I did it! I actually pulled off a surprise vacation! It never fails – I try to surprise the kids with a vacation, a special reservation while traveling or an extra activity on a trip and they figure it out before I can surprise them.

This time, I actually succeeded.

Last year, my oldest and youngest each took a one on one trip with me. My 15 year-old son had been asking for a trip to Universal Studios for a while, but his hectic schedule just made it really difficult to find the time.

So for Christmas this year, I planned a surprise trip. It was so hard to keep it to myself and I nearly let it slip a few times. I was so excited.

Christmas morning finally arrived! First, Kevin found Gryffindor socks in his stocking. No big deal. We all received fun socks in our stockings. Then he opened a box with a Gryffindor Quidditch shirt. I saved the real tip off as the very last gift.

Inside were two Harry Potter lanyards for our tickets and a Train Ticket for the Hogwarts Express. His reaction was priceless!

I was so excited to actually pull of a surprise and I just loved his reaction.

Flash Forward to January 8 and we were on our way! We arrived after dinner time and headed straight to our first night hotel. I did a split stay so that my son could enjoy the adorable Cabana Bay on our off day. We then moved to a Prime Resort that included Express Passes for the parks. But more on that later.

The next day we checked into Royal Pacific, activated our Express Passes and headed to Universal Studios for our one hour early admission. Express Passes are basically Front of the Line tickets offered by Universal Studios. When staying at one of the top three Universal Resorts, the passes are included. If staying at a value level or off-site, the passes are an additional cost.

I can’t say enough about how awesome Express Passes are! My son literally walked on to the Hulk coaster 3 times and we were able to skip the lines for 3 out of 4 of the Harry Potter attractions. As of right now, the passes are not available to use on Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Ride.

Another perk of staying onsite is getting to enter a selected park one hour ahead of official opening. Check out Diagon Alley with early admission!

After our free hour, we hopped on the Hogwarts Express and headed straight to Hogsmeade. My son tried his very first Butterbeer before we rode Flight of the Hippogriff and The Forbidden Journey. We explored this awesome area before heading out to check out other areas of the park.

We were on the dining plan and decided to try lunch in Suess Landing. We ended up at Circus McGurkus and it was so cute! It fit in perfectly at Suess Landing, making you feel like you were walking through a Dr. Suess book. Our meals were extremely filling and really good.

Following lunch and some time at Marvel Island, these Harry Potter fans headed back to Hogsmeade and the best thing happened. Kevin was selected to be a part of the Wand ceremony at Ollivander’s. He was so excited and if you have never seen the ceremony, be sure to stop by Ollivanders at some point throughout the day. Kevin did purchase the wand and we had a lot of fun making magic happen at Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley and Nocturn Alley.

After a full day at the park, we had the best dinner! We went to Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at Universal’s City Walk. If you have never been, it is a chocolate lovers dream. And the non-dessert items are pretty good too. We shared a Brussel Sprout Appetizer that was out of this world!

After a great rest at our beautiful resort, we headed to Universal’s Volcano Bay. It was a perfect day for the water park. The weather was beautiful and the crowds were low.

Volcano Bay is full of great water slides, a huge wave pool and multiple lazy rivers. The park offers a really convenient system called Tapu Tapu. It’s looks like a watch and you are able to tap it at an attraction to receive a time to return for the ride. It alleviates long waits for popular attractions. The band also allows for charging privileges so that you do not have to pull your wallet out for your food, beverage and souvenir purchases.

The nice thing about Volcano Bay the day we visited was that with such small crowds, we were able to move at a nice pace, grab a nap and get back to the park for the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts.

The highlight of the trip for us was that we got to ride Hagrid’s coaster twice! Pro tip – if you can’t get in line for this first thing in the morning, go immediately after the Nighttime Lights of Hogwarts and the wait time is much shorter. The ride definitely does not disappoint! I couldn’t get over how smooth it is!

For our Saturday night dinner, I took Kevin to the NBC Sports Grill and it was really delicious. Kevin ordered a huge platter that included samplings of all of their meats and I had the beef brisket. Our dessert was another Brookie, which we had been given at a previous meal, but this time it was served warm with ice cream. It was delicious! In case you are wondering, a Brookie is a chocolate chip cookie baked into a brownie. YUM!

That night we also enjoyed some shopping at CityWalk. We picked up some great souvenirs for the rest of the family and took some fun pictures.

The next day before our flight we had plenty of time to enjoy the parks. We went back to see the things that we had skipped our first day.

Toon Lagoon is absolutely adorable and there are lots of fun shops and dining options. The rides are all water rides, so we skipped those this time around. Next time I’ll plan to pack some flip flops and a change of clothes so we can get soaked.

Next up was the Jurassic Park section. We did some climbing and exploring and even created our own dinosaur. After that we were treated to a concert by the Blues Brothers. So fun! And then we met Donkey from “Shrek.” Even if you are not a huge Shrek fan, you need to experience this! We laughed so hard!

Before we wrapped up our vacation, we raced through New York with Jimmy Fallon. Then we got in line for one last ride on Hagrid’s coaster. This time around we got in the single rider line and rode separate cars, but the shortened wait was definitely worth it.

Now a few tips. If you are considering a Dining Plan, be sure to review both options to decide which is right for you. And it is okay to mix and match. I did one day of quick service and one day Full Service. I personally preferred the Full Plan and found it offered a better savings. That being said, I reviewed menus and pricing before we left and made the call based on the way we eat.

Stay past park closing. What? Yes – as long as an attraction has not closed, you are able to get in line even if it’s 5 minutes to closing. You will not be kicked out of line. On your way out after your ride is a great opportunity to take some park photos without the crowds.

I mentioned it earlier, but it bares repeating. Stay on site and take advantage of the one hour early admission at least once during your visit. The parks, especially the Wizarding World fill up very quickly. That extra hour becomes an even bigger deal if you do not have Express Passes.

Lastly, when you stay onsite, several of the resorts offer boat service or a walking path to the parks. Each of these sites have their own security checkpoint allowing you to skip the huge entrance that the general population is using. It is a huge time saver!

Have you visited Universal Studios – Orlando? What is your favorite part?

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