Universal Orlando Trip Planning Guide

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If you’re planning a 2019 or 2020 trip to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, we have trip 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. (Updated November 1, 2019.)

Thanks to the Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade areas of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened several years ago (and were once again enhanced this year with the opening of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure), a visit to Universal Orlando is a must-do. Readers have said the same, and more people than ever are spending a couple of days at Universal when vacationing at Walt Disney World.

Since this is a Disney blog, we approach this guide to Universal Orlando Resort from the perspective of adding on a Universal side-trip to your Walt Disney World vacation. It’s a standalone guide, containing everything you’ll need to know about spending a few days at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure; it includes dining, attractions, resorts, and more. We’re locals to Universal Orlando Resort who visit regularly, and we update this whenever we visit to ensure that our advice is current. On that note, let’s start with what’s new at Universal!

As mentioned above, the newest attraction to open at Islands of Adventure is Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which is a roller coaster in Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This is already an immensely popular attraction, frequently drawing multi-hour wait times and reviewed as one of the best rides in all of Florida.

The other big news is not something that’s open now, it’s the third gate opening in 2023. We cover the announcement and what this park will include here: Universal’s Epic Universe New Park Announced for Florida. With this park still ~4 years away, there’s not much of a point in fixating on it in this planning guide, but it nonetheless has us excited!

The next thing to open at Universal Studios Florida after Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is the Bourne Stuntacular, which (as the name suggests) is a stunt show. This was just announced and will debut in Spring 2020.

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.

It also includes dining at CityWalk, such as Bigfire, Voodoo Doughnut, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, and VIVO Italian Kitchen (among other things–we can’t list them all here).

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.

Finally, there’s Volcano Bay Water Park, which is located right behind Cabana Bay Resort.

Universal treats Volcano Bay as its third theme park, but that marketing is more about convincing guests to stay on-site because there’s so much to do than anything else. Volcano Bay is a solid park, but it’s definitely more akin to Typhoon Lagoon than it is one of Universal’s existing two theme parks.

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 all of that, and 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. 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.

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.

This isn’t because I’m 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.

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?

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 in the process of completing stays at the remainder of Universal’s other resorts, as necessary (and as deals pop-up!). By Spring 2020, we intend upon having reviews of most of Universal Orlando’s other hotels. In the meantime, we’ve toured them all, and our other favorites–based solely on first impressions–have been Portofino Bay and Hard Rock Hotel. Royal Pacific didn’t wow us, but it was nice.

Aside from the Unlimited Express Pass available at the Universal Premier category resorts (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay), all Universal hotels 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.

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 $20 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.

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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. 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.

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.

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.

Your Thoughts

Are you visiting Universal Orlando Resort in 2019 or 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


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