Universal Orlando is probably the best theme park in the world. There, I said it but hear me out. The rides are phenomenal, it is great for kids and adults and even though I actively avoided the Harry Potter films for my entire life, I still LOVE The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It has drawn us back again and again and over those visits, we have learned some tricks for short visits. Here are 16 Universal Orlando tips for your next visit.
This post may contain affiliate links that will support the blog at no cost to you.
1.) Dont Hurry to Harry
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the most popular area in both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. People enter the park and head straight there! It is worth doing this if you are staying on property. Getting early access to the parks, you can hotfoot it to Hogsmead and be first on Hagrid’s, or in a wildly short queue. However, by the time the park opens for everyone else, the queue is already long and it’s the busiest area of the park.
By going straight to Hulk Coaster in Islands of Adventure when the park opens instead of Harry Potter, you may well find it a walk on. In Universal Studios Florida, head straight for the area with ET and MIB (our favourite initials) and you won’t be waiting to ride these classic attractions.
2.) Get a Hopper to Hop on the Hogwarts Express
There is only one way to ride the famous Hogwarts Express and that is to have a 2 Park Explorer Ticket ticket. These allow you access to both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure on the same day. It is not just a mode of transport but a magical experience with a landscape passing by the windows on one side of you and a story unfolding in the corridor on the other. The journey is different in both directions so if you have time (or an Express Pass) then it is worth taking it back again. Oh, and don’t forget to have your moment passing through platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get the best shot, place your buddy a few people behind you in the queue.
3.) All the Single Riders, ALL the Single Riders
Common wisdom suggests joining single-rider lines to save time. This allows you to queue with your theme park buddies but fill in any odd gaps in the ride. This means you will be riding next to a stranger but when you are having that much fun, that doesn’t matter. This method is most popular with younger groups of friends rather than family units or couples. Sure, it can get you through a line quickly but sometimes, it really doesn’t. Some rides, usually newer rollercoasters, are more popular with this demographic in general and so the line can actually be slower. For example, going for single on Velociraptor can result in a longer wait tie. Save your single rider times for older or smaller attractions.
4) Feel the Freestyle
If you want to save some money on beverages throughout your day at Universal Orlando, consider getting a Coke Freestyle, refillable cup. You will get a free refill every ten minutes until the end of the day. This is the same price as about four drinks and trust me, when it is hot and humid, you’ll need more than four! Plus, you can use the Coco-Cola Freestyle machines that provide hundred of fun combinations with things like root beer and still lemonade that we don’t see so commonly in the UK.
You could also bring your own bottle in and refill your water using the fountains and Freestyle machines around the park which is totally free. Of course, that is better value but it’s not half as fun!
5.) Secure a Quiet Spot for Lunch
Finding a table at a busy restaurant at lunchtime can seem like a Herculean effort. We get it, the queues are long and the tables are full. However, there are a couple of tricks:
- The first one is, of course, eating at a strange time. Grabbing lunch between 12-2, you are going to find life a little tricky. If you can graze through the day or have a nice, late lunch, you will enjoy a much more leisurely dining experience. However, if you want your lunch at lunchtime (and who would blame you) you could also:
- Find a quiet spot by the lake. Both Universal Islands of Adventures and Universal Studios Florida are built around lakes. Nobody spends much time down by the water as there aren’t any attractions there. This means there are plenty of quiet benches to enjoy your dinner al fresco. Just watch the local wildlife that might want to share a bite.
- Make sure you are using mobile ordering where possible. This means that you can choose what you want without the pressure of a queue behind you, you can do something else while your food is being prepared (meet a character or find a table) and your queue to pick up the food should be considerably shorter.
- Look for tables just outside of the eating spots. One of our favourite places for lunch is Thunder Falls Terrace. Inside is loud and a little unpleasant but if you head through and out the door to your right, you will find a few tables in the shade outside. These give a wonderful view of the Jurassic Park River Dventure’s splash zone. The spray cools the air without getting you wet and you can watch the kids getting drenched and screaming with delight as you chomp on your ribs and chicken.
6.) Skip the Queue to Skip the Queue
Universal Olrando’s Express Passes are sold on a demand-based pricing structure. This means you should not wait until you are in the park to purchase them as the price will be higher. If you know you are short on time, or you are visiting during a busy period, then get those passes early. This can be done on the app or the website. You can choose between Express Pass which gives you line-cutting ability to all attractions once, or Express Unlimited where you can run around and around and around for your favourite rollercoaster. It also gives early access to the shows meaning you can snag the best seats. If you do one day at the park and decide that you fancy a pass for the following day, you can purchase them at the concierge desk in City Walk on your way out, saving you a little time in the morning.
(But Not Always)
There are two rides where skipping the queue is a bit of a shame. Universal really upped their line game when they built The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There is so much to see in the queues for Escape from Gringotts and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that using the Express Pass might be a bit of a shame. Escape from Gringotts takes you through an elaborate Gringotts set with goblins galore. Further down, you will see moving newspapers that it’s nice to stop and read.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’s queue goes through Hogwarts School. The Express Pass skips a few rooms (the greenhouses for example) and doesn’t really give you time to stop and enjoy the presentations as you storm through. If you do choose to Express Pass it, ask one of the Hogwarts students if they are offering tours and you may get lucky enough to have a guided journey through the different sets.
7.) Don’t Skip the Shows
Universal started as a film studio, and you can tell when it comes to the way they put on a show! On our last visit, we decided to split up and take in a show each.
The Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show is a fun blend of film make-up magic and comedy. The lobby is stacked full of information and memorabilia of the golden age of YUniversal Horrror and the actors that pioneered amazing make-up tricks. Where would we be without Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lagosi!?
The Bourne Stuntacular is an astonishing mix of live action stunts, practical special effects and film integration Think James Bond film but with a dose of rough, mixed with Indiana Jones stunt show (from that other park) but with a dose of cool. It is quite hard to describe so make time to go and see it.
Animal Actors on Location! is a really fun family show. This is especially good for small kids that need a break (and the adults who want to see cool animals too). The show consists of clever creatures performing funny stunts and interacting with the set. We are talking dogs, a raccoon, birds, rats, you name it, they got it!
The Raptor Encounter is something we didn’t bother with on our first three trips to Universal. However, we decided to join in with the fun this time and it was so worth it. You know it’s a puppet, you are telling yourself it’s a puppet but as soon as you are a metre away Bue becomes entirely real. “Look scared”, says the handler so you over-act…and then she roars and you jump out of your skin for real. So funny!
Finally, make sure you head back to Hogsmeade for the Night Time Lights show. Using music, projection mapping and fireworks, the castle is brought to life. The show changes with the season so expect it to be extra darks arty at Halloween, full of Christmas magic in winter and a little more generic for easter.
8.) Allow Extra Time in the Morning
Your plan may be to get to the park when it opens. That doesn’t mean arriving on site at that time. You will need time to park and then to walk the long route from the car park (parking lot) and through security. This is an airport style security with x-ray machine and metal detector gates. Then, there is another 10-15 minutes of walking through City Walk until you reach the park. We would recommend giving yourself a good half hour to get this all done (plus another 10 minutes if you are coming by taxi/uber/lyft to allow a driver or two to cancel on you.
9.) Water Ride Warning!
How to deal with water rides is an intensely personal thing. Are you the kind of person that goes on in minimal clothing and then just dries out over the next hour or two? Or are you, a poncho princess, hanging on to the hood for dear life as you hurtle towards the splash zone? However you choose to del with this conundrum, it is good to be aware that there are three rides which will get you soggy, wet, and soaking wet.
- Jurassic Park River Adventure is the water ride with the least dramatic drenching. There is one drop and if you are in the middle of the boat you should remain relatively dry, a little like five minutes in a London drizzle (frizzy hair but dry quickly).
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls is deceptively wet. You descend one main drop which you will see from the bridge but there are a couple more. These don’t get your hair wet but there is a substantial slosh which will get your bottom half soggy.
- Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges will leave you entirely wet through, soaked, soggy and sopping. There are the usual bumps along these river rapids which splash plenty of water into the boat but there are also HUGE waterfall buckets that, if they don’t land straight on your head, may well hit the centre section of the boat and disperse into everyone’s faces. It is so much fun but you are kidding yourself if you think you can stay dry whatsoever.
The best thing about the water rides at Universal Orlando is that they are all in the same park, Islands of Adventure. This means you can tackle all three before continuing on with your day. Either dispose of your poncho, change your clothes and wipe down with towe for a totally dry new start or dry slowly, steaming gently in the Florida sun as you wait for your next attraction. Just avoid the air con if you are going with this option or you might catch a cold. There are lockers available for delicate electronics/dry clothes/towels etc by each of the water rides. Unlike many of the other ride lockers these are not free as technically, you could keep your things with you. Instead, they charge $4 for the small ones and $5 for large for 90 minutes then $3 per 30. This should cover the three rides. You could also opt to pay £20 for the whole day meaning you don’t have to carry your wet things around with you but remember they empty these earlier than the park shuts so give yourself time to grab your things before your last ride or two.
10.) Tips for Visiting Universal With Children
If you are coming with children, it is good to do some research ahead of time. These are for your benefit, not theirs:
- It would be heartbreaking to queue for something or get the kids excited for something that they are not tall enough to ride. Measure them before you leave for the trip and have a plan to escort them to those attractions they can handle.
- You can take advantage of the child swap rules. This means the family can line up together, one adult and maybe a bigger child can ride while the other looks after the smaller child. Then, once the ride is done, you swap over and the other adult can enjoy the ride without having to queue again.
- Everything in Suess Landing is kid-friendly and so kooky. You can accompany them on everything and reward yourself with yummy plate of Green Eggs and Ham or Who Hash at the Green Eggs and Ham cafe or something tasty in the very cool Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous!
- Little ones under 3 get in for free.
- There can be a lot of walking at Universal so bring a stroller/buggy/push chair. It gives them a place to crash and you a place to stash your bags. Even if you think your child is getting a little too big for a buggy, you will be happy to have one when everyone is getting tired.
- Sadly the Woody Woodpecker play area has now shut for good but we are in no doubt that something even cooler will be created in its place.
11.) Know When to Visit
When it comes to visiting Orlando’s theme parks, there are definitely seasons. If you don’t like queueing, and you don’t like queues, you will want to avoid these times. Key dates to avoid include:
- Spring Break and the Easter holidays – Spring break in the USAA goes on for bout a month as different areas of the country have a week or two off. It usually falls around mid-March to mid-April and so often covers the UK easter school holidays two. When these two collide, the crowds can be bonkers! It is better to come in early February to miss this peak.
- The Summer Holidays – Here we mean the USA’s summer holidays. These start in mid-June and end mid-Augut. The UK is still on holiday for a couple f weeks afterwards so the crowds do die down. This is also because the weather gets unbearably hot and really quite rainy.
- Thanksgiving – The week around Thanksgiving (the third Thursday in November) is always a busy one.
- Christmas and New Year – Everybody, everywhere is off work and come to Florida for some sun and fun! This starts in mid-Deceber and extends for about a week into January.
- Weekends – Easy enough if you are only coming for a couple of days.
That being said, it can be a lot of fun to be at Universal during special events. Christmas means extra decorations, lots of goodwill and a healthy dose of The Grinch. Halloween is amazing at Universal. You should absolutely come and absolutely buy an extra ticket to the Fright Nights for a night full of jumpscares and a lot of laughs. During Mardi Gras, extra food and drinks are on offer, there are popup performances from professional acts and marching bands from across the country and there is a parade.
12.) Packing Your Park Bag
If you are staying on property or live locally, yo won#t need tocarry much. You could be one of the cool kids with just a little bumbag (fanny pack) that you can take on most rides, saving time on lockers. However, for most of us, we need a few more kits and this is always in my park bag (and it is always a rucksack so I don’t get one sore shoulder)..
- Suncream. Sunburn is miserable and dangerous
- A poncho. Yes, I know they look silly but it rains and there are log flumes so it gets used. It keeps your bag dry in a way a rain jacket wouldn’t.
- A small microfibre towel and extra undies if I plan to do water rides.
- My phone. This is for communication, games for the lines, taking far too many videos and using the Universal Orlando app for planning, ordering food etc
- A portable charger/power bank to keep that phone alive.
- A ziplock bag for the phone if I am taking it on a wet ride.
- Sunglasses, even though I often forget I have them on until I’m climbing on to a ride and then panic and put them in my bra.
- A lanyard. OK, technically I don’t have one yet but as I often have an Express Pass of some description and then have to carry it on to the rides, I am going to invest in one for next time.
- A water bottle. Sometimes I use it but most of the time I get the refillable drinks and it gets ignored.
- Plasters and painkillers for any dreadful blisters that appear halfway through the day.
- My Harry Potter wand…obviously.
13.) Don’t Always Go Left
There are a million blogs about theme parks that suggest you go left when you enter. That may work for most parks in the world but the design of Universal Orlando’s parks, and the Harry potter difference means that it doesn’t always work here.
At Islands of Adventure, those who aren’t going straight to HP will turn left on entry because there are lots more attractions. Instead, head right through Suess Landing and storm up to Velocity Coaster for a shorter queue than you’ll find for the rest of the day. This is also the quickest way to Hogsmeade if you are Potter-bound.
At Universal Studios Florida, the “go left” option takes you again, to Harry potter and so most people will do this. instead, go right and make straight for The Simpsons Ride, ET and Men in Black to have them all to yourself.
14.) Save Some Pennies and Shop Before You Go
They probably won’t like me saying this but it is a great idea to pic up some gear before you leave for the parks. There is an awful lot of Harry Potter merchandise available at shops like Primark in the UK and Walmart or Target in the USA. Buying these bits with the family can heighten the excitement for the trip. You can also give them as little gifts as a hint for a surprise trip. Finally, it is great to give them to people on the morning of your park day as a final hurrah! It is such fun to walk in already sporting your Hogwarts robe that you got from the local toy shop, Marauder’s Map dress from Vinted or Thing 1 & Thing 2 tops you found on eBay at £10 for two.
15.) The End of the Day
When it gets dark (or not in summer) the park will start to empty. The queues for the big rides won’t diminish too much as it is the older crowd that is still around. If you fancy doing some of the kiddy rides hop on in the early evening when they have no line and there are fewer people around wondering why two grown ups are laughing so hard on a Cat in the Hat ride. Then, head to your last couple of big rides for the day or the show at Hogwarts.
It is also good to know that the ride queues shut at the park closing time. This means you have until then to join the back of the line and they will let you ride.
It is after the last ride that you have to leave and make your way into City Walk. You may have some very sore feet by now and want to sit for a drink or some food. Bear in mind that several of the quick service spots shut very soon after the park so if you want dinner, make a reservation at a full service restaurant ahead of time to guarantee your seats.
16. ) A Few Bonus Tips for Harry Potter
We love a bit of Harry Potter but we know the whole area can get really busy and a little overwhelming, here are a couple more tips to make your journey to this magical realm a little more enjoyable.
- Don’t miss Knocturn Alley. You can find your way in on the right of the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley. The other way in is past the toilets around the corner from Gringotts. It is usually quiet in here, it is airconditioned so a good place to take a breather and Borgin and Burke’s is full of cool dark arts gear you can’t find anywhere else.
- Dial MAGIC (that’s 62442) at the telephone box outside Diagon Alley. We won’t tell you what happens but be sure to listen to the phone.
- If you want a butter beer but don’t fancy the queues at Fountain of Fair Fortune or the Hopping Pot then make your way to the back of the Three Broomsticks to the Hog’s Head. At this quiet bar, you can get butter beer, pumpkin juice and some fun craft beers.
- Keep your eyes peeled at 12 Grimmauld Place and you might see a familiar face at the window.
- If you want a more intense experience on Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure then queue in front of the person you are riding with. You will get the seat on the bike if you board first.
- If Ollivander’s is swamped, you can pick up a wand around the corner at the much quieter, Wands by Gregorivtch.
- Wherever you pick up your wand, keep it for your next visit. The magic (battery) should last as long as the technology doesn’t change and so you can play with it again!
- The Dragon that sits atop Gingott’s goes off every ten minutes (on the hour, ten past, twenty past etc). She grumbles and roars and little and then goes quiet, this is your time to prep for your photo. She will then grumble again and release the fireball we all love so much!
I started by saying that Universal Orlando is probably the best theme park in the world. Looking back on all of our visits (and our trip to Universal Studios Hollywood) I can’t think of a moment that I didn’t enjoy. Yes, there was queueing and yes my feet were aching by the time we found our taxi at the end of the day but I still enjoy it all! Amazing thrill rides, fun shows and IP that makes me smile, what more could you want from a theme park? We will be back and we will love it all over again. I hope these Universal Orlando tips help you to have the best time possible and we might see you there!