If you hear Orlando and immediately think Walt Disney World, you’re not alone. But when it comes to Florida theme parks, the House of Mouse is far from the only game in town. Just 20 minutes down the road, Universal Orlando Resort gives Disney World a run for its money with two theme parks, a water park, and elaborately themed resorts with compelling perks to keep guests on property. And, with intellectual properties like Harry Potter, Jurassic World, Minions and Marvel represented, there’s plenty of big-name draw for kids. Whether Universal Orlando Resort is your top priority or you’re tacking a couple days at Universal onto a Walt Disney World vacation, here’s a first-timer’s guide to planning your visit.
Universal Orlando Parks
Universal Orlando Resort is home to two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which are connected by dining and entertainment district Universal CityWalk Orlando, and Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Theme Park.
Universal Studios Florida
Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990 as both a theme park and working studio, with its overall theming rooted in film and television properties. Marquee rides include mega thrill ride Revenge of the Mummy, based on the film series starring Brendan Fraser, E.T. Adventure, the park’s iconic classic dark ride, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, and MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack.
The park is organized into themed areas both real — New York, San Francisco, Hollywood — and fictional, including Springfield, home to The Simpsons Ride and watering hole Moe’s Tavern, and the pièce de résistance, Diagon Alley.
Revealed via a hidden passageway just like in the movie, Diagon Alley makes up half of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The other half, Hogsmeade, is at nearby Universal’s Islands of Adventure and can be accessed by making the journey just like Harry aboard the Hogwarts Express, equal parts immersive ride and inter-park transportation. Guests can also travel between parks by walking from main gate to main gate via Universal CityWalk, but the Hogwarts Express is certainly more magical.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Divided into eight themed “islands,” Islands of Adventure is home to Marvel Super Hero Island and uber-popular rides The Incredible Hulk Coaster, an intimidating high-speed coaster not for the faint of heart, and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
Dinosaur-loving kids will go crazy for Jurassic Park. Enter beneath the iconic archway and experience Jurassic Park River Adventure, Pteranadon Flyers for less adventurous littles, a thrilling Raptor Encounter and, opening June 10, 2021, Universal Orlando’s newest attraction, Jurassic World VelociCoaster, a high-speed coaster through the park’s raptor paddock.
For a more little-kid-friendly area, Seuss Landing is a colorful, Dr. Seuss-themed land, but many of its rides still have a 36” height restriction, leaving out the youngest guests.
Towering high above the snow-covered rooftops of Hogsmeade, Hogwarts Castle houses Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a can’t-miss ride for Potter-philes, along with Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Universal Orlando’s newest coaster and one that rivals Walt Disney World’s best. Young wizards, witches, and muggles alike can still get in on the wizarding fun on Flight of the Hippogriff, a kid coaster through Hagrid’s pumpkin patch.
Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Theme Park
The imposing Krakatau Volcano towers over the tropical-themed water park and houses three body slides including one with a whopping 125-foot plunge. The water park also features a lazy river, raft rides, drop slides, and more. A Virtual Line is operated at all Volcano Bay attractions, enabling guests to reserve a spot in line and enjoy other parts of the water park until their return time.
One- and two-park tickets are available for the theme parks. Guests hoping to get the full Wizarding World experience should strongly consider the two-park ticket, which is required to ride the Hogwarts Express. (Pro tip: Be sure to ride it in both directions. The experience is different each way.)
If you’re just looking add a single Universal day onto a Disney World vacation, a two-park ticket is also the way to go in order to experience as much as possible at both parks. Volcano Bay tickets are sold separately.
Who Should Visit
A substantial number of Universal’s big-ticket attractions have height restrictions — and tall ones at that — making this resort less little-kid friendly than nearby Walt Disney World. Ride choices get somewhat limited for guests under 40”, and many of the most popular rides, have even taller requirements. Be sure to check the height restrictions to ensure your kids are tall enough to experience enough attractions to make it worth your visit. Also important to know before you go: Those prone to motion sickness should be aware that many of Universal’s attractions are screen-based experiences that may bother some guests.
During the pandemic, Walt Disney World has suspended its FastPass+ system that enabled guests to “reserve” a time and skip the standby queues for attractions. Universal’s version of this offering, “Express Pass,” is still available as a paid add-on to park tickets and enables guests to bypass the regular line, generally slashing wait times in half or less. A range of Express Pass options with tiered pricing is available for all three theme parks.
Unlike Walt Disney World, where are Park Pass reservation system is used to manage capacity, Universal Orlando does not require advance park reservations to visit — but the parks do reach capacity, especially on weekends and during peak travel times like spring break. Guests staying on property don’t have to worry about being turned away at the gates though — a hotel reservation at a Universal Orlando resort guarantees admission to the theme parks, even when they’re officially at capacity.
Guests staying at Universal resorts also get Early Park Admission, access to one of Universal’s theme parks an hour prior to scheduled opening time or Universal’s Volcano Bay 30 minutes prior to opening. This is a great time to beeline to a popular attraction like Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
Where to Stay
Universal Orlando is a quick 20- to 25-minute trip from most Walt Disney World resorts but even if you’re just visiting as an add-on to your Disney World vacation, it’s worth considering staying on property for extra convenience. Similar to Walt Disney World, Universal’s resorts are divided into a tiered pricing and amenity structure, but unlike Disney World, the perks vary by tier. All Universal resorts offer complimentary transportation to the parks, and many are even within a comfortable walking distance. All resorts also come with free Early Park Admission. But the highest hotel category, Premier, also comes with Free Universal Express Unlimited, a value of $129 per person, per day. So if your party was planning to purchase Express Pass, staying at a Premier resort can make good financial sense.
Even the lower-tier resorts offer comfortable, family-friendly accommodations, great food courts, impressive pools and extensive theming. Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort is a budget-friendly family favorite with colorful family suites and a groovy 60s vibe.
Strict health and safety protocols have enabled Universal to remain safely reopened since June. A temperature check is required for park and resort entry. Masks are required at all times for guests over the age of 3, with the exception of while actively eating or drinking while stationary, and while swimming. Distance markers are ubiquitous, helping guests to remain spaced from other parties while in ride and food and beverage queues.
Hand sanitizer dispensers are also available throughout the parks and resorts and a Universal Team Member will distribute hand sanitizer directly onto guests’ hands prior to boarding ride vehicles. Mobile Order is available at many quick-service dining locations to reduce contact and contactless payment methods are encouraged.
Modified Character Experiences
Traditional meet-and-greets have been suspended but characters still appear throughout the parks and guests are invited to take distanced photos and selfies with characters from clearly marked spots.
Where to Eat
Universal’s theme parks are packed with food and drink options for every palate but you’d be remiss not to fill up in the Wizarding World before trying anything else. A visit without sampling a Butterbeer — served regular, hot (seasonally), and frozen (the best!) — should be grounds for banishment to Azkaban.
Load up on classic pub fare (the fan-favorite fish and chips are flown in fresh from Europe!) at The Three Broomsticks or The Leaky Cauldron then treat yourself to the best ice cream you’ve ever had at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.
As a take-home treat, pick up Chocolate Frogs, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, Cauldron Cakes and other sweet treats from Honeyduke’s or Sugarplum’s.
Beyond the Wizarding World, CityWalk has some of the best dining options. Try The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen or Bigfire for table-service meals and Voodoo Doughnut for over-the-top doughnuts that have earned a cult following.
Universal Orlando puts on a number of well-known seasonal festivals and events that are a big draw for many guests.
Halloween Horror Nights
Universal Orlando puts on a series of well-known seasonal festivals and events that are a big draw for many guests. Hands down the most popular, Halloween Horror Nights is a terrifying celebration of all things scary with a series of elaborate haunted houses, scare zones, ghoulish entertainment, themed food and drinks, and more. No happy haunts here — this event is straight-up scary and not recommended for children under the age of 13. This year’s event runs select nights Sept. 3–Oct. 31, 2021.
Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval
This festival began Feb. 6 and was set to conclude March 28, but it has now been twice extended by popular demand and runs through May 2. The celebration is included as part of your ticketed visit through May 2, and features global cuisine available for purchase inspired by Carnaval celebrations around the world. Also catch special entertainment, parade floats, plenty of beads, and more.
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Brooke Geiger McDonald is the National Content Director of Make It Better Media Group. A Chicago native, she has worked for publications like O, The Oprah Magazine and SHAPE Magazine and her work has appeared in Parents, TravelPulse, Attractions Magazine, MSN, Disney Food Blog, and more. At home, she is outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include The Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago and organizations focused on environmental conservation and combatting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram @brookegmcdonald and Twitter @BrookeGMcDonald.