Visiting Universal Orlando for the First Time? Here Are 10 Top Tips to Help

October 19, 2015, 4:40 PM · If you're a Disney fan thinking about visiting Universal Orlando for the first time or a newcomer to vacationing in Orlando, here are some tips that can help you get the most from a trip to the Universal Orlando Resort.

Some of these options are free, and some cost extra, but many of our readers have found these tips useful to them on their visits to the resort. Take a look, and follow the tips you think will be right for you and your family.

Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel
Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel, a five-time winner of the Theme Park Insider Award for the world's Best Theme Park Hotel.

Skip the Lines with Universal Express

Almost all theme parks offer perks to guests who stay in their on-site hotels, but Universal Orlando's top perk might be the world's best. Guests who stay at Universal Orlando's "deluxe"-level hotels — the Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, and Royal Pacific — get free, unlimited "Universal Express" access in the parks for the duration of their stay.

That means front-of-the-line access to nearly all of the rides and shows at Universal Studios Florida and the Islands of Adventure theme parks. With a Universal Express pass, you no longer need worry about getting up early to be at the front gate before the park opens. You can forget about strategies and which ride to visit when. Just come and go as you please, and you'll rarely wait more than a few minutes to ride anything, even on the busiest days of the year.

Even if you don't stay at one of these three on-site hotels, you can buy a Universal Express pass to help you skip the lines in the parks. The unlimited version runs from $54.99 a day to $149.99 a day (on top of your regular admission ticket), while a one-skip-per-ride version runs from $39.99 to $119.99 per day. The price of these passes rises as the parks get busier — which are the days when they become most useful. You'll have to decide if the trade-off of price-versus-convenience works for you.

But consider this: For a family of four, a night at one of the "top three" hotels during busy periods sometimes costs less than the cost of buying four unlimited Universal Express passes for that day. Plus, keep in mind that one night at these hotels can get you up to two days of unlimited Universal Express use, too — it's valid the day you check through the day you check out.

Whatever you choose, though, please don't call a Universal Express pass a "Fastpass." That's Disney's trademarked term for its line-reservation service. You'll get plenty of smiles instead of forced grins from people at Universal if you don't use Disney's terms when visiting.

Or, Shorten Your Wait with Single Rider Lines

Staying off-site, or at a "value"-priced on-site hotel? There's still another way to skip the lines at Universal Orlando. Unlike at Disney, where single rider lines are rare, almost all of Universal Orlando's top attractions offer this feature. You will find single rider queues at the following locations:

Universal Studios Florida

Islands of Adventure

In addition, other popular rides such as Jurassic Park and Minion Mayhem have been known to open a single rider line during especially busy periods.

If you choose to use this option, please do not abuse it. "Single rider" means just that. If you are not visiting the parks by yourself, you will not be able to ride with your family members or friends if you choose to go through the single rider queue. Instead, you will be separated and assigned to any available extra, empty seat at the end of a row, in order to keep ride vehicles fully filled without slowing the flow of the line.

Get Early Admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Visitors who stay at any of Universal's on-site hotels, or book a vacation package through Universal Orlando at a participating off-site hotel, can get one hour of extra access to one of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands, before the parks open to guests in the morning.

If you are staying at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort or the new Sapphire Falls — which do not offer the free Universal Express Unlimited benefit — you will want to make sure to make use of your free extra hour in the Wizarding World each morning of your stay.

Get the Park-to-Park Ticket to Ride the Hogwarts Express

Universal Orlando's two Wizarding World lands — Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida — are connected by the Hogwarts Express, a replica of the steam train from the Harry Potter films that shuttles guests between the two lands.

When you're aboard the Hogwarts Express, the "windows" in the train compartment will show your journey as if you were riding through the English and Scottish countrysides, with a different journey in each direction. Since the ride runs between two parks, you will have to have a "Park to Park" ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express. (Again, it's not a "park hopper" — that's Disney's term.) If you've bought a single-park ticket and decide you want to ride the Hogwarts Express, you can upgrade to Park-to-Park at ticket windows next to Hogwarts Express station in each park.

Wait Like a Wizard

As a Muggle, you can't apparate to wherever you want to be in the parks. But you can show some wizarding skill by steering clear of a couple of the most avoidable wait times in parks' Harry Potter lands.

Fancy a Butterbeer, the butterscotch-flavored soda that's become one of the most popular treats at Universal? Don't wait in the long line for the Butterbeer cart in Hogsmeade. Just slip into the Hog's Head Pub or Three Broomsticks next door, and order your Butterbeers inside instead. Or get your Butterbeer at one of the several other locations that sell it in Diagon Alley.

In Ollivander's wand shop, Universal offers a short show when an audience member is selected to take part in the "wand chooses the wizard" moment from the first Harry Potter film. The wait for this show is much shorter in the Diagon Alley version of Ollivander's, which has multiple rooms, than it is in Hogsmeade, where there's only one room for the show.

Go Behind the Scenes

Universal Orlando offers plenty of other opportunities to "step into the action" in the parks. At Men in Black: Alien Attack, ask a team member at the ride's entrance for an "Immigration Tour." (Sometimes, you need to ask the team member at the unload platform, instead.) If it's not too busy in the park and they can spare a team member for a few moments, he or she will take you on a short walking tour through the queue scenes depicting the "Men in Black" headquarters. It's a great way to get up close, into scenes that most visitors only see from a distance, in the queue for the ride.

You also can ask for a control room tour at the Twister attraction, as well. Both are free, but, again, are not always available.

Order off the Menu

If you have a food allergy or other dietary restriction, simply ask at any Universal Orlando dining location, and a team member will assist you. You will find more flexibility at the park's table-service restaurants than at small walk-up windows (obviously, due to larger menus and on-site chefs), but all food service team members are trained to assist with dietary restrictions.

Even if you don't have a dietary restriction and simply are looking for something unique to celebrate a special occasion, Universal's chefs sometimes can create a menu for you. Just call in advance to +1-407-224-FOOD. Again, it's helpful to make your request at a time of year when the park's aren't so busy. (It's difficult for the chefs to break from their routine during the rush of pushing out meals during Christmas week, for example.) But here's what one Theme Park Insider reader was able to do for his anniversary at Mythos, with Universal's help.

Pay for Your Meals in Advance

If you're looking for simplicity instead, consider the Universal Dining Plan. The dining plan allows you to pay for meals and snacks in advance of your visit at a flat rate, which could save you money over ordering a la carte. Savings aren't guaranteed though, so it's probably best consider the potential value here in convenience rather than lower food costs. Check out the details on Universal's website.

Store Your Stuff

Don't expect to be able to carry your big backpack on to every attraction at Universal Orlando, the way you almost always can at Disney. Several Universal attractions will make you place your backpacks and purses in a locker before boarding. And on the park's big roller coasters, you will have to empty your pockets and put all that in a locker, as well. (Thinking of cheating? Don't. Universal actually has installed metal detectors at the entrance to those rides.)

The good news is that regular-sized lockers are provided free of charge at locations where people cannot carry on bags. You will need to pay to use larger lockers for over-sized items or if you keep your item in the locker beyond the free time limit. The length of that free time limit varies based on the wait time for the ride, so you shouldn't go over the limit — and have to pay — if you put your items away upon arriving at the line, then take them out immediately after exiting.

Get Paid While You Play

Between the Horror Make-Up Show Theater and the Woody Woodpecker KidZone in Universal Studios Florida, you'll find the Garden of Allah Villas — home to the NBC Media Center. Universal Orlando's parent company also owns the NBC television network, and the NBC Media Center is where the network often tests new shows for focus groups. Sometimes, Universal team members will recruit park guests to participate in testing and even pay them for their time. So if you have a few moments — and maybe looking to pick up a few bucks — it can't hurt to stop by.

Now we'll ask long-time Universal visitors... what are some of your favorite tips for visiting the Universal Orlando Resort? Tell us in the comments.

Replies (13)

October 19, 2015 at 5:28 PM · God tips, but remember the Harry Potter rides, in both parks, are not included in the Express Pass. And The Hulk is closed until next summer.
October 19, 2015 at 7:06 PM · Buy a butter beer mug or universal character head mug that you can refill for 99 cents and even get a discount for frozen lemonade. Pop corn buckets also are refilled for a discount.

Bring a waterproof backpack or a dry bag that can fit in the free W 10? H 10? D 16? ride lockers.

Water rides soak you so bring a bathing suit, a zip lock bag for phone and wallet, and a light wind breaker that can repel water and keep you warm.

Tip 11 visit every year because Universal adds completely new rides every year instead of once a decade like Disney.

October 19, 2015 at 7:15 PM · All really good tips. Also, if you're staying for more than a few days, a good economy move is to book a couple of days at the very value priced (though it's really equal to a Disney moderate hotel) Cabana Bay resort and finish up the vacation at one of the three deluxes so you can utilize the hotel Express Pass. Plus the pass is good starting on the morning of your booking until the end of the check out day. Universal has really good capacity now, so the lines (except for Despicable Me)don't get long like at Disney. So, unless it's busy season, you can get by without a express pass and just do your whole vacation at Cabana Bay.....The key to a Universal Orlando vacation is to stay at an onsite hotel. Everything is at either walking distance or a short enjoyable boat ride (or short bus ride at Cabana). This does wonders to give you a leisurely relaxing vacation. And since dinner reservations and ride reservations aren't necessary, you can change your plans at a whim. And by being so close you can avoid the uncomfortable Florida afternoons by returning to your hotel easily to soak in any of the pools (all four resort pools are available to onsite guests). Travel time is nil and enjoying adult entertainment at CitiWalk is enhanced by it's close location to the hotels and parks.
October 19, 2015 at 8:20 PM · Great tips! It was cool to see previews for some new television shows. Got paid $15 for about a half hour worth of time.
October 19, 2015 at 10:35 PM · Great tips. In addition, I would mention that you don't have to book the Loews hotels through Universal to get the Express passes. If you can find a deal through a travel website or Loews YouFirst program, you can still get all the onsite benefits. The water taxi is definitely another great benefit after a long day in the park.

Unfortunately, I would also mention the water ride lockers are NOT free like the other lockers. And the Uni hotels charge for parking. Even with parking, the hotels are cheaper then Disney onsite hotels, but the parking cost does end up doubling the rental car cost if you decide to rent one.

Most importantly, if you haven't gone to Universal Orlando yet, stop reading and book a trip already. You are in for a real treat!

October 20, 2015 at 6:56 AM · Lunch can get crazy in a theme park. Luckily, most people don't "think outside the park", so consider CityWalk locations for lunch. It can be a lot easier to get a table (or a reservation) and it's likely you can get out of the Florida heat and into some air conditioning. This brings me to my second tip...

Take your time! All of us are going to be in a tough place after 6 or 7 hours walking around the Florida heat in a theme park. Universal Orlando is it's slowest every day in it's first couple hours... and the last couple of hours each day. If you are going to try and be there from open to close, respect the heat and the exercise by taking time to sit, drink water, and staying out of the sun.

October 20, 2015 at 6:57 AM · The reason the lockers are not free on the water rides is because you're allowed to carry items on those rides--the stuff will just get completely soaked! The free lockers are at rides which don't allow carry-ons (which is ANYTHING not in a pocket, including small purses).
October 20, 2015 at 8:23 AM · Don't forget the American Express Lounge next to Shrek in USF, where card holders can relax inside the air conditioned lounge and munch on some free snacks (typically potato chips and granola bars) and bottled water.
October 20, 2015 at 9:53 AM · You should emphasize the word FEW when you mention that you can pick up a few bucks if you participate in a survey. My son wasted about 40 minutes of our time and was rewarded with THREE Universal Dollars!
October 20, 2015 at 11:40 AM · I would recommend building in time at the end of your trip. Book at late flight and stay on the property all day. They'll let you stay in your room longer than the normal checkout time if they're not full. This was a great day for us to enjoy the pools. After changing into our clothes, we then took our time to eat at one of the hotel restaurants -- excellent pizza at Sal's Market at Portifino. After eating, since we had time, we explored and were able to take in more of the hotel facility that we had not noticed. The Portifino was really beautiful! We also walked over to City Walk and explored. It gave us the opportunity to see and appreciate the "lush" landscaping on the grounds between the hotels. Remember, even to go to City Walk, there is a parking fee... but if you stay after checking out, you don't have to pay that fee again!
October 20, 2015 at 12:08 PM · I can't stress enough how big a perk the free Universal Express is. We went to Orlando for the first time this summer, and I somehow missed this crucial piece of advice- so I booked our stay at a Disney resort, because they make a big deal about the Magic Hours (extra park hours), Disney Express shuttle and baggage service, and meal plans only available if you stay on site at WDW.

We paid for Universal Express, which was a good move as the lines at all the popular attractions were at least a 60-90 wait- but for what it cost, I could have easily rented a car, paid for parking for the week, moved between resorts, whatever.

If I had to do it all over, I'd definitely book a deluxe resort at Universal and either stayed there all week or move to WDW when we were ready to attend those parks.

Also: the meal plan at Universal appears to be a much better deal than the ones at WDW. Can't be sure as I didn't actually try both.

Also also: no one tells you that moving around between parks and resorts at WDW using only the shuttles will chew up hours of your valuable vacation time. Whereas at Universal, everything is very compact and walkable.

October 20, 2015 at 12:28 PM · Decently stay at one of the deluxe hotels. The price is worth it because of the (non) distance to the parks and the express pass. And THEY ARE GREAT HOTELS! Some of the best in Orlando. The single rider line on Forbiddon Journey is good, and the one on Gringotts is very good. Because there is no express, and the single rider lines are hidden they are much faster than the regular lines.
October 20, 2015 at 4:23 PM · I did four single rider lines on Gringott's Columbus Day week when the park was crowded. Longest wait was about 5 minutes. One of the times I was able to go straight to the top of the stairs where there were only five of us including my GF. The regular lines were 45 to 60 minutes.

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