Well, hello! If you’re here, you must be planning your first trip to Universal Studios — or at the very least thinking about a trip to Universal Orlando. Or maybe you’re going back and want tips for making it even better.
I know I read a ton of articles before our first vacation to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
And I took notes.
And then we went.
You know what? Most of the tips worked. But, we also learned a few things that I think every first time visitor to Universal Orlando should know! And here they are — for you!
There are so many things to consider when planning a Universal Studios vacation. I broke them down by category: resorts, parks, tickets and dining plans. You can use the menu (above) to click to what you need or read them all.
Of all the tips, my favorite is the Universal Orlando App. Download it before you go to familiarize yourself with the parks, wait times and and restaurants. Before we went, we picked all the rides, shows and restaurants we were interested in and “favorited” them. During our vacation, after we finished the attraction, I took it off our favorites list (unless we thought it was a “must see/do” again). That’s all the planning we needed before we went.
Also, while Universal Orlando has kids’ areas, the parks are really geared for teens and tweens (and above). Much of the theming is based on movies and TV shows that if you’re too little to watch, you won’t appreciate. We did not see many toddlers or strollers, not even in the Dr. Seuss area. I don’t recommend Universal for kids under 40″ tall or under age 7. That’s me, anyway!
As a budget minded traveler who still loves the big vacations, I appreciate that it is possible to save money on a Universal vacation — just use these tips!
Universal Studios Resorts
If you’re wondering whether to stay at the on-site resort hotels or off property, these tips should help.
1. Staying onsite offers convenience. The people at Universal Orlando are pretty gung ho about how convenient the resorts are to the parks. Compared to Walt Disney World, they are a lot closer — close enough, in theory, to walk. Value resort guests (Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort) take note, it’s a mile from the resort to the park entrances. The good news is, Universal Orlando is serious about transportation and they run buses from the resort to the parks pretty much non-stop. There’s no 30 minute wait like you might experience at some Disney resorts.
2. Staying onsite offers special value. All onsite properties offer early entry daily, allowing resort guests to experience some of the most popular rides (INCLUDING some of the Harry Potter world rides) before the parks open to the general public. Even with the limited opening, some rides (Harry Potter) can experience long waits even before general opening, so plan to catch the bus at least 20 minutes before early entry to get the most of this perk.
3. Universal Orlando partner resorts offer similar perks. Universal has partnered with many nearby offsite hotels to offer similar perks, including transportation to the parks AND early entry! Some of those hotels also offer free breakfast. **We stayed onsite, so I don’t know if the transportation shuttles are as good as those for onsite hotels, but people we met said they’re a great option.
4. Save money with included Universal Studios Orlando express pass. Onsite moderate and luxury resorts include the Universal Orlando express pass. These resorts include: Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and the Hard Rock Hotel. (NOT INCLUDED are: Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, or Universal’s Aventura Hotel which opens later this year). For adrenaline ride junkies or those visiting for only 1-2 days, this might be a valuable perk. We stayed at Cabana Bay Beach Resort in October and had three days in the parks. We did not have — or need — express passes to see and do it all.
Universal Studios Tips
Universal Studios Florida focuses on the entertainment industry, especially movies and television. Guests get to “ride the movies” and enjoy live shows. The park, built around a central lagoon offers a number of themed areas including: Production Central (movie inspired thrill rides), New York City (which includes the new Race through New York Jimmy Fallon experience), San Francisco (featuring the brand new Fast & Furious: Supercharged show), World Expo/Springfield (where you’ll find the Simpson’s rides and the famous Lard Lads Donuts), Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone (fun rides for the little ones) and, of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley.
1. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. This is Universal Studios only “traditional” roller coaster thrill ride. It’s pretty awesome! When you take your seat, quickly choose the music you want to hear on the ride and punch it in right away. There’s not much time to choose. I loved it the first time (sat near the front). I hated it the second time (sat near the back and my head bounced all over the place). We rode during early entry — and late in the day. Using the Universal App, we tracked wait times and went when the line was 15 minutes or less.
2. Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon experience. New to Universal Studios last year, the Jimmy Fallon ride is an incredible experience. As you wait, live entertainment — like Hashtag, the Panda — keeps you from noticing that you’re waiting in line. There are also lounge areas to relax. It’s a great place to beat the heat! Use the Universal App “Virtual Line” to reserve a ride time for your entire group. Then, when it’s your time to “ride,” head on over and show the app! AWESOME! You must be 40″ to ride. This is a 3D/4D experience, so those with motion sickness and certain health conditions might want to skip it.
3. Where to eat! We ate a lot of food on our trip — all in the name of research, you know. Our pick for best lunchtime value is Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck (in the Simpson’s area). Of course, Harry Potter fans will love eating at the Leaky Cauldron (tips on that below). For a sit-down meal in air conditioned bliss, we recommend Finnegan’s Bar and Grill — which serves Irish dishes and offers healthy/vegetarian options.
Islands of Adventure Tips
Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened with CityWalk (the entertainment district just outside the theme parks) in 1999. Islands of Adventure is, not surprisingly, themed around adventure and exploration.
There are eight “islands” in the park, each with its own theme: Port of Entry (shops, dining and guest services), Marvel Superhero Island (where you’ll find the Incredible Hulk coaster, Spiderman and other superheroes), Toon Lagoon (which offers two water rides — Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges), Skull Island (based on King Kong), Jurassic Park (dinosaur themed with many attractions geared toward kids), The Lost Continent (inspired by ancient myths and legends), Seuss Landing (an amazing kids’ area that adults will love too!), and of course, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogsmeade.
1. The Incredible Hulk Coaster. If you, like my daughter, love thrill coasters, this is the ride for you! It begins by shooting you forward to instant high speed fun. We didn’t have express passes, and the traditional queue was not bad. My daughter loved it so much, she and my husband went again — using the single rider line and got through in a matter of minutes. They rode side by side, too. Of course, there are height and health restrictions as with any thrill coaster.
2. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. This 4D ride is one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Like all 4D rides, if you get motion sickness, it might not be the best choice, but the storyline is excellent and the experience is amazing. You really feel as if you’re a part of the story. Waits for this ride can get long, so go early in the day or set an alert on the Universal Orlando App for when times are less than 20 minutes and go then. For those who aren’t tall enough (must be at least 40″ to ride), child swap is offered.
3. Skull Island: Reign of Kong. I hate writing this, because I know it’s the newest attraction at Islands of Adventure, but we found it to be a let-down, not worth the typical 40 minute wait. We happened to pass by when the wait time was 10 minutes — and that’s about all I’d give it. (This is my opinion only. If you’re a King Kong fan, maybe you’ll love it!)
4. Best water ride: Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges. To appreciate this recommendation, you need to know that my husband cannot stand water rides. He despises them! But, he loves us and rides anyway. We hit all three water rides at Islands of Adventure back to back to back — it’s a bit of a hike to get from Jurassic Park River Adventure to Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls to the Bilge Rat Barges, but since we were wet anyway…).
We got on our barge — excellent staff, loads of fun — and buckled up for what we expected to be the “typical” water raft ride. You know the one where everybody sits facing each other in a circle and the raft spins to douse you under waterfalls. YEP! Well, this ride does that — but it makes sure everyone gets wet. And there are a few unexpected surprises along the way.
We laughed so hard we had to go again. Still fun!
5. Seuss Landing is fun for all. Not all rides are open to adults, but that shouldn’t keep you from going. The theming of Seuss Landing brings these beloved books to life. And, it’s thoughtfully laid out with wide walk areas and large bathrooms. We rode the carousel — silly fun and enjoyed this whimsical land! At the very least, stroll through it to see if you can find your favorite character.
6. Where to eat! There are sandwich shops and quick serve restaurants throughout the park, but we found the best value — and tastiest meal — at Thunder Falls Terrace near Jurassic Park. This cafeteria style restaurant serves BBQ ribs, rotisserie chicken and turkey legs. It also serves huge salads, topped with rotisserie chicken and some delicious sides, like black beans and rice. The price here was phenomenal — an excellent value, and it’s air conditioned! Three Broomsticks might be the choice for Harry Potter fans, but we were quite disappointed by the service here.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter Tips
See? I didn’t forget! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWOHP) opened at Islands of Adventure in 2010, and Universal Studios magically cracked the Orlando theme park code!
The Wizarding World was such a success, that adding Diagon Alley at Universal Studios in 2014 and linking the two worlds through the Hogwarts Express made this theme park a “must do” for Harry Potter fans worldwide. I’ll admit, it’s the whole reason we wanted to go. Only the most muggley muggle will not appreciate the WWOHP!
1. Do not buy the Harry Potter package. We did. I regretted it almost immediately! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter package includes breakfast at both the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks. It also includes a Shutterbutton’s Photography Studio Session, early park admission and park to park tickets.
Here’s the rub: You don’t save a dime by booking the package online!
And, while the restaurants used to serve breakfast only for those with the Harry Potter package, they now serve all park guests. We got the the Three Broomsticks at our scheduled breakfast time and were ushered right into the queue. We saved no time, and we saved no money.
Another drawback of the Harry Potter package is that you must schedule your breakfasts and Shutterbutton’s experience before you go. There’s no flexibility at all. I found that having to schedule our park time around the meals made it far less enjoyable than if we had gone on our own.
2. Should you wait until evening to go? I read many articles on the “BEST WAY” to explore the Wizarding World — and the consensus was to head to Diagon Alley for the first time in the evening, enjoy the experience in dusky light (as if in the movies) and then ride the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station to see the castle lit up at night.
So, we did it that way — and my kids almost killed me! They wanted to see Diagon Alley so badly that waiting all day made the first part of the day frustrating. SO, HP fans — go. See what you came for, and forget all the advice about “best times.”
3. Should you have park to park passes for the WWOHP? YES! The Hogwarts Express experience from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade is incredible. We all got a little teary eyed by it — though the queue is quite long. This is the one place where an express pass would be helpful — we waited once for more than 30 minutes to get from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade!
NOTE: Going from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley is never as tough — just a few minutes and you’re on the train.
4. What about the wands? We knew before going to Universal Studios Harry Potter World that we would be getting at least one interactive wand. We did not realize that choosing a wand is almost as difficult as it seemed to be for Harry Potter himself. Parents, especially muggle parents, pack extra patience and allow plenty of time to let kids decide on the perfect wand!
You can speed up the process by talking about their favorite character and encouraging them to get that one. OR, ask them if they want the wand that matches their birthday! (Unless you have twins, that’s a pretty awesome way to go.)
We got the first wand after going through the queue at Ollivander’s where the wand chooses a wizard. Our daughter was picked (perhaps because her t-shirt said, “My BFF is a unicorn!”) and she kept the wand selected for her. So fun!
Our son shopped more traditionally and chose the wand that went along with the “birthday” date of our visit. You can also purchase the wand used by many of the characters in the Harry Potter books and movies. If you want to save $10 dollars, you can get a wand that is not interactive.
We all agree that the interactive wands are best. Most of the places where you can cast spells are pretty easy — and fun! We liked the magical moments in Knockturn Alley because it was less crowded — and out of the heat. We also liked anything that involved spilling water on unsuspecting people passing by.
5. Where should I get butter beer? That’s easy! Just about every quick serve spot in both Harry Potter sections offers butter beer — hot, cold, frozen or ice cream. We tried them all (you know, research) and had a split decision. One liked the hot version best. The rest of us thought the ice cream was best. The frozen butter beer was not high on anyone’s list. Bottom line: it’s got a butterscotch flavor and is really sweet!
6. What about Shutterbutton’s? I’m glad we did it, but I was also disappointed in how our video turned out. It takes quite a while to get everything recorded — probably 20-30 minutes. They didn’t have robes to fit everyone, and they didn’t have enough wands. If we hadn’t had our own robes to help out, it would have turned out worse. BUT, the staff person was a lot of fun and we laughed through the whole recording session. They also try to upsell with still photos. It’s so expensive to begin with, I think at least one should be included! Overall this experience leaves room for improvement, and is too pricey to earn my endorsement.
7. Some can’t miss secrets!
- Head to Gringott’s Money Exchange in Universal Studios to exchange cash or gift cards to Gringott’s bank notes. It’s a little silly maybe, but it’s more fun buying a wand with Gringott’s money! Even for adult Harry Potter fans.
- Enjoy the details. This is not the place to rush through! The designers didn’t miss a single thing — and true HP fans will want to take them all in.
- Use the single rider lines. We rode Escape from Gringotts together — and waited in the early park entry line for more than 45 minutes. Then we rode again in the single rider line and it took only 10 minutes. We even rode the same ride, just not side by side. The sane was true on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Hogwart’s Castle in Island’s of Adventure.
- Look for tucked away places to create some fun photos. This might have been the most fun thing we did!
Tickets and dining plans
FAQ: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure Tickets
1. Do I need a Universal Orlando express pass? If you have three days to explore the parks and use the Universal Orlando App, you do not NEED an express pass. Except for the Hogwarts Express from Universal Studios (Diagon Alley) to Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) and Escape from Gringott’s, we never had a long wait. We rode all the rides multiple times without any issues.
But, if you stay at an onsite hotel that offers it for free or you have less than two full days to enjoy the parks, an express pass might be a good add-on. You can always purchase onsite the day you go.
We didn’t have them, but budgeted to purchase them for our third day at the parks if needed. Saved a lot of money because the virtual lines and single rider lines make the Universal Orlando fastpass unnecessary.
2. Should I get Universal Studios single park tickets or park-to-park tickets? If the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the main reason you are going to Universal Studios Orlando, get the park-to-park tickets. You’ll want to see both on the same day! Also if you can only go for one day, the park-to-park tickets offer flexibility to see the rides you will most enjoy.
3. Is it possible to see Universal Studios in one day? If you plan to visit only one park, either Universal Studios Orlando or Islands of Adventure, it’s easy to see a park in one day — just get there when they open. If you want to see Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in one day, you’ll have to pick and choose your top 5-7 favorites in each park. It’s easier than doing Disney in a day, but not much. I recommend a minimum of two days, preferably three to really enjoy the parks.
FAQ: Universal Studios dining plans
Universal Orlando offers four dining packages: The Universal Dining Plan (which includes a full service meal, quick serve meal, snack and beverage and is only available with vacation packages), the Universal Dining Plan — Quick Service (quick service meal, snack and non-alcoholic beverage), the Universal Dining Plan with Coke Freestyle (includes a quick service meal, snack and unlimited Freestyle Coke for one day), and the Coca-Cola freestyle drink package (which includes one day of unlimited freestyle coke drinks). Click here for current pricing.
1. Is a dining plan a good value? We don’t think so! Compared to the quick service dining plan, we spent far less than the plan costs. Both Bumblee Bee Man’s Taco Truck and Thunder Falls Terrace offer meals at less than $10 each. Butterbeer is considered a snack, not a drink — so that uses up that credit! And, we are not big soda drinkers. Since all restaurants offer free cups of water, we just don’t see the value of this plan.
While slightly outdated, this article at Orlando Informer explains it well.
2. Can you bring food into Universal Studios Orlando? Yes, you can! It’s one of our favorite money saving tips for visiting Universal Orlando! Accepted items as of 2018 include:
- Bottled water
- Small snacks that do not require heating
- Any food required for medical purposes and medically indicated nutritional supplements
- Any food required for special dietary needs
- Baby food/baby formula
- Soft-sided insulated bags no larger than 8.5″ wide x 6″ high x 6″ deep
3. Who can use the American Express Lounge? Universal has partnered with American Express. If you buy your tickets with your American Express card, you can use the American Express lounge in Universal Studios to grab a quick snack. The lounge is quite small and has limited hours (afternoons). But, the water is cold and chips and granola bars are available. We also used the lounge to charge our phones mid-afternoon.
I sure hope these tips help you plan your Universal Orlando Vacation. It’s such an immersive experience you can’t help but have fun!
Seasoned Universal fans, what did I forget? Any essentials a first-timer should know that I didn’t include here?