Last month I visited Orlando in Florida, as part of an exciting partnership with the world’s biggest travel group, TUI . It’s a place I haven’t visited since I was about 11 years old, and although my childhood memories are a little fuzzy, I am fairly confident in saying the Universal Orlando Resort has changed substantially since my last visit. So much so that it felt like I was discovering everything again for the first time. We visited all 3 parks in the Universal Orlando Resort, allowing 1 day for each. I knew time would be precious (as it is for everyone) so I wanted to arrive as prepared and ‘in-the-know’ as possible. I did my research across a few handy blogs, but I’m putting this post together to share the vital things to know before visiting Universal Studios Orlando. Most of the tips I learned on my visit, and some are being passed on from friends and fellow Orlando holidaymakers.
If you’re planning to visit Universal Orlando Resort on your own Florida holiday, you’re definitely in the right place! Let’s get started…
19 Things to Know Before Visiting Universal Studios Orlando
1. Download the Universal Studios App
After this blog post, your go-to guide for your holiday to Orlando is going to be the Universal Studios Orlando App. Be sure to download this before your trip to get better acquainted with all the layouts, rides and facilities at each park. The design of the app is wonderfully user-friendly and helps you navigate your way around the whole of Universal Orlando Resort with ease. It even tells you the queue times for all of the rides in real time. The Wi-Fi within the parks is free and very fast so you can make use of the app whilst you’re there too.
2. Get to Know The 3 Parks
There are 3 official parks at Universal Resort Orlando. The first is Universal Studios (the first and original park), the second is Islands of Adventure, the third is Volcano Bay. All parks are totally worth doing and you need to allow at least 1 day for each of them to do them justice. You can also hop between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in one day using a Park-to-Park ticket. Many of the worlds in the parks are based on your favourite Hollywood films and animations, from Jurassic World in Islands of Adventure to The Simpson’s Krustyland in Universal Studios. Within each world there are rides, shows and experiences to discover.
3. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The biggest thing to arrive at Universal Studios Resort in quite some time is the immensely popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I had some confusion over this before I visited, so let me explain it clearly for you. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has two lands that are spread between two parks; Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You can visit Hogsmede in Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. Both sides of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are connected by the Hogwarts Express, which is a magical experience in itself (it was one of my favourite rides in the parks). In order to ride the Hogwarts Express and connect between both sides you need a Park-to-Park ticket. Without the Park-to-Park ticket, you can’t do the Hogwarts Express ride or see both lands in one day.
4. How to do the parks strategically to avoid the longest queues
No matter what time of year you visit, I think it’s best to accept that your days at Universal Orlando resort will involve some amount of queuing, but there is a clever hack to minimise the queues you’re in. One of the best things to know before visiting Universal Studios was this; explore the park from back to front, not front to back. When you arrive in the park, you’ll see lots of enticing rides and experiences close to the entrance and its easy to get pulled in to doing them first, this is what most people do. Instead, head straight to the furthest point of the park (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) and then work your way forward. This way you’ll be going against the grain and will find there are less queues and shorter wait times.
This tip is less applicable to Islands of Adventure because it is laid out in more of a loop, so you can choose one of two ways to work your way around the park. If you’re planning to ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster, I would start here first whilst the queues are smaller. It’s near the entrance to the park so is a logical starting point.
5. Food and Drink in the Parks
There are endless food and drink options in all 3 parks and you can browse options by price and proximity on the Universal Orlando App. There are options to suit every budget and tastebud, and the best thing? It’s not all fast food! Dining options range from fast food and deli service to a la carte restaurants in elegant, air conditioned surroundings. You will also find plenty more eateries at nearby City Walk (you’re free to enter and leave the park as many times as you like during the day). We had an amazing lunch at Mythos Restaurant in Islands of Adventure, which serves a mix of Mediterranean, Asian and American dishes. My feet were aching so spending an hour sat down in the air-con was a god send.
TOP TIP: It’s definitely worth bringing a refillable water bottle for your day at Universal Studios too. There are water fountain points all over the park so you can stay hydrated without spending a fortune on bottled water
6. The Child Swap System
Gone are the days when parents have to miss out on the big rides to look after the little ones. All the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure now have designated Child Swap areas. All you need to do is queue up as a family. When you reach the front of the queue, one adult will take their child to the Child Swap area whilst the other adult goes on the ride. Once the ride is over, the adults can swap over so there is always someone taking care of the child. The Child Swap rooms usually have something to keep the kids entertained too. I think its such a great system and means no adults have to miss out on the fun.
7. Volcano Bay
Volcano Bay is Universal Orlando Resorts’ water park, and is situated on the edge of the same resort. Be sure to pack beach towels for your day at Volcano Bay, or borrow them from your hotel. Otherwise, you’ll be paying for towel rental at the park which could really add up for a family. Be prepared to also pay for locker hire (there’s no way around this one unfortunately unless someone is willing to man the valuables all day).
Volcano Bay also operates with a wearable TapuTapu device (which looks a bit like an Apple watch). This waterproof device is the key to your locker and can also make contactless payments for you when synced to a credit card (via the handy Universal App again). The devices can also put you into a Virtual Line for your all your favourite rides, and vibrate when its your turn to ride. I think its a genius system which means you can enjoy the park without any baggage, all day. The only downside to the device is that we found it comes off quite easily. Scott and I both lost ours once over the course of the day, so make sure you check its still attached to you after every ride.
8. Get Extra Benefits by Staying in an official Universal Studios Hotel
During our time in Orlando we stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel which is an official Universal Studios Resort hotel and is bookable via TUI. All of the official Universal Studios hotels are located right in the heart of the resort, which means you’ll never need to drive to any of the parks or mess around with parking. Two huge additional benefits of staying in an official hotel is that all guests receive Universal Express Unlimited™ pass for all of their park days (these passes are worth $99.99 per day and allow you to skip all the ride queues in the Express line). You also get to enter the parks 1 hour early and beat the crowds. As well as this, the hotels offer free and unlimited water taxi rides to City Walk pier (the central drop off point for all parks). If you prefer to go by road, there are also free shuttle buses.
Staying so close to the action made the Universal Studios experience seem so easy and stress-free. Other official Universal Studios Hotels include The Hard Rock Hotel, The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and The Loews Royal Pacific Hotel, all of which can be booked via TUI .
10. Purchase an Universal Express Pass
If you’re staying in unofficial resort accommodation, you can still purchase a Universal Express Unlimited™ pass for your days at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Universal Express passes don’t exist at Volcano Bay as everyone can make use of the free Virtual Line system. The passes range from $19.99 to $99.99 per day, ranging from restricted rides to unlimited rides.
11. The Blue Man Group
The internationally-renowned Blue Man Group has a residency at their very own theatre within City Walk, which provides a fantastic evening entertainment option. Tickets can be bought from the box office on the day (if there’s availability) or you could book a few days in advance. This visual spectacle is family-friendly and incredibly entertaining. We were lucky enough to catch the show during our time in Orlando and loved every minute of it.
10. City Walk
In case you’re wondering what City Walk is, let me explain. It’s Universal Studio’s ‘downtown’ entertainment area which is packed full of restaurants, bars and shops. City Walk really comes alive at night, when the parks empty out and everyone goes in search of a much-needed refuel. There are shops selling official Universal Studios merchandise, clubs, a karaoke bar and even a crazy golf course. City Walk is a great place to spend your evenings whilst at Universal Orlando Resort and is completely free to access. My top restaurant recommendations include Bubba Gump’s, Toothsome’s Chocolate Emporium, Hard Rock Cafe and Antojitos Mexican.
TOP TIP: You can either make restaurant reservations in advance or just turn up on the evening if you don’t mind a little wait (around 30 minutes at peak time). We didn’t make any reservations during our holiday and always got a table at the restaurant we wanted after a short wait time.
11. Allow Time to Collect Your Tickets, or do this the day before
If you’re collecting your tickets on arrival, its a good idea to expect some queues. Account for this by arriving at the parks a little earlier than you’re planning to enter, or better still, pick the tickets up a day in advance.
12. Take a hand sanitiser
Thousands of guests pass through the park gates every single day, so it’s a good idea to wash your hands regularly and take a small bottle of hand sanitiser with you. You’ll also notice there are hand sanitiser dispensers in some of the restaurants, just in case you forget.
13. Stay hands-free with a Backpack
Universal Orlando Resort is no place for a handbag of any description. You’re going to be doing lots of walking and will want to keep your hands free for map reading, taking photos and generally exploring. A backpack is definitely the best option for days out at all the parks.
14. Pack a Hat
The hot Florida sun can be a cruel mistress, even for the most hard-core sun worshipers. Whilst some of the queues are in air-conditioning, others are out in the hot sun. Make sure nobody in your group catches sun stroke by ensuring everyone has a sun hat. A trusty baseball cap would do the trick.
15. Comfortable, Supportive Shoes are a Must.
We did over 20,000 steps on the day we visited Universal Studios, and a little less for Islands of Adventure. Be prepared for lots of walking and standing in queues on your park days, so make sure you’re wearing comfortable and sturdy trainers instead of sandals or flip flops.
16. Check out Show Times and Parade Times in advance
As well as all the epic rides, the parks have a variety of shows taking place each day. Some of them take place in a ‘flash mob’ fashion on the streets or on make-shift stages, and others are within sit-down theatres (such as The Horror Make-Up Show in Universal Studios). There is also a daily parade at Universal Studios, so be sure to check times in advance and plan your activities around them.
17. Many of the Queues provide a great experience, even if you don’t intend to ride
There may be some rides that you can’t do, or simply don’t want to do. If other members in your group are keen to do the ride, it’s sometimes worth going with them then waiting for them in the Child Swap room at the end of the queue. This is because many of the cleverly-designed queues become part of the immersive experience which you don’t want to miss (especially the Escape from Gringott’s Bank ride and The Fast and Furious ride in Universal Studios).
18. Consider travelling outside of peak seasons for minimal queues
If you’re bringing the kids, its inevitable that you’re going to be limited to travelling in school holidays. If you’re not travelling with kids, try to avoid these peak seasons like the plague. By visiting the parks in shoulder seasons you’ll enjoy minimal queue times and the parks won’t feel too busy. We visited the parks in mid September and were amazed at how quick all of the queue times were (even without a Universal Express Unlimited™ pass). The weather was hot and humid (between 28-34 degrees) but I would really recommend visiting the parks in September if this is an option for you.
19. Relax and enjoy!
With so much to see and do, visiting Universal Studio Resort could easily feel overwhelming. Just remember to relax, breathe and enjoy the parks at your own pace. The long opening hours provide you with more than enough time to see everything there is to see, so don’t feel like you need to rush. Plus, you’re now armed with tonnes of insider tips by reading this post, so you’re probably a lot more savvy than most guests. Remember to enjoy it and make the day your own! It’s not every day you’re lucky enough to visit Universal Orlando Resort.
Getting to Orlando from the UK
As our holiday to Orlando was with TUI, our flights were on TUI’s fantastic 787 Dreamliner. The Dreamliner flies direct to Orlando from Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham, Bristol, Doncaster, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle. This was my third flight on a TUI Dreamliner after flying to Sri Lanka 2 years ago. Even when flying Economy, I noticed so many benefits of flying on the Dreamliner 787 including 6ft ceilings for a greater sense of space, advanced mood-lighting to help beat jet lag, larger windows, enhanced oxygen in the cabins and a large seatback TV and entertainment system. There is a generous amount of legroom and I left both flights feeling significantly fresher than most long-haul economy flights.
Visit TUI’s dedicated advice page for more information about holidays to Universal Orlando Resort.
Read more of my USA blog posts
What did you think of these things to know before visiting Universal Studios Orlando? Are you researching advice for your own visit or do you think there’s any extra pieces of advice you could add? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment in the box below. Jess x
I was fully insured for my trip to Orlando with UK-based travel insurance experts Insure and Go. They offer fuss-free single-trip policies as well as annual Worldwide travel insurance from just £45.99.
This sponsored blog post has been created in collaboration with TUI UK and Universal Studios Orlando. All photography and all words are my own.