Most people might think of a person when they hear the phrase “best friend”. Personally, I couldn’t imagine attaching this label to only one person.
For most of my adulthood, I have been lucky enough to collect incredible women and best friends like one might collect stamps or butterflies, and the scrapbook I place them in is my every-day life. This Best Friend Tier of ten has been there for me through questionable haircuts, extremely questionable men (still living down the guy who was clearly 5’9 but spiked his hair so he could say he was 5’11), and even some worrisome vacation planning. Traveling with friends is a phenomenal experience that can be completely ruined with simply the wrong choice in locale. This is why through the years I have found that when I’m looking for a great time with people of various interests, dietary preferences, and budgets — one of the best possible places to be is Universal Orlando Resort.
The first thing to assess when planning any friend trip is the group dynamic. Does one person LOVE an extravagant sit-down dinner while another prefers quick service between attractions? Do you have a friend who could spend hours shopping, much to the disdain of the friend who wants plenty of room for activities? If you’re the planner (like I am) the pressure to make sure that everyone is having the time of their lives can be daunting — but that is exactly why we are here to help. I pulled together a small group of friends with varying interests and planned a much needed Spring Break excursion to Universal Orlando. Here’s what I considered and how I did it.
PRE-TRIP: WHERE TO STAY
I planned my trip with two of the Orlando-based members of my Best Friend Tier — Shea and Celia. The three of us bond over a few key things: a love of delicious food, good drinks, and GREAT energy. We prefer a little bustle over a more chill environment and on previous staycations we’ve opted for Universal’s Aventura Hotel (it’s hard to beat a rooftop bar).
For this trip, we had been super anxious to check out the new Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites. The cool coastal vibes just spoke to us, not to mention the price was just right (leaving us with extra vacation cash for food and drinks!). The three of us don’t mind bunking it after years of sleepovers, but if you have a larger group, Dockside has a 2-bedroom suite option that would be perfect. After settling into the hotel we grabbed lunch (a Garden Pizza and Dockworker Wrap from Pier 8 Market) and a drink (Shore Thing cocktails!) and planned out the rest of our week while lounging poolside.
HOTEL TIP: Staying at one of Universal Orlando’s hotels means you get fantastic theme park benefits like access to transportation to get to the parks — meaning you don’t have to worry about renting a car. If you’re at Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites or Dockside Inn and Suites, Universal’ Aventura Hotel, or Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort you can take a quick shuttle to and from the park. At the other hotels like Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel there’s also a water taxi!
Learn more about how to get from your hotel to the parks here.
Whenever planning a trip with multiple people, I generally try to carve out a day that belongs to each person where the activities are dictated by their interests. This ensures everyone gets the experience they want and it also helps to give us a loose schedule so we don’t miss anything. Plus, it’s fun to periodically announce “EXCUSE ME, IT IS SAM DAY” when we’re doing the things that I choose.
SAM DAY (DAY ONE)
…felt like a good segue. My personal idea of a dream vacation involves a pool and 3-6 meals per day. We’re talking first breakfast, second breakfast, etc.
Universal Volcano Bay was the clear and obvious choice of how to achieve both of those goals. If you haven’t been to Volcano Bay — WHAT are you waiting for? Whether you love the thrill of the TeAwa Fearless River or the chill of getting a head start on your summer bronzing, you get plenty of choice at Volcano Bay. You also get TapuTapu which makes your vacay even more easy breezy. (You can check out all of the TapuTapu features here.)
We set up close to Waturi Beach which led to several laps between the water and our chairs. Shea’s big on adrenaline and was able to do some of the body slides before we all decided to do the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. Normally I am 100% a bronzing kind of girl, but the Aqua Coaster was twisty and turny and so much fun — 10/10 would recommend. I will fully admit to a lazy nap in the sun around 3pm. But come on — it’s vacation.
VOLCANO BAY TIP: I cannot say enough about what a game changer the private cabanas are when you’re planning a full day at the park, especially with a midsize or large group. Comfy chairs, a food & beverage attendant (get two orders of the coconut-crusted fried chicken, I’m telling you now that just one won’t be enough), and a helpful fridge/locker combo; call ahead to reserve yours and you won’t be disappointed.
Like I previously mentioned — food is one of the things that bonds us, which means dinner decisions are of the utmost importance. There are some dietary preferences in our group so The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar at Universal CityWalk was the unanimous choice. Celia was able to order sushi since she doesn’t eat red meat. I on the other hand am from Kansas City (should be self-explanatory) and willingly downed several sliders. We ALL could agree on sweet potato fries, crab rangoon dip, and a few beverages. Cowfish has a baller patio overlooking CityWalk, so it was the best way to wrap up our first day together and prepare for the next morning — Celia Day!
CITYWALK TIP: Voodoo Doughnut is not only one of the best stops at CityWalk, it’s also open late. It can be understandably a little busy in the morning so my suggestion would be to stop by late night to grab a few doughnuts for the next morning. This avoids both lines AND casual AM arguments attributed solely to hanger. Plus, you can make it an even quicker pickup by mobile ordering your donuts through the Universal Orlando Resort App.
CELIA DAY (DAY TWO)
Not only is Celia one of my most entertaining friends, but she’s also a friend who loves entertainment… and maybe just a little bit of drama from afar. It made total sense for us to spend most of Celia Day at Universal Studios Florida and enjoy the ambiance of the streets, the seasonal Mardi Gras event, and the food… did I mention we love food?
Mardi Gras looks a little different this year, but we couldn’t wait to check out all of the new, international foods and entertainment additions. Essentially it’s an incredible food festival that features some of the classic Mardi Gras entertainment we all know. We loved the floats (fantastic photo ops, the Gator Float is campy chic) as well as the brass band musicians. New Orleans is my favorite U.S. city, so hearing some jazz while eating a limitless amount of beignets really had me on cloud nine — and it wasn’t even my designated activity! The group consensus was that our favorite event drink was the King Cake milk punch (we just made sure to order AFTER doing rides). The party didn’t stop there! There were also special Mardi Gras dishes and drinks waiting to be tried back at our hotel.
Check here for more information on the Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval event.
Celia loves Revenge of the Mummy, which made it a must-do. And all three of us are hyper-competitive, which means that MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack also made the cut. Some may think three is a crowd, but it is actually the perfect number for Men In Black, and works out on Revenge of the Mummy as well! We also had to check out The Bourne Stuntacular, which made for that perfect combo of entertainment and drama that Celia loves with its live stunts and special effects.
We wrapped up Celia Day by getting a few drinks from Chez Alcatraz and sitting in the U-Rest area in New York. It was a great break to take before getting a good standing spot for Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration (I would recommend checking the Universal Orlando Resort App for showtimes as this show is available on select nights). Like I said, Celia loves entertainment so capping off our evening by watching movie moments play out on giant screens of water definitely fit the bill. It was the perfect end to Celia Day and post-show and drink laughter our way back to the shuttle stop was the ideal bridge into the following Shea Day.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS TIP: Try to pack lightly for a parks day. If you can fit everyone’s wallets/phones/wet wipes in one bag, try to only bring ONE bag. Not only does it free up hands for optimal snacking, but means that only one person has to navigate the locker lines where they apply. Feel free to trade off though, it’s only fair.
Looking for more tips on how to pack for your Universal vacation? We’ve got you covered.
SHEA DAY (DAY THREE)
Physically, Shea is 6’3. In her heart, Shea is actually 4’2 and eight years old. She looks like a glamazon but is a total kid, meaning she LOVES riding rides. So where else would we spend Shea Day but at Universal Islands of Adventure?
We got up early to grab the shuttle bus from the hotel to the park and still have time for coffee. Did I mention you get Early Park Admission for free when you stay at a Universal Orlando hotel? This gets you into the park before everyone else!
Shea is a major fan of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which was our first stop. We were able to ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and we couldn’t stop raving about it. This ride should be a priority for everyone, not just avid attraction enthusiasts. The level of detail in the scenes and environment is on par with the rest of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the ride itself is… wow. The wind will be whipping through your hair, your voice will hurt from scream-laughing, and as soon as you’re off you’ll want to ride again. That experience and our breakfast at Three Broomsticks set a great tone for our day and we were able to make our way around the park to ride as much as we could.
Do you have a Shea in your life who could do a full day in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Use this guide for all planning purposes re:them.
Some of Shea’s favorites include the Jurassic Park River Adventure and The Incredible Hulk Coaster. As I LOVE to take photos and DISLIKE getting my hair wet, I sat out on River Adventure, but a great thing about group travel is that one person can bail and you still have a buddy.
Since Shea also loves memories via photos we HAD to check out Raptor Encounter. Turns out being three adult women didn’t stop us from being continuously startled by Blue the Raptor. Sadly, Blue did not seem to have the same level of concern for my hair.
ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE TIP: Islands of Adventure as a park is one big circle, with a lot of foot traffic going in the same direction. Keep your eyes peeled for quiet spots to pull over, hydrate, and slow down. And also maybe edit a few photos. Some of my favorite choices are The Mystic Fountain in the Lost Continent and The Watering Hole in Jurassic Park.
For any trip I take with my friends, it’s always really important for me to have a special dinner on the last night we’re together. The restaurant we chose this time was Mythos, which sits within Islands of Adventure. The food is fantastic (the Greek salad is a game-changer), but my favorite part of these dinners is a game called Pit and Peak. I ask each person to say what the Pit (the worst part) and the Peak (the best part) of their trip was. True to form, Celia’s Pit was that she didn’t have enough time to check out every kiosk at Mardi Gras and her Peak was still getting to experience the event this year. Shea’s Peak was our early morning ride on Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and her Pit was that we didn’t end up booking the Dockside 2-Bedroom suite. My Pit was that I — unselfishly, might I add — let Shea take the Bacon Maple Bar from the Voodoo Doughnut dozen. And my Peak? My Peak was all the time spent with some of my favorite people on the planet in a place with a never-ending list of things to do.
Planning on coming to Universal Orlando Resort this spring? In the comments, on Twitter, on Instagram — let us know what the Peak of YOUR trip is. We can all pretend like we’re at dinner together… but don’t expect me to share.
Must be 21 years and older with valid identification to purchase or drink alcoholic beverages.