Universal Orlando Planning Guide
If you’re planning a Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure vacation, this 2023 Universal Orlando Planning guide is for you. This comprehensive Universal Studios planning guide will cover:
- How to plan a Universal vacation
- Universal Orlando Tips and Tricks
- How to save money at Universal Orlando
- The best time to visit Universal
- What kind of tickets to buy for Universal
- …and so much more!
I am a Universal Annual Passholder and a certified Universal Travel Advisor. Even more important, we love Florida theme parks (if you couldn’t tell!), and Universal Orlando is my favorite.
Over the years, Universal Orlando has expanded from a day trip during a Disney vacation to a destination all its own.
In the past couple of years, Universal has added Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, the Bourne Stuntacular, and the Jurassic World Velicocoaster, which are all big and epic attractions. Check out the 10 best thrill rides at Universal to learn about the new rides and more thrilling rides at Universal.
Universal also recently announced that construction has resumed on Epic Universe. This is exciting news, and Epic Universe will likely double the size of Universal Orlando as we know it.
2023 Universal Planning Guide
This 2023 Universal Orlando planning guide covers Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay. I also have a complete Volcano Bay guide with Volcano Bay hacks and tips if you want to check out Universal’s incredible waterpark!
Universal Studios Planning Guide
To start this Universal Orlando Planning Guide, let’s review some of the most common questions about visiting Universal Orlando.
Where to buy Universal Orlando tickets
Since this is a Universal Orlando planning guide, it only makes sense to talk about where to get tickets first.
There are three ways to buy Universal Orlando tickets. You can purchase tickets at the park, in advance online, or through a Universal Travel Agent.
Be careful about purchasing tickets online or anywhere else that is not official. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
You don’t want to spend your valuable vacation time in an all-day timeshare presentation, do you?!
I highly recommend buying your tickets through an approved travel partner such as a Travel Agent or Undercover Tourist. Undercover Tourist offers excellent deals on all of the Orlando theme parks.
There are many scammy sites out there, so make sure you’re booking through an approved partner (such as Undercover Tourist.)
Do you need a rental car in Orlando?
I like to get around as needed while on vacation, so I like to rent a car. I recommend renting a car from Discount USA Car Rental.
Discount USA Car Rental offers the best rates, whether flying into Orlando or Sanford airports. I even use the same rental car company when I fly into one of the Tampa airports.
What is Universal Orlando?
Some refer to Universal Orlando as “Universal” or “Universal Studios.” This can be confusing, so let’s clarify what this Universal Planning Guide covers. Universal Orlando is technically comprised of:
- Universal Studios
- Islands of Adventure
- Volcano Bay
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are the main theme parks. They are next to each other and connect via CityWalk or the Hogwart’s Express at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I have a blog post with First Timer Tips for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
To truly experience Universal, you need a park-to-park ticket. Like a Disney “park hopper” ticket, this ticket allows you to visit both parks in a single day.
Unlike Disney, it’s much easier to visit both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios in one day due to the proximity. The two parks are within walking distance of each other.
Even if the Hogwart’s Express wait is long, it only takes about 20 minutes to walk between the two parks.
Volcano Bay is Universal Orlando’s waterpark, arguably the best water park in the Orlando area. To access Volcano Bay, you’ll need to park in the main parking garage and take a bus.
A view of Volcano Bay from Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
Alternatively, some resorts (such as Cabana Bay Beach Resort) have direct access to Volcano Bay.
CityWalk is the dining, shopping, and activity area similar to Disney Springs. City Walk is also connected to most Universal Orlando hotels via the “Garden Walk.”
The premier hotels, such as Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, are the closest hotels to City Walk.
When to visit Universal Orlando
If you’re traveling with children, you’re likely limited to school holidays. Unfortunately, many other people are also traveling with children on those dates.
If you can avoid popular dates such as the summer, winter holidays, spring break, etc., you will find fewer crowds and, sometimes, better prices.
If you’re traveling without children or willing to pull your child out of school for a couple of days, you will find that traveling outside of the popular dates will save time and allow you to do more things at the parks.
Unlike Disney, Universal Orlando has not started a reservation system.
The best days of the week to visit Orlando are Monday-Thursday. If you have to visit on the weekend, I recommend purchasing an Express Pass and arriving early.
Special Events at Universal Orlando
Universal has many special events throughout the year. The most popular are Halloween Horror Nights, Mardi Gras, and Christmas.
Halloween Horror Nights was canceled in 2020. However, it was back in 2021 and relatively normal. The only significant modification was plexiglass in the Haunted Houses, which, honestly, was a major distraction. No one expects that to come back in 2022 and beyond.
Christmas at Universal and Mardi Gras: International Flavors of Carnaval were slightly modified post-you-know-what, but Universal has done a fantastic job, and as of 2022, everything is back to normal.
Halloween Horror Nights
Halloween Horror Nights is a hard-ticket event (not included with your regular tickets) and takes place at night.
This unique event features scare actors, haunted houses, special food and drinks, the HHN tribute store, and more. It is not recommended for guests under 13 years of age.
Christmas at Universal Orlando
Christmas at Universal features Grinchmas, a holiday parade with Macy’s balloons, the Holiday Tribute Store, and more.
Several areas in Universal Studios are decorated, including Diagon Alley, where Universal features a special projection show at Hogwart’s Castle.
Some of the shows around Universal are also Christmas-themed during this time of the year.
How many days should I spend at Universal?
Gone are the days when guests spend one day of their Disney trip visiting Universal. There are plenty of people who enjoy Universal vacations without visiting Disney at all.
I recommend spending no less than three days at Universal Orlando. If you are a Harry Potter fan, spending even more time enjoying the parks would be easy.
Universal Orlando does not offer as much for young children like Disney, but older kids, teens, and adults could easily spend an entire week at Universal.
And yes, I said adults. There are plenty of things for adults to do at Universal too!
What kind of tickets do I need for Universal?
When Universal Orlando added the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they did something brilliant. Universal split the Wizarding World between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Hogsmeade (the town where students attending Hogwarts would visit) is located in Islands of Adventure. Hogwarts Island, I suppose.
Hogsmeade is home to Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, The Flight of the Hippogriff, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. So yes, three of the four Wizarding World rides are in Hogsmeade.
Before you assume that you only need to visit Hogsmeade, the ever-so-iconic Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios, and it’s a must-see all on its own.
Escape from Gringotts, Ollivanders Wand Shop, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Knockturn Alley, and more are located in Diagon Alley.
This is why, again, in this Universal Orlando Planning Guide, I recommend having a park-to-park ticket. A park-to-park ticket is also the only way to ride the Hogwarts Express, a must for any true Harry Potter fan.
Is Volcano Bay worth it?
Hopefully, I have convinced you to purchase park-to-park tickets, but is Volcano Bay worth it? Volcano Bay isn’t just another waterpark.
I’m not a big “water park” person, but I was impressed by Volcano Bay. Volcano Bay is massive and features and features attractions such as the Krakatau water coaster and more.
If you like water parks, if your kids like water parks, or if you’re visiting Universal when it’s hot (almost always), I would include at least one day at Volcano Bay.
Do you need an Express Pass at Universal?
If you plan to visit Universal during a slow time and on a weekday, you probably won’t need an Express Pass. If you plan a summer vacation or holiday vacation, you’ll likely need the Express Pass.
The best rides and attractions at Universal Orlando
It should be noted that the best rides and attractions at Universal will be dependent on you. I wanted to include this just so that you are aware of the rides and attractions that are the most popular.
If you see lower wait times for any of these rides or attractions, make sure to hop in line ASAP.
Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure
Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure is currently the newest ride at Universal Orlando Resort. This will change when the new Velocicoaster opens, making Islands of Adventure even busier!
This Motorbike Adventure is a thrilling roller coaster with multiple launches, a backward section, and a drop section. It does not go upside down, but make sure kids do some other coasters before trying this one.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong
Also located in Islands of Adventure, Skull Island: Reign of Kong is a very popular ride despite being five years old.
The wait times can be long, so try to ride early or later in the day or use an Express Pass. If you’re visiting on a very busy day, I would say it’s okay to pass on this one, but many people would disagree with me.
The Incredible Hulk
This is the big, green roller coaster you can’t miss as soon as you walk into Islands of Adventure. It’s a top-rated roller coaster and typically has a longer wait.
If you find a wait time of 30 minutes or less, hop on because wait times can often be an hour or more.
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
This is the first ride you see after walking into Universal Studios. Because it’s the first ride, it has one of the longest wait times.
Unless you have a little minion who loves the Minions (which I do,) this ride is worth skipping. It is cute, but it’s not worth waiting an hour. This is also, in my opinion, one of the worst rides for those with motion sickness.
Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see a blog post with all the bad rides for motion sickness.
For now, here are the rides that will make you sick at Universal:
- The Simpsons Ride
- Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
- Storm Force Accelatron (a teacup style ride)
- The Bourne Stuntacular (mot a ride, but the effects can cause motion sickness.)
I have many problems with motion sickness, so these rides may not be as bad for you as they are for me.
Regardless, I recommend bringing whatever you use if you are prone to motion sickness.
The Bourne Stuntacular
The Bourne Stuntacular is not a ride but, as the name implies, a stunt show. It is based on the Bourne movies. When it first opened, I thought it was odd that it was based on movies from so long ago.
As it turns out, there are newer Bourne movies, and they are worth checking out! You can also check out 30+ movies to watch before going to Universal for more movies that will get you excited for your vacation.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as a whole, is easily the busiest area of Universal Orlando. This is partially due to the newest ride being Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure.
However, it’s primarily due to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter simply being so darn magical. If you love a good controversy, you can check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter vs. Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge.
If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, or even if you’re not, the entire Wizarding World is a must-see.
Under-rated rides at Universal
I thought sharing some of Universal’s under-rated rides in this Universal Orlando planning guide would be fun.
I thought about sharing over-rated rides at Universal, but I’ll save that for another day.
The Mummy (Universal Studios)
The Mummy is one of my favorite roller coasters. Not just at Universal, period. I love the Mummy. It’s so fun, and it’s dark, and it’s hilarious to ride with first-timers who have no idea what is happening.
I don’t even love the Mummy movies, but the ride is truly one of the best in Universal. The wait time is often relatively short, so check it out too!
Animal Actors on Location (Universal Studios)
The Bourne Stuntacular gets all the love, but Animal Actors on Location is the best show in Universal. In my opinion, anyway.
This adorable show features dogs, cats, birds, and even a pig. It’s fun for kids, but honestly, I will see it without my kids any day. I go to this show so much that they are starting to recognize me.
If you love animals, this show is a must-see. It’s located near the Spongebob Store in Universal Studios.
Pteranadon Flyers (Islands of Adventure)
I was trying to think of an under-rated ride at Islands of Adventure, and this is the only one that came to mind.
Now, you can’t ride Pteranadon Flyers without a child, but you’re in luck if you are a child or have a child.
One of the highlights of this ride in the past couple of years has been having a birds-eye view of the construction of the Velicoaster. Now that the coaster is completed, you can get a great view of the ride itself! If you look carefully, you can even spot some of the raptors.
A bit more on rides at Universal
I had a few more tips for rides and attractions in this Universal Orlando Planning Guide and didn’t know where to throw them in, so here they are.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is the large red roller coaster just inside Universal Studios. You can choose a song to rock out to during your ride, which is a lot of fun!
You might not know that there is also a Rip Ride Rockit secret song list. Make sure to know the numbers for your favorite songs before you get on the ride.
Unless you’re a Fast and the Furious fan, Fast and Furious Supercharged is worth skipping. It’s fairly new, and Universal still closes it down when the parks aren’t busy. That is because we all hate it. 😂
In my opinion, E.T. Adventure is a ride with a lot of nostalgia for some, but it’s horribly over-rated. If you grew up riding E.T Adventure. Then you’ll love it. If you didn’t, you could skip it.
Dining at Universal Orlando Resort
Dining at Universal is much simpler than dining at Disney. There are fewer in-park options, and reservations are rarely required.
Universal does not offer many fine dining options, but Mythos in Islands of Adventure is often rated as one of Orlando’s best theme park restaurants.
Mythos is one of the best theme park restaurants out there!
Both The Three Broomsticks and Leaky Cauldron are popular with Harry Potter fans. However, both restaurants are often rated better for their ambiance than their food.
Universal is also behind Disney in accommodating guests with allergies or dietary preferences, but they are always adding more allergy-friendly and vegan options.
Although Universal offers dining plans, and although they aren’t essential, they can help make your Universal vacation a little bit easier.
Universal Dining Plans
An important part of this Universal Planning Guide is the Universal Dining plan. Universal currently offers four different dining plans. The Universal Dining Plan, Quick-Service Dining Plan, Quick-Service + Coca-Cola Freestyle Cup, or just the Coca-Cola Freestyle cup on its own.
Which Universal Dining Plan is best for you? Let’s go over the dining plans and prices.
- Universal Dining Plan (only available as part of a package): Includes one full-service meal, one quick-service meal, one snack, and one non-alcoholic beverage. Meals include beverages, and the full-service meal includes dessert.
- Quick-Service Dining Plan $25.99/day: Includes one quick-service meal (with beverage,) 1 snack, and one non-alcoholic beverage.
- Quick-Service Plan + Coca-Cola Souvenir Cup $34.99/day: Includes one quick-service meal (with beverage,) 1 snack, and one non-alcoholic beverage. Plus, one day of Coca-Cola Freestyle refills. Additional “Freestyle refill” days can be purchased for $9.99 daily.
- Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup $16.99: Includes the Freestyle refillable cup and one day of refills. Additional days can be purchased for $9.99 per day.
The Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup allows you to refill your cup at locations throughout the parks and CityWalk. It is important to note that the cups do not work at the Universal resorts.
I’m not sure why, but I was told they’re on a different system. Just a heads up! The souvenir cup is worth it if you’re a soda/lemonade/Gatorade drinker.
If you’re a water drinker, like me, just bring a Berkey Sport Filtered water bottle (Orlando water is disgusting), and you’re good to go.
Is the Universal dining plan worth it?
The Universal dining plan can be worth it if you use every part of it. On average, it can save $10-$20 per day but make sure actually to use it.
Even if you typically drink water, using the beverage credit for something like Butterbeer or Pumpkin Juice in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter can be fun.
Where to stay at Universal
One of the biggest questions about planning a Universal Orlando vacation is where to stay at Universal.
At first glance, staying in a Universal Orlando Resort seems more expensive. That is because staying in a Universal hotel is more expensive, but it’s worth it in many situations.
You may find a better deal at a Partner Hotel, but here is what they don’t tell you.
The shuttles from the Partner Hotels only run limited routes.
This means you’ll have to pay to park, walk, or Uber back and forth between your hotel room unless you’re arriving and departing at certain times.
It’s much easier to stay in a Universal Resort and enjoy complimentary daily transportation. You’ll also find Universal resorts for almost any price range.
It’s also fun to plan a resort day and hang out at the lazy river at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. You can also pool hop at all of the resorts, no matter where you’re staying, and enjoy the restaurants or spas at any other resort.
Checking current pricing for all Universal Resorts here:
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bay
- Loews Royal Pacific
- Aventura Hotel
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
- Cabana Bay Beach Resort
- Universal Endless Summer Resorts – Dockside Inn and Suites and Seaside Inn and Suites.
I also have a Loews Royal Pacific tour and review. As a bonus, the Premier Resorts are closer to Universal, and you can walk or take a water taxi.
What to pack for Universal
I have a detailed post about what to pack for Universal, but I wanted to share the quick version in this Universal Orlando planning guide.
Here are a few things to keep with you at Universal Orlando:
- A small backpack or bag. If you can get away with it, bring a bag or bags small enough to fit in Universal’s free lockers. Unlike Disney, Universal does not allow bags on most rides, except 3-prong fanny packs on some rides.
- Sunscreen. It’s hot and sunny in Orlando. If you tend to burn, make sure to have some reef-safe natural sunscreen on hand.
- Water bottles. Why pay $5 for water and create more plastic when you can just bring your own?
- Snacks. Universal has plenty of snacks, but they also allow you to bring in snacks if you’d like.
- A lanyard. Most park guests keep their park pass in a lanyard. I have an entire blog post about lanyards for Universal (seriously) if you want to check it out.
- Motion sickness medicine, if you need it.
- Universal App, on your phone, of course. You can check ride times, look at a map, mobile order, and more.
What to wear at Universal
- Lightweight clothing. Make sure to pack layers in the winter as mornings are cooler, but it can get hot in the afternoon.
- A mask, if you choose to wear one. Masks are now optional at Universal, but feel free to bring them if it makes you more comfortable indoors, etc. Make sure to bring extras because they will get sweaty, wet, dropped, snotty, etc.
- Comfortable shoes. I wear Teva sandals but choose whatever is comfortable for you. Remember to bring extra socks, or even extra shoes, if you plan to go on water rides. This is precisely why I wear sandals!
My typical Universal attire includes a tank top, shorts, Teva sandals, and a Loungefly backpack.
How to save money at Universal Orlando
Maybe you found this Universal Orlando planning guide because you want to know how to save money at Universal.
I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here is how to save money at Universal Orlando.
First, I’ll be honest: theme parks are expensive.
The tickets, the food, the souvenirs, it adds up! The best way to save money at Universal is to set a budget and stick to it. Whether it’s a food budget or a souvenir budget, decide how much you plan to spend before you leave. Check out our review for Endless Summer: Dockside Inn and Suites, Universal’s Ultra Value Resorts!
Purchase an annual pass if it makes sense for your family. If you plan to visit more than once a year, an annual pass might make more sense than purchasing multi-day park tickets.
Sides and snacks
Choose sides or kids’ items at restaurants. I am the queen of sides. I can eat at Thunder Falls Terrance in Islands of adventure for about $6.
During special events such as Mardi Gras, it’s easy to save money by eating the smaller but surprisingly filling snacks.
Express Passes are expensive, but they’re also a great way to see everything with limited time. If you’re visiting during a busy time (summer, Christmas, etc.), it might save money to stay in a Premier Resort vs. purchasing Express Passes on their own.
Bring your own food
The best way to save money on food? Bring your own. Universal allows you to bring in food and snacks, which can be a great way to save money if you don’t want to splurge on theme park food.
Universal Souvenirs are cute, but they are pricey. There are plenty of stores around Orlando selling discounted Universal merchandise.
You can even pick up Universal-themed Souveniers at Walmart and Target!
My youngest son loves the little snapping dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. They are $12; Target sells them for $5. You’re welcome.
Universal Orlando Planning Guide
Want even more Universal Studios tips and tricks? Check out:
- The 10 best thrill rides at Universal
- The Ultimate Guide to Universal Orlando Hotels
- Star Wars Land vs. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- First Timer Tips for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Looking for a place to stay during your Orlando vacation? Of course, I always recommend staying at an onsite Universal Resort. You can check out tours of all of them on my YouTube channel.
Perks to staying at a Universal resort include free transportation throughout the day and early park admission. The Premier Resorts (Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, Hard Rock) also include a free Express Pass for every day of your stay.
Check the pricing for your dates here:
- Loews Portofino Bay
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
- Loews Royal Pacific
- Aventura Hotel
- Cabana Bay Beach Resort
- Endless Summer Resorts – Dockside Inn and Suites and Seaside Inn and Suites.
We also stayed at Marriott Cypress Harbour Villas Review near Universal and Disney, and it’s a great option if you need more room! If you want an affordable room on the property with plenty of space, check out Dockside Inn and Suites Review.
Do you have any first-timer tips for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Share them in the comments below!
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