Planning A Trip to Universal Orlando? Here’s What You Need to Know

My family decided to go to Universal Orlando with just 2 months to plan. We went to Disneyworld several years ago, so we wondered if we would be able to have fun experiences at Universal Orlando with such little time to plan, but I joined a Facebook group for moms, and we decided to wing our 3 1/2 days there! Universal Orlando is made up of 3 parks. Universal Studios, Universal’s Island of Adventure, and the water park, Volcano Bay. We figured out some helpful tips pretty quickly, and ended up having a great time! 

Planning A Trip to Universal Orlando? Here’s What You Need to Know

Book through a travel agent. I booked through Costco, and it made the trip very affordable. There are lots of free travel agents that get paid a commission, but it’s by Universal, not you. If anything goes awry, they are able to help ease the travel frustrations. Since we didn’t book any airlines for the trip, we didn’t end up booking travel insurance as we could cancel our reservations with just a few days prior to the trip. The travel agent helped us determine our interests and we purchased park to park tickets so that we could go to more than one park each day.

Staying on property has some advantages. You can ride high-demand rides an hour early with your room key. Anyone can enter the parks an hour early, but early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is only accessible when you purchase from a travel agent or are staying on property. Early entry made most rides available with short waits. Transportation is included to all of the resorts and parks, and buses run every 15 minutes. With early entry, we were able to ride 7 rides before 10am!

Have a plan for easy access to your ticket. We purchased lanyards ahead of time and stored our paper tickets and room keys in them so we didn’t have to fumble for them or dig in our wallets.

Download the Universal app onto your phone. The app has a pretty helpful interactive map with wait times and mobile ordering for certain restaurants. We skipped the lines for most of our quick service meals by ordering on the app, and while we didn’t have to wait in line for ordering, we still had to wait anywhere from 10-30 minutes to pick up our food. Each restaurant had a little different process for how they filled orders, but even if you check in on the app, you still need to notify the worker that you’re there as they don’t fulfill them until you’re present. It was a little cumbersome, but still much quicker than waiting in line to order. You can load a credit card onto the app so you don’t even need your credit cards to make purchases.

Many rides don’t allow bags. I was able to take my small sling on about half of the rides we went on, however there are free lockers available near the rides that bags aren’t allowed. If you need a larger bag, you can rent a larger locker for several dollars during the ride, however, we did well with the free lockers with a small bag.

You can purchase refillable cups to be used throughout your stay. Cups can be a bit confusing at the parks. Each Universal resort has refillable cups you can purchase to be used there, but they cannot be used at the parks. You can purchase refillable cups to be used at the parks in the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines and slushy huts throughout the parks. For 1 cup, it will cost you $16.99, plus tax. For two, it’s $15.99 each, and for three to six cups, it’s $13.99 each, plus tax.

For each subsequent day, you can purchase refills for $10.99 each day for each cup. You can refill the cups as frequent as every 10 minutes with Freestyle drinks or slushes. If you plan to purchase two drinks a day, it is cheaper to purchase the cups. This doesn’t include specialty drinks, alcoholic beverages, or butter beer in Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We purchased sleeves with carrying straps to carry the cups easily or hang from my backpack. I preferred to drink water and was able to refill my water bottle with ice and water for free at the Freestyle machines throughout the parks.  

Check the crowd calendar. We went during spring break, and the lines for everything can get long. We waited about 2 hours for Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, but we felt like it was worth it. If you stay at the premier resorts, fast passes can be included in your stay, but they are also available for purchase. Fast pass prices are based on availability. The earlier you purchase them, they are usually cheaper. We opted not to purchase them as we didn’t have the budget for them, and even though we went at a very busy time, we chose to get up very early and arrive to the parks early for smaller crowds, and we felt happy with our decision not to purchase fast passes.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is busy, but worth it. The only time there was much space on the streets was when we went first thing in the morning. You can purchase wands that do interactive magic tricks, however, lines are long, and you can see others perform the tricks. There is an impressive light show at Hogwart’s Castle in Universal’s Island of Adventure. The show is every 15 minutes and has varying start times dependent on the time of dusk. Grab your butter beer when you see a line that isn’t too long. We loved exploring Hogsmeade on the Islands of Adventure side and Diagon Alley on the Studios side. If you have park-to-park passes, be sure to ride the train between parks.

Volcano Bay is a great water park, even if you’re not water park people. We decided to hit up Volcano Bay late in the morning after we had gotten up early to ride rides at Island of Adventure. We were pretty ready for some down time and while there are many water slides, we gravitated to the lazy rivers and beach chairs. We had no trouble finding chairs for our family of 4 close to the wave pool. While there are lockers for renting, we felt safe leaving our bags on our chairs. I put my phone in a waterproof pouch and brought it in the water with me. They have towels available for rent there, but we brought towels from our resort with no trouble. 

You don’t need to get reservations for restaurants ahead of time. You can schedule reservations when you arrive on your typical reservation apps, but most of the time, you can get a table within reason.

We felt like our boys were the perfect age at 9 and 11 to enjoy just about any ride, however they had areas targeting younger kids, and there were plenty of strollers in the park. The rides tended to be for those thrill seekers, and while we were there, we realized one of my kids isn’t as into rides of this nature than he thought, but we were able to find plenty of rides to enjoy, including water rides. We were glad we packed some disposable ponchos as some of the rides can get pretty wet.

We were so glad we decided to hit the road and enjoy some time at Universal Studios!

Amy Foster
Amy is a lifelong Wichita-area resident, with the exception of her college and grad school years. Amy has worked as a pediatric physical therapist for a local non-profit organization during her 22 year career. She married Brett, a youth pastor turned special education teacher and coach, and can be seen supporting Andover Middle School with her two boys, aged 13 & 11, only 18 months apart! They keep her occupied in athletic activities . When she isn't busy momming, she likes to walk her dog in her neighborhood, and do embroidery by hand.