Tips for Seeing Universal Studios Orlando in One Day

Cindy Richards Avatar

Welcome sign at Universal Studios Orlando
Universal Orlando Resort welcome sign. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

My cousin and I had one day at Universal Studios Orlando with the desire to see and experience as much as we could. A long day and 19,954 steps later, we fell into bed exhausted but happy.  Here are our tips for seeing Universal Studios, with tips for what it’s OK to miss!

Note that this one-day touring plan does not include a visit to Volcano Bay, Universal’s waterpark. That is a whole day all on its own. We’ve also got tips for first time visitors to Volcano Bay and information about using the waterpark’s Tapu Tapu wristband.

Read More: The Complete Guide to Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando Resort.

Make a Plan

It’s always important to do a little research before heading into one of the giant theme parks, whether you’re heading to Universal, Walt Disney World, Cedar Point, Six Flags or one of the many other theme parks that dot the country.

Each one is filled with fun and it’s easy to get distracted by the eye candy of the colorful signs, hidden features and, of course, the treats.

But you’re on a mission to see as much, ride as much and experience as much as you can in one day. So spend some time studying the theme park maps, reading about each ride or experience and deciding which are your must-dos so you don’t miss them.

Our Plan

The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Orlando Resort
The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Orlando Resort. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

On the theory that you can get launched at high speeds and turned upside at just about any big theme park, we skipped most of the themed roller coasters, including Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the Jurassic Park VelociCoaster and the Incredible Hulk Coaster.

Instead, we focused on the ride experiences like Men in Black: Alien Attack, the silly The Simpsons Ride and the sweet E.T. Adventure that are unique to Universal.

We also chose not to ride any of the water rides such as the Jurassic Park River Adventure and Dudley Do Rights Ripsaw Falls. The temperature was only in the 70s during our visit so we didn’t need or want to be soaking wet. If you love those rides, plan to wear clothes that dry quickly.

SheBuysTravel Tip: You won’t be allowed to take anything onto the big rides, so you’ll need to store purses and packs in lockers nearby. If possible, plan to carry only small bags. They’ll fit inside the small lockers that rent for free with the bar code on your ticket. If you have bigger bags, you’ll need to pay for the locker rental.

Choose the Right Time of the Year to Visit

A empty ride queue at Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon at Universal Studios Florida.
Tip for making the most of one day at Universal Orlando: Get there when it opens and head to the back of the park first. You might find you’re the first person in line to ride, like we were at Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

We visited on November 1, 2021 — the day after Universal’s popular Halloween event and before the Christmas celebration starts. It was a Monday during the school year. Crowds were very small. Even the most popular rides had standard wait times of 60 minutes or less.

It would be far more difficult to cover both parks in one day during the summer or school holidays.

Download the App

screenshot of the Universal Orlando Resort app
Screenshot of the Universal Orlando Resort app. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

The official Universal Orlando Resort app is available free from your app store. Download it and spend some time playing around. That way, when you get into the parks, you’ll be able to easily look up ride wait times, pre-order food through the app to cut down on food wait times and always know exactly where you are in the parks.

As a directionally challenged person, I found the interactive map to be the most important feature of the app. I loved seeing that little blue dot that was me. And I loved that it moved along with me as I walked to show me that, in fact, I had turned the wrong way and had to turn around if I wanted to ride Skull Island: Reign of Kong.

Get There Early

If you only have one day, you don’t want to miss a minute of it. We were in line at Guest Services to pick up our tickets at 8:30am, ahead of the park opening at 9. We tried the self-service kiosks, but weren’t able to get our tickets there so we had to stand in line waiting for a human to help us. Luckily, the line was not long.

Consider Buying Express Passes

Sign advertising Universal Express Pass for sale at the Jurassic Park gift shop.
If you wish you had bought a Universal Express Pass to help you do more in 1 day at Universal, you can buy them in any theme park gift shop. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

This is a pricey option. Express passes, which allow you access a faster ride line, cost $89.99 per person (in November 2021). That is in addition to the theme park admission.

That price gives you fast pass access once for each ride. There’s also a more expensive Universal Express Unlimited Pass ($119 per person in November 2021) that gives you unlimited ride access. Don’t bother with the upgrade. If you want to cover both parks, you’ll only have time to ride each ride once.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you don’t want to spring for the express passes and your kids are old enough to ride alone, consider the single rider line for rides where it’s available. People in that line get placed on rides with strangers to fill in a row. You won’t ride together, but you’ll cover more ground faster.

Read More: Why it’s not always smart to buy your Universal Express Pass online before you head to the parks. 

Choose Your Starting Point

There are two parts to this: Choosing which theme park you’ll visit first and then choosing where you’ll start in that park.

My cousin was, shall we say, less than excited about riding the big coasters like the Jurassic World VelociCoaster and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. So we opted to start smaller, in Universal Studios, where the rides were more CGI thrills than actual zippy roller coaster thrills. We also wanted to end our day in Islands of Adventure, which was open until 7pm, an hour later than Universal Studios.

Then we chose where to start. Since we arrived the moment the park opened, every ride was available, but the lines already were starting to form at the rides just inside the entrance. We headed to the back of the park where we rode Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, Transformers: The Ride 3D, Revenge of the Mummy and Fast and Furious – Supercharged in less than 40 minutes.

Should I Start in Harry Potter World?

Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort
Muggles abound at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

This is most certainly an important question. If you’re a family of Harry Potter fans heading to Universal to be steeped in All Things Wizarding, then by all means, start at Islands of Adventure.

Make your first stop Ollivanders wand shop to buy the kids (and you!) magical interactive wands. The lines here get verrrrry long. So do it first before the crowds arrive.

The wands come with a map to magical spots throughout the park where you can stand on a marker and wave your wand while uttering a magical incantation to make it rain, turn on the lights, open a book or some other mystical event.

Another argument for spending the morning exploring All Things Wizarding: This section of the park is especially popular with tweens and teens. And tweens and teens like to sleep in. So the crowds grow significantly in the afternoon. The shortest lines for the best rides at Islands of Adventure — Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — will be early in the day.

Riding the Hogwarts Express

Hogwarts Express train at Universal Orlando Resort.
Even with an Express Pass, the wait for the Hogwarts Express was long enough to make Harry Potter unhappy and take a chunk of time from our busy schedule. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Your park-to-park ticket entitles you to a ride on the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross Station in Universal Studios Florida to Hogsmeade Station at Islands of Adventure. This experience is not available if you buy a one park ticket.

If you have the time, ride it both ways for different experiences. But unless you do it very early in your one day, you likely won’t have time. Even with our Express Passes, we waited more than 20 minutes for the 4 minute train ride.

Eat Early. Or Late.

A nearly empty Louie's Italian restaurant at Universal Studios Florida.
Plan to eat before the lunch rush and you might find a nearly empty Louie’s Italian restaurant at Universal Studios Florida. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Obviously, the key here is to eat when others aren’t so you don’t spend time waiting in line. Mobile ordering through the app helps too.

My cousin and I had skipped breakfast to get on the road early to head to the parks. So we were hungry when the restaurants opened for lunch at 11. We were among the first customers, so we got our food quickly and had time to eat without rushing.

Skip the Butterbeer

Yes, it’s a sweet treat and fun to say you’ve tried butterbeer, the favorite drink of wizards and witches. But it’s a hot ticket at The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade and The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley. That means long lines. And long lines (with no express pass access) are the enemy of people who want to see as much of Universal as they can in just one very busy day.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If your kids will be disappointed not to get a butterbeer at Universal, make them butterbeer at home with these recipes.

Decide on the Shows

Blue Brothers stage show at Universal Studios Florida.
There are little shows happening all around the theme parks, but they can be hard to plan during 1 day visit to Universal. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

My one disappointment in our day was missing The Bourne Stuntacular show. But the showtimes simply didn’t work for our schedule. We needed to catch the Hogwarts Express to Universal’s Islands of Adventure to get on with our packed day.

Unlike rides, which you ride at the time of your choosing, the shows happen at set times that work better for visitors who plan to spend one entire day in each of the theme parks. Lucky for us, there are mini shows happening all of the time throughout the parks. We did catch a rockin’ Blue Brothers show.

Stay on Property (If You Can)

While there are lots of hotel options near Universal Studios Florida, staying at an official Universal hotel can give you a big boost when you have only one day to spend in the parks. Here’s why:

Early Park Admission: This hotel perk gives you an extra hour in one of the parks and early access to certain rides. In November 2021, early admission is for Islands of Adventure and the attractions open early are Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff, Jurassic World VelociCoaster and (this might be the most important one) Ollivanders. This is a huge time saver if you only have one day to spend at the park because those attractions typically have the longest waits.

Easy Access to the Parks: The hotels offer free water taxis, shuttles and walking trails between your hotel and the theme parks.

Universal Express Unlimited Pass: This perk is included for guests of the “premier” category Universal hotels. Yes, these can be pricey hotels. But if you are visiting with a family of four, you’ll all get express unlimited passes, which would cost $476 per day if you had to buy them. That makes a $500 hotel room seem far less expensive.

Accept that You Can’t Do it All

Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure really are one day parks or even more-than-one-day parks. There is so much to do at each that they deserve a whole day all on their own.

But life doesn’t always gives us the time we need. So accept that you will miss some things on this race through Universal. That’s why it’s so important to have a list of your must-ride rides, must-see shows and must-eat treats before you go.

Reward Yourself with Dinner in CityWalk

Restaurant sign at Universal CityWalk
Just a few of the many restaurant choices at Universal CityWalk. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Universal CityWalk is packed with great places to eat. While the lines grew quickly once the theme parks closed, we got a table at the bar at Big Fire and had a lovely relaxed dinner to end our very energetic day.

Where to Buy Discounted Universal Tickets

SheBuysTravel recommends purchasing your Universal tickets through Get Away Today. Not only does the company have the lowest prices, it offers a best price guarantee. If you ever find park tickets cheaper, Get Away Today won’t just match the price, the company will beat it. If you call to make your purchase be sure to mention SheBuysTravel!

5 responses

  1. Hi,

    My fiance and I are planning our honeymoon in Disney next spring (Apr 29-May 6). He LOVES Universal! I’ve never been. Do you think it’s possible to do both Universal parks in 1 day? We’d also like to spend some time at City Walk. We could start at early as park opening and stay until 5 or 6. Or would you recommend 2 days?


    1. 2 adults & a 10-yr old boy spent 2 days, but we rode many rides 2 or 3 times. We entered 1 hr early (was staying at Hard Rock), left ~6pm each night . The combination of 1-hr early admittance and the included ExpressPass meant we finished early every day, despite riding many rides 2 or 3 times. Could’ve been done in 1 day easily, at the pace we were walking. It was Easter ( medium-sized crowds). We didnt spend any time in the shops. Had i been there without the boy, would’ve done more looking/shopping, especially in WWHP and CityWalk. If you’re going in the summer or Christmas or Spring Break, and don’t get early-admission and don’t get the ExpressPass, you’ll need 2 days (or you’ll have to forfeit some rides/exploration).

  2. 4

  3. 5

  4. 4.5

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *