After our first visit to Universal Orlando, there seem to be two big reasons to visit Universal Orlando. First and foremost, the Harry Potter Fan in your family will be overjoyed! Second, the luxury hotels on property are less expensive than the luxury hotels on Disney property. If you are looking to stay somewhere fantastic in Orlando without paying Disney prices, consider splitting your vacation into a few nights at a hotel close to Disney and then upgrading to one of the three luxury hotels at Universal Orlando. For our family, staying on Universal property made those few days a little more relaxed as we were easily able to split our time between exploring the parks and enjoying good food and down time at the hotel.
Universal Orlando is divided into two theme parks - Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure - that are literally right next to each other (within walking distance). Both parks have an area from Harry Potter - Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure - that together are called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The two areas are connected to each other by an entertaining train ride on the Hogswart Express; tickets to both parks are required to ride the train and to see the complete Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In total, there are two roller coasters, one for thrill seekers and one that is scaled back enough so that most kids can enjoy it. The other two rides (Gringott's and The Forbidden Journey) are a unique and exciting combination of roller coaster and 3-D motion simulation.
My nine year old Harry Potter fan truly enjoyed all of the rides, but the real fun for the whole family was walking around with him while he excitedly pointed out every single thing that he saw from the books brought to life. The level of detail in all of the shops including The Magical Menagerie, Ollivander's, Weesly's Wizard Wheezes, and the dark magic shops of Knocturn Alley was very impressive. My son's favorite part of the whole week in Orlando was simply walking around Diagon Alley taking in all that magic. My 7 year old daughter quite enjoyed walking around Diagon Alley as well, but decided that all of the rides looked too intense for her.
Bottom Line: If your child loves Harry Potter, Universal Orlando is absolutely a destination all its own!
Attractions for the Siblings
Younger children can still enjoy Universal, partly because there isn't as much walking as in Disney and the lines are generally shorter, especially with the express pass. My daughter (7) LOVED the rides in Seuss Land, the awesomely themed playgrounds throughout both parks, the ET Adventure Ride, and the Animal Actors show. The playgrounds are age appropriate for even the littlest tots and really nicely themed. Characters, like Dora and Curious George, were generally MUCH easier to access than in Disney World.
If no one in your family is that into Harry Potter, I don't think the rest of the attractions are enough to warrant an extended visit to Universal, probably best limited to one day. That, of course, varies from family to family, but for us there were too many motion simulated attractions and not enough that the whole family could enjoy together (the kids aren't quite into the huge coasters yet).
If you have older children, there are lots of big roller coasters outside of the Wizarding World that could keep your adventurous thrill seekers very entertained.
Food at the Parks
The food available at the parks is average at best so we ate most of our meals at the hotel. We enjoyed a traditional English breakfast at The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and found that was a great way to start the day. We also tried the highly rated Mythos restaurant for lunch one day, but the menu barely registered as Greek food in my opinion and wasn't worth the money.
There are three luxury resorts on Universal property: The Loews Portofino Bay, the Loews Royal Pacific and the Hard Rock Hotel. Staying at one of these resorts is ultra-convenient as you are withing walking distance of both parks and City Walk and if you don't feel like walking, there is boat transportation as well. All three hotels offer continuous, complimentary boat rides to the gates of the park and complimentary express passes to all rides in the park EXCEPT for those inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It is a peaceful, ~10 minute boat ride through a beautiful canal, so that door to door commute time is usually around 15 minutes. The express passes proved to be very useful as well, cutting our wait time down significantly for most rides.
We chose to stay at the Loews Portofino Bay for the Italian theme and food. It was magnificent! You can read my full review on Trekaroo to get all the details on the rooms, amenities, and food. I highly recommend this hotel and would venture to guess that the other two hotels are just as great, so it is all about which theme/food options suit your family best. The Portofino Bay looks remarkably like the real thing (at least from the pictures I have seen) and has all the Italian food you could desire; the Hard Rock Hotel has The Palm steakhouse and an edgier vibe with more night life options; and The Royal Pacific focuses on Pacific Rim and Asian decor and cuisine.
I am so glad that our family got to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter while it was still fresh in my son's imagination. That being said, I don't think we will return to Universal until our kids are ready to ride ALL of the biggest roller coasters in Islands of Adventure. When that time comes, I will be thrilled to stay in one of the Universal luxury resorts again!