Universal Orlando Resort, also referred to as Universal Studios Orlando or Universal Studios Florida, is a theme park located in Orlando, Florida. It is one of the most popular destinations in the area behind Disney World and is definitely a worthwhile stop. Whether you’re visiting as part of your Disney World trip or it’s your only destination, here are a few things to know before visiting Universal Orlando Resort.
There are Three Parks
Harry Potter Fans Will Want Special Tickets
Universal Express Passes May or May Not Be Worth It
On-Site Hotels Come With Perks
Be Prepared for Water Rides
Don't Forget About Universal CityWalk
Ride Lockers are Mandatory on Some Rides
If You Have Young Kids, Utilize Child Swap
Download the Universal Orlando Resort App
This can be confusing for first-time visitors. Universal Orlando Resort is comprised of eight on-site resorts, Universal CityWalk (an outdoor shopping and dining area), and three theme parks. The theme parks include Universal Studios Florida (USF) and Islands of Adventure (IOA), which are located next to each other and are the traditional theme parks. Volcano Bay is Universal’s water park.
When you purchase Universal Orlando park tickets you will need to make sure your ticket covers all of the parks you want to visit. One ticket will not get you into every park. Make sure to read the fine print of the tickets before you purchase them to make sure you’re covering all your bases.
A “1-park” or “one park per day” ticket will only let you into either Universal Studios Florida OR Islands of Adventure for the day. A “2-park” or “park-to-park” ticket will allow you to enter both Universal Studios Florida AND Islands of Adventure in the same day. Tickets to Volcano Bay are usually sold separately or as part of a “3-park” ticket package.
For many people, the biggest draw of Universal Orlando Resort is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a gorgeous recreation of the fantasy Harry Potter world. It’s done incredibly well and worth all the hype, so if you’re a Potterhead make sure to build in lots of time for these sections of the parks! You’ll easily get lost in all the details.
One thing that is confusing some people is where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is located. It’s actually inside both Universal Studios Florida (USF) and Islands of Adventure (IOA)—the USF side contains Diagon Alley and King’s Cross Station and their respective shops, rides, and restaurants, while the IOA side contains Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and their respective shops, rides, and restaurants. You can travel between the two parks via the Hogwarts Express, but only if you have a park-to-park ticket.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll want to purchase park-to-park tickets that allow you into both parks in the same day. Riding the Hogwarts Express is a magical experience and can help you get between parks more quickly than using the main entrances.
Harry Potter Hogwarts Alumni Crest T-Shirt
Let the whole family show off their Hogwarts pride.
Universal Express and Universal Express Unlimited are extra passes you can purchase on top of your park tickets that move you to a shorter line at participating attractions. You’ll be given a physical ticket that you will need to scan at the entrance of each eligible ride.
Teskyer Clear ID Badge Holder with Lanyard
Keep your Universal Express pass handy by wearing it around your neck.
Universal Express passes, which allow you to skip the regular lines once per ride per day, start at $79.99 per person. These passes are definitely not worth your money. Grab a Universal Express Unlimited pass instead!
For a little more money, you can get Universal Express Unlimited, which is a pass that allows you to skip the regular lines as many times as you want for each ride per day. If you’re going to splurge on one of these passes, the Unlimited version gets you way more bang for your buck.
Volcano Bay sells its own version of much cheaper Express PLUS Passes, but most of its rides operate with a virtual queue system. Since you won’t be physically waiting in line much anyway, these may not be worth the money unless you’re very short on time.
That isn’t to say you absolutely should get Universal Express Unlimited. At $109.99 per person per day during the low season and jumping up to over $300 per person per day during the busiest seasons, these are very expensive. A family of three, for example, who is visiting for two days during early July would spend about $1500 on Universal Express passes alone during that trip.
These passes may actually be worth the money if you’re visiting during a very busy season (although the price will jump up), you’re short on time (i.e. you only have one day to see both parks), or you’re on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and want to splurge. They’re probably not worth it if you’re visiting during a low season when crowds aren’t very high (and wait times aren’t very long), you have more than one full day in each park, or you visit somewhat regularly.
A perk of staying at an on-site Universal Orlando Resort hotel is that you get into the parks one hour before other park guests. Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure alternate which allows guests to enter early, so you’ll want to double-check their early admission calendar before planning your day.
Only limited attractions open early. Most will be located in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, but other rides include Jurassic World VelociCoaster in Islands of Adventure and Despicable Me in Universal Studios Florida, among others. Most shops in the Harry Potter sections of the parks are open as well.
If you’re a fan of any of the rides that will be open early, this is a hugely important benefit. If you’re planning on hitting any of those attractions but won’t be there for the early opening, you’ll arrive to a crowd of people who have already been filling up the lines for an hour. However, both parks rarely open early on the same day, so if you’re staying off-site you can start your park day in the park that isn’t opening early to hotel guests.
A lot of theme parks have water rides, but they usually give you one or two big splashes if you’re unlucky. Jurassic Park River Adventure is a good example of this. You may get splashed a few times, but that water will probably feel good in the Florida heat. Plus, you’ll dry off in a few minutes once you head back outside.
However, Universal’s Islands of Adventure also has two water rides that get you about as wet as the rides at Volcano Bay. Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges are designed to drench you to the bone. We’re talking gallons of water being splashed on you between splashes, waterfalls, and strategically designed sprays.
While these rides are super fun and tempting on a hot day, you will get uncomfortably wet, especially if you end up soaking your socks and shoes. Unless you’re planning on going back to your hotel immediately after riding, be sure to put on waterproof ponchos and slip into sandals before you get on the rides. You’ll still get a little wet, but you’ll be comfortable enough to continue on with your day.
COOY Rain Ponchos
Stay dry on the wettest of water rides.
Universal CityWalk is a shopping and dining center located adjacent to the two main theme parks. There are no attractions here but you may want to plan time for this outdoor mall for a few reasons.
First, each side of CityWalk is located right outside the entrance of Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios Florida, so it’s extremely easy to access. Second, it offers lots of dining options spanning all budgets, and with Universal’s lack of good food in the parks (with a few exceptions) it can be a great spot to get a meal. Universal CityWalk also has a few entertainment options if you want a break from theme park life.
Some of the top-rated dining locations in CityWalk include Hard Rock Cafe, Cowfish, and The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen. You’ll also find budget-friendly options like Panda Express, Auntie Anne’s, and Burger King. As for entertainment, you’ll find a movie theater, miniature golf, and The Blue Man Group offering regular performances.
You can definitely have a great trip without spending time in CityWalk but it’s good to know what options you have here.
Universal Orlando’s most intense rides will require you to store all loose items in a small storage locker while you ride. You are still allowed to bring phones, wallets, etc., on the ride as long as all items are securely attached to your person (or at least tucked away in a pocket) but you are not allowed to bring bags, backpacks, etc. Small fanny packs with a buckle lock may also be okay on some rides, although your luck may depend on how full your fanny pack is and the opinion of the ride attendant who is helping you.
MAXTOP Large Crossbody Fanny Pack
Skip the ride lockers and save yourself time in the parks.
Three rides, Jurassic World VelociCoaster, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, have a “no loose articles” policy, which means you are not allowed to bring anything with you on the rides, even change in your pocket. You will pass through a metal detector before these rides to ensure you’re bringing nothing with you.
All rides that limit what you can bring allow you to use free ride lockers located outside of the entrance. These are simple to use as long as you don’t run into any tech issues. You’ll simply scan your park ticket at one of the kiosks near the lockers and it will automatically open a nearby locker. Store your things, close the locker, and take a picture of your number so you can remember once you get off the ride. To reopen your locker, scan the same kiosk and the locker should automatically open.
These lockers remain free for the duration of your time on the ride. This length of time will vary, but the system is able to take into account the current wait time and length of the ride, plus a little extra. Ride shutdowns or delays are also taken into account. After this grace period, you will start to be charged hourly for the locker use.
Keep in mind the free lockers are pretty small. There’s only enough room to fit one small-ish backpack and some odds and ends. Some rides offer larger lockers for use but you have to pay a few dollars upfront.
All thrill rides at Universal Orlando Resort offer a system called Child Swap, which allows younger guests to skip a ride (whether they’re too short or don’t want to ride) without any members of the party needing to wait in the queue more than once.
At the front of the queue of a ride, tell an attendant that you’d like to use Child Swap and they’ll direct you where to go. Once you reach the ride loading area, the children and parents who are sitting out will hop over to a waiting area while the other people in the party ride the attraction.
When they return, an adult who just rode will swap places with the adult who waited in the Child Swap area and that adult will get their turn to ride. When that adult gets off, you will all exit the ride together. This system means that no one has to miss out on a ride as long as there are at least two people in your party old enough to watch the younger kids while you wait.
The official Universal Orlando Resort app is essential for your trip. Download it for free before your vacation to get familiar with its functions so you’re ready to go as soon as you arrive in Orlando.
Using the app, you can place mobile food and drink orders, participate in virtual lines, see interactive park maps, connect your park tickets, and see current ride wait times.
The ride information and park maps are particularly useful. The Universal parks are huge and knowing where to find something and what to expect when you get there will save you a lot of time traipsing around.
Planning a vacation to Universal Orlando Resort is an exciting experience, but it’s important to do your research before you go. Whether you’re going on a family vacation or a romantic couple’s trip, these tips will help you make the most of your time at the parks.