phenomenal queue experience, featuring both lifelike animatronic figures and live haunted house–style actors who aggressively startle unwitting guests.
The winding skeleton-strewn path eventually leads to your transportation: an oversize 72-seat open-sided “expedition vehicle” that superficially resembles Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safari trucks. It’s helmed by one of five different animatronic tour guides, each with its unique personality and backstory, which lends the attraction additional re-ridability. Your ride begins with a short loop outside through the jungle (which may be bypassed in inclement weather, abbreviating the experience by almost 2 minutes), ending at the massive torch-framed doors in the center of Skull Island’s imposing stony facade. The doors open, allowing you passage into a maze of caves and caverns; there, you’re swiftly assaulted by all manner of icky prehistoric bats, bugs, and beasties, brought to gruesome life through a mix of detailed physical effects and razor-sharp 3-D screens (even better than the ones in Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and Transformers). After barely surviving a preliminary series of multisensory near misses, you’re thrust into the center of a raging battle between vicious V-Rex dinosaurs and the big ape himself, in a climactic sequence similar (though not identical) to the King Kong 360 3-D attraction on Universal Studios Hollywood’s tram tour. Finally, just when you think it’s all over, you’ll have one last face-to-face encounter with the “eighth wonder of the world,” only this time in the fur-covered flesh.
Reign of Kong is a remarkable achievement in immersive attractions, stimulating every sense (including olfactory) along the epic journey. However, some small but crucial creative missteps hold it back from being a grand slam home run, resulting in a ride that sits slightly behind Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man with second-tier E-Tickets. The queue’s atmosphere is unimpeachable, but muffled radio reports do an inadequate job of establishing the plot and characters before boarding. Once you are rolling, the initial scenes introduce a crisis that is completely abandoned once Kong arrives mid-ride, and though the 360 centerpiece has been noticeably upgraded since its original USH incarnation, an entirely original animation could have made for a more coherent connection to the opening. Finally, while the coda’s animatronic Kong has stunningly fluid facial expressions, his movements are anticlimactically passive, resulting in an attraction that seems oddly brief despite being (at nearly 6 minutes) one of the longest in the resort. There’s no shame in being among the top half-dozen rides in Universal Orlando’s impressive lineup, but Kong’s long-awaited return turned out to fall slightly short of the world-beating game changer his faithful fans may have expected.
Skull Island is epic in every sense, from the monumental exterior to the epic lines it attracts. On the plus side, Kong draws some guests away from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, helping rebalance the park. Hit Skull Island first thing in the morning after The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, or immediately following the Hogsmeade attractions if you’re using Early Park Admission.
Kong’s minimum height requirement is just 36 inchesone of the lowest in the resortand is designed to be physically accessible to most members of the family. However, on a sensory and psychological level, it’s extremely intense; the standby queue alone is enough to reduce fearful kids to tears, though the Express line bypasses most of the scares. If you or your little one has a fear of darkness, insects, or man-eating monsters, you may want to forgo the monkey. A child swap room (with benches and a TV showing clips of the 2005 film) is available, but you are directed to navigate the scary standby queue to reach it; if needed, ask a team member if you can access it via the accommodation line instead.
For those brave enough to board, the experience is far better in the back half of the truck (ideally rows seven, eight, or nine), with guests on the right side getting the best view of the finale. If directed to one of the first few rows, politely ask to wait for the next truck so you can sit toward the rear. Sitting at either end of a row reveals the edges of the screens, so sacrifice the enjoyment of your friend or family member by forcing them to sit in the outside seat. The ride uses the same 3-D glasses as Spider-Man and Gringotts; don’t put them on until you enter the first interior scene, and remove them after the 360 projection tunnel to best appreciate the ending’s animatronic.
Table of Contents
List of Maps
About the Authors
- Why “Unofficial”?
- Universal Orlando: An Overview
- UNIVERSAL LEXICON IN A NUTSHELL
- COMMON ABBREVIATIONS AND WHAT THEY STAND FOR
- CRITICAL COMPARISON OF ATTRACTIONS FOUND AT BOTH UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD AND UNIVERSAL ORLANDO
PART ONE Planning Before You Leave Home
- Gathering Information
- IMPORTANT UNIVERSAL ADDRESSES
- UNIVERSAL ORLANDO PHONE NUMBERS
- Timing Your Visit
- UNIVERSAL ORLANDO CLIMATE
- Allocating Money
- UNIVERSAL VS. WDW ADMISSIONS
- Making the Most of Your Time and Money at Universal Orlando
PART TWO Accommodations
- The Basic Considerations
- Universal Orlando Resort Hotels
- Universal Orlando Resort Hotel Services and Amenities
- Universal Orlando Resort Hotel Profiles
- Universal Orlando Vacation Packages
- Off-Site Lodging Options
- Hotels and Motels: Rated and Ranked
- A Word About Toll-Free Telephone Numbers
- The 30 Best Hotel Values
- THE 30 BEST HOTEL VALUES
- HOW THE HOTELS COMPARE
- HOTEL INFORMATION CHART
PART THREE Arriving and Getting Around
- Getting There
- Getting Oriented
PART FOUR Bare Necessities
- Money, Etc.
- Problems and Unusual Situations
- Universal Orlando for Guests with Special Needs
PART FIVE Universal Orlando with Kids
- It’s a Small Universe, After All
- About The Unofficial Guide Touring Plans
- Stuff to Think About
- Lost Children
- Universal, Kids, and Scary Stuff
- SMALL-CHILD FRIGHT-POTENTIAL TABLE
- POTENTIALLY PROBLEMATIC ATTRACTIONS FOR GROWN-UPS
- ATTRACTION HEIGHT REQUIREMENTS
- Universal Characters
- CHARACTER-GREETING LOCATIONS
PART SIX Dining and Shopping at Universal Orlando
- Character Meals
- Universal Orlando Dining Plans
- Fast Food in Universal Orlando’s Theme Parks
- TOP SIX SNACKS OUTSIDE THE WIZARDING WORLD
- Universal Orlando Quick-Service Restaurant Mini-Profiles
- Universal Orlando Full-Service Restaurant Profiles
- UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESTAURANTS BY CUISINE
- TOP SIX MILK SHAKES AT UNIVERSAL ORLANDO
- Dining Near Universal Orlando
- Shopping at Universal Orlando
- Shopping Near Universal Orlando
PART SEVEN Universal Studios Florida
- Getting Oriented at Universal Studios Florida
- Universal Studios Florida Attractions
- Live Entertainment at Universal Studios Florida
- Special Events at Universal Studios Florida
- Universal Studios Florida Touring Plans
PART EIGHT Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- Getting Oriented at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- Universal’s Islands of Adventure Attractions
- Special Events at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- Universal’s Islands of Adventure Touring Plans
PART NINE Universal Orlando CityWalk
- Arriving and Parking
- Admission Prices
- Contacting CityWalk
- CityWalk Clubs
- CityWalk Entertainment
PART TEN Universal’s Volcano Bay
- Getting to Universal’s Volcano Bay
- Operating Hours and Admission Price
- Universal’s Volcano Bay Attractions