Are you planning your next family vacation in Orlando, Florida? Do you want to go to an attraction that is fun for all members of the family? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then you should check out a vacation at Universal Studios Orlando. With two main theme parks, a waterpark, on-site resorts and hotels, and a shopping district, Universal Studios Orlando can be the perfect place for a family vacation that will satisfy all of your family’s wants and desires.
Because Universal Studios Orlando is a massive area, I can only imagine how overwhelming planning a vacation or simply visiting the park can be. Thankfully, this article will help guide you to planning the best family vacation ever by giving you great tips that will make sure your family won’t miss out on any of the action at Universal Studios.
What to Do
Universal Studios Orlando is home to two unique theme parks to keep their guests happy throughout their vacation. The main theme park, Universal Studios Florida, was opened on June 7th, 1990 and is centered around the theme of entertainment, with the appropriate tagline of “ride the movies”. Universal Studios Florida is home to a total of 18 attractions including 3 different rollercoasters. Universal Studios Florida is the 6th most attended theme park in the United States and the 9th most attended theme park in the world.
The second theme park within Universal Studios Resorts is Universal’s Islands of Adventure, formerly known as Universal Studios Island of Adventure. The Island of Adventure theme park opened on May 28, 1999 alongside City Walk, as the first expansion to Universal Studios Resort. This park has 15 total rides and attractions, including 3 roller coasters and 3 water rides, on 8 separate islands.
The 8 islands are as follows: The Port of Entry, which contains the main entrance of the park and The Open Arms Hotel; Marvel Superhero Island which holds several dining areas and shops centered around Marvel’s comic books, this island also holds the Hulk rollercoaster; Toon Lagoon which is comprised of water-based rides; Skull Island, the newest expansion of the park that is a tribute to the movie, Skull Island: Reign of Kong; Jurassic Park that is designed to be a replication of the park from Jurassic Park; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; The Lost Continent that is divided into two separate sections revolving around ancient myths and legends; and Seuss Landing, which is modeled after the stories and characters created by Dr. Seuss.
Universal’s Volcano Bay
Universal’s Volcano Bay is the water park of Universal Studios Resort and replaced the previous waterpark, Wet n’ Wild, on May 25th, 2017. This park is centered around its main attraction, a 200-ft. tall volcano named “Krakatau” which houses the droop capsule slides, including the tallest body slide in America, “Ko’okiri”, which stands at 125 ft. tall. Volcano Bay contains three areas, not including Krakatau, that are designed for the different types of guest that wish to enjoy the park.
The first section is “Wave Village” which is geared more towards the guests who wish to sunbathe and relax, followed by the more child friendly “River Village”, and finally the “Rainforest Village”, which contains the larger thrill rides and attractions.
Universal’s second portion of its 1999 expansion was the construction of The Universal CityWalk. The CityWalk is unique in the fact that it does not contain any rides or attractions; instead it is comprised of 13 stores and services that guests can visit and shop at. CityWalk is primarily a hotspot for dining, entertainment, and shopping areas, that does not require an admission ticket unlike the other areas of Universal Orlando Resort.
This park contains various famous restaurants, including the Hard Rock Café Orlando, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, to name a few. The park also houses various shopping centers, including Tommy Bahama and Fossil, Inc.
The Universal CityWalk Orlando is not entirely comprised of restaurants and shops; it also has various entertainment attractions, including a mini golf course and several concert and music venues.
Tickets and Fast Passes
Universal Studios Orlando features a regular ticket admission system and a premium fast track option for guests who do not want to wait in the regular line.
Regular Admission Tickets
Guests who wish to visit Universal Studios Orlando have two separate selections for admission into the parks:
- Park-to-Park – allows guest to visit all listed parks at any time for the days they have chosen. Park-to-park tickets come in two options: the 2-park-3-day pass and the 3-park-3-day pass.
- One park per day – gives guests admission to one park per day. Like the park-to-park option, this ticket also has two pass choices: a 2-park-3-day pass and the 3-park-3-day pass.
Fast Pass Tickets
Universal Studios Orlando also offers a premium ticket option, the “Fast Pass”, that permits guests to skip the regular line at participating rides and attractions. Similar to the regular admission tickets, Universal’s fast pass has two tiers – the basic “Express Pass” and the “Universal Express Unlimited Pass”. While both fast passes grant you priority seating (meaning you will be in a separate line from those without a fast pass and will be seated first), they also have a couple of stark differences.
The major difference is that the Universal Express Pass allows you to skip the line at participating attractions once per day. The Universal Unlimited Pass, on the other hand, does not have a limit on the amount of times you can bypass the line on attractions.
Here is a short list of things you should remember when buying a fast pass:
- The fast passes are not included in park admission tickets.
- There is a limited supply of fast passes sold to the public each day. Usually, the passes are sold out well in advance.
- Fast passes are not valid on the following rides and attractions: Fieval’s Playland, Pteranodon Flyers, Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides, and the Ko’okiri Body Plunge.
- The cost of the fast passes depend on various factors, including the parks that you have chosen for the fast pass, the amount of days you plan on visiting the park and using the fast pass, and the timeframe in which you have purchased the fast pass for – the fast pass will be considerably more expensive for days during the park’s peak season versus the off season.
- Guests who are staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, The Royal Pacific Resort, or The Portofino Bay Hotel will receive a complimentary Universal Express Unlimited Pass for use during their stay at the resort or hotel.
Where to stay
Universal Studios Orlando offers 6 on-site resort and hotel options for guests to stay at while on vacation. The on-site resort options are categorized by their cost – the “prime value” hotels are the cheapest and include the Aventura Hotel and the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The “preferred hotels” are the middle option and include the Royal Pacific Resort and the Sapphire Falls Resort. The two most expensive hotels are categorized as the “premier hotels” and include the Hard Rock Hotel and the Portofino Bay Hotel.
All 6 on-site hotels or resorts offers free transportation to any of the Universal Studios parks, either by water taxi or bus. All guests who stay in a hotel/resort of the “premier” tier will receive a complimentary fast pass with the perk of unlimited use on participating rides and attractions.
Related: Special Things to Do in Los Angeles
Best Times to Visit
Universal Studios Orlando does not have a technical “off-season” like most other theme parks because of its location in Florida. With that being said, there are times of the year that are busier than usual: holidays; such as New Year’s, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween, are all extremely busy times of the year for Universal; weekends are also usually busier than the weekdays for the parks, with the exclusion of Friday nights during September and October, when Halloween Horror Nights are taking place. So, you will want to avoid a trip to Universal Studios on holidays and long weekends. Additionally, you should avoid Universal from the middle of September through the beginning of November, when Universal’s Horror Nights event takes place.
September is usually less busy than most months, as children have recently gone back to school. It is also recommended to go during January and February when the temperature is much cooler; the park is also less crowded during the winter months.
Most experts recommend spending at least 2 days in Universal Studios Orlando to get the full experience of the two theme parks; you should stay longer if you also want to experience Volcano Bay and CityWalk. Since there are multiple theme parks, you should plan your trip around the opening and closing times of each park, so you are able to visit each one, I recommended checking the opening and closing schedule on Universal Studios website, as their hours of operation vary throughout the month. Universal Studios Florida is open from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm, in the months of October through December, the park will stay open until 7:00 pm on Monday and Tuesday nights.
Islands of Adventure is open from 9:00 am until 8:00 pm usually. Volcano Bay opens at 10:00 am and closes anywhere from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm, depending on the day of the week. CityWalk, on the other hand, is open until 2 am every single day.
- The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle
The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle is a breath-taking light and music show that takes place on select nights within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Nighttime Lights show lasts around 5-6 minutes on average and has showings from dusk until the park closes. Guests are able to watch from Hogsmeade village as projections are cast against the backdrop of the massive castle. It is recommended to go to the later showings for the best experience possible.
- You Need Two Tickets to Fully Explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Unfortunately, you must have a park-to-park admission ticket to visit both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with the latter being in Universal Studios and the former being in Universal’s Islands of Adventures. To travel between the two areas, you must use the Hogwarts Express and must have a park-to-park ticket.
- Interactive Wands
In July of 2014, Universal Studios unveiled the newest expansion to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley – and a new interactive product, the interactive wand. An interactive wand allows its users to directly influence their environment and “cast spells” to produce cool effects throughout the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There are 16 interactive wand locations in Diagon Alley and 9 in Hogsmeade and are marked with brass medallions embedded in the ground.
- Make Sure to Bring Extra Clothes for You and Your Family
You should remember to bring an extra set of clothes for all members of your family, especially if you plan on visiting Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The Jurassic Park Island section of the second theme park is home to mostly water rides and is the perfect way to cool off during your trip to Universal. With that being said, you should bring an extra set of clothes to change into after you are finished with the water rides unless you want to walk around with wet clothes for the rest of the day. If you do not want to bring an extra set of clothes, you can use the human sized dryers near Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls that cost $5 per person.
- Stroller Rental
Universal Studios has single seat and double seat strollers that guests can rent within the parks on a per hour or per day basis. It must be noted that strollers and other electronic convenience vehicles (ECVs) are not available for rental within Universal’s Volcano Bay.
- Make Use of the Child Swap Lane
If you have a child who does not want to ride a certain ride, you should utilize the “child swap” program. The child swap program is a designated family room for every ride and attraction where one family member can stay behind with the child who does not wish to ride the attraction while the rest of the party goes to ride the attraction. When the rest of the party is finished enjoying the ride, they can switch out with the other family member who stayed behind the first round. The child swap program is designed to allow all the members of a family with younger kids to enjoy all the rides they want to, instead of being limited to the kiddie attractions.
I hope that this brief guide for Universal Studios Orlando has shed some light for planning your next family vacation. If you decided to book your next vacation at Universal Studios Resorts, make sure to keep the following tips in mind: try to visit in September if you can, preferably on weekdays instead of weekends. Definitely stay away from holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, when the park gains the most traffic.
If you want to experience both theme parks, you should plan to spend two days minimum, preferably more if you can afford it, in the two parks. You should also keep in mind that you must buy a park-to-park ticket to visit both areas of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Fortunately, you should not have to worry about having an even number of people in your party to keep everyone together in rides or bringing an extra person to stay behind with a child that does not care for rides, if you utilize the “child swap” program at every ride and attraction.