The Ultimate Guide to Universal Orlando

Happy New Year everyone! Hope you had restful and joyous holiday time with your loved ones. Amarvelous Blog is back after a two-week holiday hiatus. We have an exciting roster of 2019 posts coming your way. Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to learn about updates. And without further ado…

On December 17th, 2018, I published a post titled “The Joint Bach Bash” which was about the combined bachelor/bachelorette party my husband and I planned in Orlando, Florida. We had such a great time at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures that I wanted to write a whole post about it! My husband is a Florida native, and I also grew up there—between the both of us, we have visited these parks countless times! Here’s a breakdown of properties, seasons, accommodations, tickets, attractions, dining, and shopping.


Universal Studios is located in Orlando, Florida, and is comprised of three theme parks and one entertainment area:

  • Universal Studios Theme Park includes many areas, my favorite of which is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
  • Islands of Adventures was voted the #1 Amusement Park in the world by Trip Advisors’ Choice Award in 2018. This park is separated into different land and includes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade (can you tell I’m a big Harry Potter fan?).
  • Volcano Bay is the brand’s water park. The park uses a unique waterproof bracelet system they refer to as TapuTapu, essentially allowing you to sign into a ride’s line virtually then go relax poolside, and the bracelet lets you know when it is time to head back to the ride.
  • CityWalk is the dining, shopping, and entertainment area associated with Universal Studios. If you have been to Disney World before, this is Universal’s version of Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney). For guests driving to the parks, you will park and walk through CityWalk to get to the theme park entrance. CityWalk is open all day but really comes to life at night.


  • The best times to visit Orlando with lighter crowds are in September, when students have just gone back to school, and in early to mid-December, before the holiday school breaks.
  • September to November: Halloween Horror Nights is a nightly event with added haunted houses throughout both parks and workers dressed up in scary costumes. You can purchase a ticket for the evening to just attend the HHN.
  • November to January: Busiest time of the year for the park, but the decorations and themed holiday shows are something wonderful to witness.
  • February to April: Mardi Gras celebrations with parades, Cajun food, and nightly life concerts.


When we last visited Orlando, we used our timeshare points to book our resort. If we hadn’t had timeshare points, we probably would have done a search online to find our accommodations. Although you can probably find affordable accommodations in Orlando, there are several benefits to staying at a Universal hotel or resort.

  • You can enter the park an hour before it opens for early access. You can literally run through the park straight to the most popular rides, or what you want to ride most, and ride it without a line.
  • You can skip the regular lines. Universal’s Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Royal Pacific Resort, and Hard Rock Hotel offer guests free express pass upgrade for everyone in the hotel room. These tickets run around $100 per person, so that is a HUGE savings! If you plan to buy express passes, that alone makes it well worth staying on property. You also get to cut the lines at the restaurants of CityWalk with priority seating.
  • Staying on the property allows you to get to the parks faster. Hotels on property are basically at the park’s entry gates. If you stay at another property owned by the brand, there is complimentary transportation to the theme parks. Saving money on parking fees is also a really nice benefit!
  • The hotels offer convenience by keeping you close to the fun at the parks, while offering other amenities such as beautiful pools and on-site restaurants. The resorts are so nice that you may want to come to Orlando for several days and build in a relaxing pool day between your busy park days.
Image credit Universal Studios


As of this writing, there are several options for ticket purchases:

  • Florida Resident are discounted tickets for, you guessed it, Florida residents. They offer discounts on annual passes as well as regular park tickets.
  • Seasonal and Annual Passes are available to anyone.
  • Single-Day Passes
    • Park-to-Park access is essential if you want to experience the Hogwarts Express train ride, which connects the two portions of the Wizarding World that are located within both parks. This would mean you can access both parks in one day and flip-flop between them as much as you like.
    • Express Pass upgrade is essential if you want to guarantee you see every ride in one day, depending on the season and weather. You gain access to skip the regular lines and wait in a shorter express lane.

The last time we went to the parks (for the joint bach bash) mostly everyone on that trip had been to the parks before, so we ended up buying a single day, park-to-park, express pass. It was a double upgrade, but it allowed us to see so much within the single day and experience all of the rides that we wanted to (and some multiple times!). My advice is that if you have been to the parks before, you can do as I described above and purchase the single day, park-to-park, express pass. If you have not been to the parks before, then you definitely need two days to experience it all

Pro Tips:

  • Buy your tickets and express passes before you get to the parks. Do your research. If you know what you are going to buy, don’t waste valuable park time in early-morning lines. Also, buying in advance allows you to get other details in order, such as dining reservations, and set a game plan for rides.


Both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios are broken up into themed areas with unique rides, shops, and restaurants that relate to that area’s theme. Below is a list of the themed areas with highlights of a few of the major park attractions.

Islands of Adventures

  • Port of Entry
  • Marvel Super Hero Island
    • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
    • Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
    • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
  • Toon Lagoon
    • Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges (Water Ride)
    • Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls (Water Ride)
  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong
    • Skull Island: Reign of Kong
  • Jurassic Park
    • Jurassic Park River Adventure
  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade
    • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
    • Flight of the Hippogriff
    • Hogwarts Express – Hogsmeade Station
  • The Lost Continent
    • Poseidon’s Fury
  • Seuss Landing
    • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
    • The Cat in the Hat
Image credit Universal Studios

Universal Studios

  • Production Central
    • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
    • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
    • Transformers the Ride 3D
  • New York
    • Revenge of the Mummy
    • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • San Francisco
    • Fast & Furious – Supercharged
  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley
    • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
    • Hogwarts Express – Kings Cross Station
  • World Expo
    • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Springfield: Home of the Simpsons
    • The Simpsons Ride
  • Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone
    • Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster
  • Hollywood
Image credit Universal Studios

Pro Tips:

  • Early Entry: Even if you are not staying at a Universal property hotel, plan to arrive early because sometimes staff allow early entry through some of the ticket scans and security checkpoints to alleviate crowds.
  • Single Rider: Most people ride in groups of two or more, so there are sometimes extra seats available in a row. The ride attendant usually asks for a single rider who is then able to skip ahead in the line to fill the empty seat. At some queues, there is even a special line reserved just for “single riders.” Note that you must be 10 years or older to participate.
  • Child Swap: This program allows families traveling with little ones to wait in the queue together, then one parent stays off the ride and waits in the designated “child swap room” with the child who is not tall enough to ride. The rest of the family hops on the ride, then when they are finished the parents swap roles and the parent who initially stayed back is given a chance to ride without having to wait in line again. The second parent can take up to three guests with them, so several people in the family get to ride twice!
  • Become familiar with the layout of the parks. I always create a game plan before entering a theme park, having learned about the biggest attractions with the longest wait times in my years visiting the parks. It’s also helpful to know the layout, because you may be on one side of the park when you realize your dinner reservation is fast approaching on the other side. Knowing the fastest way to get there without having to study a map is great. You can download each park map to your phone before your trip, then you don’t even need cell phone signal or data to view it, and you can zoom in and out.
  • Harry Potter Specific:
    • If you are primarily going to Universal because you are a huge Harry Potter fan (like myself), then plan your day properly because it’s one of the most popular parts of the parks. Get into the park early, or right when they open, and head STRAIGHT to Harry Potter land. This is the newest and most desirable portion of the park, so it gets packed. These ride wait times are among the longest in the park. Get the Hogwarts Castle and Gringotts rides out of the way early without lines. Then see some of the other attractions in the Wizarding World before you head off and explore the rest of the parks. Then around dinner time, head back to the Wizarding World and continue exploring. If you aren’t a morning person and are arriving to the park later, then just skip Harry Potter altogether until about 4pm when people have either left the park for the day or are about to have dinner. Otherwise you will wait in lines forever.
    • Fastest way to park hop: Use The Hogwarts Express ride! This is the most convenient and fast way to get from Universal to Islands. This ride is not only functional but also entertaining. Without giving too much away, I’ll hint that that you need to ride the train in both directions to experience the full story. You cannot ride the Hogwarts Express without a Park Hopper ticket.
    • At the Money Exchange, you can ask the goblin any question and he will respond. Ask him about the dragon in Gringotts next time you visit!
    • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is absolutely amazing. You will be so thoroughly impressed with the rides and immersing yourself in Harry’s world. However, don’t overlook the smaller details. There are magical elements hidden all around you. Buy an interactive wand at Ollivander’s and cast spells around Diagon Alley to make magic happen right before your eyes! Wait in line at Ollivander’s for the Wand Chooses the Wizard experience and potentially be the chosen one!!! (I’ve been selected twice, it helps if you are celebrating something and are wearing a shirt, hat, or pin that says so). Catch the dragon over Gringotts blowing fire. Spot Kreacher from the 12 Grimmauld’s Place window. The skylight in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes even shows a perpetual fireworks display. Dial “MAGIC” (62442) in the phone booth outside Diagon Alley and you can reach the Ministry of Magic! I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the hidden magic this land has to offer. Keep your eyes and ears open to catch them all!


There are many tasty restaurants located within the Universal Studios parks and CityWalk. Most are quick-grab bites, but a few I would like to note below have over the past few years been voted in the top ten theme park restaurants in the world:

  • Three Broomsticks in Islands of Adventures
  • The Leaky Cauldron in Universal Studios
  • Mythos Restaurant in Islands of Adventures
  • The Cowfish in CityWalk
  • Vivo Italian Restaurant in CityWalk
Mythos Restaurant

Pro Tips:

  • If dining at Mythos, I highly recommend booking a reservation in advance. This is a proper sit-down restaurant, and they always have a full reservation list and people waiting on standby. It’s that good. We went with a group of 11 people for a super-late dinner right before the park closed. We still had to wait a half hour to sit down.
  • You simply can’t visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without drinking a Butter Beer. I love the Frozen Butter Beer or a Butter Beer Flavored Ice Cream for a hot day. Did you know there is also a secret menu at The Three Broomsticks and Hog’s Head Pub? Try ordering the secret Pumpkin Fizz next time you’re there!
  • Ice water is always complimentary in the park, so save money by not buying bottles of water.
  • Dining Plans: Universal offers full service and quick service dining plans with about 100 dining locations to choose from inside both parks and CityWalk. Full meals, quick meals, snacks, and drinks are all considered in these plans.
  • Family Style: For an affordable family style option, head to the back of the Universal Studios park to Louie’s Italian Restaurant. Order a whole pizza (8 slices) for around $30 while a single slice can cost upwards of $7!
  • Cheap Shareable Treat: In the Universal Studios Simpsons area, stop by Lard Lad’s Donuts. You can pick up an oversized pink sprinkled donut for around $5 and it’s easily shareable!
  • Leave the Park for Lunch: Right outside the park, you can experience lunch at CityWalk where you will find more variety and less lunchtime lines. It may not be cheaper, but at least you get better quality food! Beware that you may only be able to leave the park and re-enter if you have the Park Hopper add-on for your ticket.
  • Holiday Reservations: If spending a particular holiday in the park, you should 100% book a dining reservation months in advance. All lunch and dinner dining location will totally book solid with no waitlist. This will force you to either leave the park to eat or endure chicken tenders and fries to celebrate the special day. Reservations can be booked at this website.


Similar to all theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures both have gift shops at the entry/exit pathway within the parks, at the exit of the rides, and at stands along the paths within the park. To me, the most unique thing about shopping in Universal is that if you are a Harry Potter fan, you can shop in the exact shops from the books/movies and you can buy the things Harry bought. A favorite of mine are the fizzing whizzbees from Honeydukes candy store. I also really like the owl post shop where you can mail letters with a special Hogsmeade postmark.

Pro Tips:

  • Don’t lug around your many souvenirs all day long. They will get heavy, and sometimes the required ride lockers are not big enough for your bag and souvenirs. Universal offers package pick-up and free package delivery to on-site hotels. It’s simple to use: shop, and then either package pick-up sends your souvenir to the front of the park so you can pick it up on your way out, or if you are staying on-site they deliver it right to your hotel. Just another reason why staying on property is awesome!
  • If you already own an interactive wand from Universal Studios Hollywood, it will work at Universal Orlando! Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade have hidden bronze plaques that will show you where and how to perform magic spells. The only downside of bringing your wand from Hollywood is you won’t have an accurate map, but it’s easy enough to spot the locations.

Even though this post covers Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, there are also several other Universal Studios theme parks around the world. They are located in Hollywood, California; Osaka, Japan; and Sentosa, Singapore. There are even several parks in development slated to open: Beijing, China in 2020; Hwaseong, South Korea in 2021; and Moscow, Russia in 2022. I’ve currently only been to the Orlando location but have the others on my must-see list (future blogs to come haha), and you should too!

DISCLAIMER: Any brands listed above are not sponsors.

Leave a Reply