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.

An overview

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.

universalorlando

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.

Download the map of the Universal Orlando Resort (PDF)

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.

About the Express Pass

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...

Portofino Bay
Portofino Bay Hotel

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
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

Royal Pacific
Royal Pacific Hotel

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

On-site transportation

Universal Orlando water taxiTraveling 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.

Locker alert
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.

Universal Studios

universalstudiosThe 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.)

Download the Universal Studios park map (PDF)

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

 AttractionExpress Pass available?Height req.?Single rider available?Description
1Escape from Gringotts (and be sure to take time to explore the Diagon Alley area)No42"YesIndoor coaster with impressive projections throughout
2Transformers Yes40"YesAmazing ride that's just like Spiderman at Islands of Adventure.
3Hollywood Rip Ride RockitYes51"YesRoller coaster with straight vertical track at the very beginning, where you get to select some music to distract you from the fact that you're launching straight into the sky (see this page about how to unlock secret songs).
4Despicable Me: Minion MayhemYes 40"Out of all of the "watch this pre-show, put on some 3D glasses and then it'll spit on you" rides, this is 1 of the best.
5Shrek 4-DYesPre-show, 3D glasses, spit on you....but in a swamp.
6Revenge of the MummyYes48"YesIf Space Mountain, Rock n Roller Coaster and Dinosaur had a baby, it would be this ride. My favorite of the non-Harry Potter attractions.
7Terminator 2: 3-DYesCombo of movie sequences and live actors and really awful. If you like Terminator movies, you may enjoy it more than I did.
8E.T. AdventureYes34"Peter Pan's Flight but with bicycles.
9The Simpsons RideYes40"Soarin' but really crazy. Motion sickness alert on this one.
10Men in Black Alien AttackYes42"YesBuzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin but dark and more violent.
11Hogwarts ExpressNoPark hopper ticket required - take this now if you're doing both parks in 1 day
12Kang and Kodos' Twirl 'n' HurlNoLike Dumbo but in flying saucers and with a Simpsons twist
13Fear Factor Live (seasonal show)YesCheck schedule for show times. This show is true to the TV show. People who want to be a contestant should show up an hour early. People who want to watch should show up 10-15 minutes before the show begins.
15The Blues Brothers ShowNo12-minute show featuring songs from the 1980s movie. Warning: there's no cover here so the sun or rain could be an issue.
16TWISTER - Ride It OutYesThis attraction is like standing in a room where some wind blows and a bit of water sprinkles and it's supposed to simulate a tornado but doesn't. Exactly like that.
18Universal's Horror Make-Up ShowYesFunny behind-the-scenes look at horror effects. Check schedule for show times.
19Animal Actors on LocationYesAnimals perform live. Check show times. Arrive 15 minutes before show begins.
20Curious George Goes to TownNoInteractive playground with several water elements that will get most kids soaked
21Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse CoasterYes36"Gentle coaster, much like Barnstormer
22Fievel's PlaylandNoOutdoor play area for young children that includes a water raft ride
23A Day in the Park with BarneyYesIndoor show featuring Barney and friends. There's also a play area nearby.
24Night show: Universal's Cinematic Spectacular - 100 Years of Move Memories (seasonal show)NoNighttime show on the lagoon celebrating movie history. Show features fireworks, water effects and music. Arrive 30-45 minutes for the best views.
 

Islands of Adventure

Islands of AdventureIslands 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.

Download the Islands of Adventure park map (PDF)

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

 AttractionExpress Pass available?Height req.? Single rider available? Description
1The Incredible Hulk Coaster (closed until summer 2016)Yes54"Sometimes offeredReally intense and fun coaster that takes off before you even have a chance to work up the anxiety.
2Amazing Adventures of Spider-ManYes40"Yes3D ride with ride movement and special effects (also, just like the Transformers ride).
3Dr. Doom’s FearfallYes52"YesLike Tower of Terror but outside.
4Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw FallsYes44"Sometimes offeredFlume ride like Splash Mountain but wayyy more intense. You will get wet.
5Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat BargesYes42"Kali River Rapids but uglier and crazier. You will get wet.
6Pteranodon FlyersNo36"Outdoor flying gondola cycle thing. I don't know how else to describe it. We wanted to do it but guests taller than 56" must be accompanied by a child between 36" and 56" tall and there were no little kids available to rent while we visited.
7Jurassic Park River AdventureYes42"Sometimes offeredSplash Mountain meets Dinosaur with you getting wet in the end (especially if you're in the second boat).
8Raptor EncounterNoUp close and personal encounter with a velociraptor
9Eighth Voyage of Sindbad Stunt Show YesSimilar in style to Indiana Jones show at Hollywood Studios. 20 minutes in length. Check show times and arrive 10-15 minutes early.
10Poseidon’s FuryYesWalk-through attraction with live action and special effects.
11One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue FishYesDr. Seuss version of the Dumbo ride.
12Caro-Seuss-elYesA Seuss-themed carousel with each character including an interactive effect
13Cat in the HatYes36"Winnie the Pooh ride with whiplash.
14High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!Yes40"The PeopleMover of the Seuss Landing section except with a much longer wait (usually).
15Storm Force Accelatron YesSpins in circles "egg beater" style ride.
16Dragon ChallengeYes54"High speed coaster in the Harry Potter section. This ride no longer has dueling coasters (2 intertwined coasters coming within 18" of each other going 60 mph) due to safety reasons.
17Flight of the HippogriffYes36"Kid coaster similar to Barnstormer in intensity.
18Harry Potter and the Forbidden JourneyNo48"YesFlight simulator type of ride which includes lots of movement with visuals. This is the only ride in 10 days of visiting theme parks that made our family a bit motion sick. Don't drink butterbeer before going on this.

Child Swap

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...

harrypotterchildswap

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.

CityWalk

citywalkThe 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.

Download the CityWalk map (PDF)

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

mythosEating 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.

There are also a few character breakfasts and dinner experiences available on some days which you might be interested in booking.

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.

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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.

Ready for a trip quote?

The handpicked team of agents at Prep School Travel can help you out. Fill out the info below to get started.

Leave a Reply

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Colleen B

Thank you so much Shannon for the ride descriptions. This is our first time going to Universal since my son has become a “rider” and I just didn’t know anything about the rides. Your comparisons to WDW rides really helped our planning and took some of the guess work out of it for us. 🙂

Ann F

Thank you for all the great tips! I have a question about the express passes. If we book one night at one of the premier hotels and park tickets for two days will we receive express pass privileges both days (check in and check out days)?

Chad

THank you for the wonderful tips!
I have a 10 year old who really enjoys the HP movies. That would be the only reason we go. But pricing it out, even for 1 day, seems to be in the $700 range for our family. It almost makes more sense (financially) to just add another WDW day and pay much less.
Is it really worth it? I’d be leaving my WDW hotel and taking a taxi. Just curious if others thought it was worth it for a one day pass. Thanks

Camilo

I would say it’s totally worth it. If your kid likes HP Super Heroes and Dinosaurs (who doesn’t?), he’ll have a hell of a time. I know it seems financially more favorable to add an additional Disney day but then you’ll just have “another day on MK” (there is nothing wrong about that for sure!) , rather than a new experience on a different park.

We took my 11y child last year to US and IOA. Now, she’ll rather do those two parks than Disney any day. I know it’s a matter of preferences but you should live them for yourself and then make your own opinion. In mine they rock!

TracyKex

Hi! Great website, thanks for all of the info. Looking for some advice…I am planning a family trip November 2016, arriving Friday 11/11 in the evening and departing either Saturday or Sunday 11/19 or 11/20. We’d like to visit Universal, especially for the WWHP stuff, but also the other rides – probably 1.5 or 2 full days. I’m willing to switch hotels, (but only once), so we could start or finish at Universal. That gets us the extra hour and the express pass, but puts us there on a weekend. Are we better off going that route, or picking a less crowded day during the week and giving up the extra hour and express passes? Any input is appreciated! thanks!

Louise

Hi!

We are staying at Hard Rock checking in on Jan 10th and checking out Jan 14th, we will be spending 11th and 12th at Universal. I have booked the accommodation through work as I am a travel agent but I am tossing up what is the best plan with tickets, we definitely want park to park tickets and we want express passes as well (thinking the unlimited option). I was just going to book the tickets direct on the website.

As we are staying on site will we automatically get early entry into whatever park is offering it on our dates?
Because when I was looking at the hotel and ticket bundles the premium hotels said something about the express passes included whereas the others said early entry. My main concern is getting early entry into Wizarding World. Any help would be appreciated!

Melissa D

If you’re staying at the Hard Rock, you will enjoy both benefits: Express Passes AND early admission at the designated park for the day. Cabana Bay and Sapphire Falls only offer early admission, but not Express Passes.

Andrea

Hi we are staying at Disney resort and planning a one day trip to universal studios. I was thinking of booking through the site dreamsunlimitedtravel.com
They offer tickets and shuttle for one day two parks for $179.10. Has anyone done this before? What was your experience like? It’s a shuttle service which you book 24 hours in advance. I think it’s a reasonable offer…opinions?

Rina

We are planning to incorporate Universal for one day only during our Disney trip in December and since we anticipate that it would be a busy time of year to go, we’ve always planned to upgrade and get limited express passes with our park tickets to make the most of our day and tackle as many attractions as possible. But once we’ve worked out the costs of getting express passes on top of our tickets vs booking a one night’s stay in Hard Rock, staying on-site actually worked out to be a little bit cheaper! Not only do we get to stay in an awesome hotel but we would also still get the benefit of the express pass…and BONUS! We get UNLIMITED express passes and early entry to Harry Potter World. And by the way, these benefits are valid for both our check in and check out days so if we really want to, we can extend our Universal day the next day but still get the early entry and unlimited express for free! IMO that is a good bang for our buck and definitely worth considering even just booking a one night’s accommodation in a Universal on-site hotel.

Rachel

May I ask how much you spent on food (avg. per person per meal)?

Thank you
Rachel M.

Becky

we are planning a trip for spring break 2016. we are truely interested in the harry potter stuff but other than the marvel area and the suess area (for the almost 4 year old) the kids going (9,10,&11) are not much riders of the big stuff or total non rider for the oldest. we are planning 2 days for universal with the park to park. i am now wondering if that is even worth doing more than 1 day. also in the marvel area do they have characters walking around that you can get pictures with as a youngest is a bit super hero obsessed and will be more excited to meet capt america and others than mickey mouse when we are at disney on the other days of our visit.

Penny Brennell

I have done Universal a few times with my family. Islands of Adventure have superhereos show up a various times. At the time we were there, you can get your picture taken with them but there weren’t any official photographers there like at Disney. At Universal you’ll see Men In Black, the Simpsons, Scooby Doo and Friends, Shrek et all, the Minions, etc. If there’s a ride for it then there is a character for it. Also a trolley goes through every so often with “old time” characters such as popeye, Betty Boop, etc.

Nicole Wright

Thank you for this excellent report! We are planning to spend a day at Universal during our next WDW trip because my kids (and I) LOVE Harry Potter and will be tall enough for most rides. You are my go-to resource for WDW so it was such a delight to see you put this together, too. You certainly know your readers well!

Cecii

My family is visiting over fall break, so the Halloween party will be taking place and parks will be closing early. My children are 13 and 9, do you think two days park to park with the unlimited pass will be too much? I am nervous one day may not be enough? What are your thoughts?

Well, with 3 whole weeks, I assume you’ll be able to take everything at a nice, easy pace, including Universal. What a nice luxury!

TAMK

Awesome article! I wonder if you can give more info about the backpack rule for rides at US/IOA. We are also long time Disney people and always have each kid pack a small backpack with poncho, sunscreen, water and snacks which they carry on their own! My purse is also a backpack. Is the backpack rule more for the roller coasters than any other type of ride? Anyone who can elaborate would be fabulous!

Cindy C

Hi- can we work around the lockers if we use the family room. Ie. My husband and 1 son go on while me and my other son hold “stuff” then pass it off to them and go on ourselves???

Lorri-Anne Plastini

Hi there. We are planning a trip for 1 week in Aug of 2016 to Universal (both parks), Seaworld and Aquatica. We have 2 kids 15 and 13. Looking to see if we should buy the dining plan? not sure how expensive it is to eat lunch and dinner at parks or City Walk.

Also, can we do one day at each park and see it all?

Paige

My family has done Universal twice thus far and doing the math the dining plan hasn’t added up. We prefer paying directly now.

You can certainly do everything as long as you prioritize. I’ve gone three days each time and we usually spend day three doing repeats of rides we loved or exploring the details of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Looking back, we could probably do two days without issue.

Natalie

Is there a website, book, or other resource you recommend for planning a trip to Universal only? We used your WONDERFUL site for planning our family Disney World trip and it was so useful to us. Now my husband and I are planning a weekend trip for just us in December, and I’m not sure where to start. Thanks!

clare

We are doing one day at universal for the first time – we have a toddler so I really just want to go to see the Harry Potter section – if we do the single rider lines for Forbidden Journey and Escape to Gringotts – will we miss out on things in the queue?

LC

Do you know if I need to purchase the US/IOA park-to-park tickets while making the onsite hotel reservation in order to get the perks (1 hour early admission and express passes, etc.) or can they be purchased separately?

Cat

Thanks so much for all your advice Sharon!
I agree whole heartedly that US is a step down after WDR. We did this last year, and wished we did it the other way around. So this next trip, we’ve decided to do 5 days onsite at WDW, transfer to Hard Rock to do US for 3 days, and then back to WDW for 6 days! Will be our third trip to WDW from Australia in 4 years. Really wish we were closer!

Shannon,

I’m not sure if you were aware of this, but you can actually include transportation from your Disney resort to your US resort if you book a package. I book a lot of my Disney clients this way, but they have to do Disney first and then Universal. The transportation add on includes transportation between your Disney resort and your US resort, and then transportation from US resort back to the MCO airport. It costs around $173, but totally worth it!

Let me correct something I wrote….the $173 for the transportation between WDW and US was for a family of 5. So it’s about $35 per person to include the transfer.

Jody Tetlow

Our family will be visiting Disney this June. This will be our second time. We are staying on site there and doing the dining package. We are planning to visit Universal During our stay. We are wondering if one day would be enough to hit the highlights in both Universal and Island of Adventure. I know our children will love the Harry Potter area. We want to make sure to have enough time for that. Should we go for more days (2) or will we be okay with 1?

Tim W

Hi Jody
We are in Orlando now… 1st time and fantastic!
My wife and I have an 8yo and a 6yo. 1st day at Universal today and I suggest you leave time for at least 2 days if you want to do rides other than Harry Potter.
If you JUST want to do all the HP stuff you will probably get away with 1 day. Just remember you will spend several enjoyable hours just wandering around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade!
Have a great tim.
Tim

Jennifer

I suggest everyone have a great Tim, no matter where they are 😉

sarah pollintine

Looking forward to going to Universal studios next year, have found
all your information very useful. Looking forward to all the fun even
more now!! thanks

Jaime

My family (6 of us)is going to WDW the first week of June. We want to spend one day at both parks at Universal because my oldest 2 (12&11) are big Harry Potter fans. My youngest 2 (7&22 mos) are not, but we all decided to go anyway. Both my husband & myself would like to experience the Harry Potter rides, so do you suggest child swap for each ride & wait in line as a family? Or should I try to convince my girls to do single rider line? Could we still all wait in that line or not? Also will I need to bring a car seat for the baby(almost 2 at the time)? And would you recommend a taxi as best transportation for 6 of us? Thanks! Jaime

Page

Your article was very informative. My boyfriend and I are taking our very first vacation together and I have never flown before so I’m super nervous. Overall we’re going really just to be involved with the Harry Potter aspect or Orlando because we are super obsessed, our living room and bedroom are Gryffindor themed! Anyways, your suggestions will be thoroughly noted in my planner! Thank you again!

Canessa Jones

We are planning a trip to Disney/Universal in late May. We are doing 3 days of Disney – then 2 days of Universal. Does Universal pick us up from WDW resort – to go to Universal resort? If not, what is the most cost effective way to do this transfer?

Tracy

We are about to do the same thing. We are doing 3 days at Disney and 2 days at Universal. My son loves HP so I am so excited to take him there. Wish we had enough days to do at least 4 days at Disney but we don’t. Anyway, I have looked into getting from our Disney Resort to our Universal Resort. We have two adults and 2 kids. One kid is still in a booster so I have to consider that. Since this ride is the only time we will need a booster, I hate to bring one along. So if I order a Taxi, most of them will include the booster, if requested. So because of that, along with I feel it is the cheapest, that is what I plan to do.

Meredith

Hi. Love your site Shannon! We are traveling with 3 boys (3,8,9) – we have one day to spend at Universal. Knowing we have a 3 year old and we’ve never been to Universal. Would you recommend we just stay on the IOA side? Older boys like Harry Potter but worried we might be trying to do too much with both parks. Thank you for your thoughts.

j. lavec

Hello! Can someone recommend what order to do the HP rides in? We are not staying on property and would like to get them all in – we only have one day at Universal and won’t be getting the Express passes….

Robert Brian

Can someone comment on the importance of the universal express pass and/or the unlimited universal express pass? It seems like you would get the unlimited pass or nothing at all. Do all members of your party need to get them, or just the ones riding the really popular rides? Thanks!

Stacy

Does Forbidden Journey cause motion sickness because of the motion it simulates or is it actually the motion of the ride that makes you feel sick? I’ve been on the Simpsons ride in CA and it did make me feel queasy but I could close my eyes and I would be fine. We’re going to FL next month and I was hoping to see all of the Harry Potter attractions but I get motion sickness from spinning rides. Just wondering if I could ride Forbidden Journey and close my eyes if necessary.

Paige

The first time I went on we had a rather horrifying experience with my grandmother throwing up while on the ride. She has stomach problems medically though, and in retrospect she says she didn’t do much to avoid it. My mother, who is very prone to motion sickness, was fine as were the rest of the family.

shannon

It is similar to spiderman in that it has a screen and then you move to another screen, but only 4 people sit in a row and you get harnessed in like your going on a roller coaster that goes upside down and you move around a lot. Simpsons ride is nothing compared to this. It’s totally worth riding 1 time and getting sick though.

Jamie

I love how you equate many things with Disney World. I’ve done Disney dozens of times, but my husband and I are planning a 5 day trip just to Universal this time. We are staying at Royal Pacific, so we will have the priority seating at table service restaurants. Should I still make reservations for table service? I’m so used to making Disney dining reservations 180 days prior to the trip!

Brooke

Thanks so much for this information! We recently made our first (very well planned thanks to your tips) Disney World trip & will be back soon. We wanted to fit in some time at Universal too and your article gave me all the information I was looking for to begin planning. You are awesome… Keep up the great work!!

Tracy

HI – Thank you for this great info. Our family of 4 are thinking of travelling to US to spend the day at Islands of Adventure to visit Hogwarts and try out the coasters. We only have Sunday though. Any suggestions? Thanks to all.

cherie

Thank you so much for doing this!!! I was hoping that you would update your Universal info for my trip this June and my wish was granted! Thanks for all your hard work!

Brenda Nairn-Davies

I’ve read that the Express passes can not be used for Harry Potter-did I read this wrong?

Harry Wallace

Express Passes cannot be used on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I’m not sure about the new ride in Diagon Alley.

Karen Washington

What exactly is a single rider line and how does it work?

Greg Nevius

Nice work, Shannon! What a great overview! I’ll make sure to have this handy when we return to Universal. And if I have my way, it will be in 2016 🙂 Thanks so much!

Melissa Baines

Having just come back from doing both Disney and Universal I think you’ve got this post spot on. I think even more so than Disney, I cannot advocate enough for getting to the parks early and doing Harry Potter rides ASAP. We were there at off peak but later in day lines were in excess of 80 minutes. Same goes for Minion Mayhem. Oh and if able take advantage of single rider lines. Hubbie and I did this and walked on to many rides and rarely waited longer than 10 minutes.

X
Dora

Matt

I like to stay at universal the whole trip and then go to disney 3 days. The universal hotels in my opinion offer much more value and convenience.

Dante

Hi Shannon, you said that you wouldn’t do Disney on-site followed by 3 days of US on-site again and suggested alternatives but didn’t explain why?

Can you please elaborate on why you’d recommend US first on-site or staying at Disney the whole time and driving over?

Also, being that this was written before the entire second Harry Potter section was opened which pretty much everyone says has upped the US experience dramatically how does that factor in? Thanks for any insights you can offer!

Nicolle

In my experience the level of service is just not the same at US. Say what you will about Disney declining over the years–they are still #1 in the guest experience (cleanliness, treatment of customer, etc). You will likely be disappointed if you go from Disney to US!

Mina

Have you personally used Dreams Unlimited for your tickets and transportation to Universal? I want to make sure I’m in for a smooth and easy experience with them and their transportation company. Thanks.

Kathleen Diem

We did the Dreams Unlimited ticket package from Old Key West. We were given a time in the morning we would be picked up and then the bus stopped at a few other hotels, then SeaWorld. The tickets were really vouchers so we didn’t get to the park until after 10 am then had to stand in line to actually get our tickets. /By the time we got to Hogwarts, lines were over an hour. I would not do this again. I would definitely have tickets in hand and get my own transportation so I could get to the parks as early as I wanted to! The price was good, but I didn’t like being on someone else’s schedule and not having my actual tickets in hand.

Kelly Rett

Just FYI, The early hours are now different at Universal Studios. My family and I went to Universal in October 2014. We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Now with Diagon Alley open in Universal Studios, the early hours now occur there. Once in the park, they allow you to ride Minion Mayhem and then shuffle you along to Diagon Alley. Kings Cross Station will let you in at 9:00 to then ride the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. We had a great time on our trip, but looking forward to visiting Disney again soon! 🙂

Kelli Morgan

Me and my fiance are thinking of doing Universal this year instead of Disney. Neither of us enjoy big roller coasters and do not ride them. We love smaller coasters with little drops such as big thunder mountain at disney. We also LOVE the visual rides like star track and soarin’ at Disney. Which rides would be best for us? Do you think we would need two days to got to both parks or would one be enough? Thanks!

Adele

Hi Shannon,

How would I have even begun to plan my visit to US without your blog. Thanks so much!

I love the you provide ordered list of which rides to visit and in which order. I also appreciate knowing where to eat. I do have one question, can you tell me in the list of US rides and IOA where you would fit lunch in if you started at 9 am, doing one park a day.

Thanks again for taking the time to write this blog and answer all the questions.

Kika

I am a Disney fan through and through, so I appreciate the comparisons. But I have a question: What are the rides that someone with a sensitive back (disc problems–he had trouble on Triceratops Spin to give you an idea) can ride? Could someone make me a list of non-jerky, smooth, non-coaster, yet adult-geared attractions? Thanks!!!

Pat

Hi Kika,
A lot of the US/IOA rides definitely require careful consideration for someone with a bad back. I had a spinal fusion on the L5/S1 in June 2012 and did WDW and Universal in December 2012. I had done a lot of work to improve my strength and was at the top end of the recovery scale and only had to avoid one ride (Dr. Doom’s Fearfall), but that was on the basis of how I had felt after attempting Tower of Terror a few days earlier.
Many of the rides are jerky or have excessive movement.
In terms of most suitable rides:
Men in Black and Hogwart’s Express would definitely be okay.
Shrek 4D – ask for a seat that doesn’t move. I found the sudden motion on this more trouble than any of the thrill rides!
Disaster, Twister, Sinbad, Poseidon’s Fury have a lot of standing around, but nothing that will cause a problem for the back if you can handle standing.
ET is also tame, but involves sitting and is more for little kids or those of us who remember the movie. It felt quite dated to me… but I tend to exhaust my inner child at WDW 😉
You can ask to do the castle tour at Forbidden Tour and not do the ride. This is a fantastic way to see all of the incredible detail in the queue and listen to all of the conversations between the paintings. When you get to the point where you would join the main ride queue you just say you were only doing the tour and they let you out through a separate door.
There is certainly a lot to see and do between the two parks, but I suspect given the limitations you would probably get through everything that could be ridden within one day without issue.

Terah

Hi. We are making a trip to WDW and possibly US/IOA. I have 2 teenagers and 1 who will be 10 and another who will be 8. Both my husband and I are not into intense rise. Roller coaster etc. so my question is , is US/IOA worth going to if you are not going on any intense rides and if you aren’t do you really need 2 days to see birth parks ? I’d hate to purchase 2 days and not want to go back after 1 day because that would give us more time at WDW.

rndlmrrtt

Hi Terah,

As a mom with 10 and 12 year old boys:
We have done US/IO with them for years. Last time was when they were 10 and 8. (We will be going again this August). I would DEFINITELY do two days. Especially with teenagers. Your family may be different, of course….but our kids have enjoyed US/IO much more than WDW for years. Especially with the Harry Potter stuff. With the much anticipated expansion of the Harry Potter Diagon Alley–lines will be much longer, and it will take longer to tour both parks. We usually do both parks in the same day…..then do our favorites again the second day. (Not sure if that will be possible this summer–will just depend on the lines for the new stuff which is our main reason for going)

If you can either stay on-site, or get the Express Pass, I find it much easier to do things in one day. We were there for the first summer of the original Harry Potter “world” and we would have spent SO MUCH more time in line for other attractions if we did not have the express passes.

Having said all of that–if your children REALLY do not like thrilling rides…..it may be a waste of time. If it is just you and your husband that do not like thrills, there are plenty of other things to do while your children do the “scarier” things.

But I honestly do not think most of the rides are worse than Space Mountain or Big Thunder. Some of them seem scarier at first, but most are much smoother! Rip Ride Rocket is actually one of my favorite rides……and I DO NOT like big drops in roller coasters! We have spent many days at theses parks without riding the BIG Thrill rides (Rip Ride Rocket (I rode it for the first time last trip), Hulk, Dr Doom (which I still will not ride), and Dueling Dragons)). In fact, we even enjoyed it when our children were young (like 4 and 6) and were unable to ride the larger rides.

We like to do one park in the morning, visit a restaurant in City Walk for lunch then do the other park in the afternoon. That gives us a nice break with sit down service, plus we enjoy the restaurant choices.

Wow their resorts actually look really nice! I did Universal late night for a private work event this Jan… went on a few rides. The Mummy Coaster was BY FAR my favorite. I did the motion rides (reluctantly) and enjoyed them and didn’t get as motion sick as I thought I might. I may even have the courage to try Star Tours again sometime (loved it as a kid, started getting sick on it as an adult…).

Overall, sounds like one day at Universal could be enough, especially if I don’t like motion sickness rides OR getting wet…

cec

Great article, just wondering would you recommend renting a car, we are going in October for a week and are doing WDW and US, not sure if taking shuttles/cabs the whole trip would save money?

Karen from Ky

Why would you not recommend disney on site followed by US on site? We are trying to figure out the best combo trip. Thx

If you are doing a package at one of the US hotels, I highly recommend doing Disney first and then doing US. I recommend this to my clients (I’m a Disney travel agent) because you can include a transfer from Disney to US in your package! Since Shannon isn’t a travel agent, she might not have known this, but I set up these packages for my clients all the time. So much easier than trying to get transportation between the 2 resorts and then back to the airport from US.

The transfer is around $35 per person.

Sheena marshall

I’m very surprised that people go to disney and don’t do US and IOA as well , they are within an hour or less of each other extremely easy to travel to and are great fun , I usually stay on international drive instead of on site ! We have traveled both times from the uk and travel with kids who are 7 years apart in age , last time they were 7and 14 and they both liked WDW and universal , obviously disney has a lot more options to offer but I wouldn’t consider a trip to Florida without visiting both areas , next time we visit the oldest will be turning 18 whilst there so disney prob won’t be for him except the water parks but we will still have a visit to WDW with the wee one . If you havnt done universal or don’t usually leave disney then I would say your missing out , there are great places to eat on international drive and universal has a lot to offer and I would recommend leaving the comfort of disney and get yourself along to universal 🙂

Heather Carlsen

Would it make sense to take a 5 year old to US and see the kid stuff first, then take her to our hotel at Port Orleans with an in room sitter, then return to US to ride the stuff she couldn’t ride? It looks lie, the ones that should be done first are the more intense rides. What would be the best way to make it work with a five year old and a twelve year old?

Michelle

This may be a strange question; however … here goes. We’re returning to Disney in Jan of next year. When we were there in Feb of this year, we did one day at US / IOA… for next year, we’ve decided to do 2 days. While we have accommodations booked at Disney for the entire length of our stay, we’re planning to do US / IOA in the middle of our stay – and, staying overnight (as we’re not renting a car and if you consider purchasing the 2 day park to park tickets and express pass, as well as transportation to / from – it is actually a wash $ wise, so that is the route we are planning)… My question, as we will actually have one night where we have accommodations at both Disney and one of the universal studios hotels, will that present any issues? I mean, will Disney have any issues with us not sleeping in our (paid for) room one night… I guess that sounds completely silly – but, for some reason it has me thinking… thanks!!

Heda

We went to Disney for a week and then took one day in the middle of our trip for Universal. We took a cab there and back. My daughter loves Harry Potter so that’s why we went. Harry Potter World was awesome. We went at off peak time and there were no lines so that was a plus. The Forbidden Journey was great, but if you suffer for motion sickness you will have a problem with this ride. The theming is great. Can’t wait for the expansion!

LeeAnn

Love this article! But still have a few questions! Planning our first trip to Disney the first week of December 2014. 2 adults and 2 kids : 13 and 8 (my 8 yr old is 48″ and will not be able to ride everything but is very into Transformers and Harry potter).
1st we will have 7 days to do parks and I can’t decide whether to do 5 days at WDW and 2 days at US or 6 days at WDW and 1 day at US?!
2nd it is cheaper to do 2 days at US (w park to park tickets but no express pass) than doing 1 day at US with express pass?! Which would you recommend?? 2 days with no express pass or 1 day with?! Going in December is express pass really worth the money? Do you recommend the park to park option?
3rd I saw in the other comments a mention of transportation through Mears. Is this how you would recommend getting from WDW to US. I was thinking of a taxi?! I’m obviously completely out if the loop?!
Sorry for all the questions, but thank you for all of your help!

Daniel

My family and I go to US and IOA every spring. Actually going in 3 weeks. With the 7 days that you have planned out take at least 2 days for US and IOA. It will make the trip worth it a lot more. And yes get express passes.

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