Out There: An Amazing Gift

Universal Studios offers excitement all year round. Whether you love rides, entertainment, the characters, or the food, Universal has become more than just a “theme park” vacation. A trip to Universal may also be the perfect gift! In fact, Perla from AAA was gifted a “cousins” trip from her grandmother, allowing 6 family members a week together in Florida. We sat with Perla to learn more about her travels, and this amazing present from her grandmother.

AAA Travel: What an amazing gift to receive! With the holidays approaching and so many people concerned with shipping delays, this type of present may be the perfect solution. How far in advance did you book your trip?

Perla: This was an unforgettable gift from my grandmother. She surprised my family of cousins in May, and we started planning right away. How could we not, we were all so excited! The six of us decided August would be the perfect time to visit Universal Studios, as a way to wave goodbye to summer, and for my younger cousins, a kick start to the new school year.

AAA Travel: Planning a vacation for Six is exciting, but also tricky. Did you use a travel advisor to book this trip?

Perla: We did! The six of us and wanted to stay as a group throughout the trip, and we also knew we wanted to stay in a Universal Studio resort. Our travel advisor provided us with options from pricing, distance to and from the parks, and reviewed available resort specific benefits. The advisor also helped book our flights, transportation to and from the resort and made sure we had adjoining rooms in the hotel of our choice. One of the things she helped us plan was the park tickets and express pass. We booked a package and chose a bundle that included the tickets, early entry, park hopper and the express pass. This was a big win for us, as there were two days where we went to multiple parks! It was worth working with an advisor to help us streamline all the options and processes.

AAA Travel: When it comes to stays like yours, travelers never want to miss a thing. Working with an advisor can help you ensure you do it all. How long did you stay?

Perla: We were there for a total of 5 days, flying into Orlando on a Friday morning. We jumped right in, leaving our bags at the resort as we went straight to Universal Studios. Our advisor recommended this early Friday flight because it allowed us to enjoy the parks, instead of sacrificing a vacation day as a ‘travel day’.

AAA Travel: Had you been to Universal before? Was it different this time?

 Perla: Out of the six cousins, four of us had been to Universal Studios before. There were less crowds on this trip, compared to my previous vacations. 10 years ago, I went to the park and all I remember was crowds. During that visit, it seemed like there was a line for everything, even the bathroom. I had experienced wait times as expected, but longer than I had been prepared for. This time, because the park was at a limited capacity, it was kind of nice. There were definitely people there, but lines weren’t as long and you could actually find a seat at the restaurants.

AAA Travel: Great point. With locations, and even cruise ships operating at reduced capacity, travelers are sharing that this may be one of the best times to travel. What areas did you see?

Perla: Since we stayed in a Universal Orlando Resort, we were close to everything. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure were walking distance or a 10min ferry ride. Volcano Bay was about a 20 minute bus ride provided by Universal. In addition to this, we were right in the middle of Citywalk, with access to all the delicious restaurants, bars (only if you’re 21+, please), multiple Universal Studios stores, and so many options for snacks you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. Because the parks were closing at 7pm on most of the days we were there, we would leave the park and get dinner and walk around Citywalk, letting the younger kids tire themselves out before heading back to the hotel. For the older folk, we’d clean up and head back out to Citywalk for some night entertainment as well. Our options were endless!

Of course, the main reason we went was for the parks. I was most excited for Jurassic World, as I’ve been patiently waiting for their new ride, Velocicoaster all year. Let me tell you, it did NOT disappoint. Because it was a new ride, you couldn’t use the Express pass and the wait times were 75-90 minutes at any given point. Here is a ‘Perla Pro Tip’: download the Universal Studios app and follow the wait times on the app so you know when to head over to the ride. This helped me a ton in planning how to course the park.

Because we were there for 5 days, we dedicated 1 day per park. With our extra days, we re-visited our favorite attractions. On our last full day, we woke up early to hit Islands of Adventure as soon as they open (there’s no early entry for Universal Orlando Resort stayers at Islands of Adventure) and we streamlined straight to Jurassic World’s Velicocoaster, which only had a 10-minute wait. In a span of about 25 minutes, we rode the ride TWICE! Hands-down BEST COASTER EVER.

Let’s not forget that Universal Studios is home to Harry Potter’s Wizarding World. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure was also a new ride and did not accept the express ride, so we did have to wait a bit for this one. Luckily, we found a sweet spot, only waiting 45 minutes when the average wait time was hovering between 60-70 minutes. This ride did not disappoint, let’s just say it has a couple of good surprises. I won’t ruin it for you.

The hidden prize for me, came in nostalgia. As I walked through the parks, memories of my family and our previous visits rushed through my head. With three trips under my belt, I have hundreds of memories across multiple family generations. I also can’t wait for my fourth visit!

AAA Travel: It sounds like your hotel was in the perfect location. Where did you stay, and would you recommend this spot to AAA Members?

Perla: We stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. It is one of the closest resorts to the parks and Citywalk, with just a 10-minute ferry ride along a beautiful river that flows through the properties. For those not comfortable on a boat, it is also walking distance through a nature walk with beautiful garden views and the same river.

We did get adjoining rooms. Our rooms were clean and the hotel was enormous. They have multiple restaurants on the property, and we treated ourselves to an Italian dinner at the resort one of the nights. They also have a Starbucks on the property, so we all started our mornings with a nice, iced coffee to kick start the day.

Portofino Bay is on the pricier side compared to Cabana Bay or Surfside Inn, but we chose it because of the awesome benefits that come when booking your stay there. You get a free Universal Express Unlimited pass, which is amazing if you don’t like waiting in lines, early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and priority seating at select restaurants. Apart from all of that, its proximity to the park was my favorite part!

AAA Travel: Clean hotels are important, and you also mentioned shorter lines and less crowds. How else was your trip impacted by COVID?

Perla: The parks had signs everywhere reminding visitors to social distance, and hand sanitizer stations had been placed along all the pathways through the park, including the entrances and exits of all the attractions. You did not have to wear a mask while outside, and with the decrease in volume of people, it was easy to keep distance from others while walking. It was highly recommended to wear masks inside, whether on a ride or in a restaurant. We always kept our masks within reach.

AAA Travel: It sounds like the parks have made adjustments. How was your flight different from pre-COVID travels?

Other than having to wear a mask on the plane, which I don’t mind, flights are pretty much the same. Our flights to and from Florida were completely booked, but everyone wore a mask and we had no issues.

AAA Travel: Did you have to COVID-19 test before and after your travel? Was the process complicated?

Perla: It was not required to show proof of a negative Covid test before or after for the parks or the resort, but we did take a test 3 days prior to leaving as a family precaution. The process wasn’t complicated, we just visited the RIDOH website and chose an available appointment.

Perhaps the gift of travel is on your holiday shopping list, and AAA Travel is here to help. Let our travel advisors create a memorable vacation for you and your loved ones. Together with your advisor, you can find the best locations, most memorable stays, and unforgettable experiences. Find your advisor today.

For more information about planning a trip to Universal Studios, including packaged vacations and discounted tickets, please visit our Universal Studios section on the AAA website.