We just moved again to Panama City Beach, Florida, where my husband is serving his last active-duty command. Twenty years has come and gone by fast! My kids and I are having a hard time adjusting to this move. We lived in Virginia for 10 years and made an amazing life for ourselves there. We had great friends, who became family. We had an amazing community and exceptional schools. It was the first duty station we called “home”. We have been really homesick since moving here in December.
My husband thought we all needed a pick-me-up, so we decided that we would go to Universal Studios for Spring Break. We had never been to Universal Studios, so we were excited to visit some place new!
We checked with our local ITT office and found out that they offered a 3-Day Park-to-Park ticket for the price of a 1-Day ticket. A 1-Day ticket for adults is $149 and for children (3-9) $144. Now came time for hotel planning!
We wanted to use the Armed Forces Vacation Club, which offers hotels and timeshares for rates of $349 per week, however, with Orlando being a popular Spring Break destination, they have blackout dates during the month of March so no rooms were offered. We were able to get a room at Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa for $150 per night, a little more than we wanted to spend, but still very reasonable. Especially considering the hotels on Universal property were going for around $450 per night for a family of four – way out of our budget! However, with this price at Universal Hotels, you do get Universal Express Pass tickets which allows you front-of-line privileges. They also offer free shuttle service to and from the park as well as early entry into the park. We decided it still wasn’t worth the extra money and we would deal with the lines and parking.
Westgate Lake Resorts and Spa did not disappoint. Our place was a condo, not just a hotel room! We had two bedrooms, one master with a king bed and the other bedroom had 2 full size beds, 3 full baths, full kitchen, dining room, living room and washer/dryer. The resort has 7 pools, tennis courts, shuffleboard, paddleboards, boats and much more. They have an activity center which hosts activities the kids and parents can participate in, like arts and crafts, bingo, a “dive-in” movie night, etc. The resort also offers free shuttle service to and from Universal, however it only runs at certain times of the day and you have to call to make reservations.
When we arrived on Sunday, Monday’s shuttle was already full. We had no choice but to drive and pay the $20 parking fee at Universal. However, the more we thought about it, we decided to do our own parking the whole week, that way we could come and go as we pleased and wouldn’t be stuck waiting for our shuttle to arrive at 8pm when we might be ready to leave at 6pm. If you keep your parking ticket, you can reenter the parking lot and not have to repay. And because we were driving ourselves, we were able to get to the park as soon as they opened.
I highly recommend getting to the park as soon as they open. The wait times for the more popular rides are less first thing in the morning than they are in the afternoon and evening. The most popular attractions are the two Harry Potters, one at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and one at Universal Studios, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Transformers: The Ride-3D and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride. So plan to do those attractions first thing in the morning. Universal has a free App you can download on your smartphone that will give you a map of the park as well as wait times for all the rides.
Monday morning, we arrived at Universal at 8am. We decided to go to Universal’s Islands of Adventure first. We headed straight back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade. Wow, what an amazing sight! It looks like you really are in Hogsmeade village! Seeing the Hogwarts castle was almost as exciting as the first time I saw Cinderella’s castle! Even at 8:15am, the wait time for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride was 45 minutes. The waiting line to get in walked you through Hogwarts castle as you walk through classrooms and corridors. It really looked like you were in the movie.
We spent the rest of our day riding all the other attractions at Island of Adventures. We were really bummed to find out that the Incredible Hulk Coaster was closed down for improvements and wasn’t set to open until summer. Looks like we may need to make another trip down this fall! Tuesday morning we went to Universal Studios and went straight for the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. My app showed a wait time of only 15 minutes!
Next we headed straight on over to the Transformers ride and then the Minions ride. We then walked over to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. I can’t describe how incredibly awesome it is. It’s so amazing how they create these things, it just really blows you away. The Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s ride was a two hour wait time. I really don’t mind waiting in line, but two hours is a bit too much. So we decided that would be what we would do first thing in the morning on Wednesday. We probably spent an hour walking around Diagon Alley. All of the famous shops that were in the movies are here like Ollivanders Wand Shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes and you can even get Quidditch supplies at Quality Quidditch. There is also the dark Knockturn Alley where you can shop at Borgin and Burkes, a shop for the “dark arts!” Like I said, it really feels like you are in the movie! We spent the rest of the day at Universal Studios riding all the other amazing rides and my kids even talked me into a water ride. We got soaked!
Wednesday morning, we headed straight for Diagon Alley to ride Escape from Gringott’s. At 8am, the wait time was already at one hour. Again, it wasn’t too bad because you are walking through Gringott’s bank complete with goblin bank tellers and you go down into the vault. It was a really cool line and an awesome ride, which makes the wait in line worthwhile. We then took off to ride some more rides and by 1pm we completed them all! We had ridden every ride with the exception of one water ride. So we thought it would be a good time to call it a day and head over to Downtown Disney, now called Disney Springs and grab a late lunch/early dinner. We went to the T-Rex Café, an interactive dinosaur themed restaurant with periodic meteor showers! We enjoyed a delicious meal and even got a 10% military discount. We then walked around and checked out some of the stores and shops and then decided to head back to our hotel and enjoy an afternoon at the pool.
Thursday we headed over to Sea World. The kids really wanted to go to Busch Gardens in Tampa, but we decided to stay in Orlando instead of making the drive to Tampa. It’s only an hour and half drive, but we screwed up on our vacation planning and couldn’t get out of our hotel reservation without losing money. And we didn’t want to have to drive back to Orlando after a day at an amusement park and then have to turn around and drive back to Tampa again the next day, because we were taking our kids to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter the Dolphin from the movie Dolphin Tale. So Sea World it was. We enjoyed ourselves, and it was nice to take a break from all the waiting in line. They do have some really cool roller coasters at Sea World and the wait times were only 15 minutes, so we rode the rides several times. Of course, we took in all the shows and even fed sharks, sea lions and sting rays. Sea World tip: Military can get up to four free passes. You have to sign up with Waves of Honor at www.wavesofhonor.com. Another great day in the books!
Friday, we checked out of our hotel and drove to Clearwater Marine Aquarium. With a valid Active Duty ID, admission is free for up to 11 people! That is a great deal! My daughter and I were so excited to see Winter we actually got a little emotional when we saw her. We spent about three hours touring the aquarium and seeing all the marine animals that are being rescued and rehabilitated. It was actually very touching. Some of them have really sad stories.
It was then time to grab lunch and head back home to Panama City Beach. I wanted to be back in time to get prepared for the Easter holiday. We had a wonderful week! My tips or advice would be to research and plan ahead of time. There are amazing deals out there, you just have to search for them. Use your ITT office for your tickets and reservations and don’t forget to ask for military discount at restaurants and stores!
Author: Rachel Ohalek, Military Living® Publications
Reprint from July–August 2016 • Volume 46, No. 4