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While visiting Orlando earlier this year, our family found ourselves with one extra day to sightsee. We could have headed to the House of the Mouse, but as Mommy Points’ has highlighted in the past, Universal Studios is often better than Disney World for families taking last-minute trips. We made the decision to spend the day at Universal and pack in as much we could at both Universal Studios and the connected Universal Islands of Adventure.

Covering two huge theme parks in one day with four kids (ages ranged from 1 to 9) is a challenge, but I’m happy to say we squeezed every penny out of our tickets for that day, and here’s how.

Pick the Right Ticket

First, we opted for one day, two-park tickets because the main reason we wanted to visit Universal was to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Diagon Ally is in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade is in the connected Islands Of Adventure park. The Hogwarts Express train connects the two, and you can’t ride that train if you don’t have a two-park ticket. (We could also have made the choice to purchase a Universal Studios Orlando Annual Pass instead, but we opted not to go that route.)

Unlike at Disney World, you don’t get the equivalent of free FastPasses for rides at Universal Studios. Instead, they sell the Universal Express Pass. These “shorten the line” passes start at $80 for one day, two-park access, and allow you to queue once per participating attraction in the Express Access line with a shorter wait time. Then there are two-park Universal Express Unlimited Passes, starting at $100 each, that allow you to wait in the Express Access line for each participating ride as many times as you’d like.

Enjoy Harry Potter multiple times with your annual pass
Enjoy Harry Potter’s world multiple times with your annual pass

We knew we wouldn’t get to see much of the two parks if we had to spend the day waiting in lines, so the Universal Express Passes were a must. However, we were looking at $400 to purchase five of the basic two-park Express Passes, and that was in addition to the already very pricy park tickets.

Book a Hotel With Express Pass Perks

Since we are traveling the country in a RV, we planned to stay at an RV park nearby and didn’t necessarily need to book a hotel room. However, I realized we could get a night at Loews Royal Pacific Resort for less than $300.

Pool at Loews Royal Pacific
Pool at Loews Royal Pacific

That stay included not only Universal Express Unlimited Passes for everyone (two adults and three kids) — a $500+ value — but meant we’d be close enough to walk over to the park in the morning. Those at the resort also get into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour early. In other words, booking the room was a no-brainer to get the most out of our one day as possible. This Express Pass offer is also available at the Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, but not the “lower tier” (but still very nice) Universal hotels such as Loews Sapphire Falls and the new Aventura Hotel.

Loews Royal Pacific Resort
Photo courtesy of Jill Krause, HappyLoudLife.com

If you decide to stay at a Universal Studios property, you won’t be able to use traditional hotel points to book the stay, but could potentially earn a bunch of points by booking and paying with your Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card at Hotels.com/Venture to earn 10x miles per dollar. Alternatively, you could also use points from that card to cover the cost of your stay.

Rest Up and Be Ready to Rock

We checked into the hotel the night before, ordered pizza via room service and got plenty of sleep. Early the next morning, we took our bags to bag-check in the hotel lobby so they could hold them for us. A 10-minute walk later and we were at the park. It’s a good thing we were well rested and fully charged when we got there because we had a  packed day ahead of us. 

By utilizing our Universal Express Passes, we were able to ride every single ride on our wish list in both parks, some more than once. The early park admission really helped us enjoy The Wizarding World of Harry Potter before it was too crowded later in the day. We were at the parks from an hour before general admission until closing time, which is something we couldn’t have pulled off if we hadn’t stayed on-site the night before.

At Universal Studios Florida
Photo courtesy of Jill Krause, HappyLoudLife.com

Have a Plan, but Be Flexible

We began the day at Hogsmeade in Universal Islands of Adventure and took our time eating a traditional English breakfast at Three Broomsticks. This doubled as an experience for us because the restaurant was so fun that it felt like we had stepped into the movies. It was a great way to maximize our time soaking in the experience while fueling up for the day ahead.

Immediately after that, we stepped over to Ollivanders, the wand shop, and this was our biggest regret for the day. We waited in a 30-minute line before entering the small shop, which was really cool but the shopkeeper only chooses a wand for one audience member. Experience aside, we could buy the same wands at street carts, and we could have saved some time spent waiting in line. The line at the wand shop is typically lighter in the late afternoon/early evening (though that gives you less time to use the wand in the park that day.)

Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley filled up so quickly once the park officially opened, so we wished we would have spent those extra 30 minutes doing anything other than waiting in a line. We took Hogwarts Express train (which is amazing) over to Diagon Alley at about 10:30am, and by lunchtime, we felt we’d seen as much as we could of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

We used the second half of the day to pack in a bunch of rides and kept meals to quick, small snacks throughout the day. When the 1 year old needed a stroller nap, my husband took the other three on 3-D rides they could all enjoy. When our oldest wanted to ride big roller coasters with his dad, I took the younger three to nearby green spaces to enjoy some popcorn and street performances. It was a whole lot of divide and conquer that worked out well thanks to shorter lines, Child Swap rooms and the variety of rides and spaces available at Universal.

Bottom Line

If you are planning to purchase Universal Express Passes for an upcoming trip to Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure, I encourage you to price out booking a stay at a qualifying hotel that offers Universal Express Unlimited Passes to everyone in your party (valid for the duration of your stay). You will probably save money by staying there, enjoy much more of the park in a short period of time and get the added benefits of early admission and close proximity to the park. Or, if your budget permits, just book a VIP tour and let your tour guide worry about the rest.

What are your tips for making the most of one day at Universal Studios Florida?

Featured image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

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