When you’ve been through a pandemic, months and months of adjusting to e-learning and an eyebrow technician who abruptly retires on you in the midst of it all, catching up with your best girlfriends is definitely in order.
The value of connection and friendship were among the biggest lessons learned for me over these last few years. I remember early on in the lockdown how much better I felt after having Facetime Happy Hour with my two friends from my high school days. We picked up right where we left off during the call and we vowed to make a better effort of spending time together once the world opened back up.
We had made similar plans to connect a dozen times before over the years, but it always seemed like life got in the way. This time we were determined to not let it.
WHERE WE STAYED
Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites proved to be a great location and space for me and my friends.
There are two main options when it comes to girls’ getaways: private rooms or bunking together. Both have their pros and cons, but since it had been so long since we hung out, we opted for one room and it was so nice to all be together. One thing we don’t bend on though: individual beds. And so, the resort’s 2-Bedroom Suites were spacious and perfect for us three.
Our suite even overlooked one of the resort’s two massive pools; the cool coastal vibe of the hotel was exactly what we needed to unwind.
PRO TIP: Staying at Dockside Inn and Suites gives you direct access to Universal CityWalk and the three theme parks with just a short 5-10 minute ride on the shuttles that come every 15 minutes. Plus, when you stay at Dockside you can take a short walk over to Surfside Inn and Suites right next door if you want to check out the surfboard-shaped pool or a different dining option.
WHAT WE DID
I live in Florida and my two friends were coming in from Virginia and Georgia, so I arrived at the resort first. As soon as I saw them pulling into the resort, I smiled — it’s always been that way. We each have our own brand of humor and just the sight of each other often brings back years of funny memories. After a round of hugs and laughs, we headed inside to get checked in.
The energy inside the hotel was buzzing with a nice mix of family travelers looking to hit the theme parks, business travelers, and young people seeking thrills (they came to the right place!).
We got situated in our room and began to plot our adventures for the night. My friends and I are all self-proclaimed foodies, so tasty food and great cocktails are always on the agenda.
We decided to start with Universal’s Aventura Hotel. This super swanky, modern hotel features some of the best views in the city from its Bar17 Bistro rooftop bar. The menu here is a mix of small plates and international flavors. We opted for the Fried Rice, which has yummy vegetables, shiitake mushrooms and egg. The rice pairs perfectly with the Korean Fried Chicken Wings and the Rooftop Burger. We sipped on It’s a Rasp and One in a Melon Martinis overlooking the roller coaster lights of Universal. It was incredible and felt like we were in a movie where the fun had just begun.
The great thing about a girls’ weekend at Universal is that there are so many things to do within walking distance of each other — no driving or ride app needed. After pregaming at Bar17, we made our way to Loews Sapphire Falls Resort for a rum tasting and some delicious dessert.
In our usual curious (some might call it nosey) fashion, we wandered around the lobby checking out the layout and beautiful decor. We took turns snapping pictures of each other on the grand spiral staircase just off the lobby – the dim lit stone staircase has the perfect lighting for IG worthy shots. It was at this moment that one of my friends became the official photographer mainly because of her phone quality and patience to get just the right shot.
Tropical elegance is the vibe at Sapphire Falls. The hotel is located on a lagoon waterway where Universal’s complimentary Water Taxi pulls into. After taking in some of the amenities, we headed to Strong Water Tavern, the main lounge at the resort. We had been told the tavern has a unique and vast rum assortment that is not to be missed. We sat at the bar and were greeted by our very own rum captain, “Lenny.’
Strong Water Tavern doubles down on the rum-haven theming, right down to informational booklets that delve into the story and history of the tasty beverage.
Lenny was super enthused to teach us just about everything there is to know about this liquor. I’ll admit, rum has never been my favorite. But I was surprised to learn about the rum-producing locations I had no idea about including Sweden, Spain, and even right here in Florida (St. Augustine to be exact).
Lenny thoroughly talked us through our tasting while we munched on some of the delicious tapas served at Strong Water. We ordered the AguaChile, a fresh and vibrant Ceviche made with shrimp, salsa verde, avocado, cucumbers, and red onion and tomatoes. It was a perfect bite to go along with the spirits. The Banana Bread Pudding with Rum Raisin Ice Cream made for a sweet ending to our rum excursion.
With the night still young we decided to explore a bit of Orlando outside the park. Universal is so centrally located, we were able to get a cheap rideshare over to some popular spots on the famous International Drive for a nightcap and people-watching.
We woke up early on Saturday and on the hunt for caffeine. Luckily for us, the resort has a Starbucks cafe right downstairs. We all grabbed a quick breakfast from the Pier 8 Market and our coffee before heading to the theme parks for the day! Two of us headed to wait in the shuttle line, while our third friend circled back to the Universal Studios Store for something she forgot. A few moments later she emerged from the hotel with the perfect lanyards for us to keep our park passes safe. That’s what friends are for!
Our goal for the day was to hit our favorite rides first and then follow up with some attractions we wouldn’t ordinarily experience. When you’re a mom like all three of us, going to Universal is usually a family experience. That means balancing a lot of emotions and the likes and dislikes of your kids. In other words, Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone ends up taking precedence over everything and an impromptu photoshoot in front of Cathy’s Ice Cream (my personal highlight of the trip since I was an avid Cathy comic reader) isn’t exactly a priority.
Universal Orlando Resort is home to three theme parks — Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay. After warming up with a couple fun rides in Universal Studios, like Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Men In Black: Alien Attack, it was time to walk over to Islands of Adventure and tackle some roller coasters.
If you ask me, there is no better place to get your fill of thrill than at Jurassic Park. This tropical jungle oasis is filled with dinosaurs, adventurous sites, wild food and drinks, and jaw-dropping rides. Plus, we’re Gen X, so the original franchise was a BIG DEAL to us growing up.
Here’s where I should probably mention that not all of us on the trip are roller-coaster riders. In fact, one of our friends on the trip had already warned us she would not be getting on any rides. It’s important to acknowledge the differences you and your travel mates may have and find ways to accommodate. For our non-roller coaster friend, we made sure to find a cool spot for her to take in the sites and a nice beverage while me and our other friend hopped on rides. If you’ve got a non-thrill-seeker in the group, check out the Guide to Universal Orlando Resort for Non-Roller-Coaster Riders.
Jurassic World VelociCoaster is definitely for those who love a good thrill. This massive coaster just opened in 2021 and is over 150 tall and goes 70 mph with some massive loops and dips. After screaming like crazy on this ride, we slowed things down just a little bit and hopped on Jurassic Park River Adventure. We’re 14 again (our age when Jurassic Park premiered in theaters) and screamed at the top of our lungs as the raft narrowly escaped the giant T. Rex, plunging us down an 85-foot drop. We all reconvened at The Watering Hole, a great bar tucked in the tropical fauna of Jurassic Park. Bonus — it was located near the best smelling smoky Turkey Leg stand. We munched on salty and smoky Turkey Legs and sipped frosty drinks while figuring out our next plans.
We had a big night ahead of us and we aren’t 20-somethings anymore. So we all agreed to head back to the hotel for a little beauty rest. This is where true friendship and having the hotel nearby is so important. One friend opted to get some Zzzz’s, the other decided to catch up with family, and I explored both of the pools at the hotel.
After a long day at the theme parks, a great steak and strong cocktail sounded perfect. We had reservations for dinner at BigFire located in Universal CityWalk. BigFire brings sophistication to open-fire cooking, featuring an extensive menu of great steak cuts, seafood, and decadent desserts. Everything has a smoky undertone, including their cocktails. We toasted to a great day out over the Smoked, Smoked Maple Old Fashioned, made with Smoked Maple Bourbon, beef jerky, and smoked over oak; the Classic Manhattan, made with Bigfire Select Barrel Woodford Reserve and sweet vermouth; and the Sage Apple Sour, made with Vodka, maple syrup, apple juice, and sage. For dinner we had Skillet Roasted Mussels, Cowboy Ribeye, and Beer Glazed Scallops for the win!
The night is young and now that we’re properly fed, we’re ready for some upscale entertainment and maybe a little music. We’ve always heard good things about Hard Rock Hotel and — bonus! — we can get there from CityWalk by Water Taxi. This is one of the best things about Universal Orlando, the various forms of transportation. We hop aboard after a fun photoshoot along the lagoon and head to the Hard Rock. The weather is perfect and the park and resort lights glow illuminating the water making us feel like we’re on a star yacht.
We slide into the Hard Rock’s Velvet Bar for a night cap. Velvet is located just off the lobby area, in the midst of all the action at the hotel. The expansive bar opens up onto the Veranda area where you can people-watch in a tropical outdoor seating area. We sip martinis, listen to music and laugh at the day’s adventures.
We wake up with one thing on our minds: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.. Specifically, the world-renowned Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and a frosty, frozen Butterbeer. We hop on the shuttle leaving one of our buddies behind to lounge poolside until it’s time to check out.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened in June 2019. The motorbike roller coaster is located in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure.
We got to the park just as it was opening and were able to get ahead of the crowd and quickly get in line. But, honestly even experiencing in the queue for this ride is fun! This land does a great job of showing off the wizarding world and all its magical fun. We felt like giddy teenagers riding this ride!
After the ride, we grabbed our Butterbeers and wandered around the park to do a little shopping and grab some last minute photo ops.
We both are huge Marvel fans, so it was only right that we head to Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. We took advantage of a short line and hopped on The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman — as a journalist, a trip to The Daily Bugle is always a must-do when I’m in the theme parks.
Both of our children are big anime fans, so we grabbed some T-shirts from a stand near the entrance of CityWalk and grabbed a bite to eat at the Hot Dog Hall of Fame before jumping on the shuttle to head back to the resort. We found our friend poolside doing what she does best — relaxing. We managed to fit in a little more girl time — sharing pics, enjoying tropical cocktails from Dockside’s The Oasis Beach Bar and laughing about the weekend’s highlights before it’s time to head to the airport.
Twenty years ago you couldn’t tell me that me and my besties (all over the age of 35) would have such a blast at an amusement park. At that time we were all stilettos and club nights. But things have changed and we’ve traded in 6-inches for comfy sneakers, and now opt for a good wine list over a round of shots. But deep down we’re still those same silly friends who love to laugh and make every situation hilarious. This trip reminded us of that and for that reason it was everything we needed it to be.
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