After almost three years in Orlando, we finally bought annual passes to Universal. Since moving here, we’ve visited Seaworld and some of the Disney Parks a few times, but our boys always loved Universal for the Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Marvel Superhero areas. While a lot of the rides are geared towards older kids and adults, there is plenty for the littles to do as well!
The first few times we went to Universal, we came without a plan and spent the day zigzagging across the park trying to find rides that the whole family could go on – all while our kids complained that their legs hurt. Lesson learned. Do not recommend.
Whether you’re an itinerary-toting planner or prefer to wing it, even a loose game plan makes the day much more enjoyable and helps to minimize waiting (and whining!) To help you map out your time at Universal Orlando, we pulled together a list of tips and suggestions to make the most of your time here.
Know which Universal Park you want to visit – there are three!
Universal Orlando has three parks, and guests can choose between one-park or park-to-park passes. There are also options for single-day or multi-day passes.
- Universal Studios – the largest and flagship park with attractions based on movies from your and your kid’s childhoods like Despicable Me Minion Mayhem™, E.T. Adventure™ and The Simpsons Ride™.
- Islands of Adventure – home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, Islands of Adventure has more rides and attractions and boasts the uber popular VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. This park also has Suess Land – which is awesome for the little ones under 40” tall – as well as Jurassic Park, Toon Lagoon and Marvel Superheroes.
- Volcano Bay – a water park that’s best described as a vacation within your vacation. You’ll feel like you’re at the beach with the South Sea-themed tropical oasis!
I highly recommend downloading the Universal app to plan your visit, monitor ride wait times, and search for restaurants, bathrooms, and water stations, etc. The parks have different hours, so take that into consideration when planning your day(s).
Height requirements for rides
Almost all of the rides and attractions have some form of a height requirement. And they are strict (we’ve experienced ride operators calling their managers over to determine if our kid met the height requirement – all about safety, yo!)
Since our boys are almost three years apart, they’re not always on the same page with rides. For example, our older son is tall enough for a lot of the rides that our younger one can’t go on… and our four-year-old is happy riding Spiderman 3x in a row while the seven-year-old is not. Before you go, get accurate measurements, and know in advance what the kids can and cannot ride – it’ll save you time and disappointment!
Know your must-do rides
You really can’t anticipate wait times, though the rides with the longest wait times tend to be the newest attractions, currently Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and Jurassic World VelociCoaster, both at Islands of Adventure. If there is a ride or two that you have your heart set on, structure your day around them in (i.e., get to the park at opening and bee line it to the ride when lines are shortest.) Keep an eye on ride wait times within the Universal app and consider buying an Express Pass to bypass general admission lines.
A couple of things to keep in mind…
- Most rides offer Rider Swap (aka Child Swap) so families with small children can take turns riding without splitting up or waiting in line twice. This is a great option if you have a little one who doesn’t meet the height requirement or is not comfortable with a particular ride – mom and dad need to enjoy their time here too!
- Single Rider lines are another option at certain times throughout the day. If you’re traveling solo, or your kids are old enough to ride a ride alone, then is a great time saving consideration. Just know you’ll probably be split up.
Meals and snacks
As locals, we tend to pack our food and drinks for a day. Unlike *some parks* you are allowed to bring in coolers, backpacks, snacks, and water bottles – a good option if you don’t want to buy food there (or if your kids are picky af like mine.)
That said, trying the food and drinks is usually half of the fun! No matter which park you visit, there are plenty of amazing restaurants and food stands – check out a complete list and make reservations here. We love the popcorn buckets, which run $12.99 and $2.19 per refill – a good deal if you are traveling with a popcorn lover/will be at the parks for a few days. If you’re looking for the full Universal Orlando experience, make sure you try:
- Butterbeer –You can buy this must-have drink at Three Broomsticks, the Hog’s Head Inn, or another spots throughout Harry Potter World. The non-alcoholic drink comes in three versions: regular, hot and frozen.
- Voodoo Doughnut – I’d eat pretty much anything here, but the Bacon Maple Bar is iconic. Salty and sweet, what’s not to love?
- Green Eggs and Ham – available at the Green Eggs and Ham Café, ya gotta add this Dr. Suess favorite to your list!
A few other things to keep in mind…
If you’re staying at one of Universal’s properties, then you’ll have access to exclusive theme park benefits. Each property offers guests early theme park access (up to one hour before the park opens to the public), and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel® and Loews Royal Pacific Resort gives guests free Express Unlimited passes along with priority seating at select restaurants throughout the resort. The complete list of accommodations and amenities is here.
While you’re at Universal, don’t sleep on the 30-acre restaurant and entertainment district known as CityWalk™. It’s open to the public so you don’t need park tickets to visit and has awesome restaurants and nightlife. CityWalk is open 8am-midnight daily, and 1am on Friday/Saturdays. A+ people watching.
If you’re local or staying off of the property, there are several convenient onsite parking options. Cost ranges from $30-60 depending on vehicle type and whether you want premium parking or not (not worth the added cost IMO.) Check out complete rates and directions, as well as valet and free parking options here.
I’m barely scratching the surface here and don’t want to leave you hanging, but hopefully this gives you a little insight into making the most of your trip to Universal! Stay tuned for a follow up guide with sample itineraries. Drop your questions in the comments!