A thirty-year-old’s guide to Disneyworld and Universal 

magic kingdom castle orlando disneyworld

Last month I turned 30 in the happiest place on earth: Disneyworld. It was the most perfect birthday, especially as my darling boyfriend (now fiancé!) proposed to me in true fairytale style in front of the Cinderella castle in Magic Kingdom.

Our week in Orlando was action packed – we tackled both Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure, and three of the four Disney Parks: Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom.

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Returning to Disneyworld as an adult, the castle didn’t look quite so big but golly those nighttime fireworks still astounded me. Also, for all those rides I feared as a child, this time round I put on a brave face and got through them – some I even smiled through. The key, it seems, is to scream and throw your arms in the air and pretend you’re enjoying them; then you actually do. Backstory: as a fearful/intelligent child, when in theme parks I used to make the excuse that I needed the toilet every time we came close to the front of the queue; that way I wouldn’t have to go on the ride! A few of the rides still made me queasy, but at least now I can say I managed them all!

Most of the theme park days required early starts – we ‘rope dropped’ a lot (when you enter the park as soon as the gates open) in order to skip the queues, beat some of the crowds and get through rides before the heat really became unbearable. Our strategy paid off, and with the help of the Universal Express Pass (#gifted) and Disney FastPass (comes as standard with the tickets) we were able to get on all the rides we wanted to.

Turning 30 in Orlando – with the thrill and fun of the theme parks, among the lovable human-sized Disney and Universal characters, the smiles of the staff and families, the sparks of the fireworks – was an unforgettable experience. Going at the end of May was also the perfect time – it was busy, but not too busy, and the heat was bearable (30-33C). I’ve since decided that every year I’d like to be away from home on my birthday… Let’s see how that pans out.

Here are some tips for others who are considering going, and a breakdown of the best rides for adults at the parks, (because some rides can easily be skipped if you’re not travelling with kids).

Parking/transport

Costs $25USD from park opening until 6pm. Parking is free thereafter. Premium parking (apparently you get a better spot that’s closer to the entrance) costs $10USD more (but I ain’t made of money). As much as it’s weird getting your head around driving on the other side of the road, it is so handy to have a car – and in that heat, I wouldn’t want to be walking anywhere or lugging bags back from the supermarket under the piercing rays of the sun. You can catch free buses between Disney parks, and for Universal you can take the Harry Potter train between the two parks.

Celebrating a special occasion? Pick up a Button

At both Disneyworld and Universal, special occasions are a big deal. If you’re celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, or even if it’s your first time at the park, ask at Guest Services for a special badge. You can wear it with pride all day and you’ll get lots of well wishes from the staff and visitors in the parks. Some say the button got them preferential treatment or the chance to skip a queue, but we weren’t so lucky!

I proudly wore two badges: a birthday button on my 30th birthday, and a ‘Happily Ever After’ badge, which I acquired when my boyfriend got down on one knee and proposed in front of the Cinderella castle.

happily ever after badge at disneyworld

How does the Universal Express Pass compare to the Disney FastPass?

With the Universal Express Pass, there’s less admin involved as there’s no ride pre-booking required; you just turn up at a ride and go straight in the Express pass queue, at whatever time you want. With the Disney FastPass, you have up to 30 days in advance of your trip to choose three rides you’d like to queue jump. If they’re available, you book the time slot you want. When your time slot arrives, you have to turn up at the ride to be able to enter the FastPass queue.

As a result, when at Universal this meant less faffing with the app – we only really looked at it to see what rides were nearby or where the queues were longest. The app doesn’t give any indication about Express Pass queues but on our visit we rarely had to queue longer than 10 minutes.

For both Disney and Universal you have to show a physical card (or at Disney there are now magic bands you wear on your arm (but you have to fork out $11 for them), so it’s worth taking a waterproof lanyard with you as it makes life easier; you have the passes around your neck at all times and don’t have to fiddle around in your pockets or bag each time you queue. It’s also great for popping your phone in when you’re on a water ride.

mickey mouse ice cream sandwich disneyworld

No FastPass/Express Pass?

If you don’t have a FastPass/Express Pass, see below for a list of rides that are worth making a dash for once the parks open, because if you go later in the day, the queues are stupidly long ie more than an hour.

PS one other tip, if you desperately want to go on a ride and the queue is ridiculous, consider going in the Single Rider queue at Disney – you may get separated from your pals as you essentially become a ‘stand in’ on the rides to fill gaps, but it generally means you get to ride it quicker and beat the usual wait time. Also keep checking the Disney/Universal apps to see where wait times are shortest. Wi-Fi at Disney drops occasionally; but it’s much better at Universal. Using mobile data is a bad idea (Virgin Mobile charged me £50 for using data for half an hour on my iPhone – let that be a lesson to you!).

Also, a good tip if you’re rope-dropping a park is to head to the rides furthest away from the entrance first – most people will gather at the rides nearer to the park entrance, so you can get a head start and work backwards to everyone else.

Don’t miss the daily daytime shows

I can still remember the shows we saw; whereas the rides tend to blur into one. The show I enjoyed the most was the Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage at Hollywood Studios. The Monsters Inc comedy show was hilarious and we went on it right after the fireworks had finished at Magic Kingdom, to avoid all the queues as masses of people were exiting the park. Animal Actors on Location at Universal Studios was also brilliant – seeing dogs, birds, ferrets, pigs and every other animal imaginable doing tricks (though the animals are denied a life of freedom – sad). If you time it right, you can see a show around lunchtime and eat lunch while watching, in the fan/air-conditioned bliss; it’s a great time saver too. I have highlighted some great shows in the listing below. You can use Disney FastPass for shows but generally we found it wasn’t necessary so don’t waste them! We went in a quieter period (late May) so this might change in peak periods.

Lockers

There are lockers available (you have to pay for some of them) in most parks where you can store your belongings. The only drawback is that the parks are so big that when you put something in a particular locker you have to go all the way back to it to retrieve your items. Best to take as little as you can in your backpack.

Matching T-shirts

Believe it or not, matching T-shirts are quite a big deal, especially at Disney. I bought some in advance of the trip thinking we’d stand out like a sore thumb, but no, it seems to be de rigueur to get some. Some of the best co-ordinated t-shirts we saw had women/girls wearing ‘Best day ever’ and their husbands/brothers/boyfriends wearing ‘Most expensive day ever’ t-shirts. Or ‘Hubby’ and ‘Wifey’ written in the Disney-style font. Personally, we went for ‘Broke’ and ‘Spoilt’.

broke and spoiled matching disney t shirts orlando
When visiting Animal Kingdom, most people wear Lion King merch, or something animal related. We didn’t get the memo on that one.disneyworld magic kingdom cinderella castle by night

Nightly shows

Nothing can beat the Magic Kingdom fireworks – they’re pure magic and gave me all the feels. The Universal Studios show involves water, lights and special projections and is a much more timid affair. The Animal Kingdom show is highly rated, followed by Hollywood Studios; we didn’t last till 9pm on those days to catch the closing shows.

disney cinderella castle fireworks

Food

The food is predictable at the parks: burgers, chips, hot dogs, etc. There are few healthy options and everything costs from at least $6USD. The most exciting food we found was in Animal Kingdom, where the different lands such as Africa and Asia had their own cuisines.

If you want top-dollar nosh, rooftop bar and restaurant Capa at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort has incredible food, and if you go at night you can see all the fireworks from the balcony. My amazing boyfriend booked us a surprise dinner here, and he’d even gone to the effort to reserve the table on the terrace that gave the best view of the fireworks. It’s a spenny place but the food was memorable and the best we ate all week.

What to pack in your day bag:

-Take your own Minnie/Mickie ears from home and save a few bob

-Hat, sunglasses, sun block

Portable charger if you’re going to be using your phone to take photos and navigate the park using the dedicated app

Insulated lunchbox with freezer blocks to keep your food cool if you’re taking packed lunch. We did and it saved us loads of money.

-Snacks (preferably without chocolate as they might melt and get messy)

-Drinks

-Fan

Waterproof/poncho if you don’t want to get too wet on the rides (you’ll need this at Universal Islands of Adventure the most)
-Something to keep you entertained while queueing

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Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

The Disney parks, in my opinion, had more rides for kids. The Disney parks also had more ‘traditional’ moving rides such as rollercoasters whereas Universal had more 4D and interactive attractions.

Universal studios

90s babies will love the different ‘realms’ here and the rides. The Harry Potter worlds at both Universal parks are amazing, and you could easily spend a few hours exploring them, buy your own wand or cloak.

  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
  • The Simpsons Ride
  • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Animal Actors on Location (show)
  • Transformers: The Ride 3D
  • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Fast & Furious: Supercharged
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem

kings cross station harry potter universal studios orlando

Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley universal studios orlando

Stop off for unusual ice cream flavours at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley, Universal Studios Orlando

Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Universal’s Islands of adventure

This park boasts three water rides – there are none in Universal Studios. Islands of Adventure has has fewer attractions than Universal Studios and feels a tiny bit smaller. There are more kid-friendly rides here than Universal Studios.

  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges (prepare to get very, very wet)
  • Flight of the Hippogriff
  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Thanks to the Universal Express Pass, we got in to the park at 9.15am and had completed all the adult rides by 1.30pm

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Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
  • Beauty and the Beast Live On Stage (show)
  • Slinky Dog Dash
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Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Disney’s Magic Kingdom
Rides here are mostly very kid-orientated, but there are a few good ‘adult’ ones, see below.

  • Space Mountain
  • Monsters, Inc Laugh Floor (show)
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
  • Splash Mountain
Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

  • Avatar Flight of Passage
  • Expedition Everest
  • Kilimanjaro Safari (you get to see actual real animals, unlike the fake ‘safari’ at Magic Kingdom)
  • Festival of the Lion King (show)
  • It’s Tough to Be a Bug! (show)
  • Kali River Rapids

 

Other activities

When you’re not out at the theme parks in Orlando, there are lots of outlets to do shopping (premium brands at discounted prices), there’s the Kennedy Space Center, Blue Spring State Park, Thornton Park and lots more. Enjoy your trip!

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