When it first opened, Universal Orlando featured one theme park, Universal Studios Florida–and that was pretty much everything. While its rides, shows, and attractions were always E-Ticket worthy and on par with Disney, it was considered a one-day diversion from the Mousey competitor a few miles down the highway.
However, through the years, Universal has added a second theme park, Islands of Adventure, along with a water park, a slew of hotels, and a massive dining, shopping, and entertainment complex. To fully appreciate all the resort offers, it can no longer be experienced in one day. With about 23 million visitors a year, it is now a worthy competitor to Walt Disney World in scale and quality. There is much to enjoy, but also lots to consider as you plan your visit to the world-class theme park resort, including when to visit, must-see attractions (including some themed to the Harry Potter films), how to use Universal’s Virtual Line system, where to stay, and what to eat. Let’s get to it.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit: If you have the flexibility to plan your trip during less crowded times, you’ll be able to spend less time waiting in lines, spend more time experiencing the attractions and everything else Universal has to offer, and, if you would like, enjoy the resort at a more leisurely pace. You’ll also spend less money because Universal uses a surge pricing model for both its park tickets and its hotels and charges less for both during the slower periods. Less crowded times generally include January to mid-February, April, early May, September, and October (at which time you could check out the incredible Halloween Horror Nights), early November, and early December.
In terms of Florida’s weather, keep in mind that the heat and humidity can be intense from late spring through early fall. Also, hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through the end of November, with August through October being the most problematic period on average. You might consider buying travel insurance to help offset any interruptions caused by hurricanes.
Getting Around: A car is not necessary to navigate around the resort. In fact, Universal Orlando is so compact (especially compared to the sprawling Walt Disney World), and the resort’s transportation systems are so good, you probably wouldn't want to use a car once you are on the property. To travel between the hotels, theme parks, and the CityWalk dining and shopping area, options include water taxis and buses. You could also hoof it on a lovely garden path. Keep in mind that the two theme parks border CityWalk.
The Volcano Bay water park is located behind the Aventura Hotel and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Guests staying at those properties have a dedicated entrance to the park. Other guests would need to take a shuttle bus.
Travel Tip: All guests staying at Universal’s on-property hotels, regardless of the tier level, can take advantage of Early Park Admission–so take advantage of it! Get into the theme parks an hour before the general public and check out both of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands and their attractions, as well as select other attractions before the lines start swelling. Volcano Bay water park also opens exclusively for hotel guests each morning.
Also, be sure to download the official Universal Orlando Resort app to take advantage of all of its features and resources. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the resort’s Virtual Line program, which you can access via the app. It will allow you to make onsite reservations for certain rides and attractions. Learn more about how to skip the lines at Universal Orlando.
Things to Do
Universal Orlando's raison d'etre, naturally, is its theme parks and its mind-blowing rides and attractions, many of which are among the best in the U.S. (and the world, for that matter). The original park, Universal Studios Florida, is an ode to Hollywood and the movies and television shows created there. When it first opened, the park was a bit more about taking guests behind the scenes to reveal the moviemaking process. Now, it’s all about transporting visitors to the mythical worlds of famous films and shows. The second gate, Islands of Adventure, is more of a fantasy-focused theme park, with islands devoted to Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Marvel superheroes, Dr. Seuss, and more.
- There is plenty to see and do at the two theme parks. Still, you’ll want to make sure you experience Universal Orlando’s best rides and attractions, especially if you’ll only have a limited amount of time to visit the resort.
- You simply have to hop aboard your broomstick and head over to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is one of the most lavishly themed park lands ever created. Actually, there are two Potter lands, one in each theme park. You could even magically travel between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley aboard the Hogwarts Express train.
- The theme parks are fabulous but consider donning your bathing suit and discovering Volcano Bay, the resort’s wild water park. Among its attractions are three of the most intense water slides in Florida–and beyond.
Note that many of the parks’ attractions are considerably more intense than those offered at Walt Disney World, which you can discover in our rundown of the most thrilling rides at Universal Orlando. If young ones are accompanying you, refer to our list of the best Universal Orlando rides for kids.
What to Eat and Drink
If “theme park food” conjures images of fried dough and burgers, Universal Orlando is decidedly a few steps above that (although there are plenty of places to get casual fare throughout the resort). There are dining spots inside the theme parks, at CityWalk, and Universal’s hotels, with dozens to explore. You could get chic, sophisticated (read: expensive) fare at Bice Ristorante at the Portofino Bay Hotel, savor a high-end steak at The Palm Restaurant outpost at Hard Rock Hotel, or try the eclectic menu at the highly themed Mythos Restaurant inside Islands of Adventure. If you want to try something more casual, consider the whimsical Green Eggs and Ham Cafe (and yes, the signature item is a green egg and ham sandwich) at Islands of Adventure or the Potter-approved menu at the Leaky Cauldron in Universal Studios Florida.
For dessert, you could get an absurdly large pink-frosted donut at Lard Lad Donuts in Springfield, the Simpsons’ city that Universal brings to life with delightful humor and style. Then take a seat at the bar at Moe’s Tavern and wash it down with an actual Duff Beer. Whatever you do, do NOT leave Universal Orlando without tying at least one butterbeer-infused item, especially the highly addictive frozen butterbeer drink.
Explore our articles on Universal Orlando’s best table service restaurants, the resort’s best quick-service restaurants, and its best snacks and desserts.
Where to Stay
You could stay at a hotel along International Drive or elsewhere in the Orlando area and perhaps save some money (although it’s hard to beat the prices at the resort’s value properties). Still, there are compelling reasons to stay at a Universal hotel, including early admission as well as easy access to the parks. Operated by Loews Hotels, the choices include the Premier level Portofino Bay, the Hard Rock Hotel, and the Royal Pacific; the Preferred level Sapphire Falls Resort; the Prime Value level Cabana Bay Resort and Aventura Hotel; and the Value level Surfside Inn and Suites and Dockside Inn and Suites at the Endless Summer Resort.
Check out our picks for the best hotels at Universal Orlando.
The mani airport serving Universal Orlando is Orlando International Airport. To travel between the airport and the resort, you could rent a car if you plan to visit other places or you could take a taxi or shared car service. The airport’s largest hotel shuttle operator is Mears Destination Services. Another option is Universal's SuperStar Shuttle.
Money Saving Tips
- Purchase Universal theme park tickets in advance. You’ll pay less than you would for the same passes if you bought them at the gate, and you’ll save time because you won’t have to wait in the ticket line.
- Even though it would cost more per night to book a room at one of Universal’s Premier level hotels, you might want to consider it. That’s because all guests of those properties receive complimentary Universal Express Unlimited ride passes (which allow holders to bypass the regular lines) as part of the room rate. The passes can sell for as much as $150 per person during busy periods, thereby making the hotel rates a good deal, especially at the lower-priced Royal Pacific.
- Check Universal Orlando’s deals and offers. The resort often offers packages that combine hotel stays and park passes and limited-time ticket specials that can save some serious vacation dollars.
- In 2021, Universal Orlando began offering a Military Freedom Pass for members of the military and veterans. The discounted passes need to be purchased at an authorized Military Ticket & Travel Office. Universal also offers discounted vacation packages and discounted stays at on-property hotels for members of the military.