When you come to Universal Studios in Orlando, it can be an overwhelming sensory experience.
You’re funneled through CityWalk with restaurants and shops piled on top of each other, then the path splits. One way heads to Universal Studios Florida, the other way to Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
As you approach the entrance, you see down that famous thoroughfare into the park ahead and are met with an immediate option.
Do you go right on Rodeo Drive to Hollywood Boulevard and on to Springfield, the Simpsons and the ET ride?
Or do you go left, towards New York, the Minions and the park’s roller coasters, the Revenge of the Mummy and the Rip Ride Rockit?
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What should I do first at Universal?
Generally speaking, if you’re a Potter fan, you can’t go wrong getting yourself to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter quickly.
If you have small kids, I recommend Despicable Me Minion Mayhem if the line hasn’t built up at the rope drop.
That is one of the more miserable queues in the park. Spend as little time in it as you can. The difference between a 20-minute wait and a 40-minute wait in that line is an eternity.
How do I get the most out of Universal Studios Orlando?
On one level, it’s the same as any of the Orlando theme parks. Get there early, stay late and stay flexible. Keep a keen eye on wait times and be ready to get across the park if you see an opportunity for a quick ride or experience.
With the myriad of side streets, alleys and design features, traffic flow isn’t the most natural.
But we have, over our visits, built up a few Universal Orlando tips and tricks for the best Universal Orlando Resort experience.
20. Do early park admission
The Universal Studios Orlando clientele – at least in my opinion – skews slightly older than, say Disney World. At Disney, it’s imperative to get the young kids to the park early to beat lines and the heat.
At Universal, which doesn’t have the same draw for smaller children, there’s less of a crush at park opening.
That’s not to say it’s not crowded, but it’s not like Magic Kingdom – or even Islands of Adventure – where there’s a crush of people all trying to get to the same spot.
19. Get to Diagon Alley in the morning
When you do your early park admission, get to Diagon Alley and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We made a beeline along the Plaza of the Stars – painfully past Minion Mayhem – along Sunset Boulevard to South Street. Diagon Alley wasn’t empty, but it was far from crowded.
We did a wand ceremony at Olivander’s with little to no wait and rode Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts twice.
We also visited the Gringotts Money Exchange and had our first butterbeer, all before the rest of the park had even come to life.
This may be the biggest Universal Orlando tip we can offer.
18. Use early park admission at least twice
The early park admission is valuable enough that you should do it twice. First, to target Diagon Alley, second, to target Despicable Me and the coasters.
This was our plan on our most recent trip and as mentioned above, it worked like a charm for Harry Potter. It almost worked for Despicable Me.
The listed wait time was 15 minutes, but when we were the next boarding party, the ride broke down. We hung out awhile. I expected some kind of voucher so we could skip the line later, but it never was offered.
We ended up coming back in the late afternoon, having prayed for a decent wait time. When it got down to 45 minutes, we got back in line. It was miserable. Minions in the morning, that’s what I always say.
17. Consider sailing if staying on-site
If you’re staying at a Universal on-site hotel, other than Dockside or Surfside, you can get a sail to the park instead of waiting on the bus.
Boat transportation to the parks is available on-site at the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort and Sapphire Falls Resort.
But if you’re staying at Cabana Bay Beach Resort or Aventura, you can actually walk to the Sapphire Falls boat launch and still enjoy the little boat perk without the extra expense of forking over the extra per night premium.
It’s not necessarily the most efficient mode of travel. Actually, depending on where you’re staying, walking is sometimes the quickest if you’re up for it. But it is the most scenic.
16. Skip the Universal Express Pass
Universal offers two Express Pass options, regular and unlimited.
Regular – which starts at $80 per ticket – offers one line jump per participating ride. Unlimited – which starts at $110 – offers unlimited line jumps on participating rides.
While there, a couple of times I genuinely regretted not buying the Universal Express Pass, I never even once considered the Universal Express Pass Unlimited.
Now, if you have the money or can only spend a single day in the park, it might be worth doubling the ticket price to skip the queues.
But for my family of five, another $500 or so per day wasn’t in the cards. And honestly? The value’s just not there.
I would have used a line jump on Despicable Me and the Hogwarts Express. Every other wait time in the park was manageable by planning a pair of early admission days. And – since the Express Passes are only for participating rides – it’s not really worth it in Islands of Adventure, either.
The passes do not work on select rides such as the Velocicoaster at the time of this writing.
I did drop by the guest services counter to inquire about an upgrade onsite. However, the pricing, which fluctuates based on demand, was insanely high.
In fact, I audibly gasped when they told me how much. I mean the whole time I was there, the wait for the Simpsons Ride or Men in Black or Transformers wasn’t so bad that I thought I needed to double the price of admission.
15. If you’re not a horror fan, don’t go in the fall
In the fall, during the building up to Halloween, Universal Studios transforms into Halloween Horror Nights.
If you’re into horror, this separately ticked event is an absolute must-do. It’s the one event where you can honestly say Universal outdoes Disney.
With its classic monster line-up, Universal is willing and ready to dip into the actually scary fun of Halloween.
But if that’s not your thing? The takeover is a bit much.
It causes the Universal Studios side to be on reduced hours and tends to make Islands overcrowded as a result.
So if you’re not a horror fan and you’re trying to decide the best time to go? Maybe skip that September-October window.
14. Eat at Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck
This, my friends, is a real Universal Orlando tip. Get the Korean Beef taco from the Bumblebee Man. It may be the best food in the park.
In general, I’m not overly excited about the food in Springfield. I skip it when I can. But the taco truck and Central Park Crepes are where it’s at.
On the other side of the park, we’re big fans of Lombard’s Seafood Grill. But if you’re not looking for a sit-down experience, tacos and crepes are the way to go.
13. Get Park Hopper to do Hogwarts Express
While I don’t recommend the Express Pass, you really should get the park-to-park ticket. I thought, at first, we might do the park-to-park ticket one day to ride the Hogwarts Express.
But, it was ultimately part of our package anyway so we purchased it for all five days in the parks.
The Hogwarts Express isn’t the most thrilling ride in the two parks, but the theming is excellent. Watch the wait times, though.
The queue from Hogsmeade is significantly more open-air and nicer than the one from King’s Cross Station. I wouldn’t go in that King’s Cross Station queue if the wait was more than 20-25 minutes if you paid me.
The last time we rode from Hogsmeade, the wait time went up right after we got in line. About 35 minutes in, I’d have paid any price to skip the rest of the line.
12. Ride early or late and plan some other activities for the middle of the day
The best times to ride the rides are either early or late. Early is good before the families with older kids can drag them out of bed and to the park.
Late works as well when families get hungry and are lured out of the park to CityWalk and other things.
We found the middle of the day – when it was really hot anyway – a great time to visit the shops, find a sit-down spot to eat and try to knock out some of the character meet-and-greets. SpongeBob and Patrick were a must.
The shows? I wanted to love the Blues Brothers, but it was just OK.
The girls in my family loved the Beat Builders – I’m not entirely sure it was the music – despite the glaring sun.
11. Be on the lookout for YouTube celebrities
There is a cottage industry of people who make videos about the Orlando theme parks. We love to watch them to see what’s new.
Anytime we’re in the parks, we’re looking for someone talking into a fuzzy mic and carrying a better-than-your-average tourist camera.
On our last day in Universal Studios, we spotted just such a couple whose videos we watched.
Sofia – my teenager – posed for a pic and then we made sure to watch the videos when we got home. Sure enough, we found ourselves in the background of a video of the Beat Builders.
10. Play DJ with the secret music menu on the Rip Ride Rockit coaster
Sure, you can pick off the regular menu the music you want to rock out to while riding Universal Studios’ Rip Ride Rockit.
But the cool kids know there’s a secret menu with songs that aren’t on the official list.
My Sofia had decided to play some Muppets music, but in her terror – she’s not much of a coaster rider – forgot the code. Ask a team member how to access the secret menu.
9. Make reservations in advance for CityWalk dining
CityWalk offers a lot of diverting dining options, but walking up can be a little difficult. Unlike Disney World, you can usually find reservations a day or two in advance for CityWalk.
But if you forget, don’t despair.
People are frequently juggling reservations throughout the day.
We scored CowFish reservations about three hours before we were ready to eat and we managed Hard Rock reservations about an hour out.
And also, we were able to walk up to Lombard’s twice during our visit. We did, however, book our Mythos reservations quite a bit further in advance for Islands of Adventure.
8. Eat at Mama Della’s Ristorante
We had a lot of great meals at Universal during our last vacation. In fact, we spent a bigger portion of our budget on fine dining than we’d intended – but we never had a better meal than Mama Della’s, located in the Portofino Bay Resort.
It ended up perfectly. We had fairly early dinner reservations and the kids were wearing down from a hot day in the park.
We took the boat and arrived in plenty of time. Portofino Bay is a watercolor version of Italy. Not as authentic a place as Diagon Alley – which feels more real and lived in – but quite beautiful in its own way.
The food was wonderful. The atmosphere was perfect. I don’t think we got bigger smiles all week than when our family was serenaded prior to the meal.
Read Also: Mama Della’s Ristorante at Universal offers the best theme park dining
7. Avoid the crowds
Look, you’re never going to avoid crowds altogether. You’re going to have to deal with a fairly large hunk of humanity. But you can zig when they’re zagging.
If you’re not going to rope drop Hagrid’s, it can be a good idea to go to Universal Studios when Islands of Adventure has early admission.
We had five days in the parks. Two for Universal Studios, two for Islands and one to clean up anything we’d missed. Islands didn’t have early admission on the first day, so we went to Universal Studios. We rope-dropped Hagrid’s the next day.
The plan had been to hit Islands again early the last day, but after measuring the craziness, we zagged and went to Universal Studios first.
While the rush was on for the big coasters at the other park, we had the run of the place for a lot of the morning.
6. Bring a snack
Eating in the parks and CityWalk can be expensive. Universal allows you to bring a few things into the park if need be. Acceptable outside food items include baby food, water bottles, food for special dietary needs and food necessary for medical purposes.
Allowable foods include bottled water at a maximum of 2 liters. That is plenty because you can reuse your refillable water bottle for free in several locations within the Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and CityWalk.
Foods that need to be heated or refrigerated are not allowed, same with hard-sided coolers. You are allowed a soft-sided insulated bag no larger than 8.5″ wide x 6″ high x 6″ deep.
Read Also: Can you take food into Universal Studios? What you can bring to the park
5. Find a place to chill
There’s a great spot across from Jimmy Fallon’s Race through New York near the Tribute Store exit where you can get out of the way and relax a bit. Depending on the time of day, you might even find some shade.
There’s a subway entrance to nowhere right there as well that would be a good place to sit and rest if I didn’t find the staircase to anywhere existentially disturbing.
4. Send purchases back to your Universal Resorts hotel
If you’re staying in one of the Universal Resorts, you can send purchases back to your hotel so you don’t have to carry them around the parks all day.
For example, Ainsley – our littlest – had her heart set on a giant SpongeBob and so we sent him back to the hotel. It wasn’t same-day pickup, he wasn’t waiting on us when we got back.
But the next afternoon, we got to claim him from guest services. We made a little game of it, going to rescue SpongeBob.
It turned out to be one of her more memorable parts of the trip.
3. Do the wand ceremony early and often
My wife was a trouper. She did the wand ceremony, a lot.
Sofia – our teenager – and Leslie and I are the only real Harry Potter fans in the family. The younger two haven’t quite been bitten by the bug even though they watch the movies with us.
As a result, Sofia had her heart set on being chosen for the wand ceremony. We walked in – no wait – our first few moments in Diagon Alley.
For a minute, it looked like we’d be the only ones. Then another family joined. Someone from their group was picked. Sofia wasn’t heartbroken as she knew we’d have more chances.
So after riding Gringotts they tried again. I sat this one out. In a large group, the wandmaker approached my family and invited my daughter to come and be chosen by the wand and picked the wrong daughter.
The wandmaker picked the little one who went through the ceremony like a champ.
Sofia – who most of the time is a charming, wonderful child – did not take it well. The first day ended with one child with an interactive wand and one child – quite frankly put out.
We went back the next day and tried again without success even though I kept the little one out with me. Finally, on her fourth or fifth try, Sofia – dripping with desperation – was mercifully chosen.
Enter the boy child. The middle child. He needed a wand as well. He said he saw all the other kids going around to the interactive attractions. And he thought since all the cool kids had one, he thought he ought to have one too.
And Leslie took him three more times before he was chosen.
Ultimately, I think she was in the ceremony nine times for three wands. A couple more and she could have performed the ceremony herself.
2. Read the signs on the lockers
When storing our belongings before riding MIB, my wife took the time to read the instructions, right after she slammed the locker door shut with the keycard that unlocked it inside.
The attendants were nice and helpful in retrieving her bag.
However, when asked to describe the contents inside the locker – to prove it was hers – she said her Kavu bag was blue. When the locker room attendants opened it, Ainsley shouted “that’s not blue, it’s green!”
They gave us our stuff anyway.
1. Take the time for pictures
There are dozens of great photo ops all over the park, from Kreacher the elf poking his head out from behind the drapes to the Knight Bus to Jaws to the characters in Springfield, there are a lot of great spots to take family photos.
It’s easy to get caught up, racing from one attraction to the next. Take the time to check out all the neat stuff in between.
What are your best Universal Studios tips? Let us know in the comments!