We’ve just returned from another trip to Universal Orlando Resort. This group of three theme parks is undoubtedly one of our absolute favorite family vacation destinations. There are dozens of the most technologically advanced attractions to be enjoyed throughout Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure including thrilling rides and world-class shows. There’s also a brand-new water theme park, Volcano Bay that will blow you away. With five on-site hotels and endless dining and entertainment options throughout the parks and the adjacent City Walk complex there’s enough to occupy everyone from young kids to teens to adults alike.
Over the years we have collected a lot of insider tips and tricks to help us avoid crowds, save money and make the absolute most of our vacation. Now I’m sharing those secrets with YOU!
Read on to learn our best Universal Orlando Tips and Tricks!
Disclosure – Any and all opinions expressed are that of Mom Abroad. No compensation was received for this post. However please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links. Meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase using the link.
Let’s jump right in!
1. Buy Tickets in Advance Online
First and foremost, you’ll want to take care of your tickets. Lines to buy tickets at both Universal Studios parks are long, especially at opening time. Save yourself precious time by buying your tickets ahead on-line. Not only can buying your tickets ahead of time save you from waiting in line but it can also be substantially cheaper.
If you’re looking for a great deal check out Undercover Tourist. They have been around for years, so you can be sure you are purchasing legitimate tickets for the best prices out there. This is especially true with the Park-to-Park tickets, which are required if you want to take the Hogwarts Express Train. And believe me, you do! You can check ticket prices here!
2. Buy tickets with an American Express Card
American Express is the official card of Universal Orlando Resort. When you purchase your Universal Resort Park tickets or annual pass with your American Express card, you gain access to a special lounge inside Universal Studios. Here you can relax in the air-conditioned lounge and enjoy complimentary light snacks, drinks, a full-time concierge and more. The American Express Lounge is open seven days a week from 12–5 PM and subject to availability. Entrance to the lounge is located right next to Shrek’s character meet and greet. Simply present your confirmation page or original receipt plus your AMEX Card along with your park ticket to gain entrance. This is an especially awesome perk on a hot Florida day as it’s a great place to cool down and recharge.
3. Plan for 4 Days Minimum
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are connected by the Hogwarts Express. Not only is this an AWESOME attraction in and of itself it makes hopping between the two parks extremely easy. I think it makes the two parks feel more like ONE giant park. I do not recommend just touring one park per day –mostly because you’ve got to ride the Hogwarts Express in each direction…its NOT the same ride in each way. The minimum you need is two days to conquer it all. To really savor Universal and Islands of Adventure though you should give yourself three days or more.
You will definitely want an add a full day to check out Universal Orlando’s amazing new water park Volcano Bay too. Volcano Bay has some of the BEST water attractions and slides we have EVER experienced. We enjoyed it so much we actually decided to add another day to our last Universal Orlando vacation just so we could go again! An in-depth guide to Volcano Bay is coming soon.
Four days gives you enough time to take in Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, AND the NEW Volcano Bay Water Park. That is ‘IF’ you have the Universal Express Passes for the dry parks. If you do not have the express passes, then you should consider a longer stay. Especially during the more crowded times of the year like Spring Break.
There are several options available for Multi Passes from 2 to 5 days in duration. If you plan on visiting all three parks, I recommend you choose one of these passes.
Keep in mind too that when assessed on a cost-per-day basis, one-day tickets are much more expensive than multiple days. Universal often offers deals such as get four days for the price of two. So your park admission may not go up very much when you add another a day or two to your ticket. In fact when you get to around five days you should really consider getting an annual pass. The price difference between an annual pass and five-day park tickets made the passes a clear winner in our book. We ended up doing annual passes as our gift to our kids for Christmas and it’s meant a whole year of Florida trips for us.
4. Time your visit to Avoid Crowds
Once you know how many days you’d like to spend visiting Universal, you’ll have to decide when to head to Orlando. We’ve been to Universal in every month of the year at one point or another and there are definitely times that are more advantageous.
There are two times a year you can count on avoiding large crowds. The month of September sees lighter attendance as most families are just returning to school. However, September can still be quite hot in Florida, so this is something to keep in mind. You can also generally count on light crowds in early December. The closer it gets to the school winter breaks the more the traffic picks up. But, visiting Universal during the holidays is extra spectacular! In Universal’s Islands of Adventure, you can see Grinchmas and the Macy’s Parade at Universal Studios. Also new for 2018 is Christmas at Hogwarts. Plus, both parks are decked out with holiday lights too. It’s my favorite time of year to visit!
I recommend using the Crowd Calendar by Undercover Tourist to predict what days are better for visiting so you spend more time on rides and less time in lines.
5. Stay on Property
At first glance, it may strike you that you can find cheaper accommodations outside of the Universal Orlando property, but closer consideration can make you realize that staying on site is actually the better deal. Let me explain.
The three top tier resorts on property (Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Royal Pacific Resort and the Hard Rock Hotel specifically) include FREE Universal Express Passes for each hotel guest –with a limit of 5 guests per room. Staying on-site in one of these hotels gives you front of the line access to the most popular rides in the parks, early park admission, priority seating at many restaurants in City Walk and FREE transportation around the resort. The Universal Express Passes alone can cost up to $149 per person depending on the time of year. Do the math for the size of your family and see if it makes sense. You may find that what you save on an off-site room might not really be worth it. The cost of your room might be LESS than the value of the Express Passes!
You get these perks for every day you are at the hotel, including the day you check-in and the day you check-out. Once you check in at each hotel you are either given your passes, or collect them from a special kiosk in the hotel lobby accessed using your room key.
Note that Universal’s Cabana Bay, Sapphire Falls, and Aventura Hotel (opening August 2018) are also conveniently located on the property and still get early admission to the parks but no Express Passes are included when you stay there.
All of the resorts are either walking distance, a short boat ride, or a short shuttle ride from Universal City Walk and all the park entrances.
(photo courtesy of Universal)
6. Bring a Lanyard
Bring a protective plastic lanyard like this one, for all the adults and older kids in your family. You will need your park tickets not only for initial entry but for riding the Hogwarts Express between parks. If you have Express Passes you will also need to show them to ride attendants and have them scanned at each ride entrance. Inexpensive lanyard type phone cases make a great option too as they can also accommodate your phone, credit cards, cash and My Universal Photos pass –more on that in a minute.
7. Bring a Backpack with Park Essentials
A backpack is a convenient way to pack park essentials and keep all your stuff together. It’s also a lot easier to carry around than the plastic shopping bags you get when you purchase souvenirs.
You’ll want to have sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, small towel or change of clothes/shoes (if you plan to ride water rides), mobile charger, pain reliever, band-aids, and tissues. We like using this medium sized Gryffindor themed bag.
Also plan to pack a poncho! These can keep you dry on water rides and in the frequent Florida downpours. We like to use the kind that come in their own bag like these. You may also want to take along a light sweater or hoodie for the chilly winter evenings.
Autograph books may also be something you want to have on hand. Disney isn’t the only theme park where you’ll find beloved characters. At Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure you’ll have a ton of opportunities to meet your favorites. Pack an autograph book and Sharpie in your bag to avoid paying a lot for them once you’re already in the park.
Another must pack item to have on-hand is your camera! For tips on how to make the most of your camera gear and get great shots check out my guide to taking batter family vacation photos.
8. Use the Free Lockers
The only caveat to bringing a back pack is that some rides do not allow you to bring any personal belongings or loose articles with you while you ride. Luckily Universal has an awesome system for this! Free lockers are available outside rides, so you can quickly secure your items before you get in line. Using your finger-print the system assigns you a locker and only your finger can open it. The use of the locker is free for a period that extends a bit beyond the current stand-by ride wait time. You won’t have to pay for the time you are in line and on the ride. You will find ride lockers at Harry Potter Forbidden Journey, The Incredible Hulk, The Mummy, Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, Men in Black and Escape from Gringotts. Lockers are also available for an additional cost near the front of the park.
Be sure to write down or take a photo of your locker number to save time and frustration when you retrieve your items.
9. Make good use of Maps and Apps
Prior to visiting Universal Studios Orlando, download the official Universal Orlando Resort mobile app. This free app has a ton of great information on park hours, parade and show times, character meet & greets, ride height requirements, dining options, bathroom locations and best of all, attraction wait times listed in real-time. This can help you save a ton of time both in navigating the parks and waiting in line. You can use the app to purchase Express Passes, dining plans, and photo packages, set a parking reminder, so you won’t forget where your car is. You can even set alerts for show start times and when wait times are low. This is really handy if you don’t have an Express Pass!
Likewise, check out Universal Orlando’s online family vacation planner before your trip to completely customize your vacation and access videos about the parks. Be sure to check out the Universal Orlando Resort interactive planning map online as well. You can use this map to pre-plan most of your trip, and it is great for the kids to help them explore prior to arriving at the resort.
10. Arrive Well-Before Park Opening and/or Leave Late
Another tip to make the most of your time at Universal is to take advantage of the early park entrance in the morning offered solely to guests staying on property and for annual pass-holders. But, even if you are not staying on property or have an annual pass you will want to plan on arriving prior to the park opening and be among the first people there. The parks begin to allow guests to enter, up to a certain point, before the park officially opens. If you are one of the folks who enter early you will be able to breeze through several popular attractions before the crowds arrive.
Shoot for arrival at least 30-45 minutes ahead of park opening. This tip is especially important if you don’t have multiple days to see the parks.
That said, you’ll also find the parks much less crowded when you stay late. Both parks tend to die down around 4pm. Guests who stay later enjoy much shorter wait times. We like to get in early and do some touring, then take a break in City walk for an early dinner and head back into the parks. If you are staying on property you could head back to your hotel for some pool time or to grab a nap.
Guests who stay at Universal Orlando hotels get early admission to at least one of the theme parks every morning. This means that if you aren’t a Universal hotel guest, even if you are first in line for park opening, you will not be first into the early entry park. My advice if you are NOT staying on-site or are annual pass-holder is to consult the early park admission calendar on Universal’s site and start your day at whichever park does NOT offer early admission.
11. Consider Express Passes
If you don’t like standing in long lines, especially with kids, and especially in the heat, and if you are visiting at a time when the parks are crowded then an Express Pass may be your (add-on) ticket to a great day. That is, if your budget allows it. Express Passes can run up to $149 depending on the season. Unless, as previously mentioned, you are staying at Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel or the Royal Pacific hotel which includes the passes with your accommodation. Express Passes allow you to use a special expedited line ahead of the crowds for a much shorter wait. It now includes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter rides too. Even on the busiest days Express Pass lines are not usually longer than 15 minutes. During peak times regular “standby” lines can run into the HOURS. Plural. It really can maximize your touring time, but it is definitely pricey.
There are many places inside the park that sell Universal Express even after you enter the park so you don’t have to decide until you access what the wait times and crowd levels are.
Another option to shorten your time in line time is a VIP tour. This something we have never done but it looks like it would be an amazing way to upgrade your day.VIP tours include front-of-the-line access to all rides and attractions, plus a behind-the-scenes tour, reserved seating at shows, discounts on dining and merchandise, complimentary valet parking, a continental breakfast and lunch at a quick-service dining location. The VIP experience is $189. This is another one of those scenarios that when you do the math on the food costs and subtract it from the tour total it may make sense over the Express Pass.
12. Use the Secret Entrance
If you want to feel like a VIP at least for being “in the know” enter Universal Studios by using the secret entrance near the Blue Man Group auditorium, under the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rocket roller-coaster. This entrance isn’t really a “secret”, just not many people know about it and its almost always empty!
13. Head to Harry Potter World First…or Last
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the busiest (and coolest) part of the parks. If you are even remotely a Harry Potter fan you will want to head to either Diagon Alley at Universal Studios or Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure first thing after entering the park…assuming you took my advice to get there early. If not, you’ll want to wait to enjoy it in the last few hours the park is open. Anytime in between is certain to be crowded.
Early morning and late evening give you the best opportunity to really savor all the details of these magical places. Check out my complete guide to 30 Things You Won’t Want to Miss at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a much more in-depth look at all the hidden gems and secrets in these parts of the parks.
14. Take Advantage of Child Swap
Another way to get a leg up on waiting in lines is by utilizing the “child swap” program at Universal. The “child swap” allows families traveling with little ones to wait in the queue together once while allowing both adults a turn to ride. When you reach the end of the line one parent stays off the ride and waits in the designated “child swap room” with the child who is not tall enough or is unwilling to ride. The rest of the family hops on the ride. When they are finished the parents swap roles and the parent who initially stayed back is given a chance to ride without having to wait in line again.
The designated child swap area is usually a room (or an area) right near where you actually board the ride, so you don’t have to go outside and come back in again. There’s no need for the family to worry about where to reunite! The child swap rooms even typically have a movie playing to keep the younger ones entertained. It’s really an ingenious system!
But wait! There’s more! The best part about the child swap is that the second parent can take up to 3 guests with them. So, several people in the family get to ride twice!
To utilize the Child Swap simply tell the attendant at the front of the ride entrance you want to use the “child swap” and they will provide you with a special pass and point you in the right direction.
15. Take Advantage of Single Rider Lines
Another tip to minimize your wait times is to use the Single Rider lines. Guests 10 years or older, can us this option. Since most people ride in groups of two or more, if there is an extra spot available the attendants will ask for a single rider to fill up the seats from an uneven party. The single rider lines are always shorter and move faster than the regular que. This is a great option especially when you want to repeat an attraction and it’s not important to you to “ride together”.
16. Take Advantage of the Regular Lines too!
I just got done telling you all these ways to avoid lines and now I’m going to do a complete 180 and tell you not to. Universal has done a phenomenal job of theming their ride que areas. If the park isn’t crowded and the wait times are not especially long I’d actually recommend going through the normal que if you want the full experience. This is especially true of the rides in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when some of the area of the castle would be completely missed if you go through the Express Line. It all comes down to how much time you have in the parks. I’d say if you have several days make sure to do the regular ques at least once.
17. Read Up on Rides Before You Go
Certain rides and attractions at the theme parks have restrictions based on height. Familiarize yourself with the requirements and prepare younger or shorter children to not be able to ride certain rides. Some rides require children to be accompanied by an adult while others simply won’t allow kids under a certain height. All rides have health and safety warning signs posted at their entrance. Make sure you read them and know ahead of time where rides are right for you and your family. For a great guide to all the rides check out our post that ranks the rides and gives you tips and tricks on things to look out for.
18. Eat at the Parks and City Walk!
All that walking and riding will really build up an appetite. There are a ton of great places to eat inside the parks and City Walk. I highly recommend eating at one of the themed restaurants. It’s truly part of the Universal Orlando experience! Skip the hot dogs, and chicken tenders and eat something you can’t get anywhere else. And please promise me you won’t leave without trying Butterbeer!!!
Check out my guide to all the best eats at Universal Orlando Resort for more information.
You can make online reservations ahead of time for full-service restaurants at the parks and City Walk to avoid the lines during busy seasons.
Universal offers several different dining plans that can help you save money and make life a little easier too. We like using enjoyed the Quick Service dining plan which can be purchased right at the register. It includes a quick service meal (entree + drink), drink, and snack. There have been several occasions where we weighed what we were going to get that day and then purchased the plan if we determined it would save us money –which most of the time it does.
19. Fill Up For Free with Unlimited Refill Cups
Consider purchasing one or more refillable Coca-Cola Freestyle cups. After your initial purchase, you can fill your cup for Free the rest of the day. You can even bring the cup back again another day and simply pay a discounted fee to “reactivate” it and use it again. This is a great way to keep hydrated without spending a fortune. You can take the drinks between parks and fill up at specially marked Coco-Cola freestyle machines yourself or go to any foodservice location that sells the cups to refill.
Our kids especially love that the refillable cups include Icees as an option. This is a cheap vacation treat for them. You can also fill them with ice-cold water too lest they overload on sugar! The cups can be refilled as often as every ten minutes. When you consider how often it can be used there isn’t a better deal in the park than this!
20. Buy Your Gear Before You Go
I’m a sucker for theme park souvenirs (especially inside Honeyduke’s!) but they can add up fast. You can save a ton of money by buying some things ahead of your vacation. You won’t be as tempted to blow your budget on all the amazing merchandise if you have planned out in advance what to buy beforehand and what to get there. Look for my guide to unique Universal souvenirs coming soon!
Here is some of our favorite gear to wear to the parks:
Another great reason to buy some gear before you go is because it makes it easy to coordinate your park outfits. And coordinating your park outfits not only looks awesome in vacation photos but helps you spot your family in a crowd really easily. When we wear our Minions Shirts I just have to look for “yellow”. When we wear our “Cat in the Hat” outfits I keep an eye out for “red”. If one of your children gets lost all you have to do to explain to anyone helping you in your search that they are looking for another shirt or hoodie or hat like the one you and your other family members are wearing.
21. Set Souvenir Expectations
This tip goes out to the kids …and the adults that feel like kids when so much magical merchandise surrounds you…It’s unavoidable you and your kids are going to want to take home a treasure to remind you of your incredible vacation at Universal. Just know that almost every attraction ends in a gift shop. Some literally include baskets full of adorable puppies!
If you tell your kids at the beginning of the trip that they have a certain amount to spend on souvenirs they are less likely to beg for everything in sight. One really fun way to handle this is to exchange some cash for each child at the Gringotts’s Money Exchange inside Diagon Alley. Not only is it extra magical to trade in your Muggle Money for a Gringotts bank note (that works just like cash throughout the entire resort and City Walk) it sets a built-in limit.
22. Buy It When You See It
Even though I recommend getting some items before you arrive and setting a limit, my top tip for souvenirs is to buy them when you see them and not wait for later. This is because a lot of the merchandise is specific to a certain location in the parks. You can’t be guaranteed that you’ll find the same wand in another area and definitely not outside the parks. If you see a shirt that you really like, in your size…buy it. The last thing you want to do is be disappointed when the #12 Grimmauld Place shirt you love isn’t available anywhere else.
23. Use Package Pick Up
You don’t even have to lug around your souvenirs! Both Parks offer package pickup at the front gate. Just make arrangements at the register and pick up your items before heading home. If you are staying at an on-site hotel you have the added perk of being able to have your purchases sent right to your hotel room. Note that this option isn’t available on the day you are checking out.
24. Wear Comfy Shoes
You will spend a ton of time on your feet. You can expect to do a lot of walking along with plenty of standing in lines (especially if it’s crowded.) This isn’t the occasion for a cute pair of heels or even flip flops. You will either want to go with some sensible sneakers of a pair of sandals with arch support. I love my Tevas for traveling!
Besides wearing comfortable shoes, you should also bring some good band-aids or moleskin for your feet! If you forget and need a bandage the awesome folks in red shirts with Health Services will kindly provide you with a bandage.
25. Be Stroller Savvy
Strollers are available on-site to rent or you can bring in your own. If you’re renting a stroller, bring something to mark your wheels so that you can find which stroller is yours when it’s grouped with other rental strollers. When riding the Hogwarts Express between parks you will have to leave your rental stroller inside of Kings Cross Station or at the entrance to Hogsmeade Station and get a new one when you get your destination. Lastly, make sure to park your stroller in stroller parking before you get on a ride. If you leave it just anywhere, an employee will move it to the designated stroller parking, and you’ll have to spend time looking for it after.
26. Take A Photo of Where You Parked
Parking is shared between the Universal Orlando parks. Take a photo of the name of your parking section, the number of your section, level, and row – it is easy to forget where you are parked and the sections all look pretty much the same. Depending on where you are parked, it will take 8 to 20 minutes to get through security and get to the theme park entrances.
Speaking taking photos…
27. Use the My Universal Photos Pass
If your family is like mine and LOVES to have photographic memories of your vacation then I highly recommend utilizing the My Universal Photos pass. This handy pass allows you to get unlimited photos taken by resident photographers throughout the parks as well as have access to ALL of your ride photos.
Keep an eye out for my guide to Universal parks photo ops for more must get shots in the parks and City Walk.
28. Get Familiar with the Universal Shows and Movies
To get the full impact of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, I highly recommend watching the movies or TV shows featured at the parks before visiting. There are so many details and things within the theming that you will appreciate so much more if you know what they are referencing. Obviously, not everything is appropriate for all audiences, but you can definitely find something for everyone in your family. Check out my guide to what to watch before you visit coming soon.
29. Don’t Be Deterred by Rain
One final word of advice. Don’t let the frequent Florida rain stop you from enjoying the parks. A rainy day can actually turn out to be the best time to visit because so many people head home or don’t come at all. While some outdoor rides may get temporarily shut-down both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure have many indoor attractions with ques that are fully enclosed from the elements. We tackled 10 rides in 3 hours on the last day of our recent trip. There had been thunder storms in the morning, so we didn’t even arrive until 2:00 in the afternoon and it still worked out to be well worth the visit. So put your ponchos on and some shoes that can get wet (again I love my Teva’s for this!) and enjoy!
If you have any questions that I didn’t cover, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll follow up with you! Or if you have a great tip to share let me know below too!
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