You’ll probably never see your kids more excited than when you first walk through the gates to Universal Orlando.
And especially into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter if they are big Harry Potter fans like our eldest daughter.
I’ll never forget the look on Kalyra’s face as we entered Hogsmeade on our very first day at Islands of Adventure. She’s read all the books and watched all the movies, and I think she could have cried.
In fact, we all couldn’t believe how magical it all made us feel.
It was like we were stepping into the movie. Universal has done an incredible job bringing the Harry Potter series to life.
Watch our video, then continue reading this blog post for all our Universal Orlando tips:
But Universal Orlando Resort is much more than Harry Potter!
In this post I’m sharing our top tips for Universal Orlando to help you plan for the most memorable and magical vacation you can have!
We had an incredible three days exploring everything that Universal Orlando Resort has to offer, and writing down these Universal Orlando tips brought back cherished memories!
First of all, in case you are confused like I was before visiting, Universal Orlando Resort consists of three parks:
- Universal Studios Florida
- Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- Universal’s Volcano Bay
And then there is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is located in both Universal Studios (Diagon Alley) and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade).
No, it is not called Harry Potter World, or Harry Potter theme park, or Universal Studios Harry Potter World as I kept calling it pre-trip. But I soon got that out of my system.
So you have three Universal theme parks plus City Walk.
We visited Universal Florida in mid-November 2017, shortly after the craziness of Halloween and it was a relatively quiet time at the parks and at our hotel.
Read this Guide to Universal Orlando so you learn all the things you need to know before you visit Universal Universal Orlando Florida.
18 Tips for Universal Orlando
1. Plan for 3 days, minimum
2. Get a multi-day Pass
3. Ride Hogwarts Express
4. What if you only have one day?
5. Get a Universal Express Pass
6. Stay on-site at a Universal Resort Hotel
7. Make use of early park admission (and stay late)
8. Buy tickets online to save money & time
9. Take advantage of the child swap program
10. Try all the Butterbeer options
11. What time of year is best?
12. Download the official Universal Orlando app
13. Take time to explore Wizarding World of Harry Potter
14. Get your kids a wand
15. What should I bring?
16. Have a plan, but stay flexible
17. Top 10 attractions at Universal Orlando
18. Why you should not forget travel insurance
1. Plan for 3 days, minimum
1. Plan for 3 Days, Minimum
This would be one of our top tips for Universal Orlando.
We spent three days exploring all of the Universal Orlando Resort parks, and I think that was a perfect amount of time.
Coming from a family of four with kids aged 10 and 6, I highly recommend you also plan for a minimum of three days!
Essentially we spent one day at each of the three parks!
Our kids have different levels of bravado when it comes to what rides they will go on, and our 6 year old was restricted due to height requirements for some rides as well.
So three days gave us ample time to cover all the rides and attractions for everyone to enjoy.
You know what theme parks are like, they can be long and tiring days, especially if you are dragging young kids around with you, so don’t try and do it all in a sprint.
We spent our first full-day at Universal’s Volcano Bay, which was awesome and the best water park we have ever been too.
Then we had two days hopping between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios on a Multi-Day Pass (see tips down below).
2. Get a Multi-Day Pass
We had a 3-Park 3-Day ticket which allowed us to visit Volcano Bay + Islands of Adventure + Universal Studios at any time each day!
There are several options available for Multi Passes from 2 to 5 days in duration. So if you plan on visiting all three parks, I recommend you choose one of these passes.
3. Ride Hogwarts Express
Our eldest daughter Kalyra is a MASSIVE Harry Potter fan, our youngest is getting there, and one of our kids favorite Harry Potter experiences at Universal Orlando was riding Hogwarts Express.
By getting a Park-to-Park ticket, it allows you to ride the Hogwarts Express between Hogsmeade Station (Islands of Adventure) to King’s Cross Station in London (Universal Studios) unlimited times in either direction.
It’s a fun and convenient way to move between the parks. We park hopped several times using Hogwarts Express and it worked out perfectly.
I won’t spoil it for you, but you never know who – or what – you might see out the trains window during the journey. And it’s a different experience going from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, and vice versa. So do both!
But you’ll need a park-to-park ticket.
To ride from Hogsmeade to London in Universal Studios, head to Hogsmeade Station inside Islands of Adventure. When you arrive in London, pop around the corner to find the secret entryway into Diagon Alley.
From Diagon Alley:
To ride to Hogsmeade, head to London in Universal Studios and board the train at King’s Cross Station.
4. What If You Only Have One Day?
If you only have one day at Universal Studios Orlando Resort, make the most of it with a Park-to-Park ticket – another one of our top tips for Universal Orlando!
This ticket gives you access to Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure including both lands of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
You’ll also be able to ride the Hogwarts Express connecting these two parks.
See all ticket options and prices for Single-Day tickets and Multi-Day tickets on the Universal website ticket page.
5. Get a Universal Express Pass
What is a Universal Express Pass?
First off, a Universal Express Pass is an Add-On ticket. They don’t actually give you access to any of the parks.
You still have to buy your theme park admission ticket first, then add-on a Universal Express Pass!
Basically, these Universal Orlando Express Passes allow you to skip the regular lines at most of the rides and attractions – now including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
So you get “express access”.
You may be familiar with these types of passes from other theme parks who call them Fast Passes etc. At Universal, they are called Universal Express.
Depending on the time of year and day you visit, instead of standing for hours in the regular queue, with an Express Pass you could only be waiting 5-15 minutes (or less).
Regular lines can be anything from 45+ minutes, and Universal Express Passes allow you to go on your favorite rides multiple times and maximize your time.
There are different types of Express Passes:
- Universal Express Pass – Skip the regular line ONE TIME PER TIDE at participating rides and attractions each day that your pass is valid.
- Universal Unlimited Express Pass – Skip the regular lines an UNLIMITED NUMBER OF TIMES at participating rides and attractions.
- Single Park Universal Express – You buy one of these Add-On passes only for either Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, or Volcano Bay.
- 2-Park Universal Express – use at both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.
- 2-Park Park-To-Park + Express Unlimited – admission to Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, plus Universal Express Unlimited access.
- 3-Park Park-To-Park + Express Unlimited – admission to Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay, plus Universal Express Unlimited access.
Participating Rides & Attractions:
Wondering what rides and attractions you can use your Universal Passes at to beat the long lines?
There are 18 participating attractions at Universal Studios, 18 at Islands of Adventure, and 10 at Volcano Bay. See the full lists here.
Are Universal Express Passes worth it?
I believe so. I don’t like standing in long lines, especially with kids, and especially in the heat, and you all know Florida!
Obviously the extra costs of these passes on top of your admission tickets and accommodation adds to your budget, especially if you are a family of four.
But if your budget allows, and this is your dream trip, having these passes can dramatically improve your overall experience at Universal so you have the vacation of a lifetime!
Seriously, I don’t know how many times we said to each other as we walked past the long regular lines that we were so glad we had these passes.
Without these passes there would have been a lot of precious time wasted, and restless and frustrated kids.
Find a way to cut back in other ways in your travel budget to free up money for Express Passes. What are your priorities?
- Staying in a 5 star hotel?
- Flying business class?
- Eating out three times a day?
- Shopping at the outlets?
- or having the best Universal experience?
When you really look at your expenses and consider your priorities, you can find a way. And I have more tips on accessing these passes for better value down below!
See all the options and prices for Universal Express Passes on the Universal Orlando website here.
Our top 11 Universal Orlando experiences here:
6. Stay On-Site at a Universal Resort Hotel
One of our best tips for visiting Universal Orlando would be staying on-site at one of the Universal Orlando Resorts.
There are key benefits to staying on-site as I will explain below, and these benefits can make a world of difference to your family’s Universal vacation.
Staying on-site can be the best way to experience all that Universal Orlando Resort has to offer.
Here are the five current Universal Resort Hotels to choose from (in order of Budget to Luxury):
- Cabana Bay Beach Resort (Book directly on Booking.com / Read reviews on Trip Advisor)
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort (Book directly on Booking.com / Read reviews on Trip Advisor)
- Loews Royal Pacific Hotel (Book directly on Booking.com / Read reviews on Trip Advisor)
- Hard Rock Hotel (Book directly on Booking.com / Read reviews on Trip Advisor)
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (Book directly on Booking.com / Read reviews on Trip Advisor)
Plus, Universal’s Aventura Hotel opens in August 2018.
I know, figuring out where to stay on any family vacation can be stressful, especially in Orlando where there are endless options!
3 Key Benefits to Staying at an On-Site Universal Hotel
The Universal Orlando Resort Hotels are conveniently located and come with some nice perks:
- When you stay at any on-site hotel you get Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay one hour before the theme park opens.
- Guests who choose to stay at select Universal Resort Hotels get FREE Universal Unlimited Express Passes! (learn more down below)
- Free transportation to the theme parks from each of the hotels via either water taxi or shuttle bus. Cabana Bay and Aventura Hotel are by shuttle bus only!
You even get these benefits the day you check-in and the day you check-out. Cool.
Is Staying On-Site Worth the Money?
Well, you might find cheaper accommodation elsewhere in Orlando, but one important fact to keep in mind is that three of the Universal Hotels come with FREE Universal Unlimited Express Passes!
- Loews Royal Pacific Hotel
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Cabana Bay Beach Resort and the newly to open Aventura Hotel DO NOT come with free Express Passes!
If you are a family of four like us, Universal Express Unlimited passes start from $89.99 per person, per day x 4 guests = $359.96.
So that $100/$200 or even $300 per night you think you are saving by staying in a cheaper hotel off-site, may not be worth it after all if you plan to buy Express Passes!
Every guest in your room gets a Universal Express Unlimited pass. But the limit is five per room.
Do the math on the size of your family to see if it makes sense!
You DO NOT have to book directly through the hotel when staying at one of the Universal Studios Orlando hotels to qualify for the free Universal Express Passes.
You get these passes even if you book via a third party!
Just by staying at the qualifying hotel gets you these passes.
Once you check in at each hotel you are given your passes, or each hotel has a section in their lobby where you take your room key to access the Express pass card.
Contact each hotel to verify!
Where Did We Stay?
We stayed at Cabana Bay Beach Resort and loved the retro 50’s vibe here – super colorful and vibrant.
Cabana Bay is right next door to Volcano Bay (some call it the Volcano Bay hotel) and there’s a designated walking path from the hotel direct to the park which takes about 2 minutes.
We enjoyed the fact that this hotel has family suites with kitchenettes. Where possible, we like to make our own meals to save on the cost of eating out three times per day.
It also has a lazy river and bowling alley.
So if you plan to spend a lot of time at Volcano Bay, this hotel is a great option.
Whilst Cabana Bay Beach Resort is the cheapest of the Universal properties, and you get early admission to the parks, you DO NOT get the free Express Passes by staying there!
For more information on each Universal Hotel, go to the official Universal Orlando Hotel overview page here.
Disclaimer: we received a discounted media rate to stay at Cabana Bay, and complimentary Express Passes.
7. Make Use of Early Park Admission (and stay late)
As mentioned, by staying at a Universal Hotel you get early park admission, one hour before the theme park opens to other regular paying guests.
As soon as we entered Volcano Bay using early admission, we found sun lounges and a place to base ourselves for the day.
Then we made us of early entry and headed for the most popular slides:
- Krakatau Aqua Coaster
- Ko’kiri Body Plunge
- Kala & Tui Nui Serpentine body slides
- and Honu of the Honu Ika Moana
At Universal Islands of Adventure, we headed straight to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade) to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
This is the most popular ride at the park, and regular lines can be a long wait, so head straight there.
At Universal Studios we headed straight to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Diagon Alley) to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
Then we headed to Ollivanders to buy wands (this store gets really busy). See down below for more tips on buying wands.
Both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley is a much nicer experience if you get there before the crowds. Their shops are much calmer and it’s easier to take photos and video.
On the flip side, the crowds at the parks tend to die down later in the day shortly before closing which means shorter wait times for rides and less crowded shops.
At Volcano Bay, most people disappeared before closing so we had the gorgeous Volcano and Waturi Beach almost to ourselves. It’s pretty at sunset, especially with the volcano lighting up in rainbow colors.
Grab a cocktail, or elderberry cider from the Dancing Dragons Boat Bar and let the kids swim and relax with the views.
Even if you decide not to stay at an on-site hotel, another one of our important tips for Universal Orlando would be to still plan on arriving at the theme parks early before opening time.
Traffic in Orlando can be unpredictable and congested, so you don’t want to be delayed and get there after park opening times.
Get there early so you can get the best available parking spot, so that you aren’t rushed, and so that you can be close to the front of the lines!
And sometimes, they actually open the park gates 15-minutes early and you could be riding the popular rides before the masses turn up!
Don’t start off your dream visit flustered and annoyed – get up and get going!
Universal Orlando Opening Times
Get up to date opening and closing times for all three parks on their yearly calendar here.
Early Park Admission times and the attractions that are open varies by park-to-park based on operational and weather considerations.
To get up to date information for your dates of travel go here.
8. Buy Tickets Online to Save Money & Time
I don’t think there is such thing as cheap Universal Orlando tickets, but a few tips here to save money and time:
- When you buy your admission tickets online through Universal Orlando you save $20 off the front gate price on multi-day tickets!
- And buy your Express Passes online as well.
- Print your tickets at home and go straight to the front gate to save time!
- When you purchase any multi-day ticket online, you get a Coupon Book with up to $150 value in savings at select in-park restaurants, shops, on-site resort hotels, and free admission to select Universal City Walk venues.
By purchasing tickets online, you’ll avoid waiting in line at the gates to purchase tickets. And sometimes Universal offers special discounts online too!
I like saving money AND time.
Are you an American Express Card owner?
American Express is the official card of Universal Orlando Resort, and AMEX Card Members enjoy special in-park privileges.
If you purchase your Universal Orlando tickets with an AMEX card, you get access to the AMEX Lounge inside Universal Orlando when you buy any Multi-Park Ticket or Annual Pass with any AMEX Card at UniversalOrlando.com or at the Universal Orlando Resort ticket window.
Here you can enjoy complimentary light snacks, drinks, a full-time concierge and more.
How’s that for great Universal Orlando tips?!
The American Express Lounge is open seven days a week from 12–5 pm and subject to availability. Entrance to the lounge is across from Shrek’s Ye Olde Souvenir Shoppe
Present your confirmation page or original receipt plus your AMEX Card to gain entrance. Nice perk!
See all the current AMEX offers here.
9. Take Advantage of the Child Swap Program!
This was awesome! And another great way to skip the long lines.
Our kids are aged 10 and 6, and whilst our eldest daughter Kalyra went on every ride, 6 year old Savannah was either too short for adult rides, or not brave enough.
So, if your children are too small or don’t want to go on a particular ride, take advantage of the “child swap” program.
How it works:
Each ride has a “child swap room” where one parent (or member of your party) can wait with the little ones, while the other parent and older child goes on the ride.
Once they are finished, the adults can simply switch roles.
The designated child swap area is usually a room (or an area) right near where you actually board the ride, so you don’t have to go outside and come back in again.
You simply walk to the front of the line in the “child swap” area.
The child swap room typically has a movie playing to keep the younger ones entertained. Win-win!
When you head to any ride, just tell the attendant at the front of the rides entrance you want to use the “child swap” and they will point you in the right direction.
We used this program many times throughout the day, and Kalyra loved it as she got to “double dip” and go on each ride twice, once with mommy, once with daddy.
No one misses out!
10. Try ALL the different Butterbeer options
Whoever created the recipe for Butterbeer is a GENIOUS!! Talk about addictive!!
And just in case you don’t know, it’s non-alcoholic so your kids, and you, can have a Butterbeer or three and it comes with a compulsory foamy mustache!
What is Butterbeer?
Well, it’s a very popular wizarding beverage that tastes a bit like butterscotch, or ice-cream soda.
The drink is drawn from a tap, just like a beer, and the dense, whipped topping is added from a separate tap.
Apparently two of the ingredients are of course butterscotch and marshmallow cream. Not sure what else is in it, but I’m guessing a good serving of sugar – be warned!
Before our trip to Universal Orlando, I had no idea you could have Butterbeer in so many different styles!
You can get:
- Cold Butterbeer
- Frozen Butterbeer
- Hot Butterbeer
- Butterbeer ice-cream
- Butterbeer potted-cream
Where can you get Butterbeer?
When you enter Hogsmeade you’ll see a large wooden barrel that bears the word “BUTTERBEER” and you can buy it from the street cart.
Other places you can get it in Hogsmeade:
- Hog’s Head (Hogsmeade)
- Three Broomsticks (cold or frozen is $6.99, as ice-cream it’s 45.49, and as potted cream it’s $5.29)
In Diagon Alley:
- The Hopping Pot (walk-up counter)
- The Fountain of Fair Fortune
- Leaky Cauldron $6.99
- Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlor (Butterbeer ice-cream in a cup $4.99, in a Waffle Cone $5.99, in a Souvenir Glass $10.99)
My favorite version was cold (on a hot day) and hot (when the weather got cool. Kalyra loved it hot, Savannah and mommy frozen!
11. What Time of Year is Best?
We visited in mid November 2017, just after the craziness of Halloween had died down at Universal.
The staff at Cabana Bay Beach Resort said they went from being completely full over Halloween to one of their quietest times to visit Universal Orlando.
Mid-January is apparently a less crowded time to visit too, but of course it will be cool if you’re considering Volcano Bay!
Obviously the parks will be crowded around main holidays and school break times.
Historically, September is one of the better months to visit Universal Orlando because the kids have just returned to school and families have either visited Orlando over summer, or have plans to visit during the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday period.
Speaking of Thanksgiving, we were told the worst time to visit is the weekend straight after Thanksgiving, and it’s just nuts.
But it all comes down to your desires and tolerance for crowds level.
I’m sure visiting Universal over one of the main holiday periods like Thanksgiving and New Years would be spectacular with holiday lights and parades etc.
But of course peak periods mean high prices for flights, accommodation and other travel related expenses.
12. Download the Official Universal Orlando App
If you are a fan of using apps, download the Universal Orlando app which can help you plan your trip, and whilst you are inside the park:
- See the latest wait times for rides
- Find show times and dining venue hours
- Set alerts for when wait times are low and for show start times.
- Locate restrooms
- Access maps
- Purchase and redeem select theme park tickets and Express passes
- and more.
Watch our Top 5 Tips for Universal Video:
13. Take Time to Explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Like I said, Universal has done an AMAZING job with both sections of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are magical and the detail they have gone into creating them makes it feel like you are part of the movie.
And I say that without having even seen all the movies yet, or read the books!
Shame on this daddy, I know! But I too was blown away with how special it all was, and got inspired seeing families dressed up in the house gear.
So if you, or your kids are big Harry Potter fans, you want to allocate plenty of time for these lands. I’m sure my kids could have spent all day just in here.
14. Get Your Kids a Wand
Kalyra had her heart set on getting a wand. She’s a BIG Hermione Jean Granger fan and so wanted a Hermione wand.
And Savannah wanted a Luna Lovegood wand.
They purchased their own unique wands at Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, makers of fine wands since 382 BC.
Ollivanders is a cool shop with towering walls filled with thousands of boxes of wands stacked to the ceiling, but it gets super crowded inside with not a lot of room to move!
You can purchase character wand replicas or buy an Interactive Wand for $50 like our kids and cast spells like a wizard to create amazing magical experiences throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
This was one of our kids favorite things to do at Universal Studios, as they brought aspects of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter park to life.
There are plaques on the ground spaced out around the park showing how to cast the spell and where to aim your wand, plus helpful park wizards on to help – a few of them were a little tricky!
Get your wand first thing on the first day, so you have time to play.
15. What Should I Bring?
If you do all three parks, you’ll be spending a lot of time on your feet walking from ride to ride and waiting in lines. Heels are probably not a good idea, and it might be best to wear shoes that can handle getting wet.
Dress for the Weather
Florida weather can change often, depending on time of year. It could be warm during the day, then you encounter an afternoon shower in the spring and summer. Or an evening chill in the fall and winter.
If you plan on getting wet on rides, or doing Volcano Bay, or hanging by the hotel pool, don’t forget your swimwear. You can even wear your swimsuits under your clothes at the parks.
And if you plan on dining out at a nice restaurant, or sneaking away to a club in City Walk, pack something a little dressy.
It’s Florida. They get a lot of sun down there. Don’t forget your hat, sunglasses and sun lotion.
Can you bring food into Universal Studios?
Acceptable items you can take inside include:
- Bottled water
- Small snacks that do not require heating
- Food required for medical purposes
- Food required for special dietary needs
- Baby food/baby formula
16. Have a Plan, But Stay Flexible
Your kids will be full of energy and excitement when you walk through the gates and they’ll want to race around and do EVERYTHING at once.
I know our kids did. And it’s hard to contain their excitement and know what to do and when.
So have a rough plan of what you want to do.
Prioritise the rides and attractions you MOST want to do and focus on those first.
- Use the Universal Orlando app to keep an eye on wait times and to decide where to go next
- Purchase Universal Express Passes
- Have a plan, but be flexible
17. Our Top 10 Attractions at Universal Orlando
Here are our tips for the Universal Orlando parks so you don’t miss some of the best rides and attractions!
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster (Islands of Adventure)
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Islands of Adventure)
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (Universal Studios)
- Krakatau Aqua Coaster (Volcano Bay
- Butterbeer (both parks)
- Revenge of the Mummy (Islands of Adventure)
- Ko’kiri body plunge, Kala & Tui Nui Serpentine Body Slides (Volcano Bay)
- Rip Ride Rockit Coaster (Islands of Adventure)
- Buying wands and being a wizard (both parks)
- Flight of the Hippogriff (Islands of Adventure)
Check out our video of Universal Orlando Resort where we share our top 11 experiences with a bonus one!
18. Why You Should Not Forget Travel Insurance
As we always say…“If you can’t afford travel insurance, then you can’t afford to travel”. It’s that simple.
Not having travel insurance is not worth the risk, and this is one of our important tips for Universal Orlando.
What happens if:
- You need to cancel your trip unexpectedly
- A hurricane damages your destination
- There is a terrorist event
- You get sick or injured on your trip
- Your luggage is lost or stolen
Travel insurance is designed to cover unexpected medical emergencies and events such as those.
Anything can, will, and sometimes goes wrong. If it does and you are not insured, you can be up for a lot of money AND inconvenience.