Welcome to our Universal Orlando Resort summer 2019 trip report! This trip was mostly a chance to visit the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, but will also mark the beginning of our coverage of Universal on this site. This post covers my arrival and race to the gate to activate my annual pass!
For you, that means this post mostly covers what you can expect from Universal’s airport shuttle option if you’re trying to get to the parks as quickly as possible to start your trip.
About This Trip Report
This trip report covers an August visit to Universal Orlando Resort. As it includes much coverage of the new Hagrid’s attraction, it should be largely useful for the coming months. However, note that as the holidays ramp up, you’ll want to be aware of how they impact your trip. In particular, Halloween Horror Nights is a huge event at the resort beginning September 6.
Trip reports usually supplement our existing coverage, but in this case we are building a significant amount of content based on these visits. Although we’ve visited before, we’ve never done so as serious bloggers. As a result, you might feel like the times and photos are similar to, say, our one-day itinerary posts.
I decided it was still worth doing the separate trip report, though, because some people enjoy the less formal nature of trip reports and are just here to see what a trip looks like, not to plan one themselves. Here are all the posts in this trip report (links open in new tabs and skip this introduction):
Universal Orlando Trip Report Part 2 — Getting to Universal Orlando and a Race to the Gates (this post)
Flying to MCO
I scheduled flights for this trip to keep everything comfortable. Midday flights on days one and six, with four days in the middle for the parks.
As a bit of a public transit obsessive, I always take the bus and train from my downtown Chicago apartment to O’Hare. I got to ORD at about 1:45PM for a 2:20PM boarding and breezed through security with TSA Precheck.
I had already had my coffee for the day, I’m trying hard not to bring coffee onto these under three-hour flights because I always wind up needing to go to the bathroom, and I recently spilled on someone’s bag. As a result, I had time to explore O’Hare, including my favorite spot, the walk between concourses B and C of terminal 1.
Sometime the day before, I had realized something. My flight was scheduled to land at 5:55PM, and the Universal parks closed at 9PM—an hour earlier than their July close time of 10PM.
That’s not a huge deal, but remember I had $200 on the line that required me to get to the gate before close. Flying to Orlando midday in the summer is a recipe for delays because of the frequency of storms.
I checked the FlightAware app for some common causes of delays and saw that my plane was arriving from PIT on time (good news), but the weather at MCO was awful (bad news). Check this out:
All inbound flights held at origin, and departing flights delayed because of a tornado. A few people I follow on social media heading to MCO actually were diverted to other airports. By some miracle, my flight was not held at the origin, and it landed basically on time. The flight itself was bumpy, but that’s just how summer flights in this region go.
Checking In and Waiting for my Shuttle
If we’re being honest, once my flight landed there was no way I wouldn’t get to the park gates on time. From this point onward I was no more than a 30-minute Uber ride to Universal, and it was just after 6PM.
Sure, if I got there without going to the hotel first, I’d have to take my luggage (which was just my small backpack) through security, but that would be a minor inconvenience. But I also wanted to make sure I got the full shuttle experience, so I stuck with that plan.
The Universal MCO shuttle is a partnership with SuperShuttle. It costs $39 per person, roundtrip. By contrast, an Uber ride will cost around $30+tip and take about 20 to 30 minutes.
Unlike Disney’s Magical Express, there’s no luggage delivery or anything else notable—it’s a pure shuttle between your hotel and the airport.
Booking the shuttle through Universal, I got a series of emails and text messages making sure I knew where to go. There are two check-in spots (one MCO A-side and one B-side). On the B-side, where I was, the desk was across from the Hertz desk. It’s well-marked but inconspicuous.
Giving my name, I was quickly given a “travel wallet” with a few coupons and my return shuttle information. I was told to go stand between shuttle spots B22 and B26 and to wait for my name to be called. I was told the maximum wait was 30 minutes. I completed check in at 6:16PM.
This is not a great system for guests, and I think it shows how Universal fails to appreciate the details that make Disney’s Magical Express, well, magical.
Guests should be handed off, person-to-person, not just told to stand outside in Orlando’s punishing heat and humidity until someone, some time shows up and calls their name.
Other guests who arrived before me were much more frustrated, though I will say I started to get nervous I was somehow in the wrong spot.
To make things worse, the Disney Magical Express buses kept dropping off guests right in front of us. Magical Express is far from perfect, but seeing those buses come and go every five minutes is really needling.
At 6:46PM, the shuttle arrived. As I wasn’t the first person waiting, some people waited more than 30 minutes. I waited exactly 30 minutes. Again, had I used Uber, I probably would have been at my hotel right about then.
I had just over two hours to get to my hotel and then to the park gates…
Ride from MCO to Aventura
The shuttle driver actually didn’t take names. I can’t say whether anyone was left behind, and obviously I hope no one waiting more than 30 minutes was or I’d have happily given up my seat, taken an Uber, and taken it up with Universal later.
It took a while for him to get all the luggage Tetris-ed into the back of the shuttle, and we departed at 6:58PM. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire played on the shuttle television, but it kept cutting out like the disc was scratched.
I can’t recall the precise order of the hotels, but it was something like Endless Summer at 7:22PM, Cabana Bay, Royal Pacific, Sapphire Falls, Aventura at 7:54PM. I honestly don’t know if we went up to Hard Rock and Portofino Bay (it’s possible the shuttle had no bookings for those hotels at this time).
I did a poor job of hydrating this flight, so I felt really crummy already, and being in this small shuttle during a storm on some bumpy roads didn’t help.
As the rain started to pour, I started to count down the minutes. At this point I really didn’t want to have to carry my backpack and it get drenched in the downpour, but my clock was getting tighter and tighter.
The first guests were dropped off at 7:22PM—only 24 minutes after we left MCO. But stops came—7:38PM, 7:46PM—and it wasn’t Aventura. Finally, the very last stop, was Aventura at 7:54PM. That’s 100 minutes after I got to the shuttle check-in desk.
Aventura to Universal Gates
I dropped off my bag. At this point I was actually a bit nervous about my $200. With a downpour in progress, the 20-minute walking path to the parks (which I’d never used before) was not an option.
Uber remained a pretty safe option, but a few wrong turns could still doom me. I decided to at least peek over at the resort shuttle option which, of course, was advertised as operating every 30 minutes. I stood waiting in the rain at 8:01PM.
By 8:05PM, I was boarded on a Mears bus. It seems like Universal uses these to supplement their full-time fleet, which Disney does for RunDisney events. Although a standard fleet of uniform buses might be “better,” I applaud the willingness to temporarily expand the fleet as needed.
As the rain poured down, we of course hit a traffic jam right at guest drop off, but we only needed to cover a few hundred feet. It was 8:15PM and I wasn’t so nervous anymore.
I took me 7 minutes from my 8:20PM arrival to get to the Universal Studios Florida gates. I’d already paid for the pass online, so I just showed my confirmation information and was given my pass. By 8:34PM I was inside the park!
I took a little bit of time to enjoy Diagon Alley and to celebrate my new seasonal pass and $200 saved!