What to do before you go
Universal Orlando offers what might be the best deal in the theme park industry, one you should consider as it makes planning a visit to this and sister park Universal Studios Florida ridiculously simple. Anyone who books a stay at one of Universal's three on-site hotels gets front-of-the-line access to almost all attractions at the two parks for the duration of his or her stay, at no additional charge. With unlimited front of line access, you don't need to worry about itineraries or strategies -- just do what you want, when you want to, with no more than a five-to-10-minute wait for each ride.
This "Universal Express Unlimited" begins on your check-in day and ends on your check-out day, so a single night's stay at one of these hotels can get you two days of front-of-line access, for up to five people in one room. Universal hotel guests also get one hour of early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, before it opens to "regular" park visitors. Since the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (the one located in Hogwarts Castle) is the only major ride in the two Universal Orlando parks that's not covered under the Universal Express Unlimited front-of-line access, using this extra hour is essential for getting the most value from your stay at the resort.
You will need to buy theme park admission in order to use this perk, of course. And Universal charges the same rate for parking overnight at its hotels as it charges day guests for its parking garages, so don't forget that cost when pricing a trip. However, Universal's two theme parks are located within easy parking distance of one another, and a reasonable walk from each of the three hotels, so you might not need a car when you visit the resort. Along with the Disneyland Resort in California, Universal Orlando is a very walkable theme park vacation destination.
You can price on-site hotel rooms and packages at Universal Orlando's website, and check out its special offers page while you're there. (Rates start at around $225 a night at the Royal Pacific, which tends to be the lowest-priced of the three.) Make sure that you book an "on-site" hotel, and not an off-site "partner" hotel, for the front-of-line access. And also note that the on-site Cabana Bay Beach Resort that opens in 2014 will not offer the front-of-line access to its guests.
If your budget leads you to stay off-site, price Universal Orlando tickets on the Universal website, then ask if your human resources department, student union or credit union offers discounted tickets to the parks. Despite the two parks' close proximity, you shouldn't pay extra for the "park-to-park" ticket unless you're planning to spend at least two days at the resort. There's just too much to see at these parks to do them both in one day (unless you're staying on-site and have that unlimited front-of-line access.) Universal Orlando does not offer a "no expire" option on theme park tickets, so there's no point in trying to get a better deal by buying extra days for future trips, as you can at Walt Disney World. Buy tickets just for the days you'll be visiting the park on this trip. If you'll be visiting SeaWorld during your trip, look into an Orlando FlexTicket (available on the Universal Orlando website), which covers Universal Orlando and SeaWorld with one ticket, with an option to add SeaWorld's Busch Gardens Tampa park as well.
Even if you're not staying on-site, you still have opportunities to skip the park's queues. Universal offers paid front-of-line passes for visitors not staying at its resorts. An unlimited front of line pass will cost between $51-$102/day per person over the cost of a daily admission ticket, depending upon the day you visit. A "one-skip-per attraction" basic Universal Express pass costs between $25-$61/day per person, over the cost of park admission. When you consider the cost of an unlimited Universal Express pass for a family of four on summer vacation, you're essentially getting a four-star hotel room for free if you book a night at one of the Universal hotels, when you compare the hotel room cost to the price of the Express passes bought separately.
If skipping lines isn't exclusive enough for you, Universal will hook you up with a VIP tour guide, for the right price, of course. Prices start at $229 per person, on top of park admission, to join a scheduled VIP group. You can book a private tour for up to 10 people, starting at $2,750 for eight hours. (Again, that's on top of the admission tickets for everyone in the group.)
Whether you get front-of-line access for attractions or not, you'll need to call in advance to secure reservations at either of Islands of Adventure's two table-service restaurants, Confisco Grille and former Theme Park Insider Award winner Mythos Restaurant. Call 407-224-4012 in advance of your visit. Reservations are not difficult on most days, so you don't need to call weeks in advance. A few days should suffice.
Universal Orlando's parks do experience significantly smaller crowds during the school year, with the exception of September and October, when the popular Halloween Horror Nights after-hours event runs over at Universal Studios Florida. If you can plan your visit during weekdays during other months of the school year, avoiding popular vacation weeks around spring break, you might be able to avoid significant waits on most attractions without needing to pay extra for a Universal Express pass or on-site hotel room.
When you get to Universal Orlando
Parking costs $16 per vehicle ($5 after 6pm) and you'll park in the same parking garage whether you're visiting IOA or Universal Studios Florida. From the garage, it's a bit of a haul across several moving sidewalks into Universal Orlando's CityWalk shopping and dining district, on your way to the parks. Bear left for Islands of Adventure and right for the Studios, when you get through CityWalk.
Plan to arrive at least an hour in advance of the park opening during the summer and holiday seasons, to give yourself time to park and walk to the front gate to queue to be among the first in the park, if you don't have front of line access. (Otherwise, show up whenever you want.) Remember that Universal hotel guests already will be inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when the park opens, so you might spend this time better visiting other attractions in the park that don't have people in their queues yet, and saving Harry Potter for later in the day. (Many fans think the atmosphere in that land is best at night, anyway.)
Theme Park Insider readers' top four attractions in Islands of Adventure, outside Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, are:
All four are located to the left when you enter the park and walk through the Port of Entry area to the park's central lagoon. Start with Spider-Man, then move on to Hulk, Dudley Do-Right and Popeye. Note that the last two are water rides that will soak you, so if it's a cool or overcast day -- when the Orlando sun won't dry you immediately -- you might choose to leave those until just before you head back to the hotel. Fortunately, cool and overcast days tend to be those school-year off-season days when waits are short enough that you don't need to worry about visiting strategies.
Families with young children might choose instead to start their day by walking to the right and spending the morning in Seuss Landing enjoying the multiple Dr. Seuss-inspired attractions there. Start with the High In The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride then return to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat rides to minimize wait times.
There's one more way to minimize your waits, even if you didn't spring for the Universal Express pass. Six of Islands of Adventure's attractions have single-rider lines, though they might not be marked and you'll have to ask a ride attendant at the attraction's entrance for directions to the single-rider queue:
You will miss some of the Hogwarts walk-through if you use the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey single-rider line, but you still will see the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore's office, and an alternate version of the portrait gallery. On busy days, small groups can see more of the park in less time by splitting up and using the single-rider lines than they would be staying together and going through the regular queues.
Where to eat
Drinking a Butterbeer in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter might be one of the park's most popular attractions, even more than some of the park's highly lauded rides. But don't queue up for the big Butterbeer cart parked in the middle of the land. Instead, duck inside the Hog's Head Pub to order your (nonalcoholic and very sweet) Butterbeer -- there's a much shorter, and often non-existent, wait there.
The Hog's Head shares its space with the Three Broomsticks restaurant in the Wizarding World, which offers another popular option for breakfast, lunch or dinner in the park. It's counter service and takes no reservation, so arrive outside of traditional meal times to avoid a wait.
Outside of Three Broomsticks, Mythos and Confisco Grille, Islands of Adventure offers a fairly standard selection of counter-service theme park fare, mostly burgers and pizza, with ribs available over in Jurassic Park (natch).
Universal's building a Diagon Alley-themed Harry Potter land over in Universal Studios Florida, which will connect to Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade-themed Wizarding World through a Hogwarts Express train ride which will open in summer 2014.
Beyond that, there's nothing in development for Islands of Adventure that's been either announced or confirmed through our unofficial sources. Sharp observers might note that Islands of Adventure features an entire land devoted to characters from Marvel Comics, a franchise now owned by arch-rival Disney. Rumors have been flying for years that Disney's trying to buy back the Orlando-area theme park rights to Marvel from Universal, which would force Universal to redevelop that entire section of the park. But Disney's not yet made a offer that Universal couldn't refuse.
Perhaps not unrelated, it's also known from unofficial sources that Universal's been pursuing the rights to develop a theme park land based on The Lord of the Rings. Nothing's been signed, though.
Next week: Disney California Adventure
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