Planning a trip to Universal Orlando Resort in Florida? It's one of my favorite destinations.
Long gone are the days when Universal Orlando was a one-day add-on to a Walt Disney World trip. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is reason enough to make Universal Orlando Resort your first choice in Orlando, and with three full-size theme parks, it's big enough to fill an entire vacation on its own.
I recommend a minimum of two full days to visit Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure. Add a third or fourth day to add Volcano Bay and CityWalk to your itinerary.
With three parks instead of one, Universal Orlando Resort is much larger than Universal Studios Hollywood. It's not actually located at Universal Studios, and is missing the famous Studio Tour. Otherwise, most things at Universal Orlando are bigger and better than the original Hollywood theme park.
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There are ways to avoid paying top dollar for your Universal Orlando Resort vacation. Here are a few ideas:
- Stick with Universal Orlando – I know it's tempting to visit both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World while you're in Orlando, but it's so expensive to do both. Your cost per day goes down with every day you spend at Universal Orlando. It only costs about $25 to upgrade from a 3-Day to a 4-Day ticket.
- Buy online – The Universal Orlando Resort website promises that you'll save up to $70 per ticket when you buy online vs. the gate price. It also has a low price guarantee. If you find a lower online price within 7 days of your purchase, they'll refund the difference in Universal Orlando gift cards.
- Stay off-property – There are some nice benefits to staying at one of Universal's hotels, like early access to the parks and shuttles. However, you'll probably save money if you stay off property. Orlando has about a zillion hotels and vacation rentals. Look for one that offers a free shuttle to Universal Orlando.
- Eat family style – I've found that portions at Universal's quick service restaurants are large, and my family of four can generally share three meals. This saves us money and keeps us from throwing away food or feeling overstuffed. This is an especially good option if you have younger children. We have not found many kids meals at Universal Orlando parks.
There are money-saving tips I recommend for Walt Disney World that I do NOT recommend for Universal Orlando, like skipping the Park-to-Park ticket option and packing in your own food. At Universal Orlando, you need a Park-to-Park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express, which you cannot miss if you're a Harry Potter fan.
You can pack in your own sandwiches and snacks at Universal Orlando, but many rides require you to stash bags in a locker, which is a hassle. I prefer to pack light and buy lunch in the parks.
Universal Orlando has three fun theme parks, and an entertainment zone:
- Universal Studios Florida is the original park. It's home to Harry Potter's Diagon Alley, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Mummy, The Simpsons and more.
- Universal's Islands of Adventure is adjacent to Universal Studios Florida. It's a repeat winner of TripAdvisor's Best Amusement Park award. It's home to Harry Potter's Hogsmeade, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, The Cat in the Hat and more.
- Volcano Bay is Universal's new water park. Its thrilling slides and aqua coaster are unlike anything I've ever seen in a water park. It's fun for families with young children too.
- Universal CityWalk is an outdoor mall filled with on-trend shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Want to see the Blue Man Group? They perform here. CityWalk is a fun place to get dinner or see a show, with or without kids. No park ticket is required to visit CityWalk.
I recommend a minimum of two days to visit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. There is no way to do both parks in just one day, unless you skip a lot of good stuff or get Express Pass, which will help you do more in less time. Read more about Express Pass in the Tips and Tricks section. You could easily spend 3-5 days enjoying all of Universal Orlando Resort.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, and the two sections are connected by the Hogwarts Express. Both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are fantastic, and the Hogwarts Express is a must for Harry Potter fans. You need a Park-to-Park pass to ride the Hogwarts Express, so be sure to buy tickets that include this option.
Read more of my tips for making the most of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and other Universal attractions.
Where to Stay
Universal Orlando Resort has six hotels. I haven't yet stayed in one, but I've heard good things. Benefits to staying at a Universal Orlando Resort hotel include
- Early access to the parks
- Complimentary Express Pass with select hotels
- Complimentary shuttles between hotels and parks
- Kids Clubs
- Top-notch swimming pools and other resort amenities
- Fun themed hotels
Learn more about Universal Orlando Resort hotels at universalorlando.com.
Universal Orlando Resort has some moderately-priced options, but you can usually save money by staying off-property. Familiar brands like Doubletree by Hilton and Best Western can be found within a short distance of Universal Orlando. Some hotels offer money-saving options like complimentary breakfast and shuttles. Click the button to check rates and read reviews for Orlando hotels on TripAdvisor.
On our last visit, my uncle offered us his timeshare in nearby Kissimmee. It was a farther from Universal Orlando than we would have liked, but we got two bedrooms and a full kitchen for a great price, and we loved it. The Orlando area is filled with timeshares and vacation rentals.
Where to Eat
I often recommend packing your own sandwiches and snacks into theme parks to save money. You can do that at Universal Orlando Resort, but we generally buy our food inside the parks because we hate to use the lockers that are required at all of the thrill rides. Too much hassle.
We've tried a few of the restaurants inside Universal Studios Orlando but we prefer to spend our time on rides, so we favor quick service. I think the quality is a little better in specialty restaurants like The Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter or the San Francisco Pastry Company in Universal Studios than in more generic food courts. I found Cafe 4 in Islands of Adventure to be especially disappointing.
You'll want to save room for snacks. Butterbeer in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is barely optional. I loved the unique flavors at Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor. Fans of The Simpsons will want to try a Flaming Moe or a Lard Lad Doughnut.
Universal's CityWalk is a fun place to eat. It's home to a long list of big name restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Voodoo Doughnut and many more. The one we couldn't resist was the steampunk-themed Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen. It had a big menu to please all my picky eaters, and amazing shakes and desserts. You'll want one just for the Instagram photo.
Universal Orlando has one huge multi-level parking area. You'll walk from there through CityWalk to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
Free shuttles run from the parking structure to Volcano Bay all day. Volcano Bay shuttles can be found at Universal's drop-off/pick-up area at the bottom of an escalator. Arrive at least 30 minutes early if you want to be on the first shuttle of the day.
If you stay at one of Universal Orlando Resort's on-site properties, shuttle service around the resort is complimentary. Some off-property hotels provide complimentary shuttles to Universal Orlando Resort too. There are a small number of off-property hotels located within walking distance of the theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort.
The parking structure works fairly well for families who drive their own car, or rent a car in Orlando. However, it can feel like a long walk from the parks to your car at the end of the day.
On our last trip to Universal Orlando, we used Uber or Lyft every day. The cost was comparable to car rental and parking costs and we were always able to get a ride quickly. This is a popular option for many visitors, and the pick up lane can be VERY crowded at the end of the day.
Orlando's public buses stop at Universal Orlando Resort. Check https://www.golynx.com/ to see if the routes and schedule will work for you.
Tips and Tricks
Avoid Crowds. Crowds and long lines can be a real downer at Disneyland. Here are a few tips for reducing your time in line.
- Arrive at the park before opening time and ride the most popular attractions on your list before lines get long. You may ride more before 10 AM than the whole rest of the day.
- Use Rider Swap and Single Rider options to reduce time in line. Rider Swap lets parents of young children wait in line together and then ride separately. The second parent rides once the first parent finishes the ride. Single Rider is a great option when your group would rather ride fast than ride together.
- Download the official Universal Orlando app. Get wait times, apps and more with the Universal Orlando app.
- Use a crowd calendar. Google “Universal Orlando Crowd Calendar” and compare a few. Plan your visit for a time when crowds will be lighter.
- Use a planning tool. Touring Plans is a popular paid option that can help you do everything on your Universal Orlando wish list without spending a lot of time in line.
Pack a lanyard. I've found that a lanyard with a plastic pouch is handy for keeping park tickets, credit cards and ID. It's almost essential if you buy Express Pass. Gift shops at Universal Orlando have a wide selection of lanyards to choose from. My family of four bought lanyards for each of the Hogwarts houses on our last visit. However, you can purchase lanyards for a lot less before your trip on Amazon.com, and elsewhere.
Pack light. I usually bring a day pack into theme parks because most (including Universal) will let us bring our own food and snacks, and it's convenient to have a bag with a few essentials. At Universal Orlando Resort, I only bring in what will fit securely in a lanyard or pocket because the big thrill rides require everyone to use lockers for personal items. Lockers are free and easy to use, but they're a hassle that will increase your wait time if you don't have a non-rider who can keep them for you.
Upgrade your day. Universal has a couple of nice ticket upgrades that can save you time in line and improve your experience.
- Express Pass is a ticket add-on that allows you to stand in a shorter line at nearly every ride. We tried it on our last trip, and while I don't think it's essential, it is pretty awesome. Read more about it in my post below.
- VIP Experiences let you skip the lines and enjoy behind-the-scenes access, led by a Universal Orlando tour guide. If you want a no-fuss, no-stress day at Universal Orlando, it's something to consider.
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