Planning the perfect vacation at Universal Orlando Resort

July 9, 2019, 6:11 PM · What's the perfect way to visit the Universal Orlando Resort?

The days are long past when you could add a getaway day at Universal Studios Florida to your Walt Disney World vacation and come away satisfied that you'd seen all that Disney's biggest rival has to offer. With two theme parks, the world's best water park (fight me), and now seven official hotels, the Universal Orlando Resort provides more than enough entertainment to fill a week's vacation by itself.

So how should you fill that week?

Start with what might be the best deal in theme park tickets right now: Universal Orlando's "B2G3," buy-two-days-get-three-more-free deal. We have that deal available for you on our partner's Universal Orlando tickets page, starting at $230 for those five total days of admission to Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure.

That's about $46 a day to visit a couple of the most popular theme parks in the world. But since that's such a big discount, we recommend that you take the chance to upgrade to the $319 ticket that adds access to the Volcano Bay water theme park as well as "Park to Park" access to USF and IOA.

Park to Park is Universal's term for what Disney calls a "Park Hopper" — allowing you to visit all of the resort's parks in the same day. With all of these parks located within walking distance of each other, hopping from park to park at Universal is easy. Having the Park to Park option also is the only way to experience the Hogwarts Express attraction, which runs between The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade land in Islands of Adventure and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley land in Universal Studios Florida. (It's a different experience in each direction, too!)

So where should you stay when visiting Universal Orlando? Our choices would be one of the resort's three Deluxe hotels: Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, or Royal Pacific. All of Universal's on-site hotels are operated by upmarket hotelier Loews, but Universal's original three on-site hotels also come with what we believe is the best hotel perk in the global theme park industry: Universal Express Unlimited.

That perk gives you unlimited front-of-line access to almost every ride and show at USF and IOA. With Universal Express Unlimited, you can forget about park strategy and trip plans and just go do whatever you want, whenever you want. Universal sells that perk from $90 to $190 per person per day, but staying at one of these three hotels gives you Universal Express Unlimited for everyone in your room (up to five people), from the day you check in until the day you leave, at no extra charge.

Let's do the math. A family of four visiting Universal the last week in August could get a room at the Royal Pacific starting at $354 a night. (All prices are before taxes and fees.) Universal is charging $115 a day for Universal Express Unlimited that week, which comes out to $460 a day for a family of four.

Keep in mind that the Express perk is good from the day you check in until the day you check out. Even if you stay just one night at Universal, that means you get two days of Universal Express Unlimited. That's a $920 value for $354... and Universal throws in that night at a four-star hotel within pleasant walking distance of the parks, too.

You can look at this one of two ways: Either getting Universal Express Unlimited through a hotel stay is a ridiculously good deal that you should not pass up... or that buying Universal Express Unlimited a la carte is ridiculously overpriced and no one should get it that way. Either way you look at it, if you are trying to plan the perfect week at Universal Orlando, you should go with the Deluxe hotel option. Here are links to check dates and rates, and to book:

Our choice? The Royal Pacific tends to have the lowest rate and is located closest to the Islands of Adventure theme park. But the Hard Rock is closest to Universal Studios Florida. The Portofino Bay is located past the Hard Rock along a winding path and waterway, but it's consistently the highest-rated of the three hotels. So there's really no wrong answer here.

Gild the lily on your vacation with some of the extras offered at the hotels, including the Despicable Me Character Breakfast and the Wantilan Luau, which are held on Saturday mornings and evenings, respectively, at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Then roll out of bed the next morning for the Sunday Brunch at The Kitchen from 10am to 2:30pm on Sundays in the Hard Rock Hotel.

For the rest of your visit? As we said, do what you want, when you want. Roll out of bed early to take advantage of Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay. Or stay in and get to the parks at your convenience. Check out a movie, play mini golf, or visit a restaurant in the CityWalk entertainment district that connects the parks.

And if you somehow run out of things to do on during your week at Universal Orlando, maybe you can throw in a "getaway" day down the street at Walt Disney World, too. ;^)

Universal Orlando tickets Buy Tickets: For discount tickets to Universal Orlando's theme parks, visit our officially authorized Universal Orlando tickets page.

Replies (13)

July 9, 2019 at 8:08 PM

I whole-heartedly agree. It's worth spending a little bit of extra cash to get one of the original 3 hotels, because of the Express Pass. Plus, their location is so convenient.

Knowing that Universal will eventually build a true third gate down the road, I'm curious what your thoughts are Robert, regarding whether they'll construct a Deluxe hotel with Express Pass perks on THAT property. Four might seem like overkill, but I also think they need that option to cover their bases. It could be just one, and it could be smaller, but I really think they should be adding a deluxe option to their upcoming park.

July 9, 2019 at 10:48 PM

I love staying at one of the 3 original Universal hotels and using the Express to easily get on all the good rides, but it's still at the most a 2 day visit. Once the 3rd gate is opened (the waterpark should not be considered a gate, sorry) it can surely be a three day park. That'll make for a nice 10 day Florida visit, 7 WDW and 3 US.

July 10, 2019 at 7:38 AM

As a couple, we always preferred Universal, but our young kids got more out of Disney. Now that they are both beyond 10 years old, their interests have changed and we traded our Disney APs for Universal APs a few years back.

These kids (and their parents!) are bigger fans of the IP for Harry Potter, Jurassic World, ET, The Simpsons, Despicable Me, King Kong than anything on a Disney property. Beyond that, they enjoy the thrills of RRR, Hulk, The Mummy -- IPs that they don't really know but they like the rides.

So, we traded our 1-week Disney stay for annual 1-week Universal stays. We may or may not add a couple of days to visit Seawold or Disney. We find Universal delightfully walkable compared, the food is generally better, the hotels are better and closer, and the new waterpark is the icing on the cake. The kids love Volcano Bay and we find it very relaxing.

What do we do for a week at Universal when some are calling it a "2-day park"?! We vacation!!! Between the shopping and dining at Citywalk, the amazing hotel pools, the spa, and the 3 parks, we could really spend more than a week here. We re-do our favorites each time and notice new details every time. Sometimes we are there for special events like Mardi Gras which can add some extra fun and something different.

For my family, and I suspect a growing number of others, Universal Orlando is the Happiest Place On Earth.

July 10, 2019 at 9:47 AM

I will say that we are now officially spoiled having visited UO the last 2 times by staying at their on-site hotels (PB and RPR - we stayed at HRH over a decade ago), but doing so kind of negates the need for the B2G3 ticket offer since the Unlimited Universal Express makes it very easy to tour both theme parks in 2 days or less.

If you have UE, I can totally understand how people can grow bored with UO and only really need 2 days at the parks (with maybe a 3rd for Volcano Bay). That means you're either lounging around or trying to find something else to do with your week's vacation in Orlando.

July 10, 2019 at 9:58 AM

@ Russell,
So lounging around isn't a vacation? We've have spent multiple 10 night trips at UO and the kids still never want to leave and always want to go back.
I much prefer a slower pace, no planning and LOTS of lounging by the pool/hot tub or Volcano Bay wave pool to the hectic constant planing of WDW.

July 10, 2019 at 10:22 AM

Have to agree with you Mr Torrance much preferred Universal to Disney on our last vacation in Florida.
More relaxed atmosphere and I could easily of stayed for more than two weeks.

July 10, 2019 at 11:15 AM

@MrTorrance - Personally that's not how we vacation, and when you're paying $250+ per night for a hotel and upwards of $100/day for theme park tickets, it's hard to justify sitting around like a bump on a log all day, which is something I can do at home or at my community pool. When I go on a vacation to a theme park, I'm there to visit the theme parks, and if I'm spending extra $$ to stay in a hotel to get Universal Express, you better believe I'm going to be in the parks, because I can stay across the street at the Hilton or another hotel comparable to Loews' quality for half the price.

I can see the desire of some guests that just want to sit around and relax, but I'm just not wired that way. A few years ago, we joined some friends to rent a beach-front condo at Myrtle Beach for a week. We about drove ourselves crazy because there was so little to do. It was nice not having to deal with the crowds and lines of a theme park or other major tourist destination, but laying out on the beach or by the pool just doesn't interest us and gets old really fast. On our upcoming 15-day trip to Southern California, we've got activities planned just about every single day including 3 baseball games, 8 theme park days, and a half-dozen other points of interest (movie studios, Magic Castle, Queen Mary, SD Zoo, and many others). We don't have time to sit around and lounge by the pool (though we're hoping the squeeze in some time at the beach), and aren't flying all the way across the country to sleep in and chill out. I do joke with my wife whenever we get home exhausted from our vacations that we need a "vacation from our vacation", but relaxing and letting time roll by is the LAST thing we do on vacation.

Theme park vacations (and most vacations in general) are getting far too expensive to just sit around and watch the world go by. I don't spend thousands of dollars of hard-earned money to do something I can do at home. I'm definitely not hanging out at my hotel pool when there are world class theme parks and water parks steps away that I've already paid serious money to visit, even if they're giving me extra "free" days.

July 10, 2019 at 12:04 PM

A "week" at Universal... almost.

Now that Universal has grown, a week is becoming an option. There is something to be said about having extra time so that you don't feel like you HAVE to be inside the park from open to close. With a week long ticket, you can afford to sleep in a little bit longer instead of getting up at the crack of dawn like a normal work/school day back home. It is supposed to be a vacation.

While I'm not a "pool" person, my kids are. A quick trip to the on-site hotel for a little bit of resort pool time in the middle of a day reduces the stress for everybody.

After my last jaunt to Florida earlier this summer, I again BEG and BEG Universal to stay on the present track of allowing me to vacation and not force me to plan every ride and meal months in advance. If Universal would build a few more "family" rides, my entire family would totally give up Disney (my wife's thrill ride days are over).

July 10, 2019 at 12:08 PM

That's is why we do a week at Deluxe and the rest at Cabana Bay to save money and be closer to the volcano. Also, the cheapest AP used to be under $300, so for 2 weeks that is pretty cheap per day and I never feel like I'm wasting money not being at the park. Now I never thought that way when I went to Disney with the much higher per day costs. I've also spread out 1 AP over 2 summers and really got my money's worth. So we can use UO as a home base and do many different things in Florida while popping into the parks at will and do almost anything we want.

July 10, 2019 at 1:09 PM

I hear you @MrTorrance, though we rarely visit Orlando multiple times in a 12-month span unless we're getting a comp trip/tickets, so purchasing APs has never been an option for us for either WDW or UO since we could never break even on the costs versus multi-day tickets.

Since we're relegated to multi-day tickets, we've always tried to maximize our time in the parks (open to close with optimal park hopping and line avoidance techniques), because we're paying for each and every day we're there. If we're staying at RPR, HRH, or PBR for the explicit reason to have Universal Express, we will ONLY stay there on the days that we're visiting the theme parks, and will not spend the extra money for nights at those hotels where we won't be visiting IOA or USF.

However, when we've taken comp trips (we've twice won multi-day trips to UO and just recently won a bunch of WDW tickets that we'll be using next January/February), we tend to take things a bit slower knowing that we're not burning our own money if we sleep in or leave the parks a few hours early to hang out at the pool. In other words, we have no problem sleeping in on someone else's dime (within reason of course), but when it's our money paying for a trip, we're going to extract every penny of value (park time).

When we visit Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and Sea World parks (all chains where we have nationwide APs), we also tend to not mind if we miss rope drop or leave early because we know those days have long been paid for through multiple visits to our local parks (though certain parks necessitate early arrival and staying through closing to avoid massive lines like SFMM, SFGAdv, and Cedar Point).

The Universal Resorts are a little different than those at WDW, because the price differential between UO's and comparable off-site hotels is not quite as large as the WDW Resorts. That's especially true with the Endless Summer Resorts, and we could definitely see ourselves staying full time there instead of splitting our stay between multiple hotels near the different parks.

July 10, 2019 at 3:21 PM

We go once a year to Universal during HHN and usually spend about 1 week or 10 days on Universal property. We have never run out of things to do since we do visit other things in the Orlando area. We typically only buy 3 days worth of park tickets at either Hard Rock or Royal Pacific then move to one of the cheaper hotels for the rest of trip. We like the Universal hotels since they have amazing pools and are within walking distance to the parks and City Walk. We haven't gone to Disney in over 10 years simply due to the fact that you can't buy real express passes. We hate the fact you need to book everything in advance. That to us is not a vacation and its much more enjoyable to be able to walk around and do what you want when you want at Universal. Even though some of the newer rides at Disney look amazing I don't think will ever go back for those reasons.

July 11, 2019 at 9:57 AM

Hard Rock Hotel itself wasn't mind blowing to me but in my mind it's kind of the ultimate stay at Universal because you can just walk over to the parks with your Unlimited Express. My wife and our friends loved how nothing felt rushed because we never had to wait on a transportation to the parks and the Express meant we didn't care about waits. (This was back before Volcano Bay)

Cabana Bay though... oh man. They have suites and you can get 2 that are connected. My wife and kids also wanted to bring my parents so we got 2 suites and just opened the connecting doors in the morning. Made a wonderful area for all of us. Plus the Cabana Bay has great pools, a lazy river, a splash pad, and really easy access to Volcano Bay.

Can I also add the food at Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World is really solid. There are so many restaurants with multiple things we wanted to try! Staying on property for a week let try more of those restaurants meant every day in the parks was more relaxed and fun.

July 11, 2019 at 4:44 PM

Russel said "That means you're either lounging around or trying to find something else to do with your week's vacation in Orlando."

To be clear, we spend a partial day in the middle of the week recharging -- that means pool for the kids and possible spa for the parents. But other than that, we're in the parks at early entry and closing down the park at night, with a short break at midday for the sanity of the kiddos. Between shows, dining, character meets, a bit of HP costuming and savoring details we could easily spend more than a week. We do enjoy re-rides -- our trip isn't ruined if we don't have something new to entertain us every hour.

I feel like part of the reason Disney takes more time is because is because it is forced upon you. The hotels are mostly further away, you have to book rides with the fastpass system, anything you don't book is a pretty long wait most days. They do have more parks and more rides, but it's a bit more of a slog to get through it all, mostly by design.

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