Universal Orlando Planning Guide

If you’re planning a 2020-2021 trip to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, we have planning tips & tricks to help you save money & time, avoid crowds, pick where to eat, which rides to do, and fully plan your Universal Orlando Resort vacation. (Updated October 19, 2020.)

Thanks to the Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade areas of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter–that were further enhanced with the opening of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure–Universal Orlando is a must-do. Although this is a Disney-centric blog and we’re huge fans of WDW, we’re also Universal Orlando Annual Passholders who enjoy those parks. 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, and more. Our most recent visit to the parks was in mid-October 2020 for “Halloween Horror Nights Lite” and have updated this with some new post-reopening advice, strategies, and tips…

Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay have now all reopened to the general public as have CityWalk and select hotels. Almost all of the health safety procedures, temporary rules, liability disclaimer warnings, and temporary policies are identical to those at Walt Disney World.

To that end, our “Temporary Abnormal” Guide to Walt Disney World offers extensive information about temporary rules and operating procedures. If you’re on the fence about visiting the parks and certain policies would be “make or break” for you, we’d strongly encourage reading that. We’ll cover the major stuff here…

Face masks are required for all guests and employees at Universal Orlando. If you have a disability that prevents you from wearing a face covering you will be referred to guest services. If you do not have a face covering, we’ll have them available for purchase. Also, per CDC guidelines, children under the age of two are not required to wear facial coverings.

As with Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando has signs throughout the parks indicating that face coverings are required, including employees who walk around with signs reminding guests to wear their masks. Enforcement is more on the passive side as compared to Disney.

At Volcano Bay water park, 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.

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.

Unlike Walt Disney World, reservations are not required or available to visit Universal Orlando’s theme parks, but they are limiting attendance. There has been reader concern about being denied entry due to the parks hitting capacity, which is now regularly occurring on Saturday and Sunday.

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.

Regardless of which day you visit, we recommend arriving early (it’ll take longer to park and walk to the parks than you might imagine) and rope dropping Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. With an efficient strategy, you can do the most popular attractions with minimal waits, including Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, is the new-ish roller coaster in Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This is has been an immensely popular attraction since opening last summer, but due to past reliability and downtime issues, it was previously difficult to experience. Since reopening, we’ve been able to do Hagrid’s with ~30 minute waits–it’s much easier to experience.

The bad news is those weekend crowds, which can be worse than anything at Walt Disney World right now. Even busy days feel worse than the actual wait times, though. The other good news 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 and the full Halloween Horror Nights being cancelled was disappointing, but it’s much closer to normal than Disney.

In terms of the modified guest experience at Universal Orlando, that’s pretty much what you need to know before you go. If you don’t mind jumping through some hoops and wearing a mask, it’s a great time to enjoy the parks with some of the lowest crowds you’ll ever see–especially during the week. We plan on doing some park reports and itineraries for UO soon, so let us know if you have any questions or there’s anything you’d like to see!

In terms of what’s new aside from Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, the big thing is the Bourne Stuntacular, which (as the name suggests) is a stunt show. This quietly opened over the summer, and has proven popular with guests.

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.

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.

In the last few years, several new hotels have also opened at Universal Orlando Resort. These include Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, Loews Sapphire Falls, and Universal’s Aventura Hotel.

Most notably, budget hotels have debuted that cost around–or sometimes under–$100 per night. See our Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn & Suites Review.

Next on the horizon is the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. Universal Orlando just announced this, describing it as “a new species of roller coaster.” Speeding through the jungle, rising high above the terrain, and offering a high-speed dash through the park’s raptor paddock. The Jurassic World VelociCoaster will open in Summer 2021 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. We can’t wait!

After that, it’s possible Universal will be building a new theme park. Last year, Universal Announced the New ‘Epic Universe’ Theme Park for Florida. Unfortunately, development on its Epic Universe theme park in Orlando is “paused for now.” Universal has stated that plans for the park will resume when “the future becomes more certain,” but the entire creative team working on the project was laid off. We’re guessing it won’t come to fruition in the next 5 years–perhaps the next decade.

Suffice to say, a lot has been happening at Universal Orlando Resort–the above really just scratches the surface of all the latest changes. In this guide, we’ll cover how to make the most of a visit to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

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. 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 (which was cancelled for 2020). This is 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. See our Guide to Halloween Horror Nights for more.

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.

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.

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

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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.

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?

As noted above, 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.

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.

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.

Attractions

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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, unless you have Early Park Admission.

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.

When it comes to what not to do, I don’t have any recommendations. Some of my favorite attractions (E.T. Adventure) 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.

Your Thoughts

Are you visiting Universal Orlando Resort in 2020? 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


228 Responses to “Universal Orlando Planning Guide”
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