The best rides, how to avoid queues, dining recommendations and the best views, check out my top things to do in Universal Studios Orlando and get the most out of your visit.
There are so many things to do in Universal Studios and we had so many amazing experiences, that I struggled to limit this post to 35! Seeing my daughters face light up when she was chosen to receive a wand in Ollivanders is a moment I will never forget. Riding Hagrid’s Motorbike was another moment I will never forget – but for slightly different reasons!
If you never watched a Harry Potter movie, I guarantee you will still be mesmerised by the attention to detail in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hogwarts Castle is majestic, and walking through the magic wall in Platform 9¾ was another great experience that we all enjoyed.
However, there is so much more to Universal Orlando Resort than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Three amazing theme parks make up this world class family theme park, that is filled with thrilling rollercoasters, sensational simulator rides, groundbreaking shows, and some of the world’s best water rides.
And that’s not all. Next to the parks you will find City Walk, a superb entertainment area packed with shops, bars and restaurants that ensure excellent night time entertainment long after the parks have closed.
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It is vital that you purchase tickets before you go to get the best choice and value. Attraction Tickets Direct offer excellent rates on all Universal park tickets and hotels, so you can book the hotel and park tickets in one simple transaction. You can find out more about various Orlando tips in these posts
I picked up lots of tips during my visit and have plenty of recommendations to help you maximise your time there. I have listed my top things to do in Universal Studios Orlando below, with top tips and tricks for Harry Potter and Volcano Bay included. If you wish to skip straight to Universal Studios Orlando tips for Harry Potter, or tips for Volcano Bay, click here:
1. Stay at one of the 8 Universal Hotels
We were fortunate to be staying in one of Universal’s hotels, which granted us early access to the parks. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how much time we needed to explore Universal’s three parks properly.
There are so many benefits of staying in a Universal hotel, but getting early access to the parks before the masses arrive is priceless, especially if you are travelling in peak season. Its not only beneficial for Universal’s top rides, but being able to wander around the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without the crowds was a fantastic experience.
Early access is handy in Volcano Bay too – there is no need to squabble over sun loungers if you get there early! Other benefits include free entrance to CityWalks’s best venues, and priority seating at selected restaurants in the parks and at CityWalk.
You can also charge any meals or purchases to your room, so you don’t need to carry cash, and any merchandise that you buy, can be delivered straight to your hotel.
You can use the facilities in all Universal hotels if you are staying in a Prime Value, Preferred or Premier Universal hotel. That’s all Universal hotels except the new Endless Summer Resorts (Surfside or Dockside). This includes swimming pools, restaurants etc.
However, if price is a factor, Universal’s Endless Summer Resorts are great value, with plenty of large family suites available. I think you will be surprised at how they compare to similar 3/4 star hotels on International Drive.
If you stay in one of Universal’s premier hotels, Lowes Portofino Bay, the Hard Rock Hotel or Lowes Royal Pacific, you will get a FREE Universal Express Unlimited Pass. See more on this below and more top booking tips in this post:
2. Visit Universal Studios at the start of your holiday
It is all very well having early access to the parks, but if you plan your visit to Universal towards the end of your holiday, your children may not fancy getting out of bed at 6am.
However, the opposite applies at the start of your trip. Not only are children excited to visit the parks, but the five-hour time difference between Ireland and Florida means they should naturally wake early for the first few days of their holiday.
I suggest you book Universal at the start of your trip and stay in a Universal Hotel for a minimum of four nights – you need at least three full days to visit the parks properly.
3. Be clever with Express passes
Express Passes enable you to skip the queues in most of the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. I can’t stress how valuable these were for us, especially if travelling during school holidays. They are expensive, with prices starting at €79 per person per day, and these prices vary depending on availability and time of year.
However, there are a few clever ways to book Express passes. If you stay in one of Universal’s premier hotels, Lowes Portofino Bay, the Hard Rock Hotel or Lowes Royal Pacific, you will get a FREE Universal Express Unlimited Pass. You will receive a pass for two days with a one-night stay, three days with a two-night stay etc. This can be very cost effective if staying for a short duration.
However if your budget doesn’t allow for 5-star hotels, I suggest you purchase Express passes for your last day. Get to know the parks over a few days and then use the Express to re-visit your favourite rides or to visit rides that you were unable to do because of lengthy queues.
4. Download the Universal app and plan your day
The Universal Orlando app is not only great for planning before you go, but it also helps you when you are inside the park. You can see show times, the latest wait time for rides, and access maps of the park. Make sure to check height restrictions and show times and plan your day accordingly.
5. Have lunch in Mythos
Make sure to have lunch at Mythos restaurant in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. This has won Theme Park Insider’s award for Best Restaurant four years in a row and 10 times overall. There are rock formations, waterfalls and figures carved into the side of the restaurant, while the interior feels like a fantasy grotto.
Take time to enjoy a leisurely lunch here, with great park views. Although it is technically a Greek restaurant, you will find plenty of American favourites too, as well as kids menu. It was one of the best meals of our trip, so make sure you book in advance.
6. Set an alert for your favourite ride, it will tell you when the waiting times are low
Rather than constantly checking wait times, you can set an alert on the Universal app to let you know when the wait time for your preferred ride falls under a certain time. This is extremely useful, especially if you don’t have Express passes.
7. Bring flip flops for water rides
You can expect to get drenched on some of the water rides – especially Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges. While this may come as a welcome treat in hot weather, its not much fun having soaked trainers! Ideally plan these rides for the afternoon, leave your valuables and runners in the nearby lockers and wear flip flops.
8. Take time out and enjoy The Blues Brothers
Full days in the parks can be very tiring, especially if there are lengthy queues. There are some great shows at Universal Studios, including street performances by The Blues Brothers. This 15 minute street show takes place regularly and is a nice break from rollercoaster and simulator rides.
9. Use the Child Swap system
If you are travelling with small kids that are unable to go on some of the rides, use the child swap system. This allows one person to stay behind with a child while the other members go on the ride. When they return, the remaining family member can go on the ride without having to queue again.
TOP TIP: Mention at the entrance that you want to use the Child Swap as not all rides have the same system, some have dedicated lanes, others have waiting rooms.
10 Use the Single Rider Lanes
Another good tip is to use the single rider line, it is always the shortest. If you are happy to go on a ride alone, choose this line and save a huge amount of queueing time. This is ideal when you are looking to experience a ride for the second time and don’t necessarily need to have your partner beside you to share the experience.
11. Bring snacks
Although water is available for free in restaurants, you won’t fancy queuing to get it. Bring water with you and use the water stations that are scattered throughout the park to re fill it. You will more than likely have your fill of burgers and chips too, so I suggest bringing snacks or even a packed lunch to the parks if possible.
Small back packs are allowed on many rides, and lockers are readily available beside the large rollercoasters where loose items are not allowed on.
12. Don’t miss The Bourne Stuntactular
As well as being a welcome relief from standing, some of the shows at Universal Studios are superb – the Bourne Stuntactular was one of my favourites. This cutting-edge show is action packed and carries on the story-line from the movies. Fights are simulated, so it will appear violent to young children, but it is a great show, and a must for any Bourne fans.
13. Prebook good restaurants in Citywalk
We left it too late to book the best restaurants in Orlando and to say I never want to see a burger again is an understatement. Most of the good restaurants were booked out until 10.30pm.
However, we did manage to enjoy a nice Italian meal in Vivo at City Walk. Its contemporary style and extensive menu was enjoyed by all of us. Other recommendations I received were Big Fire Steakhouse, Cowfish for sushi and burgers, NBC Sports Bar and the Chocolate Toothsome Emporium for decadent desserts!
14. Get the best park views from the rooftop bar in Universal’s Aventura Hotel
Take in the views of Universal’s three theme parks from the rooftop bar and grill at Universal’s Aventura Hotel. You don’t need to be a guest to visit the Bar 17, but hotel guests do get priority seating.
With creative cocktails and Wagyu beef sliders, you can choose to drink, dine, or do both here. Top tip: Go at night time and enjoy spectacular views of the Krakatau Volcano erupting at Volcano Bay.
15. Be aware of rides with motion sickness
Myself and my children suffer from motion sickness, and some rides are more prone to it than others. Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey is one that I can attest to, but I wouldn’t let it stop you from experiencing it – it is one of the best things to do in Universal Studios!
If you suffer from motion sickness, wear sea bands, bring medication, or at the very least wait until after the ride before you have some food. And if all else fails, shut your eyes!
16. Pre-order fast food
While fast food is not ideal, it is practical when you are trying to see as much as possible in a given day. The problem is many of the fast food outlets have large queues. Be clever and pre-order your meals via the Universal Studios app. This is available in selected restaurants – you simply order via the app and it tells you when its ready. Then go to the pre paid collection point and skip the queue!
17. Explore Jurassic Park
We didn’t get the chance to ride the new Jurassic World VelociCoaster, but I have been told that it is one of the best things to do in Universal Studios for thrill seekers. It is the park’s tallest and fastest roller coaster, as well as the fastest launched roller coaster in Florida. Check out the video above to see what to expect!
It is not possible to use your Express pass for this but wait times were not too long during out visit, on average 60 minutes. See height restrictions here.
However, there is more to Jurassic Park than the VelociCoaster. The Jurassic Park River Adventure is a great family ride on water. It is relaxing for most of it, with a nice surprise at the end…
The Pteranodon Flyers are a great way for smaller children to see the park from above, and if you want to come face to face with a raptor, check out the Raptor Encounter. This is a meet-and-greet attraction where you can get a picture with a raptor that approaches a gap between the fence.
18. Meet Universal’s characters throughout the park
From Minions to Marvel characters, Megatron to Marilyn Monroe, don’t miss the opportunity to get photos with your favourite characters throughout the parks. Check meet and greet times on the park map or app.
19. Visit Universal’s Christmas shop
There are numerous shops throughout the park and in City walk, but don’t miss a visit to the Christmas Shop. They have some fabulous Christmas decorations that make for the perfect souvenir to bring home.
Top 10 Harry Potter things to do in Universal Studios Orlando
Visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is one of the best things to do in Universal Studios. What you may not know is that it is spread out over two parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. I’ve listed my top 10 Harry Potter tips at Universal Studios to make the most of your visit.
20. Go to Hagrids Motorbike Adventure first
If you are fortunate to be staying in one of Universal’s Hotels, I suggest you avail of the early park access and go straight to Hagrids Motorbike Adventure. Hagrids Motorbike adventure is one of the few rides where you can not use your Express pass, and the average queueing time was two hours during our visit, so the earlier you can go there the better.
It is a thrill ride, and not for the faint hearted, but it is one of the best things to do in Universal Studios Orlando. If you are feeling brave, choose to ride the motorbike rather than the side car. I am not a big rollercoaster fan by any means, and it did scare me many times, but it is a superb ride, and shouldn’t be missed!
As you ride into the Forbidden Forest, at a mind boggling 50 miles per hour, you will come face to face with some of the creatures from the movies, including Hagrid’s three-headed dog, as well as experiencing a scary drop into the Devil’s Snare.
21. Explore Hogwarts Castle with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Located inside Hogwarts castle, this is another one of the top things to do in Universal Studios. Before you ride the superb flying simulator, you will be brought through Hogwarts Castle, along winding staircases with talking paintings. Top Tip: Motion sickness is common on this ride, but if you do suffer from it you can walk through the castle and choose not to get on the ride. See height restrictions here.
22. Enjoy a frozen butter beer in Hogsmeade
After long queues and thrilling rides, a frozen butter beer will be warmly welcomed. Trust me, the frozen butter beer is much nicer than the regular one! You can pick these up on the street in Hogsmeade or in the restaurants or bars throughout Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade.
23. Don’t miss Ollivanders Wand Experience
For a serious Harry Potter fan, this is one of the best things to do in Universal Studios Orlando. When you enter Ollivanders wand shop – there is one in Diagon Alley and Hogsemeade, you will be treated to an immersive experience with wizardry and flair. A child is chosen at random from an audience of 25, or I should say the wand choses the child…
If you are staying in one of the Universal hotels and have early access to the parks, I recommend you go there first thing. We were lucky that there was no one else in the shop at that time, so my daughter Alex was chosen. It was one of her favourite experiences in Universal Orlando Resort.
24. Purchase an interactive wand to use in the parks
You can purchase a variety of wands in Ollivanders after the show. Interactive wands are $59 and although not cheap, they can be used to perform magic tricks in various locations throughout the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. They are also a wonderful souvenir to bring home.
25. Take the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross Station
The Hogwarts Express is another unmissable ride. The train journeys between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Make sure to board it in Kings Cross so you can walk through the magic wall on Platform 9¾. Of course you can always ride the train in both directions. The train journey is a replica of the one Harry took in the movie, and both rides have slightly different experiences.
26. Visit the shops at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Many visitors spend hours wandering these streets without going inside the shops in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes is the ultimate joke shop, pick up a chocolate frog in Honeydukes, and there are plenty of clothing and gift shops to satisfy any Harry Potter fan.
27. Have breakfast or lunch in the Leaky Cauldron
The Leaky Cauldron and The Three Broomsticks are themed restaurants inside The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, that serve up English breakfasts, lunch and dinner. They can get very busy, so be sure to choose your time wisely. The Leaky Cauldron has a more varied menu and tends to have a better choice of good food available.
28. See the fire-breathing dragon and Escape from Gringotts Bank
Another thrill ride, Escape from Gringotts Bank is a superb experience where you walk through the bank and enter vaults to evade Voldemort, Bellatrix and lots more creatures. You can’t miss the fire-breathing dragon overhead, which blasts out roasting flames approximately every 10 minutes. See height restrictions here.
29. There is a Harry Potter ride for young children too!
Flight of the Hippogriff ride is a family-friendly roller coaster that dives around the pumpkin patch before swooping past Hagrid’s hut. It is an ideal coaster for younger children and is located next to Hogwarts Castle. See height restrictions here.
30. See the Night time lights at Hogwarts
The night time lights show at Hogwarts is one of the best things to do in Universal Studios Orlando for Harry Potter fans. All four houses are celebrated as music plays and the castle is covered in lights. It takes place around sunset, and lasts for about five minutes.
Performances tend to occur every 20-30 minutes after that until the park closes. Check with one of the staff in Hogsmeade, they will be able to give you exact times, as they change depending on the time of year.
Best things to do in Universal Studios – Volcano Bay tips and tricks
31. Add your credit or debit card into the Universal Orlando app
Once you download the Universal Orlando App and connect your credit or credit card, you won’t have to worry about bringing cash or credit cards with you. When you arrive at Volcano Bay you are given a wearable Tapu Tapu wristband, which looks like a waterproof watch. You can use your Tapu Tapu band to pay for food, drinks and gifts in the park.
32. Get there early to bag a sun bed by the beach
The queueing system in Volcano Bay is excellent. Simply tap your Tapu Tapu wristband at the entrance to the ride you want to go on, and it places you in a virtual queue. You are given an allotted time to return to the ride so you are free to enjoy the wave pool or sun beds in the meantime – hence the reason to get there early and bag a sun bed.
You can also choose to pre book cabanas and premium seating – at an additional cost.
33. Your next stop should be the Krakatau Aqua Coaster
The Krakatau Aqua Coaster is the most popular ride in the park. When we visited the wait time was almost 3 hours. However, as they are virtual queues this doesn’t really matter – but make sure you go there first to get in the virtual queue, so you don’t have to wait until the evening to avail of your slot.
34. Bring snacks, towels, and a waterproof phone case
When you get to Volcano Bay you will have to rent a locker, so you might as well bring towels and snacks with you – otherwise you will have to pay for them. If you want to have your phone with you, make sure to pre purchase a waterpoof phone case.
Alternatively you can pre-purchase a 1-Day Photo Package ($39). This includes unlimited digital downloads of your theme park photos. Photos are taken by random paparazzi in the park as well as while you are on rides.
35. Buy a separate Express pass for Volcano Bay
The Express passes that are included when staying at a 5-star Universal Hotel only apply to Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure, and not to Volcano Bay. Express Passes at Volcano Bay mean you can go straight onto any water slide without having to register in the virtual line.
If you wish to purchase an Express pass for Volcano Bay, you will need to do this separately. Prices start at $19 per person per day for selected rides or $39 for ALL rides.
I hope you enjoyed my top things to do in Universal Studios Orlando and it helps you make the most out of your visit. If I have missed any of your top tips and tricks, I would love to hear them, please comment below to help out future visitors to the parks.
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