Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Universal Orlando Resort Vacation

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From rides to food to which park is best for which age kid, learn everything you need to know about Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
Universal Orlando Resort has something for everyone. Photo Credit: Universal Orlando

With two theme parks and a fabulous waterpark, there’s something for everyone at the Universal Orlando Resort. If you think your children are too little for a Universal Studios theme park vacation, think again. Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay offer attractions for children of all ages. Get recommendations for what not to miss, how to make the most of one day at Universal, where to stay on property, as well as the operations and safety updates regarding COVID-19 in this Complete Guide to Universal Studios Orlando.

How Many Theme Parks at Universal Orlando?

Universal Orlando Resort is home to two theme parks and a fabulous new waterpark.

There’s something for everyone between Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, as well as Universal’s Volcano Bay.

Universal Studios Florida

Immerse yourself into the world of film at Universal Studios Florida. This park offers cutting-edge attractions and experiences. Ride action-packed thrill rides, meet Minions, and fly high with E.T. Immerse yourself into the world of The Simpsons in Springfield, USA.

First and foremost, make sure to try the giant pink doughnut! You’ll thank me later. Race through New York City with Jimmy Fallon and select your own magical wand at Ollivanders in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley.

Read More: 30+ fun things to do in Orlando with kids on the days when you’re not in Universal Studios theme parks.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure

Experience the world’s greatest stories at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Visit Marvel Super Hero Island where you can come face-to-face with your favorite Marvel characters. Spend the day in Jurassic Park and face your fears at Skull Island: Reign of Kong.

For a milder experience, head to the land of Whoville at Seuss Landing. And, of course, you won’t want to miss Universal’s biggest attraction, the magical village of Hogsmeade in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal’s Volcano Bay

Volcano Bay is the place to cool off on a hot Florida day – or stay warm on a cool one. The water is heated to 85 degrees! This is the waterpark home of TapuTapu, the waterproof wearable device that holds your place in a virtual line, one attraction at a time.

Not up for waterslides? You can rent a private cabana to relax with concierge services throughout the day. Grab an inner tube and float through the tropical landscape on Kopiko Wai Winding River.  The amazing wave pool at Waturi Beach is another hot spot to swim, splash and relax the day away.

The waterpark will reopen on Feb. 27, 2021. Our partners at Get Away Today have a great deal: a discount on 4-day 2 and 3-park tickets to Universal Orlando Resort that ends up costing less than a 2-day ticket.

Read More: Tips for First Time Visitors to Universal’s Volcano Bay Waterpark

Universal CityWalk

Universal CityWalk is an entertainment district filled with fabulous restaurants and bars as well as shopping. In fact, you’ll find more than 26 CityWalk restaurants to satisfy everyone in your group. CityWalk is THE place for late night cocktails. You can dance the night away at The Red Coconut Club or waste away in Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.

Located on the West Coast? You can experience the same magic at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles.

Read More: Why Universal Studios Hollywood is Better Than Disneyland

What are the Ticketing Options at Universal Orlando?

Universal Orlando offers a variety of theme park ticket options. You can choose from Park-to-Park (the BEST option), Base Tickets, or the 3-Park Unlimited Ticket.

It should be noted: The only way to experience everything the resort has to offer is with a 3-Park Ticket. The 3-Park ticket includes access to Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay.

Need help planning your Universal trip? Join our Universal Orlando Tips & Planning Facebook Group!

Park-to-Park Tickets

Park-to-Park tickets allow you to visit multiple parks per day. The 2-Park, Park-to-Park ticket includes admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

The 3-Park, Park-to-Park ticket includes admission to both of these parks, as well as Volcano Bay.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The ONLY way you can ride the Hogwarts Express is with a Park-to-Park ticket.

Base Tickets

The Universal Base Ticket allows you to visit one park per day. The 2-Park Base ticket includes admission each day to either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure.

The 3-Park Base ticket includes admission each day to either Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, or Volcano Bay.

3-Park Unlimited Ticket

If you’re planning to stay longer than 5 days the 3-Park Unlimited Ticket is without a doubt the way to go. The 3-Park Unlimited Ticket includes 14 consecutive days** of unlimited park-to-park admission each day to all three parks.

**Beginning first day any portion of the ticket is used

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, but it also 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!

Is Universal Express Pass Worth It?

If you’re looking to maximize your experience at Universal Orlando, you should absolutely consider adding the Universal Express Pass.

So, what exactly is the Universal Express Pass? With Express Pass, you can skip the regular lines at participating rides and attractions. Similar to the FastPass+ system at the Walt Disney World Resort, there is a special line for Express Pass users. It should be noted there are two different types of Express Pass to choose from.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Read this so you know when NOT to buy an Express Pass!

Universal Express Pass

The Universal Express Pass is valid for one time per ride only at participating rides and attractions. You can add the Universal Express Pass as a 2-Park or 1-Park enhancement to your tickets.

The prices for Universal Express Pass will vary based on travel dates.

Universal Express Pass Unlimited

The Universal Express Pass Unlimited provides unlimited ride access at participating rides and attractions each day the pass is valid. (No, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is not included.) Undoubtedly, this is the best Express Pass option. You can add the Express Pass Unlimited as a 3-Park, 2-Park or 1-Park enhancement.

Note: Prices for Universal Express Pass Unlimited will vary based on your travel dates.

Is Universal Express Pass Similar to Disney’s FastPass+?

While the Express Pass lines are similar to the FastPass+ lines at the Walt Disney World Resort, there are some major differences between the two.

Unlike Disney’s FastPass+ system, Universal Express Pass is only complimentary to guest staying at one of Universal’s three on-site premier resort hotels. If you are staying elsewhere, you’ll have to pay for your line-skipping. Unlike Disney’s FastPass+,  the Universal Express Pass does not require advance reservations.

If you have Express Pass Unlimited, you can skip the regular lines at ALL participating rides and attractions throughout the day. Unquestionably, this is a huge benefit if you’re visiting during peak season.

How Much Does Express Pass Cost?

The Universal Express Pass is expensive. Anyone not staying at one of the three on-site premier resort hotels will have to pay to add it to their tickets. As of February, 2021, Universal Express Pass Unlimited cost approximately $89.99, per person, per day.

If you want the Express Pass, consider booking a room at one of the resorts where it is complimentary. Loews Royal Pacific Resort is the least expensive of the premier resorts.

Read More: Why You Should Never Buy Your Universal Express Pass Online

What are the Best Restaurants at Universal Orlando?

With more than 100 different dining locations throughout the Universal Orlando theme parks, including quick-service and table service restaurant options, where are the best places to eat?

Below are my favorites broken down by location.

Universal CityWalk Restaurants

CityWalk is the place to go for dining and entertainment. You can’t go wrong with Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, or Vivo Italian Kitchen.

For a unique dining experience try The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar or Toothsome Chocolate Emporium.

Universal Studios Florida Restaurants

Universal Studios Florida is home to 30 different dining locations. If you’re in the mood for a quick bite, I recommend Mel’s Drive In or the Leaky Cauldron. The food is as fabulous as the theming. Table service options inside the park include Finnegan’s Bar & Grill and Lombard’s Seafood Grille.

Universal Island of Adventure Restaurants

Islands of Adventure offers 37 different dining options throughout the park. I recommend Cafe 4 and Three Broomsticks for quick-service dining. For a fabulous sit-down meal, check out Confisco Grill or Mytho’s Restaurant.

Universal Volcano Bay Restaurants

There are 6 quick-service dining locations inside Universal’s Volcano Bay. You will absolutely want to try Whakawaiwai Eats for pizza, hot dogs, salads and more. In addition, check out Kohola Reef Restaurant & Social Club for the mouth-watering mango pulled pork sandwiches.

Universal Resort Hotel Restaurants

Choose from more than 40 dining locations at the Universal on-site resort hotels, from quick-service to table service to fine dining.

My favorite resort hotel restaurants include Amatista Cookhouse (Sapphire Falls), Sal’s Market Deli and Mama Della’s Ristorante (Portofino Bay), and the Despicable Me Character Breakfast (Royal Pacific). If you are looking for an upscale fine dining location, make reservations at Bice Ristorante at Loews Portofino Bay Resort.

Universal Dining Plan

Universal Dining Plans are NOT the same as those found down the street at Walt Disney World. While there are some similarities, there are more differences.

There are some things I like better about the Universal Dining Plan and some things I do not. Unlike the Disney dining plan, character dining is NOT included in the Universal Dining Plan. Additionally, most resort restaurants are not included.

Read More: Universal Dining Plan Explained

What You Need to Know About the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is unquestionably my favorite thing about Universal Orlando. The best way to experience this is with a park-to-park ticket.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split into two sections. Hogsmeade can be found in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios Florida. To truly immerse yourself in the magic, you’ll want to ride Hogwarts Express between the two parks. The ONLY way to do that is with a park-to-park ticket.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Hogwarts Express is an attraction in itself. Each trip is a different experience, so make sure to ride it both ways between the two parks.

Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

From rides to food to which park is best for which age kid, learn everything you need to know about Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure is a great place to try Butterbeer. Photo Credit: Universal Orlando

Guests staying at on-site resort hotels are allowed early park admission into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This is the perfect time to stop into Three Broomsticks and eat breakfast.

After breakfast, head over to Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and get in line. This attraction can have particularly long wait times. As a result, guests start lining up well before it opens.

If roller coasters aren’t your thing I would suggest getting in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. If you are prone to motion sickness I would recommend skipping this one altogether.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade

Step inside the magical world of Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The highlight of this land is Hogwarts Castle. Here, you can walk through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry while in line to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Don’t miss the shops! In particular, head to Honeydukes to buy the famous chocolate frogs and Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans.

The highlight here is Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. This is hands down the best roller coaster I have ever ridden. Universal’s Express Pass is not accepted for this attraction so make sure you get in line early. There also are some terrific shows throughout Hogsmeade. You may even be able to participate in the Triwizard Spirit Rally.

Once you’ve experienced everything Hogsmeade has to offer, head over to Hogsmeade Station. Here, you will board the Hogwarts Express to begin your magical journey to King’s Cross Station in London, otherwise known as Diagon Alley.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley

From rides to food to which park is best for which age kid, learn everything you need to know about Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
Gringotts Bank is home to the famous fire breathing dragon. Photo Credit: Universal

Diagon Alley is located inside Universal Studios Florida. Here, you will find magic at every corner, including the famous Knight Bus. The highlight of this area is Gringotts Bank. This is home to Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, a multi-dimensional thrill ride that submerges you into the depths of Gringotts vaults.

You’ll without a doubt want to stop into Ollivanders Wand Shop. It offers replica wands as well as Interactive Wands that let you create magical experiences throughout The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Stop into the Leaky Cauldron for authentic British fare as well as Butterbeer. You’ll also want to stop into Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour where you can find some unique flavors. The Earl Grey & Lavender ice cream is my favorite. Above all, make sure to check out Knockturn Alley, home to the darker side of magic.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Visit Diagon Alley in the evening for a truly magical experience as the dragon on top of Gringotts Bank breathes fire over everyone in the streets.

When you’re finished here, board the Hogwarts Express for the ride back to Hogsmeade Station.

Read More: Secrets of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando

Should you Stay at an On-site Resort Hotel at Universal Orlando?

Yes, a thousand times, yes! Staying in an on-site resort hotel at Universal Orlando is unquestionably the way to go. The perks are simply that good.

  • Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Universal’s Volcano Bay.
  • Complimentary transportation to and from the theme parks and CityWalk.
  • Universal Orlando Character Experiences with some of your favorite theme park characters
  • Complimentary Merchandise Delivery to your hotel from shops throughout Universal. There’s no reason to lug your souvenirs around all day.
  • Resort Wide Charging Privileges with your room key.
  • Wake Up Calls from one of your favorite Universal Orlando characters.

Read More: Which are the best hotels near Universal Studios Orlando?

Extra Perks for Guests Staying at Premier Resort Hotels

Importantly, guests staying in one of on-site Premier Resort Hotels can enjoy the following exclusive benefits:

  • FREE Universal Unlimited Express Unlimited ride access to skip the regular lines at participating rides and attractions at Universal Studios Florida, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. This is NOT valid at Universal’s Volcano Bay.
  • Priority Seating at Select Restaurants throughout Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and CityWalk.

Universal Orlando On-Site Resort Hotels

Universal On-Site Value Resorts

Universal’s Endless Summer Resort recently opened providing guests with larger families the option to stay on-site at a value price point.

Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites

SheBuysTravel Tip: Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites is currently closed as a result of COVID-19. A re-opening date has not yet been released.

This extra affordable resort hotel features 750 rooms and suites. The standard guest rooms sleep up to four guests. Alternatively, the 2-bedroom suites sleep up to six and include a kitchenette. Surfside Inn and Suites has one pool and a splash pad for the kids.

Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites

Dockside Inn and Suites features 2,050 rooms and suites. The room layouts are the same as those offered at Surfside Inn and Suites. Differing from Surfside Inn and Suites, this resort has two resort style pools with a splash pad for the kids.

Universal On-Site Prime Value Resorts

Universal Orlando offers two Prime Value Resorts. These resorts offer everything you can possibly need on vacation at a price point that won’t break the bank.

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort 

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort is retro-themed after the iconic beach resorts of the 1950s and 60s. Accommodations include standard guest rooms that sleep up to four and family suites that sleep up to six.

In addition, there are 2-bedroom family suites that sleep up to eight. The resort features two enormous swimming pools, a water slide, a lazy river, and a 10-lane bowling alley.

Universal’s Aventura Hotel

SheBuysTravel Tip: Universal’s Aventura Hotel is currently closed as a result of COVID-19. A re-opening date has not yet been released.

Universal’s Aventura Hotel opened in August 2018. It features all the latest modern details and technology. Accommodations include standard guest rooms that sleep up to four guests, and specially themed kids suites that will sleep up to five.

Universal On-Site Preferred Resort

Universal features one Preferred Resort that offers even more amenities.

Universal’s Sapphire Falls Resort 

SheBuysTravel Tip: Universal’s Sapphire Falls Resort is currently closed as a result of COVID-19. A re-opening date has not yet been released.

Universal’s Sapphire Falls Resort is a Caribbean-inspired resort hotel with 1,000 guest rooms and suites. Accommodations include standard guest rooms that sleep up to five and several different suite options. The highlight of this resort is the 16,000 square foot, resort-style pool surrounded by cascading waterfalls.

Universal On-Site Premier Resorts

Universal Orlando offers three on-site Premier Resorts that include exclusive benefits: complimentary Universal Unlimited Express Pass, water-taxi transportation to and from the theme parks, and priority seating at select restaurants. In addition, there’s a Club Level option with access to concierge lounges.

Loews Royal Pacific Resort 

Loews Royal Pacific Resort is themed around the island paradises of Fiji, Bali and Hawaii and is the least expensive of the three premier resort hotels.

Accommodations include standard guest rooms as well as amazingly themed suites. The standard guest rooms and the Jurassic Park Kids Suite sleep up to five. Larger families can stay in one of the Hospitality Suites that can sleep up to 11. The lagoon-style swimming pool includes a white sandy beach.

Hard Rock Hotel 

The Hard Rock Hotel is a music lover’s dream, featuring all of your favorite musical memorabilia. Accommodations include standard guest rooms that sleep up to five, along with several themed suite options. The 800-square-foot Future Rock Star Suite accommodates up to five.

Larger families can stay in one of the King Suites, including a 2-bedroom suite that sleeps up to 9, and a 3-bedroom suite that will accommodate up to 13. You can party like a rock star at the 12,000-square-foot pool with an underwater sound system, or request a guitar and amp to be delivered to your room.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel 

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is the most luxurious of the Universal on-site resort hotels. Themed around the Italian Riviera, this European-style resort features three swimming pools, a spa, and deluxe dining options.

Accommodations include standard guest rooms that sleep up to five and several suite options. The Despicable Me Kids Suite sleeps up to five, while the Portofino, Villa and Hospitality Suites can accommodate up to 10.

Is Universal Orlando Just for Older Kids?

Universal Orlando is fun for all ages. A common misconception is that Universal Orlando has nothing to offer young children. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

While many of the attractions do have height restrictions, there is still plenty for the little ones to enjoy, from character interactions to play areas to rides themed for smaller children.

Best Attractions for Children

Below are my top picks for little ones.

  • Seuss Landing. This entire area is geared around children.
  • Pteranodon Flyers (Jurassic Park) is fun for children over 36 inches tall.
  • Camp Jurassic (Jurassic Park). This prehistoric playground is perfect for the little ones.
  • Flight of the Hippogriff (Hogsmeade) A family-friendly roller coaster.
  • Toon Lagoon. Children over 44 inches tall can enjoy all of the attractions here.
  • Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone. This entire land is geared around children and even includes a playground.
  • Shrek 4-D
  • E.T. Adventure
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem is fun for children over 40 inches tall.

Best Attractions for Teens & Adults

From rides to food to which park is best for which age kid, learn everything you need to know about Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
Seuss Landing is the perfect place for small children. Photo Credit: Universal Orlando

The opportunities are endless for tweens, teens and adults. Below are my top picks:

  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
  • TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D
  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
  • MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack
  • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Fast & Furious – Supercharged
  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong

Curious how you can visit Universal Orlando in just one day? While it isn’t the best option, it can certainly be done.

When’s the Best Time of the Year to Visit Universal Orlando Resort?

If you want to visit when crowds are low, I would suggest booking your stay during the months of September or February.

To truly maximize your experience, consider visiting during one of these Universal Orlando Resort annual events.

Halloween Horror Nights

Halloween Horror Nights is held each fall inside Universal Studios Florida. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights features terrifying haunted houses, scare zones and outrageous live entertainment. I would not recommend this event for children under the age of 13.

Christmas in Universal Orlando

Visiting Universal Orlando during the holidays is a truly magical experience. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are transformed with holiday decor, shows and more. In the evenings, The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle unfolds with an amazing projection show.

Don’t miss Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s. With larger than life floats, this parade will make you think you’re watching from New York.

Last but not least, experience The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular. Love the Grinch? Make reservations to dine with him at The Grinch & Friends Character Breakfast.

Universal Studios’ Mardi Gras

From rides to food to which park is best for which age kid, learn everything you need to know about Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
Universal Studios Orlando brings Mardi Gras to life with beautifully themed floats. Photo Credit: Universal Studios Orlando.

The 2021 Mardi Gras experience has been modified due to COVID-19 restrictions. This year’s celebration – Mardi Gras 2021 International Flavors of Carnaval will run from February 6th through March 28th. The highlight this year is the cuisine and entertainment inspired by international Carnaval celebrations. Sample the flavors of Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, Spain and New Orleans. Plus enjoy spectacular floats on display, street entertainment, music, beads and more throughout the theme park.

In non-COVID years, Universal Studios celebrates Mardi Gras on select nights from February through April.This is without a doubt the best event at the Universal Orlando Resort. You’ll enjoy nightly parades, street performers, over-the-top costumes and authentic New Orleans style foods. During Universal Studios’ Mardi Gras Celebration, there are live concerts featuring some of the biggest names on the music industry. Best of all, the festivities are included with your Universal Studios Florida admission.

Universal VIP Experience

With the Universal VIP Experience it doesn’t really matter how crowded the parks are. The VIP Experience means you’ll be personally escorted by a Universal Orlando expert on a guided tour throughout the Universal Studios theme parks. VIP Experiences include tour guides as well as the following perks:

  • Priority Front of the Line Access to all rides and attractions.
  • Behind the Scenes Tours and exclusive Meet & Greets.
  • Complimentary Valet Parking (1 Vehicle).
  • Continental Breakfast to start your day.
  • Reserved Seating at select shows.
  • Exclusive Viewing Areas for Universal’s Superstar Parade and Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular nighttime show at Universal Studios Florida.

Moreover, you can choose from a group VIP Experience or a Private VIP Experience. In addition, Private VIP Experiences include lunch at one of Universal’s full service dining restaurants. Undoubtedly this is the best way to experience the theme parks.

COVID-19 Safety Protocols

Is Universal Orlando safe to visit during the coronavirus pandemic? I have personally visited twice since the parks re-opened in June and I have never felt safer. Universal Orlando is doing an amazing job at protecting guests while maintaining their magical experiences.

At this time the following protocols are in place:

Universal Orlando Safety Protocols

It should be noted that face coverings are required at the theme parks, resort hotels as well as CityWalk. If you forget your mask, there are many different types available for purchase throughout the Universal Orlando Resort.

Guests must wear face coverings at all times, except for when you are actively eating or drinking while stationary. In addition, you can remove your face covering when at a designated U-Rest face covering removal area. The good news is that your children under the age of 3 do not have to wear a face covering.

What Kind of Face Coverings Are Allowed?

Face coverings MUST cover your nose and mouth and be secured under your chin. In particular, they must fit snugly against the sides of your face and be secured with ear loops or secured around your head.  Importantly, the following face coverings are NOT allowed:

  • Face coverings with exhalation valves
  • Coverings not secured with ear loops or secured around your head
  • Masks that include mesh material or holes of any kind
  • Face coverings that are unable to be secured under your chin, such as bandanas, as well as
  • Costume masks or veils

2 responses

  1. Thank you for this guide. All we need is our travel date and our itinerary. Hope we can visit soon. I’m glad that it is somehow Covid safe for the tourists. Maybe some of the attractions and hotels are now open since it’s already 2022.

  2. I have been working with a travel agent to book our trip during thanksgiving, 2020, but it seems really high and I am overwhelmed trying to find information on tours and VIP experiences.