The Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, Florida doesn’t have the cachet of the Disney properties but if you have the right list of do’s and don’ts, you can have as much fun, less expensively, and in only two days.
I first visited the Resort in 2017, on a one-day press pass. I returned with my twins (now 23) in September 2019, with two-park-day passes for the Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. We had such a good time that when I planned a week-long winter vacation this January, we made Universal our primary focus. Strictly speaking, the whole resort is three parks, but Volcano Bay is a water park, we’re not into those, and we skipped it.
Universal Studios Florida includes nine themed areas: Hollywood, Production Central, New York, San Francisco, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, World Expo, Springfield, Minions Land on Illumination Avenue, and Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone. Of these, we skipped the Kidzone. Islands of Adventure includes Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Skull Island, Jurassic Park, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, the Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing. (Toon Lagoon is the weirdest and most unique of the lands, based on the Universal Comics Syndicated characters. Those of a certain age, like me, will remember them. The kids will not.)
Things were different on this winter visit to the Resort than during our 2019 visit. The biggest was that, for cost savings, I didn’t purchase Express passes which allow holders to skip most lines at will. I did this because we planned to spend four days at the parks, rather than two.
Universal Orlando Do’s And Don’ts: Planning
Do purchase admission passes ahead of time. The resort does not require advance reservations but tickets are cheaper online. More than that, the cost of the visit changes from week to week depending on busier seasons and whether you can catch a special deal of two additional days to your two-day tickets. I looked for several months, waiting for those extra-day tickets to become available. All ticket prices are listed on the website. For four of us, to visit in January, cost $1330, approximately, with a discount for AAA.
Do download the official app. Not only can you upload your tickets straight into the app, but studying it can help with any pre-planning.
Don’t walk into either park to just wander about, not if you expect to ride the rides you want, eat where you want, or even visit where you want. Places like Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, and Jurassic Park can fill up with crowds fast. If you don’t have a plan, you’ll miss stuff.
Do expect to walk a ton. The Disney Parks are basically spokes, that allow weary visitors to return to a central area. Not so the Studios and Islands of Adventure. There are only two connections between them. One is to walk back out the entrances, across the City Walk, and into the other entrance. The other is the Hogwarts Express located at the back of both parks. The Hogwarts Express is much shorter and less exhausting but can only be ridden if you have park-to-park tickets.
Where to Stay
Do stay on Universal Orlando Resort Property if you can afford it. They have official hotels with free transportation to the park entrance. (Or even easy walking distance.) This will save you money on parking ($23-$50 per day) but the premium resorts also come with free Express passes, which is an approximate value of $100-$200 per person, depending on the day. If I had to do this again, I’d book two days at an official resort and get those Express passes. If you want to stay in Orlando longer, swap to a cheaper hotel after that.
We stayed at DoubleTree Orlando/Universal for our first night in Florida. This wasn’t as good as staying on property but the room was $140 per night, and we could still walk to the parks from the hotel via a walking bridge over the highway to Universal City Walk. The walk ended at the valet parking entrance. This has its own metal detector and was free of the crowds from the parking garages. That was a nice bonus.
Our second hotel was the Hilton Grand Vacation Resort at Parc Soliel which did have the advantage of a great sunrise view.
Parking at Universal Orlando:
Don’t arrive late unless you want to sit in a line to pay for parking. I hate sitting in lines to pay people for stuff. Drives me crazy. I’m trying to give you my money! And yet, I have to wait! And by late, I mean mid-morning.
Do pay the extra $23 for preferred parking. Yes, it’s $50 overall but the preferred parking is much closer to the City Walk, and much less hassle. At the end of the day, you’ll have walked both parks and the City Walk and you will thank yourself for paying that extra $23 for the closer parking spot. Note: If you arrive later, sometimes the preferred parking lot is full.
Universal Orlando Do’s And Don’ts : In the Parks
Do arrive early. Arrive early. Arrive early. If the park opens at 9 a.m., arrive by 8 a.m. By the time you walk through the parking, the metal detectors, and the City Walk, it’ll be almost opening anyway. The lines grow exponentially as the day goes on.
Do remember: if you want to ride Hogwarts Express, either to get from one park to the other easily or for the ride itself, you must have park-to-park passes.
Don’t pay for the Express passes if you’re going to make use of all four days on your ticket and you’re good with waiting from day to day to ride what you want. If you watch the wait times on the app, you can plan which rides to hit depending on those wait times. You can cross off two or three rides a day this way without too much waiting. Or you can also use the single rider lines.
Do pay for the Express passes if you hate waiting or want to ride multiple times. They work on most of the major rides–with one glaring exception–and when we used them, the waits were ten minutes or less. But you’ll pay for that: $100-$200 per person, depending on whether you want them for both parks or just one one.
Don’t expect to ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure without a long wait, if at all. On two different visits, the wait never went below 90 minutes. There is no Express lane. Visitors who stay on the property get early admission. If you must ride this thing, stay on property, get up at the crack of dawn, and head to Hagrid ASAP. We never did ride it. Boo!
Do use the single ride on the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. My son proclaimed this one of the best roller coasters he’s ridden, and we’ve been to at least six different theme parks. He used the single rider line and it took only 15 minutes to get a seat. This does take Express passes, so that’s another option.
Don’t wait more than 30 minutes for Men in Black Alien Attack. The theme-ing of this ride is first-rate, putting you onto the movie set, but the ride itself is short and it’s basically a “use your gun to hit the alien” ride. It spins but, otherwise, very little thrills. I recommend the ride but not the 60 minutes that we waited for it. (The sign said 40 minutes when we entered. It was longer.)
Do use mobile ordering on the app. It cut our waiting time in half at the various places to eat. Mobile ordering also works on many of the City Walk restaurants. Pre-planning helps here again, as you can load your credit card into the application, making mobile ordering a snap.
Speaking of food, do order the frozen butterbeer. It’s the best tasting of all the Butterbeers. And pumpkin juice tastes like a liquid pumpkin pie.
Do expect big crowds in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Again, your best bet is early arrival. Diagon Alley is more crowded than Hogsmeade, perhaps because it’s less open. *Or you can skip them altogether, in light of J.K. Rowling’s transphobic statements. There are plenty of other things to do in the parks.
Don’t expect the lockers for the rides that require you to store a backpack to be free. In fact, the park hosed us for an extra $4 for our large locker when we waited in the Men in Black line. It’s supposed to be $2 while you wait. But the wait ended up being longer and we were charged another $4. I hate this nickel-and-dime stuff.
Do check out the Horror-Make up Show. There were few lines, you can walk in, it’s short, funny, and very entertaining. There’s also a fun Universal monster-themed store right nearby.
Do check out these other rides: In Studios: Revenge of the Mummy, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Simpsons Ride, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (if you like thrill coasters), and the Escape from Gringott’s. In Islands of Adventure: Jurassic Park River Adventure (you will get wet), Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. (This is a shoot-the-bad-guys ride too. We preferred it over Men in Black.)
Do, especially for Atomic Junk Shop readers, visit the stores in the Marvel section. One even carries comics. There’s also a superhero parade.
Do marvel at the Toon Lagoon’s adherence to old-school characters like Dudley Do-Right, Popeye, Betty Boop, and a few others. Alas, I’d hoped for some Dudley merchandise in the Toon Lagoon stores but they’re mostly filled with general park-themed stuff unless you long for Betty Boop.
Don’t bother too much with Seuss Landing, unless you have children. Then it’s fun but going there adds to the walking miles.
Do got to Seuss Landing if you want Green Eggs and Ham, however.
Universal Orlando Do’s and Don’ts: Conclusion
I’d hoped visiting in January did not completely cut down the crowds at the Resort. Unfortunately, the only ride we walked onto was Race Through New York. I believe that it did soften or eliminate the waits at restaurants. The big advantage turned out to be the temperate weather. It was in the 70s and made all that walking tolerable. (Have I mentioned all this walking?)
I can’t emphasize enough the planning aspect of this to get your money’s worth from the trip. I read up on various blogs but I also carried with me The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando 2022. It proved invaluable, especially when directing me to things I wouldn’t have tried on my own, like the Horror Make-up Show.
However, I think we’re going to skip flying in the winter again. We came home with an unwelcome guest: Covid. I’m two weeks out and still recovering, seemingly behind the rest of the family. We wore n95 masks on the flight and everywhere indoors. Yet still, Covid.
So my final of the Universal Orlando Do’s and Don’ts’ is take precautions and be careful out there.