[Note: I fully intended to publish this during our trip but decided to hold off until this week for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want to have to go in and update the blog after I was able to explore. Second, this was a really busy conference and I just didn’t have the time to finish.]
Way back when I first worked for The Mouse, Universal Studios Orlando was a much-loved theme park but was also generally considered a single-day destination. Not anymore. The opening of Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Loews Portofino Bay Resort in 1999, followed closely by the openings of The Hard Rock Hotel (2001) and Loews Royal Pacific Hotel (2002), expanded the attractiveness of a multi-day visit to this Resort. Still, by “multi-day visit” I would still probably only had stayed a maximum of 3-nights.
It wasn’t until the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (2010) and Universal’s Volcano Bay (2017) that I began considering this to be a true destination upon itself. Between the two theme parks, the water park, Universal’s City Walk (a shopping, dining, and entertainment district), and the numerous attractions and amenities offered at the, now, seven Universal Orlando Resort hotels, there is enough to see and do to see and do to keep anyone happy for at least a week’s vacation. With the recently announced addition of a fourth theme park, Universal’s Epic Universe, the Resort is truly doing a great job of keeping with it’s much larger competitor down the road on its toes.
As destination resorts like this grow, it can be really hard to keep up with everything there is to see, do, and eat during your stay. To help with your planning, here are some of my top tips for visiting the Universal Studios Orlando theme parks and resorts:
1. Stay On-site – I always highly recommend staying on-site at the Universal Orlando Resort hotel. Not only are you in very close proximity to everything there is to see and do at the resort but the perks are excellent:
a. Daily early entry to Universal’s Volcano Bay and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (worth every pennyif you are a Potter-head to be able to waltz in to Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade/all the rides with virtually no crowds);
b. Complimentary resort transportation;
c. Resort-wide charging abilities (so nice not to have to take your wallet everywhere);
d. Priority seating at select restaurants;
e. Complimentary merchandise delivery to your hotel;
f. For guests of Loews Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific: Free Universal Express Pass with stay (this is a HUGE perk and can be quite pricey when purchased separately; highly recommended if you can swing it).
2. Visit when school is in session – I realize this isn’t feasible for everyone but this basically goes for any Orlando destination. If it’s a school holiday anywhere in the country, Orlando will be busy. Work with an agent who is familiar with the destination to avoid the crowds.
3. Download the Universal Orlando Resort app – This is going to be your friend during your visit. Not only can you look up ride times but you can see maps of the entire resort, find restaurants and look at menus, and even select “Kids” to filter out appropriate attractions for the little ones. Universal has also set up a Virtual Line on a number of rides for guests who didn’t opt for Express Passes. You can also set up notifications so that the app will alert you when ride times hit a level you are comfortable with.
4. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – This advice is specific to this point in time as this is such a new ride. The operating hours for Hagrid’s vary. They don’t always open this attraction with the park and it tends to “reach capacity” an hour or two prior to closing. My recommendation is to hit Islands of Adventure early and set up a notification in the Universal Orlando app to let you know when the ride opens. Then hightail it to Hogsmeade to jump in line before waits hit the typical 180-230+ minutes.
5. Pack Light – Unlike Disney, Universal does not accommodate even small bags on a large number of their rides. On the more intense coasters, they also do not allow cell phones or other small electronics and have set up metal detectors to ensure guests don’t sneak anything onboard. I found it fairly amusing to watch all the dads, including my own, get turned back from Hulk for having phones in their pockets. For some reason, dads don’t like to leave their cell phones behind. Universal does offer complimentary small lockers at rides with restrictions. The lockers will either use the barcode from your ticket or your fingerprint for access, depending on the location. For larger backpacks or tote-style bags, you may be forced to rent a large locker at each ride. Something to keep in mind as you plan for your day.
6. Volcano Bay – As a water park, Volcano Bay is distinct among the three Universal gates. As such, there are a few things to consider before you go:
a. Go early. This place fill up, especially on hot days. As a destination where you typically need to rent a locker and/or lay claim to a few lounge chairs, getting to the park at open is definitely advisable. Even more so than the other two parks.
b. Bring your own towel. Unlike the resort pools, they aren’t complimentary.
c. Set up your Tapu Tapu (smart wristband) account before you go to speed things up on arrival.
d. Don’t forget your hat and plenty of sunscreen. It’s Florida and sunburns happen frequently.