2023 Universal Orlando Planning Guide

If you’re visiting Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure in 2023, our planning guide offers restaurant recommendations, park & ride strategy, plus tips & tricks to help you save money & time, avoid crowds, and more to have the best vacation possible. (Updated January 13, 2023.)

We’re Universal Orlando Annual Passholders and huge fans of those parks in addition to Walt Disney World. Universal has improved a ton and upped its game in the last decade. This began with the Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade lands of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which were further enhanced by Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. That has been taken to the next level with the debut of Jurassic World VelociCoaster.

As such, we highly recommend spending a couple of days at Universal when vacationing at Walt Disney World. This is guide to Universal Orlando Resort contains everything you’ll need to know. Whether you’re doing both parks in a single day or making a trip of it with an on-site hotel stay and multiple days at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, we have you covered with info and advice about attractions, dining, resorts, strategy, crowds, and more.

In this guide, we’ll cover how to make the most of a visit to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. We’re going to take a counterintuitive organizational approach to this guide, as we’ve found that many readers consult it while visiting Universal rather than during the planning stages of a trip. Accordingly, we’re going to front load with info you need to know if you’ve already touched down in Central Florida.

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.

Similarly, if you’re debating between resorts at the two main theme park complexes, see our comprehensive breakdown: Universal Orlando v. Walt Disney World Hotels. That should help you determine which is the better option for your vacation–or if a split stay might be best!

Here’s everything else you need to know about visiting Universal Orlando Resort…

What’s New & Next at Universal

If you have not been to Universal Orlando in a while (or ever), a lot in the last several years. This includes a few attractions that have been added in the last several years: Fast and the Furious: Supercharged, Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong.

In terms of what’s new, there are two hugely popular coasters in Islands of Adventure: Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in the Hogsmeade side of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The newest thing in Universal Studios Florida is the Bourne Stuntacular, which (as the name suggests) is a stunt show.

This trio of additions in the last few years has proven incredibly popular with guests. In particular, VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s are two of the very best roller coasters in Orlando.

Next on the horizon, Universal is building a third theme park in Central Florida. It’s full steam ahead on this project, and Universal’s Epic Universe Park is Opening by Summer 2025! This will bring Super Nintendo World plus more Harry Potter, Universal Monsters, How to Train Your Dragon, and much more to Universal Orlando in the coming years.

Now let’s turn to Universal Orlando’s advanced planning topics…

Where to Stay

There are a number of questions you have to ask yourself when planning a trip, and many of them will dictate where you stay. Do you want Unlimited 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?

We’ve recently stayed at every single on-site hotel at Universal Orlando Resort–here are our reviews:

For insight into all of these hotels, their pros & cons, and how they compare and contrast with one another, see our Universal Orlando Hotel Rankings & Reviews.

We are big fans of Universal’s hotels, and are particularly partial to the two “bay” resorts: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Both of those are in our top 10 hotels in Orlando, rivaling some of our favorite resorts at Walt Disney World.

Universal’s hotels provide great bang for buck, and even those that don’t include free Express Pass do offer Early Park Admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal’s Volcano Bay one hour before those parks open. That can be absolutely huge!

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.

Ride Strategy for Universal Orlando

Next, what to know while you’re at Universal Orlando. For starters, we strongly recommend that you do not “wing it” for your daily itinerary due to the aforementioned crowd issues. You don’t need to plan every movement so that there’s no spontaneity in your trip, just make sure you have at least a loose plan of what you’re going to do.

We have the following plans for each park that cover our perfect days:

Those offer step by step touring plans for both theme parks at Universal Orlando, prioritizing the most popular rides and skipping what isn’t worth your time. Those will help you do Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk Coaster, Jurassic Park River Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and other must-do rides.

If you’d prefer to create your own itineraries and want an overview and review of every attraction at each of the parks, consult our Islands of Adventure Ride Guide and Universal Studios Florida Ride Guide. If you’re a fan spinners, you might want to check those out, as we don’t waste your time with that nonsense in the itineraries.

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. 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 are dictated by when guests plan their Disney vacations. In other words, you can refer to our 2023 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars post to determine when to visit, as that’s roughly applicable to Universal Orlando as well.

There are only some exceptions to this, and they’re largely predicated upon special events that are unique to each of the parks. For example, Walt Disney World sees its crowds spike due to runDisney events, when its hotels are hosting conventions or youth sporting events, or during EPCOT festivals. By contrast, Universal sees its own spikes around Mardi Gras, Halloween Horror Nights, and early December when it plays host to the Pop Warner youth football event.

In general, though, the big driver of attendance at both is school breaks. In particular, those of Orange County and other counties throughout Florida and the South. Of course, both are vacation destinations, so breaks for school districts in the Midwest and Northeast also have a significant impact. The obvious times like Spring Break, Easter, Summer, Fall Break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve are all busy.

More under the radar timeframes like MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, Mardi Gras, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and more also see pronounced spikes in crowds. Again, reference the aforementioned crowd calendars if you’re looking to choose the best times to visit Universal Orlando.

Due to a surge of locals on weekends, we strongly recommend avoiding Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure on Saturdays and Sundays. Mondays through Thursdays are the best days to visit, with much lower crowds then. However, that goes out the window during holiday weeks or anytime school is out of session, when it’s disproportionately tourists and every single day of the week is busy.

This perception of crowds is further exacerbated by the parks still being somewhat understaffed. This problem is hardly unique to Universal Orlando–everywhere in Central Florida is facing the same hiring difficulties, including Walt Disney World. This makes everything feel worse than it is because although attendance is on par with a normal year, the parks can’t absorb crowds as effectively due to the lack of employees. Thankfully, this problem is not nearly as pronounced in 2023 as it was in the past couple of years, but it still remains somewhat of an issue.

The one exception to this is if you want to see or avoid Halloween season at Universal, namely Halloween Horror Nights (HHN). This is a hard ticket event that has a huge following among locals and fans of haunt season, in general.

During HHN, 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. See our Guide to Halloween Horror Nights for more.

Aside from this, the only noteworthy events are Mardi Gras and Christmas. See our Guide to Mardi Gras: International Flavors of Carnaval at Universal Studios Florida. At this fun event, guests can experience a food festival with cuisine and entertainment inspired by international Carnaval celebrations.

Food booths serve up the flavors of Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, Spain and other regions including, of course, New Orleans. Plus enjoy spectacular floats on display, street entertainment, music, beads and more throughout Universal Studios Florida.

During the holiday season, Grinchmas and Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s are the main entertainment draws. There’s also the Christmas Tribute Store, which is essentially a walk-through exhibit, plus Universal Studios Florida’s iconic Christmas Tree.

Perhaps the biggest draw is Winter in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which features unique decor and projections on Hogwarts Castle. There are also decorations around both parks in Seuss Landing, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, Hollywood, New York, and San Francisco.

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 screen-based simulators. That’s reductionist, and there are many more things at Universal than those types of rides, but if your party is averse to either, doing more than 2 days at Universal is going to be tough.

If you love coasters or have teens, you can easily spend 3 days or more at Universal Orlando. Heck, I’m not huge on roller coasters or simulators, and I can easily do 2 days (or even 3) at Universal. Likewise, if you love Harry Potter, several days at Universal will be easy. 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.

Universal Orlando Park Tickets

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If you’re looking for a deal on park tickets, Get Away Today will save you the most money on Universal Orlando tickets. This is especially true if you’re doing a longer trip, as Get Away Today has a ‘Buy 2 days, get 3 days free’ special. With more and more to do at Universal Orlando, spending several days in the parks is highly recommended–especially if you’re staying in a nearby hotel and want to do some partial days (also recommended).

I am a fan of the Park-to-Park tickets if you can swing spending extra. 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.

Express Pass

Express Pass is Universal Orlando’s version of Genie+ or Lightning Lanes (a way to skip the lines) and is available as a ticket add-on or with select hotel stays. You can purchase two varieties of Express Pass, regular or unlimited. The regular version allows you to skip the line once per eligible attraction in either park, and starts at $80 per person. Universal Express Unlimited offers line-skipping privileges, as the name suggests, an unlimited number of times per attraction, and starts at $110 per person.

Below are the eligible Express Pass attractions in each park.

Universal Studios Florida

  • The Bourne Stuntacular
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • E.T. Adventure
  • Fast & Furious – Supercharged
  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
  • Hogwarts Express
  • Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
  • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • The Simpsons Ride
  • Transformers: The Ride-3D
  • Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster

Islands Of Adventure

  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Caro-Seuss-el
  • Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
  • Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
  • Flight of the Hippogriff
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!
  • Hogwarts Express
  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Jurassic Park River Adventure
  • Poseidon’s Fury
  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong
  • Storm Force Accelatron

These are the most popular attractions in each park, with two significant exceptions. Both of the two newest and most popular roller coasters, Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Wizarding World of Harry Potter, are not eligible for Express Pass.

Unlike Genie+ or Lightning Lanes, there is no tech component to Express Pass. While it’s significantly more expensive, it’s also frictionless. You simply go up to the attraction and use your Express Pass entitlement. There’s nothing to reserve or hassle with in an app. Express Pass involves zero screen time and headaches–but you’ll pay a lot more for it!

Whether Express Pass is worth the money largely depends upon what day of the week and season you’re visiting, and how you value your time v. your money. Personally, we would not pay for Express Pass most days. However, we also avoid weekends and holidays, arrive for park opening, and utilize an efficient park itinerary.

If you really want Express Pass, consider staying at an on-site hotel that offers Express Pass with your stay. Unlimited Express Pass is available at the Universal Premier category resorts–meaning Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay–which are Universal’s most expensive hotels.

All three of these are nice, on par with Walt Disney World’s Deluxe Resorts, and generally cost less. They’re still pricey, but they’re cheaper than Disney’s higher-end hotels, and are arguably worth the money–especially if you want the Unlimited Express Pass perk or a good location within walking or boat distance of Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. If you’d be staying at a nice hotel anyway, this trio is definitely worthy of your consideration.

If you want to learn more about this line-skipping option and how it compares to Walt Disney World’s counterpart, see our guide: Universal’s Express Pass v. Lightning Lanes & Genie+ at Walt Disney World.

Transportation

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 parking fee.

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. The one-way cost of an Uber or Lyft from Walt Disney World will vary depending upon your exact location, typically costing under $25 each way and taking 20-25 minutes.

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.

Dining

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.

Other in-park restaurants at Universal Orlando that we like include the Today Show Cafe (for lighter options) and Krusty Burger (for the exact opposite). Actually, there’s something for everyone in the Springfield area, which has a variety of dining options drawn from The Simpsons.

On the snacking front, you’re obviously going to want to try Butterbeer–perhaps all three varieties (frozen, hot, and regular). Most of the other snacks we enjoy are also in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour and Honeydukes.

Another 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.

Other Things to Do

Volcano Bay is Universal Orlando’s water park. It’s themed to the South Seas and features a giant volcano (hence the name) in the middle with water slides in it. For Walt Disney World fans, it’s a bit like Typhoon Lagoon water park mixed with Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and Adventureland.

All the rides at Volcano Bay feature a Virtual Line instead of traditional standby queues. You tap in with your TapuTapu wearable (think MagicBand) to grab a ride time. Then go float, swim, splash, eat, shop or relax around Volcano Bay. Your TapuTapu will tell you when it’s your time to ride.

In addition to the two theme parks and Volcano Bay water park, there’s CityWalk. This is Universal Orlando’s shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, which is a lot like Disney Springs. The big difference is that you walk through CityWalk to access Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure, and it’s incredibly easy to exit the parks and eat lunch or dinner at CityWalk. No bus necessary!

There’s also a lot of relatively new dining at CityWalk, such as Bigfire, Voodoo Doughnut, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, and VIVO Italian Kitchen–among other things. Toothsome is a fan-favorite for its over the top milkshakes and dessert concoctions (as well as the fun steampunk theme), and Voodoo Doughnut is an absolute must-do. With that said, we think the sleeper hits of the list are Bigfire and Cowfish, both of which offer great food at reasonable (by theme park standards) prices.

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. We’re planning to tackle more on dining, special events, and Universal Orlando news in the coming months, so stay tuned for more of that!

Need trip planning tips and comprehensive advice for your visit to Central Florida? Make sure to read our Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Guide for everything about those parks, resorts, restaurants, and so much more. For regular updates, news & rumors, a heads up when discounts are released, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!

Your Thoughts

Are you visiting Universal Orlando Resort in 2023? Excited for Epic Universe or other rumored additions in the next few years? What about Jurassic World VelociCoaster, Hagrid’s, or the new rides that have recently opened? Have a favorite on-site hotel at Universal? Do you prefer staying on-site at Universal, or commuting from Walt Disney World? 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

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