Planning a trip to Universal Orlando Resort is exciting, but daunting, even for the savviest of travelers. This guide will streamline the process by answering a first-time visitor's most common questions about accommodations, ticket options, timing and more.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UNIVERSAL STUDIOS AND ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE?
Universal Orlando Resort is comprised of two theme parks -- Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. The third component of the resort is CityWalk, an expansive entertainment, shopping and dining promenade.
Universal Studios Florida
Movies and television come to life at this action-packed theme park. Universal Studios features seven distinct areas including New York, San Francisco and Hollywood, and each one feels like a film set with rich detailing, unique shops and themed music. Headlining attractions are Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and Revenge of the Mummy. For smaller kids, Woody Woodpecker's Kid Zone is also a big hit. Diagon Alley, the park's new, elaborately themed addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is the most popular area, of course.
Islands of Adventure
Opened in 1999, Islands of Adventure caters to the young bunch with a good variety of child-friendly attractions featuring favorite super heroes and cartoon characters. Little ones will especially love Seussland, with bright colors and whimsical theming, while Potter fans will delight in the snowcapped village of Hogsmeade. Make no mistake though -- Islands of Adventure still caters to teens and tweens with iconic thrill rides. The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman and Doctor Doom's Fearfall are at the top of the list.
WHEN SHOULD WE GO?
School vacation times dictate the crowd levels at Universal Orlando Resort. The resort's location in Florida means many looking to escape the cold will flock to the parks during the winter and early spring, with mid-February through April seeing higher crowds and pricing. The summer months see similar crowd levels and rates, with the addition of heat and humidity.
If it's possible to visit during the off-peak, non-holiday periods from September through January, you'll enjoy the fewest crowds and lowest prices of the year.
WHERE SHOULD WE STAY?
Once you've determined your travel dates, the next decision to make is where you'll stay. Orlando boasts an endless variety of accommodations to fit every family's needs. Several Orlando properties are considered Universal Partner Hotels and many of these are located just a mile away from the Universal Orlando Resort. Some of these offer complimentary shuttle service to the parks, which will save you a $17 parking fee, but will probably not get you to the parks as early as you'd like. Booking a stay at a Universal Partner Hotel directly through Universal as part of a package that includes park tickets entitles you to enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour early on select days. However, the complimentary transportation to the parks will not begin running early enough to allow you to take advantage of that benefit, requiring you to drive to the parks or take a taxi. Also, booking a package via Universal may not always be the most cost-effective option, and staying at an offsite hotel may not actually save you money in the end.
Universal Orlando Resort has four onsite resorts operated by Lowe's Hotels:
Cabana Bay Beach Resort (Moderate/Value)
Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Hard Rock Hotel Orlando (Deluxe)
Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (Deluxe)
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Loews Royal Pacific Resort (Deluxe)
Loews Royal Pacific Resort
A fifth, Sapphire Falls, will open in the summer of 2016 and be another moderately priced resort. Without question, the biggest perk of staying at one of the onsite hotels is early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which allows guests to enter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade Village an hour earlier than the general public. Currently, early entry is only offered for Hogsmeade Village at Islands of Adventure. During peak travel periods--winter holidays and spring break, for instance--both of the Wizarding World areas open early for onsite resort guests. Your best bet is to check with your hotel's front desk when you arrive to see which parks have early entry during your visit.
For guests of Universal Resort's Deluxe Hotels, Universal Express Unlimited Passes are included in the price of the stay; guests of Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort do not receive this benefit. If you are considering a stay at an offsite hotel at a similar price point, this perk alone can make it worthwhile to opt for one of these hotels instead.
The proximity of the onsite hotels to CityWalk and the theme parks is another benefit of choosing to stay at one of these properties. All four hotels provide easy access to the CityWalk promenade via a lushly landscaped path.
HOW CAN YOU GET AROUND?
Everything at Universal Orlando Resort feels centrally located, and getting from the parks to the hotels and everywhere in between is a breeze. From the entry point of CityWalk, both theme parks are only about a 5- to 10-minute walk. A water taxi transports guests from the Deluxe Hotels to a dock in CityWalk. Cabana Bay provides its own shuttle bus to CityWalk's main entrance. Shuttles are also available to transport guests between the four Universal Orlando Resort hotels.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED?
The answer to this question largely depends on how much you want to see during your visit. Ideally, three-day park-to-park tickets will allow you to experience most of what the parks have to offer while leaving room for much needed down-time to relax by the pool or enjoy a leisurely meal. Of course, you can also visit the parks in one day--just know that you'll need a play-by-play strategy, particularly for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
If you are staying in an onsite hotel and have the privilege of early entry, start your day in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter--either Hogsmeade Village or Diagon Alley. After riding Forbidden Journey (in Islands of Adventure) and/or Escape from Gringotts (Universal Studios), head to the parks' other headlining attractions--substantial waits tend to build early and quickly at Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Transformers the Ride: 3D, Revenge of the Mummy, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit in Universal Studios Florida, and at the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk Coaster, and the Toon Lagoon water rides (Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges in Islands of Adventure.
WHICH TICKET OPTIONS ARE BEST?
Tickets are available for one to four days of admission and come in two forms. Single-park tickets allow guests entry into either Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure for one day. Park-to-park tickets allow guests entry into both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure for one day. Single-park tickets can be upgraded to park-to-park at any time. The price difference for a park-to-park ticket over a single-park ticket is about $50 regardless of how many days of tickets you have. It is highly recommended that you purchase your park tickets in advance. Doing so through Universal's website offers you a savings over the gate price, as well as time savings. Tickets purchased online can be printed at kiosks located at all of the Universal Orlando resorts and theme parks. Note: A ride aboard the Hogwarts Express requires that guests purchase park-to-park tickets. Multi-day park-to-park tickets are available, too.
IS UNIVERSAL EXPRESS PASS WORTH IT?
Unlike lines at Disney World, front-of-the-line access at Universal is a perk that typically comes at a price. There are two types of passes available -- the Universal Express Pass, which entitles guests one express queue entry per participating attraction, and the Universal Express Pass Unlimited, which entitles guests unlimited access to the Express queues at participating attractions. Guests staying at Universal's Deluxe Hotels receive Unlimited Passes as an added benefit. Guests at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort and other area hotels may purchase the passes a la carte. Note: It's important to understand that neither of the headlining attractions in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, nor the Hogwarts Express, are eligible for Universal Express, so getting to the parks as early as possible is the only way to avoid extensive waits at those attractions.
If you are staying at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, have access to early park entry and are willing to arrive at the park's turnstiles prior to park opening, you will stay ahead of the masses and the Express Pass will only be of minimal benefit, even during peak periods. If you are staying at an offsite hotel or would prefer to sleep later in the mornings, Express Passes will reduce your wait times significantly.
Don't Prolong Breakfast
To save time, plan on eating breakfast in your room before heading to the parks. If this is too early for your stomachs, plan a breakfast break after your first attraction.
Rent a Stroller
To lighten your load, strollers can be rented in both parks immediately after you pass through the turnstiles. Family Services areas are centrally located and provide everything caregivers need for diaper changing and bottle warming. Rocking chairs are available for nursing moms or for resting quietly with a tired toddler.
Take Advantage of Rider Swap
If you're traveling with young children who don't meet the height requirement for an attraction, or someone in your party isn't interested in coming along for the ride, Universal's Rider Swap program is for you. Rider Swap allows the whole family to go through the attraction's queue together. At the loading area, one parent takes the non-riding kids to a special waiting area while the other parent boards the attraction with the other kids. After the ride, the family is reunited and the other adult may ride without having to wait in line. Any member of the family may ride again so the second adult doesn't have to ride alone.
Download the Universal Orlando Resort App
Be sure to download the resort's official app, which is free. The app provides wait times, which are very accurate, lists of attractions with detailed descriptions, park maps, dining and hotel information and show times.
Know Which Foods You Can Bring
The parks allow the following items: bottled water; small snacks; any food required for medical purposes and medically-indicated nutritional supplements; any food for special dietary needs; baby food/baby formula; and soft-sided insulated bags no larger than 8.5 inches wide, 6 inches high and 6 inches deep. Full picnic lunches and food that requires heating or refrigeration are not permitted.
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Written by Gina Vercesi