If you’re visiting Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, this 2021 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 August 3, 2021.)
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 this year 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 about spending 1-3 days at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure: dining, attractions, resorts, strategy, crowds, and more…
Let’s start with a quick update as of August 2021. Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure theme parks, Volcano Bay water park, CityWalk entertainment & dining district, and most hotels are all now open and essentially operating as normal.
This includes health safety rules, all of which are effectively gone. This means there’s no physical distancing, capacity limits, or anything temporarily unavailable as a precautionary measure. Even the Single Rider lines are back, which is a huge timesaver.
Currently, guests are only “encouraged” to wear face coverings, but you should consult our regularly-updated Guide to Face Mask Rules at Universal Orlando before your visit. With cases surging in Florida, it’s possible (but doubtful) that will change. (Note that Universal’s policy differs from Face Mask Rules at Walt Disney World, where the rule has been reinstated indoors for all guests.)
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.
Here’s what you need to know about visiting Universal Orlando Resort…
The biggest thing you should be aware of if you’re planning a visit in the next few months is the colossal crowds. Universal Orlando saw its attendance return to Summer 2019 levels in the last quarter, according to an earnings call for parent company Comcast. Anecdotally, crowds felt even higher in July–and August 2021 is already off to an incredibly busy start.
This perception of crowds is further exacerbated by the parks being woefully understaffed. This problem is hardly unique to Universal Orlando–everywhere in Central Florida is facing the same hiring difficulties, which makes everything feel worse than it is.
Everything from parking to getting through security to picking up food takes considerably longer than normal right now. Suffice to say, you’re going to encounter heavy crowds and long wait times at Universal Orlando until schools go back into session and the fall off-season hits. And at that point, the return of Halloween Horror Nights could result in another bump in crowds.
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. We most recently visited on a Friday, which was manageable–much better than the weekend, but worse than mid-week.
The silver lining to this higher attendance is that far less of the guest experience at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure has been cut or temporarily suspended. Some entertainment is missing, but it’s much closer to normal than Walt Disney World.
While we’re big Disney fans, Universal is honestly doing a better job right now in terms of the substantive guest experience–there are far fewer “compromises” to the guest experience at Universal Orlando. You’re not paying the same or more and getting less.
In terms of the current modified guest experience at Universal Orlando, that’s pretty much what you need to know before you go. It’s a great time to enjoy the parks with some of the lowest crowds you’ll ever see–especially during the week.
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 of Shrek or spinners, you might want to check those out, as we don’t waste your time with that nonsense in the itineraries.
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. In addition to the aforementioned changes, a bunch of other new stuff is now open. This includes attractions: Fast and the Furious: Supercharged, Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
In terms of what’s new, the biggest thing is Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in the Hogsmeade side of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The newest thing is the Bourne Stuntacular, which (as the name suggests) is a stunt show. This opened last year, and has proven popular with guests.
Next on the horizon, Universal is building a third theme park in Orlando! Universal Has Resumed Construction on the New ‘Epic Universe’ Theme Park for Florida. After pausing development on its Epic Universe theme park last year until “the future becomes more certain,” work has already resumed. Great news for theme park fans, and Orlando’s economic recovery!
Now let’s turn to Universal Orlando’s advanced planning topics…
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 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 (HHN). This is a hard ticket event that was cancelled last year, but Universal has already announced it will return for 2021!
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 2021: 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
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.
Where to Stay
Speaking of where to stay, there are a number of questions you have to ask yourself here. Do you want the aforementioned 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 reviewed two of Universal Orlando Resort’s cheapest hotels. See our Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn & Suites Review for more about both of those hotels. We really enjoyed our experiences at both.
We are big fans of Universal’s hotels. They 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.
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 new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, is not eligible for Express Pass.
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 (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay), which are Universal’s most expensive hotels. They are nice and arguably worth the money, so if you’d be staying at a nice hotel anyway, they are worthy of your consideration.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At Volcano Bay, face coverings are recommended when guests cannot socially distance. Masks are not permitted on slides and in pools, which means guests also will not be wearing them to/from or in those lines. In other words, social distancing at Volcano Bay is key.
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.
When it comes to restaurants in all three parks and CityWalk, Universal has arranged tables and seating so that guests can remove their face coverings while they eat. Masks need to be worn them at all other times. On our most recent visits, CityWalk has been absolutely packed, making socially distancing very difficult with downright unpleasant crowds.
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!
If you’re so inclined, 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 2021? Are you excited for Universal’s Epic Universe? What about the new rides that have recently opened? 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