A Universal Orlando primer for Disney World visitors
(Article last updated: October 6, 2015)
Universal is a park I like to occasionally tack on to our Disney World trips, if only to see the new Harry Potter stuff which is worth a visit for anybody.
I've learned a lot in our visits, so here are my tips on adding Universal to a Disney World trip.
In this article
Universal Orlando is similar in size and composition to Disneyland in California. There are 2 theme parks (like Disneyland, one of the parks is confusingly named the same as the overall resort), 4 hotels and an outdoor shopping area.
Both theme parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure) and the shopping area (CityWalk) are located within walking distance to each other. Don't embarrass yourself like I did and ask the bus driver how to get from the theme parks to CityWalk. Once you get there, you'll realize how ridiculous that is. Everything is so close.
On multiple visits, we've been able to finish the main attractions in each park in just a part of a day. Universal doesn't take a lot of time, especially if you have Express Passes and/or take advantage of single rider lines.
We've rarely seen many babies or toddlers at Universal and for good reason: Universal is clearly geared toward older kids and adults. All of the rides are much more intense and people with little ones will likely not find it worth their time or money.
The on-site hotels
There are 3 hotels on-site at Universal which offer guests full on-site benefits - Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay, and Hard Rock Hotel.
These 3 hotels have these perks:
- Unlimited Express Passes
- Complimentary on-site water taxis and buses
- Early admission to Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure or Gringotts at Universal*
- Priority seating at Universal restaurants
- Ability to charge to the room
- Delivery of purchased items to your hotel room
- Ability to use the pools at any of the on-site resorts
- Free transportation to SeaWorld, Aquatica, and Wet ‘n Wild on the Super Star Shuttle
- Free rental golf clubs, range balls, and transportation to participating golf courses
*The park that offers early entry varies so you'll need to check which park is available for your trip dates. During peak times (like Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks), they often open both parks for early entry.
The unlimited Express Pass which guests of the 2 Premier hotels (Portofino and Hard Rock) and Royal Pacific get is offered on most attractions. Express Passes allow you to enter a separate queue, much like FastPass, except that you can get in line immediately and don't have to return later.
It's not a "front of the line" pass; it's just a separate line that sometimes has a wait, though it's almost always much shorter than the normal line.
Even when we visited during a busy time we were able to tour Universal without Express Passes. Below, I share touring plans to be able to do Universal theme parks without an Express Pass.
There's also a 4th hotel called Cabana Bay Beach Resort that opened in 2014 and is more on par with a Value Resort at Disney World. Since it features both standard and suite rooms, it's most similar to Art of Animation.
Cabana Bay has all of the same perks that are listed above, except that guests here do not get Express Passes (which is a big difference!) or priority seating at restaurants.
There will be a 5th hotel opening in the summer of 2016 called Sapphire Falls Resort. It will be considered a Preferred hotel and will be Caribbean themed with 1000 rooms, including 77 suites. Sapphire will not offer Express Passes or preferred seating in restaurants.
For even more info, you can check out Universal's hotel comparison charts.
Let's take a look at the hotels...
Details: Considered a Premiere level hotel, sleeps up to 5, rooms start at 450 sq. ft., suites available (including Despicable Me suites!), themed after Italian city of Portofino, rates start at $294/night
Hard Rock Hotel
Details: Considered a Premiere level hotel, sleeps up to 5, rooms start at 375 sq. ft., suites available, more of a party vibe, within easy walking distance to theme parks, rates start at $259/night
Details: Considered a Preferred level hotel, sleeps up to 5, rooms start at 335 sq. ft., suites available, themed after South Pacific, rates start at $234/night
Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Details: Considered a Prime Value level hotel, standard Rooms sleep up to 4, suites include a kitchenette and sleep up to 6, mid-century modern theme, pool includes a lazy river, hotel has a bowling alley, rates start at $119/night
Traveling between the on-site hotels isn't as big of a deal as it is at Disney World since everything is much closer. Every hotel has the option to take a bus or walk on a paved path. All of the resorts except Cabana Bay also have water taxis available.
The water taxis pick you up and drop you off at the hotel dock and in the CityWalk area. Each hotel has its own water taxi (except Cabana Bay) so you don't have to share with other resorts. They come more often than the buses.
The buses arrive every 30 minutes except when they don't (buses at Cabana Bay arrive more frequently). During our on-site stay, they would occasionally skip so we would end up at the bus stop for around 45 minutes or so. The buses are shared between resorts so it's not a direct route between hotel and the Universal drop-off area, but the stops don't take long.
The walking paths are pretty easy to follow. Our only issue was that a deluge of rain caused a lot of standing water along the paths which is why we ended up in a pedicab to transport us. For people staying at Hard Rock Hotel, walking is almost always going to be the best option. For the other hotels, it's a bit further but definitely doable.
How to tour
In the sections below, I've detailed the order I'd suggest visiting attractions if you're spending a whole day at each park. However, there are lots of different scenarios that could affect the way you tour.
If you're staying off-site...
- 1 day plan - visit Universal Studios first, go to the first 8-10 attractions on the list, board the train to Islands of Adventure and do the top attractions there. Make use of the single rider lines at IoA to reduce wait times.
- 2 day plan - follow the plans below, making sure to show up before park opening (or do the Harry Potter attractions in the single rider line later)
If you're staying on-site...
- 1 day plan - go to whichever park is opening early and do the main attraction there (Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure or Gringotts at Universal), do the other top attractions in that park, ride the train to the other park and make use of Express Passes and/or single rider lines to avoid long waits.
- 2+ day plan - you won't need much of a touring plan other than making sure you visit the Harry Potter attractions at the beginning of the day (including taking advantage of early entry) or you can use single rider lines later in the day for those since they don't offer Express Passes.
Unlike Disney World which allows you to take your bags on rides, many rides at Universal require you to put your items in free lockers (free for up to 45 minutes) before boarding. This can be pretty inconvenient since you have to stop before and after riding.
So while I tend to take a backpack to Disney World parks, we pack lightly when visiting Universal and try to only take things in our pockets. There are also lockers available to rent for the whole day if you'd like to have access to some items.
For a spreadsheet view of both of the touring plans below (plus a 1-day plan for doing both parks), see this Google spreadsheet.
The first of two theme parks is Universal Studios. This park can best be described as having a lot of indoor rides that show an extensive pre-show, require 3D glasses and - at some point - spit water on you.
Oh, and it also happens to have The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, the best themed area I've ever seen in any theme park.
(Since there are so many indoor attractions, it's also a great park to visit when you want to escape the weather.)
Here are the rides available at Universal Orlando listed in the order that I think you should visit them, availability of Express Passes and single rider lines, height requirements and a description of each.
Universal Studios Touring Plan
Islands of Adventure
Islands of Adventure is the park where the first Harry Potter expansion appeared (Hogsmeade).
And this park can also be very wet with 3 rides that will soak you. Pack a poncho.
Here's a rundown of the best order for visiting the attractions, Express Pass availability, height requirements, single rider options, and a description of each.
Note: if you're staying on-site and Islands of Adventure is the early entry park for your trip dates, you should do Forbidden Journey first as part of your early entry into the park. If you're staying off-site or if this isn't an early entry park during your trip, you should do Forbidden Journey using the single rider option or at the end of the day when crowds decrease.
Islands of Adventure Touring Plan
Like Disney theme parks, Universal Orlando has a Child Swap that allows people with little ones to take turns riding things that are too intense while part of the group waits with the non-rider(s). In fact, many people think the Universal version is much more convenient than Disney's.
This is available on just about every attraction and works like this:
- Alert the attendant at the front of the line queue that you want to Child Swap so they can direct you to the right place.
- The whole group will wait in the line and then the non-riders will be able to wait in a separate section while the first part of the group rides.
- When the ride is done, the second part of the group rides.
Many of the busier rides have separate rooms for Child Swap which seems pretty convenient to me. For instance, this is the Child Swap waiting room on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction...
Keep in mind that many of the more popular attractions also have a single rider option which may sometimes work out better if you have little ones that won't ride.
Also, just another reminder that Universal Orlando isn't a great park for little ones so if you anticipate needing to use Child Swap much, you might want to wait a few years until your child can enjoy more attractions.
The CityWalk area of Universal Orlando is comparable to Downtown Disney with lots of shops, places to eat and some entertainment options.
Among some of the things available at CityWalk are the largest Hard Rock Cafe in the world, Blue Man Group performances and several chain restaurants that might be a welcome sight if you've been eating out at unfamiliar places throughout your trip.
The environment is much more of a party vibe and - except for the smoke - we really liked it. There was lots of music playing, the ability to walk along the water and plenty of places to get a drink.
Dining at Universal Orlando
Eating at Universal isn't nearly as difficult an ordeal as it is at Disney World, although there is no central reservation system which can be confusing.
Like Disney World, Universal has restaurants that fall into the Counter Service and Table Service categories. The Counter Service options at Universal aren't known for being great, while many of the Table Service restaurants are really good.
The Table Service meals used to be conveniently available to book through OpenTable, but now they are available to book online.
Availability is often easy to find, even on short notice. Even Mythos - a restaurant in Islands of Adventure that was once named the best theme park restaurant anywhere - had lots of openings when I was making reservations just minutes beforehand.
I haven't eaten at many of Universal's restaurants, but I will say that we've had great experiences at Mythos (in Islands of Adventure) and Margaritaville (located at CityWalk).
Universal park tickets
A few things regarding park tickets:
- If you want to ride Hogwarts Express, you'll need Park-to-Park tickets to go between the parks. I highly, highly recommend it if you're at all interested in Harry Potter. It's an attraction worth seeing all on its own.
- If you're staying off-site, you may be tempted to add the Express Passes to your tickets which will let you skip most of the lines. I'd suggest not buying that add-on ahead of time and instead waiting until you're there to see if you need it. If lines are long, you can always upgrade from inside the park.
- Mousesavers.com's Universal ticket info has lots of info on ways to save on park tickets.
Incorporating Universal into a Disney World trip
If you want to stay on-site at both Universal and Disney World during your trip to Orlando, I suggest beginning at Universal and then moving to Disney World. That's because doing it the other way will likely feel like you're taking a step down. Some may disagree with that opinion, but this is WDW Prep School and not Universal Prep School, so you know how I feel about that.
If you plan to stay at Disney World but just visit Universal for a day or two during your trip, you will have to figure out how to get there.
Here are some options:
- Rent a car on your Universal day(s) - there are a few places to rent a car at Disney World. Just be sure to consider the $20/day parking fee at Universal when determining your best options.
- Take a taxi - this is probably the most convenient option, but not the cheapest for many people. Fares run around $32-45 each way. You can use the Mears Taxi Fare Estimator to see what your cost would be.
- Use Uber - if you have the Uber app installed, you can have a driver take you for about $30-40 each way, depending on where you're starting, if surge pricing is in effect, and which type of Uber car you request. Get more info on how Uber works.
- Take a shuttle - Mears has shuttles available for $20 roundtrip which can be booked by calling 407-423-5566. If you have more than 3 people, 1 of the other options above will be less expensive and more convenient.
Travel agents can also sell 1 and 2 day Universal tickets that include transfers between Disney World resorts and Universal. You can submit a quote request to the agency I recommend and indicate your interest in that type of ticket. Submit your request at http://wdwprepschool.com/get-quote-now/
What I would do
Here's what I would plan to do on future trips:
If we had an 8+ day trip and wanted to stay on-site at Universal, I'd do 2 days at the Hard Rock Hotel and spend 1 day at each Universal park, but would definitely include Park-to-Park tickets in order to ride Hogwarts Express.
If we had a shorter Disney World trip that included us staying at a Disney World resort but wanted to spend 1 day at Universal, I'd pick a weekday in the middle of our trip to go to Universal by taxi, and then start touring at Universal, and then go to Islands of Adventures.
I highly recommend that anybody who has any interest in Harry Potter make time for at least 1 day at Universal to at least see those attractions. It's well worth your time. You can get started by submitting a quote request for your trip dates.
Have questions or thoughts about visiting Universal during a Disney World trip? Feel free to leave those in the comments.