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The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Universal Orlando Resort

With three fun-filled parks, eight hotels, and dozens of shopping and dining options, Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, Fla., has blockbuster fun for everyone. While planning your visit, this guide will help you choose where to stay, what to eat, and which attractions to add to your “must-ride” list.

Theme Parks at Universal Orlando Resort Entrance to Universal Orlando Resort
Credit: Entrance to Universal Orlando Resort by universalorlando.com

Theme Parks at Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resort has two unique theme parks, as well as a water theme park, where you can step into (and ride) your favorite movies and TV shows. Each park has kid-size rides and play areas, family-friendly attractions, and big-time thrills featuring hit franchises like Harry Potter, Despicable Me, and Transformers.

Universal Studios Florida is the resort’s original park and sometimes functions as a real working film studio. The park includes streets and facades of notable cities like New York, San Francisco, and London that are so realistic they are often used to shoot movies and TV shows. Luckily, you don’t have to be a movie star to escape the clutches of Imhotep on Revenge of the Mummy and save New York City from aliens on Men in Black Alien Attack. All you need is a ticket to Universal Studios Florida.

Next door to Universal Studios Florida is Islands of Adventure. Rather than the realistic cityscapes in Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure is made up of eight fantastical “islands” like Marvel Super Hero Island, Seuss Landing, and Jurassic Park.

Spanning both parks is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — a must-visit for any Harry Potter fan. Universal Studios Florida is home to the Diagon Alley section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and you can visit Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. Connecting the two parks is the Hogwarts Express train — and, yes, you do need a Park-to-Park ticket to ride the train since it technically takes you from one park to another. Both sides have rides, entertainment, dining, and magical secrets to discover.

Last, but certainly not least, is Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay Water Theme Park. Like Universal’s other parks, Volcano Bay has attractions for all ages, immersive theming, and an elaborate backstory involving a fire god named Krakatau (which is also the name of the park’s iconic volcano).

Universal’s CityWalk is not technically a theme park, but an exciting shopping, dining, and entertainment district that you pass through on your way to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Entry to CityWalk is free (not including parking) and it’s a great spot to grab a bite to eat, pick up souvenirs, or observe the nearby coasters as they zoom past.

Hotels at Universal Orlando Resort Pool area at Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
Credit: Pool area at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. by Universal Orlando Resort

Hotels at Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando has eight onsite hotels with a multitude of room sizes and price ranges for every type of travel group and budget. The hotels fall into one of four categories – Value, Prime Value, Preferred, and Premier. Each hotel has standard amenities like pools, dining, early theme park entry, the option to have in-park purchases delivered to your hotel, and complimentary theme park transportation, but the higher category hotels offer more perks and luxury than the less expensive properties. Here’s what you can expect from each category:

  • Value hotels are the least expensive. They are also furthest from the parks so you will need to drive or use the complimentary bus transportation. These include Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn & Suites and Surfside Inn & Suites.

  • Prime Value hotels are still relatively affordable, but offer a walking path to the water theme park, Volcano Bay, in addition to shuttle bus transportation. These include Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Universal’s Aventura Hotel.

  • Universal has only one Preferred hotel, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. In addition to the benefits already mentioned, you can take a leisurely water taxi ride to the parks and Volcano Bay.

  • Premier hotels are Universal’s top-tier hotels. The biggest benefit of staying in a Premier hotel is the complimentary Universal Express Unlimited access for your entire party during your stay. Universal Express lets you skip the line at most attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. These include Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, all of which are great resorts for couples and families alike.

Which hotel you choose has just as much to do with your priorities as it does the category. Cabana Bay, for example, is the only hotel at Universal with a lazy river and a bowling alley, while Dockside and Surfside offer family-friendly, two-bedroom suites, and Aventura has a rooftop lounge with stunning theme park views.

Buying Tickets For Universal Orlando Resort The iconic entry arch that leads to Universal Studios Florida
Credit: The iconic entry arch that leads to Universal Studios Florida by Universal Orlando Resort

Buying Tickets For Universal Orlando Resort

Universal uses a date-based ticketing system, so even though it’s possible to purchase tickets at the front gate, it’s best to get them ahead of time for the best prices and a guarantee that your dates won’t be sold out.

There are a variety of ticket types to fit your needs. You can purchase single-day or multi-day tickets and you also have the ability to visit more than one park per day (including Volcano Bay) using the Park-to-Park option. If you want to take the Hogwarts Express between the two sections of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you have to choose Park-to-Park tickets.

Universal runs various ticket discounts throughout the year, but it also offers hotel and ticket packages that can help you save money if you are staying onsite.

Ticket Add-Ons Available at Universal Orlando Resort Character photos are available throughout Universal Orlando Resort
Credit: Character photos are available throughout Universal Orlando Resort by Universal Orlando Resort

Ticket Add-Ons Available at Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Express allows you to skip the line on most (but not quite all) attractions and there are a few versions available. The basic Universal Express Pass allows you to skip the regular line once per attraction, while the Unlimited option lets you ride as many times as you’d like without waiting in line. You can choose a one-park or two-park Express Pass, as well as a separate option for Volcano Bay.

If you are staying onsite and considering Universal Express, it’s worth doing the math on how much you will spend staying in a lower hotel category and adding on the express pass or staying in a Premier hotel that includes free skip-the-line privileges. Depending on the size of your party and the number of days you plan to stay, you can actually save money by choosing a more expensive hotel.

If you want access to all of your in-park and on-ride photos, you’ll want to purchase the My Universal Photos add-on. There are one-day and three-day options, both of which come with unlimited digital downloads, two photo prints, a discount on additional prints, and a lanyard to hold the photo card you’ll need to present to photo attendants to have pictures added to your account.

You can also add Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cups for your party and enjoy free refills from self-serve beverage locations throughout the parks and CityWalk.

Dining at Universal Orlando You can try Butterbeer drinks and desserts at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Credit: You can try Butterbeer drinks and desserts at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by Universal Orlando Resort

Dining at Universal Orlando

We often equate theme park food with pizza, popcorn, and burgers, but Universal Orlando has everything from fine dining to character meals and, yes, the aforementioned theme park staples, too. There’s a mix of quick-service and sit-down dining throughout the three parks, CityWalk, and the onsite hotels. If you have your heart set on a table-service restaurant like Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at CityWalk or the award-winning Mythos at Islands of Adventure, reservations are available by phone or online.

For on-the-go dining, there are quick-service restaurants and snack stands a stone’s throw away from wherever you happen to be inside the parks. The Universal Orlando app is an absolute necessity for finding the food you’re craving and determining whether they accept walk-up or mobile orders.

Universal’s Value hotels have large food courts, poolside bars, and a coffee shop in the lobby (Dockside also has a lobby lounge). As you move up through the different hotel categories, you’ll find these same offerings, in addition to poolside and/or sit-down dining options.

Universal has too many must-try food and drink offerings to count, but a few standouts include The Big Pink Donut at the Simpsons-themed Lard Lad Donuts, Cheeseburgooshi at The Cowfish, the Waturi Fusion ice cream cone at Volcano Bay, the Isla Nublar IPA specially brewed for the Jurassic Park area of Islands of Adventure, the Tableside S’mores at Bigfire, and Butterbeer in all its many forms in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Most Thrilling Attractions at Universal Orlando Resort The Jurassic World VelociCoaster reaches a top speed of 70 mph.
Credit: The Jurassic World VelociCoaster reaches a top speed of 70 mph. by Universal Orlando Resort

The Most Thrilling Attractions at Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando is known for having some of the most unique and exciting attractions in Central Florida. If it’s thrills you seek, these are the rides that will push you to the limit.

Universal Studios Florida

  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – This is considered one of the best roller coasters in Florida. Whether you look at this coaster’s 90-degree angle, 17-story climb as thrilling or terrifying depends on how much you love crazy coasters. Whichever side of the coin you land on, at least you get to choose the music you want to listen to during your ride.

  • Revenge of the Mummy – Themed to “The Mummy” movie franchise, this coaster puts you face to face with the evil Mummy Imhotep and he has lots of surprises in store for your soul.

  • Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts – This ride is part coaster, part 4-D motion simulator, and all fun. What begins as an innocent tour of Gringotts Bank quickly turns sinister when Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix drop in.

Islands of Adventure

  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster – Located in Islands of Adventure, this big green coaster launches riders 150 feet into the air and hits a top speed of 67 miles per hour before splashing down (don’t worry, you won’t get wet) toward the Islands of Adventure Lagoon.

  • Jurassic World VelociCoaster – This ride takes you into two high-speed launches inside a Velociraptor paddock, over a 150-foot-tall top hat, and through multiple inversions. What could go wrong?

  • Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – This multi-launch steel coaster is set in the Forbidden Forest near Hogwarts Castle. The ride experience varies based on whether you choose to sit in the sidecar or straddle the motorbike, but both are equally thrilling.

Volcano Bay

  • Ko’okiri Body Plunge – This 125-foot-high body slide will test the limits of your bravery, but it’s worth it. Step inside, take a deep breath, wait for the trap door to open, and try to keep your wits about you as you speed toward the plunge pool below.

  • Krakatau Aqua Coaster – This ride combines the best parts of a roller coaster and water slide as it winds through the Krakatau volcano. It’s an exciting ride that makes this one of Florida’s best water parks.

The Best Attractions For Families at Universal Orlando Resort The world of Dr. Seuss comes to life in Seuss Landing
Credit: The world of Dr. Seuss comes to life in Seuss Landing by Universal Orlando Resort

The Best Attractions For Families at Universal Orlando Resort

In addition to its exciting thrill rides, Universal Orlando Resort has many rides and entertainment families can enjoy together.

Universal Studios Florida

  • Dreamworks Destination – Inside this colorful, disco ball-adorned meet and greet, kids can dance with characters from Dreamworks films like Trolls, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda. Characters rotate throughout the day so they have plenty of chances to snap a pic with their favorites.

  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem – On this 3-D motion simulator, the villainous Gru tries his best to transform you (and every human he can get his hands on) into a Minion.

  • E.T. Adventure – Take off with E.T. on your flying bike and travel to his home world, the Green Planet on this ultimate nostalgic journey.

Islands of Adventure

  • Camp Jurassic & Pteranodon Flyers – To soar over the Jurassic Park area of Islands of Adventure, you actually have to be under 56 inches (or tag along with a kid who meets the requirement). This slow-moving adventure comes with enviable park views, especially with the addition of Jurassic World VelociCoaster just a few feet away. After they ride, kids can explore the Camp Jurassic interactive play area next to the attraction.

  • Seuss Landing – Seuss Landing is more than just one attraction, it’s an entire Dr. Seuss-themed land with four rides, a water play area, characters, and wacky dining options – all designed just for kids.

  • Flight of the Hippogriff – Families can take a mild ride through Hagrid’s pumpkin patch on this kid-size coaster located near Hogwarts Castle in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Volcano Bay

  • Runamukka Reef – This ultimate splash area for kids has slides, water blasters, and lots of room to explore. It’s connected to an even smaller water play section for toddlers called Tot Tiki Reef.

  • Krakatau Volcano – Even those who aren’t quite ready for the Krakatau Aqua Coaster can enter the depths of the volcano to discover the interactive elements hiding inside. You can even speak to Vol, the spirit who dwells inside the volcano.

The Best Time of Year to Visit Universal Orlando Every year, Universal Orlando holds Florida's biggest Mardi Gras party
Credit: Every year, Universal Orlando holds Florida's biggest Mardi Gras party by Universal Orlando Resort

The Best Time of Year to Visit Universal Orlando

Like all theme parks, Universal Orlando Resort is most crowded in the summer when school is out and families are in vacation mode. The same holds true for school holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, spring break, Thanksgiving, and the week between Christmas and the New Year. These are the times of year when lines can be long and Universal Express may come in most handy.

Universal also holds a number of special events throughout the year that can enhance your vacation. Universal’s Mardi Gras celebration typically begins in February and runs through late March. There’s always lots of Cajun-inspired food, live music, and, of course, beads.

Halloween Horror Nights is one of the premier Halloween events in the country and one of the best things to do in the fall in Florida. On select nights from early September through Halloween, the streets of Universal Studios Florida become sinister “scare zones” and otherwise harmless buildings transform into horrifying haunted houses. Halloween Horror Nights is a separately-ticketed event.

Universal Orlando gets very merry for the holiday season with décor, a beautifully decorated tree, parades, entertainment, and so much more. You may even get to see snow in Central Florida.

Tricks & Secrets to Know Before You Visit Universal Orlando Magic awaits within Ollivanders wand shop in Diagon Alley
Credit: Magic awaits within Ollivanders wand shop in Diagon Alley by Photo 83520687 © Nuiiko | Dreamstime.com

Tricks & Secrets to Know Before You Visit Universal Orlando

The most helpful thing you can do for yourself before your Universal Orlando Resort vacation is to download the official Universal app to your phone. You can check wait times, enter the virtual queue for select rides, view restaurant menus and place mobile food orders, see showtimes, and add a debit or credit card so you can make payments through the app.

Many Universal Orlando attractions utilize a single rider line that can help you get to the fun even faster. Single rider lines are typically a fraction of the regular wait time, but your party will most likely be separated into different ride vehicles. If that’s not a big deal for your group, it’s a huge time saver.

If you’re celebrating a special occasion while on your Universal Orlando vacation, stop by guest services for a complimentary celebration button. There are different buttons for birthdays, first visits, and more.

We didn’t give away too many secrets about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter because it’s more fun to discover them on your own, but we will share one tip: If you want to get the full Harry Potter experience, you’ll want to stop by Ollivanders wand shop to pick up an interactive wand. With locations in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, an interactive wand from Ollivanders will allow you to cast spells at magic wand spots throughout the Wizarding World. You may even have the opportunity to have your wand choose you during daily wand ceremonies.

Universal Orlando Resort:
Official Website

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