After a week in Orlando, Florida and three days spent at Universal Studios Orlando I am already planning a return trip. This was an absolutely magical place and perfect for all ages.
Universal seems to be a mixture of Walt Disney World which is perfect for children and Busch Gardens which is great for thrill-seekers.
Visiting Universal Studios during COVID was definitely an interesting experience. There were some added inconveniences but I will take the inconvenience as long as that means the park stays open.
I didn’t do quite enough research before my trip so I feel like my time wasn’t used as efficiently as it could have been. And I don’t want that happening to you!
So here are my top tips for visiting Universal Studios Orlando. If you are planning on visiting especially for Harry Potter World then make sure to check out my complete guide to Harry Potter World!
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What to Know Before Visiting Universal Studios Florida
There’s no way you’ll have it all figured out before your trip, but it’s great to have a head start! These tips for visiting Universal Studios will hopefully help you create a plan and know what to expect on your trip.
Get to the Parking Garage by 8:30
We got there at 9:15, 9, and then 8:30 on the last day. By far the easiest time to get in the park was at 8:30.
If you arrive right at 9 everyone gets bottlenecked through each step of the process. You have to wait in line for temperature checks, to walk through metal detectors, and then to scan your tickets.
If we arrived at 9 or after, it took us 40 minutes to get in the park. When we got there at 8:30 we were scanning our tickets into the park at 8:50.
Make a Game Plan
Look at the park maps before you get there and figure out which rides you want to get on. Once you figure out your top rides, figure out which ones are close together.
You can group the rides together that you’d like to visit and then make a plan of which you’ll visit first.
You can also make a plan based on the region of the park you want to visit. Maybe you want to visit Harry Potter World first (like we did).
If you are spending one day in each park then this won’t be as big of an issue. A day gives you plenty of time to see everything in one park depending on how long the lines are and what all you want to ride.
Buy the Express Pass
Okay the Universal Express Passes are EXPENSIVE. In the app it kept saying starting at $99 for the Express Unlimited Pass well that’s on a weekday in the off-season.
On Friday April 23, 2021 they were $262 including tax. (That’s for only one.)
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Well, the Express Pass was, but maybe not the Unlimited. They have one pass that lets you skip the line at each ride only once and if I had it to do over again I would get that one instead of the Unlimited.
We didn’t have time to ride many things more than once. Try buying your pass ahead of time to see if you can get a cheaper price instead of buying on the day of.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but if I had it to do over again I think I would buy the express pass on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Those were the cheaper days. There will still be crowds so it’s worth it but it’s cheaper.
We did not have the Express Pass on Thursday and only rode four rides… Yes, four rides because we were standing in line so long. On Friday we got the Express Pass and rode eleven rides and two of them twice.
I absolutely hate waiting in line – I’m really not patient at all – and yes, I know that’s a terrible trait. So the Express Pass made my day infinitely better.
Only you can decide if the price is worth it to you though.
Bring a Fanny Pack (Small Backpacks Work)
You may be thinking “Anna there is no way in heck I am wearing a fanny pack, you are insane.” Well when you see how functional they are at Universal you might just change your tune.
Fanny packs are allowed on almost all the rides at Universal which means you don’t have to waste time with the lockers before the ride and you can keep your phone or anything else with you.
The lockers can get very congested and it takes up valuable time trying to stuff your backpacks or anything else in them. More on lockers in a minute.
If you don’t have a fanny pack and are absolutely boycotting them then a small backpack (like this Kavu bag) is the next best thing.
There are Lockers for Most Roller Coasters
The locker situation is awesome for groups that don’t have a person who is sitting out riding the coasters. There are standard sized lockers available for free at many of the roller coasters that measure 5.5” tall, 14” wide, and 16.9” deep. This fits a small backpack or miscellaneous items.
They have larger lockers available for $2 if your things don’t fit in a standard size. This would be regular size backpacks or large souvenirs. These single time use lockers are only good for a certain time frame – maybe an hour but don’t hold me to that.
If you are bringing items in that you won’t need all day then Universal also offers all-day locker rentals. There are lockers for $10 at Islands of Adventure and $15 at Universal Studios Florida. You’ll have unlimited access to these lockers during the day.
At the Popeye water ride you must pay for the lockers because they offer a covered place on the “barge” for you to place your things. However, they will definitely still get wet so if you have anything that can’t get wet definitely buy the $2 locker.
On Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and the Hulk Coaster you have to pass through a metal detector before you can go on the ride so you are required to put everything you have in a locker or with someone not riding.
Download the Universal Studios App
You can do so much with the Universal Studios App. You can get in the virtual lines for any attraction with a virtual line. You can order food and drinks on the app. The app holds your tickets, maps, show times, wait times for attractions, and general park info.
At many of the sit-down restaurants you are required to mobile order – at least the ones in Harry Potter World. Then at restaurants with walk-up windows you can mobile-order and pick it up at a specific mobile-order pickup spot. It’s actually super efficient and you don’t have to wait in the long line.
Some rides go to Virtual Line only when the parks are at capacity. The Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure had a Virtual Line the first two days we were there and the third it was virtual until the afternoon.
On our third day there the Revenge of the Mummy was virtual and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon was virtual all three days.
Honestly this is one of the top tips for visiting Universal Studios.
Virtual Lines Open Before the Park
The Race Through New York ride opened by 8:30 everyday so you could get a spot. On the day we finally got there early enough to get a spot on Hagrid’s ride it opened at 8:45.
Hagrid’s ride always ran out of virtual spots so we were so excited to get in. By 9 all the spots were always gone and we never could find an opening throughout the day. Until the third day when they opened the line so you could wait in it.
Moral of the story is that if you want to ride something really bad, make sure to get there early and check the virtual line.
The Crosswalk Isn’t Always Open
There are three ways to get between the two parks – Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. This is only if you have a Park-to-Park ticket for the day.
First – You can walk out the exit of either park and through CityWalk by the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Hard Rock Cafe and into the other park. The walk is about 15 – 20 minutes depending on where you’re at in the park.
Second – There is a crosswalk between the two parks, but it is not always open so not an option all the time. It wasn’t open during any of the three days that we were there.
Third and my personal favorite – Take the Hogwarts Express! This is definitely the most fun way to get between the parks. However, the line gets incredibly long as the day goes on. If you’ve already been on this ride then I wouldn’t recommend waiting over 30 minutes on the train.
Mask Rules are Enforced
Universal employees are everywhere and I saw them tell multiple people to fix their masks. Don’t think you will be able to come in the parks and get away with pulling your mask down while you are outside.
They do not allow you to walk and eat or drink either. You have to be stationary before you take your mask off.
They do have three different U-Rest areas where there are benches and you are allowed to remove your mask as long as you are socially-distanced from other people.
Many Restaurants on Universal CityWalk Require Reservations
We made the mistake of not making a dinner reservation on a Friday night and were out of luck when it came to eating on CityWalk.
Every restaurant either had an hour and a half wait or was reservation only. I’ve already told you how impatient I am so you know I’m not waiting that long to eat.
For those of you who exercise your patience daily, you can grab drinks and appetizers at little kiosks around the CityWalk while you wait.
Express Passes Get You In Regardless of Virtual Lines
If you couldn’t get in the Virtual Line, but still want to ride something you can use your Express Pass if the attraction has an Express Line.
Not everything has an Express Line, but most do. One very popular ride that doesn’t is Hagrid’s.
Wear the Right Clothing and Shoes
I cannot stress this enough. I wore a dri-fit t-shirt and shorts that dried quickly because I knew that we would be getting on the water rides. I also wore my Chacos ZX3 sandals. They’re comfortable and do so well with water.
Comfortable shoes are a must. If you don’t plan on riding the water rides then I would go with sneakers.
My Chacos are super comfy and did well when we walked 6 miles. Our last day we walked 12 miles though and my feet were hurting pretty good at the end of the day.
I’ve put together a packing list for any trip you can think of taking. Check it out so you don’t forget anything.
You Can Bring in Some Food
Here is one of the ultimate budget tips for visiting Universal Studios. You can bring in snacks and food that you don’t have to heat. What you cannot do is bring in a picnic lunch with a main course and sides.
I would highly recommend bringing some snacks and if you really want to watch your budget then take sandwiches for lunch. A good ol PB&J will always do the trick.
You are also allowed to bring up to two litres of water. We brought in two water bottles each and that was plenty for us.
Buy Tickets in Advance
If you buy tickets in advance you’ll save a bit from what you would pay at the gate. It won’t be huge savings but everything adds up.
You can also see if Express Passes are discounted if you buy them when you purchase admission tickets.
I loved having my tickets on my phone in the Universal App. It was super convenient and I didn’t have to keep up with any extra pieces of paper.
You Must Have the 2-Park Ticket to Ride the Hogwarts Express
If you want to ride this then be sure you purchase the 2-park ticket! Honestly if you want to save money you can purchase the 2-park ticket for one day only and do individual parks for the rest of your stay.
The Hogwarts Express is a must for any Harry Potter fan. Be sure to take the train both ways as the video is different depending on which station you come from.
Choose the Right Accommodations
Staying on the resort property would be nice, but it’s very expensive. Sometimes the included perks are worth it though.
For example, I’ve heard that one of the hotels within Universal Orlando Resort will include Express Passes for your whole family if you stay on their property. Depending on the size of your family this might be worth it.
We stayed at Club Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort which is on the Walt Disney World Campus. It isn’t part of the Disney Resorts though so the weekly price is much cheaper.
I’ve written all about how to find cheap accommodations if you’re visiting Orlando on a budget.
Universal has Free WiFi
This will save your data plan if you connect to the free WiFi. It doesn’t require a password but if you don’t have an Xfinity account you’ll have to enter your email and zip code.
There is good coverage throughout both parks and most of CityWalk.
Buy Souvenirs Before You Arrive
This is mainly for Harry Potter World but can apply to other sections of Universal.
Many people love wearing Harry Potter shirts and cloaks. You can buy these on Amazon before your trip for much cheaper.
There are also necklaces, scarves, and so much more sold in the park. The prices really are outrageous so if you can buy them ahead of time I would do that.
The one thing I would buy in the park is the interactive wand if you want that. It is really cool to do the magic in the park.
My sister got Snape’s wand for $58 but I didn’t want to pay that much.
You Don’t Have to Buy Your Wand at Ollivanders
Everyone wants to visit Ollivanders to buy their wand which can make the line incredibly long. There are so many other places to buy a wand though.
In Diagon Alley you can visit Wands by Gregorovitch when they are open. You can also go to Knockturn Alley into Borgin & Burke’s if you want a dark wizard’s wand.
In Hogsmeade you’ll find a cart between Hogwarts and the shops where you can buy wands. You’ll also find wands at Dervish and Banges.
How Many Days Should You Spend at Universal Studios Florida?
I would say three at the very least. It takes a day or two just to get your bearings – especially if you haven’t made a plan. We didn’t make a good plan and we spent most of the first two days walking around figuring stuff out.
If you can make it on Tuesdays or Wednesdays those are the best days to visit too. Weekends are absolutely horrendous for crowds. I would hate to see the place when they weren’t limiting access.
Visit During Shoulder Season
Unless you have to visit during the school breaks, I would make it a point to avoid those. You’ll spend your whole vacation waiting in line.
According to the Undercover Tourist, the best times to visit Universal over the next couple years will be weekdays during September through December with September being the best.
Our visit was in April and I’m sure the crowds weren’t bad compared to the summer months when school is out.
Tips for Visiting Universal Studios Recap
I know that was a lot of info but I hope even one of these tips will help you! The most important parts are to figure out how to skip the crowds whether that is planning your vacation in the off-season or getting the Universal Express Passes, follow COVID protocols, and make sure you remember these budget tips!
I hope you’ll have a fantastic trip in Orlando and you’ve found these tips for visiting Universal Studios helpful.
Do you love theme parks? Here is a list of the best theme parks in the US!