We recently visited Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida for the first time. We visited during the holiday break in December, which is the busiest week of the whole year. We knew that ahead of time but, boy, was it packed! The staff did a good job of keeping people moving and safe. It also rained on and off all day. So, not ideal conditions for visiting a major (and expensive!) amusement park, but we still had fun. We also learned a lot. Here are some things we wished we knew ahead of it, and some tips we did receive from friends and fellow bloggers and found helpful. Note: Universal Studios in Orlando has three parks: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay (waterpark). We did not visit Volcano Bay this trip.
10 Tips for Planning a Trip To Universal Studios:
1. Stay “on property.” There are major perks of staying at a premier resort property (Loews’ Portofino Bay, Loews Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel) including boat launch from the resorts to the entrance to the park, early park admissions, and Express Pass included with your tickets. The resorts have restaurants on site, tons of daily activities and special events, shops, and pools galore. We stayed at Portofino Bay and the ambience was awesome! The entire resort felt like an Italian Village and our room was spacious, clean, and comfortable. We spent an entire morning by one of the pools that felt like we were on an island with sand and a zero entry pool with water slide!
2. Purchase the Express Pass. If you’re staying at a premier resort property, it’s included in your hotel and ticket fees. However, the parks sell a set amount of Express Passes to people not staying on property- read about it here. It’s expensive, but, in my opinion, totally worth it, especially if you are visiting during popular times (any holiday, school vacation, and summer). During our visit (again, during the busiest week of the year) several rides had 90-120 minute waits. With Express pass, we waited less than 20 minutes on all but one ride. Note: There are some rides, like Harry Potter’s Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, that do not have Express Pass options. Go there early and go there first.
3. Decide if you’re focused on Harry Potter World or other sections of the park. Some people go to Universal Studios and Island of Adventures JUST for Harry Potter World; some people go for the Marvel Comics section, or the Dr. Seuss section. Once you download the app (see #4) you can see which rides are most popular (hint: it’s anything Harry Potter related) and how long the wait times are. It’s worth a little pre planning to discuss preferences ahead of time and make a list of what rides are “must see”. If you want to purchase a wand in Harry Potter, it’s worth purchasing it in early in the morning so you can use the wand throughout the parks and maximize the experience. Ollivander’s shop at both Diagon Alley (at Universal Studios) and Hogsmeade (at Island of Adventures) have “demonstrations” in the shop. Group of 20-25 guests are taken in the shop and the wizard chooses one guest for a demonstration. The wizard will hand select a special wand for that guest. Our children were lucky enough to be chosen for a demonstration and it was the highlights of our visit.
4. Download the app ahead of your visit. You can find it here. It’s free and has great maps and wait times for each ride. You can also see schedules for show, make reservations for some restaurants, and find out more information about parking.
5. Check height requirements. Many rides have height requirements and it is better to know ahead of time and avoid disappointment and melt downs inside the park. Find the chart here. Keep in mind, especially if you are prone to motion sickness, several “rides” at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are virtual reality.
6. Know what you can (and can’t) bring into the parks. Many rides require guests to check backpacks. Standard sized lockers are free for the first 30 minutes and then there is an additional charge. Larger sized lockers cost $2 while you ride. Our standard sized backpack just fit in the standard locker (it wasn’t that full) and then we needed an additional locker for other stuff. Our umbrella didn’t fit (length wise), but the attendants at some of the rides (where all 4 of us went on the ride) held the umbrella at the start of the ride. The parks do allow guests to bring in unopened water bottles, small snacks (snacks for young children etc) and food for people with dietary restrictions.
7. Bring ponchos and/or an umbrella. Even if the weather gods are predicting sunshine all day, ponchos weight next to nothing and take up very little space. You can purchase them ahead of your trip and pay one dollar for them at big box stores (or here). In the park, ponchos cost $10-$12 each. We brought ponchos with us for every Disney trip- sunshine every day. We forgot them this trip- it rained on and off all day.
8. Consider the meal plans. Depending on when and how your family eats, you can save a lot of money. There are two options: one for Quick Service meals and one plan for Full Service meals. We purchased an adult meal and child meal on the Quick Service plan and then paid for a second child meal separately (my husband and I shared the adult meal). Each Quick Service plan comes with an entree, drink (non alcoholic), another drink, and a snack. The cost of the plan meant that our second snack was free (as compared to paying for everything individually). The famous Harry Potter Butter Beer (and any nonalcoholic drink) counts as a snack. Definitely purchase a meal plan ahead of time (at your hotel or when you book your trip) and save time waiting in lines inside the park. Read about meal plans here. We ate at Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure for lunch and liked it. Some restaurants take reservations- see the list here.
9. Get a stroller for the toddler crew. Bring a stroller for younger children too- each park covers over 100 acres. Double strollers will fit on the boats from the on property resorts. There are several areas for stroller parking near popular rides. If you’re flying into town, consider renting a stroller- there are several local businesses that will drop off the stroller at your resort’s concierge and pick it up from the same spot- so easy! We used Kingdom Strollers twice when visiting Disney World and had very positive experiences both times. Our favorite stroller to rent is the City Mini double. I found this article on UndercoverTourist helpful when considering strollers at the parks.
10. Visit Universal CityWalk before or after your day(s) in the park and get the lay of the land. City Walk (similar to Disney’s Disney Springs) is free to the public- no park ticket necessary. There are more than 30 dining options from quick service to full service restaurants just at CityWalk. CityWalk has great shops to purchase Universal souvenirs (and again, save time inside the park), tons of entertainment options, and a chance to skydive, indoors! Parking is free after 6pm and CityWalk is officially open until 1am or 2am in the morning! You can also take many of the iconic photos ahead of time so you won’t have to stop when you’re trying to get into the park. Find a map and information on parking here.
If you’re headed to the Orlando area and are planning to visit Disney World, we’ve got tons of planning tips and posts on dining at Disney World, staying at the Contemporary Resort, and exploring Disney Springs.