Gone with the Grins

Navigating Universal Orlando & Tips for Making the Most of Your Visit

The Entrance to Universal Studios Orlando

Visiting a big amusement park may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be, as long as you know the tricks to avoiding the exhausting lines and overwhelming choices of activities.

While Universal Orlando may not be the very first park that comes to mind when you think of Florida, trust us, it is one of the best, particularly if you are a Harry Potter fanatic, if you have teenagers, if you’re into movies, or if you want to experience some really cool rides that have nothing to do with Frozen.

The first thing to know is that Universal actually has two parks connected by a promenade of shops and restaurants called the City Walk. Think of the layout as a giant V, with the City Walk in a little oval puddle down at the bottom and the two parks jutting off each point.

City Walk at Universal Orlando

City Walk

The City Walk is open to the general public and free to enter except for the fee to park in the deck. There you will find restaurants like Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and the Hard Rock Cafe, bars, a movie theater, lots of stores selling Universal merchandise, and an auditorium for live performances. This is also where Guest Services is located, in case you need to upgrade a ticket or talk to someone in the know. All this surrounds a big lake with the iconic Universal Globe at one end. City Walk is open later than either of the parks, and it’s popular with locals as a date-night destination.

Universal Studios Orlando Gate

Universal Studios Florida

From the City Walk, head to the right and you will see the tall, arched gates of Universal Studios. Beyond them are the turnstiles to get into the park. This park is divided into sections that include downtown London and Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter books, San Francisco’s Embarcadero, New York City’s Park Avenue, and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Most of the rides and attractions are themed around movies and TV shows like The Mummy, Men in Black, Terminator 2, Transformers, Shrek, Despicable Me, E.T., Fear Factor, and The Simpsons. There’s also a Kidzone featuring Barney, Woody Woodpecker, Fievel, and Curious George.

Islands of Adventure entrance

Islands of Adventure

On the other end of City Walk, look for the Pharos Lighthouse that marks the entrance to Islands of Adventure. The Port of Entry feels like a cross between a swashbuckling pirate movie and an old Middle Eastern bazaar, a theme that’s mirrored in the Lost Continent section with archaeological ruins, an ancient temple, and Sinbad Stunt Show. This park also has distinct areas with featured rides and attractions: Spider-Man, the X-Men’s Storm Force Accelatron, and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall on Marvel Super Hero Island, a Dudley Do-Right log flume in the Toon Lagoon, and a carousel and Cat in the Hat ride in Seuss Landing. They’ve recreated the Visitor Center from the original Jurassic Park, coupling it with a jungle-themed playground, a River Adventure, and a kids-only ride on flying pteranodons. Two roller coasters, a multi-media ride through Hogwarts Castle, and a replica of the village of Hogsmeade round out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in this park.

On-Site Hotels

If you can swing it, we highly recommend staying on site, and here’s why: Early Park Admission and free Unlimited Express Passes for up to five people. (Keep reading for more information about these.)

While all five on-site hotels offer Early Admission, only three of them sweeten the deal with the Express Passes: Loew’s Portofino Bay, Loew’s Royal Pacific, and Hard Rock Hotel, with the Royal Pacific being the cheapest of the three.

Loews Royal Pacific lobby

Check-in starts at 7 a.m. whereby you will be issued a key card, but no actual room. (Your room will be available later in the day, and they will notify you by text.) Walk your key over to the hotel’s concierge area, pick up your Express Pass, and jump on a water taxi or make the 5-10 minute walk on the paved pathway over to the parks.

Water Taxi at Universal

Tips & Tricks

Now that you have finally arrived, here are some things you’ll need to know to ensure that your hours at Universal are spent wisely.

  • Early Park Admission: A coveted perk for those staying on the property (or families with special vacation packages) is the opportunity to enter one of the parks one hour before the general public. The folks at the front desk of your hotel will let you know which park is opening early each day. You’ll still need to get in line by the turnstiles at least 30 minutes before that, and if you’re driving in that morning, it will be a very long day indeed. Bottom line: if you don’t want to pay for your Express Passes on top of your ticket prices, and you want any chance of getting on the two non-Express Pass enabled Harry Potter rides before the masses, this is the way to go.
  • Express Passes: There are two types of Express Passes, Regular and Unlimited. The first kind will get you in the Express line – one time only – for each ride that qualifies. With the Unlimited pass, you can go on each ride as many times as you want. Free Unlimited Express Passes are complimentary with your room at certain on-site hotels (see above), but for those not staying on the property, they are also available for advance purchase and at kiosks inside the parks. Sometimes it’s worth putting off this expense until you can see for yourself if the lines are longer than you’re willing to wait. But just remember there is nothing quite like breezing through the Express line and passing up 200 annoyed people on the other side of the rope. You’ll spend far more time enjoying the park and much less time standing in line for a two minute ride. (Just one caveat here: the Express Passes work for most rides, but not all. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Escape from Gringotts are notable exceptions. For those rides, it’s best to get Early Admission or plan to stay until the parks close at night.)

A Universal Studios Express pass

  • Single Rider Line: While we had no need for the Single Rider lines, we saw them, and many people claim they are just as quick as the Express lines. Obviously, you won’t be able to ride with your group, but it might be an ideal option for adults with older kids who don’t mind being separated.
  • Ride Wait Time App: Wait times are displayed on digital screens by the entrances to each of the rides, but knowing how long the line is before you arrive is a valuable time-saver. We used Wait Times for Universal Studios, and it helped us determine our plan of action, even if we had to crisscross the park to do it. We found that if the ride had a long wait time, the Express Pass line would often be a little backed up as well.
  • Lockers: Many of the rides (think roller coasters and spinny things where your belongings can become airborne) require you to check your purses, backpacks, cameras, etc. in a locker. Banks of these lockers are always conveniently located in an alcove near the ride and the first hour is free. However, they are fairly small (approx. 9.5” wide x 11.5” high x 17” deep), so you can’t cram too much in them. (A small camera bag, a tiny purse, a hat, and maybe a Harry Potter wand are about it.) The process is simple: you enter your fingerprint on a touch screen, which then tells you which locker to open. Close it up, commit the number to memory, and bring your finger with you to retrieve your stuff on the back end. (Larger, all-day lockers are located elsewhere in the park.)

Universal Orlando lockers

  • Hats/Shoes/Sunglasses: Speaking of personal effects, quite a few of the rides require you to remove your hat, sit on your flip flops, or put your glasses in a pocket. So clip a carabiner on your hat to hang it from your belt loop, make sure you have pockets (cargo pants are great), and consider shoes that will not fly off your feet.
  • Reserved Tables: If you eat in one of the park’s restaurants, many of the tables have signs that say Reserved. If you’re buying food in the restaurant, Reserved means the table is available for paying customers, not tired people looking for air conditioning. So by all means, sit down and eat your meal.

  • Child Swap: If you have little kids or children in a range of ages, Universal knows you don’t want to miss out on your favorite roller coaster. The Child Swap areas make it easy to switch out on parenting duties while the other one gets to ride.
  • Time of Year: This probably goes without saying, but if you really want to go to Orlando over the Christmas school break, be prepared for hordes of other people doing the same thing. The best time of year to visit any amusement park is always 1) when kids are in school, 2) when it’s cold, 3) in the middle of the week, or 4) some combination of the previous three. We visited in mid-March, which happens to be Spring Break in Texas, and thankfully is one week before Spring Break in Florida. Sure, there were still plenty of people in the park, but it wasn’t unbearable. So plan carefully.

Hogwarts Express at Universal

  • Tickets: Plan to spend a minimum of two days at Universal, one day for each park. Getting a 2-Day Park-to-Park pass will allow you to do this, with the flexibility to move between the parks if you choose. (A standard ticket only allows for one day at one park.) This is especially useful if you decide you want to re-visit an area. This happened to us with Diagon Alley. We fell in love with this amazing recreation from the Harry Potter series, going back both nights we were there to see it in the dark. (Which, by the way, was… well… magical. See for yourself when you read our Harry Potter Photo Essay.) A Park-to-Park pass will also ensure that you can ride the Hogwarts Express that travels between the two. (Be sure to ride it both ways, because the “movie” they show you through the train windows is different depending on which way you’re going.)
  • Lanyards: An optional accessory, but it’s the easiest place to store your Express Passes and park admission tickets. Bring one or buy one there.

So, now that you know the basics about how to tackle your visit to Universal Orlando, be sure to read our Ride Review and our entire 2-Day Itinerary. To get a feel for what to expect in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, click here to see our Photo Essay.

If you’re looking for a guide book to Universal Orlando, try this one that’s less than 10 bucks on Amazon.