Universal’s theme parks are a must-see on your trip to Orlando, especially if you’re a Harry Potter fan. Here are some of my top tips for planning your visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The list is based on my brainstorm word cloud of top tips.
Tie-1 Get There Early/Arrive Well Before Park Opening
So right off the bat, we’ve got a tie for first. Why? This is just too important to only say it once. The Number One Thing you can do to see the most popular attractions is to arrive early.
My advice is to get there BEFORE the park opens. How far ahead? About 30 minutes early should do it – if you want to be close to the front of the line, more like 45 minutes ahead will be required. Yes, you will stand around for a while, but you will be rewarded – during our last trip to Islands of Adventure the park gates opened 15 minutes prior to the official opening time. Whenever we’ve been there for park opening we have actually sat down on our first ride at opening time. That means getting our first Forbidden Journey ride of the day at 8am!
Want to see what an empty park looks like first thing in the morning? Here’s video of our early admission to Universal Studios Florida.Always get to the park before it opens. 30 minutes or earlier will pay off every time.Click To Tweet
2 Stay in a Universal Express Pass Hotel – Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, or Portofino Bay
Not only are the Universal hotels convenient and nicely appointed, but your booking includes TWO fabulous perks that will more than double what you can see in the parks: You get to enter Islands of Adventure one hour earlier than the general public, and every guest in your room gets a Universal Express Unlimited pass. You get these perks for every day you are at the hotel – this means including the day you check-in and the day you check-out.
You must stay at the Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, or Portofino Bay Hotel to get this pass for free. Universal charges other guests up to $149 a day for the pass. Rooms at these hotels aren’t cheap, but if you have 3 or 4 people in your room, do the math. The cost of your room might be LESS than the value of the Express Passes! Think twice about “saving money” by staying at the Cabana Bay – you still get early admission but no Express Passes when you stay there.
The Universal Express Unlimited Pass is AWESOME. It gets you into an “Express” line on almost every ride at Islands of Adventure and at Universal Studios. Even on busy days you usually won’t wait in the Express Pass line longer than 15 minutes, while the regular “standby” line could be 45 minutes or more. Using the Express Pass you can really maximize your touring, and feel free to go on the same ride multiple times with minimal wait.
Note that there is no Express Pass line for the Forbidden Journey ride, the Hogwarts Express, or the Gringott’s Bank ride (plus a few other less-popular rides that you don’t need a pass for anyway). This is where the early-admission time really can come in handy. Early admission is usually only for the Wizarding World at one of the parks each day, but you can still use it to hack your way into the front of the line at the other park.
In any case, as mentioned in tip #1, you can use this early admission to be on the Forbidden Journey or the Gringott’s Bank ride an hour before anyone else is let into the park. If you’re quick and it’s not a slammed day at the hotels, you can potentially ride the Forbidden Journey THREE times before the rest of the park even opens (I know, I’ve done it).
Another good use of this early entry is to visit Ollivanders in Hogsmeade. The line here can get long very quickly – being early in line will save you a lot of waiting. Plus the shops and town of Hogsmeade are much calmer and more photogenic when you’re there before the crowds. And Diagon Alley is totally different when it’s empty compared to the usual crowds.
Tie-3 Walk/Wear Good Shoes/Stand
Another tie – these all have to do with the reality of theme-park touring – you’ll spend a ton of time on your feet. Before you go, get yourself some good walking shoes and put some miles on them. Go for long walks at home – 3 miles at a time is probably a good regular walk – and try to work up to where you can walk 5-6 miles in one stretch. And don’t forget to bring some good socks too.
Unlike many of the Disney parks, there’s really no transportation inside the Universal parks (except the recently opened Hogwarts Express which saves you from walking to the front of one park to get into the other one). Expect to do a lot of walking, along with plenty of standing in line, mainly at the Wizarding World attractions since they don’t have Express Pass lines.
4 Buy a Park to Park Ticket
If you plan to ride the Hogwarts Express to visit both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, you’ll need a park-to-park ticket. Shrewdly, Hogsmeade (home of the Forbidden Journey ride) is in the Islands of Adventure park, and Diagon Alley (home of Gringotts Bank) is in Universal Studios. There are ticket booths at the train stations in both parks, but you’ll save money and time if you purchase your tickets for both parks ahead of time.
5 Buy Tickets Ahead
You can buy your tickets online on the Universal Studios site. You’ll save money by purchasing ahead, and you’ll avoid waiting in line to purchase tickets. (And I’m am all about avoiding lines). Sometimes Universal offers special discounts online too – often a “buy two days, get the third free” offer.
6 Wash Hands Frequently
There is no way to avoid touching railings, seat belts, and restraints that every other rider has touched that same day. Do yourself and the rider behind you a favor and wash your hands as often as you can.
I also like to carry a few of these antibacterial wipes for when soap and water is too far away.
7 Know Your Park-Related Apps
Universal has a very useful app that shows wait times, show times, maps of the parks, and a lot more. And there are several third-party apps that can help you figure out what to do next, plan for the day, and generally make your trip more fun & efficient. Here’s my post Eight Essential Apps For Your Universal Orlando Trip.
8 Have Fun
It can be so easy to get overwhelmed by the crowds, the choices, your tired feet; so remember – this all about having fun with your friends and family. Slow down and take in the fantasy worlds the amazing designers have created. Smile and enjoy!
9 Bring a Backpack
A backpack is a convenient way to keep all your stuff together and I think it’s easier to carry than the plastic shopping bags you’ll get when you buy souvenirs.
10 Get a Wand
One of the coolest additions to the Wizarding World has been the interactive wands that allow ordinary muggles like us to do spells all around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. The wands cost $45 each and you can choose from character wands or wands with themes based on your birthday. All around the wizarding parks you will find plaques on the ground showing how to do the spell and where to aim your wand. Helpful park wizards are also on hand to help you get the spells just right.
Not only do you get a unique souvenir, but walking around casting spells is truly a magical experience that made me feel like a wizard. You can purchase the interactive wands at Ollivanders in either Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) or Diagon Alley (Universal Studios). Purchase your wand right away – once you start using it, you’ll want to try all the spells.
11 Give Tired Kids a Break
If you think you’re overwhelmed by a theme park, imagine how your ten-year-old feels. I know you spent a lot of time/money/effort to get here, but please cut your kid some slack. Luna & I awkwardly overheard several in-line lectures to little kids about how they need to adjust their attitude, when obviously the kid was just tired or hungry or whatever.
If you’re touring with a younger child, know that you will probably not see everything in the park. Do some research ahead of time to see what attractions will most appeal to your kid, and use the child-swap or ride single if there’s a ride you want to do but your child doesn’t. And just be patient – if you’re lucky one day you’ll have another trip to Universal with your teenager and they will be dragging YOU to delirious exhaustion.