Move over Disney! With 2 jam packed theme parks, Universal offers the same level of excitement as Disney. 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 guide. As a seasoned Universal visitor, I have come up with the best tips and tricks for a wonderful Universal vacation.
- 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.
- 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…
Versus Diagon Alley mid-day
- 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?
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!
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
- The more days you pay for, the better the value. For example, a 2 day park to park ticket costs $285, while a 1 day park to park is $170. The best value, if you intend to also visit the Volcano Bay waterpark, is a 3 day, 3 park ticket which costs $305, meaning each park comes out to only $102 per day. As the parks have so much to offer, it’s worth planning more than 1 day, especially as a first time visitor.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
Top rides & shows
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!
- 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.
Prepping for a day at the park
- 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.
A few more handy tips for surviving a day at Universal
How to organize your time at the park
Below is a sample itinerary for day 1 at the park
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 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).
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 outside so it will be hot later in the day! Just another reason to get here first! Also, this is a prime time to explore Hogsmeade without the crowds!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Note: Universal closes at 5, while Islands closes at 8. 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! Great comfort food and a laid-back rock n’roll ambiance!
*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 so shorter so it barely eats up any time.
*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
- 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).
- CityWalk is open until 2am.
- 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. For example, a 2nd day free when you buy 1 park to park. 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.