TPG’s complete guide to visiting Universal Orlando
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When I was a kid, we went to an Orlando theme park at least once a year. You had to plan a few things in advance, but visiting an amusement park wasn’t what it is today. With all the apps and reservation timelines and rules, planning the “perfect” trip to any major theme park has become a massive endeavor.
Just thinking about planning such a trip is enough to give me hives! The stakes are so high, with pricey admission tickets, deadlines to reserve everything from character breakfasts to dinners at popular restaurants and all sorts of add-ons to help you get into the theme parks before the masses and skip the lines. There is so much to know.
But we really wanted to visit Universal Orlando this November, so I needed to overcome my planning paralysis. I’m happy to say that — with some strategic decisions upfront — we were able to execute an awesome family vacation to Universal with a minimal amount of advance planning.
If you’re a first-time visitor to Universal Orlando, here’s what you need to know to start planning your own vacation.
When to visit
The date for your visit to Universal Orlando may not be entirely up to you. If you’re traveling with school-age children, you’re likely locked into traveling during school vacations, long weekends and summer break. If that’s the case, you’ll visit Universal when it’s at its busiest. That’s not the end of the world, though, since there are ways to reduce the waits for lines. More on that in a minute.
The slower times of the year are Labor Day through the first two weeks of November (before Thanksgiving) and the first two weeks of December (before the holiday rush). Note though that if you visit around Halloween, it will be busier because of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights.
Most of January, except for the first week, is also relatively quiet, as is the first week of February. But then it gets crazy with spring-breakers. Crowds thin out a bit after Easter and through May, then ramp up again for the summertime. June, July and August are always busy. Always.
For our first visit in a zillion years, I picked a quiet time in early November so any planning blunders on my part would be minimized by the lack of intense crowds.
Where to stay during a Universal Orlando vacation
Once you’ve ironed out when you plan to visit Universal, you’ll want to determine where to stay. You have a ton of options, from hotels right on Universal property to nearby points hotels to rental homes and Airbnbs. There are so many choices that TPG wrote an entire guide to choosing the best Universal Orlando hotel for your trip.
Let’s recap the high points here.
Benefits of Universal hotels
If you only have a few days to explore Universal and don’t mind the cost, an on-site property may be your best bet. That’s because guests of all Universal hotels receive one-hour early entry into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That’s a nice freebie and it’s the best strategy if you have your heart set on riding the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure roller coaster without waiting hours and hours in line. This ride does not currently participate in Universal’s Express Pass skip-the-line program.
The on-site hotels are also, well, on-site so you minimize transition times. Many of the resorts, like Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort have complimentary boat shuttles to CityWalk, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. There’s also a nice walking path and free shuttle buses are also available.
The downside of staying at a Universal hotel is often the price. Rack rates are often relatively high, though there are a few Value hotels — Universal’s Endless Summer Resort with Surfside Inn and Suites and Dockside Inn and Suites — that start at $80 per night on off-peak dates.
But if you prefer to stay at one of Universal’s top-end Premier hotels (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock or Portofino Bay), you’re probably looking at starting rates from $225 to $270 per night. If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum® Card from American, a great way to maximize a stay at Loews Portofino Bay is to book via the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts collection. This will get you not only the Express Passes provided to all guests of that hotel but also full daily breakfast for two, a $100 property credit, late 4 p.m. checkout and more.
Universal is surrounded by plenty of points hotels so if you’d prefer to stay off-site — on points or cash — you can easily do so. Some of TPG’s favorite nearby points hotels are even within walking distance of Universal.
Here are a few points hotels within walking distance of Universal:
- Hyatt Place Across From Universal Orlando Resort (Category 3, from 12k World of Hyatt points per night)
- Hyatt House Across From Universal Resort (Category 3, from 12k World of Hyatt points per night)
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando (29,000 to 30,0000 Hilton Honors points per night)
And some great points hotels that are just a short drive away:
- Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress (Category 3, from 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night)
- Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld (Category 5, from 35,000 Marriott points per night on standard dates)
- The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes (Category 6, from 50k Marriott points per night on standard dates)
- JW Marriott Grande Lakes (Category 6, from 50k Marriott points per night on standard dates)
- Hilton Orlando (40,000 to 60,000 Hilton Honors points per night)
- Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (40,000 to 60,000 Hilton Honors points per night)
- Waldorf Astoria Orlando (63,000 to 80,000 Hilton Honors points per night)
All about Universal tickets
Visitors have a lot of options when it comes to buying Universal tickets, from the type of ticket to how you’ll pay for them. Here’s the skinny.
Universal ticket types
There are a variety of ticket types at Universal Orlando. You can buy tickets that get you into one, two or three theme parks (i.e., Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay waterpark).
Tickets can be purchased for one, two, three, four or five days. The cheapest tickets allow access to one park per day. So, if you start your day at Universal Studios, you can’t use the same ticket to get into Islands of Adventure in the afternoon. You’re limited to one park per day. This sounds good, but isn’t always a great choice.
Alternatively, you can buy the pricier Park-to-Park tickets that allow you to bop between the theme parks as you wish. These tickets may be more expensive but they give you the greatest amount of freedom to visit more than one park on the same day. If you want to ride the Hogwarts Express between Hogsmeade Station and Kings Cross Station, you need a Park-to-Park ticket or an Annual/Seasonal Pass. There’s no way around that requirement since Hogsmeade Station is in Islands of Adventure and Kings Cross Station is in Universal Studios. Basically, Universal’s got you cornered on this one.
If you are going to visit for more than a couple days or potentially twice in 12 months, consider a Universal annual pass. When I planned our trip, Universal was running a promotion that would have given us extra days in the parks for free. But when I crunched the numbers, a Florida resident annual pass was only $8 per ticket more expensive than the tickets for one trip, so we went with the annual pass.
Buying direct from Universal
Universal Orlando almost always has ticket specials on its website. Read the options carefully to see if any of the promotions make sense for you. The special may throw in a free day at the park(s), an Express Pass or discounted admission to the Volcano Bay water park.
Buying tickets from other vendors
You can also buy tickets from reputable vendors like Undercover Tourist. What’s great about Undercover Tourist is that it often has some older tickets available so when prices increase each year, you can often still buy a cheaper ticket from them. It’s worth bookmarking their site to comparison shop. Purchases from Undercover Tourist code as travel for the purposes of using a travel credit card or earning extra points.
And although you can’t typically purchase standalone Universal tickets at Costco, Costco Travel does sell Universal vacation packages that include tickets and on-site hotel nights. You’ll even get a Costco Shop Card after your visit. Check out pricing for your dates to see if it represents a savings versus booking through other methods.
Using points to buy Universal tickets
If you want to use Ultimate Rewards points, go to the Chase Travel portal and you’ll find options for one-park and park-to-park passes. Chase does charge a $10 “convenience” fee to purchase the tickets, but you can pay that in cash or points. Points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve will turn into 1.5 cents per point toward the tickets. Pricing on Chase’s portal is comparable to Universal’s direct pricing (in fact, the taxes charged on Chase’s site are less than what Universal levies). In general, you’ll pay about the same price or a few dollars more to purchase tickets via the Chase travel portal.
If you’d prefer to buy your tickets with Citi ThankYou points, go to that portal instead. If you hold the Citi Premier℠ Card or Citi Prestige® Card, you can redeem points at a fixed 1.25 cents per point value toward travel.
The information for the Citi Premier Card and Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Upgrade to skip the lines
Like so many amusement parks around the world that have skip-the-line passes, Universal has its own version. You can get them a few different ways. The best way is often to get it included in your stay. Guests staying at any of the three top-of-the-line Universal Premier hotels — Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort — get the Express Pass Unlimited for free as registered guests. This is huge as the pass can cost more than $100 per day per person. For a family of four, getting it with your room rate is almost certainly a better deal than buying it.
The Premier level of the Universal annual pass includes Express Pass access beginning at 4 p.m.
Another option is to simply buy an Express Pass when you need it. How much you pay depends on the type of pass you buy and when you visit Universal. (Passes cost more when crowd levels are high.) Here are the three types of Express Passes you can buy:
Universal Express: This is the base version of the skip-the-queue pass and it allows you to skip the regular line one time per participating ride at both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks. Prices start at $69.99 per person, per day for one park and $74.99 for two parks and go up to almost double that amount.
Universal Express Unlimited: The unlimited pass lets you skip the regular lines at participating rides as many times as you wish at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. For that privilege, passes start at $89.99 per person, per day.
Volcano Bay Express: This pass is solely for use at Volcano Bay waterpark, where it allows you to skip the regular line one time per participating ride. The pass starts at $19.99 per person, per day.
Participating rides and attractions are subject to change so it’s best to consult Universal Orlando’s website before your visit. When I visited in November, just about every ride we wanted was included in the Universal Express Unlimited with the exception of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, the newest roller coaster at Universal.
Take a VIP tour
Another way to avoid the lines it to take a VIP tour. There are small group and private VIP tours at Universal and both will help you cut the line. TPG’s Summer Hull took her family on a private VIP experience at Universal and it included walk-on ride access during the tour, as well as Express Passes and dining credit after the official tour was over. A private tour will cost a few thousand dollars for the day for your group, but small group VIP experiences can be much less expensive, starting at less than $200 per person.
Whether or not you decide to purchase an Express Pass or take a VIP tour will likely be determined by how crowded the park is during your visit, as well as your budget. If it’s off-season, you may be able to get away without a skip-the-line pass. But if you’re visiting during a holiday week or school vacation, be prepared for long lines without a pass. On those dates, having an Express Pass will allow you to ride more attractions in less time.
Consult TouringPlans.com’s crowd calendar to gauge how busy the parks might be during your vacation dates.
Universal’s child-swap policy
If you travel as a family, you know that not everyone will want to go on every ride. And some of your kids may not yet be old or tall enough to ride some attractions that your other kids are dying to try. Universal solves the problem of the entire family having to choose between experiencing a ride or not with its child-swap program.
In fact, Universal’s child swap is the best in the business as there are (air-conditioned!) waiting areas in some key attractions. This allows one member of your party to watch over small children while the rest of the gang waits in line and rides. Then you can swap places so the other member can enjoy the ride too, without another long wait. Just ask the attraction attendant to point you toward the designated waiting spots.
What’s at Universal Orlando?
Although it’s not as large (yet) as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando has plenty for your family to see and do for several days. There are two theme parks, a waterpark and an entertainment, dining and shopping complex. Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk are arranged in a triangle around a small lake. The Volcano Bay waterpark is separated a bit from these three destinations. Let’s briefly discuss each one.
One of Universal’s two theme parks, Universal Studios has eight sections. You enter through an impressive arch and, if you walk straight, are immediately in Production Central with attractions like Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Shrek 4-D, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and Transformers: The Ride-3D. If you take a right after you enter the park, you’re in Hollywood, where you’ll find the NBC Media Center, Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show and the Character Party Zone.
A lot of the attractions in both Production Central and Hollywood are better saved for when the day starts getting hot. You get to sit in blissful air-conditioning at these shows: Minion Mayhem, Shrek and the Horror Make-Up Show.
Instead, if you’ve got little kids, turn right upon entry and walk through Hollywood so you can start immediately at Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone.
From there, enjoy Springfield: Home of the Simpsons. I’m no kid but I loved Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl ride!
If your kids are older, bypass those kid-centric areas and make Men in Black Alien Attack in World Expo your first ride of the day. Then see Fear Factor Live, if that’s of interest. Otherwise, you are perfectly positioned to enter The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley first thing in the morning.
Get in line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts before the line gets too long.
Then, explore Ollivanders and Gringotts Money Exchange and see a few shows (we saw The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees). Kids love talking with Stan and the Knight Bus conductor. Don’t miss a meal at the Leaky Cauldron or an ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour.
If you have a Park-to-Park ticket, you can decide to take the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross Station (next to Leicester Square) to Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure.
If you have a one-park ticket, you won’t be able to ride the Hogwarts Express and will instead continue your exploration of Universal Studios.
As you depart The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, keep to the right to enter San Francisco. If didn’t opt for Butterbeer in Hogwartz, this is a fantastic spot to stop for lunch or a snack since most of what you’ll find here are restaurants, including the city’s famous seafood restaurant, Lombard’s. There is also one ride here: Fast & Furious-Supercharged. (During certain busy times of the day, you’ll need to get a Virtual Line Pass for this ride via Universal’s official app.)
From San Francisco, continue on to New York where you don’t want to miss Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon (another great get-out-of-the-heat, rest-your-feet experience) and Revenge of the Mummy. Hang around, too, to see some shows like the Blues Brothers or Marilyn & the Diamond Bellas.
Once you’ve had your fill of the Big Apple, continue back along the main thoroughfare to Production Central and Hollywood, if you skipped those in the morning.
In the evening, don’t miss Universal Studios’ nighttime extravaganza. Called the Cinematic Celebration and centered at the theme park’s lagoon, it combines music, films, water and light. You can also see a daytime fountain and music show at this same lagoon. Check the daily program for times.
Islands of Adventure
The second Universal theme park is Islands of Adventure. Your best call here is to arrive as soon as the gates open and walk quickly to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade. This part of Islands of Adventure is the busiest; it can pay dividends to arrive there as early as possible. It’s at the opposite end of the park from the entry gates, so it will be a walk but enjoying Hogsmeade without crushing crowds is worth it. This is especially true if you want to take pictures without a zillion strangers in them.
In Hogsmeade, line up immediately for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure roller coaster. The line gets crazy (three hours or longer) and it does not participate in the Express Pass program — so start there. If roller coasters aren’t your thing, get in line instead to see Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This is where you’ll ride a broomstick and it really is a fantastic attraction. After that, ride Flight of the Hippogriff, a more gentle roller coaster. (If you can ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disney World, Flight of the Hippogriff will be no big deal.)
After you’ve done the ride, explore Hogsmeade itself and see some shows (we saw the Frog Choir and the Triwizard Spirit Rally) and see a wand choose a wizard at Ollivanders (if you didn’t see the same experience at Diagon Alley already). Grab a butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks or adjacent Hog’s Head and then continue on to the other lands of Islands of Adventure.
When you leave The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you can go in either direction. For our purposes, let’s pretend you walk to Jurassic Park first. Here you’ll visit Camp Jurassic where kids will enjoy the Pteranodon Flyers (another ride that offers a Virtual Line Pass via Universal’s app when it’s really busy). You can also take the Jurassic Park River Adventure and have a “raptor encounter.” There are plenty of places to pick up fast food here, from pizza to ribs to burgers to nachos.
Next up, you can ride Skull Island: Reign of Kong before hitting Toon Lagoon where your kids can cool off in some sprinklers, or you can all ride Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls flume. As you dry off from that heart-pounding experience, head to Marvel Super Hero Island, where you can meet Marvel characters and ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster — if you really like intense coasters. If you’ve got some daredevils in the family — or Marvel fans — you’ll spend a good amount of time here.
Beyond the Hulk coaster is the entrance to the park. Continue from there to Seuss Landing. Even though we didn’t have any kids in tow, we still enjoyed walking through this bright and cheery land and we even rode the Caro-Seuss-el merry-go-round and The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride! There’s also a Seuss character zone and plenty of other rides and attractions that are specifically designed for the little ones.
The Last Continent is just beyond Seuss Landing. There’s a neat interactive experience called The Mystic Fountain. Seriously, start talking to it and you’ll be mesmerized. You can also take on Poseidon’s Fury in a special effects guided tour or stop to dine on Mediterranean-style food at Doc Sugrue’s Kebab House, Fire Eater’s Grill or Mythos Restaurant.
Volcano Bay is Universal’s waterpark. This park can close because of chilly weather or during lightning storms. Check Universal’s schedule to see if it is slated to be open during your visit. Volcano Bay has everything you’d expect of a world-class waterpark, from Waturi Beach with a fantastic lagoon for swimming and Kopiko Wai Winding River.
There are also some incredible waterslides and drops and the Ko’okiri Body Plunge that features a 70-degree fall through a drop door and 125 feet of what Universal calls “white-knuckle fun.” Thrillseekers love the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, where you plunge right through a waterfall, and TeAwa The Fearless River whitewater ride through churning rapids and waves.
As if two theme parks and a massive waterpark weren’t enough, Universal also offers CityWalk. This complex of restaurants, shops and clubs is open during the day, but it really heats up at night with free self-parking after 6 p.m. You don’t need tickets to enter, but you can buy tickets for shows at the Hard Rock or to see the Blue Man Group live.
You’ll also find restaurants such as Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Bob Marley-A Tribute to Freedom and Pat O’Brien’s that offer live (and recorded) music. There’s a movie theater (free parking with the purchase of two movie matinee tickets), comedy club (CityWalk’s Rising Star), miniature golf and the Red Coconut Club and The Groove for dancing.
There are plenty of spots to dine too. You can grab snacks like pizza, hotdogs and Panda Express Chinese food and sweets from Voodoo Doughnuts. Or you can have a more substantial meal at spots like the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, NBC Sports Grill & Brew, VIVO Italian Kitchen, The Cowfish Sushi Burg Bar, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and more. We had a fantastic dinner at Bigfire, where the pork chop was the juiciest I’ve ever eaten.
Universal’s boat shuttles to take you back to its resorts are right at CityWalk so it’s convenient to spend the day at Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure and then have dinner at CityWalk and go shopping before heading back to your hotel for the night.
Universal’s two lounge options
Airports aren’t the only places you’ll find lounges. Universal Orlando has two of them: the American Express Lounge (open daily noon to 5 p.m.) and the Passholder Lounge Presented by Coco-Cola. To access the Amex Lounge in Universal Studios (across from Shrek’s Ye Olde Souvenir Shoppe), you must pay for your Universal tickets with any American Express card (restrictions apply). Bring a printout of your ticket receipt and the Amex card you used.
If you have a valid Annual or Seasonal Pass, you can enter the Passholder Lounge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. This lounge is in Hollywood between Mel’s Drive-In and Schwab’s Pharmacy.
The best credit cards to use at Universal
Now we get to a hot topic for points-and-miles travelers who are planning a trip to Universal Orlando. Which credit card should you use? That depends. For example, how and where you purchase your theme park tickets will dictate how the charge will be coded. Historically speaking, Universal theme park tickets and VIP tours purchased directly from Universal have coded as “entertainment.” However, tickets purchased at an on-site Universal hotel and charged to the hotel have coded as “travel.” Depending on how you purchase your ticket, you’ll want to select either a card that rewards you for entertainment spend or travel purchases.
If you think your purchase will code as entertainment, two good credit card options are:
- Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card — 4% cash back
- Citi Premier℠ Card — 2 points per dollar spent
If, however, you know your charge will code as travel, you’re better off using:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve — 3 points per dollar spent
- Citi Premier℠ Card — 2 points per dollar spent
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — 2 points per dollar spent
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card — 2 points per dollar spent
The information for the Citi Premier Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Universal is packed with rides, attractions, character meet-and-greets and more. Yet it’s compact enough for you to cover a lot of ground in just a few days. Now’s the time to start planning your own excursion to Universal Orlando.
- How to get the most out of one day at Universal Studios Florida
- What’s coming to Universal Studios in 2019
- 5 reasons Universal Studios is better than Disney World
- Inside a $3,000 Universal Studios private tour
- Math on whether a Universal Studios annual pass Is worth it
- Review: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
- Review: Loews Royal Pacific Hotel at Universal Studios
- Review: The Universal Aventura Hotel
- Review: Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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