A few “rookie mistakes” can keep you from making the most of your first visit to Universal Orlando Resort, so here’s our list of seven things you shouldn’t do to make sure you have the best experience possible.
By Jill Robbins
Universal Orlando Resort includes two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure) and one epic water park, Volcano Bay. A third theme park – Epic Universe – is slated to open in 2025, all with attractions that take you inside beloved movie franchises such as Harry Potter, Despicable Me, and Fast & Furious.
Although Universal refers to Volcano Bay as a third theme park, this article focuses solely on Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, located next door to each other.
Here are seven things you shouldn’t do on your first visit to Universal Orlando Resort:
1. Expect Universal to be Disney
The differences between Universal and Disney deserve their own article, but the bottom line: even though they’re both major theme parks in the Orlando area that you might visit on the same trip, they’re themed and operated differently. One is not necessarily superior to the other (although that’s also a whole other discussion), but if you’re a Walt Disney World fan who expects everything at Universal to run the same way Disney does, you’re not going to get the most out of your visit.
Don’t worry, there’s still a castle. There is not, however, a “Universal bus” from Disney resort hotels, and Magic Bands won’t work at Universal. Enjoy it as the separate theme park experience it is, and you’ll be fine.
Pro Tip: If you’re a first-time visitor to Universal, take your dining expectations down a few notches, especially if you are used to Disney dining. You certainly won’t starve, and the food isn’t bad, but the focus in the parks is on quick service eats to get you fueled up and back on the rides versus themed dining experiences.
2. Not buying an Express Pass
The Universal Express Pass is literally your ticket to shorter lines. They can get pricey, but they are worth the money, especially if your visit is on the shorter side or the parks are busy. There are two types of Express Passes you can purchase in addition to your park ticket: the Universal Express and the Universal Express Unlimited. The Universal Express lets you skip the regular line one time per participating ride, and the Universal Express Unlimited offers unlimited skips.
Note: Typically, the newest, most popular rides will not be included in the Express Pass. Currently, the two attractions that do not accept Universal Express Passes are Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and the Jurassic World VelociCoaster.
These passes will cost anywhere from $89.99 to $379.99 per park per day (and yes, that’s on top of your ticket price). However, if you stay in one of Universal’s premier hotels (Loews Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews Royal Pacific), you’ll receive complimentary Universal Express Unlimited passes for the duration of your stay, including the days you check in and out.
My experience has been that the Express Passes cut wait substantially from the posted wait times for non-express lines. Our longest wait was about a third of what we’d have waited if we didn’t have Express Passes, which drastically cut down our time in lines and allowed us to do much more in a day. We bought our passes in advance, and while you can purchase Universal Express Passes in the park, Universal caps the number of passes they’ll sell in a day, so you could be out of luck if you wait.
3. Try to do everything in a day
Even on your first visit to Universal Orlando Resort planning an “open-to-close day” can allow you to see most of what both parks have to offer (if you have an Express Pass). However, I recommend at least two days so you can go at a bit of a slower pace. It’s also fun to experience both parks during the day and at night, and a one-day visit makes that difficult, although not impossible.
My family of four recently did one day at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure (from about 9:30 a.m. to about 8:30 p.m.) We rode 12 rides and took a 90-minute lunch break at The Leaky Cauldron in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley (most of which was waiting in line to be seated at our table).
Because this was not our first visit to Universal Orlando Resort, we knew exactly where everything was and what we wanted to do (as well as what we wanted to skip). We spent zero time looking around or shopping, which you’ll certainly want to do as a first-timer.
Another reason to plan a two-day visit is If there’s something you’ve got your heart set on experiencing. For example, when we were there, we really wanted to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but the attraction went down for maintenance while we were standing in line and didn’t reopen for the rest of the day.
4. Not buying a two-park ticket (especially if you’re a Harry Potter fan)
A two-park ticket (called a Park-to-Park ticket) will allow you to experience both parks in one day, and the ability to go back and forth between parks offers greater flexibility when planning your day and allows you to experience attractions a little more spontaneously versus having a plan for every hour of the day.
The big draw of being able to travel from park to park is the ability to do so via Hogwarts Express. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a big draw for Universal parkgoers, but some people don’t realize that Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios Florida, and Hogsmeade is located in Islands of Adventure. Both are exquisitely themed, and the experience of traveling between the two locations on the beloved scarlet steam engine is the icing on top of the Cauldron Cake if you’re a diehard fan of the movies and/or books.
If you don’t have a two-park ticket, you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express, and that’s something I recommend every Potterhead do at least once. There’s even an effect that allows you to “walk through” a brick wall onto Platform 9 3/4.
If you don’t want to ride the Hogwarts Express (the lines can be very long without an Express Pass), you can exit one park and walk to the entrance of the other.
5. Not checking the height requirements
If you’re visiting Universal for the first time, be sure to scope out the attractions online and get an idea of what you do and don’t want to ride. Both parks have a good mix of thrill rides and tamer attractions, although many of the thrilling rides use CGI and make you feel like you’re spinning and dropping when you’re really not moving around all that much.
The height requirements are all over the place (this chart provides a reference). I find Universal to be on the stricter side with minimum heights, so if you have pint-size thrill seekers in your group, measure them before you leave and again at the measuring stations located near the entrance of each park. Expect kids who look like they might be on the fence to be measured at least once in line. I’ve seen kids pulled off attractions and re-measured, so make sure you’re doing your diligence before you get in line.
6. Not using the app
Universal Orlando Resort has an app that’s free to download in the iTunes or Google Play store. The app is easy to navigate and includes maps of both parks (I still like grabbing a paper map at the park entrance because I find that easier to read) and gives estimated wait times for attractions. Keep in mind that the quoted wait times are for the regular line, so if you have Express Passes, you’ll have to wing it with the math and guess your wait time, but I find the baseline estimate helpful.
You can also store your tickets, and Universal Express Passes in the app, which means not having to keep track of paper tickets – just make sure you have enough juice to get you through the day. In addition, there’s the option to store a payment method on the app, which comes in very handy for mobile ordering (definitely the way to go on busy park days). Want to get off your feet and see a show? The app will give you showtimes. There’s even a feature in the app where you can enter the location of your car in case you forget after a long day.
7. Ride the Minions ride first
The Despicable Me Minion Mayhem is one of the first rides you’ll see once you pass through the entrance of Universal Studios Florida. Your first excited reaction might be, “Ooh, look! A ride! Let’s get in line!” Trust me; you will not be the only one with the same idea.
This attraction is really cute and definitely worth catching. The backstory is that Gru and Dr. Nefario have come up with a way to turn ordinary humans into Minions. The animations mimic the machine that turns the people riding into new Minion recruits, and the CGI attraction is themed as Minion training led by Margo, Edith, and Agnes. I never miss this attraction at Universal Orlando Resort, but I have learned to keep walking when I enter the park and loop back later in the day when fewer people are coming in, as the morning rush will double your wait time.
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