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Disney World October 2015 Trip Report Part 2: Islands of Adventure

This picture about sums it up…

025

The Adventure Begins…

There are a variety of ways to get to Universal Resort from WDW.  This page on Mousesavers.com details them nicely.  We took the option of the Mears shuttle.  I called about a week ahead of time to reserve 4 RT fares, which were payable to the driver in cash.  The agent told me that morning pickups happen every 30 minutes at the :20 and :50 minute marks.  Evening pickups would be on the quarter hour, in a designated area near the regular taxi stand.  A Mears shuttle picked us up from Art of Animation at 8:15 on the dot- we lucked out and got a private van.  We paid the driver for the round-trips, and he gave us vouchers for the evening ride.  It took about 20-25 minutes to get there, so we were at the gates about 10 minutes before the park opened at 9am.  We were only about 10 families back, so in a great position to book it to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter- Hogsmeade as fast as possible.  DH grabbed a map to orient himself and we went over the plan for the day. Read the rest of this entry »

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Disney Pre-Trip Report: let us in! let us in!

Did you know that some people do “resort-only” trips, where they stay in a new (to them) Disney resort, and just enjoy the facilities, restaurants, and Downtown Disney?  It apparently makes for a very relaxing vacation.  They avoid all the craziness of the Parks, and save a lot of money.    Perhaps I should consider….

<brakes squealing Yeah, right.  No way am I traveling 5000 miles for a hotel, even a Disney one.  Bring on the rides, shows and characters, baby!  Bring on the heat, and the crowds, and the potential for blisters!  Bring me that horizon! (tm Capt. Jack Sparrow)

To experience all that, I need tickets.

I reviewed my choices for Universal Islands of Adventure tickets in that planning post.  After 10 months of looking, I haven’t found any other applicable discount to those darn Universal 1-day-1-park tickets that I need.  But I found a way to get them for free and then some using credit cards…and it’s all totally legitimate.  Explanation to follow 🙂

On the Disney side of the equation, I settled on 6-day Magic Your Way Park Hoppers.  Park Hoppers will allow us to go to any park at any time, for 6 days over the course of our whole vacation (the 6 days don’t have to be consecutive).  Here is a great explanation on the Disney ticket options, including a handy calculator- this is the official site for the Unofficial Guide people.

In the end, it made most sense to purchase all the tix at the same time, in one order, from UndercoverTourist. This is a valid Disney and Universal ticket broker.  Nothing shady here.  I’m on the MouseSavers email list, which entitles me to the special link to UndercoverTourist for additional savings over the standard UT discounts.  Not huge, but every Disney Dollar counts.  Still, I was looking at a large chunk of change.

Hours of research led me to conclude that the best way to buy almost $2k worth of admissions was to charge them on a credit card.

I know, I know.  Let me explain...

I know, I know. Let me explain…

Duh!  But it’s the specific card used that matters.  We haven’t gotten a new credit card in a little while, and I was itching for a fresh sign-up bonus that would help us out with this significant cost…I found it in the Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard.  This card allows for point redemptions on eligible travel purchases over $25.  You get 2 “points” for every 1 dollar in spending.  Cash back (what they are calling “redemptions”) comes in the form of a statement credit.  The 40k point bonus (worth $400) comes after spending $3k in purchases within the first 3 months of getting approved for the card.  This means that you wind up with more than 40k points when you have reached the spending threshold, since you earn points for the spending, too.  Technically, you have at least 45K+ points to redeem against your travel-related purchase after reaching the spend.  You see where I’m going?  We timed our spending on some other household stuff to coincide with the purchase of the tickets so that we reached the $3k spend in the first billing cycle.  Then, when the bonus points were posted, we applied all the points to the Undercover Tourist charge, and received a $450 statement credit.  Boom!  Our total charge for both Universal and Disney tickets was $1996, and we will only have to pay $1545 of that.  Our Universal tickets were completely covered by the statement credit, and then some.

Now, you don’t have to follow this particular strategy of completing the spending all in one billing cycle.  You can redeem for travel-related purchases up to 120 days after the day the charge posts.  But I never carry a balance, and didn’t feel like shelling out the cash now only to reimburse myself later, so we did it this way.  And the extra bonus on top of that bonus?  You get 10% of your redeemed points back, so we now have 4,500 points back (worth $45) to redeem against a different travel-related charge.

The Arrival+ is a great everyday card since you always get the 2 points/dollar, and still have the flexibility of cash in the form of the statement credit- you are not tied to a particular loyalty program.  It carries a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the 1st year.  It’s good for people for whom price is the bottom line on any travel decisions, and people who don’t travel enough to earn lots of miles in one frequent flyer/hotel/rental car program.  It’s hard to justify the annual fee after the 1st year, though.  We’ll see if we keep it long-term.  But for now, thanks for the free tix, Barclay Bank!

thanks bro

I know what you’re thinking…she’s only spending 6 days in the Parks?!  Yes and no.  We’re not doing Parks on the arrival or departure days, and are spending the 1 day at Universal. That leaves a max of 8 Park days, and I always insist on a total non-park day to rest my weary bones.  That still leaves 7 days and you only have a 6-day ticket, you say?  Well, we are attending Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.  It’s one of the only times adults can wear costumes inside of a Disney Park, and it considered a “hard-ticket” event- so your ticket counts as admission, no need to use up a Park Hopper day! The party starts at 7pm and ends at midnight, but party-ticket holders can get in beginning at 4pm.  So we’re really in the Parks for 7 days 🙂

On our Party day, we’ll sleep in, do some laundry, and eat lunch at Downtown Disney before heading back to the hotel to get our sorta-costumes on!  We’ve decided to “DisneyBound” (dressing inspired by the signature colors of a Disney character without using a literal costume) as characters from Finding Nemo.  I’m Dory!  Getting inspired by these images:

dory1 dory2 dory3 dory4 dory5

I saw Jurassic World, and got totally re-pumped for the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride in Universal.  There’s a new Raptor Experience, too!

We’re getting close to Double-Digit Dance Day (aka 99 days left until the trip)!!!  SO. MUCH. EXCITEMENT. 

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Theme Park Planning- Universal Studios Tickets

So I outlined my 1-day, 1-park strategy for Islands of Adventure here.  Now let’s talk admission tickets, and some ways to save money!

As with most theme parks, the price per day of admission goes down as the number of days on the ticket increases. This is because the more time you spend in the park, the more opportunity for you to spend money on food, souvenirs and extra experiences. So, the park gives you an incentive to stay longer by making days 4, 5, and beyond much cheaper than days 1 and 2.  Huh?  Here’s a handy chart if you are a visual learner:

Did I use Excel to make this chart? Of course I did!

Did I use Excel to make this chart? Of course I did!

The main thing you’ll notice is that the values along the green line, representing the average ticket cost per day of admission, get lower as the # of days admission gets higher.  It’s a powerful motivation to add more park days onto your ticket.  In my sample above, you can add another day for only $10 in some cases!  A perfect example of that classic sales tactic, “The more you buy, the more you save!”

What a lovely saying.  We all know the truth—the more you buy, the more you spend.  But as we’ve determined that travel is worth spending for, we continue on our quest to at least spend wisely!  Back to the tickets.

In the case of Universal, they only sell Base tickets (1 park only), or Park-to-Park Admissions of up to 4 days.  If you’re staying longer than that, an Annual Pass is your best bet to reduce costs, and they tell you so right on the site.  For tickets of 2 days or more, whether Base or Park-to-Park, one way to save money is buy the tickets online at the Universal Orlando Resort site.  Currently they offer a $20 discount for online purchases.  Things to know:

  • You can buy tix whenever you want in advance of your trip- they don’t start counting the days until you first use them at the gate.  You then have 14 days to use all your admissions up, and they don’t have to be consecutive days.  For a 4-day ticket, you can go the Park on a Monday the 1st, Wednesday the 3rd, Sunday the 7th and use your last day on Sunday the 13th, or whatever combination you choose.
  • No refunds on days you don’t wind up using within the 14-day window.
  • Only Park-to-Park tix can be used to enter more than 1 park per day (meaning, if you have 2-day Base tix, you can’t use 1 admission “credit” for IoA in the morning, and then use another “credit” for Universal Studios that same day).
  • Tix are not transferable, they must be used by the same person every time.
  • You can print your tix at home or pick them up at the Park’s Will Call window.  Though choosing to get into a line that won’t end in a ride is baffling to me, I realize that some people don’t have a printer or are picking up tix that someone else bought for them.
  • Be prepared to show photo ID at the ticket window if picking tix up.
  • You can also add admission to the Wet ‘n Wild Waterpark or Blue Man Group shows along with your park tix.

Well, the bad news is that there are almost NEVER discounts available on the ticket I need for my visit: 1-day Base.  I need to spend $96 per adult, and yes, my tween counts as an adult (ages 10 and up!), and $90 for my toddler just to walk into the place.  Ouch.  I’ll continue to look at possible discounts as we approach the trip, since there are various avenues that just might turn up a little bit of relief for the wallet.  Here’s my checklist of sites to consult as I prepare to buy our tix:

  1. I’ll always start at the Universal site itself.  They occasionally run promotions offering more than the standard $20 discount per ticket for direct online purchases.  Note that you have to get a few steps into the ordering process to see your true total including tax.
  2. Undercover Tourist:  this is a reliable ticket broker site that offers admission discounts along with free shipping, AND their displayed prices already include tax.
  3. AAA: again, occasional discounts available right now, they offer the same price as the Universal site, and only on Park-to-Park tix.  They do offer a small discount if you buy tix at the gate and show your AAA card.
  4. AARP: we used this site to great effect to save $80 on our Hershey Park tix.  Nothing spectacular for Universal right now.
  5. Costco: you can search the site for discounted theme park tix, check the warehouse, or go to Costco Travel for vacation packages that include hotel, rental car, and tix as a bundle.  Many of the vacation packages offer a Costco Cash card for booking.

Also, a few of these discounts may apply to some of you out there: military discount here, Florida Resident discounts here.  Those of you combining a visit to Universal with other Orlando attractions like Sea World/Aquatica/Busch Gardens Tampa Bay might look into the Orlando Flex Ticket to save on overall admission costs.  People whose employers participate in Tickets at Work or Working Advantage are lucky ducks indeed- check with your Human Resources or Benefits Dept for a password.

There is one more way to save on Theme Park ticket purchases that I know of: use some of those hard-earned credit card rewards!

cc rewards

While I would never use actual airline miles on merchandise unless I was simply overflowing with them, there are alternate points one can earn and redeem from credit cards, like Ultimate Rewards points from select Chase bank credit cards (I’ve only seen Universal tickets offered occasionally), Membership Rewards points from select American Express credit cards, Hilton HHonors points from the co-branded credit cards or Hilton Stays- redeem through the Shopping Mall portal, and Barclaycard Arrival points (Note: this card offers cash back in the form of statement credits for qualifying travel purchases.  The ticket purchase on its own would not be eligible, but if you bought tix as part of your hotel charges or with a package including hotel/air/etc, it would count).  Some of these cards have annual fees, so factor that cost into your savings calculations.

Finally, the U.S. Travel Association partners with American Express every spring (roughly late May through early June) to offer some pretty amazing travel deals called Daily Getaways. This past spring, a 2-day Universal Studios Hollywood ticket was going for about $89, a hefty savings.  They announce the deals about a week before they go live on the site, and you need to be quick, they mostly sell out FAST.  Be sure you read all the details before purchasing a deal- they are nonrefundable and I heard of at least 1 person who bought that Universal ticket without realizing it was for California and not Florida.  Bonus: if you pay with an American Express card, you get an additional 10% off the deal.

I’ll be on the lookout for any and all Universal 1-day Base ticket discounts from now until next summer!  I’ll let you know if I’m able to score a deal.

 

I just want you guys to know that prior to having this blog, I would talk about and debate the merits of all these kinds of options out loud to my husband.  Several times over the year leading up to a trip.  Which is all the time, because I am always planning a trip.  And usually late at night, which is when I do my best thinking (shhh, don’t tell my boss).  So, by reading, you are doing a great public service to my husband, his ears, and his REM sleep patterns.  Were he to meet you, he would thank you sincerely.

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Theme Park Planning- Universal Islands of Adventure

You may have glommed onto the fact that I LOVE Disney, and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida in one of my favorite places on Earth.  I’ve had the pleasure of introducing my daughter and husband to Disney World, and next time we go it’ll be my son’s first trip, wee!

For reasons I’ll go into in future Disney trip planning posts, we always stay on-site at the Resort hotels.  I like to arrive in Orlando, get on a Disney Magical Express bus, arrive at my Disney resort hotel, experience the magic, and only leave Disney property to go back to the airport.  I stay in the “Disney Bubble,” you see.

Those are indeed, matching shirts.

Those are indeed matching shirts.  It’s all part of being a Disney dork.

 

But…..there’s a little phenomenon that you may have heard of.  It’s a series of books about a boy wizard

My sister and I are both avid readers, and I started reading the Harry Potter series at her suggestion.  I absolutely loved the books and was very excited when I heard that Universal Resort Orlando was building the magical village of Hogsmeade, as part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  It opened in summer 2010, and I have been plotting to go ever since.  I have, however, limited us to a 1-day visit, so as not to lose valuable Disney Time.  And, I’ve scheduled this as Theme Park Day 1 of our vacation, so we don’t really get into the Disney Bubble until after this day is over.  

So, ride along with me (on a Firebolt, perhaps?) as I plan our visit to Universal Islands of Adventure (IoA) next year.

islands of adventure logo

What, I’m planning a 1-day visit 11 months in advance?  Yes, YES I AM.  I haven’t been to Universal since 2001, and much has changed.  So, it’s time to read up.  I’ll be learning as I post, so I would love to hear any tips or tricks you have come across as well.

First, a quick description of the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.  There are 3 separate Parks: Wet ‘n Wild Waterpark, Universal Studios Florida, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

1. Wet ‘n Wild Waterpark looks like a fun day for people who like spending the entire day in a waterpark.  I am not that type of person, so we didn’t consider visiting this park.  I’m sure it’s great, though- we had fun at the Boardwalk area of Hershey Park, because that water park is incorporated into the rest of the park as opposed to on its own.

2. The headliner rides at Universal Studios Florida include Transformers: The Ride 3D, Revenge of the Mummy, MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack, The Simpsons Ride, E.T. Adventure, and many quality shows.  None of the characters these rides are based on are my cup of tea, so it was easy to rule out this park when I first started to think about taking some time outside the Disney bubble to go to Universal.  Life threw a serious curveball at my plans with the very recent opening of another section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter– this time they’ve built Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.  The Escape from Gringotts ride looks AMAZING, as does the ride on the Hogwarts Express.  Unfortunately, if we want to see both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, we would need Park-to-Park Admission tickets, which cost significantly more than the 1-day 1-Park tickets I was planning to get.  We’d be paying the premium on the park tickets simply to see Diagon Alley, since as I mentioned, the other rides in this park don’t appeal to us.  Plus, I don’t want to try to visit both parks in the 1 day I’ve allotted.  So after a lot of thought, we’re sticking with just Islands of Adventure for Hogsmeade on this trip, and plan to see Diagon Alley on a future trip.

3. That brings us to the glory that is a theme park that contains both Hogwarts Castle AND Jurassic Park.  At Hogsmeade, we’ll ride the Forbidden Journey, take the Dragon Challenge, soar on Flight of the Hippogriff, and have a wand choose us at Ollivander’s.  And we can’t forget the butterbeer!

Also available as Frozen Butterbeer!  Does not contain alcohol :)

Also available as Frozen Butterbeer! Does not contain actual  alcohol 🙂

You guys, Jurassic Park is my favorite movie of all time.  So, the River Adventure ride is a must-do.  And since my son is too small to ride, he can visit the Camp Jurassic play area, and ride the Pteranodon Flyers with dad or big sis as I ride the River Adventure as many times as humanly possible.

A vacation almost 4 years in the making!

A vacation almost 5 years in the making!

Other fun areas of the park include Seuss Landing and Marvel Super Hero Island, home of the incredible Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride.  I’m pretty excited for my husband to ride Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, since he is a connoisseur of log flume rides, thank you very much.  And I’m sure it will be very refreshing to get completely soaked on Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges.

OK, here’s my park strategy to hopefully avoid lines and maximize park time:

  • We need to know the park hours, and looking at August 2014, IoA is consistently opening at 9am daily throughout the summer.  It’s important to know that Universal Resort hotel guests get a 1-hour head start into the parks ahead of the general public, which means they’ll be in at 8am, with many guests heading immediately to the Hogsmeade section of the park.  In order to have a chance of riding Harry Potter rides in the morning, we need to be at the entrance gate by no later than 8:30.  They occasionally let general public guests in 10-15 minutes before “official” opening, so we’ll want to be ready to go at the gate!
  • We’re traveling to IoA from our Disney Resort on a Mears Shuttle, since we’re not renting a car while in Florida and I don’t think the 1-hour head start is worth the huge premium for a Universal Resort Hotel for just 1 day, though guests do get Front-of-the-Line access with the Universal Express-Unlimited benefit as described in the link above.  Note: You can also purchase this benefit as a non-resort park guest, but since we’re not looking to ride The Hulk or other thrill rides I don’t think we need it.  They say to leave 30-60 minutes for the shuttle ride, since the van picks up guests at up to 3 Disney resorts before heading out to IoA.  This means we’re look at leaving at around 7:30am for the 9am park opening.  The Mears shuttle picks up at all Disney Resorts, and they charge $19 round-trip for transportation to/from Universal for adults, with kids costing a little less.  You can’t book this trip online, you have to call 407-423-5566.
  • When we get to the park, we’ll go right to Wizarding World, then do a crazy zig-zag around to the different lands and rides, in order to do the wet rides during the hottest part of the day, and carefully mix in kid activities and rest breaks.  My hope is that many of the day guests will leave during the afternoon downpour that is typical of a summer in Florida.  We’ll see if that bears out, and if so, spend more time exploring the Hogsmeade area with fewer crowds in the evening before leaving.
  • After we’re done in the park, we’ll go over to CityWalk, the dining/entertainment complex between the 2 Parks, and have dinner at Moe’s, which is my favorite Mexican food chain.  Locals: the only one on Oahu is at Pearlridge.
  • Then we’ll get back on the Mears Shuttle, head back to our Disney Resort….and immerse ourselves in the bubble once again, ahhhhhh 🙂
I'm printing this sucker out for my binder!

I’m printing this sucker out for my binder!

 

My spreadsheet section for Universal includes Budget categories for park tix, transportation, food, souvenirs, and misc (depending on how hot or tired we are, we might need to rent a stroller for my son).  For souvenirs, we’ll for sure buy one of the official photos they take of you on a ride or at the entrance, a photo frame for said photo, a wand from Ollivander’s for my daughter, the obligatory T-shirt for my husband, and something fun for the little guy.  And, most importantly, my magnet!

Ooooh, I can’t wait!

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