This post is part 2 of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Without Kids series.
With the booking process complete, our thoughts turned to the all-important process of getting to Orlando. We’d budgeted two days, Friday and Tuesday, for travel, but hadn’t yet decided on what method. So, we first considered flying. Flights from Atlanta to Orlando are pretty short and plentiful, offered by carriers including Delta, Frontier, Virgin Atlantic and Southwest. But then you have to, you know, book plane tickets, incurring relatively high additional costs. You also need to arrange for transport to the airport (which my dad usually offers to do, thus saving money on parking, and it is highly appreciated), allow for the time to get there and get through security, hope your flight doesn’t turn into Fight Club for whatever reason…We weren’t really feeling it.
Charlie’s a car guy. He’s a Subaru technician and has been into cars since he was knee-high to a pig’s eye. He really does enjoy driving, even driving long distances, which is a treasure. I’m OK with it too. Driving there does take longer than flying, but costs way less–just the cost of refilling my trusty steed the 2012 Toyota Corolla, which is incredibly efficient. Equipped with cruise control and Bluetooth, my trusty steed is ideal for long journeys and has traversed the path to Florida once before, when we decided on somewhat of a whim to drive to Tampa for a Boston Bruins game one weekend.
Plus, the car gives us the opportunity to go to other places in the city, whether they might be random but incredibly fun themed shops or the major key CVS, without needing to take a taxi or bus. We could also pack whatever we wanted to: more than one bag? Sure! Stuff that wouldn’t be allowed in a carry-on bag, like full-size shampoo? Go for it! A really cool battery pack that can charge electronics or cars, purchased from one of Charlie’s tool dealers? Yeah buddy!
Google estimates the drive from Atlanta (specifically Decatur, on the east side) to Orlando at about 6 hours and 20 minutes. But when you account for traffic, slowdowns due to torrential rain, gas stops and food stops, it’s probably more like 8 hours. The Corolla only needed one fill-up per trip and I always insist on filling up at a quarter tank.
The trip is pretty easy: mostly you are taking I-75 South, except when you use I-675 to bypass much of south Atlanta and I-475 to bypass Macon. It only gets difficult when it’s time to pay the Florida Turnpike enterprise.
I mentioned going to Tampa earlier in this post. When we did that, we did have to pay a toll to enter downtown and get to Amalie Arena. But that toll was snazzy: there were no booths at all, just a bunch of cameras that took pictures of my car, scanned my license plate and mailed me an invoice a few weeks later. That is not the case for the turnpike you use to get to Orlando.
That turnpike, christened with the incredibly original name Florida’s Turnpike, is the fastest way to get to Orlando by far. It branches off from I-75 south of Ocala, but even after a visit to the Turnpike website, I was not exactly clear on how much the toll would cost. I considered buying a SunPass, but decided not to because we’d only use the turnpike twice in the trip. (However, SunPasses can actually be used to pay for the adjustable-price toll lanes on I-85 in Atlanta! I don’t use those, though.) We armed ourselves with a bunch of $1 bills and quarters and hoped for the best.
Turns out that a 2-axle car will pay $3 at the start of the turnpike, though not right at the start, and 75 cents to exit. That’s $3.75 total or $7.50 round trip. To keep you from incurring the 75 cent exit charge if you just need to make a pit stop, there are large service plazas along the way. We never needed to visit one, but they have at least 4 places to eat (including the clutch Dunkin’ Donuts) and a Shell gas station. They’re located in the middle of the turnpike, so you’ll exit on the left, which is weird.
Eventually you leave the turnpike and get on I-4 heading west to Orlando. They were doing construction on various parts of I-4 in the city, including our exit, so be careful and take your time.
Let’s talk about our hotel, the Best Western Orlando Gateway. Here are some reasons we liked it:
- Great location, even though it is across the street from the former Wet ‘n Wild water park. Universal tore that down to be replaced with Volcano Bay. There was a remnant of a black water slide still standing, which we joked was the death water slide because it suddenly stopped way too far up in the air and was surrounded by rubble. It might be fully demolished and cleaned up soon.
- Very nice and friendly people working at every desk. There’s a front desk and a Universal service desk, but we’ll cover the latter more in a minute.
- The wi-fi was fast, though our phones warned us the SSL certificates weren’t awesome, so you should avoid going to your bank or credit card websites while there unless you use a VPN. That’s standard operating procedure for any hotel wi-fi, though.
- The TV was nice and had loads of channels, including a rather interesting one in Portuguese where a guy took viewers to various points of interest around the city. Lots of yummy Brazilian food was showcased.
- Free parking! You just needed to have a parking permit on your dashboard at all times. The permit stipulates only one car per room and doesn’t allow for buses or RVs.
- There’s a deli that also sells sundries in case you need anything.
- The pool was nice and comfortable, plus it was near a game room where I crushed it at Ms. Pac-Man.
- Universal Partner Hotel status.
Here are some reasons it was, as my mom is fond of saying, just okay:
- The beds! All that was left when I booked were 2 double bed rooms. I assumed that meant the beds would be full or queen, enough to sleep one short adult and one tall adult relatively comfortably. Nope! These were strange beds, not quite full but definitely not twin. I’ll call them tweens. Not a girl, not yet a woman, as Britney Spears once sang, and not wide enough for the both of us. We slept separately, like married couples in old movies, but would sometimes hang out during the day on one bed to watch TV. The pillows also looked kind of weird, almost more like throw pillows? I don’t know.
- The shower. I once saw a meme that said “Me trying to figure out my friend’s shower settings” and showed the logo of the show Naked and Afraid. This was our experience. I start a shower by running the bath tap first, adjusting the water, testing it and then going shower, but that seemed to result in nothing but scalding hot water for some reason, no matter where I turned the dial. I had to learn to go to shower first and then adjust–turn it to about 8:45 on the clock for something ideal and know it might take longer than at home.
The pros outweighed the cons for us, but do keep those things in mind.
That Universal desk I mentioned was so incredibly helpful. They printed up our park tickets and food vouchers, sold us Universal Express Passes and got us shuttle passes. Getting those tickets printed there kept us from having to visit Will Call at the park entrance!
The shuttle departs once an hour each hour from 7 to 11 am, though actual departure times vary between hours, and then brings you back once an hour in the evening starting at 4 pm. It goes to 2 other hotels before Universal, so you’re not gonna get there in 5 minutes. The 7:15 am bus ended up being the one we used most often and would get us there around 8 am for early park opening. Keep your shuttle pass with you so you can get on the return buses in the afternoon.
You’re going to have a lot of really important little bits of cardstock paper: your park tickets, your shuttle pass, your food vouchers, your Universal Express Passes. I highly recommend purchasing a lanyard at the park. They come in lots of fun themes, including ones for each Hogwarts house, and then you’ll get a clear plastic holder with a Ziploc-style closure to protect your papers. Mine cost about $11 and helpfully identified me as a Hufflepuff to passersby.
Now that we’ve covered all the logistical whatnots, let’s get on to the REALLY fun stuff: the actual parks! That begins with part 3.
Are you also a Harry Potter loving millennial thinking of visiting Wizarding World? Do you have any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask!