With the increase in the popularity of Universal Orlando and the Orlando area theme parks as a whole, it is getting more and more difficult to enjoy a stress-free theme park vacation. Due to consistently high crowd levels during the majority of the year as well as the high cost of theme park tickets and travel expenses, vacationers are at times questioning if a theme park vacation is really worth it.
After our many years of being a Universal Orlando annual passholder and visiting the both Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of adventure hundreds of times, we have figured out a number of strategies that make our days much more enjoyable. So we would like to share our tips and tricks with you.
- Planning Tips and Tricks
- Tips & Tricks when in the Park
- Money Saving Tips and Tricks
Planning Tips and Tricks for Universal
The following tips and tricks are to be used in advance when you are planning your trip to the Universal Orlando Resort.
Arrive Early or Stay Late
On most days, the crowds are at their lightest right when the park opens or at the end of the night. From around the mid-morning hours to mid-evening, depending on when the park closes that day, is typically when crowds are the heaviest and wait times are at their peak.
If you have not already noticed, the weather in Florida is usually pretty hot even during the winter months. The later part of the mornings to the early evening is hottest time of the day, especially when you are walking around a theme park. And on top of it all, the summer months in Central Florida often bring afternoon storms that force outdoor rides to shut down for a few hours.
At the end of the night in just about every theme park in Orlando, there is a night time show, and Universal is no exception. The Cinematic Celebration at Universal Studios Florida is a very popular show and the crowds surrounding the central lagoon start to gather about 30 to 45 minutes early. As a result, we find that the wait times for the most popular attractions drop, so you can get a few more rides in before the park closes.
If it can be arranged, try to avoid as much of the mid-day as possible. If where you are staying is not close enough to Universal for this to be practical, then pay close attention to our next tip.
Stay on Site
When staying at an on-site hotel, guests will enjoy park entry an hour before the normal park opening for access to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in both Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley) and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmede) as well as Universal’s Volcano Bay. This benefit is included with all Universal hotels including Universal’s new Endless Summer resorts.
If you are heading to The Wizarding World, you can get right on line at either Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts Bank. The wait times for these rides will increase quickly so head right to the entrance as soon as the gates open.
If you are planning on visiting Volcano Bay, we can almost guarantee that you will be able to get on at least three attractions in the first hour before the park officially opens. We would recommend you go first to the Krakatau Aqua Coaster where you will get at least two rides back-to-back before a line starts to form.
Once you get your fill of the Aqua Coaster, head over to the volcano and hit the Ko’okiri Body Plunge and Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides. If you still have time before the crowds arrive, try to get over to Ohyah & Ohno drop slides. For the remainder of your day use the Tapu Tapu wrist band to wait on “virtual lines”.
There is an extra special benefit guests receive when staying on site at one of the three Premier category hotels which include the Lowes Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, and the Lowes Royal Pacific Resort. This benefit is free Universal Express Unlimited at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure for each guest staying in the room. Everyone in the room will be able to skip the regular lines at almost every single ride or attraction.
The value of this benefit could be as high as $129 per person. So, if a family of four is staying at one of these three Premier category hotels, the cost of the hotel room itself is far less than the cost of purchasing Universal Express Unlimited at the parks.
We at Endless Summer Florida feel that Universal Express is the absolute best benefit to have when visiting a theme park. There is no need to make attraction reservations 30 days in advance or have a detailed plan your visit. You just show up to the parks and enjoy the day. If you feel like riding a particular attraction then Universal Express gives you the flexibility to do so without interfering with other plans during the day.
As a Premier Annual Passholders, our Universal Express benefit does not start until 4:00PM but we are typically able to ride just about every ride before the park closes and be finished in time to watch the Cinematic Celebration show.
Pack a Bag
It’s always good to travel light, but one of our best tips is to bring some type of small bag or backpack when visiting Universal. Depending on the time of year you may need to bring along light jacket or sweatshirt as well a place to carry phones, cameras, wallets, and other essentials.
Every time Endless Summer Florida visits Universal with bring a backpack that includes:
- Ponchos / Rain Jackets – for either storms or to keep somewhat dry on the water rides
- Water Bottle – Universal will refill your water bottle at just about every location so there is no need to spend $4.00+ for a bottle of water.
- Snacks – Although we enjoying eating at Universal, at times a granola bar or piece of fruit satisfies the hunger during the day.
** Your bag or backpack should always include a banana. When you see one of Gru’s minions, make sure you show it to them and watch what happens. Just make sure someone has a video camera ready to go.
Tips and Trick When in the Universal Parks
Use the Single Rider Lines
A good number of the attractions at both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure have single rider lines which are separate queues from both the standby line and the Universal Express line. The team members use single riders to fill in unused space on the ride vehicles when an odd-numbered parties are seated. While the number of odd-numbered parties is unpredictable, wait times can vary greatly. In our experience we have found that the single rider wait times can be just as fast as the Universal Express queue, and traditionally much quicker than the standby line.
Since your group will be separated, this tip may not be useful for families traveling with small children. But our next tip should help in that regard.
Child Swap Locations
Universal has set up “Child Swap” locations at a number of the most popular thrill rides and attractions so if you are traveling with children that are not tall enough (or ready) to ride, then someone in your party won’t have to miss out as one adult can with stay the non-rider while the remainder of the party goes on the attraction. When the remainder of the party is finished, the person who waited with the non-rider can board immediately without having to go back to the beginning of the line.
Child Swap Locations at Universal Studios Florida
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
- Fast & Furious Supercharged
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
- Revenge of the Mummy
- Men In Black Alien Attack
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
- The Simpsons Ride
Child Swap Locations at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
- The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster
- Jurassic Park River Adventure
- Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong
Package Pick Up
Even though you are bringing a bag, you may not want to carry all your souvenirs and other “merch” that you picked up throughout the day. So, let Universal hang on to your purchases for you and grab them at the end of the day at a “Package Pickup Location” at the front of both Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventure.
And if you are staying on site, Universal will have your purchases sent directly to your room (which is another great benefit to staying on site).
American Express Lounge
Universal has a partnership with American Express (AMEX), so if guests purchase their theme park tickets with an AMEX card, they can enjoy access to the American Express Lounge in Universal Studios Florida and receive discounts on in park purchases.
Located across from the exit to Shrek 4D and next to the Monsters Café main entrance, there is a single unassuming door with a very small sign that is the entrance to the lounge. There is a check in desk where you will have to present your AMEX card for verification but once inside, guests enjoy a quiet air-conditioned lounge with access to bottled water and small snacks. There is even a private (and very clean) single person bathroom for use by the lounge guests only.
In addition to the lounge access, AMEX card holders get 10% off a “Universal Dining Plan – Quick Service + a Coco-Cola Freestyle souvenir cup” when using their card for the purchase. Other offers include merchandise savings and a discount on a 3-Day Photo Package with My Universal Photos. Check the Universal website or mobile app for all the details.
Mobile Dining Order
A relatively new feature is ordering from the Universal app on your mobile device. Forget about waiting on long lines for food any longer. Just place your order and your chosen Universal dining establishment, go on a quick ride or attraction, then head over the restaurant and your food should be about ready.
We have used the mobile dining feature on very busy days and found it to be extraordinarily efficient. It’s just another example as how technology is changing the theme park experience.
Certificates for Height Requirements
If someone in your traveling party does not meet the height requirement for a particular ride or attraction, you can request a “certificate” that will allow your traveling party to bypass the lines for when you little one is tall enough. This certificate is the equivalent to a Universal Express pass and makes for an excellent (and free) souvenir from the trip.
Free Behind the Scenes Tours
While Universal Orlando offers a VIP Tour Experience that starts from $189 per person, there are a number of individual “behind the scenes” tours that guests can take when visiting Universal Orlando. These tours are not typically advertised any only available when team members have the time to do so.
While these short tours are typically less than 30 minutes, the team members make the experience completely worthwhile. Although there could be other “secret” tours available, here are the ones which we have enjoyed.
Immigration Tour at Men in Black Alien Attack
You and your friends will visit the immigration room on the first floor of MIB headquarters which you see from above when on the queue. You can sign the log book, sit in one of the empty chairs, and take photos until your hearts content.
Tour of Hogwarts Castle
While this is just a walk through of the queue line for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, if you can get a team member to be your guide the you can get the “back story” on a number of the props from the Harry Potter movies.
Revenge of the Mummy
The Revenge of the Mummy is also a walk-through tour of the queue line, but your tour guide will point out a number of things from the movies that are quite interesting. At the end of the tour you actually go below the roller coaster tracks and watch the ride up above.
Back Stage at the Hard Rock Cafe
Of all the free tours at Universal, this one is the absolute best. Our guide Eric has some of the greatest knowledge of Rock n’ Roll history and memorabilia of anyone that you will ever meet. You will see some very rare items from the Beatles as well as see the John Lennon private suite. And if you are lucky, maybe you will get backstage in the “Green Room” at the Hard Rock Live concert venue.
As with all the other tours, the back stage tour at the Hard Rock Cafe is only available when the staff has sufficient time to accommodate the guests.
Money Saving Tips and Tricks at Universal
Look for Deals in Advance
The most expensive price for a theme park ticket is always at the gate on the day of your visit, but with some advanced planning, you can save a fair amount money by checking other available options most of which are online. The Universal web site says “Save up to $20 off the gate price on multi-day tickets when you buy online”.
In addition to saving money buying admissions tickets on-line, Universal is consistently running promotions so depending on your travel dates, there may be the opportunity to save more if you can find an offer than works with your schedule.
Other on-line options to purchase Universal Orlando admission tickets include:
- AAA (American Automobile Association)
- Costco Travel
- Best of Orlando
- Undercover Tourist
Just make sure that whatever source you buy from is reputable as there is always theme park ticket fraud going on.
So when buying your tickets in advance you will not only save money, but won’t have to waste time standing in line buying tickets. There are already enough lines so it’s nice to skip one.
Free Parking after 6:00 PM
Parking is not cheap at any theme parks and regular self-parking costs $26 per day. However, if you plan on visiting after 6:00 PM, then self-parking is free to all guests.
Dinner and a Movie Deal at CityWalk
Guests can get a great meal on one of the participating CityWalk restaurants along with a movie ticket to the Universal Cinemark at CityWalk theaters starting from $28.12 per person. The meal includes one entree (from a select menu) and one non-alcoholic beverage at the following restaurants:
- Vivo Italian Kitchen
- Bob Marley – A Tribute to Freedom
- Pat O’ Brien’s – Orlando
- Red Oven Pizza Bakery
- The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen
- NBC Sports Grill & Brew
- Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food
- The Cowfish
- Fusion Bistro Sushi & Sake Bar
- Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville
Since the theme parks at Universal are always changing, we will update this post as frequently as needed, and if we develop new tips or tricks, we will post an update that you can use during your next visit to Universal Orlando.
Learn More about the Universal Orlando Resort with our Theme Park Guides
Where Should We Stay When Visiting the Universal Orlando Resort?
The Universal Resort has a number of great on-site hotels and each and every one of them have their own benefits, characteristics and price points.
There are multiple “categories” of hotels but the highest quality on-site hotels are the Premier Hotels. Premier hotels are Universal’s premium hotels that have the highest quality amenities & accommodations, the closest locations to the theme parks and largest amount of on-site hotel benefits.
What sets Premier hotels apart is that they provide a free Universal Express pass to every guest staying in the room. Universal Express allows guests to skip the regular lines and ride the most popular rides as many times as they would like. Once you get used to Universal Express, you will never want to visit a theme park without one.
In addition Universal’s Premier hotels and resorts, there are a number of other on-site and off-site hotels options.