If you’re planning a 2017 visit to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, we have some vacation planning tips and tricks that will help you save money and time, avoid crowds, choose where to eat, which rides to do, and fully plan your Universal Orlando Resort vacation. (Last updated September 10, 2017.)
Since the Diagon Alley portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, a visit to Universal Orlando has become a must-do whenever we travel to Walt Disney World. This is based on feedback we are receiving from readers, the huge attendance spike Universal Orlando has seen, and the future expansion plans for Universal Orlando Resort, which are rumored to include plans for a Super Nintendo World!
For those who have not been in a while (or ever), Universal has changed a lot in the last several years and has even more plans for the future. From long-term additions like a 3rd theme park to more immediate additions like Volcano Bay Water Park, Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, and Loews Sapphire Falls, there have been a lot of recent additions and even more in the pipeline. In this guide, we’ll cover all of that, and how to make the most of a visit to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure…
For 2017, Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon and Volcano Bay are the two big additions that have now opened. Reactions to both have been really mixed. Even Fallon fans have not been particularly keen on Race Through New York, but it’s interesting in the way that it pushes the envelope on queue-less attractions, meaning that there is no structured line for the ride.
The highly anticipated Volcano Bay water park flopped when it first open, with a ton of guest complaints about absurdly long wait times (6 hours) for water slides, incomplete work, and more. The park’s rating on TripAdvisor a month after it opened put it just below the Oakley store in the Orlando International Airport.
Thematically, Volcano Bay was (and is) a strong park, with a ton of cool detail, some interesting slides, and more. Long term, it’s anticipated to be a great addition to the Orlando theme park scene, it’s just the operational side of things that really need to improve at Volcano Bay before it’s worth your time.
Fortunately, that’s easier to fix than poor theme and weak water slides, and Volcano Bay’s operations are already starting to work out the early hiccups. We’d still be weary about visiting Volcano Bay until 2018, but that’s just us.
Beyond the new stuff, there’s a lot to know about Universal Orlando Resort…
Since this is a Disney blog, we will approach this post from the perspective of adding on a Universal side-trip to your Walt Disney World vacation. It’s still definitely a standalone guide, but if you’re a diehard Universal fan who typically spends a week at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, this guide isn’t for you (you probably know much more than me, anyways). It’s also regularly updated each time we visit Universal Orlando or learn more about it, so you can be sure this info is current!
If you’re a Disney fan simply trying to determine whether a trip to Universal Orlando Resort is right for you in the first place, you might start by reading our Universal v. Walt Disney World post, which covers some of the pros and cons of each, plus the differences between the two vacation destinations.
Here’s what you need to know about visiting Universal Orlando Resort…
When to Visit
If you’re adding on a Universal Orlando visit to your Walt Disney World vacation, the answer to this is easy…whenever you’re visiting Walt Disney World!
The good news in this regard is that crowd patterns at Walt Disney World translate pretty similarly to Universal Orlando. The reasons are two-fold: first, because crowds tend to be predicated upon school schedules, which are the same for both; second, because Walt Disney World is the ‘whale’ in the Orlando market, so crowds for all theme parks in the area are largely dictated by when guests plan their Disney vacations. In other words, you can basically refer to our When to Visit Walt Disney World post to determine when to visit, as that’s roughly applicable to Universal Orlando as well.
The one exception to this is if you want to see or avoid Halloween season at Universal, namely Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida. This is best described as a hard ticket event in which you step onto the set of some of your favorite horror movies, and walking through those sets as actors attempt to scare you. This event is not for children under the age of 13, and has absolutely nothing in common with Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World (save for both having “Halloween” in the names). Here’s our Guide to Halloween Horror Nights, including touring strategy and a review of the event.
Halloween Horror Nights are a huge draw for Universal and they definitely attract an adult crowd. If you have no young kids and like horror movies or shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ you’ll probably enjoy this event and find it worth the cost of the ticket. If you have a younger family, you’ll want to avoid it. If you’re traveling during the months of September and October, be mindful of the Halloween Horror Nights schedule (Mondays and Tuesdays are the best days to visit USF to avoid early park closing).
Aside from this, the only noteworthy events are Mardi Gras and Christmas. Even these are more restrained as far as special events go than most special events at Walt Disney World. Halloween Horror Nights is the big special event at Universal Orlando. You can see a full listing of all Universal Orlando special events here.
How Many Days?
This one is going to vary widely based on a few variables. The biggest one is how receptive your party is to the type of attractions that are prominent at Universal Orlando Resort, namely, roller coasters and somewhat intense 3D screen-based attractions (this is a reductionist analogy, but think Dinosaur or Indiana Jones Adventure with 3D glasses). That Universal v. Disney article above discusses these differences in-depth, but that’s basically the jist of it. If you love coasters or have teens, you can easily spend 2 days at Universal. Heck, I’m not huge on generic roller coasters, and I can easily do 2 days (or even 3) at Universal.
If people in your party have weak stomaches or get motion sickness easily, 2 days is a tough sell. Sarah gets motion sickness pretty easily (she can’t do Expedition Everest) and she barely made it past lunch on her first day at Universal. Likewise, if you’re more the type who enjoys strolling World Showcase than actually riding attractions, 1 day will be sufficient.
That is, assuming Universal is for you in the first place. I’d argue it is–while there are some thematic low points, the two Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter alone can fill a good chunk of the day. I mean, Diagon Alley has a fire-breathing dragon…not liking dragons is distinctly unpatriotic.
Islands of Adventure also has a Jurassic Park area, which is basically a tribute to our greatest national treasure: dinosaurs. It’s not as good as a real Jurassic Park (that would be like the San Diego Zoo meets the Lincoln Memorial meets Tokyo DisneySea), but it’s an enjoyable area to explore. In other words, there’s plenty to do if you’re an “ambiance person” at the Universal parks.
Then, there’s also the question of how much “extra” vacation time you have. Assuming you’ve already allocated your time at Walt Disney World and are looking at “other stuff” to round out your trip to Florida, I’d probably look to spending more time at Universal than other parks like SeaWorld or Busch Gardens. That’s personal preference and all of these parks definitely aren’t trying to accomplish the same thing, but I find the Disney and Universal parks to be in a different league than all of the rest.
If you’re having a tough time determining where to shave days off your Walt Disney World vacation for some time at Universal, I’d recommend skipping Disney’s Hollywood Studios right now. Many attractions have closed recently or will close soon, without much in the way of replacements. Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land will begin construction soon, but won’t be ready for a few years, at the earliest. While they are being built, it’s a good time to skip Disney’s Hollywood Studios in favor of the other studios park: Universal Studios Florida (and possibly Islands of Adventure, if you can find the time).
If you’re looking for a deal on park tickets, ParkSavers will save you money on Universal Orlando tickets. This is especially true with the Park-to-Park tickets, which are required if you want to take the Hogwarts Express Train, which we highly recommend (keep in mind that tax is included in ParkSavers’ prices, whereas it’s not added until checkout on Universal’s website).
I am a fan of the Park-to-Park tickets if you can swing spending extra. This is especially true if you’re only visiting for one day–but I’d recommend them for multiple days, too. This is because Universal did something really ingenious when it built Diagon Alley, and that was connecting the two Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter via the Hogwarts Express.
You can only ride this train from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley (or vice-a-versa) if you have the Park-to-Park ticket. I’m no Harry Potter fan, but the experience of entering a train station in London, walking through a wall, and then taking a train to Hogsmeade is pretty awesome.
If you’re going for just one day and don’t want the park-to-park tickets, the best way to save money on Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida tickets is simply going to be buying tickets online on Universal Orlando’s website. The Universal tickets purchased online can be printed at home and used at the turnstiles–meaning no waiting in line to purchase tickets or exchange vouchers. Otherwise, save money by purchasing from ParkSavers (an authorized vendor).
Express Pass is Universal Orlando’s version of FastPass (a way to skip the lines), with the key difference being that you either have to pay for Express Pass or stay in an eligible Universal Orlando hotel and have it included with your stay. Of significant note is that the “main” Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions, Escape from Gringotts and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, are not eligible for Express Pass (but Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff are eligible). Here’s more Express Pass information.
Ask 10 different people about Express Pass, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. This is one area where I’m not really qualified to offer an opinion, as I have not stayed in an eligible hotel, nor have I purchased Express Pass. Personally, I would never purchase it. Not because I’m “morally opposed” to Universal charging for it, but because I’ve never found it necessary during my visits so long as I utilized an efficient park itinerary and arrived before opening. Plus, I am frugal and I just can’t justify spending all that money for a perk that I’ve been conditioned, so to speak, to expect for free at the Walt Disney World parks. (Get back to me if I ever visit Universal Orlando during the holidays.)
My one recommendation here if you really want Express Pass would be to consider staying at an on-site hotel that offers Express Pass with your stay. Mind you, these hotels are “Deluxe” caliber, so you’re going to be paying a premium to stay at them. They are nice, though, so if you’d be staying at a nice hotel anyway, they are worthy of consideration.
If you’re considering paying for Express Pass out of pocket, here’s a thread with a variety of opinions as to whether Express Pass is worth it. To me, it wouldn’t be worth that unless part of the experience were Frank Kincaid–you’re welcome–giving me a personal tour of the Mutha Nature set.
Where to Stay
There are a number of questions you have to ask yourself here. Do you want ‘free’ Express Pass by staying at an eligible Universal Orlando hotel? Do you want to stay at a Walt Disney World hotel for the duration of your trip, or change hotels? Do you want to stay an an off-site hotel in the general vicinity of both Universal and Disney to save money?
Universal’s on-site hotels are another area where I have limited expertise. I haven’t stayed at any of them, so I can’t really answer all of these questions for you. I will say that I have toured each of the hotels, and was really impressed with all of them (Royal Pacific didn’t wow me, but it was nice). Although it wasn’t the ritziest of the hotels, the one I like the most was Cabana Bay (unfortunately, no Express Pass here).
You can check out my Cabana Bay Beach Resort Photo Tour to see why this retro-inspired hotel is so fun, and offers great bang for buck. I hope to stay there really, really soon. I do have to admit, the “Premier” Universal Orlando hotel, Portofino Bay Hotel looks pretty awesome, too. Others I know are big fans of Hard Rock Hotel because it’s a short walk to the parks (you can also walk from Cabana Bay, Royal Pacific, and Portofino, but those are all significantly longer walks).
Aside from the Unlimited Express Pass available at all of the on-site hotels except Cabana Bay, all of them offer early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands. This could be a great perk if you want to enjoy these lands without hordes of other people in them. If you’re trying to figure out if staying on-site at Universal Orlando is worth it, I’d also recommend reading this post on the Top 5 Reasons to Stay On-Site at Universal Orlando Resort.
As for staying off-site, you generally will get the most bang for your buck when staying in an off-site hotel, as there are a lot of non-Disney and non-Universal hotels competing with one another. We have an Off-Site v. On-Site Walt Disney World Hotels article that goes into greater depth about the pros and cons of staying off-site, and it’s marginally applicable to Universal, as well.
As for simply staying at a Walt Disney World hotel for the duration of your trip regardless of where you go, we have written comprehensive reviews with our opinions and photos of the rooms. Check out our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page, for links to each of these reviews.
By far the most common questions we get concerning Universal Orlando Resort is: “what’s the best way to get from Walt Disney World Universal.” The answer is that there are a lot of options, but by far the best is Uber. We covered this in depth in our Uber v. Rental Cars at Walt Disney World article. Here’s the pertinent portion of that post:
In the past, the best option we’ve found for those who don’t have rental cars the duration of their trips is either renting a car on-site for the day, or taking a pricey shuttle. Neither is cost-effective or all that appealing, especially when you add on that $17 parking fee.
The cost for Uber from our hotel to Universal Orlando Resort’s guest drop-off zone in the morning was $14.31. The cost on the way back (during rush hour) heading directly to Epcot was $15.92. The trips were 19 and 26 minutes, respectively.
For the two of us, it was ~$30, and it would have easily cost $50-$100 for a 1-day rental car (including parking) or shuttle, plus either alternative would have taken longer. For those who aren’t renting a car for the duration of their trip, Uber or Lyft are the unquestionable best options for getting from Walt Disney World to Universal.
If you’re new to the Uber scene, you can get a free ride up to $15 by signing up via this link for Uber (or use code tomb3417 if the link doesn’t work). Essentially, your first trip to Universal is free with that code!
As for airfare, rental cars, and other basics, here’s my standard info: for finding cheap airfare, we recommend ITA Software by Google. It’s the most robust airfare search engine out there, although you can’t book through it. It gives you latitude in choosing multiple airports to see if nearby airports might offer better pricing, and allows you to check out a calendar of dates for travel.
When it comes to rental cars, check out our Tips for Renting a Car at Walt Disney World post for money-saving tips and more when it comes to renting a car in Orlando (at MCO and elsewhere).
There are some good restaurants in Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, but as a whole, I do not think the culinary experience is on par with Walt Disney World’s. The unquestionable highlights, in my mind, are the counter service restaurants in Diagon Alley (Leaky Cauldron) and Hogsmeade (Three Broomsticks) and the table service restaurant, Mythos, which is a great value.
Obviously, you’re going to want to try Butterbeer–perhaps all three varieties (frozen, hot, and regular). There are plenty of other snacks, but nothing that I would consider noteworthy. Perhaps more seasoned Universal Orlando fans can lend some insight as to whether there are hidden gems.
One thing you might want to consider is purchasing a refillable Coke Freestyle mug. I’ve done this, but I can really put down the Cokes to make it worth the money. I’m sure some day I will be toothless, but hopefully that’s at least 5 years away. These Coke Freestyle machines located throughout the parks are also a convenient way to get free water that’s cold and tastes great (thanks to Facebook commenter Joe S. for the tip!).
Another thing I would recommend is the Universal Dining Plan. This is far less robust than Walt Disney World’s Dining Plan, and you can actually purchase the Quick Service variety on the day-of. The Quick Service Dining Plan includes a quick service meal (entree + drink), drink, and snack. Here are details regarding what each of the Universal Dining Plans include, plus costs.
There have been several occasions where I weighed what I was going to get that day, and then bought it as I ordered a meal. In fact, one evening I purchased it and used all of my credits on the spot, getting Chicken & Ribs at Three Broomsticks, plus Butterbeer, Hot Butterbeer, and Pumpkin Fizz. My total would have been about $30 out of pocket, but I paid $20 for the Universal Dining Plan. Not too shabby for on-the-spot savings.
Granted, I didn’t need three drinks for one meal, but I wanted to see how I could leverage the system, and also test all of the drinks for a future blog post.
If you don’t purchase Express Pass, you absolutely will want to arrive prior to park opening with a solid itinerary that prioritizes attractions that will develop long waits. Offering comprehensive park itineraries is beyond the scope of this post, but I will say that rushing to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is probably *not* the best strategy. I know this seems counter-intuitive since these are the big draws, but I’ve found that everyone rushes to these first thing, and they end of having the shortest waits later in the day–and I don’t even mean in the last 30 minutes the parks are open…I mean like the last 2-3 hours.
Instead, go to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem first in Universal Studios Florida, followed by Rip Ride Rockit and Transformers. Over in Islands of Adventure, whichever attractions you want to experience on Marvel Super Hero Island are probably best knocked out first thing in the morning. After that, Jurassic Park River Adventure. I know these aren’t very concrete 1-day Universal itineraries, so let me know in the comments if you’re interested in dedicated posts a la my Disney Parks ‘Daily Trip Blueprints’.
When it comes to what not to do, I don’t have any recommendations. Some of my favorite attractions (E.T. Adventure, Animal Actors, etc.) are the least popular with the general public–but are generally considered underrated among fans–and I also really enjoy several of the shows that don’t get much attention. Many people will tell you that ‘Universal is all screens’, and while many of its newer E-Tickets do utilize screens, there really is a diverse slate of attractions. I’d recommend trying as much as you can to form your own opinions, with the obvious exception of avoiding anything that’s too intense for you. No point in pushing the limits and ruining the rest of your day!
One final note on attractions is that there are numerous attractions that don’t allow bags, but provide free lockers nearby for storing backpacks, cameras, small children, and whatever other random junk you might have on you. These are pretty convenient and there are larger lockers you can pay for at the front of the park, but the point here is for those of you who are used to bringing a small U-Haul worth of stuff into the Walt Disney World parks: you can’t do that at Universal. Pack for the parks a little lighter.
I think this is probably a good starting point if you’re planning on visiting Universal Orlando Resort as an add-on to your Walt Disney World vacation. If you would like to see some of these topics covered in greater depth, please let me know in the comments. I’m not going to get into “minor” topics (e.g., a Mythos Review), but I’ll consider covering bigger ones here, and the minor ones over on TravelCaffeine.com.
Over there, you can also read about my first visit back to Universal as an adult in my Universal Orlando Resort Trip Report. You’ve probably (hopefully?) already read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide, which covers basics like what to pack, photography tips, and other suggestions that are generally applicable to all Orlando vacations, so I’m not going to rehash that.
Are you visiting Universal Orlando Resort in 2017? If you are a Universal veteran, can you fill in any of the ‘gaps’ here or add tips of your own? If you’re a first-timer, is there anything else you’d like to know? Chances are if you have questions still, so does someone else! Please share your thoughts in the comments