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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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!