Free Universal Studios Orlando vacation guide

Move over Disney! With 2 jam packed theme parks, Universal offers the same level of excitement as “the magical place on Earth.” No trip to Orlando would be complete without a day or 2 at Universal Studios. Universal adds exciting rides to their lineup every year, so you can always expect something new. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter continues to expand by the year, and now is a theme park in and of itself. Unfortunately, the prices go up every year too. To get the max out of your trip, you will want to check out my handy Universal Studios vacation guide.

As a seasoned Universal visitor, I have come up with my best tips and tricks for a wonderful Universal vacation.

First off…

  • Both Universal and Islands of Adventure are definitely worthy of a visit. Universal is home to incredible movie themed rides, while Islands is home to numerous fun water rides and coasters. Universal is home to an amazing replica of Diagon Alley, while Islands is home to the Hogsmeade section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both are home to amazing Harry Potter themed rides and shops.
  • A park to park ticket is needed to access both parks in a single day. If you plan on switching back and forth between the 2 parks, this ticket will be needed. The new Hogwarts Express train ride is a convenient (and fun) mode of transportation between Universal and Islands. Harry Potter fans will definitely want to opt for the park to park in order to access the train.
Hogwarts train ride at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Today, you can take the Hogwarts Express as opposed to walking back and forth between the parks
  • Staying at a Universal property is a must. The free shuttle to the parks saves you both time and money. Plus, you get an hour early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For fans, this is a great time to take pictures without the crowds and explore a bit before it becomes too congested!

Diagon Alley an hour before the park opens…

Diagon Alley at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Versus Diagon Alley mid-day

Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
  • Downloading the wait times app will save you time. More time=more attractions=better overall value. On this handy app, you will be able to scan updated wait times for all rides within both parks.
  • Save yourself the hassle and download the Universal app so you can scan your tickets at the gate vs bringing with print outs. Scannable tickets comes in handy when taking the Hogwarts Express, as you no longer have to worry about losing your paper tickets.

Where to stay?

Cabana bay resort in Orlando, Florida
The retro themed Cabana Bay resort offers a host of amenities at an affordable price.

As mentioned above, staying at a Universal on-site resort is by far the most convenient option. Options range from affordable family friendly resorts to luxurious couples resorts. Cabana Bay is a fun and affordable 50’s themed resort. Rates are often as low as $115 outside of prime season. Amenities include a free park shuttle, early entry to the park, a bowling alley, a Starbucks, an arcade, a cafeteria style dining area, and a wonderful tropical themed pool complete with a lazy river!

Lazy river at Cabana Bay resort in Orlando, Florida

This resort is super casual, and thus, the perfect place to come back to and relax after a long day at the park. Grab a drink at the poolside bar, roast S’Mores by the firepit, go for a late night soak in the hot tub, or bowl a game or 2. Also be sure to take a day off from the parks to enjoy the fantastic pool. This resort is home to 2 pools with great amenities including a sand beach, a poolside bar, a waterslide, a shady lazy river.

Saving a few bucks

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
  • The more days you pay for, the better the value. For example, a 2 day park to park ticket costs $292, while a 1 day park to park is $174. The best value, if you intend to also visit the Volcano Bay waterpark, is a 3 day, 3 park ticket which costs $370, meaning each park comes out to only $123 per day. Currently, the park is also offering 2 days free on 3 day tickets, so you actually get 5 days to explore! As the parks have so much to offer, it’s worth planning more than 1 day, especially as a first time visitor. Ticket prices current as of 2023 – check the website for updated info.
  • Plan for a non theme park day. This will help you save a few bucks on pricey tickets, while also allowing your body to recover! Consider a lazy pool day, a trip to a Gulf Coast beach, or exploring local Orlando attractions.
  • Avoid eating within the parks. The food is super pricey and honestly not that good. The one exception is Mythos, a wonderful cave themed restaurant at Islands (it has been rated the world’s number 1 theme park restaurant). I usually grab a pastry/oatmeal and coffee at Starbucks which holds me over until lunch.
Mythos at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida
Mythos offers a fun themed dining experience without the need to leave the parks!
  • Pack a backpack with a few water bottles and snacks. This will save you a few bucks over resorting to an overpriced lunch. Plan on a bigger dinner somewhere in CityWalk after your day at the parks. Hard Rock Cafe, Viva Italian, and Toothsome are all great choices.
Hard Rock Cafe at CityWalk in Orlando, Florida
CityWalk is home to an abundance of fun themed restaurants. Hard Rock is a perfect place to kick back after putting in all those miles!
  • Book your flights and hotel well in advance for the best rates. Summer when kids are out of school and holiday periods are the busiest and priciest. September and January are typically the most affordable times to visit, with January being the most comfortable (avg highs in low 70’s).

Check out 20+ more ways to save on your Universal trip

Top rides & shows

The Hulk Coaster at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida

If you are a first timer, knowing which rides to put on your must-do list can be an overwhelming experience. A few of the best-of-the-best to concentrate on first are the following:

  • The Mummy (Universal)
  • All the Harry potter rides (Universal & Islands)
  • Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls (Islands)
  • The Hulk coaster (Islands)
  • Men in Black: Alien Attack (Universal)
  • Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt (Universal)
  • Horror Make Up Show (Universal)
  • The Blues Brothers (Universal)
  • Jurassic Park River Adventure (Islands)
  • Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle Show (Islands)

Also check out my full guide on Universal’s best rides & attractions

Other fun experiences not to miss out on!

Knight Bus photo opp at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
  • Take your picture by the Knight Bus at Diagon Alley.
  • Try a butterbeer! It tastes like a cream soda milkshake and makes for a delicious cool down on a hot day!
  • Have someone take your picture disappearing into the brick wall at Platform 3/4 (King’s Cross station at Universal Studios).
  • Don’t miss the dragon fire breathing show (runs every 10 min on top of Gringotts).
  • Take your pic by the iconic Universal globe (located right near entrance).
  • Don’t forget a character pic – it’s the perfect free souvenir.
  • Consider engaging in the wand choosing ceremony at Ollivanders. It’s hard to get picked, but a fun experience nonetheless!
  • A few more great photo opps: Hogwarts castle from the bridge, phone booth in Diagon Alley, Brick wall in Diagon Alley, Back to the Future car, Raptor Experience (Jurassic Park), and lots of photo opps at Springfield Simpsons area.
Back to the Future DeLorean at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Prepping for a day at the park

Funny sign at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida
  • Consider purchasing a camelbak. These handy backpacks hold a liter or more of water, basically enough to cover you all day in the park. You will be drinking extra water in Orlando’s hot, sunny climate. While free ice water is available at all food stands, it eats up a lot of time to wait in long lines.
  • Other essentials to throw in your backpack include sunblock, sunglasses, a few light snacks that won’t melt, a poncho, contact rewetting drops/glasses, a portable mister for standing in the hot lines, and anything else that might make your day more comfortable.
  • Wear gym shoes and workout apparel. Workout clothes will dry faster than jeans after getting soaked on water rides. Also gym shoes will prevent dreaded blisters from flip flops! We usually clock in 12-15 miles a day, so it’s best to be comfortable!
  • Check show times in advance. As the shows are limited in number, you will want to plan your day around them. Horror Make Up Show, Fear Factor Live, and the Blues Brothers are all definitely worth making time for.
Universal Horror Makeup Show in Orlando, Florida

A few more handy tips for surviving a day at Universal

How to organize your time at the park

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Below is a sample itinerary for day 1 at the park

Day 1

8am – You will get to enter Universal at 8am with the early admission pass. There will barely be any crowds at this time, so use this first hour to your advantage. Harry Potter fans will want to explore Diagon Alley or get in line for Escape to Gringotts. Everyone else not interested in anything Potter will want to get on the more popular rides which will have a longer wait mid-day (Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt, The Simpsons, Men in Black, The Mummy).

Escape to Gringotts ride at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida
The Escape to Gringotts is one of the park’s most exciting and creative rides!

9am – Take the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure to get in line for the new Harry Potter (Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure). This ride is super popular, so much so that it had a 10 hour wait at opening. Today, you can considerably lower your wait time by getting here first (we waited about 90 min). Keep in mind that the wait is entirely outside so it will be really hot later in the day! Just another reason to get here first! Also, this is a prime time to explore Hogsmeade without the crowds!

Honeydukes at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida
You will notice a lot of familiar shops at Hogsmeade i.e. Honeydukes where you can pick up a chocolate frog

For anyone not interested in the new Potter ride, this is a great time to go on Islands’s more popular rides like The Hulk, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Skull Island. Or, simply stay on the Universal side and concentrate on the more popular rides there which will be packed later in the day (i.e. Men in Black, Despicable Me, Simpsons, The Mummy).

The Simpsons always has a hideous wait, and much of the line is right out in the blazing sun. This is a good one to get on right at opening!

Mid Afternoon hours – This is the best time of the day to go on the water rides. It will be miserably hot and you will likely be irritated from waiting in hot sunny lines. Jurassic Park, Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges, and Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls are all a blast. Although there are dryers located throughout the park, I would take advantage of the cool down. You will be dry (and hot) again within a few hours.

Dudley Do Right's Ripsaw Falls ride at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida

Late Afternoon – Take the Hogwarts Express back over to Universal. If you need a quick snack, Louie’s in the NYC section of the park offers giant slices of pizza for 10 bucks. The pizza is actually pretty decent, plus you can also treat yourself to gelato and garlic knots. If you time your visit just right, you can head across the street for The Blues Brothers show afterwards.

Blues Brothers show at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
The Blues Brothers – Free & fun entertainment when you need a break from the rides!

Evening hours – Get on any rides you missed earlier in the day. And do not forget about classics like E.T. which barely have any wait. Also, if you have extra time, you can do some shopping in Diagon. They sell everything here, from wands, to quidditch equipment, to robes. Tip – If you are staying at a Universal resort, you can send theme park purchases to your hotel.

E.T. ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Note: Universal closes at 5 or 7 (dep on day), while Islands closes at 6-10pm (dep on day). If you are not totally wiped out, head back over to Islands for more rides. If you are done for the day, head over to CityWalk.

Cap the night off with a hearty meal at Universal CityWalk. You will probably be tired, hot, and hungry. Now is a great time to kick back and relax, enjoy tasty comfort food, and simply relax in an air conditioned setting. Hard Rock is the perfect fun choice after a full day walking around the parks! Featuring great comfort food and a laid-back rock n’roll ambiance, you can keep the party going!

Jumbo appetizer platter at Hard Rock Cafe at Universal CityWalk in Orlando

Day 2

Hollywood Rip Rock RideIt coaster at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
Don’t miss out on Rip Rock RideIt, a fast coaster featuring music and the world’s first non inverting loop!

*Get on any rides you missed the first time around.

*Repeat any of your favorites. In my opinion, The Hulk, the Mummy, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Castle, and Men in Black are most worthy of a repeat!

*Do more shopping at Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, and the giant Universal store. It’s much easier to take some time to shop after you have made sure to get on the big rides!

*Take a pic with a character. It is much easier to do so at Universal vs. Disney. The lines are way shorter so it barely eats up any time.

Popeye photo opp at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

*Try to fit a few more shows into your schedule. The Horror Makeup Show, Fear Factor, and the Hogwarts Castle show are all amazing. Get to the Hogwarts show a little bit early as it tends to get extremely crowded!

More Things to Know

Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, FLorida
  • If you are staying at Universal hotel, you can have your retail purchases sent to your resort. This is a free service – just let the cashier know at any Universal shop.
  • Normal park hours are 8am-5pm (Universal) and 9am-8pm (Islands). Times vary depending on day and time of the year.
  • CityWalk is open until 1am (midnight on Mon & Tues).
  • Loews Portofino, Loews Royal Pacific, and Hard Rock Hotel all offer free fast passes. Unfortunately, Cabana Bay does not include the passes. In my opinion, if you have at least 2 days at the park, a fast pass really is not worth the extra fee.
  • Plan on walking between 12-15 miles a day! You may need a foot massage when all is said and done!
  • You can dramatically reduce your wait times on more popular rides by riding solo – just line up in the single rider line.
  • Universal occasionally offers discounted tickets or free days when purchasing several. It never hurts to check!
  • If you are prone to motion sickness, avoid the following rides – Spiderman, the Simpsons, Despicable Me, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Jimmy Fallon. Some people take motion sickness pills to help – note Spiderman and Despicable Me are the absolute worst!