Many years ago, while on spring break in college, I visited Universal Orlando with a group of friends. We spent one day at the park and had one of the best times of our week. Which is saying a lot for a group of college kids on spring break. I have some great memories of that trip. And when I had kids, I looked forward to the day that I would be able to take them to Universal Orlando.
That day came.
My family took the two hour plane ride from New York City to Universal Orlando with many goals in mind – spending as much time as possible in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley (the two Harry Potter spots), riding as many rides as possible, and seeing some shows. And I am happy to say that we accomplished all of those goals. Getting 3 kids (and a pregnant wife) around Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure (the two parks that together make Universal Orlando) takes some planning. And we were able to get the most out of Universal Orlando because we had a strategy going in.
Here are my tips for visiting Universal Orlando.
- The Express Pass is the most important add-on you can buy at Universal Orlando. The two park Universal Unlimited Express Pass starts at $59.99, the Islands of Adventure Pass starts at $49.99, and the Universal Studios Pass starts at $49.99 – that’s in addition to the cost of your tickets. The Unlimited Express Pass allows you to bypass the regular line for a much shorter line and you can use it as often as you like per ride. There is a cheaper option that runs about $20 less than the Unlimited version, which can be used only once per ride. Now I know what you are thinking, I already paid all this money for tickets to the park, why should I pay this extra money? And I get that. If you can’t afford the passes, then you can’t. Your family will still have a great time. But, the lines can be very long at times. If you can swing the extra cost or budget it into your trip, go for it. We were able to go on so many more rides because of the Express Pass and avoiding long lines made our days much more pleasurable.
- Staying at a resort at Universal helps keep you sane. Let’s face it, Universal Orlando is an amazing time, but there are moments when it is nice to take a break and check out from all the fun. My family stayed at the Lowes Royal Pacific, and late in the afternoon, we would head back to the hotel, relax in the pool, and eat dinner. It was a nice break from the crowds and busyness. The pool was fantastic at the hotel and was the warmest pool water that I’ve ever swam in. It was a refreshing break in the middle of the day and a way to recharge us to take on the park in the evening. We also upgraded to a “club level” room, which gave us access to breakfast and a light dinner in the lounge, along with snacks, beverages, and extra space to spread out. For a family of five, the amount of money we saved in food exceeded the cost of the upgrade. As an extra touch, the lounge has a well-stocked children’s area, where our preschooler could unwind while we relaxed on the couches.
There are other reasons besides sanity to stay at an onsite resort:
- The hotel offers a complimentary Unlimited Express Pass to everyone that stays at the hotel. For a family of 5, that is a HUGE benefit. Plus, you get a pass for the day you check in and the day you check out. So, for one night’s stay, you get two days of Unlimited Express Pass.
- Those that stay at one of Universal’s resorts also get to arrive an hour early into the Harry Potter parts of the parks. The lines can get long and the Express Pass doesn’t apply to the Escape from Gringotts, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and the Hogwarts Express rides, so taking advantage of a less crowded park is a nice convenience.
- American Express users get 10% off at restaurants and stores. Nobody is going to tell you about this sweet deal and it’s not automatic, so you have to ask. The discount applies to all restaurants within the parks (restaurants on Citywalk don’t participate) and there is a minimum purchase amount in stores ($50 or more gets a 10% discount, and $75 or more scores you a 15% discount. Again, you have to ask for the discount to be applied. One way to make sure you hit the minimum purchase amount is to bundle all your purchases – just inside the entrance to the park is a “general store” that sells merchandise from across the park, so you can grab your Harry Potter, Minions, and Dr. Seuss souvenirs all in one place.
- If you have small children (or a pregnant partner) take advantage of the Riders Swap. Here is how it works: You wait in line with your party, and when you reach the front of the line, the non-riders (small kids and those with medical conditions who can’t ride) go into a room and wait for the others to finish the ride. Once the ride is over, the party meets back up in the rider swap room, and the one who could not go, moves to the front of the line with the kids. This means that the adults don’t miss out and kids who are tall enough get to go on back-to-back rides and not have to wait in another line. I’ve been to many amusement parks that have ride swap areas, and Universal Orlando handles this the best. The rooms are air conditioned and most have TVs with themed cartoons playing. For instance, at the Spider Man ride, a Spider Man cartoon is playing in the room. Since my wife could not go on many rides, she enjoyed waiting for us with our youngest in an air conditioned room away from the heat of the sun.
- Lines are small at night, so go back or stick around. My daughter’s favorite ride was The Revenge of the Mummy ride and one night we rode that ride 5 times in a row without any lines in front of us. We got off the ride and ran around and got back on. It was a similar story across the park. There is a much more relaxed atmosphere at night and the crowds are small. Diagon Alley is packed during the day and maneuvering the street and looking in the stores is much more manageable in the evening, not to mention that it is magical seeing it lit up.
- We were at the park for 4 days, but I think we could have had just as good of a time in 3 days. We really didn’t need that third day. Don’t get me wrong, we loved it and had a great time on that day, but it was an extra bonus for our time and wasn’t necessary to see and do everything.
- Seeing the shows are a nice break from the constant thrill rides. Since my wife was pregnant and couldn’t go on many rides, we made a point to see as many shows as we could. It was also a nice break from standing in rides and being pushed to extreme fun. Sitting and relaxing while being entertained should not be overlooked by all of the many rides. The shows are fun and exciting in their own way. Shows are also a great option if the weather is overly hot or rainy. It rained one day we were there and it really didn’t dampen the day at all. We went on rides that were inside, saw some shows, and enjoyed a less crowded park.
These are my suggestions, but you really can’t go wrong with anything you do at Universal Orlando. If you have been to Universal Orlando, what are your suggestions?
Disclaimer: Universal Orlando provided my family with tickets for one day. However, the thoughts in this post are my own.