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Universal - let's start at the beginning

.My last blog post was hello from sunny Orlando and this one is hello from a dark and cloudy Nashville (and cold, did I mention cold?). I'm sitting here in my kitchen looking at the Christmas decorations that need to be put away and the kitchen floor that is in desperate need of a good cleaning and am attempting to put those things aside as I think about our recent trip to Orlando and the Shutterfly photo book I'm hoping to create in the next week for each of us. So, in an effort to further ignore the situation in my home, let's talk about my planning, resources and how we chose our hotel.

I think my children are the only ones among their friends who (until last week) had never been to Universal. That may not be entirely true, but, they felt that way and so did I. Universal is a horrifically expensive endeavor that takes lots of money and time in planning.  Thankfully, I have a friend who has been there many, many, many times and she gave me some great tips and suggestions. There are a lot of blog posts out there that provide helpful information, but here are some of my fave go-to's for questions:

Touring Plans (a subscription site, though blog posts are free)

​Before we go any further, know that I am not a Universal expert, but I am super practical and notice a lot of things! I've given you some planning tips (or where to go to find them) and now we'll move right into the hotel conversation.

We stayed at the Royal Pacific, which was amazing, and very expensive.  In fact, it was approximately $1300 more than the lowest price on-site hotel, Cabana Bay. (Note: Universal is adding another budget hotel that appears to begin at $73 per night, though I haven't stayed in a hotel that inexpensive in YEARS, so I would be a little concerned about pretty much everything.)  The Royal Pacific is beautiful and as I hate to fly and have no idea if I will ever get to Bali or Tahiti and don't know when I'll see Hawaii again (I cannot believe I flew there once), it is the closest thing to that part of the world for me! 

If you are going to UO at a time when the crowds are low, I'm not sure there is a great reason to choose such a pricey option as the Royal Pacific, unless you are simply looking for a little more luxury and have the money to spend. If we had traveled during low crowd times, we most likely would have chosen Sapphire Falls. It is still at the level of comfort and beauty I am looking for, but without one big thing: the Universal Express pass. Yep. if you are traveling during peak times - Christmas, spring break, the middle of summer, you WANT the Universal Express pass and the most economical way to acquire the pass is by upgrading your hotel. 

If you noticed, I said our hotel was about $1300 higher than the least expensive hotel for a family of four. Had we simply purchased the Express pass individually for us, we would have been out an additional $1100. For 3 days in the park, our Express passes would have cost a total of $2400. And, again, if you are traveling at peak times, you would be mad to not have the Express pass. 

The longest anyone in our family waited for a ride was approximately 40 minutes, which is saying a lot as 2 of the days we were there the park was at full capacity. Many of the rides my husband and children simply walked on and for some the wait was more like 20 minutes. I say my husband and children as I do not ride the rides (more on that later).  The Express pass is by far the number one reason to upgrade to one of the three hotels that offer this perk. Those hotels are the aforementioned Royal Pacific, the Hard Rock and Portifino Bay.  I want to mention that of the three premium hotels, the RP is the least expensive! Bonus as I would proabably never stay at Hard Rock and the Portofino is really too expensive for what it offers - especially when we can stay at the RP and have the South Seas experience.

In addition to the Express pass, these hotels, plus Sapphire Falls, are all within a short walking distance (10 minutes) to the parks AND offer a fun water ferry that departs from a dock just by your hotel over to City Walk and the entrances to both Islands of Adventure and Universal. For us, that was part of the experience.  I want to add that you pretty much could not pay me to stay off property and have to load up everyday in my car to go to the parks. I do want to say that you can take food into the parks, so if that's the way you want to go, you can can go inexpensively - stay off property or at Cabana and pack your own food. Just be prepared to wait in the lines if you go during peak times.

We have not traveled a lot since the kids were born. ​We have taken two Disney trips (one was partially paid for by my husband's company), 5 beach trips, one trip to the Smokies and one trip to China (adoption trip, not a vacation) in 17 years. We have no family travel plans for 2019 and will most likely not travel again until 2020, so this trip could be a little more extravagant.

Other things we loved about the RP. 

1. The Decor (I mentioned this before, but I seriously loved it!)

2. The Staff. Every person we encountered went out of their way for us, smiled, just were amazing!

3. The rooms were clean and very comfortable.

4. Breakfast. Okay, not on the level of the 5-star breakfasts we had in China, but good. We ate most mornings in the lobby at the Grab-N-Go which featured pastries, hard boiled eggs, cereals and ham and cheese croissants. The coffee was great, not typical hotel lobby coffee. Each of those meals ran us around $35 for all 4. We did eat one morning at the big buffet as they made an error on our bill and comped us that day for breakfast. I had a delicious made to order omelet. It was a lovely buffet with lots of fresh fruit and more. (Expect to spend about $80 if you pay for it!)

5. The pool! The pool was great. Actually, you have access to all of the hotel pools, but why go anywhere else? You can get poolside food service and there is also a lovely tiki bar. The staff plays games with the kids and has free treats all afternoon. Also, they have great towel service!

6. If your kids like characters, they wander around in the afternoons. There were Minions and Homer Simpson, not our faves, but they were there. Ask if they will be there. It may have been a holiday thing, but I don't think so.

I want to take this post to mention transportation to and from the airport. There are several options. There is the Universal shuttle, which can be booked when you book your package. My friend uses the Mears shuttle. You can take a taxi or Uber or Lyft. I personally am not enamored by those two services. Sometimes you just need to hit the easy button. When I booked our package through Universal, I simply added the Universal shuttle. Just to be sure I wasn't spending a ridiculous amount of money, I did compare with Mears and looked at the OI Facebook page to see what folks said about Lyft and Uber. The Universal shuttle was the least expensive and easiest.

Finally, let's talk about where you book from. I looked at a dozen websites, including Trip Advisor, Travelocity, etc. I found that booking directly through Universal was the best option financially (a small savings) and the easiest as I didn't have to deal with any 3rd party booking agents/websites for questions. 

My advice, hit the easy button, book through Universal, if you are flying take the Universal shuttle, and stay at a premium hotel - unless you are going in a very off time and then book Sapphire Falls!


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