Universal Studios & Universal Islands of Adventure
Last weekend, I made a jaunt to Universal Orlando for a day in the park. I had a free Anniversary night with Chase that was expiring in a few days so I decided to not let it go to waste. Living in South Florida has its perks and one of them is proximity to the Orlando theme parks. In fact, I’ve grown up going to these parks and have seen many changes over the years. In some of the parks, there are still rides from 20 years ago (mostly in Disney I will admit) and some from 20 days ago. Orlando Universal has done a really good job of keeping the rides up to date to the latest movies, characters or trends. Let me share some helpful information to those who either have never been or to those who are thinking of returning.
When to go?
The first choice is determining when to go to Universal Orlando.
There are peak and non-peak times during the year. Universal added variable pricing sometime last year in 2016. What that means is that there are now three pricing options (value, regular & peak) depending on what Universal anticipates the crowd to be in the parks. So a single 1 day park ticket can now range from $110 to $124 depending on when you decide to go & the anticipated crowd levels.
Although the difference in ticket price may not be that much for one person, for a family of 4+, it can start to add up.
While looking online at Universal’s tickets, you will be able to see this variable pricing.
The best times to go to Orlando Universal (and Disney) are when it’s relatively cool outside (ie. Not summer months – June, July& August) and when kids are in school (ie. Not Spring Break, summer break, winter break, long holiday weekends). Basically, Jan through April (minus Spring Break) and Sept through mid-December are good times to go. It will be less hot and humid and less crowded.
There will be pockets of crowded times – but refer back to their website ticket pricing – which will show peak vs. non-peak pricing (ie. Crowd alert).
I’ve been in there in summer – and you don’t want to do that – it’s scorching and too many people in lines for rides and food.
How long to stay?
Since there are 2 Universal parks (connected by the Hogwarts Express train/ride), you have the choice of staying longer than a day to cover both parks. If you’ve never been to Universal before, you may want/need more than 2 days for the 2 parks. However, if you want to maximize your time in the parks and Orlando area, just know that you can accomplish both of these parks in 2 days and cover everything.
Which Univeral Orlando park – 1, 2 or both at once?
Universal Orlando is comprised of Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Studios is what the name implies – a park focused on movie studio action viewing. Think: how movies are made, high impact visual 3D/4D mini-movies and movies incorporating a ride. Islands of Adventure is what its name implies – a park focused on rides and adventure.
Both parks are connected by the Hogwarts Express train ride – which you can only ride if you have the park to park ticket option. Prior to entering the park, there is a City Walk area that has restaurants and shopping. This area really comes alive at night as it is open to the public as well as park goers.
To view & download a map of Universal Studios, Universal Islands of Adventure and City Walk, click here.
Ticket options for the parks are:
1. Single Park – this is a ticket for 1 park only on 1 day only.
2. Multi-Park – this is a ticket for 1 park only on 1 day and another 1 park only on 1 day. You can’t go from park to park with this option although it’s multi-park. Also, you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express train ride with this option.
3. Park to Park – this is a ticket for access to both parks on the same day. This is the only option to be able to ride the Hogwarts Express train.
The park to park option has: single day park to park or multi-day park to park option. Either allows you to go between parks for the number of days purchased.
You can purchase your tickets ahead of time – which I recommend – and collect them at a special pre-purchased ticket kiosk while skipping the long line of park goers who are purchasing at the park. You will need the credit card you paid with and the reservation confirmation number to access your ticket reservations.
In addition, although you have pre-paid for a single park, multi-park or park to park ticket, you don’t have to decide which park you want to go to until the day that you are at the park. For example, I bought a single park ticket and decided at the park that I wanted to go to Universal Studios. Very convenient.
Additional ticket options/add-ons:
Express Pass – this is a ‘pay for speedy access’ pass. Basically, you buy this pass and when you go to the ride, you join a special Express line and move through faster to get on the ride. You can use this pass ONCE per ride per day that your ticket is valid.
Express Pass Unlimited – this is Express Pass but more expensive AND you get to use your pass an unlimited number of times on rides.
Pricing for these passes are in addition to the ticket price you pay to get in the park. The price varies according to park, crowds, number of days, etc. (just like the variable ticket price). There is a possibility that Express Pass can sell out but this is only during a peak & very busy time.
Check out Pass pricing here: universalorlando.com/express-pass. You can buy the pass ahead of time with your ticket or at the park if you decide you want to have this option.
Rides that DO NOT allow Express Pass or Express Pass Unlimited:
Universal Studios: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Hogwarts Express, Kang & Kodos Twirl n’ Hurl.
Universal Islands of Adventure: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Hogwarts Express, Pteranodon Flyers.
Note: Although the Harry Potter rides don’t offer Express Pass (or Unlimited), they do have a single rider option (more on that below).
Alternate park option:
Single Rider – this is an option to ride the attraction in a “single” format. Basically, you join the single rider queue/line and you are seated as a “fill-in” on the ride if there is an open seat. Ie. If the ride seats 6 and there is a family of 5, you can take the 6th seat as a single rider.
What’s great about single rider is that it’s free, unlimited and you often move through the queue faster. Once you get on the ride, if you want to return and re-ride, simply rejoin the single rider queue. There’s no limit to riding as a single rider per ride.
Single rider is for those riders who don’t mind being split up from their group. Therefore, I do not recommend this option if you’re with a group or family that wants to ride the ride together.
Rides with single rider option:
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
- MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack
- Revenge of the Mummy
- TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D
Universal Islands of Adventure:
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- The Amazing Adventure of Spider Man
- Dr Doom’s Fearfall
Where to stay?
Choosing which hotel or housing option to stay at will depend mostly on your budget. There are numerous offsite hotels and housing options in the Orlando area to fit any and all budgets. However, I want to mention these Universal onsite hotels that provide proximity, free Express Pass Unlimited and early park admission:
- Loews Portofino Bay Resort
- Orlando Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort
Do note that Universal also has Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Cabana Bay Beach Resort onsite but these DO NOT offer Express Pass Unlimited. They do however offer early park admission.
Check out Universal’s onsite hotel benefits here.
One thing to note is that with early park admission, your Express Pass Unlimited will also work so you can take advantage of certain areas of the park that get a lot of traffic like the Harry Potter sections. Check out Universal’s calendar for early admission hours.
The best way to budget for food is of course to pack your own lunch or snack. You may or may not be able to prepare something ahead of time. However, a simple bottled water and some snacks can hold you over in the park as you wait in line or walk around. I’ve never been stopped at the entrance for bringing snacks, bottled water or food (not sure if others have been).
Another option is to outright budget in food costs into your planning. It’s part of the experience to sit down at any of the various themed restaurants in the park. You don’t have to lose out on that experience if you factor it in upfront.
That said, food and snacks are pricey. For example, a butterbeer in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade will set you back $8; or $15 if you want the souvenir mug. But then again, it’s a butterbeer in Harry Potter land! This delicious drink can only be found in that part of the park (ie. you can’t purchase this in City Walk or even outside of the HP section of the park).
Factor and plan for other incidentals on your trip, like parking at the park, which is $20 for the day. An option is to leave your car at your hotel/ accommodation and take a shuttle. I find this can be restricting since you have a set time to depart and return which often are less than park hours. Thus, you wouldn’t maximize your time in the park.
The onsite Universal hotels offer free transportation to the parks – but also has a hotel daily parking fee (starting at $22). I’ve noticed that quite a few Orlando hotels have also started charging parking fees – so check your accommodation beforehand.
As well, if you plan to go to CityWalk, once you exit the parks, this area is available until 2am. If you are not in the parks but want to enjoy CityWalk, parking after 6pm is free.
Other incidentals to budget include souvenirs and Universal photos. There’s not a way to get around these – other than to take your own photos which you will most likely do anyways. However, it is a nice memory to have the themed, framed photos with characters, etc so set aside in your budget for that too.
In closing, to recap our checklist:
- Pick a time to go (peak vs. non-peak)
- Choose a park or parks (Studios, Islands of Adventure, both)
- Choose your hotel or accommodation (onsite vs. offsite)
- Buy your ticket (single park, multi park or park to park)
- Factor in Express Pass/Unlimited – buy or get with onsite Universal hotel.
- Budget for food, souvenirs, parking, etc.
Last but most importantly, have FUN in the parks!