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Our Disney adventure a few years back actually started out with a 2-day trip to Universal Studios Orlando. Why? Because the kids couldn’t bear the thought of being in Florida and NOT being able to bust out their wands! So with the incantations practiced and the wand flourishing perfected, away we went! We have put together a beginner’s guide to Universal Studios, based on everything we learned from past trips.
How to get to Universal Studios in Orlando
Our guide to Universal Studios begins with getting to Orlando. If you are coming from a distance, the best way to get to Universal Studios is by flying into Orlando International Airport. From there, you can take a cab, rideshare, or bus to your hotel.
Universal hotels also offer a shuttle to and from the airport, but they are not included in your stay and are actually more expensive than a cab.
We decided to catch a cab at the airport. It really wasn’t too difficult. They even give you a flat-rate fare to all the park-owned resorts, so at least there were no surprises.
How many theme parks are there at Universal Orlando?
There are two theme parks and one awesome waterpark located at Universal Studios Orlando.
Universal Studios Florida
At Universal Studios Florida, movies and television come to life! This park is divided into 7 themed areas, where you will definitely feel like you have just walked onto a film set. We loved the world of The Simpsons in Springfield, USA, but of course, our favourite was Diagon Alley, from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Universal’s Islands of Adventure is where you can find all your favourite Marvel superheroes, ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster or visit Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park. Seuss Landing is the one area at Islands of Adventure where small children will find plenty of attractions to enjoy.
Of course for Harry Potter fans, Islands of Adventure is where you will find the village of Hogsmeade. This is where you can visit Hogwarts castle, and ride the epic Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike Adventure.
Universal’s Volcano Bay
Volcano Bay is Universal’s waterpark. This is the perfect place to cool off on a hot Florida day!
Whether you want to ride the famous Krakatau Water Coaster – a 200-foot artificial volcano that holds three fantastic drop capsule slides, or lounge by the pool, there is something for everyone at this park. Attractions include wave pools, slides, raft rides, play areas & a lazy river.
And let’s not forget the convenience of the TapuTapu! This waterproof wearable device acts like a Fast Pass and holds your place in a virtual line, one attraction at a time. All guests are given a TapuTapu to wear when they arrive at the park.
All you have to do is tap into a virtual queue with the TapuTapu to secure a ride time. Once your TapuTapu vibrates, you return to the line for a short wait before your ride.
Not actually a theme park, CityWalk is an entertainment district filled with awesome restaurants and bars, as well as shopping and even a movie theatre. CityWalk acts as an entry point, with both theme parks only a 5- to 10-minute walk away.
We found there to be a good variety of restaurants, with many even accepting reservations. You could also find small food places like Starbucks and Cinnabon, for a grab-and-go snack!
But what was really great about the shops and souvenir kiosks; you could find the same items there, that were in the parks (including the Harry Potter souvenirs). So if you really didn’t want to carry around a bunch of souvenirs, you could just wait until you were heading out of the parks!
When is the best time to visit Universal Studios?
The best time to visit Universal Studios is usually between September and January (with the exception of the Christmas break of course). Mid-February through April is popular with people wanting to escape the cold, so both crowd levels and prices tend to be higher.
Summer months, spring break and Christmas are considered peak times, with the most crowds and the highest prices. In other words, anytime the kids are in school, is a good time to visit Universal Studios!
Our last visit to Universal was during the first week of January, and although it was busy, the crowds were manageable.
Should you stay at an onsite resort hotel?
Our answer would be a resounding YES! Staying in an on-site resort hotel at Universal Orlando is most definitely the way to go. But just for argument’s sake, we will do a quick rundown of the other two options: Off-site hotels and VRBO rentals.
We have stayed off-site before, and it was awesome in terms of budget, but not great as far as convenience goes. Not only do you have to consider the drive to get to Universal, but then there is also the issue of parking.
Expect to pay about $26 for a regular spot, and $36 for the prime spots (closer to the parks).
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And if you don’t have a car at your disposal, then you have to think about the cost and availability of a cab or rideshare.
And although we have never stayed at a VRBO rental for a trip to Universal Studios, the same considerations would apply to off-site hotels.
Loews Royal Pacific Resort
During our most recent trip to Universal Studios, we decided to stay onsite at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. This was the least expensive of the three Premier Resorts. And the perks of staying on-site are definitely worth the added expense!
Without question, the biggest perk of staying at one of the onsite hotels is early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Guests are able to enter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade Village an hour earlier than the general public.
This is a huge advantage, considering how quickly the line-ups form for some rides.
Some of the other perks include complimentary transportation to and from the parks and CityWalk, complimentary merchandise delivery to your hotel from shops throughout Universal, charging privileges with your room key, and wake-up calls from your favourite Universal Studios characters.
Of course, if you are staying at one of the Premier Resorts, you also have the added perk of receiving complimentary Universal Unlimited Express Passes. This feature alone makes staying onsite totally worth the extra cost! More about the Express Passes later.
🌺 Find the best deal for Loews Royal Pacific Resort here.
I did want to make mention of the Loews resort itself. It was beautiful! Because we were only there for a couple of days, we really didn’t get to use many of the amenities, however.
Of course, we did make use of the pool! Yes… the kids insisted on swimming after coming home from a full day at the parks… at 9:15 pm… in January… when it was only 16 degrees Celsius! The kids did a few laps in the pool, while Hubby and I hunkered down in the hot tub.
The kiddos also made use of the poolside ping pong table and giant Connect Four game, before deciding that their shivering was getting in the way of the fun!
On our second night, the temperature dipped down a couple of degrees more, prompting the hotel to close the pool “for safety reasons”. The kids were not impressed!
Would we stay onsite at one of the resorts again? You bet! The resort was beautiful, clean, and had everything we could have needed, with decent-sized rooms, plus convenient transportation to get us to and from the parks.
I definitely appreciated not having the long trek back to the parking garage, paying for parking, and then “commuting” back to a distant hotel after a long day at the park. The convenience of staying at the resort was undeniable.
🌺 Find the best deal for all Universal area hotels and resorts here.
What is the best way to get around Universal Orlando?
A definite perk to staying at Loews is having shuttles available to take you to the parks. We had the option of either taking a Water Taxi or a bus.
The busses ran every 20 minutes but would stop at other properties before arriving at the final destination of City Walk. From there, it was about a 10-minute walk to the park entrance of your choice.
The Water Taxis, on the other hand, are dedicated to each hotel (so no other stops), and run about every 15 minutes. The Water Taxis are also available to any guest visiting Universal, not just hotel patrons.
How Many Days Do You Need at Universal Studios Orlando?
If you are planning on visiting both theme parks, as well as the waterpark, we think a good length of time to visit Universal Studios Orlando is three full days; one in each park. Some people may find three full days excessive, but this also allows for a little bit of downtime spent at your resort.
If you only have a couple of days to spend at Universal Orlando, as we did, you could easily cut out Volcano Bay completely. Or alternatively, only visit the waterpark for half of a day, while spending the rest of the time in the parks.
A Guide to Universal Studios Ticketing Options
Universal Studios offers a variety of theme park ticket options in two categories: Base Tickets and Park-to-Park Tickets. The best way to decide what you need is to ask yourself three questions:
- How many days do you want to spend at the parks?
- How many parks would you like to visit? (one, two, or three)
- Do you want to park-hop while you are there?
The Universal Base Ticket allows you to visit one park per day. The 2-Park Base ticket includes admission each day to either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure.
The 3-Park Base ticket includes admission each day to either Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, or Volcano Bay.
Park-to-Park tickets allow you to visit multiple parks per day. The 2-Park, Park-to-Park ticket includes admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
The 3-Park, Park-to-Park ticket includes admission to both of these parks, as well as Volcano Bay.
Because we knew that the majority of our trip to Universal Studios would be spent in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we elected to spend the extra money and upgrade to the 2-Park, Park-to-Park option.
🎟️ Find the best prices for Universal Studios Florida tickets here.
This allowed us to ride from one park to the other on the Hogwarts Express, as often as we wanted. Without the upgrade, you can’t ride this attraction.
And believe me… it’s totally worth it! The kids absolutely LOVED the experience! It also gave us the flexibility to easily go between parks, whenever the kids wanted a change in scenery.
Pro Tip: Make sure you ride the Hogwarts Express in both directions. Each direction is a different experience!
Is the Universal Express Pass Worth It?
Universal Express Pass
We wanted to be sure to mention the option of Express Passes in our guide to Universal Studios because they are definite time savers. When it comes to the actual Express Passes, there are 2 to choose from.
The Universal Express Pass allows you to skip the line on participating rides and attractions just once. You can add the Universal Express Pass as a 2-Park or 1-Park upgrade to your tickets.
Pro Tip: Buy a lanyard with a plastic protective case to hold your Express Passes. It’s easier than having to dig them out of a bag every time you need them!
Universal Express Unlimited Pass
The Universal Express Unlimited Pass, which we had, allows you to skip the line on the same ride as many times as you want. Again, this pass only applies to participating rides and attractions. This is definitely the best Express Pass option.
You can add the Express Pass Unlimited as a 3-Park, 2-Park or 1-Park upgrade.
One of the advantages of staying at a Universal hotel is that you are given the Express Unlimited pass for free! We definitely made use of this perk!
Because we pretty much only stuck to two sections of the park, the kids were able to use the passes on a few rides multiple times.
If, unlike my family, you plan on trying to fit in every ride during your visit, the basic Express Pass may be all you need.
Now unlike Disney Fast Passes, the Universal passes do not need to be pre-booked. You show up to the ride, show/scan your card and get into the Express line. Easy!
Just a warning though… some rides do not accept Express Passes… as was the case with the brand-new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
Pro Tip: Be sure to download the free Universal Orlando App. It will not only give you wait times for rides but will also alert you to the rides that do not accept Express Passes.
Do yourself a favour and DOWNLOAD THE APP! Just like with Disney, the Universal app makes a lot of information like a list of attractions with detailed descriptions, park maps, dining and hotel information, and showtimes, available at your fingertips.
What is Child Swap?
And while we are on the subject of rides, no guide to Universal Studios would be complete without discussing Child Swap! This is definitely a feature that Universal has, that truly stands out for me.
I do not do well on 3D rides! Physical rides push my boundaries, but anything with a simulation or a projection screen – look out! UGH! Anyway, the Child Swap allows me to wait in line with my Hubby and kids, without actually having to go on the ride.
This is especially important for a family if only half of them are able to ride.
Once at the front of the line, the parent with the child who cannot ride, go into a waiting room, while the rest of the family goes on the attraction. Once the ride is over, the parents, or children, swap places, and the second group rides.
At this point, you are essentially still at the front of the line, so not much waiting for the second group.
The air-conditioned rooms are equipped with seating, as well as a TV screen playing a movie. In our case, I waited with our bags, while Hubby took the kids on the ride.
It definitely saved us time by not needing to go through the bag-check process. For the rides I could actually go on, Hubby and I took turns sitting in the room with the bags.
What dining options are available?
As far as meals go, Universal also allows you to bring some outside food into the parks. They won’t allow you to bring in an entire picnic lunch, but water, snacks, and special diet items or baby formula are allowed.
We came prepared with baggies full of snacks and refillable water bottles.
There are more than 100 different dining locations throughout the Universal Orlando theme parks, including quick-service and table-service restaurant options. These restaurants cater to a variety of tastes and budgets, so you shouldn’t have any issues finding a bite to eat, even for the pickiest of diners.
We found the food to be pricey in most quick-serve places, but not surprisingly so. The table service restaurants seemed to be a little more reasonably priced.
A Guide to Universal Studios Dining Plans
One of the most important things we wanted to cover in our guide to Universal Studios, was the dining plans. There are two to choose from when visiting Universal Studios: The Universal Full Service Dining Plan and the Universal Quick Service Dining Plan.
Universal Full-Service Dining Plan
Full-Service Dining Plans can only be purchased in advance, by guests who are staying at Universal resort hotels. The dining plans are pretty much the same as what you find at Disney in terms of the food.
However, the big differences can be found when you look at where you can cash in your meal credits.
The Universal Full Service Dining Plan consists of one full-service meal, one quick-service meal, one snack, and one non-alcoholic beverage, per day. The Full-Service meal includes an entrée, a dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage.
The quick-service meal includes an entrée platter and a non-alcoholic beverage.
Each guest will receive their own dining card. Any leftover meal credits will expire at the end of your stay.
Universal Quick Service Dining Plan
The Universal Quick Service Dining Plan is available for all guests, whether or not you are staying at one of the resort hotels. In fact, you can easily purchase the Quick Service Dining Plan at any time throughout your visit.
All you would need to do is visit one of the kiosks located at the front gates of the parks.
The Quick Service Dining Plan offers guests one (1) quick service meal, one (1) snack, and one (1) non-alcoholic beverage, per day. Once again, the quick service meal includes an entrée platter and a non-alcoholic beverage.
Unlike with the Full-Service Dining Plan, any credits you purchase on a Quick Service Dining Plan do not expire.
One of the major downsides to either plan is that you cannot redeem any of your meal credits at the restaurants located in Universal’s on-site resort hotels. Also, many of the popular restaurants in CityWalk do not participate in the Universal Dining Plans.
And lastly, NONE of the Character Dining experiences are included in the Universal Dining Plans.
At the end of the day, you need to sit down and figure out what your budget is for meals. The plans can absolutely save you money if you are intending to buy all your food in the parks.
We only purchased one meal each day, and a couple of snacks, so it would not have been worth the extra money for us. That, and we really wanted to try out a couple of the restaurants that were NOT included in the meal plans.
Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup
Although not included in either of the meal plans, we did want to mention this handy add-on. You can purchase the freestyle cup for $15.99, or you can add it to the Quick Service Dining Plan for an additional $6.00.
The cup can be reactivated for an additional $8.99 per day.
Once you’ve purchased the cup you’re able to fill it up with a range of more than 100 different drinks from any of the Coca-Cola freestyle stations scattered across the parks. There is usually at least one such station in each themed area of all the parks.
The way the freestyle stations work is that they can only be activated by the RFID computer chip on the base of the freestyle cup. And in an effort to eliminate sharing, there is a 10-minute waiting period between refills.
The cups can definitely be worth their price since you are even allowed to use them in the restaurants inside the parks. So if you are a big soda drinker, they are definitely something to consider.
The only downside, is you have to carry them around all day long.
We did not purchase the cups, as we are not soda drinkers. But instead, we came prepared with our own insulated water bottles.
What Should You Bring to Universal Orlando?
Universal has some rules in regard to what you can and cannot bring into the park. It is pretty important to know what you are not allowed to bring with you, as you will be going through a security check when you arrive at the parks.
That being said, you will also want to have certain items with you to make your day at the park as comfortable and fun as possible. We have taken the guesswork out of figuring out what to bring along!
Head over to our Universal Studios Packing List – 25 Items That Need to Be in Your Park Bag post for a complete list of do’s and don’ts for your day at the park. And while you are at it, sign up for our monthly newsletter and you can get our free Universal Packing list printable!
And if you are anything like our family, you will be taking a ton of photos to post on your social media. So if you happen to be spending time in the Wizarding World, we have put together a carefully curated list of the best Harry Potter captions and #hashtags for all your Instagram posts.
Our Guide to Universal Studios 2023 Safety Precautions
The last item in our guide to Universal Studios is the newest safety precautions that have been put in place at the parks.
The following is a list of safety precautions you can expect when entering the parks:
- Face coverings are optional for fully vaccinated guests. For guests who have not been vaccinated, face coverings are encouraged while indoors – including in restaurants, shops and indoor hotel public areas.
- Proof of vaccination is not required
- The park remains focused on maintaining the highest cleanliness and sanitization standards
Each guest must confirm the following before visiting:
- You are not feeling sick or experiencing flu-like symptoms such as Fever and/or cough
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
- You have not been in contact with someone with known or suspected COVID-19 symptoms
- You are not under any self-quarantine orders
If you cannot confirm all of the above, you must not visit.
A Beginners Guide to Universal Studios Orlando – FAQs
A Beginners Guide to Universal Studios Orlando – Final Thoughts
At the end of the day, our trip to Universal Orlando was well-planned, and exactly what we wanted it to be… an amazing experience, built around our kids’ dreams. We hope that you will find our guide to Universal Studios helpful in creating your own magical family vacation.
Do you have any Pro Tips to add to this article? If so, we want to hear all about them!
Pin This Post for Later!
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