There are similarities between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. Both are destination resorts with great theme parks, wonderful attractions, fine hotels, delicious restaurants, and plenty of ways to have fun. Also, both attract lots of visitors and generate long lines—sometimes painfully long—at their wonderful attractions.
Unlike Disney World, which offers the complementary MyMagic+ trip planning program and includes free FastPass+ ride reservations, Universal does not have a comparable program. (It used to, but it eliminated it.) Unless you do your homework and some strategic planning, you might have to suffer through some painfully long lines before you get to ride with Harry Potter and his pals. That’s where we can help.
There ARE ways to skip, or at least minimize the lines at both of the resorts' theme parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, as well as its water park, Volcano Bay. Let’s review the options so that you’ll be able to do and see as much as possible during your next visit.
Option 1: Visit During a Less Crowded Time.
Perhaps the best strategy to avoid long lines, especially if you don't plan to stay at one of Universal Orlando’s resorts, is to visit during the off season. That way, fewer people will be at the parks, and the lines should be fairly manageable. It’s unlikely you’d be able to walk onto any rides or attractions, but you should be able to get onto many more of them than during busier times of the year.
Option 2: Stay at a Universal Orlando Hotel
Run in conjunction with Loew’s Hotels, the on-property resorts at Universal are all wonderful. They have endearing themes, most offer relatively short walks to the parks and all of the action, they have great amenities, and they are fine hotels in their own right. Three of them, however, offer an incredible benefit: All guests receive Universal Express passes that allow them to skip the lines at nearly all of the rides.
The benefit is available to guests staying at Universal’s deluxe properties: Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, and Hard Rock Hotel. If you choose to stay at any of the three hotels, it really doesn’t matter what time of year you visit. Even during the most crowded times, you could sashay up to a ride attendant, flash your skip-the-line card, and bypass the standby line for most attractions.
Staying at any of Universal’s hotels, even the ones that don’t offer Universal Express, would still help you avoid lines, however. Hotel guests, including those who stay at “Prime Value” properties such as the Cabana Bay Resort and the “Value” hotels at Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, get exclusive early admission to both Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands, Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. If you take advantage of the benefit, you’d get a jump on the general public and encounter much shorter lines than later in the day.
Option 3: Purchase a Universal Express Pass
If you do not stay at an on-property hotel, you could still skip the lines at most of the rides by buying a pass. (Unlike Disney World, which offers its Fastpass+ ride reservation system at no additional charge, at Universal you have to pay to play.) The passes come in two varieties: Express Pass and Express Unlimited Pass. The former works like the hotel’s skip-the-line program. You show your pass and move to the front of the queue. The pass entitles users to cut the line once on each of the participating attractions. As its name implies, the Unlimited Pass allows users to cut the line and ride each participating attraction as many times as they wish.
Volcano Bay offers an Express pass also. It allows users to skip the lines one time each on eligible attractions, including the Krakatau Aqua Coaster.
By the way, the highly popular Wizarding World attractions, Hogwarts Express, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts did not used to be included in the Universal Express program. As of 2018, however, the Express passes are accepted for the Potter rides.
Express Pass holders, like hotel guests, could visit any time of year and avoid the lines. However, the prices of the passes vary according to the time of the year. You’ll end up paying a premium—in some cases a hefty one—to purchase an Express pass during the most crowded seasons. (Similarly, the room rates at the on-property hotels are higher during the busier seasons. It’s all the more reason to plan your visit during less crowded times of the year if possible.)
Option 4: Use Universal’s Virtual Line Program
Starting in 2017, Universal Orlando began offering its Virtual Line system. It is currently available for five attractions, including Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Fast & Furious – Supercharged, both at Universal Studios Florida. Using Universal’s phone app or kiosks at the rides, visitors make reservations to visit the attractions. At the appointed times, they show their phones or printed passes and are admitted into the show buildings. Once guests enter, there are still waits (generally about 20 minutes) to board the actual rides.
The Virtual Line system is also available for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, the Harry Potter- themed roller coaster that opened in 2019 at Islands of Adventure. After it debuted, the attraction has been experiencing downtime. Based on how the coaster is performing and demand, the Virtual Line program may not be available for the Hagrid ride when you visit.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Universal introduced two additional attractions to the Virtual Line program: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and Revenge of the Mummy, both at Universal Studios Florida. By scheduling reservations in advance, the park is able to limit the number of people in the queues, which helps maintain social distancing. It's likely that the added attractions will still incorporate Virtual Line after the threat of the pandemic has passed.
The only way to get on most of the slides and rides at the resort’s water park, Volcano Bay, is by using Virtual Line and making reservations in the park. Visitors receive “TapuTapu” wearable, waterproof bracelets to make reservations. It is a clever system.
Option 5: Purchase a VIP Experience
If you are rolling in the dough, you could book a VIP Experience. You'd be part of a small tour group, and a Universal guide would escort you around one or both parks. You'd get front-of the-line access to all attractions. In addition, VIP Experience group members receive valet parking, continental breakfast, special meetups with characters, and exclusive seating and viewing areas for shows. The cost varies based on the number of parks you want to visit and the time of year you want to take the tour. Regardless, it is a pricey option.