Planning on visiting Universal Orlando for your next family vacation? We recently took a mini getaway to Universal Orlando Resort and I’ve got the inside scoop on all the best tips to make it the most enjoyable getaway ever. Find out how to save time & money while making sure you hit all your must-see attractions, all in one day!
Insider Tips for Families Visiting Universal Orlando
During our weekend mini vacation from Miami to Orlando, we managed to visit two great parks in one day: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure! How did we fit so much fun into a single day? Read on to find out!
1. Plan your trip for the “off season” dates
If you have any wiggle room on your vacation time (I know some people can only take off during specific weeks), make sure you plan on visiting Universal Orlando in the “off season.” While the park is almost always busy, some dates are definitely better than others.
For the most part, you’ll want to avoid the weeks before, during, and after any major holiday, including Christmas & New Years, Easter (it coincides with spring break), Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the 4th of July. If you can swing it, go after Labor Day but well before Christmas.
If you can’t travel out of the peak seasons, then at least plan on visiting outside of peak days. As you can image, weekends are fairly busy in the park. However, it may surprise you to know that Mondays and Tuesdays are also busy days, according to Frommers. Your best bet is actually Thursday or Friday.
2. Stay on the property and arrive early
If you’re not from the area and plan on spending the night in Orlando, do yourself a favor and stay on the property in one of their hotels. Yes, you can find cheaper accommodations outside the park but remember, you’ll also need to pay for transportation to and from Universal.
Plus, on-property hotels offer some great money-saving perks, like free Universal Express Passes (for those staying a Universal Premiere category hotels) and early park entry. Ideally, arrive the night before so you can start your day bright and early in the park.
3. Arrive early even if you’re not staying on property
If you’re just driving in for the day, try to arrive a good hour before the park opens. While guests who stay on property get first priority for early entry, Universal has been known to allow other guests to enter the park a littler earlier than the official opening time. By arriving early, you have a better chance of getting right on the popular rides without waiting in super long lines.
4. Make sure you get a Park-to-Park Ticket
If you’re planning on visiting both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures in one day like we did, buy a park-to-park ticket rather than separate tickets. Not only will you save a good chunk of money, but you’ll also be able to ride the Hogwarts Express between the parks (which is incredibly fun for all ages).
5. Plan your ride and show itinerary before you go
Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are loaded with rides, shows, and other attractions, so planning your basic itinerary before you go is really the best way to make sure you don’t miss anything. Use Wikipedia’s list of rides and attractions for a quick breakdown of all the rides in one handy table, then head to Universal Orlando’s website for a closer look at any that you’re not sure about.
If you have toddlers or young children, pay close attention to height requirements. You don’t want to get your child excited about a ride only to discover that they’re too short for it! Make sure you add my family’s top three favorite rides to your Universal Studios itinerary:
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster (this one was great for my 4-year-old daughter)
- The Simpsons Ride
Just make sure you’re flexible with your itinerary. The goal is to make a basic list of everything you want to see and do based on where it’s located in the park, not create a “down to the last second” schedule.
6. Do Universal Studios in the AM and Islands of Adventure in the PM
Some of Universal’s most popular attractions are located in the Islands of Adventure park, so most people flock there first thing. Beat the rush by waiting until the afternoon to make your way over there! Again, an attractions itinerary comes in handy.
While you’re there, make sure you leave plenty of time for the Dr. Seuss area! My kids loved all the attractions, like The Cat in the Hat. They even got Thing 1 and Thing 2 shirts. This area of the park was definitely our favorite. It’s just so colorful and amazing for kids.
7. Splurge on the Express Pass
If you’re staying on property at one of the Premiere hotels, you’ll get complimentary Express Passes. If you’re staying elsewhere or driving in for the day, they’re expensive but worth every penny if you’re not the most patient person (or if you have little kids with you). You can get them in the park but if you buy them at the same time you purchase your tickets, you’ll save a little.
Universal has a few different options. The basic Express Pass lets you skip the lines once per participating ride. For a bit more, you can upgrade it to one that lets you skip lines an unlimited number of times per ride. If you think you’re going to want to ride the same ride multiple times, then spend the extra money. Otherwise just get the basic Express Pass.
Express Pass out of your budget? Take advantage of other time-savers like Child Swap and Single Rider. One lets you swap places with other adults in your party. The other pairs you up with other riders so they can fill all the seats.
Also, remember, while the Express Pass lets you skip the longer line, most rides still have a line of Express Pass users! Still, you’ll only wait about 15-20 minutes versus hours!
8. Be smart about souvenirs
Before you step foot in the park, make your souvenir budget very clear to everyone in your family. Give each child a set amount to spend. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Older kids can keep track of their own budget. You’ll need to help younger kids, of course.
It’s also a good idea to look outside the park for basic souvenirs first. For example, many stores carry sweatshirts, t-shirts, posters, and other general souvenirs for a fraction of the price inside the park. Inside the park, try to stick to unique souvenirs that you can look at a year or more down the line and say, “I got this at Universal!” The whole point of souvenirs is to act as a reminder of the good times you had, not end up in your junk drawer or trash a week later.
Speaking of acting as a reminder, photos make fantastic souvenirs and don’t cost you a dime! Make sure you take lots of pics with your favorite characters!
9. Save money on food
Food is notoriously expensive inside any theme park and Universal Orlando is no exception. Food at Universal is basically an attraction itself, so you don’t want to completely skip out on eating in the park. Just be smart about it.
Universal Orlando allows you to bring in bottled water (must be bottled, no glass or open containers) and small snacks. Bring in the largest bottle of water you can find because you’re allowed up to 2 liters. Pack healthy snacks like fruit (bananas, apples, and tangerines are good choices) and nuts. My kids love cashews. It will even out the treats you “have to” get when you go to the theme parks.
Start your day with a good breakfast outside the park so you won’t be starving when you get inside of it. Plan on eating a light lunch in the park, then head to Universal CityWalk to enjoy a nice dinner. This time we went to Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food. We love Mexican food and they have the best fresh guacamole (made to order), enchiladas and tacos. Don’t forget to save room for dessert at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen!
As for lunch, we had great pizza inside the Simpson’s area of the park, but there are plenty of other places to eat all over the park. Pizza is a good option because it comes in personal pie sizes that you can easily split. While it won’t be a big meal, if you’ve eaten a good breakfast and snacked on filling fruit and nuts throughout the morning, you shouldn’t be terribly hungry.
10. Download the app before you go
The app is fantastic because it not only gives you a detailed map of the parks, but also let’s you create alerts for when certain rides meet your maximum wait time requirement. The restroom locator is very handy, especially when you’re trying to get a little one who’s potty training to a family bathroom asap.
You can also buy tickets, and even purchase meal plans and more. Plus, it’s great for creating your ride itinerary and other to-do lists.
Along with these insider tips you’ll also want to follow these other basic tips for traveling with kids:
- Wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be doing a lot of walking! Sandals and flip flops may keep your feet cool, but you’ll regret it by the end of the first hour.
- Pack sunscreen and reapply it regularly. Check out this post on protecting your family from the sun naturally for tips on which brand to bring!
- Make note of shady spots and water play areas in the parks (this goes for any attraction in Florida). Universal has a list of water play areas on their website, so use them for a cool-down break.
- Set your budget before you leave. Even better, add your spending money to a gift card and use that instead of your regular credit card. Of course, bring your regular card for emergencies.
- Don’t feel like you have to fit every last thing into your day because you’ll be so frazzled trying to run from attraction to attraction that you won’t enjoy a single moment.
- Also, while you definitely want to take plenty of pictures, don’t spend your entire day looking at everything through a camera lens or screen. Take a quick picture, then really savor the memories that you’re making.
The best tip of all for families visiting Universal Orlando? Just have fun! Enjoy your quality time with your family and make memories that will last a lifetime.