Universal Studios Orlando: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip

Universal Studios Orlando: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip

Looking to plan a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, FL and don’t know where to begin? I hear you! Theme parks can be overwhelming, and there’s so much to figure out when planning a family vacation to one, especially one as big as Universal. Which tickets should you buy, what package should you use, which hotel should you stay at…and wait, how many parks are in Universal?! 3 – including the recent addition of Volcano Bay.

At the time of our visit, Volcano Bay had not yet opened, so this post will focus on Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Below you will find an overview of these two parks, hotels, as well as a breakdown of tickets, packages and pricing. So don’t fret – read this guide and you will be ready to book your trip!

First of all, we absolutely LOVED Universal Studios. I am not a huge amusement park person, don’t do most roller coasters, and get nauseous quite easily. But of course we all do the things we do for the kids. Ha, I was the first one up the next morning and couldn’t wait to go back! I was so blown away by the technology behind these rides, and how much there is to see at both parks, that I –and I should say all of us – were so impressed. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, for starters, is an experience in and of itself. The set designs and rides are simply incredible and you are transported to another world. Everyone says it’s amazing, and it is.

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The Universal Studios Orlando Parks

As I said, Universal Studios Orlando is made up of three parks – Universal Studios FloridaUniversal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal’s Volcano Bay. At the time of our visit, Volcano bay had not yet opened, so this post will cover the first two theme parks. Universal Studios Florida is where you will find The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley (with my favorite ride in the entire two parks, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – so innovative and awesome!), Despicable Me Minion, Mayhem, Transformers, Revenge of the Mummy, E.T. Adventure, to name a few rides/attractions, as well as the New York, San Francisco and Hollywood sections of the park.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure has interconnecting islands, each with a theme, and where you will find another section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, with its two main rides, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of Hippogriff. You can take the Hogwarts Express from each of the park’s Harry Potter sections to the next, or you can walk from park to park. Of course you will take the express! Another one of my favorite rides.

In addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the islands are comprised of Marvel Super Hero Island, Jurassic Park, Toon Lagoon, Skull Island, The Lost Continent and Seuss Landing. Some popular rides are Jurassic Park River Adventure, Spider-Man, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripshaw Falls,The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride, and my favorite in this park, Skull Island: Reign of Kong (amazing special effects!), among many others.

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Do most people do one or both parks? Obviously that’s a personal decision, but I highly recommend going to both. It seems a lot of people think of Universal Studios Florida as being the main park, but Islands of Adventure is SO much fun. It really is what the name implies – adventurous. We loved both.

Now that we’ve covered that, what kind of ticket/package should you get and which hotel should you stay at? Of course every family is different and there are so many variables – for instance, what might work price-wise for a family of four, may not work for a family of eight. We all know that. But let me help guide you through so that hopefully you can find what works for you and your family.

I’m going to start with hotels, because this will probably weigh in on how you plan and budget your trip. Whether you stay at an on or off-site hotel is a personal decision, but there are serious benefits if you stay on-site. We stayed at the Hard Rock (on-site, and the closest of all the hotels to the parks), which met every expectation. .

Hotels at Universal Studios Orlando

Universal Studios Orlando has 5 on-site hotels: the Cabana Bay Beach Resort (Prime Value), The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort (Preferred), the Loews Royal Pacific Resort (Preferred), the Hard Rock Hotel (Premier) and the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (Premier). They all offer perks, and they all range according to which category they fall under – Prime Value, Preferred and Premier. But what they all have in common are some really great benefits: they’re all within walking distance of the parks; they all offer Early Park Admission to the parks before they open to the public; and they all offer Complimentary Transportation to the parks (for 1 vehicle).

3 of the hotels, the Portofino Bay, the Royal Pacific and the Hard Rock, have some key additional benefits – the most important one being the Universal Express Unlimited Ride pass, where you can skip the regular lines for free (more on that in a minute), as well as Priority Seating at select restaurants. Some of these restaurants happened to be our favorites. But honestly, I’ve heard excellent things about all of the hotels, and what some of the non-premier hotels may not have they make up for in other areas. For instance, I’ve heard the Cabana Bay is supposed to be a blast for families and has a super fun lazy river.

One thing to note: if you’re staying at an on-site hotel you can pool hop around to the other on-site hotel pools! Great perk but unfortunately we never did that. It was a short trip and we didn’t have the time, and besides the Hard Rock has a huge state-of-the-art pool that we were very happy with. Read more about Universal Studios hotels for an more in depth look.

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Ticket Pricing and How it Works

All right, pricing. There are a variety of options at Universal Studios, and a lot of it depends on what time of year you go, but here is the meat of how it works. Before anything, it’s important to know that no matter what you go with, you will always have to pay the park admission fee before the additional ticket or package price, should you choose one. The Park to Park admission fee (which I highly recommend) starts at – depending on the date – $155 per person per day. For 2 days $118, 3 days $85 and 4 days $67. The Single Park fee starts at $105 per day, $93 for 2 days, $69 for 3 days and $54 for 4 days. Remember, these prices change according to when you go!

What do I mean by additional tickets or packages? Similar to Disney’s Fast Pass system, Universal offers its own pass system. There is the Universal Express Unlimited Pass, which allows you to skip the regular lines at participating rides as many times as you want! Note it does not apply to the Harry Potter rides and a couple of others, but does include many of the popular rides. The price starts at $54.99 for 1 park per day, and $84.99 for 2 parks per day.

There is also the Universal Express Pass, which allows you to skip the regular lines as well, but unlike the Unlimited Pass, it allows you to do it 1 time per ride. These prices start at $39.99 for 1 day and $64.99 for two days. Like the admission fee, these prices change throughout the year as well. I personally think it’s a no-brainer to add on one of the Express Passes, as these days you can wait in a regular line for hours and before you know it your day is half gone. Also, as I mentioned above, if you stay at the Hard Rock, Portofino Bay or Royal Pacific hotels, you get the Unlimited Express pass included with your stay – bonus points!

The VIP Experience

Finally, Universal Studios offers its very cush VIP Experience packages, which I can say from experience is an amazing deal and from what I’ve heard nicer than most VIP packages out there. It’s pricey, but when you think about what you get for the money, it’s worth every last penny! And makes for a stress-free, unique way of seeing the parks. We were with a large group, including grandparents, and everyone decided this would be the best way to stick together and allow the kids to see as much as they can – because who knows when we’ll ever – if ever – be going back!

This is how the VIP experience works. Note, as with the Express Passes, separate admission is required. For the VIP Experience you are given a guided tour with a Universal expert and up to 12 people per guided tour, covering either both parks for 7 hours or 1 park for 5 hours. You are only allowed 6 people for your own group, which means you are on the tour with other people.

If you have 7 or more people, then you have what is called the Private VIP Experience (more on that below). The most notable thing about going the VIP route is you get priority front of the line access to at least 10 rides, chosen by the guide. I am talking no waits. Our guide took us through different entry points – more like exit points – to get to the front of the lines and before we knew it we were on the rides. At times it felt like a secret operation – walking in areas of the park no one else had access to – in order to access these rides, and Universal has it all well plotted out.

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The most important thing was that it included front of the line access to the Harry Potter rides, which is a major, major benefit and saves a ton of time. Additionally, our guide had worked at Universal Studios for 10 years and knew every last detail of the park to share with us. He knew everything.

As part of the experience he took us backstage to some of the rides where we learned interesting facts about how they work. He did cool things like in the E.T. ride, at the end, E.T. said goodbye to all the kids in our group – by name. My daughters were overwhelmed by that. In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – in the wand room – he managed to have the actor choose my nephew as the person to try out the wands and their magic spells. He was part of the show. Things like that. He showed the kids all the places where they could cast magic spells with their wands throughout the parks, places we would have had to fumble around to find ourselves.

Other benefits include a continental breakfast as well as lunch, Complimentary Valet parking (which we didn’t need to use) and last but certainly not least, a Universal Unlimited Express pass for the remainder of the day. Key!

The Private VIP Experience is even cushier – and necessary if you have 7 or more people (which we did) – and includes everything that the regular VIP Experience includes plus 8 hours worth of rides, dinner and Unlimited Priority front of the line access so that you can go on the rides as many times as you want, and your itinerary is customizable. That is a key thing to note in my opinion. I’m not sure how I feel about having the guide determining the intinerary, and if it weren’t for the fast access to the Harry Potter rides – which is always going to be on the itinerary – I might choose the Unlimited Express Pass over the VIP Experience.

Having said that, their VIP program for both regular and private is top-notch. You begin the day with complimentary pastries and drinks, not to mention water bottles you can take with you in the parks, and any time you want to go back to store anything you can. Your guide knows all the ins and outs, as well as can tell you which rides may not be suitable for you if you’re someone like me and gets queezy easily.

As for pricing, the most important part!, The VIP program starts at $189 per person plus tax for 1 park, and $199 for both parks, off season. It can go as high as $449 – during Christmas week – but in general the average price seems to be in the $220-$250 range. Which is not that much more than the Unlimited Express pass.

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The Private VIP Experience can go higher, depending on how large your group is and at what time of year. To find out more, call the VIP number at 1-866-346-9350. I feel very lucky to have gone the VIP route, especially one as nice as this. I did have hesitations about my kids expecting this kind of service and being spoiled and all the things us parents worry about, but in the end it was such a stress-free and fantastic visit that it really was worth every dime. And it especially made things easy for the grandparents. We also of course only did it one day, and the other day we used our Unlimited Express passes, which worked great too.

Lastly, as for meals, there are restaurants inside the parks as well as at CityWalk. That’s where we ate our dinners, and although it felt like Times Square with flashy lights and theme style restaurants, we did have some good meals. Definitely go to Antojitos for great Mexican (their guacamole rules, as do their margaritas) and Bob Marley – A Tribute to Freedom for interesting ambience and pretty good Jamaican food.

This article is available as an app through GPSMyCity if you want to read it offline wherever, and whenever. Click here to download the article, as well as for GPS coordinates of the locations listed.


Linking up with Faraway Files and Citytripping.

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  1. December 16, 2016 / 6:11 pm

    We love Universal and Islands of Adventure – the Hogwarts express wasn’t yet open on our last visit so we will most definitely have to go back!! I’m not one for rollercoasters either but there’s so much other great stuff to do here. Didn’t know about Volcano Bay but just googled it – sounds amazing.

    • December 17, 2016 / 2:25 am

      Hogwarts Express is the best – you will definitely have to return!

  2. December 16, 2016 / 9:13 pm

    We may need to go one more time!

  3. December 18, 2016 / 11:52 am

    Love this! We went a few years back and this would’ve come in handy for sure. My husband & I hadn’t seen Harry Potter either and were blown away with the rides and set displays! Really incredible.

    • December 18, 2016 / 8:05 pm

      I know right? Amazing. And this is coming from not the biggest theme park person. We absolutely loved it!

  4. December 19, 2016 / 7:47 pm

    We’ve never done anything like this before. It looks slightly overwhelming but I’m pretty sure I’d love it once I was there.

    • December 19, 2016 / 9:36 pm

      I feel the same way about theme parks..I think timing is crucial. Our main day there was on a Monday, which helped. Besides that though the rides are so innovative and fun that it’s hard not to have a blast.

  5. December 28, 2016 / 6:39 pm

    I’ve only been to the one in California, last summer, when they were just about to open the new Harry Potter wing. We certainly had fun.

    • January 7, 2017 / 9:34 pm

      Friends of ours just went to the CA one and said though smaller it was a blast.

  6. January 10, 2017 / 11:25 pm

    We’ve been to both parks and until recently I would have said the Orlando park was WAY better, but thankfully “our” park has improved greatly with the opening of Harry Potter World! My boys and I were just discussing how the water rides in Orlando were perfect for our mid-summer visit! Not sure what we were thinking when we visited in July?!

    • January 11, 2017 / 4:09 am

      Ha ha! I hear you – we went to Orlando years ago – to Disney – in June and it was really, really hot! I hear your Universal is great – have friends who just went in December and said it was fantastic. Harry Potter has really brought things up a notch – for both parks!

  7. Clare Thomson
    January 13, 2017 / 6:29 pm

    Such a fantastic guide, Corey! My two Harry Potter-obsessed boys would LOVE this. Brilliant post for #FarawayFiles

    • January 14, 2017 / 3:22 am

      Thanks Clare! The Harry Potter world was truly an experience like no other!

  8. January 13, 2017 / 9:16 pm

    Wow, take me there now! My boys would LOVE this! Some fantastic tips! The Harry Potter rides look amazing #farawayflies

    • January 14, 2017 / 3:23 am

      The Harry Potter world was absolutely incredible – thanks for reading!

  9. January 24, 2017 / 2:21 pm

    I’m with you – I’d definitely enjoy this just as much as the kids, if not more! It makes sense to do both while you’re there, and I’d definitely try to book an on-site hotel to avoid any queues. #citytripping

    • January 24, 2017 / 5:41 pm

      Thanks for reading, Nell. I was honestly so blown away by the rides, and coming from someone who isn’t much of a theme park person, it says a lot..

  10. January 27, 2017 / 1:36 pm

    Such a helpful resource – thanks Corey! The tour guide and VIP experience sound like they were definitely worth paying for and really enhanced the whole visit. Have pinned. Thanks for linking to #citytripping

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