Hey guys! I’m jumping out of chronological order today because I want to share with you an AMAZING giveaway (my biggest ever) totally exclusive to Alex in Wanderland readers. I’m too excited to hold off any longer!
In late 2016, an exciting offer landed in my inbox: be part of Universal Orlando Resort‘s innovative Blog Squad, a group of travel content creators tasked with bringing the best of Universal straight to your screens. As a regular and enthusiastic visitor to The Sunshine State, but not much of an authority on theme parks, it felt like a fun new adventure for me.
And thus I donned a sparkly cap, and rose to the occasion.
Our inaugural Blog Squad retreat took place in October and was headquartered at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Universal Orlando has five beautiful onsite hotels, and I was thrilled to be posted up in this colorful Caribbean homage. Staying onsite has a ton of benefits when visiting the theme parks of Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and the soon-to-open Volcano Bay, and there really is something for everyone.
From the budget friendly Cabana Bay to the mid-priced Sapphire Falls and Royal Pacific, (my three favorites, from first glance) all the way up to the premium Hard Rock Hotel and Portofino Bay, there’s something at every price, too.
But for this visit, I was all about Sapphire Falls. I mean, where else are you ever going to find a beach ball chandelier?!
However, I didn’t linger long in my room after check-in. We had a busy week ahead, and I wanted to kick it off with some time at my favorite part of any hotel: the pool.
I had just enough time to brush the surface of catching up with two of my favorite girls — Kristin and Angie, also in town for Blog Squad festivities, before the enormous 16,000 square foot pool was closed for a late afternoon thunderstorm. But that was fine. We had a big evening to get ready for.
Photos by Kristin Luna
It was time for welcome night, where we’d meet the rest of the Blog Squad and the Universal team who had brought this thing to life. For our first evening, we stuck close to home, kicking off with a rum tasting at the onsite Strong Water Tavern, and later wandering downstairs for dinner at the onsite Amatista Cookhouse.
It was a treat to have such a fabulous evening without ever having to leave the hotel.
Photo by Kristin Luna
The next morning, we were out and about! Because we had so much ground to cover in so little time, we had the opportunity to experience Universal Orlando Resort’s exclusive VIP Experience tours, which is a pretty huge deal in the world of theme parks.
These tours give you an experienced guide who creates an itinerary perfectly tailored to your party’s priorities, and then walks you straight to the front of every ride line in the park. You also get tons of fun extras like reserved seating at shows, access to behind-the-scenes park areas, meet-and-greets with your favorite Universal characters, and included meals and valet parking. But really, it’s that whole “no lines are the new black” thing that makes the VIP Experience the alluring prospect it is, even starting at $199 per person per day (park tickets are sold separately).
We spent our VIP tour exploring Universal Studios Florida, which is both a working production facility and a fabulous theme park that allows guests to jump through the screen and feel like they walked onto the set of their favorite movies and TV shows. Opened in 1990, it was the first park to open in what would later become the Universal Orlando Resort family.
Some of the popular rides in this park include Revenge of the Mummy, Men in Black Alien Attack, Transformers: The Ride-3D, and Terminator 2: 3-D. My favorite from this trip was Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and I have Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, E.T. Adventure, Shrek 4-D, and The Simpsons Ride on my list for next time!
For so many visitors to Universal Orlando Resort, however, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the star of the show. Now, Harry Potter heads, pay attention, because this is important. The truly breathtaking Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios Florida, and is connected to Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure via the Hogwarts Express ride, a train that actually connects you from one theme park to another!
This means you’ll need the park-to-park ticket to get the full Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience. Some of you know — and are aghast! — that I have never read the Harry Potter books (an oversight that my experience on the Blog Squad has convinced me to rectify). But man, you don’t have to be a fan to admire the creativity and detail that went into creating this fantastical world. It’s a faithful recreation of the books and movies that would do JK Rowling proud — in fact, rumor has it she personally approved every detail.
That evening, after a very special Minion date at the Universal Globe, we were off to The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, one of the latest additions — and a fast new favorite — of CityWalk’s dining options. I can see why it’s so popular. The theming is just spectacular, the menu is diverse and impressive, and the milkshakes are made for making your friends drool with jealousy on Instagram.
Actually, I’d say the biggest eye-opener for me on this trip was the caliber of food available throughout Universal Orlando Resort. From the poolside menu at Sapphire Falls to the lunches and dinners at CityWalk to snacks along the way in the the parks themselves, I found myself seriously impressed with the quality and diversity — and the prices! — of almost everything I ate and drank. And what variety! No joke, I started a “to eat” list for my return trips.
Photo by Kristin Luna
The next morning found us back on the VIP Experience grind, this time tackling Universal’s Islands of Adventure! This park is all about bringing your favorite superheros, characters, and creatures to life through eight fully immersive “islands,” including Port of Entry, Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Skull Island, Jurassic Park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade, The Lost Continent, and one of my new favorite places on the planet, Seuss Landing.
To be honest, before this trip, I kind of thought Universal Studios would be “my park,” but I quickly realized that Islands of Adventure is my true love!
We kicked things off in Marvel Super Hero Island, home to The Incredible Hulk — everyone’s favorite green roller coaster! (On my very first, very brief visit to Universal years ago, I posted an obscure photo of one of the emerald tracks to Instagram asking everyone to guess where I was and thinking I’d posed quite a riddle. Enthusiastic answers came flooding in — y’all know your parks!)
Next up, we wandered over to Jurassic Park, home to what is thus far my favorite ride in the entire Universal Orlando Resort: Jurassic Park River Adventure, a boat based adventure in which you outrun a toothy t-rex. I love this ride! Thanks to the recent Jurassic Park sequel I’m re-obsessed with the brand, and walking through this lush and perfectly themed land made me itch to run back to my hotel room and watch the entire anthology.
After lunch at Mythos in The Lost Continent, a restaurant regularly voted best theme park restaurant in the world, we were off to one of the most magical and wonderful places on the planet that is totally not just for little kids no matter what your friend Angie taunts you with… Seuss Landing!
There’s not a single straight line in Seuss Landing, including the palm trees, which are rumored to have been transplanted into the park after being warped by the winds of Hurricane Andrew. Kristin and I continued the wackiness with a bit of acro yoga in some of our favorite areas, a move that certainly attracted a bit of attention.
And while I only had time for one ride — One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, which brings the book to life — I cannot wait to return to tackle the rest. At Christmas, Seuss Landing is transformed into the site of The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, an event that has officially been added to my bucket list.
That night we enjoyed more of Universal Orlando Resort’s nightlife with a show at The Blue Man Group. One thing I do love is that all of Universal’s attractions are connected both resort shuttles and beautifully landscaped walking paths, but also by convenient water taxis. You literally don’t have to get in a car for your entire vacation!
And you have multiple safe, efficient and free ways to get back to your room safely if you stay onsite and decide to enjoy some of the nightlife at CityWalk (which we were too wiped to tackle any more of on this particular trip, but I look forward to checking out in the future!)
The final day of our trip was dedicated to a very popular event at Universal that, quite frankly, is just not my jam: Halloween Horror Nights. What can I say, this scaredy cat is more of a Grinchmas girl! (Can you see the fear in my face in the bottom photo as I survey the crowds? Ha!) That said, it was definitely fascinating to see the creativity and dedication that goes into making this iconic event happen for those that love it.
Photos by Kristin Luna
Wow, what a whirlwind five days! It was a wild trip, but I really left with an amazing sense of what Universal Orlando Resort is all about — a vacation that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a place to make memories with your favorite people, a destination that is all about the simple pursuit of fun.
And I’m excited to say this is just the beginning! As part of my year-long partnership with the Blog Squad, I’m back at Universal right now covering the launch of their third theme park, Volcano Bay. (Spoiler alert: it’s a water theme park and it’s amazing. Stay tuned to my social media channels for a preview!) And I’ll be staying on after to have some personal time to explore the parks at my own pace. And I might just be planning yet another trip later this year. What can I say, I’m hooked!
Now here’s the best part: you can come too.
Win Your Own Trip!
Want to visit Universal Orlando Resort now? (Duh.) Great news, because I’ve partnered with Universal Orlando Resort on a giveaway open exclusively to Alex in Wanderland readers — I’m so excited for one of you to win!
PRIZE: One winner will receive two 3-day tickets to Universal Orlando Resort parks including Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal’s Volcano Bay and a 3-night stay for two at one of Universal Orlando Resort’s onsite hotels. See official rules for details.
HOW TO ENTER: Please enter using Rafflecopter.
RESTRICTIONS: Must be 18+ and US or Canada resident. Contest closes June 8th.