Over the past year I’ve had an array of people come asking for advice on how to best do Universal Studios and Disney. Now while I don’t claim to be an expert on either, I feel fairly confident with my Universal knowledge to give fairly good advice on the matter. My husband and I have gone twice over the past three years, once for our honeymoon and again two years later for our anniversary. Both times we stayed on site at a Universal hotel (The Loewe’s Royal Pacific) and both times we stayed for more than 2 days. So with that in mind here are my thoughts, opinions, and suggestions when planning a Universal Studios Florida trip.
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION!
Yes the official hotels are expensive but in general this is the place you want to be, even if you’re only going for a day. There are 4 basic reasons for this.
1. If you stay at a host hotel (other than the Cabana Bay) you get complimentary Express passes which when bought at the gate can run near $100. The passes are good for the length of your stay and at whichever parks you bought tickets for. They don’t have a limit (say 1 per ride per day) and truthfully are worth the purchase. You don’t have the plan them out ahead of time like at Disney either which is a plus. Quick note though, there are very few rides that the passes don’t work for including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey over at Island of Adventure, but those are very far and in between.
2. Early park admission to Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Remember how I just said that the express pass doesn’t cover the forbidden journey ride? That can easily be solved by getting into the parks an hour before the general public. If you go straight back to Hogsmeade and all the way back to the castle, you shouldn’t have to wait more than 30 minutes for the ride which during regular hours can get well over an hour long. Have a stop right after at the Three Broomsticks for breakfast and you’re day is off to a great start!
3. Souvenirs get shipped back to your room. This, just like Disney, is a HUGE bonus when staying on site. All those souvenirs you buy (especially over in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley) are shipped back to your room later that day. Depending on the time of year and time of day your stuffs may not make it till the next morning or afternoon but if you were planning to stay more than a day anyway, this isn’t a huge problem. Especially seeing as how you don’t then have to rent a locker or force someone in your party to carry your bags for you.
4. The water taxis. They take you directly to the entrance to IOA (Islands of Adventure) and straight back. They are usually pretty quick getting back and worth and the view is nice. There is also a walking trail that seems shorter than it is, but that’s really up to you. However after having been passed twice by a water taxi because we deemed the wait too long, I’ve since given up on the walking trail being quicker. It is very scenic though!
DATES, TIMES, HOLIDAYS
I can’t pretend to be the expert on this section as Joe and I have only gone to Universal during the month of October, however I can tell you what we experienced and what I have heard from others.
1.) Dates. Seeing as we’ve only ever gone in October, my first hand knowledge is fairly limited in this aspect. Our first trip was at the end of October, right around Halloween. It was fairly empty, except for the day after Halloween, November 1. There were more people there than the days before. Maybe schools get out for All Saints Day? The beginning of October was good, but a bit more crowded than the end of the month. However it was less rainy, though, it is Florida so does that fact even really count?
From what I heard from park and hotel workers (specifically the boat captain) was that February was the best time to go. Almost empty hotel and parks, with the exception of Presidents Day weekend. I hear that weekend and week are just completely HELLISH!
I’d avoid Christmas all together I think. I have no idea how the Universal Studios Christmas events are so I can’t vouch for it, but I would assume that Disney is the place to go for Christmas, not Universal. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong though!
2) Times. It’s pretty universally known ( pardon the pun,) that the best times to go the parks are first thing in the morning, and later in the afternoon/evening. This is true. Especially if you are staying at an on-site hotel at which point you get into Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour early. USE THIS! Don’t assume you can get onto the Forbidden Journey ride as soon as the park opens to the public and be good to go for the day. Go early, go straight to the back of the park, and jump on the ride. You SHOULD be able to walk right on or at the very least get a nice walk through of the castle on the way to the actual ride.
As for evening, Islands of Adventure is amazing at night! Especially in the Harry Potter section where the Hogsmeade roofs reflect the moonlight beautifully and the “smoke” coming from the chimneys give a fantastical feel to the atmosphere!
Some things to keep in mind, during various months one of the other parks might close early. This is especially true for the Universal Studios park during the months of September and October as it closes early Thursdays – Sundays for Halloween Horror Nights. Something to keep in mind!
3) Holidays. I’ve pretty much covered this above. The only holiday event I’ve attended at Universal is Halloween Horror Nights. AND I LOVED IT! I honestly had a blast going through the 8 haunted houses and laughing as the zombies hunted patrons in the streets. Now, I am a bit jaded to the whole haunted house thing as I was an actor in one for a few years, but I loved them all! The attention to detail is phenomenal and so exact.Technically we went because we heard there was a resident evil house that we just HAD to go through, which we did. Multiple times.
As for other holidays, I know very little. Spring Break is a pain for ANY parks, Presidents Day week in February is hellish, and summer is hot. There ya go.
So to sum it up, I would go sometime in late fall or late winter. Before Thanksgiving but after Christmas. Go first thing in the morning, and return around 3 or 4 to finish it up. Avoid ANY holiday! Universal Studios seems to have a good portion of locals with middle school and high school age kids coming on holidays and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather deal with small sized mini humans as opposed to adult sized mini humans!
EXPLORING, RELAXING, EATING!
1) Exploring. EXPLORE, EXPLORE, EXPLORE! Look through all the nooks and grannies that you can legally and safely get to. This is SO very true in the newer parts of the parks, and Hogsmeade in particular. The Universal equivalent of imagineers have put a massive amount of work into getting details and specifics just right in the parks. Every time we go, we are constantly finding and discovering new alleys, window displays, and other little details that only those searching will find.
2) Relaxing. The pools are nice. Use them. Also, don’t rush through the parks! You miss things and you don’t get to take it all in. Have you ever spent a vacation somewhere only to later look at the pictures you or someone else took and find yourself wondering “where was that?” or “How did I miss that!” It stinks and you feel like you missed out. Don’t leave the parks with regrets. It’s better to KNOW what you’re missing because you CHOSE to take you time as opposed to missing something because you rushed through the day.
3) Eating. Eat everything, but don’t be shy about trying new things.
Butterbeer is amazing, but so is the pumpkin juice!
Refillable soda cups are great, but be aware of time restraints on how often you can refill them. (We learned this the hard way.) There is a time frame you must allow between refills. Keep that in mind when planning your meals through the day.
The meal plan is probably awesome for a family with kids. Not so great for a couple on their own. This is one detail that stinks next to Disney, but it’s not Universals fault. They simply don’t have the variety of eateries and such Disney has.
PARK TICKETS / FAST PASSES
This is one point I am a strong advocate for. BOOK YOUR TRIP ONLINE OR WITH A TRAVEL AGENT! Don’t order them at the park or at the gates. It’s insane how many friends and family I have talked to who had a horrible time simply because getting their tickets was hard and frustrating. It can ruin a vacation. Don’t let it!
Go to the Universal Parks site, here, explore and look into various packages that include hotel, airfare, and other perks, and get your tickets there. TRUST ME this is the way to go! If you’re staying at an on site hotel you will get your tickets at the hotel. With your room key. Could it BE any easier?! Also some of those deals and packages include meals. These are great and useful and allow you to make reservations when you book your vacation.
Express passes are incredibly useful and as opposed to Disney where you have to plan, schedule, and be pick which rides you use it on. At Universal you simply go, scan the pass, and get in line. There is no limit to how many times you use it for a ride, and you don’t have to plan it ahead of time. Seriously, how awesome is that?! The only exception is during HHN’s where you can only express pass through a haunted house line once per night, and it’s an extra cost. a GOOD and useful cost don’t get me wrong, but extra none the less.
Along those same lines, if you are planning on going to HHN, I strongly recommend looking into getting those tickets on line as well. There are various deals that SIGNIFICANTLY lowers the cost of admission and express passes. Plus for just a bit more, some have awesome perks like a personal tour of the houses during the day! (Wish we’d known about that one last year.)
I think that’s about all I have right now! I’m sure I can come up with more at some point. Do YOU have an suggestions or thoughts on your trips there? Are you planning one and want thoughts or suggestions on planning? Let me know in the comments! This is clearly a topic I love talking about 🙂
EDIT: My good friend Crispy has this to add as well. He’s been to Diagon Alley already so yay for input from others!!
With our recent adventure, a few weeks ago, my suggestion is (regardless if you are in an hour early or at open) go straight to Diagon Alley FIRST! The line for Gringott’s will only get longer. That and the Rock-It Roller Coaster were the only two rides with serious lines the two days we were there (during HHN, no less). Rock-It is best at night, so save it for the end if you only plan to do it once.
Once you knock out Gringott’s, if you can catch the hidden stage show back there, then catch the train to Hogsmeade. Knock out that area as quick as you can. Forbidden Journey’s Single Rider line is the way to go if you have already been through the castle. As most everyone will be exploring Diagon Alley during the day, this gives them time to disperse into other areas of the park. Go back and end your day with exploring that area.