Although going to any theme park is supposed to be fun, it can be stressful and exhausting, especially if it is your first visit to that particular park. When is the best time to visit? Where do we go? How long will the lines be? What will the weather be like? What are the best rides? So many questions requiring a lot of exhausting research! It can be overwhelming and totally daunting!
Now that we’ve just been to Universal, we’ve compiled a list of what we hope is useful information in the hopes that it might eliminate some of the stress and anxiety for others. Realize that we don’t have kids or grandkids so our viewpoint is strictly from an adult perspective.
Universal Orlando Resort is the theme park unit of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast that operates Universal theme parks and resort properties around the world including Japan and Singapore with planned parks opening in Beijing (2020) and Moscow (2022).
In Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort is comprised of three parks:
Universal Studios, the first and original park which opened in June, 1990, features rides and attractions based on movies (Harry Potter, Shrek, Transformers, Fast & Furious, etc.) and TV shows (NBC Studios, Simpsons, etc.). It is the home to one half of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley.
Islands of Adventure which opened in May, 1999, is focused on fantasy and thrill rides (Jurassic Park, Skull Island, Spider Man, The Lost Continent). And it is home to the other half of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, the only all-wizarding village in Britain.
In 2017 Universal opened, Volcano Bay, Universal’s water theme park which consists of 18 attractions, including slides, two lazy rivers and raft rides. Our tickets only included Universal and Islands of Adventure so we have no info to share about this park.
Ticket holders for Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure (IoA) have to walk through the CityWalk area (added in 1999) described as a place “where unforgettable family entertainment meets restaurants that don’t just make you say “Yum,” but “Wow.” Universal CityWalk, The Epicenter of Awesome.” Open to the general public, tickets are not needed to enjoy all that CityWalk has to offer, but you do have to pay for parking unless you arrive after 6pm.
Tools to help with planning:
It had been a very long time since our last visit (2007) to Universal. Knowing that the park had changed considerably, we added a premium subscription for Universal ($7.95) on Touring Plans to our repertoire. Touring Plans not only covers Universal Orlando but also Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Lines and Washington D.C. We had used this tool when we’ve visited Disney World ($11.95) in the past and found it extremely helpful. Although you can access very useful information for free on their website, subscribers are able to see the best times to visit the parks using their daily crowd calendar, save hours in line while seeing the most popular attractions and have access to their tools while on the go with Lines, their mobile application. Subscribers are also provided with field-tested, step-by-step guides for seeing as much as possible with a minimum of standing in line.
In addition, before going, be sure to download the very user friendly Universal Studios Orlando App which will allow you to get better acquainted with all the layouts, rides and facilities at each park. And when you are there, it will provide you with the posted wait times for all of the rides in real time. Very helpful!
How much time do you need to visit Universal?
Well, that’s a tough one to answer because it depends on a number of factors – how many parks you want to visit, where you are staying, the size of the crowds (which obviously impacts wait times), how many and what type of rides you want to go on, how much shopping you want to do, how many rest stops you need, the size and ages of your party, the weather, etc. Because we were in Orlando for nine days from November 9th to November 17th, we were able to avoid weekends so crowds were minimal. And because we could use our tickets on non-consecutive days we had a lot of flexibility with our schedule. We were glad we picked this early November time frame – crowds were relatively low and the parks were already decorated for the holidays!
Not being an avid shopper helped as well, we browsed the goods in a few of the shops especially at Harry Potter but didn’t spend a lot of time hunting for souvenirs. We did take periodic rest stops, enjoyed lunch each day, enjoyed many of the rides, often more than once, but avoiding the high intensity roller coasters and kiddie rides. In summary, we found that we probably didn’t need four days, perhaps two days would have been enough. But on the positive side, having four days gave us a chance to enjoy many of the rides a second or third time, allowed us to space out our visits giving us a day of rest and gave us time to visit several of the Universal hotel properties.
Here’s a hint to avoid the long queues at Universal Studios (it was the same at WDW) if arriving first thing in the morning, we found that exploring the park from back to front instead of front to back paid off especially if you are interested in Harry Potter. Most people when they arrive in the park immediately head for the first attractions they see. But by going against the grain, we found shorter wait times.
If you can only go to one, WDW or Universal, which one to choose?
Disney World or Universal? In our opinion, both parks offer totally immersive experiences so you really can’t go wrong with either one! But here are our thoughts on some things you might want to consider when planning your vacation:
Size: Universal is a lot smaller than Disney World (didn’t matter, our feet hurt at both). At Universal, Islands of Adventure occupies 110 acres, Universal Studios has 125 acres and Volcano Bay is 53 acres for a total 288 acres. In comparison at Disney World Magic Kingdom alone occupies 142 acres, Epcot 300 acres, Hollywood Studios 154 acres and Animal Kingdom 500 acres for a total 1096 acres.
But be aware that in a few years, Universal will be equitable in size to Disney World (assuming Disney doesn’t expand) because Universal is building a new 750 acre park, Epic Universe, a few miles southeast of the existing resort property. Rumor has it that it will be home to lands and attractions based on Nintendo, Universal Monsters, and DreamWorks Animation, set to open sometime in the 2020s.
Rides: Another thing to consider is that, if you have children, Universal has something to offer everyone, no matter what their age. Disney World is magical for the younger set but once they are past the princess stage, they may be too old for and somewhat bored with the kiddie stuff, but not old enough to fully appreciate the more adult aspects of Disney World. Universal is not only great for little kids but also the ‘in-between’ kid, ‘tweens and us older, more mature folks.
But on the other hand, the rides at universal are more physically thrilling (scary?), so if you want to be hurtled through the air at 67 mph on a roller coaster (The Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster), rise 17 stories straight up and dropped almost vertically on another coaster (Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit), or if you enjoy being free fall dropped 185 feet (Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall), then Universal (instead of Disney) is the place for you! Don’t expect any comments about any of these types of rides from us cowards.
BTW, photography is not allowed on any of the rides.
Tickets can be purchased on-line, by phone or in person. Even though we had bought and paid for our tickets on-line, upon our arrival at Islands of Adventure, we were instructed by a staff member near a ticket kiosk that we had to stand in line to get the actual physical ticket after showing our FL licenses to prove we were FL residents.There was no express line so we had to wait in the same line as those people who wanted to purchase tickets. Due to the morning crowds and the fact that they only had 4 windows open, it was slow – our wait time probably exceeded 25 minutes. So much for getting to the park early!
Not sure however that the information we were given was correct, based on the following:
Touring Plans website states that “Many hotels and some ticket brokers that sell Universal admissions don’t issue actual passes. Instead, the purchaser gets a voucher that can be redeemed for a pass at the theme park. Fortunately, the voucher-redemption window is separate from the park’s ticket-sales operation. In addition, tickets bought online can be printed at home and contain a bar code that can be read at the turnstiles.”
Other more specific instructions can be found on this website which indicates that tickets can be picked up at any Will Call Kiosk.
Similar to Disney’s Fast Pass system which is included in the cost of the tickets, Universal offers the Express Pass which also allows you to skip the lines. We didn’t bother with them and didn’t miss them due to the low crowd levels, but that may be a much different story during busy times. At Universal, you have to pay an additional per park/per person fee for the passes as explained in the Terms & Conditions at the above link. Realize too that not all attractions participate in Express Pass. If you stay at a Premier hotel (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock or Portofino), Express Passes are already included with your stay.
There is one other free option called Virtual Line, which is an experiment of sorts and is only available for a very limited number of rides on a limited basis. Basically you book a time to go on the ride via the Universal App.
Unlike Disney World where parking is included if you stay at a Disney property, at Universal parking is not included, even if you stay at a Universal hotel!
Resort hotels have their own parking lots, however, be aware that the resorts charge a nightly parking rate (anywhere from $26 for self parking to $37 for valet daily) so be sure to factor this into your budget when planning. Once you’re parked at your hotel, it will be easy to hop on a shuttle bus and/or water taxi to the parks, CityWalk, and Volcano Bay. By the way, there are no parking lots at Volcano Bay so ALL visitors including those not staying at a hotel will need to take a shuttle bus to that park.
For drive in visitors, premium parking is $36 (incl tax) per day and standard parking is $26 (incl tax) per day. When we questioned the attendant about the difference between the two on our first day, we were told that the Premium parking would get us closer to the parks thus requiring less walking. On our first day, we opted for premium parking just to get the lay of the land.
Over the course of our visits, however, we determined that the saved steps weren’t worth the additional $10 expense. Premium just allows visitors to park on level 3, the same level as the park itself and was not all that much closer especially if you were directed to park at the far end of a row. With standard parking, visitors are directed to other levels in the multi-level garage – these levels required using escalators or elevators to get to the main parking level, not really a big deal. After that first day, we opted for the standard parking each day.
Save your parking receipt because once you have paid for parking for the day, you can leave and return for no additional charge.
There is also valet parking – two hours or less $25; over two hours (before 6:00 pm) – $50; over two hours (after 6:00 pm) – $45.
If you wish to visit CityWalk or for any evening activities within the park, after 6:00 p.m., parking is free (except for major events). Note CityWalk is open until 2:00 a.m.; the closing times for the parks close vary dependent on the time of year. When we were there, they closed at 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m.
Now that you’ve parked your car in the garage, what’s next? After leaving the parking area escalators and moving walkways deliver you into the transportation hub, where you will find security checkpoints, restrooms, vending machines, souvenirs, and a food and beverage kiosk. Security is similar to airport security – all pocket contents, backpacks, purses, etc. must be put into a bin which goes through an x-ray machine. Each guest must then go through a metal detector. This security checkpoint is for all guests regardless of whether you are visiting the theme parks or just City Walk.
After security, another series of moving walkways brings you into CityWalk, and from there you can access the destination of your choice. It may take five to eight minutes to walk from your car to the central transportation hub.
Walking and Transportation (or lack thereof):
Have I mentioned that there’s lots of walking? Each day we walked six to eight miles. Love the moleskin (stupid me, I waited until after I had the blisters to use it – duh!) to protect those tender spots. So plan accordingly!
Unlike Disney, there are no trams that you can take from the parking lot to the park. Instead travel to the main level by escalator (or elevator), walk a bit, then hop on one of the people movers (moving walkways) instead of walking but we usually ended up walking on those anyway, then walk some more, hop on another people mover, walk some more….well, you get the point – lots of walking. It can take at least 15 minutes to get from the transportation hub to the entrance of either theme park.
From the parking lot to get to either of the parks, you have to walk through City Walk, the entertainment center of Universal. A fun place but this adds a significant number of steps to your visit. Not bad going into the park but when you are tired at the end of the day with hurting feet, it was tough. A direct path to the parking lot would be more desirable.
Have no fear though, the good news is that there are drop off areas where you can drop off people/children in your party that are unable to handle all of the walking.
Except for the boats and the shuttle services offered to guests at a number of hotels in the area, there are no other modes of transportation. No monorail, no buses, no trams, no anything. There is a train that can save a few steps, the unique Hogswart Express (more about this in the next post) that travels from King’s Cross Station in London at Universal Studios to Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure and vice versa. Be aware that the Hogwarts Express is actually a ride and taking this mode of travel requires a multi-park admission ticket. And often there can be a long wait towards late afternoon.
During our visit back in 2007, we stayed at the Hyatt Place Universal at Major Blvd. and walked across the street to the Universal Resort entrance. There is also a Holiday Inn & Suites here but the Doubletree at Universal is the closest and adjacent to the new pedestrian bridge that crosses busy Kirkman Road in this area. See this article and map about walking from the above hotels – note the article was written before the pedestrian bridge was completed.
One of the complaints we have about City Walk and to a lesser degree the parks, was the lack of directional signs. On our first day, as we walked through CityWalk, we had planned to go to Universal first but inadvertently ended up in Islands of Adventure. Going to Universal requires a right turn near the end of City Walk. If it is marked, it’s well hidden.
This seemed to be pretty much the case throughout the parks as well. Although when it comes to Harry Potter and Diagon Alley, it’s supposed to be hidden – in the books/movies that’s where the budding wizards stroll straight into the bricked walls of the London Underground and transmigrate into Diagon Alley. So you kinda have to know that as you walk thru old London town and look for the “secret” entrance to Diagon Alley. Hint, it’s across the street from the triple decker Knight Bus. No transmigration required.
Similar to Disney, one of the perks for staying at a Universal Resort, is early admission, allowing entrance to one of the parks one hour early. Obviously we didn’t get to take advantage of that so we can’t offer any comments on how well it did or didn’t work. On our first day, we arrived at the park about 15 minutes before opening time. Even at that there was a crowd at the Security checkpoint but fortunately getting through Security moved fairly quickly.
According to Touring Plans, during our visit, crowd levels over the weekend were 7 out of 10 while during the week, they dropped considerably to around a 3 out of 10. Our first visit was on Monday, November 11th which happened to be Veteran’s Day so needless to say the crowds were comparable to what they would be on a weekend. Crowds typically weren’t bad in the morning but became heavier as the day progressed.
As mentioned earlier in this post, a handy tool to use is the Universal Studios app which not only show maps of the parks but will have the posted wait times for each ride. We found this to be fairly accurate although in a few instances the actual wait time was less than the posted time.
The longest wait time we experienced was about 45 minutes (the first time we went) on what turned out to be one of our favorite rides in Islands of Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and that was on Monday (Veteran’s Day). However, we returned to this ride on subsequent days and barely waited at all. The queue here is very extensive and there’s a lot to see along the way.
Similar to Disney, and maybe even better in some instances, the crowd queues were handled well with lots to look at while waiting. In fact, if you use an Express Pass you are going to miss a lot of the in-queue themeing, most of which is quite good.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure just opened in June so the wait times were ridiculous, ranging from 75 minutes to three or more hours. No thank you! Maybe next time. On our last day visiting the parks a Virtual Line opened up for this ride but unfortunately we didn’t realize it in time.
Child Swap Rooms
As mentioned earlier, we don’t have kids but in reviews I’ve read, the way that Universal has implemented their child swap rooms is “ingenious”. Both Universal and Disney have policies in place that help families with little kids who don’t meet all of the ride height requirements. Rider swap and child switch rules allow one parent to ride with the bigger kids while the other waits with the little one(s). Then, the second parent takes a turn with the big kids, without everyone waiting in line a second time.
At Universal, however, the child swap rooms, which are located near the ride entrances of several ‘big kid’ attractions that have height requirements of at least 40 inches (Spider Man, Fast and Furious, Harry Potter Escape from Gringotts, Reign of Kong and several others) have TVs and cozy seating. One parent can comfortably wait here with the little kids while the other enjoys the ride and then go right to the front of the queue when the other parent returns.
Even if you don’t have kids, if someone in your party wants to enjoy all of the pre-ride theater but then decides they do not want to participate in the ride, they can hang out in one of these rooms until the rest of their party returns from the ride.
Where to eat:
So many choices, offering everything from up scale dining to snack bars at the parks and at their hotels. And similar to Disney, Universal offers an assortment of dining plans, but we didn’t sign up for any of them.
Not sure where to eat? Check out reviews on Google or on Touring plans which offers descriptions and ratings for each restaurant based on feedback submitted by visitors.
On our first day, remembering how good the food was there from our trip here in 2007, we returned to Mythos Restaurant in the Lost Continent in Islands of Adventure.
Not only was the food good but the ambiance and decor was as always incredible. Not being all that hungry, I chose the Wedge ($15) which was crisp iceberg lettuce, blue cheese vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes, red onion, sweet and sour bacon jam, croutons, topped with beef filet while Rob had Semolina Crusted Calamari ($12.00) which was tender calamari flash fried, served with Spanish choriza aioli, marinara and charred lemon. Rob indicated he has had better calamari, but all in all the food, service and ambiance were all excellent! The cost wasn’t bad either!
On our second day, we ate at Finnegan’s Bar & Grill in New York in Universal Studios. Not wanting leftovers, we shared an appetizer, Finnegan’s Potato and Onion Webb ($9.99), thinly sliced potatoes & onions, hand dipped in beer batter and crisply fried to a golden brown and shared a bowl of Guinness Beef Stew ($17.49). Delicious!
On our last day in the park, we had a tough time deciding between the Cowfish Sushi and Burger Bar on CityWalk or The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen. Decision made – lunch at the Cowfish and dessert at the Chocolate Emporium. Sushi and burgers sure sounds like a strange combo! Tough decision on what to have.
After much deliberation and at the recommendation of our server we decided to split the All-American Bacon Double Cheeseburgooshi ($16.00). Huh? A cheeseburgooshi? What the heck is that? It’s seasoned premium black angus beef, yellow cheddar cheese, white cheddar cheese, and applewood bacon wrapped in soy paper and potato strings, then flash fried. Topped with dill pickle, red onion, Roma tomato, and Cowfish sauce. Oh boy, was it good! Definitely will want to visit this restaurant again.
After doing some more walking around it was time for dessert. Interesting decor inside! After being seated upstairs, we decided on the Chocolate Brownie Bark ($10.50) which was chocolate ice cream, chocolate brownies, chocolate fresh whipped cream, chocolate sauce, chocolate brownie bark, chocolate sprinkles. Think that’s enough chocolate? OMG, it was huge! Good thing we shared! Can one person actually eat all that?
On the day we had to move sites at the campground and didn’t go to the parks, for a change of pace, we had lunch at Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian inspired potato house, specializing in both Baked and Rosti potatoes. The restaurant has been featured on Guy Fiori’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network.
Rob’s choice was Chicken Catupiry (Brazilian Cream Cheese) Baked Potato (14-16 oz ). My choice was a Carne Seca Rosti, also known as 7″ Swiss Hashbrown, filled with dried beef and seasonings. Although Rob liked his potato, he wished that he had ordered the Rosti instead. Oh my, it was so good (on that day and the next)!
So you might be wondering what our favorite rides were. Since I’ve already been rather verbose in this post, our favorites (and maybe our not so favorite) rides will be covered in a subsequent post.
Let the fun begin!